Recently our newsletter editor Renee Sweezey had the opportunity to conduct an interview with Linda Sartor & Doug Paxton, who were preparing to lead a Vision Quest to Death Valley National Park. I enjoyed learning about how they came to this work, and I found their insights to be of real value in understanding how the work of Rites of Passage can touch the world in unexpected ways. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as I did.
Mike Bodkin, Executive Director
Linda you have been guiding for well over a decade and Doug for three years. You have both experienced a Vision Quest as a participant. What do you see as the value of undertaking a Vision Quest?
Doug: For me, personally, I had reached a point in my life where I was so busy that the call for me to go sit in the desert for a few days by myself was an opportunity to get beyond the noise, the chatter of my life. I couldn’t find any other way to do that. I needed the noise and voices to fall away to see what was there. What emerged and is so powerful about the Vision Quest are the questions we ask of ourselves.
We need the stillness to be able to pay attention. I don’t think I realized how important this was until I sat out on the land with those questions and then came back to my life with those same questions. On quest was the only place I could find the stillness and I knew somewhere deep inside I needed that stillness, to stop moving and be. To me the Vision Quest is the ultimate form being instead of doing.
Linda: I find the Vision Quest experience to be deeper, more organic and more personal than other growth work that I, as an individual, have been involved in. Three days alone, fasting, removing all distractions from our lives is a profound experience. We, as guides, provide a structure that gives people an opportunity to be mirrored back, by human and nature, every step of the way on the Vision Quest. Every natural phenomenon you run into, the dreams that enter your psyche, it’s all so personal.
I particularly like ROP’s approach to the quest. We give people tools to use as they feel is appropriate. Participants create their experience. They do their quest in the way that is genuine to them. I trust that whoever shows up and however they approach and go through the process is perfect for this time in their lives and what they have to learn right now. The process is so direct and so profound.
People often feel the call to Vision Quest because they are marking a time of transition in their lives. What kinds of transitions have you witnessed some of your participants going through? Was there any that really stood out or felt deeply personal to you?
Doug: People’s reasons for coming are totally unique. It’s difficult to categorize as each individual reason feels special. I’ve been struck by people coming out, at whatever age they are, who are trying to find their voice, working to discover who they are and how they bring and live more of self into the world. We live in a culture that doesn’t have a focus on cultivating elders. We’ve had people come out who have raised their families, done their work and are now asking the question, how can I be an elder? The question of what is it to become an elder is a powerful intention to go out with.
Other participants are dealing with the loss of a loved one. Some people are dealing with extraordinary pain, physical and or emotional suffering. People experience difficult things in childhood and in adulthood. There is so much that remains unhealed in our culture. Sometimes people get out there and are surprised by the feeling of all there is to heal. The quest often helps this healing to emerge. You get a chance to experience your unique relationship to the natural world and the healing available there.
Once experienced, this relationship with wilderness, the natural world, never goes away. You can have this relationship wherever you are. You don’t need to head back to the desert to get it! The Vision Quest gives people many opportunities to heal themselves, to do what they need to do to make a new level of peace with the past and have a different foundation to move forward into the future.
Linda: I agree with all of that. I have had participants who are changing jobs or careers, or those who know they need to leave a current job or career and don’t know what is next and are just opening up to possibilities. Some people are transitioning from a long time relationship that no longer serves. We have had those who are marking leaving behind addiction. Many people come to look more deeply into who they are and who they are becoming. One profound and unique transition that Doug and I were privileged to witness as guides was a transition of a participant from one gender to the other.
Not everyone who shows up for a Vision Quest is clear about why they are there, even though they feel the need to do this. How do you work with a participant who feels called to quest, feels that deep yearning, yet isn’t really sure why there are there?
Doug: The person who comes feeling the call and not knowing exactly why or what to do with it is perfect for the work. Maybe the purpose is to get clear on what the calling is about. There is nothing lacking if you don’t have that clarity. In our multi-tasking, crazy, distracting world we live in, not being clear makes total sense. When people come to the quest they are affirmed for where they are. They are exactly where they need to be. The container is big enough to hold this. As guides we do three days of preparatory work with the group before people go out on their solos. During this time participants often get more clues about where they are and what they want. We encourage people to be open to listening.
One of the things that was most profound for me on my quest was slowing down enough to actually listen to the earth that is responding to us all the time. The earth is an extraordinary mirror and it’s easy to not hear it. On my first vision quest as a participant I remember getting back in the cars after the nine days in the wilderness. I was driving the lead car. We turned off the dirt road onto the highway and all the alarm bells were going off in my head. I cannot believe how fast we were driving, I look down at the speedometer and we going 25 MPH. It was the first time I realized I had actually slowed down. Suddenly, when we get back on the highway going 25 MPH, I felt like I was absolutely, recklessly flying though the world. In this slowed down state I heard more, experienced more than in the distraction of my day-to-day life. Taking people where they are, is the beauty of it; the earth holds all of it, it and us wherever we are. This is part of the wisdom of the quest, knowing that that’s o.k.
Linda: I encourage people on the quest to get as clear as they can about a sense of purpose. One of the reasons I do this is that l have experienced both questing and being a guide. The time I was most clear about my sense purpose, I was not thinking about being hungry or bored. Everything that happened I could connect to my intention. I feel like I got more out of it.
I believe that there is an infinite amount of information that is always available to us, but we don’t notice it because of distractions in our lives. That information becomes more readily available to us when we get clear about what it is we are looking for. As guides we work with participants to create a final intention statement prior to their solo time, who they are claiming to be and what they are claiming to bring back. This can help to clarify one’s purpose. Then there are people who just aren’t at this point, and I also accept that they are going to get what they are here for. We provide a structure, a form, and tools; the participants will choose what is right for them. Most people upon returning from the solo can’t begin to identify what they received from the experience. It unfolds as you live into the Vision Quest experience you had.
How do you prepare your participants for the return home? They’ve had just had this sacred, transformative experience and now they must return to the life they left behind. How do you support them to get back in the car racing through the world at 25 MPH?
Doug: I think the return can be the hardest part in some ways. Returning to the world, after having the profound experience of a transformational journey, can be a challenge in our modern world. The way I understand it, in indigenous cultures your whole community would witness your coming back. They understood the ritual and its purpose. In our culture we return as our individual, separate self into the maelstrom of our lives. What you’re raising is a big and important question. It’s so important to be witnessed by our communities. What we try to do with the incorporation is to anticipate the challenges that people might face and have them prepare to the best of their ability for the doubt, the misunderstanding, the loneliness, or the longing that might arise. We have them identify people they can reach out to.
People feel fine, more than fine, on return from the quest. The experience alters us. When you get back on the highway, stop at that first gas station, return to your family, friends, your work, it’s important to remember you’ve been to another place and to be especially kind and patient with yourself. You are returning from a journey that not everyone will understand. One of the things ROP does that‘s great for incorporation support is to have a follow up conference call for each group after the quest, just to check in with people. It’s incredibly powerful to hear those voices and be reminded viscerally, to touch the reality, of what they learned and the power of the vision they came back with.
Linda: We spend 3 days together as a group after participants return from their quest. Those three days are designed to take people back into their lives gradually. I feel really good about the way that we do this. We stay in base camp the first full day of their return from the solo and we have the chance to hear everyone’s story. We, the guides, reflect back what we hear in those stories. We come out of base camp the next day so there is a drive, a stop at a gas station, a meal out, if location permits a visit to a hot springs to clean away the remains of our week in the wilderness, and we put on fresh clothes.
Then we begin engaging in the next set of talks, which help people begin to understand what they got out of the experience. We ask them to speak out loud something that they intend to bring back from their quest into their lives. We also help them to identify and begin thinking about the supports they have in their lives–people, spots in nature, the use of an altar for objects from the quest.
Doug: Raising the question of incorporation and integration of an experience like this feels like the work of the world right now. How do we take back the lessons from the natural world from which modern humanity has become so separate? It’s a huge open question, how are we learning to be in a different relationship with the earth? As we move forward there is no one answer.
I’ve heard from participants upon returning that the kind of community, questers and quides, they experienced on the program was an important part of their Vision Quest. How does this sense of community come about? How do you as guides help to shape and form this experience of community.
Linda: I know that for Doug and me, community is really important. I strongly feel that we need community in the world we are living in. We need community to help support us to do the work we need to do and to speak up for what is important. In the Vision Quest experience this support is really important. I’ll speak to the process of getting ready to go out on solo. When we work with people to deepen their sense of purpose, face theirs fears, we do this in council as a group. People are listening to each other, witnessing each other. You begin see to see themes in the group emerge, and how the participants become teachers to each other, both in their vulnerability and their knowledge. So when they go out alone on their solo, they know that they are not alone, they are connected to everybody else who is out there, and they know why they are out there. It’s a shared experience of being alone. It’s the experience of community in many different ways: when we are all together, when they are alone on solo, and when we return back home.
Doug: Community is something Linda & I hold as a priority, as does Rites of Passage. On the modern day Vision Quest, people come together from many different places in the world. People come focused on the solo time; it’s all about the solo time. It’s a paradox: that in the solo experience of the Vision Quest there is this community formed as well. This community is the placeholder of the rest of our lives. I think people are surprised at the power of what they feel among one another.
We hear and feel ourselves in everybody’s story; we can relate to different parts, we all become mirrors for one another. For people to be able to tell their stories, to be witnessed for their lives, their wisdom, their expression is a hugely important part of the process. People come for the solo and leave with a sense of the sacredness of community. Some people return to their lives with the renewed sense that they need community, and they desire to help shape and form it as part of their return. Malidoma Somé addresses the need for community this way, “The way we heal is to be witnessed by community.” When people return from the solo, tell their story and are witnessed, that is often when some of the magic of the quest happens. The attention that ROP pays to the formation of the quest community is a tremendously important part of the process. It’s not one that everyone expects in advance, but it’s one that people come to appreciate.
How does the vision quest connect with the work that you do daily in the world?
Linda: It’s because I am a wilderness guide, witnessing vision quest participants get more in touch with their heart’s calling and finding the courage to follow it, that I ended up doing what I am doing in the years since 911. When 911 occurred and the US responded in the way it did, my heart was tormented, I couldn’t not hear my calling, it was relentless. I needed to do something with my life beyond educating and protest. I started by taking a stand with my body. I went to Palestine in 2002, then continued to travel to Sri Lanka, Iraq , Iran, Afghanistan, and Bahrain. This is not what I saw myself being or doing when I grew up; I don’t even like to travel. To do this I really had to work with my fears that felt like life- threatening fears.
In leading Vision Quests I have watched people constantly face their own fears. People who are not familiar with mountain lions and rattlesnakes can experience these as life threatening fears. There is a lot about fear that has to do with imagination. I encourage people to work with their fear on the vision quest. Be with your fear, learn from it, what does it have to teach? By not denying fear, I managed to do what I did. And it is definitely because of the Vision Quest work, more from guiding than being a participant. I learn much better what I teach, open to hear the call of the heart and to face fear.
Doug: The VQ is deeply connected to the leadership work I do. Both are congruent, especially in some of the theory and values used in each program. Leadership is connected to the Medicine Wheel, the wisdom of the North, being in service. I am delighted by how the theme of leadership shows up on the Vision Quest. It’s something that everybody brings, it’s actionable, not an imposition of authority. What I have noticed throughout my professional career is how little each person brings of their whole self to their work. This astonishes me. In the Masters of Leadership program as in the Vision Quest, it feels like we get to live into those questions. Who am I?, What are my gifts to bring to the world?, and How do I bring them? I feel blessed to get to make my life about these questions.
Why do you like working together?
Linda: Doug is one of my favorite people. We’ve worked together in several different capacities, the Vision Quest being one of many and a very profound one. I enjoy spending time with Doug. We often head to the field a day early. That’s a special time, holding base camp and travelling together. We are also in a research and writing group together that works on issues of white privilege, racism and cultural unconsciousness. We were in the PhD program together and currently work in the St. Mary’s program together.
Doug: Linda said it all (laughter). I appreciate the multiply ways our lives have intersected over the past seventeen years. As much as we share in common, we come at the world in different ways. So in that respect we cover a fair amount of ground between the two of us. Look at the peace and advocacy work Linda has done, that is such an incredible story of her standing in her fears, and her medicine and gifts that she brings to the world. I learn from her and her determination, her solidity around who she is, along with her humility and courage. I appreciate our differences and how we come together and get to experience the world through each other’s eyes. Leading Vision Quests together has added a whole new dimension, and I feel very blessed.
Linda Sartor, who came to ROP in 1998, holds a Ph.D. in Integral Studies and an M.S. in environmental education. Linda has traveled to Israel, Palestine, Iraq , Iran, Afghanistan, and Bahrain as a peace keeper and citizen diplomat post 911, in response to the U.S. ” War on Terrorism” . She also lived in Sri Lanka as a member of the Non-Violent Peace Force. Her recently published book, available through Amazon.com, “Turning Fear into Power, One Woman’s Journey Confronting the War on Terrorism,” is about her peacekeeping experience. Linda currently works as an adjunct faculty member in a Masters in Leadership program at Saint Mary’s College in Moraga and leads Vision Quests for Rites of Passage.
Doug Paxton, educator, writer, artist, is currently a fulltime core faculty member in the Masters of Leadership program at St. Mary’s College in Moraga. Doug’s involvement with Rites of Passage began in 2003 at a time of transition in his life, the completion of his doctorate at the California Institute of Integral Studies. Doug has been co-guiding with Linda for three years. He has worked in the public sector in the Mayor’s Office of San Francisco, and with many non-profit organizations and the corporate sector. Doug holds an MBA and a Ph.D.