“Well, you have really done it this time, Van Horn. How do you get out of this mess?”
This was my inner critic speaking. Whenever it calls me Van Horn I know I am in trouble. My father used to call me this when he was annoyed with me. But my inner critic was right: I really had gotten myself into it this time.
I was standing in a 7- foot deep pit in the side of mountain in Western Oregon. I was buck naked. It was May and a cold winter storm was coming in off the ocean. I would have to deal with it.
I was on Hanbleceya, the Lakota word for vision quest. I was about to be tested.
The experience in the Caribbean of having my fear released from my body through body work was a major turning point in my journey. But there was still more work to be done. Had all my fear left me? I was about to find out.
The Trager specialist who worked on me in the Caribbean was unable to complete her process. She had recommended another Trager specialist closer to home who could finish the process. For a period of time, I was driving the one hour it takes to go from Menlo Park to Berkeley for weekly Trager sessions. As the weeks passed, the Trager process seemed to become much more gentle and I was actually enjoying it now.
The Trager specialist in Berkeley informed me that she would be unavailable to meet with me over the coming summer months. I was disappointed and pressed her for why she would be unavailable. Reluctantly she told me that she was part of a Native American spirituality group in Oregon and summer was when they held their ceremonies. She was committed to this path.
As she talked, I felt a pressure building in my chest. I had felt this pressure before. It was a message from my inner world. It was telling me to pay attention to what was being said. What the Trager practitioner was telling me was important to me as well.
Apparently, I was being guided to get involved in Lakota religious ceremonies. But I pushed back. I did not want to go to Oregon. I did not want to engage in Native American ceremonies. I knew enough about this tradition to know I wanted no part of it. But the pressure increased in my chest, as if to press the point. Like it or not, I was being told to check into this.
I asked some questions about the group’s activities and when the woman noted my interest, she told me that it was highly unlikely that I would be invited to participate. These were serious ceremonies, she told me, and only people who had dedicated themselves to the Lakota tradition were allowed to participate in. Nevertheless, I asked for, and received, the mailing address of the medicine man who conducted the ceremonies.
The next day I sat in my office at work and prepared a letter to send up to Oregon. I explained my interest in coming up and participating in the ceremonies. Then, to underscore my seriousness, I put the letter into a FedEx envelop and sealed it up. This ought to get his attention, I thought.
“Tell him about the pipe”. A voice in my head was speaking.
What? I said.
“Tell him about the pipe”.
I grumbled about having to re-open the envelop and start all over again. This time I added in the story of how I found a pipe.
The pipe incident had occurred several years earlier on an LEF retreat. Elizabeth and I were in Breckenridge, Colorado. The afternoons were free time for us and we usually drive around the countryside to take in the sights.
One day we headed south out of town on route 9 and drove until we came into the small town of Fairplay, where Rte 9 and Rte 285 meet. We noticed the South Park City Museum, a setting of old historic buildings that had been gathered from around the area and assembed in one place to make it look like an old town. We decided to check it out.
Close to the entrance was an old building with a sign that said “Antiques”. We decided to go antiquing. As I was browsing around in the store, my eye fell on an old black pipe in a display case. The stem of the pipe was gone. I was looking at just a black bowl that looked like it has seen a lot of use. I continued to look around the store but found that my attention was being pulled back to that pipe. This feeling crept over me: that pipe should not be here!
I asked the proprietor about the pipe. She said she had purchased it from a Native American at the big Albuquerque flea market. She knew nothing about its history other than that it was old.
The pipe gave me the willies. That pipe should not be there!
I asked her how much it was. She said: $70. I took out my credit card and handed it to her. I could not even look at the pipe. I asked her to wrap it well.
When we got home to California, I placed the pipe—still wrapped in its paper—in my sock drawer. There it remained until I could figure out what to do with it.
I had forgotten all about the pipe until this voice in my head told me to mention it in my letter to the shaman. I wrote out the story of the pipe, printed a new copy of the letter, and put it back into the FedEx envelop. Then I dropped it off. And I waited to see what would happen.
I was invited by the shaman to come meet him at his home outside of Coos Bay. And so began my four year sojourn in the Lakota ceremonial tradition. The shaman told me some years later that he had had a dream earlier about receiving a letter and in it there would be mention of a pipe. He was told in the dream to regard this letter as important.
On my first trip up to Coos Bay, I brought the pipe with me. The shaman was keen to see it. As he pulled it out of its paper wrapping, he leaned backwards a bit. He looked at for a long time and told me that I was right to be leery of it. It had powerful, dark energy which could be dangerous. He said the pipe appeared to be from the southwest and he would look for a way to return it back to a tribe in that area. He thought the owner of the pipe had been killed in some tribal war a long time ago.
My first summer in Oregon was an introduction to the tradition and the ceremony of the sweat lodge. This proved challenging to me as I suffered from claustrophobia. Often the sweat lodge was completely full with bodies compressed as close together as possible. It was pitch black inside, except for the fire, and often filled to capacity with sweaty bodies.
This really put my claustrophobia to the test.
Had I really overcome all my fears. I had to use all the tools I had learned from LEF just to remain in my body and stay present to what we were doing. Somehow, I managed to survive. Maybe I really had released all my fear.
But I still struggled with the question of why I was doing this. Finally, during a sweat ceremony, I received guidance that this tradition was not my path but that it had important things to teach me.
At the end of the Summer, just before leaving for home, the shaman came over to me and told me that, if I returned the following year, I would have to go into the Pit up on the side of the mountain. I had already figured this out for myself.
Hanbleceya, which is Lakota for crying out for a vision, is an important event in the life of a Lakota warrior. The vision quest is an opportunity to open oneself to the spirit world for guidance and insight. The guidance received can be important both to the individual and the entire tribe. Traditionally much time would be taken at the conclusion by the tribal elders to evaluate the experience.
Most vision quests take place in a remote location where the person can be all alone. Mine was a little different. I would be in a 7-foot pit on the side of a steep, forested mountain. My preparation for the vision quest was to make 500 prayer flags to bring with me into the pit. A prayer flag was made by taking a pinch of tobacco, holding it up towards the sky, offering a prayer and asking for guidance, and then wrapping the tobacco into a small patch of cloth. This was then tied onto a string which held all the other prayer flags together.
The pit is normally covered during a vision quest. But the shaman, knowing of my claustrophobia, allow me to leave the pit open to the sky above. I was very grateful for this. This gratitude was short-lived.
A storm came in. The temperature dropped, the winds picked up and the trees overhead started to rustle. Suddenly an overwhelming fear came over me. I started to fantasize about getting hypothermia. I felt like I was going to lose it. I began to berate myself.
Well, you have really done it this time, Van Horn. How do you get out of this mess?”
Then I heard a voice ask: why are you here?
I am here to offer prayers to Wakan Tanka (Great Spirit), I said.
Well, why don’t you do that.
And so I began praying in earnest.
The fear went away. A peace and calm settled over me. And while the storm raged on overhead, I suddenly realized I was not cold. I was completely comfortable. I was standing there in that 7 foot pit completely naked a yet I felt no discomfort. The air actually felt a bit balmy.
Something was going on
Over the course of the night I started to feel a growing connection to the spirit world. The relationship with the spirit world is central to the Lakota Faith. The spirits guide our actions and look out for us. We in turn must remain open to their guidance. I had had trouble believing a lot of what I had heard and read about the spirit world. But this night I got a deeper and richer insight into how all this works.
The spirit world cannot impact those people who do not embrace it. One’s faith in this realm is like a portal through which one can experience the many dimensions of the spirit realm. If one does not go through this portal, one does engage this world. If one does not to engage this world, one cannot be negatively impacted by it. There is nothing to fear from the spirit world.
I began to see this as a broader truth for all of life. What we hold as true becomes true by virtue of our believing in it. We make reality real by our belief that it is real. What is real for you may not be real for me. This is not some litmus test of whose understanding of reality is correct. We all make our own reality by the power of our beliefs. That was the great insight I received while standing in a pit on the side of a mountain in Western Oregon in 1993.