Why would anyone want to head out into the bush to be alone with nature for three or four days and nights, solo, with no food and (in some cases water and sleep)? To face the elements – including the cold, heat, mosquitoes, snakes, darkness, light, boredom, ache and pains of simple natural living.
There are several compelling reasons why – none of which are immediately apparent on first glance. And to do requires a little bit of story-telling.
Traditional cultures around the world have been initiating their young men and women into the society in many different ways. Many of these involve hardships or some kind, and to a western mind can seem brutal on first inspection. The purpose, however, is for the culture/tribe to help guide the initiate into finding their right relationship with the tribe – to discover and start to hone the gifts and contributions that will serve the continuing existence of the tribe.
Western culture, in contrast, coddles its youths. We are placed into an institutional ‘educational’ system that churns out consumers of a post-secondary education which (with a raucous 21st thrown in), ejects naive young adults into the working world with a diploma in hand, so face the quickly-shifting tides of economic change. Sadly, here in Australia, its not uncommon to hear people speak of the ‘boys’ and ‘girls’ in sporting clubs – though these are fully physically grown men and women.
Let’s not idealise the mythical tribal initiation. From our perspective of consumer choice, the costs of a totalitarian tribal system are significant – lack of autonomy, frozen gender roles, among many others.
However, its the very choices we have – the disappearance or a guiding meta-narrative, or culturally strong story, that adds an element of homelessness to our story. When the religious myth no longer works to provide context, and the family lineage doesn’t provide a path forward into the future, where does today’s discerning youth turn to?
In this context, questing speaks to several different parts.
Quest as Rite of Passage into the Adult Self
While typically questing would start in the early teen years, for most of us this wasn’t an option. I remember being at a week long residential bush programme, and the leader in exasperation finally asking us to tie a blue or red thread around our heads to indicate whether we were men or boys. Though I was over 30 at the time – with two children, a mortgage and a marriage – I realised that my self-image was of a half-man, and I wore the two colours in secret shame. Over the course of that week, I chose one night to call myself an adult – a full young man, and with that as my identity, get on with life.
This simple choice, though important, needed something to validate it further – so when an opportunity arose to delve into the mysteries of quest, I was drawn to cement my choice through an embodied experience. The story of this first experience is a long story in itself, and one that I’ll be telling soon.
The challenge that quest presents speaks strongly to younger men who stand at this ego threshold – a desire to know themselves as fully MAN – whatever that calls up within them. Its a powerful calling, and one worth heeding.
Quest as Initiation into my Ecological Niche
Bill Plotkin of Soulcraft fame reminded me recently of how fully formed animals are when they are born.
The young of all species, in other words, already know at birth how to be members of their species. This innate knowledge includes basic-yet-vital items such as how to move around, what to eat and not eat, how to avoid predators, and how and when to mate and with whom. But by far the most important knowledge they are born with is how to contribute to the world their unique skill or offering. They, in other words, are born with what we might call ecological purpose, an implicit knowledge or apprehension of their place or niche in a wildly complex and differentiated world of multiple habitats and countless species. They are born with all the capacities they need to serve the world in a way no other creature can — including how they can further develop or co-evolve their own niche — and they do not have to be taught or shown “the one life they can call their own”; this knowledge and capacity is inborn. (1)
Alone amongst the creatures are we, the supposed superior human, who forget our place in this ecology – the magnificent Gaia, and with a thousand distractions lose sight of this knowing.
In the mythic magic of a questing experience, through a simple interaction with being on country for a period of time, something in us has a chance to stir – to surface from beneath the depths of our upbringing and conditioning, and remind us that we have a home on this planet. That there is a purpose simply in being alive, and that living the immediacy of this, far from the trappings of civilised life, has a potency rarely experienced.
Questing to discover our place on this map won’t provide many clues to an egoic ‘life-purpose’, but may imbue a deeper peace about how we go about living that way.
Quest as an initiation into the Soul
However you understand the concept of soul, the idea I’m trying to get to is simply the part of us that isn’t satisfied with the mundane, simple day to day. Its the part that, when left unattended for too long, rises up in mid-life crisis to create chaos, to stake its claim in life. Most times though, the soul is hidden, buried under the to-dos of life, and relegated to skirt the margins of our periphery, life a wild animal hides at the edge of a village.
In my experience, the soul’s voice changes with the seasons of life. I’ve become more aware of my soul’s calling to me as of late – once my survival concerns were being dealt with. Where previously the fear of financial poverty would drive my hours in pursuit of keeping the financial ship floating, I now experience more boredom, along with the unwanted behaviours that went along with an inability to deal with that boredom.
In the solitude of quest, we are alone long enough to allow the wild creature of our soul, the part of us best described through myth and metaphor, to come stealing through the shadows of our successes and failures, and sit with us. We may not emerge with a clear sense of what our soul purpose is – I’m still feeling into what my soul purpose is – but every little bit helps.
Let me end this with a quote from Parker J Palmer in A Hidden Wholeness
It is not easy work, rejoining soul and role. The poet Rilke – who wrote about childhood’s “winged energy of delight” – writes about the demands of adulthood:
Take your practices powers and stretch them out until the span the chasm between two contradictions … For the god wants to know himself in you
Living integral lives as adults is far more daunting than recovering our childhood capacity to commute between two worlds. As adults, we must achieve a complex integration that spans the contradictions between our inner and outer realiser that supports both personal integrity and the common good. No, it is not easy work. But as Rilke suggested, by doing it, we offer what is sacred within us to the life of the world. (2)
There are as many personal reasons for questing as there are people. Finding your deeper intention before heading out is a crucial step on the questing path. I’m hoping that in describing a few broad questing purposes you find yourself with a better palette of imagery to scribe your intentions. Whether its your need to ground yourself in identity, to delve deeper into the mysteries of your place with Gaia, or to listen to the still voice of your soul, my hope is that you continue to explore the deeper meanings of your life, and to bring them to the ceremony of quest.
To your journeying…
2) Parker J. Palmer. (2004) A Hidden Wholeness p.21