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You are here: Home Resources E-Newsletter Archive Fall 2014, Issue XI Seeking the Light and Finding the Darkness

Seeking the Light and Finding the Darkness

Leading rite of passage programs can be just as rich as participating in them. In this piece Solo Crossing Mentor Julia Roseman shares reflections on the effect Journeys programs have had on her and the youth she's worked with in the quest to come more fully alive.

I came to Journeys as an apprentice  shortly after my 22nd birthday, during a turbulent time in my life. I had just graduated from the small liberal-arts college that had become my home and felt adrift in the world, unable to determine where I wanted to go or what I wanted to do. The path laid out for me by my education was clear enough-- get a respectable job, go to graduate school in a few years, get a more respectable job afterwards, buy a home, have a family-- but something within me couldn’t reckon with this future. I was seeking to feel alive, to find a path that was less certain but more true to myself. In this way I came to Journeys at the perfect time. No other community embodies this quest to feel alive quite as much as Journeys. Having mentored youth for three years on the Solo Crossing trip and participated in the Adult Vision Quest, I deeply appreciate how Journeys encourages each one of us, participant and mentor alike, to come alive, for the benefit of one’s self and the greater world.

Over the course of a Journeys trip, mentors and participants support each other in this journey. But perhaps the most important member of each trip, as central to Journeys as both its mentors and participants, is the land that becomes our home. The natural world encourages us towards a place of feeling alive through the feeling of wonder. Wonder at the sheer beauty of the land, wonder at the unspoken wisdom within oneself, wonder at the possibilities that seem to unfold only after weeks of hiking and sweating and crying and laughing. Wonder is free of judgment, criticism and self-doubt; in its place, it creates an opening and surrendering of self. Wonder asks that we are completely present, and in these moments, we find the pure joy of being alive. 

The world that exists within a Journeys trip is one filled with a sense of wonder. Our days are marked by a bear sighting, the feeling of salt air in deep inhales, crossing a mountain pass in the bright snow. It is a world in which we sing together next to a fire each night, listen to eagle’s songs in the morning and read poems of gratitude to each other before meals. The wonder of the world seeps into each of us, until we see ourselves and each other as inseparable from it. If there is inexplicable beauty and grace in the world, so too must there be within each of us. Trusting that we are made of the same stuff as the world we love around us, we find the courage to confront, often for the first time, parts of ourselves that we previously pushed away or ignored. The light to which we have opened ourselves gives us strength to be with our own darkness.

For many participants, this exploration into darkness becomes deepest on their Vision Quest, a two-day solo fast. As they struggle with a range of discomforts-- hunger, boredom, loneliness-- they find themselves completely alone and without distraction. They must face themselves head-on, without the usual palliatives. For most of the 15-18 year old participants, this is the first extended time they have been alone with themselves. Each individual has a different experience. Some work through childhood trauma for the first time, others think about their relationships with family and friends in a deeper way, and some listen internally to their hopes for the future. In my three years on the Solo Crossing, I have never doubted that the Quest gives each individual exactly what they need. Many report it is both the hardest and best thing they have ever done.

I have witnessed again and again, in both myself and in the participants I have mentored, how this journey into darkness allows for a fuller expression of self. By embracing all of our sides, the parts we hate as well as those we love, we can eventually rest more comfortably in our own skin. We glimpse who we are, in all of its preciousness and precariousness, and begin to live from that self. I am always humbled when I witness the return of the participants from their Vision Quest, a two-day solitary fast. They have an ease of self that I rarely see in adults or myself. Their faces glow as they speak honestly and beautifully about their experience. There is something true that surfaces, a truthfulness not just of words but of being.

From this deepened sense of self, we are able to have important conversations, conversations that make us uncomfortable but in which we find the strength to stay. I’ll never forget the discussion that followed after a participant stole and ate the trail mix of another participant halfway through our three weeks. Food becomes incredibly important on these trips, and one’s personal bag of trail mix, which must be rationed over the course of the trip, is as precious as one’s sleeping bag. As the group wrestled with this incident, the participant who had stolen the food burst out. Angrily remembering being betrayed after lending money to a close friend, he shouted that it was a dog-eat-dog world out there, and we had to look out for ourselves only. The other participants struggled with this question of individualism, made starker by the nature of the trip, in which each of us is dependent on the group as a whole for survival. We carry each other’s food and gear, we purify one another’s water, we walk and sleep and eat together. So how to reckon this interdependent and intertwined experience with the intense individualism that this participant, and our society at large, encouraged?

These are not simple questions to ask or answer and in fact, our survival as a species requires struggling with these very issues. Yet, underneath a sky bright with stars, with the resounding crash of waves constantly close, these questions seemed more manageable. There was a trust in the goodness in each of us and in our world, trust that as much time and struggle as it would take, we would work it out. In the end, the group didn't so much choose sides as acknowledge each individual's experience as valid and worthy of telling. And in this space of simply listening to each other, we managed to come together.

The wonder of these trips, then, is not simply confined to three weeks in the Olympic mountains. It is a wonder that extends past these places, that works its way into the lives of each participant and mentor. It is a wonder of possibility, of widening one’s view of how to live. We open ourselves to being in the world with more compassion, authenticity, and in acknowledgement of the truth of our interdependency.

One of the most moving comments I’ve heard over the years was from a participant on the last day of our three week trip together. “At home, all anyone cares about is Victoria’s Secret and partying,” she reflected. “Here, everyone is true. And that let me feel that part of myself again.” For us to come alive, we need the support of others seeking to do the same. In the tribe that each trip becomes, we help each other to find this true part of ourselves. When we leave the backcountry and our tribe for the world beyond, we can come back to this place again and again, because we know where it is. We can find the strength it takes to live from our true self in the world. For this, Journeys is indispensable.

I’ve written this essay with my laptop on my knees as I make my way through the  roads of Laos and Cambodia on countless busses and trains. It’s been over seven months since I left my home for New Delhi, and I’m not entirely sure when I’ll be back for good. As I look out my window, I reflect on how much I have seen during this time, much of it wondrous and much of it appalling. I’ve hiked in the stark beauty of the Himalayas and been witness to some of the world’s worst poverty in India. I’ve seen results of the US’s extensive bombing in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, and felt the incredible warmth of their people. My time with Journeys encouraged me not only to follow my own desire  to wander,  but also to remain present during these explorations, no matter what the circumstance. I let my heart swell and break, allow myself to be moved by both the beautiful and the horrifying. As I move across these roads, I feel the darkness and the light, and find my heart big enough to hold them both.

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