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Lifeus Interruptis
by Lauren Chambliss

About a third the way through her vision quest -- fasting and alone in Utah's Mystery Canyon -- Jane Baniewicz, Internal Revenue Service lawyer and suburban soccer mom finally got "out of her head."

She experienced what author Carlos Castaneda called "non-ordinary reality;" to-do lists and worries drifted away and nature's sensual smorgasbord opened up before her. She heard messages in birds' songs, played with lizards, smelled the pungency of a coming rainstorm. She consumed nothing but water for four days but wasn't hungry. Her dreams were rich and poignant. One night, she held a "death lodge" ceremony, where she envisioned herself on her deathbed, and, one by one, members of her family came to say good bye, in some cases bringing closure to long-simmering conflict. For a Michigan-born, Catholic schoolgirl, Mystery Canyon was mind-blowing.

"The hardest part was letting go of all the things I thought I understood," says Baniewicz, 52. "It marked a major turning point in my life. I thought I would find answers to personal issues and what I found out was so much bigger than I had thought. It was a tremendous opening."

Baniewicz's vision quest was guided by Durango, Colorado-based Animas Valley Institute, which operates one of the largest vision quest programs in America. Recent questers include a Scottish ecology student, a NASA physicist, and the mayor of Telluride, Colorado.

"The demographics are widening out tremendously," says AVI founder Bill Plotkin, Ph.D., 51, a psychologist and wilderness guide.

"We are seeing people from all walks of life and all ages. As a culture, we have become alienated from nature, both from Mother Nature and our own deepest inner nature, and we are starting to remember there is an essential relationship between the two."

Last April, Paul Mitchell, a retired army officer who now lives in Annapolis, MD had just sold his consulting business and was at "loose ends," uncertain what to do next. He joined an AVI quest group of 12 men and women in Utah with some reluctance, not being the type to sit in "circle" with others and share deep feelings, drum until a state of trance, or talk to plants. He did all that, and more.

"I found myself doing things I never would have done before, noticing little flowers and complementing them on their beauty, looking up in awe at this magnificent dead juniper tree that hung over my camp," says Mitchell, 57. "My pace slowed down to a natural pace rather than the dizzying one of everyday life."

In the slower space, Mitchell explored his true desires for the future and reflected on how to get there.

Slowing down and removing everyday distractions was also key for Jamie Reaser, 33, an environmental scientist for the US government who recently completed an AVI Soulcraft Seminar, a five-day program that isn't as physically demanding as a vision quest but uses similar nature-based activities to unearth what Plotkin calls one's "soul gift," the quality that makes each individual unique.

Unlike other nature-based programs, AVI's approach involves more than learning about nature and our relationship to nature. It amounts to a contemporary Western path to soul-discovery, leading to initiation into what Plotkin calls one's "second or soulful adulthood."

"The Soulcraft approach is systemic," says Reaser. "You don't focus on a particular problem and how to solve it but on connecting to the greater system that we are all a part of. It gave me the opportunity for creativity, spiritual growth, and connectedness to the Earth and things beyond myself."

Plotkin says the spiritual awakening that often comes from the encounter with nature in novel ways happens, well, quite naturally. "For 99% of humanity's time on earth, we lived in close relationship with nature," he says. "The ability to be in conversation with the natural world is part of our human inheritance and hardwired into our genes."

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Related Stories
• Vision Quest
• Trips For the Discerning Adventurer
• Climb Out of Your Rut
• Seeking Adventure
• Wild, Wild Quest
• Back to Nature, Family-Style
• Take Off With Top Adventure Tour Companies

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