Beads from a Glass Rosary

Vision Quest and Vision

Charles Cameron


Fugue and Flight:

Two flights circle the airport at Medford, Oregon. One is a small commercial jet coming in to land after its brief shuttle flight from San Francisco. The other is an eagle, native to the place. But there is more. One of the passengers in the jet is Wallace Black Elk, a Lakota shaman, who is flying in to send some of us "up on the hill" for Vision Quests outside Ashland, and I am there with some friends to greet him. When Wallace has disembarked and collected his luggage, he draws our attention to the eagle, which he had observed while his plane was coming in to land, still circling the airport.

Because Wallace must reach Ashland to carry out an obligation, his body flies the friendly skies with United (incidentally or coincidentally, Grace Spotted Eagle, Wallace's wife, is not with him on this occasion). But Wallace is a man of the medicine ways, and he is flying to Medford "body and soul" -- there being no other way for humans to fly -- and he is conscious of it. As Goethe once said, "There may be a difference between seeing and seeing; so that the eyes of the spirit have to work in perpetual connection with those of the body." Body and soul, Wallace sees the eagle, and it is in his double seeing that the secret resides.

Thus it is no cliche but simple metaphor to say that while his body was flying in the jet, his heart was soaring with the eagle.

The two flights of jet and eagle are interestingly parallel, but it is the two flights of Wallace Black Elk that concern me here. To anticipate a little: we might say that his body was "inside" the aircraft, but his soul was "within" the eagle-and the eagle conversely "within" his soul.

Now his body has landed -- but his soul is still circling. "Ah," says Goethe again, "no wings of the body could compare / To wings of the spirit..." Wallace's flight with the eagle is qualitative, his flight with the airline quantitative, to anticipate another important distinction.

Wallace's experience of the eagle's flight is an imaginative experience: it is real enough, but it is not literal. He flies with the eagle, he does not fly with the eagle. Grace is not with him, yet Grace is with him. Were Wallace to explain his eagle flight to us, he would perforce use metaphor or simile: "I soared with the eagle" or "It is as though I flew with the eagle." The simile "It is as though I flew with the eagle" acknowledges the literal fact, as can be seen by continuing the sentence "while in fact I flew United." But it is the metaphor which expresses the force of the experience: "I soared with the eagle." That is why, incidentally, to "soar with the eagle" can be reduced to cliche while to "seem to fly with the eagle" cannot: it has too little power.

Imaginative flight is flight as symbol, not sign.

A symbol is characterized... above all by the translucence of the Eternal through and in the Temporal. It always partakes of the Reality which it Renders Intelligible; and while it enunciates the whole, abides itself as a living part in that Unity of which it is representative.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge

For Wallace, the eagle's flight is the eagle's flight pure and simple, undivided from his own sympathetic imagining of that flight -- and more. For behind ("through and in") all that, it is also the great human dream of soaring above the earth, of transcending all limitation, of seeing with eagle eye all that exists in that great geography which includes spirit flights, von Karman's aerodynamics of turbulent flow, literal bird's eye views and airline schedules alike.

And in that great geography, flight is a theme, a thread common to all worlds, a true symbol: in symbolic language, flight can be used to thread together the worlds. Thus:

We are drawn "upwards" to God, and "fall," "slide," or "plummet" into hell; we "climb" to social heights and are dragged "down" into the gutter. The same symbolism can be extended into other forms of expression: music, architecture, dance also have their soaring and falling gestures. The dancer's *jete'*, the singer's high note, the Gothic vault fly with the mind like the poet's lark. The symbolism is universal and hardly arbitrary; the same root meaning lies behind all these elaborations, mined out of a primordial experience.

A great symbol -- like that of the vision-flight -- is a prodigious human invention.

Theodore Roszak

Flight as symbol can be found in the physical, social, rational, imaginative and spiritual realms. Thus it is no mistake that certain mental states have been called "fugue states" in the psychiatric literature, nor that certain Bach pieces are termed "fugues" -- fugue is simply the German word for flight. Nor that John of the Cross can speak of the mystical ascent as a "flight of the alone to the Alone."

"God keep me," says William Blake, "from supposing Up and Down to be the same thing as all experimentalists must suppose."

Within and Inside:

Let us make the first distinction at which I hinted above: that between what is *within* and what is *inside*.

These two words, within and inside, have very similar denotative meanings: my thesaurus gives "within" as its primary synonym for "inside" -- and "inside" for "within". Connotatively, however, "within" now has a poetic, almost archaic flavor, while "inside" sounds unexceptional, normal, grounded by contrast. To put this another way, "inside" is a word that makes sense or has obvious reference in the real world, while "within" sounds like no more than a fancy way of expressing the same idea.

Perhaps the simplest way I can clarify the distinction I wish to make between our two words "within" and "inside" is to say that x- rays look inside humans, while insight looks within them. Thus x- rays see bones inside the human body, while insight reads beauty within the human soul. And when one of the Russian cosmonauts reported that he had scoured space and been unable to find God there, he was making a category error: in terms of the distinction I am making here, he was looking "inside" deep space for what is to be found -- if at all -- "within" it.

Translating this in terms of metaphor and literalism:

...the root meaning of the vision-flight associates divinity and the skies. But when the experience that underlies the root-meaning is lost, we are left with an absurdly literal proposition which seems to locate God in physical space above the clouds. Then, when the Russian cosmonauts fail to find the old gentleman there, village atheism holds itself vindicated.

Theodore Roszak

Here we can see that the "within" is symbolic or metaphoric, while the "inside" is literal.

And there we go again: it is the sky that is physically above us, not "the heavens". Heaven is to sky as within is to inside: and once again, we are fortunate to have two words with which to draw our distinction, and just a little foolish when we promote confusion between physical and metaphysical entities by using the two words as if they were synonymous.

We could equally translate our original distinction into visual terms, and say that "vision" is to "sight" as "within" is to "inside" -- using the word "vision" now to refer to visionary perception. That which is seen in vision is seen either within oneself, as in meditation or imagination, or within that which one sees with sight, as in a combined visual and visionary perception.

And again we find ourselves facing the Goethean two-fold vision alluded to above: "There may be a difference between seeing and seeing; so that the eyes of the spirit have to work in perpetual connection with those of the body."

Vision and the Invisible:

I said that Wallace Black Elk was flying into Medford "to send some of us 'up on the hill' for Vision Quests" -- but that's another story, for another day. The Lakota ritual "hanbleceya" or "crying for a vision" has a very specific meaning, and I'd recommend those who are interested to Joseph Epes Brown's *The Sacred Pipe*, and to Wallace Black Elk's own accounts of some of his visions as retold by William Lyon in Wallace Black Elk and William S Lyon, *Black Elk: The Sacred Ways of a Lakota*.

The Vision Quest of the Lakota is one culture's way of connecting with the invisible world: it involves going up a hill (at a medicine man's direction), and there fasting and praying for a vision from the spirit world.

In my own culture, which is fundamentally Celtic, a similar function is served by spending a night on the mountain of Cader Idris in Wales. Robert Graves, who as a muse-inspired poet knew as much about these things as anyone, reports:

There is a stone seat at the top of Cader Idris, "the Chair of Idris" where, according to the local legend, whoever spends the night is found in the morning either dead, mad, or a poet.

Graves, White Goddess

Vision, it seems, can be too stark for the mortal heart to handle: it can kill us, it can drive us mad. But when the madness has an outlet and an expression, when the story teller's or the poet's or the role player's art connects with the mystery and releases it into the world, something else happens, something for which our western world is supremely thirsty.

The invisible world enters the visible spectrum.

It may just be a subtle magic in the ways we phrase our day to day experiences, it may be an epiphanic moment in which our story becomes timeless, or we may like William Blake and William Butler Yeats spell out the magic in such a way that the spirit world becomes visible to mortal eyes.

What is important is that the dream has entered reality. That the world is no longer bereft of quality, depth, passion, interiority, transcendence. We see now with the heart's eye, no longer with the eye of the measurer and appraiser.

We enter the myth.

And as Joseph Campbell never tired of pointing out, through that doorway lies our bliss...


First published in Vol 1 # 1 of "Vision Quest" Magazine, edited by Mitchell J. Gross, published by Visionary Publishing, 45 Valentines Lane, Old Brookville, NY 11545. For further information, email mjg@io.com, go to Visionary Games Crossroads, or call 516-626-3500. Copyright (c) 1995 by Mitchell J. Gross. All rights reserved.


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