John Suler's Teaching Clinical Psychology

vision quest

The Vision Quest

I designed this exercise as a means to help students appreciate a variety of concepts related to psychotherapy and psychological change - including free association, de-repression, resistance, self-actualization, meditative awareness, synchronicity, and the confrontation with basic existential issues.

This has been one of the most rewarding exercises I have used in my classes. Almost every student who has undertaken this exercise has enjoyed and learned from the experience. After the students complete the exercise, we discuss their experiences in class. I use a questionnaire to stimulate this discussion.

Although I use the term "vision quest" to describe the exercise to my students - a term associated with the Native American tradition - I let them know that it is not a recreation of that sacred Native American practice. It does include some of features of that practice - features similar to transformative rituals found in other cultures as well. I do hope the exercise helps my students appreciate the wisdom of the people from these cultures.

For a scholarly discussion of this exercise, you might want to check out two articles I wrote on this topic. There is also a chapter in my book Contemporary Psychoanalysis and Eastern Thought devoted to it.

Suler, J.R. (1990). Wandering in search of a sign: A contemporary version of the vision quest. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 30, 73-88.

Suler, J.R. & Genovese, D. (1988). Psychodynamics of the vision quest. Voices: The Art and Science of Psychotherapy, 24, 83-90.

After reading about this Vision Quest exercise, Matthew Clapp sent me an email describing this unusual experience.

The handout for the exercise

John Suler, Ph.D.
Rider University

Therapeutic Ingredients of the Vision Quest

In "primitive" cultures a method for gaining insight into oneself was the vision quest. A person would go on such a quest in times of crisis (when an answer to a problem was needed), as a rite of passage into adulthood, or simply out of a desire for self-discovery. The person typically would wander off into the wilderness, alone, searching for an insight or "sign" that would reveal some truth. Because the person often deprived himself of food, water, and shelter, often for several days at a time, an altered state of consciousness was induced. This mixture of altered consciousness and an intense "desire to discover" caused something to happen - an experience, an event, a "sign" of some kind that resulted in an important insight.

Your task is to undertake a. modified version of this Vision Quest. It's not exactly the same experience as the practice from earlier cultures, but aspects of it are quite similar.



Wandering Alone

For a period of at least 4 hours, leave your room or home and go out somewhere, anywhere. You don't have to plan ahead as to where you will go or what you will do. Don't do anything in particular (i.e., don't go bowling, to the movies, to visit friends, etc.) Just go where your instincts tell you to go. Let your "intuition" carry you and feel free to change direction if your instincts tell you to. Try to wander to different places as much as you can, but of course don't do anything dangerous.

Do this alone! This is very important! If you meet people you know, you may talk to them for a few minutes, but no longer than that. Continue on your way.

Your Question

Before you begin your quest, think about some question that you will bring with you. Some important question about yourself and your life. Something you want to understand better and have insight into. Perhaps it is related to some problem you are experiencing, or something about your past or future. Try to make the question as specific as possible, but avoid a question that asks for a yes/no answer. Keep it open- ended.

While you wander, keep this question in the back of your mind. You can spend some time actively thinking about it, but don't spend all your time doing that. Allow your mind to drift and wander too.

See, Hear, Feel!

What do you see going on around you? What do you hear? What do you feel? The quest is about your question, it's about you, but it's more than just thinking about your question and you. It's about experiencing what's going on around you!

Looking for the Sign

The whole time keep in mind that you are on a "quest." You are looking, waiting, expecting something. Something WILL happen. There will be a sign that will give you an insight into your question. It could be something that happens to you, something you see or hear. The world out there will give you the sign! Some signs are obvious, some are subtle. There might be several signs. You might not even understand until later what the sign was or what it meant. But there will be one. Try not to worry about getting a sign or forcing it to happen. Often it comes spontaneously when you're not even thinking about it.

Taking Notes

Take along a notebook or some paper, and a pen. Every half hour sit down and write. Note the time, the place, and what has happened. Don't spend a lot of time doing this. Just a few minutes. Write about your reactions to what is happening to you. What did you see, hear, feel? Write about your thoughts and insights. Write these notes for yourself. You do not have to hand them in. After the quest, reading these notes will refresh your memory. You might also see themes and patterns that you did not notice during the quest itself.

During your vision quest, if you're anxious, frustrated, or bored, ask yourself "why" and write about it. If nothing important has happened, think and write about why that is so. How could you make the quest more effective?


Divide the paper into the follow three sections and use these headings:

1. A Summary of My Vision Quest
Summarize what happened to you. What was your question? Where did you go? What did you see, think, feel? Describe as much detail as seems important. What were your reactions to this exercise? What did you learn from it?


2. The Sign
In this section focus on the sign. Did you receive one, more than one? How did it happen? What did it reveal to you? If you didn't receive a sign, talk about that. Do you think there was a reason why you didn't? What do you think about the whole idea of "receiving a sign?"

These first two sections, obviously, are about your personal reactions. Feel free to say whatever you want. You are NOT graded on what you say. If you prefer not to mention certain things, that's O.K. too. However, if you're very interested in getting my feedback on your vision quest, the more you tell me the more specific my feedback can be.


3. A Theory of the Vision Quest
Look through your notes to find concepts, terms, and theories that might explain how the vision quest works and why it might be therapeutic. Apply concepts, terms, and theories specifically to your vision quest experience. You should write at least one paragraph about ideas from the psychoanalytic approaches, one paragraph about ideas from the behavioral/cognitive approaches, and one paragraph about ideas from the humanistic approaches. This theory section of your paper determines your grade.

Length of the paper: The paper can be as long as you want, but write at least two pages for the first section, maybe one or two for the second, and at least 2-3 pages for section 3.

If you request it, I will give you a copy of an article that I have written about this exercise. Read them and use the ideas in your paper - but don't simply plagiarize me without being sure that the ideas applied to your vision quest. I'll be able to tell! Also, are your experiences similar to those of past students described in the article? Why or why not?

Take this handout with you on the Quest.

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