I wanted to begin this Wisdom Circle series with Meredith Little because I greatly admire the work she has done to introduce the Vision Quest to modern people, and because she and her late husband Steven Foster provide such a positive example of what a “Great Love” is and can accomplish. Meredith has been introducing modern people to this ancient yet contemporary rite of passage for over forty years. Steven and Meredith met at the Marin, California Suicide Prevention hotline and worked there together for a year. One night when they were listening to suicidal people on the phone they said to each other “Let us dedicate our lives to offering people meaningful symbolic death so they don’t need to physically die.”
Meredith told me, “How our work started is a love story. Our love was always number one. When we committed our lives together we felt we could do anything. The foundation of being able to manifest vision was that love. We could not have done our work without that, because we weren’t working from an ideology, rather because we cared deeply. Our work came from the love that flowed out of our relationship.”
To me the definition of a great love is a love so deep, so large that it creates something new and wonderful. For most people, that creation is a new human. Meredith and Steven do have a talented, loving artist daughter, Selene. But their love was so big it also created a vision child, and the rest of the interview focuses on that creation.
Prior to their meeting Steven had been working with young people, taking them to the desert where they went alone on the land for three days seeking purpose for their lives. Together, Steven and Meredith founded a non-profit organization called Rites of Passage to expand this work. They would drive with the questers ten hours to the Owens Valley where they would place them on a remote part of the earth. “It all began with wanting to return meaningful ways for young people to mark passing from childhood into adulthood,” Meredith told me. “Then adults began to come to us saying they too wanted meaningful ways to mark transitions in their lives. So we expanded the work we were doing to include other important life passages.”
In 1981 they moved to Big Pine in the Owens valley which Native people called “the land of lost borders”. Here they established the School of Lost Borders (SOLB) which has trained more than a thousand people in this rite and other nature-based wisdom ceremonies. The School now has a staff of fifteen plus additional school guides and guest guides. There are people associated with SOLB working in Colorado, New Mexico and in many countries throughout the world. The first International Wilderness Guides Gathering was inspired by Steven in 2002 and continues in a different country every two or three years. Fifteen countries have been represented this number keeps growing. There are hundreds of guides working in the world who trained with the School or with people who were trained there. Many of these guides are in England, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and South Africa, but the influence is spreading to many other countries as well. The South African program has been in existence since 1999 and people working with it come from a variety of races and tribes.
Meredith and Steven authored The Book of the Vision Quest, The Roaring of the Sacred River, The Four Shields: the Initiatory Seasons of Human Nature. Steven also wrote We Who Have Gone Before and Bound for the Craigs of Ithaca.
I asked Meredith to describe what a vision fast or quest is. From this point on, my questions are in bold type and her answers are in italic.
"There are several parts to a vision fast: severance, threshold and reincorporation. The ancient, pan-cultural wisdom of rites of passage teaches us that first there must be severance, a dying, a letting go of basic assumptions and self-identities that no longer serve the new givens of our lives. Then a step into the threshold time of opening to all possibilities while tapping the deepest resources within us, the all-important fertile ground of the pause between “what was” and “what is becoming” This is critical because our culture has little patience with people if they are not productive, not doing. This pause is a recognition that we need to stop and listen. Rites of passage can last from a few days to a few years and the wilderness vision fast ceremony can support any of the phases of the quest. The final challenge of a vision fast is reincorporation: incorporating what we have learned during the threshold time back into the body of our life.
I am amazed at how ceremony, meaningful time on the land, the telling and witnessing of people’s stories, and nonjudgmental and active guidance, can move people toward healing so quickly. A vision quest guide is not a teacher. A guide offers to hold an empty vessel for people to bring their own meaning, spirituality, and value system to support the passage in which they are involved.
How do rites of passage give a person power?
There is something that happens in ceremony that I still don’t really understand which marks passing from one life stage to another. Marking these passages, these stages through a vision fast fundamentally changes us.
It has been striking to see what can happen when people are provided a safe, nature based, and non-judgmental environment. We begin to follow an instinct so deep, a yearning toward healing so wise, that the steps begin to reveal themselves, guiding us toward self-healing and the possibility of reconciliation…
Rites of passage have often been seen as “dying practice”, the practice of learning to step into the unknown with all its associated fear, which must happen with any life transition, preparing us for the “big one” of physical death itself. Part of our nature’s way of preparing for death, whether symbolic or physical, is to try and make it good with our existing relationships, before we step into the new phase. For the sake of our children and future generations, may we support each other to re-member this miraculous capacity. In the wide open, long nights of the Eureka Valley I feel such gratitude for the enduring wisdom of the land and our own precious nature that knows how to die and realign, as painful as it can be at times.
What does nature have to teach humans?
Traditional people have said that all wisdom comes from nature. When we split ourselves off from nature we stop learning from the clues nature gives us everywhere. The clues from a town or city are very dysfunctional but when we go in the wilderness we learn we are nature. Being on the land reminds us to trust that we know how to integrate the daily living and dying necessary in a healthy life. Life and death are soulmates. They need each other. I remember asking a Zulu man about death and he said that there is no death in nature. He only sees death when he goes in the city and sees young people killing each other and themselves. Death, whether real or symbolic is an unknown. It is always frightening to step into the unknown.
How did you go on after the death of your great love?
All I could do after Steven died was just show up each day. I lived in a world of pain for four years. Everything crumbled. I saw that to live in the truth of having lost him it supported me to keep moving into what my new world was going to be. I knew the pain was a mirror of how much I was willing to love, and so well worth our 30 years together. What kept me moving into the new world without him was to keep risking, and continuing the work we shared, for both of us now.
From what you have done, what is the most important message you would like to communicate to young people?
I think the most common message young people get is that they are kids, not seen or heard. As traditional cultures show again and again, the stories of the young people are absolutely important for the health of a culture. So I want to communicate to young people that we need their stories. We cannot create a healthy future without listening to their stories. We need to create opportunities where we can sit with them and ask to hear what they have to tell us.
What part of your work gives you the most pleasure?
I most enjoy being on the land and being with people as they step across the threshold into nature asking for guidance, wisdom and understanding. The vision fast is such an intimate setting and is defined by so many relevant ceremonies. Those participating get to both see and hear the beauty humans are capable of producing, and how quickly our nature moves toward healing given the proper circumstances. I also appreciate that I can learn from other cultures. We are a global world.
What have you done that makes you most proud?
I am proud that Steven and I have helped to reestablish a return of rightful use of meaningful ceremonies of transition. These ceremonies have helped to heal the split between human and nature. I am also proud of how The School of Lost Borders has continued, and is attracting such fine guides and supporting people through these challenging times.
What is your year like?
This spring I went to the Ukraine, the Czech Republic, Italy and Germany. Soon I am going to England, Germany, Austria. When I travel twice a year I go for a little over a month and do several week long trainings. I take the winter off. The rest of the time I help out with month long trainings at the school, prepare and guide people through the The Great Ballcourt Initiation Fast ceremony and offer several week to 9 day long Practice of Living and Dying seminars each year with my partner in these offerings Scott Eberle, a hospice physician.
How can people contact you?
The website, address and phone for the school follow:
School of Lost Borders
P.O. Box 796
Big Pine, Ca 93513
Meredith and Steven