Alison DeLong interviews Rites of Passage Executive Director Mike Bodkin about how he came to this work and the journey he’s taken since….
“You might wanna come where there’s nothing.” It was this daring invitation spoken by Stephen Foster to Mike Bodkin that changed the course of Mike’s life and career forever. Stephen Foster – the vision quest guide who was also known as a long haired radical ex-professor – challenged Mike to take his love for mountain backpacking to a new place and experience a new ceremony. “It intrigued me,” remembers Mike.
That spring of 1980 he completed his first vision quest. Not only was he hooked on the desert, but he was more importantly sold on a profound way of working with people. Now full time Director of Rites of Passage Inc. (ROP), Mike Bodkin sat with me to reflect on the past 27 years as a vision quest guide and as a leader of one of the first non-profit organizations offering earth-based initiation programs.
A couple of years prior, Mike received his family therapy license. He had always envisioned somehow practicing therapy within nature and wilderness. After his first quest, he was beginning to see how. Since 1986 Mike has been directing ROP, after inheriting the program from the “Grandparents” of modern vision questing-Stephen Foster and Meredith Little, when they left to start their own training program (now the School of Lost Borders).
Questing in the 80’s was very different than today’s quest. The ceremony has evolved with our changing world. No longer limited to serving a local North Bay population, ROP now has a global outreach, thanks to the internet. Participants from Australia, Europe, and Asia fly into Las Vegas and drive to a campground in the desert for their orientation. In contrast Mike recalled the original program starting in Santa Rosa with a potluck dinner and a preparatory class just before the entire group would drive to Death Valley in a passenger van named Burrito. “Burrito was part of the night journey. (We’d) throw the packs on top of the van… it was this kind of Safari like energy”.
In the summers they would drive through Yosemite over the Sierras. “We’d watch the sunrise over Mono Lake. You’d always feel in the morning that you hadn’t just been traveling, but that you had changed worlds-shifted frames. You’d done the night soul journey. That feeling of being in another world would come up really strong.”
Despite the end of the group night journey, the sense of community in today’s quest is much stronger than before. Mike says, “There has been a change in focus from being an individual on the quest to being a community.” Even though the participants may be strangers on day one, specific activities such as cooking meals together and talking and listening in council offer a strong container for questing together with one’s “village”.
Mike claims the most significant change in the program format evolved in the 90’s out of a crucial need to prepare participants better for their return home. Initial programs would have people get in the van and driving home the night after coming off their solo. “Questers would take turns sitting in the front of the van to talk to their guides about their experience and their return”, Mike remembers. By adding 2.5 days of incorporation at the end of the program, participants now sit in council and tell their story to the whole group in addition to hearing reflections, insights and mirroring from their guides. These extra incorporation days not only prepare people for their return but they continue to build the community container that can add support for the challenging return and post quest depression experienced by many participants.
Another aspect that has shifted to a community focus is the process of clarifying a quester’s intention before setting out on their solo. These preparatory “medicine talks” used to be done one-on-one with the guide. Mike reflected, “If vision questing is a kind of pregnancy and you birth yourself, there are a few people who stay in the first trimester. They never quite get to their fullness. And when we finally switched to doing all those talks… collectively (in council) our (incomplete birthing) rate dropped to almost immeasurable…from 25% to less than 1%.” Since this shift, he has witnessed hundreds of councils where those participants who aren’t “ripe” can sit and listen in council to other people’s stories. After hours of these stories of life experience, the unripe ones find the courage, empathy or mirror that helps them clarify what they are questing for.
One delicate matter in the history of Rites of Passage is the evolution in the relationship with the native community. Many native teachers have deeply influenced the work and served as supporters and friends to ROP. Mike reflected that initially, “there was an optimism that this work was going to lead to some kind of a pan cultural expression that was connected to both this land and to native people here and to our own experience. Things got more difficult later on with the resentment and the sense of bitterness that was understandable.”
Challenged by the criticism of taking another cultures’ traditional ways, ROP and other vision quest organizations began to clarify their language and intent. “Not wanting to diminish the wisdom we’ve gained from our native teachers, we learned more about how to find our own way”. This clarity and differentiation was affirmed on a recent men’s quest when two native elders received scholarships to join the group. They showed great respect for their experience as well as for the program and guides that facilitated their experience. The highest compliment came when they expressed their interest in sharing the practice of council with their young men back home to prepare them for their initiation rites.
On the physical plane, ROP has increased its focus on preparing participants for the wilderness and fasting. With liability high, it seems that ROP and most organizations are looking at risk management and taking less chances by covering gear lists, first aid, natural history, weather, permits and park regulations.
Mike also finds that the participants are more grounded and less “airy- fairy”. “In the old days people were looking for enlightenment…People are more aware now… that a vision quest is a rite of passage. There is awareness that this kind of process serves people in life transitions”.
Along with the evolution of the participant, the guides have changed too. Mike boasts, “I have a wonderful staff that has skills that we didn’t see back then.” Staff with experience in wilderness medicine and outward bound instructors and trainers, demonstrate a new diversified community of leaders. Guides are also bringing programs to their own special interest groups. Besides adult, youth, women’s and men’s quests, there are now quests for Jewish participants, couples, business leaders, middle school youth and an interest in developing a program for intentional communities. Mike sees this trend in diversity as a direction for the future. “There’s been a lot more of a sense of how (ROP) fits into a community pattern. I think that’s really a big growing edge for us”.
Another area of growth mentioned by Mike: “I would like Rites of Passage to become known better as a local Sonoma County organization. That’s a challenge.” He explains that in the past the doors haven’t been open to this work, but with a growing number of local staff and long-time cultivated relationships with local high schools, that is changing. “It’s going to take time and it is happening,” assures Mike.
With perseverance and a little bit of luck Mike and his staff will have more Sonoma County residents responding to the call, “You might wanna come where there’s nothing”.