I, Rene, had the amazing opportunity to meet with Carol Parker at a coffee shop called Dulce in Santa Fe, New Mexico. Carol Parker brings with her a wealth of knowledge related to ceremonial space, initiations and rite-of-passages, and was the initiator of Wilderness Fasts at Southwestern College. I asked her to meet to learn more about what brought her to bring the Wilderness Fast opportunity for students at SWC, and then also her own origin story behind getting involved in Wilderness Fasts herself. This is what she has to say about her relationship with Spirit, and bringing this amazing experiential opportunity for others.
Rene: What initially got you interested in Wilderness Fasts? How did you first find out about Wilderness Fasts? Where were you?
Carol: Oh, boy. Well, I was living in a spiritual community in the Midwest. I was basically creating businesses with psychologists, which I ran for a number of years in Iowa. I was involved with various Vedic teachers from India of transcendent philosophies. A couple of my friends became involved with Earth-based ways, and set up a sweat lodge in the middle of the cornfields, and somebody somehow got a ceremonial Chanunpa, or spiritual pipe. I was fascinated, like, what are these things and these ceremonies? Having grown up in the Pacific Northwest, I was very aware of the Indians on the reservation, but never had any close interaction. I wondered about their ways and never had the opportunity to actually work with Native people. When my friends started setting up these ceremonial opportunities, I took part, and thought, oh, wow. Something about the Earth-based practices balanced out the transcendent philosophies I was involved with at the time. I thought, ‘I need this.’ But, what do you do? I want to learn from real Indians, is what I thought, naively at the time. Eventually, I learned about Sandra Ingerman, who happens to live in Santa Fe, and is a famous Shamanic teacher. She was offering a couple of courses in California, along with Michael Harner, who was one of her teachers, another Shamanic person. I thought, well, I’m just going to go. So, I went to Chicago and then to California and did two or three of their workshops, which were general introductions into Shamanic practices. And I knew it was important, but I still didn’t know why or how I might enter in more deeply. And then, the story that I think I told the other night [Carol Parker was at the Transformational Ecopsychology potluck the other day], I had heard this term Vision Quest / Wilderness Fast (also but I didn’t know what it was. The word ‘vision’ caught me, like, “ooh, that sounds cool!” So I was flying out here [New Mexico] because I bought a piece of land in the Southwest, and I would come out on my vacations to camp. I happened to sit next to a woman on the plane who was a Wilderness Fast guide. So of course I pumped her for information and she told me she had worked with Sun Bear, a traditional medicine man, and also with the School of Lost Borders in CA, which is more “modern day”…they had learned from traditional indigenous elders and put together a program that modern people could do more easily because we are not used to living ON the Earth. We are toxic, we are disconnected, and so there is more of a bridge. In my training…I fasted with them, four days and four nights, which is your traditional Wilderness Fast, in Death Valley, where they work mainly. And I thought, this is amazing, and I need to learn how to do this. After nine times fasting, I took the training, and felt completely inadequately prepared. And I told my teachers, Emerald and Joseph, who are great Wilderness Fast guides and ceremonialists, as I observed how they worked with the group. I thought, I’ll never be like them. I suck so bad; I cannot do this work. They eventually pushed me out of the nest and said, “Just go gather a group of people and go do it. The ceremony will teach you.” And I thought, oh yeah, right. Maybe some people, but not me. It’s a huge responsibility, not only keeping people safe while they are out there by themselves fasting, for four days and four nights, with all the emotional stuff, physical safety, and holding sacred space. This is ceremony with specific steps, passed down and taught by elders. I wanted to be true to the lineage, because I believe the lineage matters. I am a lineage person: does it go back 10,000 years? Great! I’m that kind of person. I thought I just couldn’t possibly do it! So, I moved here, got the job at Southwestern College, and Katherine [Ninos] says, “Oh, you lead Wilderness Fasts!” And I respond, “oh, no, no, no.” And she said, “Well, you are going to now, with the students” and so I did. So I started in 2003, here in New Mexico, on my land. I took students down there a number of times, and then we started going out to Death Valley in 2005 and to Canyon de Chelly in 2006. I started by hiring a co-leader from the School of Lost Borders for the first Wilderness Fast so that, if I made a mistake, they would teach me. I just wanted to learn. Having a co-leader really worked out well. Since 2003, I have done about 35-40 Wilderness Fasts, both privately and for the college. And for all ages, really – youth, adults, elders. In our culture, people of all ages need ceremonial initiation desperately. Once they hear about it, they go “Yeah, I need that. I’m scared, but I need that.” I got really involved with [Wilderness Fasts], and at the same time, I started going to Peru, though I cannot remember why exactly. In the Peruvian tradition of the Andes, their initiations look different, but the intent is the same: to push people’s transformation on the land, with the spirits, and in a way that puts them on their edge and out of their comfort zone. The spiritual energies of the land, just like Wilderness Fast, will push transformation fast. And patterns are dropped and moved into new space quickly. And I said, “Okay, I get it. The theme in my life is more about rites of passage, and initiation, it doesn’t have to be a particular way of doing it.” One day, Katherine and I started chatting, getting creative and created the certificate program. Call it a Spirit-guided moment, the name for the certificate program became “Transformational EcoPpsychology”! And we both said “Yeah! That’s it! Thank you!” This happened in 2006. The following year, Katherine and I took students to Peru. This was one of the courses offered for the certificate program originally, and there was even the opportunity for students to have an internship in Peru.
Rene: You had mentioned that you had grown up in the Pacific northwest and had some awareness of indigenous cultures. Did you find yourself, at that current age range, having a proclivity or movement toward that at a younger age? Or did you feel that as an adolescent/teenager?
Carol: Um, I don’t think I was curious as a teenager. I think I was just surviving from family issues and working through college and all this crap. So, I didn’t really think in terms of learning indigenous ways or finding out about them. I did have an adopted sister that is actually Blackfoot Indian, which I thought “Ooh, that’s cool” and then my adopted cousin is from the Athabaskin tribe of Alaska. It was right in my face, but I didn’t go with it at the time, not when I was a teenager. It was probably at my midlife crisis when it hit me strongly. That was when I was in my forties and I thought, “Huh.” I had initiations into Vedic traditions, but that is a transcendent thing. And spent 18 years meditating, and with that, I figured I needed to go to India because I needed to be on the land where these philosophies and techniques of meditation came from. As I mentioned, I’m kind of a lineage person: I wanted to know what it felt like in India, so I went to the Himalayas and I did a trek to a glacier mountain called Shivaling, which is 23,000′. And it’s the source of the Ganges, the Ganges being one of the main holy rivers. So I was like, “Wow! Cool!” So exciting on the level of adventure! I also saw that the people had specific ceremonies. One of the [ceremonies] is to jump into the Ganges. As a woman, you have to be fully clothed when you jump into the Ganges. You don’t strip down to your underwear or anything – the men got to do that. I was very mindful of the customs. We took into the glacier where the water comes out, at about 16,000′. The water was ice-cold. It was an amazing place because you are surrounded by this mountain and this ice, and the water, again, just coming out. All these women, in their saris and flip-flops, hiked up to this place in two or three days. It was amazing. And they would get into the Ganges because it was a means to enlightenment. So I thought, okay, I’ll do that! And somebody gave me a gown to put on and I could take off my trekking clothes to get into the water. While the water was so cold, I did not feel the cold, being in ceremonial space, with others who were also in ceremony. I felt a spirit jump into my body and I was like, Oh, that’s Mother Ganga! That’s the spirit of the river! I knew it, like, Woah, what is that! Very benevolent and I knew later in thinking about it that that was my initiation from the transcendent meditative ways into Earth-based ways. And this experience was really what started my feeling into the importance of both lineage and initiatory experiences for people. It doesn’t have to look like “that,” so then I started wondering what does it look like “Here” (points to self). This happened in [my] late 40s, early 50s. I would say mid-life crisis rather than teenage years, but it was like having all the same questions of being a teenager, like, “Oh, my God, who am I?” Those types of questions.
Rene: What I really liked was when you said that it was “initiation into the Earth-based practices.” So, not only are there initiations where people are going from adolescent to an adult, but there are initiations into certain pockets of life.
Carol: Into it, yeah, you’re right, I hadn’t quite thought of it like that. Yes, it can be an initiation into a life-stage, or otherwise. Initiation into particular lineages or set of lineages that then guide your life.
Rene: Kind of going back to a basic question, what is a Wilderness Fast?
Carol: Oh, I don’t know! (laughs)
Rene: Good answer!
Carol: I mean, it’s an anthropological term laid onto what is in Lakota called “Hanbleceya”, which means “crying for a vision.” Hanbleceya is very severe, and traditionally it was only for boys, but now girls get to do them, too. Hanbleceya is four days and four nights on a mountain or hill, such as Bear Butte in South Dakota. You would be out there with a blanket or buffalo skin, no food or water, awake and holding onto your Chanunpa [ceremonial pipe] and praying for a vision the entire time. Traditionally, this would be associated with a true vision, like we would associate with a plant medicine, such as peyote or Ayahuasca or something. True vision comes to you; you are not making it up. You are not deciding that you are going to have an imaginary experience. It comes. And it tells you about your life and your life’s purpose in a nutshell vision. An example would be, for our Sundance chief Harry Charger in South Dakota, the one that Katherine goes to many times, who had a series of visions as to how he was to do the Sundance in the traditional way, his life path that he is to bring to the Earth. He was to go back and retrieve the old ways to do the Sun dance in modern times. For modern people, it will come as an insight, or a knowing. Some sense of one’s path that is different from the way you’ve been living out of patterns or addictions or out of whatever, [maybe] emotional disturbances. The path begins to clarify itself while you are on Wilderness Fast. You become aware of who you are in a whole new way and is very strong, very positive. And then it usually emerges after about a year, and you can track it over the next few months and go, “Oh, look how I did that different!” Or “Oh, look how that opportunity came and how I jumped on it!” The Wilderness Fast really doesn’t start happening until after you come home. You may have the insight or vision clarity while you’re doing the Wilderness Fast, and the real challenge, especially for modern people, is coming back to this. You are slammed with the requirements of modern life, which is not like village life, where if you got the vision to be a healer you would go back and start to apprentice with someone. And you would then be the healer in a few years. The path would be much easier and people would understand what you had one through and what the vision was and how to support it. In this culture, they’re like, “You did what? Why?” For modern people, the Wilderness Fast is very powerful, and the real challenge comes afterward.
Rene: Would you say that a Wilderness Fast is a rite-of-passage for a lot of people? Or is it something a little bit different?
Carol: Well, I would say, in its inherent form, which we adhere to the traditional plains Indian form of four days and four nights alone in the wilderness, it is a rite of passage that might mean different things to different people, dependent on your age and stage, or what you need for transformation. If nothing else, it is a rite of passage into a deeper sense of who you truly are, and sometimes it’s a rite of passage into a new stage of life, so it’s either inward or outward, or maybe both.
Rene: So, tying into to the now, how did you decide to come to Santa Fe? Did you find out about Southwestern College before you came here?
Carol: No. How did I come here? I was always a Western person. I’d lived in Washington, Montana, Colorado, Alaska, and then ended up in the Midwest, which I basically hated environmentally. I didn’t hate what I was doing, but I hated where I was. And so I kept thinking, I gotta get back to the west. And because the weather is so horrible in Iowa, I thought, maybe I need the sun. So then I thought about the Southwest. And then I came out here a couple of times, bought some land, began to camp, and how I got here…it’s kind of funny. I went to Peru, in 2001, and I consulted with a medicine person who did a traditional divination and said, “Oh, you’re going to move to a foreign country!” and I said, “Well, uh, I don’t think so. Would New Mexico qualify?” and he goes, “How far away is it? Is it a thousand miles away?” And I said “Yeah.” And he goes, “Move there. That’s good.” And then I said, “Well, I don’t have any money, and I don’t know what to do to make the transition.” And he goes, “Get a job.” And I go, “Oh, no,” because I had been running my own business for most of my adult life, about fifteen years, and I was like, Ooh, get a job! So I did. I went online, found a job, moved to Albuquerque, didn’t like it, but, I was near my land and in the sun and in the Southwest. You know how synchronicities happen? I was driving back from Sedona, to my job in Albuquerque and I stopped in a horrendous rainstorm, went into a gas station, got a newspaper (which I do not read newspapers), flipped to the classified ads, and there was a tiny little ad in there from a place called Southwestern College. And it said, “Spiritually-Oriented Person with a Ph. D. in Counseling Psychology needed to head up a program and teach at Southwestern College.” And I thought, there it is, that’s me! So I called up someone, Katherine set up the interviews, and just like that. So that’s how I got out here and how I ended up staying here.
Rene: And so you moved here, and the way that I am calculating this in my head is that you did a lot of the Wilderness Fasts prior to coming here.
Carol: Just prior. I did nine Wilderness Fasts because I love it and I’m crazy, for some reason, and then I did the training, and then I came here.
Rene: Do you still do Wilderness Fastts that are facilitated by other people?
Carol: I did my tenth [Wilderness Fast] back in 2006. Then I got very involved in the Andean trips and the initiatory experiences in that tradition. So, fasting on the land, I have not done since 2006, but there is another one percolating at the moment in my psyche, so I’ll probably do one in the spring.
Rene: I am curious about your experience as a participant and now, as someone that helps to facilitate the Wilderness Fasts. How have these spaces been different, or the same?
Carol: Well, when facilitating anything, you are much more attuned to the people. What they going through, how can I support, facilitate, what is needed right now in terms of ceremony or emotional or physical health. What is needed? There is more of an outward focus. At the same time, when they are out and you are in base camp with [the co-facilitator], there are plenty of opportunities to sit, walk, meditate, be, do some simple praying, or other simple ceremonies. During this time, there is a similarity, except that you’re eating. But, at this point I would say, there is now the ability to drop into that connection with mother Earth. Whether or not I am eating, it doesn’t make a huge difference, I can just get there. And that’s because I have been on the land so many times, ceremonially, that my physiology and energy field just goes there.
Rene: It sounds like that is your baseline, almost?
Carol: It is, and then going to Peru has enhanced this, because that’s the baseline in that tradition as well. So, to be able to make us have a perceptual shift, like that *snaps fingers.* Now I am in social consciousness (shifts focus to nature) and now I am that tree. Or, now I’m with spirit, which is another perceptual shift. You have to know where you’re at and then, if there is a need to make a switch, you make it, by intent. And that is key, to whether you are a Wilderness Fast Guide or Shamanic healer or energy healer, or a therapist, you are switching like this *snaps fingers again.* And you have to know what you are switching to, and name the perceptual switches. So, that’s key, to these practices.
Rene: It’s in having the awareness about what kind of mental, emotional, spiritual space you are in.
Carol: And then, what are you going to do with [the perceptual shifts]. Like, is it because you want to trip out a little bit? That’s cool, okay. Or is it to actually provide a service for somebody? In which case, you have to stay conscious at the same time that you are there in that space. So, it is marvelous work in that way. And it has informed my work as a regular, modern-day therapist hugely because I may not do a ceremony with a person, or they may not be interested in ceremony or Wilderness Fast, but I still can make the perceptual shift and see what is needed, that is permissible in this structure, within four walls, and what this person can accept. It’s constant learning. I am constantly learning. I feel like I am just a baby with all of this, and I look at my teachers like the ones in Peru and I think, ‘Oh, God, I want to be like that when I grow up.’ And then I realize, oh, I am grown up, oops! And then it’s ‘before I die, I want to be like that!’
Rene: I feel the heart in that. If you could say anything to a person that was going on the Wilderness Fast for the first time, what would you recommend, say, or invite them to do?
Carol: Well, I do give plenty of advice. If someone says they are going, great. There are two things that I think are crucial. One is to go out on the land ceremonially ahead of time. And we set that up in a certain way so people are able to drop into the space on Mother Earth and feel what’s there for them to connect with. The second thing is that intention is everything. It is absolutely, bottom-line, in all healing, everything. Especially in ceremonial and Earth-based healing because what you are doing is co-creating with Mother Earth and Spirit what you most need and want in your life. It is not a “Oh please, oh please, help me, help me.” It’s like, “I know that I need a vision for my life, and my intent is to co-create with Mother Earth and Spirit so that I can open the door with Spirit to the next stage. So, those two things: being on the Earth, and Intent, at this point in your life. It could be different at another point of time in your life.
Rene: Thank you, so much, Carol, for your time.
Carol: Thanks a lot, what fun!
Carol Parker, Ph.D., LPCC facilitates Wilderness Fasts in Death Valley, CA, and Canyon de Chelly, AZ and takes people on annual pilgrimages in the Peruvian Andes. She works privately in Santa Fe as a therapist and ceremonial healer and is the Clinical Director at Solutions Treatment Center. Her writings include articles in local and national shamanic publications, and her first book, A Pilgrim in the Andes will be published December 2016.
The Wilderness Fast at Southwestern College is offered through the Transformational Ecotherapy certificate program of the New Earth Institute. Each September, students, TE certificate-seekers, and curious people alike have the opportunity to make their intention and engage in ceremony and fasting for their own Wilderness Fast. For more information, please check out SWC’s Wilderness Fast page or contact Ann Filmyr at firstname.lastname@example.org
Rene Tricou is a graduate of the art therapy / counseling program at Southwestern College.