The Ecotherapy certificate program at Southwestern College offers a Wilderness Fast each year to interested individuals. In September 2016, Wilderness Fast members took a 9-day trip to Canyon De Chelly with Katherine Ninos and Carol Parker, the founder of the Wilderness Fasts offered at Southwestern College. This is an interview with one of the program participants, Woody Chandler, who graciously offered to share his experience and transformational process that the Wilderness Fast has brought to his life. Woody Chandler is currently a student at Southwestern College, pursuing his Master’s degree in Counseling.
Rene: Thank you, Woody, for joining me.
Woody: No problem Rene, glad to.
Rene: I thought about a couple of questions that I would ask you, and the one that came to my mind first was, How did you find out about the Wilderness Fast at Southwestern? Did you know about it prior to coming into the program?
Woody: Yeah, I knew about it prior to the program. I found out about it on the website and talked about it with Dru in my interview. And it’s always something I’ve wanted to do. I feel like as a kid, I never really had a rite-of-passage of any kind. It was more like, okay, you go to school, you learn what you did in school. And really going to college would have been the rite of passage, but I knew it was not that.
Rene: So you knew about the Wilderness Fast prior to coming to this school. Was it a motivating force for coming to Southwestern College?
Woody: Absolutely. First off, the Wilderness Fast, but as a school and the fact that this school offers this opportunity really signified to me what the philosophy of this place is. Alternative education has only ever really worked for me. Traditional education does not work for me. This school offering this [Wilderness Fast] really showed how they brought into an alternative paradigm.
Rene: And where was your undergraduate work at?
Woody: I went to two schools. The first was in British Columbia, and the second was Evergreen College in Olympia [Washington].
Rene: Did either the school in BC or Evergreen have similar qualities to Southwestern College?
Woody: UBC had none. Evergreen had small classes, emphasis on people communicating to one another, and alternative education. Viewing things from multicultural perspective was big, which is alike to Southwestern College. I feel that, in contrast with Evergreen and UBC, that Southwestern College has a clearly defined focus.
Rene: What is Ecotherapy to you?
Woody: To me, is using nature as a conduit to tap into parts of yourself that you did not know were there or help you look at things in a different way, and its having facilitators help you with this. For example, before we went out on the wilderness fast, we sat and discussed our intentions with the group. You had a clear intention to carry with you before you went out for the fast. Mine was “I embody my own personal freedom” and after having that realization about how I relate to my managerial self, affects my behavior, I decided it is that I embody my own personal freedom if I am responsible for my own personal freedom, so I changed the word “embody” to “responsible.” So, if I were to say in a sentence or two, Ecotherapy is incorporating work with trained therapists, nature, I think it is something that, doing in a group is very helpful…what else would I say…”Do it.” If this is something you are intrigued about, look into it more, because it is very powerful. I feel that, in that week, I processed some work that, you know, other things I’ve processed have taken years, and not that personal work is on a timeline of any kind, but when you have really deep powerful realizations over a short period of time it feels really good.
Rene: What was your ‘vision’ of what a Wilderness Fast was, prior to completing the Wilderness Fast, and did that change coming out of the Wilderness Fast?
Woody: [Before] – Before I thought, the goal was to have a vision of sorts (during the) fast. I expected to have an altered state of consciousness from fasting. I expected to get something out of it that I didn’t know what it would be. I was hoping for some kind of personal growth, which I did not define, and that happened.
Rene: And what was the outcome for you from the Wilderness Fast?
Woody: The outcome was when I went out after being smudged in with the group at the base camp, I realized that what I was most afraid of was not being around people. And it really reinforced to me how important relationships were to me in my life. If, a few years ago, you were to ask what is more important to you, eating or relationships, I would have said eating. And realizing that I was not going to see anyone for four days was very powerful. The biggest thing that happened for me as far as how I relate to the world was the relationship to my inner manager, which sets my goals and values, essentially shut down while in nature. All my goals and values are strengthening social relationships, getting exercise such as yoga and biking, cooking healthy food, and the manager says [to me] that the quality of the day is dependent on you [Woody] getting enough of this stuff in on a day. It’s like a task master, and when I was out there, [the manager] had nothing to latch onto. So it really shut down and I got to look at it. I looked at the manager in the context of how, in certain times of my life, when I was really unfocused and deep into drugs and alcohol, I needed that manager to kick me in the [butt] and tell me to go to yoga every night. To tell me that “you cannot be at home by yourself” now, because you cannot handle it right now. And currently, the [manager] needs to back off because I felt that my life was becoming pigeon-holed into “this is who I am, this is what I need to be healthy, happy, secure,” whatever. I feel that I am at a point now where I need to be more open. I’m at a really good place now and I feel that, for the next step of growth to happen, I need to be more open minded, easier on myself, and that opened up for me during the Wilderness Fast. Also, I participated in the Death Lodge ceremony, where one digs a shallow grave (I didn’t dig a shallow grave; but I had a sarcophagus crack in-between two rocks), and you treat it as if you were dying. You say to the people you have grievances with that “I forgive you, please forgive me, I love you, goodbye.” One of the people on [my] list died that morning. A 29-year old and I did not expect him to die. I found out 4-5 days after getting back, but what that experience showed me is that there is something real to the spiritual energy that people talk about, [it was really validated]. And not that I thought before that it was [nonsense], but I am an empirical person who says “Where is the proof?” or I believe what other’s say to me when they had experienced something, but until I experience it for myself, it is hard to relate to. [This experience] knocked me to the floor. That he died that morning, and I had spent a lot of time with him in the death lodge. I didn’t expect it, I figured I would talk to my dad, mom, or grandma longer, but I really spent the most time with him.
Rene: And the Death Lodge was a part of the Wilderness Fast?
Woody: It was a part of the Wilderness Fast. We were out there for four days, and I did it on the fourth day. After I had the realization of being able to understand the part of my managerial self, I felt ready to do the Death Lodge because I felt patience is kind of like a virtue that came from that, and if I am truly going to forgive people and forgive myself for things that happened in our interactions, that the patience had to be there to hold the space to make it work.
Rene: Now, you were in nature, and were speaking along the lines of how nature is a helpful conduit for the experience that you had. So how was nature for you personally. Were there certain things that stuck out to you, such as a hawk or raven that you felt particularly drawn to? Was there anything in the natural world that really spoke to you?
Woody: The thing that really spoke to me, which I saw on the first day, it felt so significant and I did not know why until the end. I saw a bug call a Jerusalem cricket, which look like a cross between a wasp, a cricket, and an enlarged ant, it’s real wild. And watch him get attacked by a lizard. The lizard attacked him, and the cricket shoved himself out of the lizard’s mouth. This pattern went on three or four times, and the lizard eventually wouldn’t take it anymore and walked away. What I realized was the lizard is my manager, and the cricket is me. And the cricket after the whole thing was not resentful of the lizard. It is an example of boundaries, autonomy, and responsible for his life. After it happened, it felt like the equivalent for a human would have been a bear. If a bear were to go after me five times, I think I would be very traumatized by that. To see how the cricket handled him/her self was very powerful. During the time, I thought I had seen something huge, and I didn’t realize exactly what it was until I got back.
Rene: So how is the manager now?
Woody: I feel that since I have gotten back, when I need to rest, I let myself rest. If I have a bunch of errands and I’m tired, I recognize that it is not the end of the world if I do not get them all done. Now it’s like, on Saturday, I will stay home and watch Netflix all day because that’s what I needed to do! Have you ever seen “Stranger Things?”
Rene: Nope! (laughter)
Woody: It’s awesome. It’s really good. So, I just feel the little soft voice inside is listened to much more since coming back. And, also, with the loss of my friend, what came up for me was being reminded how he was someone I used substances with. And a couple of years ago, I had to let him go because I was getting clean and couldn’t be around him due to a difference in behaviors. What I’ve kind of told myself now is that if I am holding back from people I love for whatever reason, just make an effort to reach out. Just make an effort to reach out and connect with them, because people change, I change, so how I maybe relate to them now, even if they have not changed, might be different. And I really connect with all these people that I hadn’t talked to in years after he passed away. We all called and checked-in with each other. And that was really amazing, I don’t think if all that happened on the Wilderness Fast, maybe I would have reached out, but I might not have felt the strong drive to. And make sure to tell my friends in Santa Fe about this.
Rene: I’m really glad that you reached out. And it is also a reflection of what you had said earlier about what is most important to you, food or community, and it sounds like you incorporated into what your trajectory is when you checked in with your friends. If I were someone new, and I said, “Wow, the Wilderness Fast sounds so cool, and I really know nothing about it.” Woody, what advice would you give me?
Woody: Don’t go in with any expectations, except maybe (well, I guess it is not really an expectation, but) have some clarity about why you want to do this. Even if it is “I feel a real strong urge that I cannot describe,” that’s good enough. Be dedicated going into the process, because it is intense for a variety of reasons. I say to read “The Trail to the Sacred Mountain” book, which talks about Wilderness Fasts. If you have any questions, specifically, talk to Ann Filmyr or Katherine Ninos or Carol Parker about their experiences with it. If you are worried about not eating, it was really easy not to eat (for me). For others, there may have been more issues with fasting. I did not experience hunger pangs about the entire time. I did think about food in the most grandiose way I ever had, and thought of all these creative ways to make things in my toaster oven, so I got a surge of creativity from my fast. And you do get a gallon of water a day when doing the Wilderness Fast, which is plenty. I think it will change you, one way or another.
Rene: How do you see yourself taking what you learned in the Wilderness Fast into your Counseling program?
Woody: If I see people who have manager’s that are kicking their [butt], we can talk about it for sure. And to just look for symbols in your life. What is significant to you right now? Even if you feel something is significant and cannot explain why, let’s talk about it. As far as your goals, what really makes sense to you, what makes you happy, where do you feel the most comfortable? How can we bring that more into your life?
Rene: So it is taking in from the world around you and being able to apply it to the current state of mind.
Rene: Can you give a timeline of events of the Wilderness Fast, starting on Day One?
Woody: So, the first day, we got to the visitor’s center, and basically spent that day or even just getting down to the canyon. Then we did a Traditional Lakota pipe ceremony that Carole and Katherine led. The next morning, we discussed our intentions with the group. We made a circle, prayed in the beginning, and then each person had twenty minutes to talk about what brought them there. And what are the ideas for the intention. Katherine was interested in having us get our intentions to between four to six words, something very clear. Then after you had your turn, the facilitators and the assistant would reflect pointed things you said, back to you, to help hone this down. The next (third) day, you go into the canyon, and find your spot. The assistant helps out to ensure that it is okay to be in this spot, for example making sure it is not right by the watering hole where the cougar hangs out or things like that. You bring your water out there, and so the next day (fourth) day, you bring out your sleeping bag, mat, tarp and rope, no tent, the water is there, bring journal, art, ceremonial items, these are the basic things you are allowed to have out there. You get that ready, enter the medicine wheel that morning through shield you feel stuck in, and the shield you feel you need to exit from to facilitate this growth. So, once you exit the medicine wheel, you are in spirit, and you don’t talk to anyone anymore. So you get to your spot and you are on your fast for four days (Monday through Thursday) and then on Friday morning, you walk back in and have a reincorporation ceremony to talk about what was learned, how you feel about your intention now, what has changed for you. Then they [the facilitators and assistants] make a reflection. Oh, and before all this happens, they make a giant pot of soup for people to eat. Plenty of food to eat that morning, and then the next morning the Navajo guides drive up and take us out of the canyon. The initial getting “to” the campsite is walked, but we are all weak after fasting. So, then you come back to civilization and see how it feels!
Rene: I really want to ask one more question. How was coming back to civilization that next day?
Woody: I was really excited! I was real excited to go food shopping, I was dancing when I was buying food, actually, in all the places I bought food. And excited to see how all this is going to play out in my life. Maybe a week after, I was struggling. School was about to start, and hearing the passing of my friend, incorporating just being present was kind of hard. Out there, there are no expectations. And there are expectations here. Energetically, it is cleaner out there. I love my life here, but there was adjustment coming back. But, all adjustments I feel like I learn from. Whether it is struggles that have revealed themselves, struggles that I am going to grow through and then, you know, be able to get back to other people once I understand.
Rene: Woody, thank you so very much! I really appreciate this a lot!
Woody: No problem! It’s my pleasure.
If you have any interest in Southwestern College’s Ecotherapy program or Wilderness Fast offerings, please direct questions to Ann Filmyr, Program Director and President of Southwestern college.
Written by Rene Tricou
Rene Tricou is a graduate student at Southwestern College pursuing her Master of Arts degree in Counseling