In the Age of Distraction, Honoring the Light Within

In the Age of Distraction, Honoring the Light Within


Words by Ruth H. Robertson

Photographs by Rinko Kawauchi

With so much external stimulation, we often forget to see and honor the light within. Ruth H. Robertson reminds us that all perception is ultimately reflection.

Now more than ever, our world is replete with distraction—so much so that distraction may be a defining marker of this era. Seldom are we invited to take a moment to truly observe the world around us—or to look inward. Instead, we are constantly bombarded with random, often upsetting material, superfluous imagery, and updates that we never seem to catch up on. Those of us who participate in the sphere of social media are deliberately targeted. Not only are we being subjected to relentless turmoil, we are expected to heartily contribute to it. And while we may joke about doomscrolling, there’s no doubt that over time, the habit of bombarding oneself with useless or damaging information hurts not just the individual but society as a whole.


Time for self-illumination isn’t just absent; it’s discouraged. We’re so busy traveling at the speed of light with our fingertips that we forget to harness the light within.


It is that light that must be tended to. Our internal fire requires kindling. The light within each one of us burns for eternity, but it’s meant to be stoked so it may burn brightly, providing guidance for our inner selves.


My ancestors held the practice of self-illumination in such high regard that one of our most sacred ceremonies was centered around it. During Haŋbléčeyapi (Crying for a Vision), seekers of enlightenment separate themselves from distraction to observe the natural world—the depth and breadth of the heavens, the earth underfoot—until the noise of confusion dissipates. Then, they are able to focus on the seventh direction, that holy place inside of us that traverses the great divide between the inner sanctum of our minds, past the Universe of dreams, to the spirit realm.

It is within this sacred space that the seeker may receive a vision. Breaking away from the World of Man is not easy, so the process of seeking a vision must be difficult and test the will of the seeker. The name of the ceremony itself warns its participants that lamentation is unavoidable. The seeker must be humble, as their sincerity will be tried with up to four days of fasting and praying, with little more than a buffalo robe to sit on and a canupa (sacred pipe) to carry their voice to the ancients as they are unapologetically exposed to the elements. The very act of Crying for a Vision demands that one recognize that they are in need of help by powers beyond secular modernity.


Vision Questing has received some mainstream exposure, but contrary to what pop culture may have you believe, my people, the Oceti Sakowin (Dakota, Lakota, and Nakota of the Great Sioux Nation) have allowed seekers to cry for a vision regardless of age, sex, or gender. A seeker approaches a medicine person when they feel the need to pray for a vision. Under the guidance of the medicine person, the seeker prepares themself for the ritual. The medicine person selects a secluded location for them to spend four days and four nights, without interruption. Smart phones are not allowed. Vision Quests most often occur on isolated, remote hilltops. There are sacred places throughout our ancestral homelands that have served as spots for Vision Questing since time immemorial, like Mato paha, or Bear Butte. Even today, visitors to Bear Butte are cautioned against disturbing vision seekers who occupy the area for the ceremony.


Before the commencement of Haŋbléčeyapi, seekers participate in Inipi, or Sweat Lodge. Like Crying for a Vision, Sweat Lodge is one of the seven sacred rites of the Oceti Sakowin. During Sweat Lodge, the vision seeker is purified by intense heat, smoke, prayers, and medicine, and is made ready to receive a vision.

No one sits with the vision seeker on the hill. This is a ceremony that must be completed alone. There, in rugged sequestration, the seeker has no choice but to listen to the natural world, the spiritual realm, and the voice within, which is often drowned out in the hustle and bustle of daily life. To Vision Quest, one must overcome fear, hunger, thirst, and impatience. A seeker must stick it out, through discomfort and even pain, until they receive the answers they so desperately need.


On the hill, seekers pray, meditate, sing, think, and rest in silence. Sometimes answers will come in the form of visitations—by animals, sounds, spirits, or cosmic travelers. Other times they will form through the observation of meteorological events. They may even occur as waking dreams. These insights work to enlighten the seeker. Above all, the experience of Crying for a Vision is meant to hold a mirror up to the seeker, cutting through their external world, so they may better see into the world within. For some, the Vision Quest is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. Others go back as needed.


Visions should not be taken lightly. They are highly personal and sacred. After the seeker returns from the hill, visions are often interpreted in ceremonies by medicine people, who then counsel whether and how widely to share.


Some of the most well-known Lakota lore stems from the visions of great Lakota leaders and medicine people that were released to the public.


Black Elk, a Lakota medicine person, had his first vision when he was just nine years of age. In Black Elk Speaks, this enchanting vision is told in great detail. Within it, Hehaka Sapa (Black Elk) is invited to visit the Six Grandfathers, who signify the Powers of the World and live in the sky. They hold council in a mighty tipi that has a rainbow for a door. The Six Grandfathers are real: they are embodied by a sacred site in the Black Hills of the Lakota in South Dakota. They were defaced by a member of the KKK, who named his act of vandalism Mount Rushmore.

Black Elk’s vision abounds with symbolism. The numbers four and 12, which are both sacred to the Lakota, are repeated throughout. Also, the sacred circle (or hoop), the four directions, and the meaning of each are represented. In Black Elk’s vision, he saw the genocide that was about to befall his people, but he also saw that they would overcome death and survive and that the Sacred Hoop of Life would be mended. Black Elk would become a heyoka, a sacred clown who possessed great healing power.


Visions often provide seekers with insight into the future, as well.


As a youth, Tasunka Witko (Crazy Horse) went on a Vision Quest. In his first vision, he saw a striking figure painted with hailstones and a lightning bolt, riding on a horse. The powerful man he saw was a great warrior who defended his people. Crazy Horse later realized that the man he saw in his vision was his future self and that if he followed the instructions in his vision, he would be impervious to bullets. Crazy Horse would indeed become one of the fiercest war leaders the world has ever known, defending the Lakota and their ancestral homelands until he was quite literally stabbed in the back. However, no bullet could touch him.


These visions molded and shaped the future of the Lakota Nation.


Crying for a Vision always has an impact, but sometimes it is more specific and intrapersonal, serving to center the seeker and provide them with the peace they need to move forward. After the assassination of Oglala Lakota War Chief Crazy Horse, Black Elk felt lost, and once again cried for a vision. It finally came. On that Vision Quest, birds and butterflies grieved with him. Black Elk then saw the decapitated heads of the colonizers, meaning death would come for them. With the passing of the colonizers, the faces of those yet to be born were revealed to him, living alongside animals in peace. 


These visions, which shaped the course of history, arrived because the seeker asked the question.

The reflection required for vision-seeking reminds us that our perception of the world is highly dependent upon our mindset. Everything we perceive is a mirror of ourselves. Even what we see in other people has more to do with our perception than who they actually are.


We are all connected in this way. As we echo each other’s emotions, passions, and nuances, they reverberate through time and space. We may amplify or diminish these signals, but they continue to exist because energy can never be destroyed, it can only be reborn. 


Through self-illumination, we develop greater awareness of the energies we emit and are exposed to. As spiritual beings who participate in this modern digital era, we must not neglect our innermost light. We must remember to balance all seven directions, including the fire inside of us, against a stream of external information that never ends.


Time is short, but also eternal. We determine our timeline, Gregorian calendar and machinations of capitalism be damned. It is up to us to set aside time for reflection and self-illumination, be it through ceremony, meditation, or simply taking a moment to walk away from distraction. It’s not hiding; it’s recharging. These moments of deep reflection have determined the course of history, and will shape our future. In finding ourselves—and loving what we find—we resurrect our humanity.

This article first appeared in Atmos Volume 07: Prism with the headline “The Light Within.”

Shop Atmos Volume 07: Prism

A prism is a multidimensional body that refracts, disperses, or in some cases, distorts light. Atmos Volume 07: Prism is a study of light, color, dimension, and perspective. It asks such questions as: How do we find the light in a world that can feel so dark? How do our identities shape the lenses through which we experience reality? How do we move past binary thinking and embrace a more prismatic or nuanced view of the world? How do ideas disseminate and refract? What role does transparency play in that process? What symbolism do specific colors hold, in both the human and natural world?

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