Note – While I have posted exactly zero entries here on my blog since starting a semester at Naropa University, I have been writing a lot academically. I wanted to share a paper I wrote that is personal and academic in equal measure. I wrote this paper for a writing/research class. Thanks to everyone who gave me edits and feedback! This may evolve into a final project for my program. I welcome your thoughts and comments! -Daniel
Rediscovering Ancient Pathways: Rites of Passage and Initiation for Youth in an era of Globalized Crisis
In a beautiful paradox, we make up the systems that in turn constitute our identity and behavior. In order to change the systems that govern us, we ourselves must change at a fundamental level. Initiation into our true natures must take place in order for humanity to survive amidst ecological unraveling. At every level, from the personal to the global, humanity is facing significant challenges such as climate change, mass species extinction, wealth inequality and mass incarceration. This time in human history can be seen as a planetary initiation, a time that we must go through to grow and evolve together, or else perish. A movement of people, spanning disciplines of environmentalism, spirituality, education, world wisdom traditions, psychology, grassroots politics, and social work are coming together to understand the full potential of human development. They are recognizing the central importance of initiation to social cohesion and sustainability. In contemporary society, we have lost cultural initiatory practices and resources which support young people in moving through adolescence into psychologically mature adulthood. This has immense negative impact on the systems we live in. By reclaiming and reintroducing healthy and adequate initiatory rites and practices into contemporary Western culture, we can evoke a shift in consciousness, empowering people to address the critical challenges of our time by changing the economic, political, and social systems that we live in. Psychologically and spiritually mature people demonstrate the capacity to work together to shift political and cultural structures that are non-sustainable and unjust. Through feedback mechanisms such as climate disruption, mass species extinction, and growing inequity, the living world itself is calling to us to wake up, step into maturity, and take action. Community participation, intergenerational wisdom sharing, and a value of the inherent worth and interconnectedness of life are central elements of successful initiatory practices that result in mature adulthood and a sustainable world.
A proper rite of passage is a seminal event in one’s life that awakens a person to their essential self and their role within the greater society. Mythologist and storyteller Micheal Meade describes initiatory events as those that “pull a person deeper into life than they would normally choose to go… they define who a person is, or cause some sort of power to erupt from them, or strip everything from them until all that is left is their essential self.” This essential self is a more fully developed expression of one’s soul or essence in the world. Initiatory events can happen over days, weeks, or years, and happen multiple times throughout a person’s life. While many cultures are aware of these natural cycles and enact cultural practices to support them, many in the Western world would not label their personal troubles as ordeals of initiation. Ceremonies and rites do not necessarily cause the initiation to happen, but they rather celebrate the passage that is happening, reaffirm the values of the group, and rejuvenate the community. In his study of initiation in the animal and human world, ecosycholgist Bill Plotkin found that “a rite of passage doesn’t catalyze a stage transition that was not already set to unfold. What enables a passage to occur is daily progress, over years, with the developmental tasks of the individual’s stage.” Such daily progress can only take place within a culture that actively supports the initiation process for young people. The dominant political and economic systems of the Western world to not promote holistic development from childhood through adulthood. In order to change these systems, we must reimagine the task of initiation for the modern world.
Planetary Crisis and The Need For Initiation
The lack of proper initiation in contemporary society results in and perpetrates cycles of social and environmental unraveling. Our atmosphere has the highest levels of CO2 in recorded history—over 400 parts per million—due to fossil fuel use and industrial agriculture, which is disrupting ecosystems, including humans, across the planet. We are entering a sixth mass extinction event, the first mass extinction to take place due to human actions. In the US, 1 in every 31 adults has been in some form of correctional control through the prison system, locked away from their families and lives. At every level, humanity and the earth are in dire condition. The question becomes, how did we get here? In the modern, industrial growth-oriented world, rites of passage and initiation have been lost and perverted into forms that do not serve their original purpose as Western culture became increasingly mechanized and urban, as opposed to nature-based. Fraternity hazings, military and gang-related initiations, high school graduations, and alcohol-fueled 21st birthday parties exemplify attempts made by young people to “self initiate” into adulthood, in ways that can be harmful. Self and peer initiation fall short of achieving their goal due to lack of community support, lack of cultural resources (such as elders and mentors), and incomplete understanding of the psychological tasks required to move from adolescence into adulthood. Such loss and misuse of initiation has significant harmful effects on the emotional, spiritual and psychological development of youth. Individuals become stuck in an adolescent psychological stance towards life, for example, by defining oneself in opposition to authority figures and thus not following one’s authentic desires, focusing on one’s own needs at the expense of others, seeing others as competition, and, most importantly, losing awareness of the greater workings of the universe. Without proper initiation, we are prone to decision-making that hurts others and the ecosystems on which the we depend, and we lack an understanding of our gifts and our of place within the greater community. Eco-psychologist Bill Plotkin states, “an adolescent world, being unnatural and unbalanced, inevitably spawns a variety of cultural pathologies, resulting in contemporary societies that are materialistic, greed-based, class-stratified, hostilely competitive, violent, racist, sexist, ageist, and ultimately self-destructive.” We are seeing this play out today in the myriad destructive ways that humans relate to each other, themselves, and the earth. While there is nothing wrong with healthy adolescence, a world based on adolescent psychology is profoundly violent and unsustainable.
Eco-psychologists, who look at the connections between ecology and the human mind, are finding that initiation is an ecological phenomena found throughout the living word, human and non-human. It is unnatural, and therefore unsustainable, to cut off development at the adolescent phase. The underlying effect is a generation without a sense of our place in the greater whole, without a sense of intrinsic responsibility to the life around us. Many lack the capacity to work towards creative and effective solutions to systemic political and social injustices. To do this requires critical consciousness and personal power to work towards life-sustaining ways in the face of institutional resistance. Cultural historian and theologian Thomas Berry comments, “We are lacking in people who are sufficiently skilled in guiding us through our individual or community crises.” In the face of a world whose life-systems are unraveling, there is urgent need for us all to be empowered leaders who can respond to what is happening by changing the systems which are failing us. By reclaiming and reintroducing proper initiatory rites and practices into contemporary Western culture, we can evoke a shift in consciousness, which results in individuals seeing themselves as part of a greater whole with a responsibility to care for the entire web of life, and with a strong sense of one’s unique gifts and capacities to offer to their communities.
Initiation Across Cultures
Anthropological research has shown that nearly every nature-based culture has practices and community-based rituals to support young people in becoming whole, mature adults. These practices involve participation by the whole community, and are critical to the evolution and survival of culture. According to Malidoma Somé, a writer and spiritual leader in the West African Dagara tradition, rites of passage “are aimed at including the young person in the community and recognizing his or her genius, and moving the youth towards his or her maturity and adult responsibility”. Anthropologist Van Genep analyzed traditional initiation practices from around the world and articulated three phases: separation, transition (liminality) and return. The first phase, separation, is a physical and psychic severance from childhood. One leaves the familiarity of home and enters a new state of being. While the exact nature of the initiatory process varies greatly between different cultures, the experiences usually involves an element of danger, of the unknown and of coming into connection with the natural world. For the Oriek people of Kenya, the transition phase involves youth leaving the village and living in a separate space for four to 16 weeks with members of the same gender identity. Youth paint their faces with white clay and charcoal to signify that they are “wild creatures.” Elders impart “secret wisdom” to the initiates during this time. The youth are taunted by stories of mythical creatures that might destroy them, and the initiation is completed when each youth is able to successfully use an instrument that produces a large roar for protection.
For the Tukuna people of the Northwest Amazon, the Festa das Mocas Novas is an intricate initiation into womanhood. At the onset of menstruation, the initiate enters a small, private chamber in the home constructed for this particular purpose. She stays there in seclusion for four to twelve weeks, which is understood as an underworld time where she may be visited by spirits, demons and visions, including the Noo, who are harmful energies. The process concludes with a three day ceremony where guests arrive and don masks, becoming incarnations of the Noo. The young woman is painted and, through ritual practices, creates protection from the Noo. On the third day of the ceremony, she emerges from the chamber and is led to a large festival in her honor. The family dances with her until dawn, and there are further practices in the morning that signify her safe passage into womanhood. A final example of a traditional rite of passage is the vision quest ceremony enacted by many indigenous people to North America. This practice involves a period of solitude, fasting in the wilderness for 3-4 days, and a return to the community with a vision for their life.
The second stage, transition, is referred to as “soul encounter” by Plotkin. This is what is happening to the young woman in the secluded chamber, and to the young Oriek people living outside the village, listening to terrors in the night. They are put in challenging situations where they might encounter their gifts and essential nature, after struggle and challenge with the natural elements, and with one’s own inner darkness or childhood psychological makeup. The presence of elders and guides is critical here in supporting the youth through the process. The final phase, the return, is essential for complete initiation. This is the time when an initiate returns home to their community, and is recognized and acknowledged for what they have gone through, and given roles and responsibilities in the community that correspond to their gifts. This story, while common in many cultures, is not the experience of most youth in the contemporary Western world.
My Story of Initiation and the Modern World
When I was 18, like many other youth living in the United States, I graduated from high school with the strong sense that my role in the world was about to change. I was set to move away from my home and go to college. With a mixture of anticipation and resistance, I felt both a longing to connect with a deeper sense of purpose for my life, and also fear and dread about leaving the safety and comfort of home. I now can name this experience as a longing for initiation, the call to separate and experience ordeal, although I did not have that language at the time. Unlike the youth in the Tukana or Oriek culture, who were intentionally separated and prepared for soul initiation, I went off to college without understanding the process I was going through. I had the vague idea that I was becoming an adult, without really knowing what that meant. Through the protection and safety afforded to me by society, I was not exposed to the kind of psychological danger and physical challenges that constitute initiatory events. Overall, US youth are not consciously given an opportunity to encounter our deepest natures and move through challenge to cultivate strength and resilience, and this was my personal experience as well. Throughout my first semesters of college, I felt I was being treated in a childish way and kept apart from the wider world. Colleges are often closed off from the communities they are a part of, and where I went to school in Boston was no exception. At every turn, things were set up to be comfortable, easy and psychologically safe. My social identity in this society comes with immense privileges that many others do not have. Being a white, able-bodied male from a family of college-educated people comes with a set of privileges, which were mostly invisible to me until later in my life. One of these privileges was protection from adversity to a much greater degree than other people. But challenge gives young people an arena to find out who they really are; a guiding principle of initiation is that “adversity introduces us to ourselves.” I ate my meals in the dining hall, I swiped a card, sat down and ate. I was not encouraged to learn how to cook for myself, or invited to consider where the food came from or what it might feel like to not have access to food. I lived in a dorm with a Residential Advisor. If something broke, I told the RA, and someone would come and fix it. Compared to other youth in other cultures, I was sheltered to a degree that was unhealthy. At the end of the year, our dorm building filled up three dumpsters of disposable furniture, cosmetics and decorations, which went to the landfill. At every turn, opportunities to develop meaningful community while growing as individuals was thwarted by protection, convenience and mindless consumption.
I grew increasingly bored and angry with this reality, and deep down felt the tug to adventure and go beyond the world I knew. Inspired by the words of Mary Oliver, “One day you finally knew / what you had to do / and began,” I walked out and left my college life and identity behind. This was a more true separation, as I left not only my childhood home, but the continent, language and culture that I was familiar with. I traveled in Central America, in my wandering I let go of so many of my attachments and identities, allowing life to happen to me. I was learning more about climate change and social justice, and felt increasingly clear that our current way of life was so unsustainable and harmful that I wanted to dedicate myself to changing things. I was very lucky to connect with several elders who saw where I was at and offered guidance and support, in the form of personal challenges, a community ritual, and opportunities to further my growth over the coming months. I spent a lot of time alone outside, learning to listen to land and see my own patterns reflected back through the natural world. I gave myself permission to be uncomfortable without wishing things were easier, and embraced learning from adversity. When I returned to the United States, I became part of a community that was very active in social and environmental change through the arts, community building and regenerative agriculture. I attended conferences, gatherings and actions that focused on social activism to further my learning of how social change happens and what role I could play. Through these circles, I became acquainted with a diverse community working to reestablish rites of passage for youth, which was seen as a critical piece of addressing social and environmental crises.
Ancient Wisdom In the Contemporary World
There is a growing movement to reinstate initiation into Western culture, for both individual and collective benefit. Educators, parents, community leaders and youth social workers are looking at ways in which contemporary rites of passage might reemerge. I propose three underlying principles that should be considered in this movement. The first criteria that must be considered is the ethical foundation. Rites of passage are a social process that replicate values. Blumenkranz and Goldstein assert, “The rite-of-passage process not only guides the individual’s transition to a new status, but, more importantly, it reaffirms and celebrates society’s values.” In traditional cultures, these values affirm the inherent worth of all life beyond use value and the natural cycles of the earth. Nature-based cultures typically articulate the human’s role within larger ecological systems as a sustainable and reverent two way relationship. We take care of the earth, she takes care of us. These values ensure a sense of ecological sustainability, which would be considered in all decisions. Modern day rites of passage may take a variety of forms, but underlying them must be a set of values based on interdependence and care for the earth.
The second criteria is community participation. It is critical that the community participates in the rite, and acknowledges and bears witness to the process. In Western culture, lack of community is a critical obstacle that must be addressed. In discussing the lack of proper initiation in the west, Somé writes that a key problem is the “absence of a supportive community functioning as a container, recognizing and acknowledging the person’s initiatory experience. Every ordeal of initiation brings the initiate into closer relationship with the community within which the initiate’s life purpose will be lived out.” One of the profound gifts that initiation practices offer to the Western world is a return to community. Community initiation practitioner Blumenkranz points out that “adversity introduces us to our identity as communal beings.” As young people come into a communal identity, it is critical the supportive community exists around them in daily life to integrate the personal changes taking place and ensure that they become collective changes throughout the entire system. Facilitators of these processes must not just prepare the young person but the entire community for the process. This could happen through community meetings, film screenings and reading groups so that community members become educated.
The third criteria is individualized timing through all the phases of initiation. Facilitators must allow the process to happen in the time it needs to take, be it days, weeks or years. Certain psychological and emotional tasks must be completed in order to move from adolescence to adulthood, and different youth complete these tasks at different times. A program cannot make initiation happen; they can only support the natural process as it unfolds. In order to achieve this, elders must be involved who can sense this timing. Many young people feel resentful, disconnected and separated from older generations in the United States, and oftentimes young people do not experience a group of elders supporting the spiritual and emotional development of young people. The involvement of elders is necessary for success.
Challenges and Opportunities of Initiation in Contemporary Society
One place that initiation can reemerge is within the school system. Though there are many challenges, high school and college are places where young people intentionally go to learn and grow. The wisdom and practices of initiation can be incorporated into the fundamental organization of school to provide an experience of community initiation for students. In the contemporary Western world, organization of the school system into grades and mandatory school attendance laws often isolate adolescents from the broader community. Delaney writes, “the obligation to spend the day together in a scholastic environment has led to a strong tendency for adolescents to socialize among themselves during their leisure time.” This dynamic in high school can lead to attempts at peer-initiation or self-initiation, which are attempts young people make to experience mystery and depth. “Many adolescents seek to supplement the rite of passage provided by formal education by ‘finding themselves’ through the intense personal experiences afforded by drugs, alcohol, and early sexual intercourse.” The lack of proper initiation results in harmful and incomplete peer initiation. Bringing programming into school and community contexts can address this.
American teenagers face a multitude of risks to their life, including involvement with gang violence, deaths from drunk driving, and overdosing on narcotics. Plotkin notes that some Dagara youth do not return from their initiation ordeal; every year a few die in the process: “although the Dagara love their children no less than we do, they understand, as the elders of many cultures emphasize, that without vision—without soul embodied in the culturally creative lives of their men and women—the people shall perish. And, to the boys, the small risk of death is preferable to the living death of an uninitiated life. Besides, when we compare Dagara society with our own, we find that an even greater percentage of our teenagers die—through suicide, substance abuse, auto accidents, and gang warfare—in their unsuccessful attempts to initiate themselves.” Educators, community leaders, parents and political leaders must assess the risks of self-initiation through harmful methods, and invest in the practices that would result in complete and healthy initiation. This would benefit individuals and society at large. Education leaders have a unique possibility of re-establishing rites of passage in a college and university setting. While there are issues of access to consider, college is a place where young people intentionally gather across different regions and across different race and class groups. Blumenkranz and Goldstein posit that college can be a place where rites of passage are intentionally created, for the benefit of each individual and for the whole community: “given the geographic mobility in contemporary society, college is a natural place for prosocial, community-sanctioned initiation and rites of passage toward adulthood to occur.” Young people in college have the possibility of experiencing the full wheel of initiatory phases: separation, preparation, soul encounter, and a welcome return to the community. Intentional guided experiences during breaks or certain weeks of the school year could be offered to stimulate the ordeal of soul encounter. The specific processes must be culturally appropriate and vary depending on the student population. Older students could serve as elders and mentors to the younger students. One gap year program, LEAPNOW, offers such experiences. Their work is rooted in rites of passage, and they incorporate deep personal reflection, ceremony, travel and community participation in the curriculum. Students receive a full year of college-level credits for the experience. Their curriculum could be integrated into freshmen orientation programs, alternative spring breaks, and winter or summer semester offerings at colleges around the nation. These programs would make large steps to addressing the lack of rites of passage in our modern world.
Many similar programs to LEAPNOW currently exist to meet this need for youth. Some are based in wilderness settings, some through dance and music, and some in inner city contexts. The growing resurgence of these programs promises a new generation of leaders who are poised to leverage their gifts in service to the greatest challenges of our time. Young leaders of social movements such as Black Lives Matter and the climate justice movement are living proof of the power of young people who are stepping into full adulthood and responsibility in society. However, given the central importance of community involvement, it is important that rites of passage does not become another industry of weeklong or weekend programs that are disconnected from everyday life. People in the Western world must come to understand initiation as a fundamental part of life that involves the whole community.
The need for initiated adults will only grow as the crisis in our world continues to unfold. Leaders today “represent and defend a non-sustainable way of life built upon military aggression, the control and exploitation of nature’s ‘resources,’ and an entitled sense of national security that ignore the needs of other species, other nations, tribes, and races, and our own future generations. These values to not reflect our deeper human nature.” This deeper human nature that Plotkin refers to is the promise within each of us of realizing a healed world. Ecological and social crises, violence, and a sense of isolation and community disconnection are all results of this lack of initiation based on life-affirming values that promote sustainability and justice. The cultural wisdom and practices to support the passage to adulthood do exist, and can be further leveraged in diverse settings throughout the Western world. The promise of this movement is a significant shift in consciousness, resulting in changes to political and cultural systems and a more sustainable, just and healthy world.
(note: the footnotes did not correctly copy into the blog format. For correct in-text citations, refer to the PDF Rediscovering Ancient Pathways: Rites of Passage and Initiation for Youth an era of Globalized Crisis)
Blumenkrantz, David G., and Marc B. Goldstein. “Seeing College as a Rite of Passage: What Might Be Possible.” New Directions for Higher Education 2014, no. 166 (2014): 85-94.
Blumenkranz, David. “Earth As Elder and Its Ally, Weather, as Initiators.” Youth and Community Development through Rites of Passage (blog), November 24, 2012. Accessed April 3, 2016. http://rope.org/earth-as-elder-and-its-ally-weather-as-initiators/.
NASA. ”Global Climate Change.” Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet. Accessed March 23, 2016. http://climate.nasa.gov.
Delaney, Cassandra Halle. “Rites of Passage in Adolescence.” Adolescence 30, no. 120 (1995): 891-98.
Gennep, Arnold Van. The Rites of Passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1960.
Macy, Joanna, and Molly Young. Brown. Coming Back to Life: Practices to Reconnect Our Lives, Our World. Gabriola Island, BC, Canada: New Society Publishers, 1998.
Oliver, Mary. Dream Work. Boston: Atlantic Monthly Press, 1986.
Plotkin, Bill. Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche. Novato, CA: New World Library, 2003.
Plotkin, Bill. “Author Interview with Bill Plotkin Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World.” Interview. January 2008.
Somé, Malidoma Patrice. The Healing Wisdom of Africa: Finding Life Purpose through Nature, Ritual, and Community. New York: Jeremy P. Tarcher/Putnam, 1998.