“There may be no time more suited to the study of rites of passage than the threshold between the end of modernity and the uncertain future of humanity.”
~ Michael Meade (1996, p. 27)
Like all of life on earth, the human lifetime grows through stages and transitions, traditionally marked and celebrated in cultures across the globe through ceremonies of initiation known as rites of passage. At their most essential level, rites of passage are a part of human-nature, honoring natural developmental stages, revitalizing and restoring the human experience, and connecting the individual to self, others, and greater ecology of which they are a part (Grimes, 2000). Rites of passage are marked in myriad cultures throughout the world, and have trends among them that appear largely trans-cultural (van Gennep, 1908/1960). However, modern industrial societies no longer attend to rites of passage in any meaningful way. Scholars and therapists alike are purporting that this may have severe consequences for individuals, communities, and even the biosphere as a whole (Grof, 1996). If rites of passage play a role in the healthy development of mature people and culture, it is disconcerting that the most powerful and influential societies the world has ever known seem to have lost them. Several scholars describe modern industrial society as an adolescent culture; characterized by rapid growth, gross individualism and instability (ecologically, financially, politically, and socially) (Judith, 2006; Mahdi, 1996; Meade, 1996; Plotkin; 2008). Because of this precariousness, the current trajectory of global industrial society is put into question. Is it possible that lack of rites of passage may partially underlie the imbalance in some way?
This paper will explore the importance of the traditional use of rites of passage ceremonies in an effort to see what insight might be offered to us in our imminently important moment of modern initiation, dubbed “The Great Turning” by activist, author and ecological philosopher Joanna Macy (2006, para. 1). A handful of scholars, writers and scientists, as well as numerous traditional cultural leaders and prophecies have witnessed and warned that we may now be at a time of collective initiation; the chaotic end of one era and the consequent birthing anew (Mahdi, 1996). Modern society’s loss of rites of passage, and the resulting “societal symptoms of patho-adolescence” (Plotkin, 2008, p. 7) displayed in the industrialized West may provide validation for this warning. The loss of rites of passage in the modern West may be directly related to a cultural alienation from the rhythms of the natural world. Initiation into a mature, adult expression of the human species will happen through a conscious choice to embody our necessary place as caring, responsible members of the planet’s ecological web.
The culmination of four billion years of evolution now rests in our hands. With the ability to permanently change climate though global warming, the potential of mass destruction through nuclear warfare, with gene-splicing and cloning occurring in our laboratories, we are the first race of creatures with the capacity to influence the direction of evolution and the future of life on this planet. Such potential has never occurred before in our evolutionary history. It signals an extraordinary need for responsibility and a driving imperative to wake up. At the very least, it requires the maturity of adult wisdom and behavior. But even more, it calls for an awakening of the heart. (Judith 2006, pg. 25)
On one hand it is simple: Humankind (especially modern people) must come back to ourselves, back to nature, back to community, back to a cadence of life that is in harmony and balance with the planet. On another level it is painfully complex, because there is no ‘back’ in the creative dance of evolution, and our task is to move forward with all that we are and all we are becoming – leaving behind that which does not serve, yes, but never discarding the truth of our story, our wounds, our gifts, our past – for these are what make us whole. These are what will help us never to forget again.
Rites of Passage Individual, Cultural, & Evolutionary Significance
When we set our attention on the patterns of nature, wherever our gaze may fall, we will invariably find there the regenerating cycles of transition from birth through life to death. Whenever something reaches its time, it passes, and through its’ dying creates the conditions for new life to grow. This is true of the giant redwood tree who falls in the forest and through the process of decomposition creates new soil, and it is true for the developing human psyche as it sheds the leaves of childhood to make way for the burgeoning blossoms of adolescent life. It is equally true (though perhaps a bit more abstracted) on the species level, as cultures (or the whole of humanity) move from one stage of development to the next in the course of growth and evolution.
Across the arc of history and spanning hundreds of cultures, humanity has displayed a propensity for marking life’s transitions with ceremonies, trials, rituals and celebrations (Lertzman, 2002) meant to honor developmental transformations and aid in the individual in undertaking them (S. Foster and M. Little, 1989/ 1997). Ceremonies of transition and the component events that midwife them came to be known contemporarily as “rites of passage,” when French anthropologist Arnold van Gennep coined the term in his classic publication by that title (Les Rites de Passage) in 1909. Van Gennep presented a study of initiation ceremonies from around the world, and set the tone for scholarly consideration and understanding of them for years to come. The importance of rites of passage as a means for marking life’s transitions in the course of human development cannot be over-emphasized, as pointed out by Lertzman in his paper Rediscovering Rites of Passage (2002). Birth, adulthood, marriage, divorce, parenthood, elderhood and death are all examples of stages that can be powerfully influenced by social and ceremonial recognition. Lertzman continues, “When these times of transition are marked, ritualized, witnessed, and supported, it creates a kind of experiential map of self-development. Without proper rites of passage, people can become disoriented and lose their way on life’s journey” (p. 5).
A cursory look into cross-cultural rites of passage traditions will evoke a sense of the importance and universality among them (van Gennep, 1909/1960). A deeper study will reveal that these passages seem as natural to the human experience as the passing of the seasons; marked and celebrated across time and culture not because peoples around the world had the same good idea, but because they are elegantly and indelibly woven into the fabric of natural human development (Lertzman, 2002) – so much so that we would not be what we are without them. Rites of passage join the rhythms of the individual human lifetime with the cycles of community, earth and cosmos, maintaining in us a remembrance of that to which we belong. As van Gennep concludes in his book’s final passage: “It is indeed a cosmic conception that related the stages of human existence to those of plant and animal life and, by a sort of pre-scientific divination, joins them to the great rhythms of the universe” (p. 194).
Like the frog who begins as an egg, then hatches into the aquatic life of a tadpole, only to finally grow legs and begin a terrestrial life; or the oak changing from acorn to seedling to towering tree, the human life undergoes very real stages of development that are physical, social, psychological and spiritual. Similar to the frog and the oak (or the caterpillar, sunflower, bat, badger, rose, heron, trout, flea…), our human development is transformational (Grimes, 2000). By the time one reaches adulthood he finds himself quite different than what he previously was as a child or an adolescent. Both the internal and external landscapes have shifted significantly many times, yet somehow he is very much the same being or organism throughout. As humans develop they transcend but include previous stages, all the while maintaining a continuous thread of their essential being throughout.
For groups, as well as for individuals, life itself means to separate and to be reunited, to change form and condition, to die and to be reborn. It is to act and to cease, to wait and rest, and then to begin acting again, but in a different way. (van Gennep, p. 190)
Many of life’s transitions offer obvious physical markers: Young women will begin to bleed, young men will drop their voice, a newly married person may change residence, and an elder will be crowned with wrinkles and gray hair. But these physical shifts alone rarely confer the full embodiment of the passage from one stage to another (van Gennep, 1909/1960). Given that basic needs are met, most anyone can grow into an adult body, but not all who do fully embody mature adulthood (Plotkin, 2008). For instance, in his study Van Gennep observed that, “physiological puberty and ‘social puberty’ are essentially different and only rarely converge” (p. 65). A complete initiation must include elements of personal inner corroboration (often taking the form of successful passage through a trial or an ordeal, providing a widened sense of capacity and self-knowledge) and social recognition of the newly attained life status (in the form of celebration, ceremony, witnessing, or the granting of new responsibilities, roles, and treatment) (Foster and Little, 1989/1997). Without the components of inner transformation and outer recognition, one may have simply gone through a passage – a change – but not a rite of passage, or initiation. As Iborra and Markstrom explain in their article Adolescent Identity Formation and Rites of Passage (2003),
Rites of passage bring dramatization to major life events…that…convey individuals from one social status or role to another. Through social conveyance, self-perception of the initiate is changed as well as society’s perception of the young person. (p. 4)
Effective rites of passage are of considerable value to the development of the individual and the survival of the culture, an importance made visible by the abundant presence of initiation ceremonies around the world. Social recognition of the transformation that has occurred is integral to the process of initiation for the individual, but is equally significant to the healthy continuation and regeneration of the culture (Lertzman, 2002, p. 4; Grimes, 2000, p. 6). “During initiation the individual becomes bound through spiritual experience to the future of the society as well as open to the origins and ancestral beginnings of the group in the past” (Meade, 1996, p. 29). Steven Foster and Meredith Little are the founders of The School of Lost Borders, a California-based non-profit offering modern wilderness-based rites of passage ceremonies and trainings. In their book, The Roaring of the Sacred River (1989/1997), Foster and Little observe that rites of passage are “highly effective as means of accepting and finding meaning in life changes; of empowering individuals to be vital forces in the community; of engendering self-reliance, courage, endurance, and self-control…” (p. 19). Individuals and community enter into a mutually-beneficial and regenerative feedback loop when rites of passage are appropriately honored and celebrated: The individual is able to confirm and complete his initiation through the support and witnessing of the community, and in turn the community is transformed, reborn, and regenerated when, through initiation, its’ members take their next rightful place. Foster and Little go on to agree with many others when they say that “Above all, (rites of passage) are designed to benefit the community at large” (1989/1997, p. 19).
In his study of rites of passage across cultures Van Gennep (1909/1960) observed that the motivations behind these ceremonies are similar or even sometimes “identical” (p. 191). “Only in form do the rites vary according to peoples and kinds of restricted groups” (Van Gennep, p. 102). The forms attending rites of passage and the degree of importance given to them differ widely between cultures, but as Lertzman (2002) and others point out, “…the key elements seem transcultural” (p. 5), and can be identified as a basic sequential pattern that is common in stable traditional cultures (Mahdi, 1996).
It is important to note here that some scholars raise suspicions about the value of extracting patterns out of a topic as complex and culturally (or individually) diverse and personal as rites of passage. In his book Deeply Into the Bone (2000), Ronald Grimes offers a particularly articulate warning about the tendency for academia to over-simplify, romanticize, abstract and invent based on studies rather than direct experience, a trend that is especially dangerous when dealing with a topic as broad and nuanced as rites of passage (p. 107). None-the-less, there is inherent value in noting the patterns and themes that have emerged, as they may point to something innate within the human experience as it relates to transitions. Our task then is to utilize the usefulness of the trends (whether they be real, invented or prescribed) without watering down, de-valuing, or losing sight of the depth and vastness of the original material.
The primary pattern in rites of passage identified by van Gennep unfolds through three stages: “separation, transition, and incorporation” (p. 83). These have been articulated with slight difference by mythologist Joseph Campbell in his overview of the Hero’s Journey as “The Departure, The Initiation, and The Return” (1949, p. ix-x). Joseph Lazenka, the director of the School of Lost Borders explains that rites of passage ceremonies take the order of “an ending, a middle, and a beginning” (personal correspondence, June 8th, 2010). Regardless of semantics, the classic pattern of rites of passage holds true and inherently includes the metaphorical dying to or severance from one stage, the entrance into a liminal, “especially formative time and space” (Grimes, 2000, p. 6), and ultimately the taking-on, or birthing into the new role and social standing (Foster and Little, 1989/1997; Grof, 1996). As mirrored by the natural world wherever we look, death transforms, nurtures, and feeds new life. This spirit of true transformation, when effective, renders it impossible for the initiate to go back to what she was before, and equally impossible for the community to regard her as such (Grimes, 2002, p.6).
- The separation or severance phase is meant to mark the ending of a period or life stage. This can happen in a single moment or it can unfold through preparations that take place over months or years. No matter the duration, the clear purpose is to consciously mark the symbolic death such that the initiate is “weaned from everything outside of herself that has sustained, defined, or inhibited her” (Foster and Little, 1989/1997, p. 20).
- Initiation, or threshold is the all-important moment of suspension in which one floats in a liminal state (limen is Latin for Threshold), which is only possible once an effective severance has occurred. “Liminality is a marginal status of not having the old identity or a new identity available” (Iborra & Markstrom, 2003, p. 403). Here, in the threshold time (from the Old English verb therscan, “to thresh” or “thrash,”) “…the hero has come to the place where the wheat is threshed from the chaff…” (Foster and Little, 1989/1997, p. 21). The death of the old has made room for something new to come in, and through placing oneself in the vulnerable and numinous physical and psychological state of the threshold the door is opened for whatever that is to enter.
- The return phase completes the cycle, confirming new status and constituting the entire purpose for embarking in the first place. Known also as incorporation (literally to bring into the body), the return is where the initiate takes on her next life stage, and brings herself as a gift back to the body of her people (Foster and Little 1989/1997). Though she may not know it when she departs, the primary reason to enter the threshold is to come back. Thus it is both a personal and social event, whereby, as Iborra and Markstrom (2003) state, “the initiate and the community recognize that the old identity has been abandoned and the new identity is emerging. The new identity is formed by the new roles, commitments, and responsibilities expected for the self and demanded by the community” (p. 403).
None of these phases alone constitute a rite of passage. Together they form a single entity – one fluid motion – each phase setting the stage for the next, ferrying the individual and the community along the path towards wholeness. Some initiation ceremonies will emphasize one of the stages more than the others (van Gennep, 1909/1960 p. 11), and some may not follow this form in any tangible way. It’s also possible for a ceremony to follow all the prescribed patterns perfectly, but to fail utterly in its goal of authentic initiation. Through the span of time and culture it’s important to recognize that ceremonies of initiation, like all things, exist in a flux of change and so too need re-invention and rebirth if they are to be effective vehicles for our development and belonging (Grimes, 2000).
The Ordeal of Adolescence
Having a sense of place in the world, and a community in which to experience it, is an important foundation of any well–adjusted persons life. This is especially important for young people in transition from childhood to adulthood, a transition that has been ritualized the world over. (Lertzman, 2002, p. 4)
While rites of passage can occur in any age or life-stage, the quintessential rite of passage, which has received the lion’s share of anthropological attention is the movement from adolescence toward adulthood. This all-important passage often includes some sort of ordeal during the threshold phase (deprivation, sacrifice, or risk) as central to the process of initiation (Eaton, 2009). Through this trial the young man or woman is given the opportunity to come up against, and perhaps go beyond, the edge of what he or she had deemed themselves capable. Traditional cultures the world over have paid specific attention to this passage with ceremonies and rituals initiating young people through hunting, instruction from elders, fire ceremonies, solitude and fasting, sexual rites, scarification, naming, and forceful severance from the childhood identity (to name a few). Through pushing against these boundaries the initiate is able to face their light and their shadows in order to taste their own capacities and begin to formulate an authentic, individuated sense of self.
Adolescence is regarded as a transitional phase of the life span between childhood dependence to the psychosocially mature person who is prepared to assume adult roles and responsibilities. Within this context of maturation, the central psychosocial task of adolescence is the formation of a sense of identity. (Iborra and Markstrom, 2003, p. 1)
The adolescent person is indeed at a quintessential crux of life: she is no longer a child, but is not yet an adult; she yearns for structure and stability, if only to have something solid to break away from; she needs safe (but not too safe) ways to test herself, in order to negotiate what amounts to a moment of profound existential uncertainty and, as Christina Grof puts it, a “deep spiritual longing” (1996, p. 4).
Whether the culture intentionally marks the transition from adolescence to adulthood or not, there is an innate developmental need to individuate at this time of life (Meade, 1996). When young people are not offered the opportunity to push their edges and challenge themselves through rites of passage, they will seek self-initiation none-the-less, a pattern observable in the modernized world through high rates of suicide, substance abuse, violence, gang activity, and myriad forms of recklessness displayed by teens (Eaton, 2009; Foster and Little 1989/1997). The impulse to self-initiate and the risks that coincide will be addressed more fully in the next section, but it is important here to recognize the consistency of their observation throughout the literature, and to note Michael Meade’s (1996) reminder that “the vacuum created by the loss of serious rites of transition will be filled with something” (p. xxii). Adolescents need a way to touch death – literally or metaphorically – in order to make sense of what life is and how they may fit into it. Initiation is a departure and an arrival which involves both suffering and healing, loss and gain, and turns the individual into a template of learning, connecting them to “the essential mysteries of life…” (Meade, in Eaton, 2009, p. 109).
Randall Eaton, author of The Sacred Hunt and From Boys to Men of Heart: Hunting as Rites of Passage (2009)proposes that for tens of thousands of years, while humankind lived in small subsistence societies, the necessary initiations for the maturation of young men and women into adult roles were fundamentally interwoven with the survival of the species (. For women, childbirth has been and remains the preeminent moment of initiation: a complete sacrifice of oneself for the betterment and continuation of all life (though through the modernization of childbirth practices, some argue that aspects of childbirth’s initiatory quality are being lost (Davis-Floyd, 1992). For men, the initiation into the great cycle of life took the form of the hunt: an act of life-taking rather than life-giving that none-the-less tied him through risk and self-sacrifice to the survival of his people, and bore him into intimate partnership and balance with the whole of his ecological surroundings (Eaton, 2009). “Hunting and killing are as fundamental to male development as birthing and infant care have been to women. These are in fact the radical polarities on which the matrix of human life inextricably rests” (Eaton, 2009, xlix). The biological imprint of the hunt may be one reason why male coming of age ceremonies involving physical trials are more widely observable in later, agricultural-based societies than are female ones.
Joseph Campbell observed the pattern of separation, initiation and return in myths and stories throughout the world. Through his lens of the Hero’s Journey (1949) the protagonist must separate herself from that which is safe and familiar, embark on a dangerous journey into unknown terrain where she will confront demons and dragons that she must conquer (initiation) in order to return home to take on a new status and offer the gifts she has received through her trials to her community (Schlegel & Barry, 1980, p. 696). The mythic journey of the hero or heroine is of course both physical and metaphorical, and is a template for the ordeal of adolescent initiation. Any situation which brings a person to face her own fears, limits and uncertainties – one which leads her into the unknown terrain of her own psyche and brushes her against the very fibers of what she is made of – will also provide her the opportunity to befriend her shadows, encounter her gifts, and return as a more complete, wider version of herself (Plotkin, 2008).
“Adolescence is itself a kind of liminal state, a time of immense physical and emotional transition” (Lertzman, 2002, p. 5). It is therefore no wonder that the transition from adolescence to adulthood is the foundational template of rites of passage, setting the stage for all future transitions to come. Through it the initiate not only expands her sense of self, but also her sense of importance to and identification with something larger (Iborra and Markstrom, 2003). “Both initiation rites and mystical practices are designed to awaken the sacred, interior world at the core of the self” (Judith, 2006, p. 267). She has wrestled with her capacities, both interior and exterior, and ideally has been transformed into a greater wholeness and sense of belonging through a touch of the numinous. In the old way, this is known as the journey from the “I to the We” (source unknown), indicating movement from self-centered adolescence to community-minded adulthood, an essential step for the healthy continuation of the person, culture, and ecology. “The Hero’s quest begins with the striving of an individual – but it ends in the healing of community” (Judith, 2006, p. 33).
In the identity-forming stage of adolescence the focus of life is rightly on the self as the young person identifies her sense of authenticity and place in the world. Once the rite of passage into adulthood has been completed however, her sense of priority shifts from “what are my gifts?” to “how can my gifts serve the world?” When consciousness shifts from “what’s best for me?” to “what’s best for we?” a flood of behavior-altering awareness comes into play. The newly initiated adult person has a sense of her purpose in the world, as well as a strong desire to utilize them for the healthy continuation of all life because she recognizes that her human community “lives on the same boat as all other Earth creatures; you all float and sink together” (Plotkin, 2008, p. 305). Her goals are less about independent personal gain, and more about the joy of connection to the greater whole and the inherent stewardship that comes with it because she has realized, as Plotkin says, “they are inseparable” (p. 304).
The journey from the “I to the We” does not happen only through the passage from adolescence to adulthood; it can be taken at other life stages as well, or not at all. Indeed, it is never too late for an initiation into mature adulthood to take place, and there are of course further initiations beyond that one. “A full life requires many passages and accomplishing one serves to qualify the seeker for the next” (Meade, xxiv, 1996). According to Plotkin, (2008), the real work of a rite of passage takes place in every day life through the accomplishment of developmental tasks that move us naturally forward into greater and greater depths of self expression and actualization. A ceremony of initiation honors the work, or movement forward, which has already taken place, but does not constitute the whole initiation itself. It is but the exclamation point marking the end of the journey out of an old stage, and the first breath of the new one being born.
If a healthy rite of passage through adolescence helps to open a person to a sense of identity, purpose, connection to community, and responsibility for their relationship with the larger matrix of life, then what happens to a person who does not make this transition effectively, or at all?
If it is true that as human beings we are engaged in ongoing life cycles that have profound impact on our lives, how do we survive in a culture that does not recognize and acknowledge the importance of these transitions? (Grof, 1996, p. 9)
Indeed, how are individuals to develop fully in a culture that has lost its’ ceremonies of initiation? And what happens to the culture when it loses its ability to renew, transform, connect, and evolve through the initiation of the individuals within it?
The Loss of Effective Rites of Passage in Contemporary Industrial Societies
Somewhere along the path towards modernization, identification with natural cycles (the planet’s and the individuals) was lost, or at least misplaced. Fully developed people, authentic community relations, and personal connection to nature are concepts that are less and less identifiable in modern industrial societies, as are effective rites of passage. As Grof points out in her observations of the modern west, “a number of teachers, researches, and scholars have recognized that our culture is one of the few in history that does not incorporate rites of passage, and that this has severe consequences” (1996, p. 6). We are also one of the few – or perhaps the only – society in history to be pathologically dissociated from the natural world (Roszak, Gomes, and Kanner, 1995). That rites of passage would disappear from a society that has lost its’ sense of ecological interdependence and reverence for nature seems only fitting, since these rites are celebrations of the nature-based cycles in our own lives. What ought to be of great concern to those living in the modern world today is not only the lack of rites of passage in our culture, but the correlating lack of mature “We” consciousness; engendering severe deficits in the collective capacity to identify with and feel responsibility towards others and the natural world (Jon Young, personal correspondence, Feb. 2009), a concern rightly shared by all life on the planet.
It has been observed that rites of passage “reach their fullest expression in societies where the community is small scale and face-to-face, a moral community that encompasses the totality of social roles” (Schlegel and Barry, 1980, p. 696). By a “totality of social roles,” the authors are referring to a culture where the full psycho-spiritual developmental process of the human being is expressed (from infant to elder and beyond). Schlegel and Barry go on to tell us that the “likelihood of finding societies that conduct initiation ceremonies at all decreases with increasing numbers of jurisdictional levels” (p. 701). Societies that are more complex are also likely to have a greater need to manipulate and control their environment for its resources. Thus we find that ecological disharmony goes hand-in-hand with increasingly complex societies, and that in those societies effective rites of passage are virtually absent. The modern industrial West is enormous, utterly complex, devastatingly discordant with nature, and severely lacking in fully developed adults (Plotkin, 2008; Foster and Little, 1989/1997).
In the absence of effective rites of passage that are held as sacred by the community at large, youth in the modern world are left at a great loss. With the call to transformation ringing loudly in their innermost being, adolescents blindly seek-out methods of self-initiation to fulfill of the healthy testing of themselves that their psycho-biological clock is asking for, but which their culture is not providing. Mind-altering substances at best provide a way to explore the inner boundaries of one’s sense of self, connect to a spiritual realm, and ask existential questions, though youth rarely know that this is what they may be seeking when they yearn to get high. Violence and other risky behaviors become a gross emulation of the sacred hunt, the vision quest, or other methods of testing and proving oneself physically (Foster and Little, 1989/1997). Misguided sexual exploration fills an ancient longing to merge with another, but is carried out in a haphazard and often damaging way. With no sense of what he is meant to ultimately belong to, the adolescent pushes and pushes against what’s there, but is never caught on the other side. He is thus suspended in limbo with no maps or models to see him successfully through his transformation. “Without rites of passage during adolescence that affirm the mystery and metaphoric quality of nature, the world can become empty and lifeless” (Eaton, 2009, p. 6).
Adolescents grope unknowingly for initiation, and while they may succeed at pushing edges and dancing with death, they are stifled in a culture that cannot see them through. Lertzman writes, “These ‘pseudo rites of passage’ are usually superficial, not particularly transformative, and often destructive” (2002, p. 6). They are, he continues, what youth must do in order to “…attempt to fill in the missing pieces of their ‘education for being human’” (p. 6). Without such an education, inhumane action becomes accepted as normal, respect for our interdependence with all of life is lost, and the individualistic, egocentric worldview dominates the consciousness (Plotkin).
When something tremendous that was supposed to happen didn’t – rites of passage and discovery…of an individual’s unique mission in adult life – our youth knuckle under to the paltry models and commercial curricula provided. We measure our self-worth monetarily and are schooled accordingly (Eaton, 2009, p. 66).
Indeed, modern cultures have become highly individualistic, emphasizing the notion that each must carve their own way in a dog-eat-dog world where personal material gain is the marker of success and wellbeing. Most young people, having failed to find the true depth of transformation their attempts to self-initiate (how could they succeed?), will eventually accept what’s around them and take up the mantle of self-interest into their “adult” lives. Even if a young person is able to navigate the treacherous waters of his own self-initiation process, emerging relatively transformed and rightfully alive, there remains a lack of community to welcome him back with any sense of understanding about what he has just accomplished. Though his passage may not have been as complete as it could have been, he may yet find himself standing on the other side in a developmental state beyond that of his predominant culture, with few to relate to about his ordeal. Unmet by the community, the feedback loop that would render his passage successful is broken, and it is easy for the young person to slide back into the old roles and patterns of his previous life-stage (Greenway, 1995). “The absence of social validation can be a crushing blow to one who has just fulfilled the terms of initiation and who, by all intents and purposes, ought to belong” (Foster and Little, 1989/1997, p. 23).Likewise, the culture that fails to honor the young person’s initiation also fails in its own development and growth. Individual transformation is upheld by the presence of the community, and the community’s transformation is renewed and completed through the successful passages of its individuals. Both must be in place if either is to succeed, lest all remain locked in partial development.
Since we do not live in a culture that has consciously created ‘wisdom’ initiations, we have far too many people, both in and out of power, who are incomplete adults with arrested development – in short, an adolescent society. These half-grown adults have no way to face their wounds, so instead these wounds are passed on to others, who in turn pass it on further. Consequently, the initiatory process finds a back door into our lives – with nervous breakdowns, chronic health issues, midlife crises, drug addiction, military indoctrination, and neighborhood gang violence. (Judith, 2006, p. 43.)
Does this mean that there are no examples of initiation or rites of passage in modern society? No. But those that exist are often hollow and rarely serve to transform the initiate completely. They take the form of diplomas at graduation ceremonies, binge drinking on 21st birthdays, the right to vote at 18, weddings, or the privilege of going to war. Does this mean that nobody in modern society is able to develop completely or reach full potential? No. We are incredible beings, highly adaptable and highly diverse. Many people in the heart of modern cultures are still blessed with opportunities to initiate, to connect to self, others and earth, to be received and recognized by their communities, and to thrive in full service to life. Still, the point that must not be neglected is that the vast majority of citizens living in an adolescent culture are bound to behave accordingly.
In Bill Plotkin’s book Nature and the Human Soul (2008), there is a treatment of modern industrial society founded on the premise that it is an expression of an underdeveloped “egocentric” (p. 4) (adolescent) culture which is symptomatic of a disconnection from nature, and is blocking full developmental capacity. Plotkin explains that few people in an egocentric culture ever progress beyond an adolescent state of maturity because the culture itself has only developed that far. Within it, individuals continue to develop as best as they are able, but largely this amounts to what Plotkin describes as various subsets of adolescence which never – even at the end of life – transmute into full adulthood. “Genuine adulthood is not obtained merely by reaching a certain age, birthing or raising children, or accepting certain responsibilities,” says Plotkin (2008, p. 11). More is required of us in terms of our developmental process and the recognition and involvement of our communities. Plotkin continues, “A transitional ritual can have its intended effect only when the individual has made sufficient progress with the developmental tasks of the preceding life stages” (Plotkin, 2008, p. 13). The culture as a whole remains stuck in incomplete developmental because it lacks accessible models for how to move beyond it. The results are severe, not only for the individuals attempting to grow within it, but also for the society at large. “An adolescent world, being unnatural and unbalanced, inevitably spawns a variety of cultural pathologies, resulting in contemporary societies that are materialistic, greed-based, hostilely competitive, violent, racist, sexist, ageist, and ultimately self-destructive” (Plotkin, 2008, p. 7).
Plotkin goes on to remind us that, “adolescence itself is not the problem” (p. 11). A healthy adolescence is a natural, necessary, and incredibly important part of human growth, and is the life-stage that potentially holds a key to understanding the current block in our personal development and the evolution of our culture. After all, adolescence is that moment to grapple with the great crisis and opportunity of one’s own becoming. The problems arise when there is no way for the individual to move successfully through this stage and beyond it into the next. “Unattended, a major life passage can become a yawning abyss, draining off psychic energy, engendering social confusion, and twisting the course of the life that follows it” (Grimes, 2000, p.6). The same may be true, though massively amplified, for the whole of a culture that is ready to transform, but does not know how.
In a society that is locked in adolescent development, people may yearn from a deep, unnamable place for the wholeness that comes through initiation. Attempts to fill this emptiness from the outside may be carried out throughout one’s lifetime as they purchase their next product or toy, attend endless workshops, or fixate on maintaining a youthfulness they have no good way of moving beyond. Or, people may never notice that their development is incomplete, because the only examples they’ve ever seen operate thusly from the same deficiency. Randall Eaton puts it bluntly: “just because millions of people have in common the same forms of mental pathology does not make them sane” (Eaton, 2009, p. 2). Modern people as a whole are not consciously connected to nature (Louve, 2005), but are still completely part of it; moving physically through life’s stages, but lacking the developmental completeness offered through initiation. The result is a pathology we have deemed as normalcy (Eaton, 2009), manifesting as an incredibly powerful, global society with a majority population that is operating from the self-centered egoic needs of the adolescent who has never been given the healthy chance to dive in, emerge, and shine.
The consequences of an adolescent culture devoid of meaningful socially recognized rites of passage are readily observable in modern industrial society. Lertzman warns that, “We are now painfully aware of what happens in the absence of rites of passage” (2002, p 2). In our immature and disconnected state we have come to view the world and all its resources as means to our own ends. Industry, cheap energy and population have backed us against a wall of resource scarcity and environmental peril, the repercussions of which have placed the planet’s life-supporting systems in jeopardy and have ravaged the traditional, earth-based ways of ancient cultures the world over. Of the numerous mass extinctions to take place in the history of the planet, ours is the only one caused directly by a single species – us. And though we know well the truth of this fact, our behavior is not changing. Individuals are un-happy and communities are broken or exist on a scale so large that ‘community’ no longer fits as an accurate descriptor. Values are measured in dollars rather than the strength of their integrity or the merit of their virtue. We are both rich and poor beyond belief. Suicide and substance abuse rates are higher than they have ever been. Huge percentages of the population are on countless medications and therapies. Most people experience a daily dosage of stress, anxiety and fear. Education is falling. Militarism is rising. And we’re managing to numb and distract ourselves from it all through entertainment, consumerism, substances, food, and work. We are unraveling (Plotkin, 2008).
To remain on our current course looks bleak indeed. Yet to question how a society as vast as ours might shift its momentum is daunting to say the least. It has been compared to the sinking of the titanic, which, once begun, is nearly impossible to reverse. In her book, Waking the Global Heart (2006), Anondea Judith encapsulates the situation like this: “Our power to affect the future of life on Earth is dangerously more developed than our emotional and spiritual maturity” (p. 37). Thomas Berry concurs, but puts it in a slightly different way: “We now in large measure determine the earth process that once determined us” (1998, p. 133).
In the introduction to the anthology Crossroads: The Quest for Contemporary Rites of Passage (1996), Michael Meade observes: “The chaos, violence, reluctance and apathy of modern youth are symptomatic of similar troubles in the heart and soul of culture” (p. xxiii). If we are indeed an adolescent society, then the collective crisis and opportunity we have created for ourselves at this time on the planet should come as no surprise. We may see the behavior of adolescent culture as a whole mirrored by the young people who attempt self-initiation when no meaningful rites of passage have been offered them. We have created our own collective brush with death.
Underneath the surface of schools, fraternities, military organization, fraternal groups, gangs, rap bands and prisons lie [sic] the flesh and bones of initiatory rites and symbols. It is time for us to elevate rites of passage from miscarriages and ghosts to purposive soul work. (Eaton, p. 185)
The Story of our Times
The only myth that is going to be worth talking about in the immediate future is one that is talking about the planet, not this city, not these people, but the planet and everybody on it. And what it will have to deal with will be exactly what all myths have dealt with – the maturation of the individual, from dependency through adulthood, through maturity, and then to the exit; and then how to relate this society to the world of nature and the cosmos… And until that gets going, you don’t have anything. (Campbell, 1988, p. 32)
It is clear that we are witness to an exciting and uncertain time on the planet – a mysterious, terrifying, and inspiring moment in history. We all face the question of how to respond in these times. “Willingly, or not, we are all attendants at the funeral of the last era and the birth of the next” says Meade (1994, p. 27), thus we must ask ourselves earnestly how to proceed – that – or simply shut ourselves off to the reality we can’t seem to face. It is an utterly dynamic time, ripe with crisis and opportunity, rich with possibility, transformation, and uncertainty. The simultaneous indicators of our death throws and labor pains abound.
For thousands of generations, humankind has unfolded through an intimate and dynamic evolutionary dance. Like so many others in the animal kingdom, we have evolved to be social, tribal creatures with bodies and nervous systems that have been crafted and honed by the raw cycles of the wild earth. Eyes shaped over time in response to the flick of a deer’s ear and the green of a desert oasis. Ears molded by the murmur of distant water, the clap of thunder, and the many voices of the birds. Our hands, hearts, nervous systems, and sensibilities are each a part of this world, refined through the distillery of evolution alongside raven, oak, salmon, and lion (Young, 2004, p. xviii). Our entire becoming is every bit an expression of nature, as finely tuned as the hummingbird, the antelope or the crashing wave, yet in our most recent chapters of history we have failed to remember this and are suffering the consequences. Writers, thinkers, poets, mystics, leaders and wisdom-keepers – heroes of the earth and the human story – have pointed to the folly of our current age, but we appear locked in un-listening.
In a straight-forward and simple way, Steven Foster named it well when he articulated that the primary challenge facing modern humans is “the great lie” (personal correspondence with Gigi Coyle, April, 2010), essentially, the belief that we are somehow not part of nature. The false separating of ourselves from nature (and the subsequent behaviors that result) devastates us not only because of its tragic ramifications on the delicate ecology of our world, but also because it robs us of the truest sense of what we are; our belonging and our birthright as participating members in the web of life.
The neglect of our human nature constitutes an even greater impediment to personal maturation than our modern loss of effective rites of passage, and it has lead to the tragedy we face today: most humans are alienated from their vital individuality – their souls – and humanity as a whole is largely alienated from the natural world that evolved us and sustains us. (Plotkin, 2008, p. 6)
Traditional cultures throughout history (and still remaining today) hold an intimate understanding of our interdependence with all other living systems and recognize humans as part of the fabric of life. “Man’s life resembles nature, from which neither the individual nor the society stands independent. The universe itself is governed by a periodicity which has repercussions on human life…” (van Gennep, 1960/1909, p. 3).
Aware of the vital importance of this knowledge for the survival of their people, they practice traditions that support every individual’s discovery of himself as connected to a greater ecological balance, rites of passage being but one. In an adolescent culture where conscious connection to the natural world has been lost, modern citizens would be wise to recall that, “every person alive today descended from nature-based peoples” (Plotkin, 2008, p. 308).
In the opening of Nature and the Human Soul, Bill Plotkin speaks to the poignancy and urgency of our times. He asks whether in the twenty-first century we humans will “learn to become a life-enhancing element within the greater Earth community…” (p. 3), or fail to find a “way of life worthy of our unique human potential and of Earth’s dream for itself” (p. 4). The crisis and opportunity before us is very real. Ice caps really are melting, resources really are limited, Earth’s carrying capacity does exist – and – humankind is truly brilliant, technology creates new wonders every day, science and religion are beginning to confirm one another… our potential is vast. “We can reclaim what we have lost without denying what we have gained – if, and only if, we face the adolescent challenge of stabilizing our adult size as a population, and learn to grow spiritually, instead of physically (Judith, 2006, p. 193). As Plotkin eludes, Earth may dreaming a potential through us that is much healthier than the life-negating presence we now occupy – something we can be worthy of. It may also be true that this moment of crisis is exactly what’s needed to help an adolescent culture transform, as challenging and dangerous initiation rites have done for the young and the ready throughout time.
Collectively, we now face the possibility of our own death as a species, as well as the reality of irrevocable damage to the Biosphere. It’s possible that facing death has been a key component in so many rites of passage ceremonies because anything less would be lacking in its ability to initiate fully. Could it be that humanity (or at least globally-dominant western industrial society) is poised on a grand collective threshold? Or are we already tumbling in the midst of a haphazard attempt at self-initiation? Inner despair, lack of purpose, social disease, and environmental destabilization are among the shadows and ordeals we face individually and collectively – the sum of which amounts to a very real brush with death; an initiatory ordeal that is asking us to draw from our depths and strip down to our essential truth. By meeting the invitation, the unpredictable mystery of our own becoming may be revealed to us, and through it, an awakening to a mature sense of purpose, belonging, and offering back to the whole.
Following the development of an entire culture or species towards its’ moment of initiation through an evolutionary framework is no easy task. Through the use of anthropology as well as developmental and archetypal patterns, Anondea Judith (2006) draws a portrait of our cultural development that parallels the progression of the human lifetime from infancy (beginning in small hunter-gatherer tribes) through the ages towards adolescence (where we are now). In light of the three-fold stages exemplified in rites of passage ceremonies around the world, this evolutionary portrait can be seen as an initiation. Simply put, human beings severed from the natural world, and through our individuation have rebelled dramatically against our mother (Earth), leaving us to face an initiation that has the potential to either kill us, or bring us back to the biologic community in an adult role.
Severance from direct identification with the natural world began innocently some seven to ten thousand years ago, with the advent of agriculture and the domestication of animals. Progressing through cities, population growth and militarism, our disconnection from the natural balance has increased in both depth and velocity – most noticeably during the past 200 years of rapid, unchecked industrialization. Naturally, with little conscious knowing, we have taken a giant ten thousand year step of separation from our shared source of life and sustenance.
When we severed, we were not the beings we are today. For tens of thousands of years Homo sapiens sapiens lived in nomadic clans, a tribal species of hunters and gatherers that was as much a part of the natural system as the game they sought or the wild plants they harvested. From Judith’s perspective, this stage of our history is comparable to infancy, in that our identification with the mother earth was total and our sense of dependency on her cycles for nourishment and life complete. She named this phase the “Static Feminine” (p. 57) to communicate our stable, un-individuated, cyclic union with the earth, much like an infant, resting and reliant on the warmth of the mother’s body and breast. The key to her description is un-individuated consciousness. Clearly, humanity’s potential as the only self-reflective species we know of extends far beyond our original niche as tribal beings bound to the teat of our bioregions. However, to loss sight of the wisdom in our inherent nature is proving to be catastrophic. After ten thousand years of identity-formation we have certainly evolved dramatically – so much so that in the self-centered, rapid-growth of our current adolescence, we have forgotten the original mother who gave us life and the beautiful community to which we belong. The question is how to embody and claim both the gifts of what we have become and those of our original earth-bound nature, whilst denying the essential integrity of neither.
The call has arisen and a collective invitation for transformation is at hand. “The path toward wholeness, which Jung called the archetype of individuation, is now being thrust upon the collective psyche” (Judith, 2006, p. 32). It is clear that many of our patterns no longer fit, and that the limit of our full expression as a species on the planet has not at all yet been reached. The Earth itself may be the elder that is calling us to our initiation. We are of the appropriate age, and it is “already late enough, and wild night,” as Mary Oliver describes in her poem “The Journey” (1986, p. 38). Whether we are willing to acknowledge it or not, the invitation presented by our moment in history is ringing in our ears, and its’ cries for attention will only grow louder. The warning offered by Judith (2006) is difficult to swallow, yet at the same time rings of truth: “We may resist the call and remain stubbornly attached to the old ways, or we can surrender to the transformation, and advance to the other side. We cannot remain the same and still survive” (p. 25).
The call for transformation shows its face both around us and within us. The invitation is necessarily and simultaneously individual and collective, calling upon each of us to do our part (Judith). Inwardly we are called to grow, stretch and change; dying to the old in order to welcome the new – a challenge daunting enough even when the rest of the world seems properly stabilized. The added difficulty for us now, as Michael Meade (1996) points out is that “current generations face an increasing sense of chaos because modern life has reached its own crossroads. The end of the era is attended by rapid changes, a crash of endings and challenges to every institution and cultural system” (p. xxiii). As our individual inner footing is losing its hold, the ground of the collective cultural container is also becoming shaky, leaving us with the unpredictability that is coming to define our moment in history. However, despite the challenge, to do nothing denies our natural unfolding and welcomes further destruction. When the skin grows too tight around us, we must either shed it and expose the vulnerable beauty of our next cloak, or die in the choke of a shell that could not contain us, but from which we were too afraid to depart.
If our severance has been a collective drifting towards a state of separation from the natural world, then our individual and collective task is to consciously take on the mantle of responsible stewardship – claiming our new and rightful place within the fabric of life. The small child simply is part of the community. The adolescent questions and individuates from it. And the adult, once initiated, claims herself as part of it. I agree with Judith, Berry, Plotkin and others that at the species scale, this passage can be seen as an opportunity for humanity to consciously redefine and reclaim its’ relationship with itself and the rest of the biologic community. Should we survive the initiatory ordeal of our times, we will return as a more mature species, with a new chance to consciously serve our community (the biosphere) in stewardship, respect and grace. Through this rite of passage, the life path of each individual, and that of the entire species, will find its complete expression and fulfillment (Plotkin, 2008). In so doing, we advance to the next stage in our natural development and accept our birthright as a dynamic, beautiful, intelligent, loving, self-reflective, necessary and creative expression of the planet – and thereby – the cosmos. “We must mature into people who are, first and foremost, citizens of Earth and residents of the universe, and our identity and core values must be recast accordingly” (Plotkin, 2008, p. 7).
As stated at the outset of this paper, on one hand it is simple: We must take responsibility for what we have done and for where we are. We must survive our initiation not by enormous heroic feats, but by simply taking a single step, each in our own lives, to look within and ask what a fulfilled adult expression of self would do for the world and the future generations to come. Then begin. On the other hand, it is utterly complex and challenging. Centuries of wounding, cultural conditioning, disconnection and devastation have placed us with our backs against the wall, with time running out, with few tools at our disposal, no elders to guide us, community to hold us, or models to follow. Yet here we are, knowing that we must do something. By reorienting our lives to the cycles of the planet, natural rites of passage that hold the potential to break us free of adolescence will be given an opportunity to emerge. We must begin with the ground beneath our feet: with our own connection to the natural world, no matter how long it is has gone untended. Through it, both collectively and individually, we may yet find the purpose, community, and a sense of belonging to something greater that so many are yearning for in these times. There, on the precipice of our own becoming, we may also discover a tenacious desire to experience the full expression of our authentic self, and the healthy continuation of all life. After all, the two have never been at odds.
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