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What is a Rite Of Passage and why so important?

Updated: Jan 22, 2019

“No human escapes being human. We must all face the ecstasy and the agony of human experience. Life is filled with transitions, growth is characterized by change. Humans must pass from one life stage to another. We are born from the womb into infancy. We are weaned from infancy and brought into the world of childhood. We pass from childhood into adolescence, from adolescence into adulthood. When we marry, we leave the world of single adulthood behind. If we divorce, we return to the single state. We make our way through the adult passages, facing predictable crises at middle age and “retirement." With aging comes preparation for dying, and finally the ultimate passage of death. Since ancient times, individuals have stood at the threshold of these life changes. In traditional cultures, these transitions were celebrated by rites of passage and ceremonies of initiation. Without these ceremonies, individuals could not have understood or interpreted their life experiences, nor could they have been capable of assuming the social responsibilities and privileges required by their changes in life station. Their tribal families would have ceased to survive.”

A rite of passage is a ceremony that gives meaning to the transition of one’s life stage. Where one leaves the old life, family, work, friends behind for a time of solitude in order to return anew. It consists of three phases: separation, threshold and incorporation. In the first phase, separation, one withdraws from the current life, preparing him/herself for the passage into the next life station. This phase signifies detachment, letting go, goodbye to the former self, sobriety. The second phase, threshold (the time of solitude), is the space between the old and new, or as some refer it to as the place in the womb. Neither death nor life are yet there. The third phase, incorporation, is where the journey comes to its completion and starts to find its way into manifestation, re-entering a new life. Rites of passage have played an important role in many traditions and cultures for thousands of years. The Vision Quest is one of them, a rite of passage, an ancient old way, and many have gone before us. Where have these rites of passages gone? "The careful, ritual footprints left by our ancestors have been engulfed by the traffic of modern civilization." And maybe this is exactly why some of us are slowly enabling themselves to hear the ancient voices again. A longing of remembering and reclaiming something that has always been there. If only the traffic would stop for some time, could we find the footprints.

"Nowadays, traditional life passage ceremonies are not a part of the lives of most citizens. The rise of technological science, the emergence of large nations and cities, the increasing power, complexitiy, and diversity of the media, the appearance and growth of large multi-national corporations, the thickening of the wall between humans and their natural environment, the dawn of the computer age, the threat of nuclear annihilation, the breakdown of the basic social unit of the family, the dehumanizing pressure of modern life, overpopulation, and many other factors, have contributed to the loss of the ceremonies of life passage.

Many of us seem to have forgotten how to use the ancient wisdom of a rite of passage. Dismissing ancient or indigenous ceremonial practice as mere ‘superstition’, or of little relevance, we stumble and suffer through our life passages like victims, a burden to ourselves and others. When we seek the help of psychology or the Church, we are often disappointed. Psychology might consider us ill, or neurotic. The Church might ask us to participate in ceremonies which have lost their connection to the realities of our lives.

Our modern human experience also includes a multitude of ‘crises,’ ‘accidents,’ ‘upheavals,’ and other traumatic life changes that ask us not only to survive them, but to understand their meaning and to grow thereby -- nor is there any escaping these events. As the I Ching says, “A hundred thousand times you lose your treasures -- and must climb the nine hills.” How many times in our span of years are we called upon to uproot and transplant, to let go of the old embrace the new, to end it and go on, to plow under and sow seed, to cease being ignorant and find out, to die and be reborn? How many times will we move from one place to another, change our work or vocation, lose or be separated from a lover or a friend, mourn the death of a mother or father, conceive, give birth to, miscarry, or abort a child, be devastated by a natural disaster, drop into suicidal depression, survive a near fatal accident, lose our limbs or sensory functions, do violence to or have violence done to us, become parents, grandparents or step-parents, enter the armed forces, embark on a long journey, become addicted to a drug, or burn out on the job? There is no way to ascertain to what extent the loss of meaningful rite of passage has crippled the growth of modern individuals through the passages and crises of life in modern culture. The symptoms of individuals in crises are seen everywhere. Panic, hysteria, shock, anxiety, uncertainty, anger, boredom, drug use, vague apprehension, guilt, self-hatred, twistedness, feelings of helplessness, and physical ailments of all kinds attend the modern experience of a life crisis. Hopefully, the crisis is resolved. The individual understands his/her experience and is ready to continue. Those who have a strong value or myth system, i.e., a way of finding meaning in their experience, most easily survive the passage. There are many individuals, however, who do not have, or cannot refer to, an adequate value or myth system. These people often remain in crises over extended periods of time, unable to make the passage from the old world (the past) to the privileges and responsiblities of the new (the future). Such extended period of depression are atypical of the normal ups and downs that ‘balance’ the individual in ordinary modern existence. Bereft of means of understanding what has happened, or is happening, to them, those who are caught up in a crisis cannot leave it behind. It consumes them. They get stuck in the passage and are swallowed by it. Bruised, battered and bewildered emotions rage. They can do injury to themselves, others, or the earth. Because the traditional ways of passing through crises are not available, these individuals must either find their own way, sometimes with the help of others, or succumb to the perils of the passage.

Why do you want to participate in a Rite Of Passage?

It is very important that you are certain why you want to participate. If you are not clear about what you are looking for, you will not find it. What passage, crisis, or transition do you find yourself in? What life event do you seek to celebrate, mark, or leave behind? Have you come to a door marked ‘fresh beginning’ or a door marked ‘conclusion’? If you cannot give yourself a clear reason for going to the wilderness alone, to fast, you should question again. If your intention is to heal and you do not look more deeply into the source of your suffering, the trip may be for naught. Your reasons for undertaking a life passage ceremony such as the Vision Quest do not have to be significant to anyone else but yourself. In fact, other may think you have gone off the deep end. This reaction from others was well known to the visionaries and prophets of old. If you allow others’ assessment of your mental condition to dissuade you, then you are not ready to go alone to the sacred mountain.

The experience that you face is the fruit of many thousands of years of human culture. It is not the exclusive property of any religion or ethnic group. The wilderness rite of passage is, rather, a ceremonial ‘process’ which you undertake and fill with your own value system. In their wisdom, the sacred ancestors of many peoples designed rite of passage in such a way as to lead you to discover within yourself the healing vision you seek. The very feelings that tug at you, pulling you toward this ceremony, evidence the ancient way of knowing that exists in you. The ceremony of the Vision Quest evokes this knowing, infuses your life with meaning, and prompts you to find the answers that you seek. If you have obeyed this urge to ‘get away from it all,’ to sever from a former world and find a place of vision and self-empowerment, then you have taken the first step toward participation in this ancient ceremony. It is essential that you take this step with the confident recognition that you are going away only so that you can return and assume the responsibilities of your new life station. Over the years, thousands have gone out to the desert, the mountains, the pains in similar way, alone, fasting, praying, seeking connection to self, others and the earth. Many were in the midst of a life crises or were passing from one life stage to another. Many went to clarify and strengthen who they were in their lives, their families, their work and their communities. Many were ‘teenagers’ seeking to celebrate (with their family) the passage from childhood to adulthood; or young adults wanting to express gratitude for their life and calling, and commitment to a path of healing in a changing world. A surprising number of adults also participated for the same reason. Others quested because they were in the midst of a ‘mid-life crisis.’ Others went because they faced the prospect of separation or divorce from a spouse. Facing breakdown and disintegration, individuals addicted to drugs or alcohol went to confirm a formal end to their addiction, and the beginning of a new life. Other had recently lost a loved one or were facing aging, retirement, or life-threatening illness. Suicidal individuals have quested to find reasons for continuing their life. A pregnant woman and her husband went to the sacred mountain to celebrate their passage into parenthood. Another couple about to be married formalized their commitment to a lifetime relationship. An aging general in the Marines celebrated his passage into retirement and the last phase of an active life. A woman who had been raped healed herself and celebrated an end to her grieving. A woman facing death sought to find the strength and courage to die nobly and with benefit to her family. A Buddhist went to meditate and confirm his vows, a Jew to reconnect with the roots of her heritage. A new President of an environmental organization went to seek guidance and alignment with nature, the earth and spirit. The reasons why these and other individuals left everything behind and went to the sacred mountain indicate the continued relevance and adaptability of this traditional rite to the modern world.” (The Trail to the Sacred Mountain, Steven Foster and Meredith Little). This is all about a heroic journey, seeking Self-knowledge and essential connection with our own nature and the ancient truth of our collective unconsciousness. Letting the sacred and the profane become one within us and on earth. And this unison.. this is why rites of passage are so very important.

With love,



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