Understanding life transitions and the importance of rites of passage.
Ten mature adults and two guides, each engaged in silent prayer and accompanied by a gentle drumbeat, stand on the edge of a mesa at Ghost Ranch, New Mexico. The chill of a late-springtime dawn at 7,000 feet is dispelled as the sun rises over sandstone monoliths and pinnacles to the east. Sunlight gradually envelops the mesa, illuminating the new tender green of the scrub oak and cottonwoods as they emerge from a long, cold winter. The call of a golden eagle soaring overhead pierces the silence. It summons the world to life and to revel in this new day. To the west, the walls that enclose this natural amphitheater are appearing from darkness to reveal a stunning palette of layered color ranging from white-gray to beige to vermillion. It is the season of new beginnings for a group of people enacting rites of passage to inform and empower their journeys into conscious elderhood.
These individuals, in or approaching their elder years, are participating in a Choosing Conscious Elderhood retreat. They are following in the footsteps of countless others. At critical turning points in life, people have retreated to wilderness places to enact rites of passage. They then returned to their communities spiritually and emotionally renewed, with new insight about how best to live and contribute as the next stages of their lives unfolded.
Anthropologists tell us that throughout most of known human history, many cultures marked significant life changes with rites of passage that served as initiation into the next stage of life. Extensive preparation at all levels—physical, psychological, and spiritual—was followed by an intense, spiritually charged ceremonial ritual process. This ceremony required the initiate to leave behind normal village life and enter a place of mystery, perceived danger, and spiritual power. The intent of this process was to acknowledge that a major life transition was occurring, both inwardly and outwardly, and to empower the initiate to fully and consciously move into his next life role.
Through these powerful processes, people were assisted in letting go of attitudes, behaviors, and self-concepts from previous life stages that would not serve them or their communities in their new role. Concurrently, they were guided in identifying and strengthening the skills, wisdom, psychological resources, and spiritual connection necessary for claiming their new status and fulfilling their new roles. Upon their return to the community, they and their communities knew that in some essential way who they had been—both personally and in terms of their role in society—had died. A new self with new wisdom and gifts to contribute had been born.
Our secular contemporary world is characterized by a dearth of meaningful, emotionally and spiritually empowering rites of passage to help people realize the potential fullness of each of life’s stages. Deep wisdom about human growth has been lost. As they pass through life, people are expected to move from one ill-defined stage to another alone, with little psychological and spiritual preparation. The two areas where this lack is most detrimental to personal and societal well-being are the ambiguous passage from adolescence into adulthood and the equally amorphous passage from career-focused adulthood into early elderhood.
In their chapter “Transition from Childhood to Adolescence” in the excellent anthology on rites of passage, past and present, Betwixt and Between: Patterns of Masculine and Feminine Initiation, John Allan and Pat Dyke wrote that in many ways our present Western civilization is an exception in human history because of its lack of emotionally and spiritually empowering rites of passage into young adulthood. They note that Western civilization has not completely abandoned such rites, which still exist in the form of bar and bat mitzvah, confirmation, graduation, and marriage, but Allan and Dyke also acknowledge that to have such rites reduced to this level “is unusual, for in other cultures the rites of passage involved all levels of community, from the elders who steered the process to the very young who joined in the celebrations.” But by and large, most young people today are left to make or discover their own challenges or rites of initiation, and in many cases such misguided attempts are destructive rather than life affirming. While they do mark changes in external life status, graduation and marriage for most people do not provide the preparation and challenge to support the inner development that is the purpose of true rites of passage. And in today’s world, religion-based rites usually involve much more memorization of sacred texts and beliefs than the deep self-examination and the psychological challenge necessary to encounter the limits of who they have been and to discover the emotional and spiritual strength their growth requires.
However, because of their critical importance for human growth and well-being, it is inevitable that empowering rites of passage into adulthood will again emerge. This is already beginning to happen. In the past few decades, several organizations, such as the School of Lost Borders and Rite of Passage Journeys, have begun offering programs for teens on the threshold of adulthood that incorporate the elements identified by anthropologists as inherent to all indigenous rites of passage. On a larger scale, programs like Outward Bound and other outdoor challenge-focused organizations have served as de facto rites of passage for many young people, although these programs don’t directly address the spiritual dimension of this critical life transition.
Looking at the other end of life, with the exception of a few individuals, organizations, and men’s and women’s groups working to develop meaningful ceremonies and educational programs to support people making the passage into elderhood, there is little awareness of the value of such processes for those seeking to grow into the undefined and largely unsupported role of elder. In fact, there is little awareness of the reality that true elderhood is the product of an inner passage that must be navigated with or without the support of structured rite of passage ceremonies supported and witnessed by one’s community.
However, even though most Western cultures ignore the importance of such rites of passage, there are others who understand why marking these milestones is crucial to our spiritual and emotional health. Indigenous peoples recognize, as do many contemporary life-cycle development theorists, that optimal human development occurs in discrete stages. These are stages of inner development that, in today’s world, may or may not coincide with the roles we play in the outer world. The inner and outer dynamics of each life stage must be recognized and supported for the person to flourish and make her full contribution. If the psychological tasks and potentials of each stage are not supported, development may well be hindered or aborted. Lack of cultural recognition and support for this process is why many people with adult bodies and roles never grow out of childhood or adolescence on an emotional level. It is also why many people with aging bodies continue to try to live as though they are 40 or 50, often as parodies of their midlife selves, never actualizing or even being aware of the rich possibilities of aging and of the necessary inner work that prepares one for the passage into the stage of conscious elderhood.
Rites of passage exist to recognize that we do not fulfill the potential of life’s developmental stages by just gradually drifting through our life span. At certain key times, the human psyche needs some significant experience that has the potential to catapult us from the security of our current stage to a journey toward the unknown potential and the next chapter. Some people are able to use such catalysts (whether consciously or not, with or without support) to serve as de facto rites of passage in their inner development. Many others, with little or no awareness of the call to growth and few tools to respond to it, are not able to do so.
Formal rites of passage were developed to provide structured ways of supporting what the psyche attempts to accomplish as we humans move through life’s stages. Their purpose is to emphasize the significance of the inner and outer transitions the initiates are undergoing. They help dismantle those elements of previous life stages that will not promote growth and wholeness in the next. They force a descent into the depths of oneself to courageously encounter disempowering (and usually unconscious) habits, attitudes, beliefs, and emotional blockages (what psychologists call “the shadow”) as well as unrecognized strength and potential. Such rites provide the opportunity for a life-transforming experience of one’s spiritual and emotional resources and for receiving the vision and empowerment that come with embracing this metamorphosis.
Psychologists and others who study human development tell us that all significant life transitions, in order to successfully realize their potential, consist of a three-phase process. Its duration depends upon the individual’s unique psychological makeup, the external circumstances of their life, and the amount of support they get during the transition. This three-phase process begins with separation from the life we have lived, progresses to an in-between phase where we are no longer quite who we have been but are not yet who we can become, and ends with fully moving into new beginnings.
Likewise, anthropologists who have studied the many forms that formal, community-sanctioned rites of passage have taken around the world tell us that they are all characterized by this same three-phase process. These rites unfold over a period of weeks or months and are punctuated by a shorter, highly focused ritual process that encapsulates and intensifies this three-phase dynamic. These rites are still practiced in various indigenous societies that are striving to hold on to their wisdom about human growth in this secular, modern world. Several of the contributions in Betwixt and Between point out that the relatively few (but increasing) adaptations of these rites to meet the needs of people living in contemporary society draw upon the power of this same three-phase process.
Whether supported by a formal rite of passage process or not, the inner work to respond to the psyche’s call to growth must be successfully accomplished in order for human beings to grow from one life stage to the next. The extent to which we accomplish these tasks has much to do with how we move from who we have been to who we have the potential to become.
If this inner work of transition is not accomplished, our growth is slowed and our potential is not fulfilled. All life, human and other-than-human, requires endings and beginnings in order to thrive. If we humans remain stuck in a life stage, a life that may have previously seemed fulfilling loses its zest and we stagnate. Our efforts to experience aliveness may become increasingly futile, dysfunctional, and desperate. We lose connection with any vision of who we can become, beyond who we have been or are now. Hope becomes replaced by resignation, aliveness by numbness, growth by stagnation, and authenticity by conformity.
Despite the importance of this inner work of transition, I can find few examples in anthropological literature of rites of passage to initiate elders. In societies such as the Rarámuri of Copper Canyon, certain people are groomed for and initiated into special elder roles that are easily recognizable by the outside world. However, we don’t hear much about formal rites of passage into elderhood. I believe this is because the indigenous wisdom of traditional societies recognized the critical importance of elders and supported the development of elder gifts and wisdom in an ongoing way as people aged. Training for the role of elder was embedded in the social fabric. As people aged, they were expected to learn the values and traditions of the community, develop a strong connection with the world of the sacred, work toward personal wholeness, and prepare to serve as mentors to the younger generations. Due to shorter life expectancy, elder was a life stage that relatively few people entered, and among these, some were more capable of and prepared to embody elder wisdom than others.
Our contemporary world differs greatly from that of indigenous cultures. For them, truly empowering growth-supporting processes were (and, in a rapidly decreasing number of cultures, still are) intrinsic to their way of life. For the first time in human history, the majority of people live long enough to have the opportunity to enter elderhood. The reality of attaining old age is a much less special and less honored accomplishment. Specialists now fill many of the roles that were historically filled by elders. We have largely lost an understanding of the dynamics of life transition, so elderhood—as a developmental stage and a societal role—is a dynamic that modern culture is only beginning to understand and define. However, we have the same needs as our ancestors. For those who feel called to the elder role, the inner work to transition from midlife adulthood to elderhood with awareness, intention, and commitment is critical. Formal rites of passage, which may take many forms, can in today’s world play a key role in empowering people to do this inner work and acknowledge, for themselves and those dear to them, that they are indeed claiming the role of elder.
Ron Pevny is the founder and director of the Colorado-based Center for Conscious Eldering. He received his master’s in integral counseling and psychotherapy from the California Institute of Integral Studies. Excerpted from his book Conscious Living, Conscious Aging (Atria Books/Beyond Words, 2014).