What are rites of passage and why are they so important?
This post is inspired by the Rites Of Passage Leadership Training I attended with Dr Arne Rubenstein from the Rites of Passage Institute.
Origins of rites of passage
The phrase rites of passage was first used by the ethnographer Arnold van Gennep in his work of the same title (Les rites de passage) published in 1908. I wasn’t sure what ethnography was so I looked it up.
Ethnography is a branch of anthropology (the study of human behaviour, biology, societies, culture and language) and is the systematic study of individual cultures. Van Gennep observed indigenous cultures and noted a diverse number of different rites of passage. But he was able to identify two universal types:
- The sexual separation between men and women
- The separation between sacred and profane
The Oxford dictionary defines a rite of passage as:
"a ceremony or an event that marks an important stage in somebody’s life"
Stages of rites of passage
From his work, Van Gennep was able to identify 3 stages of a rite of passage:
- Preliminal rites
- Liminal rites
- Postliminal rites
Rites of passage often make use of ritual and ceremony as tools to prepare and facilitate change in the participant. I recently met a guy who runs a business creating custom liminal rituals for people.
An important concept in rites of passage is liminality. The noun liminality comes from the Latin 'limen' which means threshold. Dictionary.com defines liminality as:
"The transitional period or phase of a rite of passage, during which the participant lacks social status or rank, remains anonymous, shows obedience and humility, and follows prescribed forms of conduct, dress, etc."
A well-known use of liminal is 'subliminal' as in subliminal advertising, meaning advertising that is beneath the threshold of consciousness.
To be in a liminal space means one is in between two points. This means you've departed point A but you've not yet arrived at point B. Depending on the distance between point A and B, one may be in a liminal space for some time, perhaps even years!
Here’s an example of liminality
My son is bilingual and while we live in Sweden, and I speak Swedish, I’ve only ever spoken English to him. I remember when he was about three and a half and he understood me but never spoke English himself. That summer I took him to England where everyone spoke to him in English and he understood them, but he never answered back in English (much to their frustration!).
The day after we got back from our holiday, he looked up at me and said, “Dad, I’m speaking English!” I can’t tell you how overjoyed I was and ever since then he’s been able to speak English at will.
I believe our trip to England created a liminal space for my son by removing him from his Swedish world and showing him an English universe. When he returned to Sweden he was able to successfully integrate what he’d learned on his journey and has been bilingual ever since.
Different types of rites of passage
What’s interesting to note here is that I didn’t decide to create a rite of passage for my son. With this in mind I think there are 2 kinds of rites of passage in life:
Intentional rites of passage
Rites that are created by individuals and societies that actively help people transition in a healthy and positive way, taking them deeper into life. The intentional rite of passage is a profoundly healing and nurturing way of helping to support change in individuals. Giving them the opportunity to step up onto a new level that's recognized by individuals and sanctioned by the tribe. This in turn helps them to feel like they're part of the society in which they live.
These rites of passage usually helped people move from one stage of life to another, for example from child to adult and adult to elder. These traditional rites of passage have largely been lost in modern society and it’s up to us to reinvent appropriate rites of passage in our communities, that help boys become men and girls become women and, of course, our adults to become valued elders.
Unintentional rites of passage
Rites of passage that happen to us that are unplanned but nevertheless life-changing events in themselves. Examples of these are divorce or other traumatic events, like accidents or the death of a loved one. I consider my own cardiac arrest a rite of passage that has sent shockwaves through my own life. The thing about these unintentional rites of passage is that we don’t have a culturally endorsed or supported way of coping with them.
Divorce, for example, is a life-changing rite of passage and for many it’s extremely painful and destructive. It is, after all, the death of the family unit. Yet despite high divorce rates, modern society doesn’t yet provide us with a rite of separation. We’re left to our own devices, making it up as we go along. I think this is partly why divorce can be so traumatic for so many.
By the way, I’m not knocking modern society here, instead I think that planned rites of passage develop over a very long period of time. When a society changes rapidly then there is lag in many areas, from legal frameworks to rites of passage and beyond.
Are you struggling to deal with an unintended and sudden change in your life? Please reach out, it may well be that you need a custom rite of passage to help you transform and integrate the experience in your own life.
Back to Van Genneps' three stages of a rite of passage!
This stage is characterized by a separation from normal everyday life in preparation for entering the liminal stage. The purpose of this stage is to create a container in which to do the transformational work in the liminal stage.
The preliminal stage could include a physical separation from everyday life by travelling to a new unvisited location. Or it could be the decoration of a known space in a new and unusual way to signal the creation of a new space that encourages entry into a liminal space.
Different ways of creating a liminal space:
The last item in the list is certainly the most troubling. When a person suffers trauma of some kind, then this obviously has a powerfully negative effect on them. The liminal space is a particularly open and vulnerable space where we're open to new experiences and understanding. This can create the potential for deep wounding.
Of course, the rites of passage we want to create in our communities should be profoundly positive and life-affirming. They should enable us to more smoothly transition through stages in life and deal with difficult and traumatic life events in a healthy way.
We all suffer from trauma to lesser or greater degrees and this is something we need to keep in mind when approaching rites of passage, either as participants or facilitators. Facilitators in particular have a great responsibility when designing rites of passage and holding space.
An interesting read on the topic of trauma is 'The Body Keeps The Score: Brain mind and body in the healing of trauma' by Bessel van der Kolk.
Having been properly prepared by a conscious separation from everyday life and routines, we're then ready to enter the liminal stage. This is where we face a challenge or obstacle that undoes the old ways and opens us up to new information or a new way of being. A challenge is an essential component of a rite of passage.
In many traditional rites of passage the challenge was often physical and could involve ritual mutilation. An example of this is ritual circumcision that's still practiced today by many African tribes. For example in South Africa, ulwaluko is practiced by the Xhosa and refers to the initiation of boys into manhood. One of the rites of ulwaluko is circumcision which is followed by a period of isolation of 4 weeks or more and restricted food and even water.
Obviously this is an extreme example but it’s still widely practiced in South Africa today. It’s important to note that this is within the context of a society that values and supports the rite.Something worth considering when creating rites of passage is that challenges don’t need necessarily to be physical, although these can be really profound. One example of a physical rite of passage that I participated in was a 5 day survival course in the Scottish Highlands.
Creating challenges in a comfort-addicted society
In modern society we've gone to great lengths to create a safe and comfortable environment, but meeting and overcoming dangerous situations as part of a test of character has a profoundly empowering effect. However, it’s a hard sell in a society addicted to comfort. Some examples that I regularly use to create a little challenge in my own life:
Cold water exposure
Inspired of course by the legendary Iceman, Wim Hof, I take daily cold showers and do regular cold water immersions in the autumn and winter months.
Intermittent fasting – a simple way to do this is to skip breakfast. Fasting has been practiced for a long time for many different reasons. Read about my first 3-day fast.
Brazilian Jiu Jitsu
This is a profoundly humbling martial art which is also a competitive sport. Each class is both a learning experience and a test of skills, always ending in defeat. I am a white belt after all!
I love doing all three of the examples above regularly. I’d encourage you to find ways to challenge yourself regularly. But back to rites of passage!
Depending on the intention or purpose of the rite of passage, different challenges will be more or less appropriate. Some insight and experience is needed on the part of the facilitator, and participant consultation should form part of the programme design for a rite of passage. Remember, the challenge needs to be appropriate and to have a context as well as being safe.
Not knowing what the challenge will be can be a powerful tool in the liminal space. It requires humility, courage and acceptance. These qualities are worth cultivating in all of us.
After the challenge in the liminal stage, it’s time for integration so that the insights gained in the liminal space are not lost and can be positively and successfully integrated into everyday life, resulting in lasting change and transformation. There would be little benefit to go through a challenging experience without the layer of meaning that a rite of passage brings. The learning from the challenge plays a vital part in the process and for this to happen successful integration is essential.
Creating a vision for the future
There are lots of different ways to encourage integration, but creating and sharing a clear vision of the future is one of them. One exercise we did on our leadership training was to draw a picture of what our future looked like and then share this with different people in the group. We also got a chance to listen to others as they shared their own vision of the future.
Making a public commitment to the group is another way of encouraging integration. Group accountability is an especially powerful way to stay motivated and keep making steady progress. After our Rites Of Passage Training, I organized a 21-day WhatsApp Accountability Group (WAG) for this express purpose. I wanted to make sure I used the energy of our group work to keep moving forward.
Making a commitment to the group and then posting every day once I'd done my task was a fantastic way to deepen the integration process and make change happen in my own life. I know that many others experienced great benefits from this group witnessing too. Why not signup to a WAG? I’ll let you know when the next group starts.
Coaching and mentoring
Another great way of getting focused and being held accountable is to work with a coach or mentor. This is something I’ve been doing for several years and it’s very gratifying to see the progress people can make in quite a short period of time. Read more about my business coaching or life coaching.
Mentoring is different from coaching in that it’s much more specific and the mentor is usually an expert in the field. For example, I’ve mentored designers to help them hone their logo design skills. I’ve also mentored creative business owners, helping them clarify their brand and business goals. Plus, I run Wildheart Media which offers a Brand Strategy Package specifically aimed at ethical businesses and spiritual entrepreneurs.
Going through difficult times involving deep loss and grief don’t need to be traumatic experiences. In fact, quite the opposite; they can help shape our character for the better. Of course, this isn’t necessarily an easy process or even clear when you’re going through it.
I know you can transform your own pain into something that can help both you and others. But you don’t need to do it alone. I can support you with coaching, mentoring or designing a rite of passage to help you integrate and grow. If you made it this far, thanks for reading!