To begin, a brief working definition of a rite of passage: a ceremony to mark or celebrate a change in life status. Rites of passage can encompass the whole life cycle, from birth to death. Rites of passage generally can be described as having 3 stages, which we call Severance, Threshold and Return, and which suggest the psycho-spiritual idea of dying to one’s old life, stepping into the unknown, and returning to take on a new life.
And the term initiation: A rite of passage ceremony marking the entrance into a particular status or place within a culture, for example, from youth to adulthood. Initiation rites often involve a test or ordeal that must be mastered.
In indigenous and traditional societies, rites of passage help young people to prepare to take their place as adults and mark a closing of the status of “child.” It’s my view (one supported by Michael Meade, Steven Foster and others) that the lack of meaningful rites of passage leaves young people in our culture in a kind of limbo of extended childhood. Because of an innate need to go to the edge, young people will find other ways, often dangerous, of trying to initiate themselves. Drugs, alcohol, risky sexual behavior, driving too fast may all be efforts at self-initiation. The attraction to gangs also fits here, with the appearance of community and belonging, but really just youth initiating youth without any of the wisdom of traditional cultures.
Just to say a bit about our programs: our most important program is structured as a Vision Quest with a 3 or 4 day solo. There are three things the “initiate” goes without: people (you’re alone during the solo), food (most people fast), and shelter (you just have a tarp). Contact with nature, so important in traditional cultures, has a central place in our work. It’s actually impossible for me to envision a meaningful rite of passage that doesn’t involve time spent in the natural world, bringing the initiate face to face with his/her existence as a soul with other beings on our shared Earth. With this idea, we enter the terrain of deep ecology, that which links human nature to the rest of Creation, and initiation into adulthood suggests becoming a caretaker of more than just the human community.