Young people today are facing challenging times. Modern society throws intense and complex experiences at them within the context of unprecedented social and ecological collapse, without providing them with the support to grow the ground needed to relate with, digest, and expand into the possibilities of what it is to be a young person in these times. Rites of passage offer a way to equip our young people for the path ahead, connecting them to self, others and the wider web of life.
Israh Goodall recently held a Cups of Tea process to explore what is needed to support young people to flourish in these increasingly testing times.
This process involved some 20 exploratory conversations with Rites of Passage guides and organisations across 8 countries.
She shares here about the context of this process - ending with a link to her summary report.
"We as a culture are doing to our youth as we do to the land: we demand outcomes, often linear, visible, fast and at a great cost to the micro-organism and interconnected experience of life. This leaves us mind-heavy, soil-weak and ready to topple over.
So many of the youth I have been blessed to work with experience the ‘fight, flight freeze’ drive that sinks into their day as a constant hum of anxiety, depression or numbness.
And as we turn to look at our future, we hear the world cry ‘the youth have it, they know what to do’. But do they? Of course they do, but who is listening? How can we actually support young people to feel that their voice - a voice that belongs to their heart's calling - is good enough, is strong enough and worthy enough to count?
'Surely after all the placard painting and marching is over you will have to get a job' is the response they tend to receive from the world. How can we support youth to really trust that they are the future and that their choices matter?
Rites of Passage
Like all of life on earth, the human lifetime grows through stages and transitions such as birth, coming of age, adulthood, elderhood and death - and throughout human history ritual forms have emerged to mark these through ceremonies of initiation known as rites of passage.
At their most essential, rites of passage are a part of human nature, honouring natural developmental stages by supporting our transition to a new stage, and connecting us to self, others and a greater ecology of which we are a part. These are journeys of discovery that ultimately intend to help us to start to understand our unique gift and contribution, and to support us to bring these gifts into our communities and into the world.
Such journeys are essential to the overall health of community and ultimately through our actions, the planet - and our alienation from these traditional forms of support - has been at great cost to both us as a species and the whole earth community we are in reciprocal relationship with.
Acknowledging the transition from child to adult is one of the most well-known rites of passage throughout human culture, and one which has been honoured throughout time. This is a time when our bodies are innately calling out for change, to sever from the child identity and to step into more independence and choice- the world opens up. Yet as Michael Meade so beautifully expresses:
When a culture doesn’t provide
formal Rites of Passage or initiations,
people find their own.
Or they don’t find them and never really
find the traction of their life.
And when a society or culture doesn’t attempt
to create circumstances in which that can be worked on creatively
then you get destructive versions of them.
Young people are facing challenging times. The suspension of school, friendships and ‘normal life’ during lockdowns only compounded the intensity and complexity of their experiences, including the pressures of social media, body image, huge inequalities in life chances, and increasingly the prospect of widespread social and ecological collapse due to climate change. Society does little to provide them with the means to grow the ground needed to relate to, digest and expand into possibilities of what it is to be a young person in these times.
Gathering with our young people to mark and celebrate their transition from adolescence into young adulthood can be a powerful way to equip young people for the journey ahead. It supports their cultivation of an authentic self, able to thrive amongst their peers and wider society; helps awaken a sense of social purpose and passion around contributing to their community and beyond; and cultivates a sense of their inherent belonging to the wider web of life.
‘Rites of passage’ as a term was originally coined by Arnold Van Gennep, a European anthropologist who observed similarities in cultures around the world in how these crucial moments of change and transition were marked and supported within local communities. His work has been deeply influential and indeed many rite of passage offerings today are explicitly grounded in his three-stage model of separation, threshold and incorporation.
However, the term is increasingly being recognised as a 'catch all' framework embedded in a colonial discourse, which at best poorly reflects traditional and indigenous ways to view ceremonial life, and at worst, appropriates indigenous traditions. It is important to reflect on what also we may have lost, what deeper intricacies of widely different peoples and times may have been shrouded in this overarching frame.
Beyond a programme-based approach?
Is it enough to create outdoor programmes or modern-day rites of passage ceremonies and expect young people to just turn up? How do young people access these opportunities if they are not from an often-white, privileged background? How can we attend to the cultural needs of different people and communities? Does supporting our youth need to involve community and/or nature connection? How do we ensure that rites of passage are relevant, today? How do we ensure that rites of passage are sustainable and in service of all?
The stages of separation, threshold and incorporation identified by Van Gennep remain incredibly useful to understanding the journey we take as we cross life’s thresholds and may support us in understanding the bare bones of what makes a rite of passage. Yet creating modern day rites of passage requires us to ask what this means in our communities today, without appropriating the ceremonies of indigenous cultures around the world. Our task is first to listen to what emerges when we ask - what is meaningful here? What is relevant and reverent to support the transitions and thresholds of those who will step in?
As we turn to look at our future and dream into what is to come, we face many important questions about what is needed to bring human beings into healthy relationship with themselves, each other and the earth. There is an increased recognition of the need for our ancient relationship to rites of passage experiences to become a part of our modern way.
The Cups of Tea process
As part of Starter Culture’s wider ‘Cups of Tea’ process, I was invited to engage in exploratory conversations with rites of passage guides and organisations around the world to better understand the role of rites of passage in these times and to listen to what needs to happen to help this work deepen and flourish.
Through this process I have had the great honour to interview some incredible folk who have gifted us their time and experience to share some of their thoughts around:
- What does rites of passage mean to you?
- Why are you doing this work- what is the contemporary need?
- What are your experiences of bringing rites of passage into the world- what are some of the challenges, needs and opportunities/collaborations?
- What is your sense of what is needed for rites of passage to really flourish?
I have summarised the findings from this rich Cups of Tea process in a report which outlines the main challenges, needs and opportunities being experienced by rites of passage guides in their work supporting young people. It also describes the community-based approach that emerged as the overarching need in terms of supporting young people to flourish.
You can read the summary report in this shared document where you are invited to become part of this conversation by adding any questions or comments you might have: 'What is needed to support rites of passage with young people to flourish?'
If you'd prefer to download the PDF, you can do so below:
And you can read my blog Rites of Passage is a community movement here which talks more about a community approach to supporting young people that we are moving towards piloting."
Next steps: a community-based approach to supporting young people
Our next steps will follow on the trail of the emergent threads revealing themselves through these rich conversations capturing the wisdom and experience of rites of passage guides around the world, who between them have supported tens of thousands of young people in various countries.
We look forward to sharing more about the collaborative project we are now developing to pilot a community-based approach to supporting young people - in response to what emerged through this Cups of Tea process.
Musings from our elders
Below are two key pieces of writing from two elders in the field of rites of passage:
A musing from Bill Plotkin, founder of Animas Valley Institute, on the importance and limitations of rites of passage for young people journeying into adulthood
Get in touch
If you are engaged with supporting young people and would like to be involved in this collaborative approach, please drop us a line and let us know about the work you are involved in.
Many thanks to all those who participated in this process and shared their experiences and wisdom so openly. For a full list of those who shared their time please see the summary report. A special thank you to the School of Lost Borders and their exquisite guiding light!