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Initiation and Endurance: An open letter to the community


In prefacing this letter, it references the accidental death of an 18 year old Daniel Rezmer, a young man from our community who had participated in every one of our local and international programs for four years. His death was a huge shock to both our Teen Journey community, his high school community, and the community at the University he began attending. His death was an initiation, one that prompted deep questions about who we are as an organization, our role in the community/village, and how we might respond.

He had just started University and a group of students went to a popular cliff jumping spot for the afternoon. The dam that fed into the river was opened making the water far more aggressive than usual, but no signs were put up to warn people. He was the first to jump, and he and the friend who followed were trapped in the water against the cliff face, clinging onto the side. While the fire and police looked on for 40 minutes without helping, two local workers attempted to rescue them without support. He ended up giving his life for his friend, and he could have been saved if people had worked together.

The symbolism of his death was profound in that it demonstrated that the work of preparing our youth for the world they are inheriting will come from the grassroots. Also, that we must all work together to help them learn to support each other in developing the skills that will empower them to create the kinds of communities that will navigate these turbulent times ahead. Lastly, how unprepared we are to really process the grief that such initiations bring, and how we are learning as a culture to be vulnerable, committed and responsible enough to respond to life’s initiations.

For those who have read the famous elder who spoke on the Hopi Prophecy, Daniel’s passing illuminated the truth of his entire message, which ended in the haunting words “you are the ones you have been waiting for.”

[Image of Daniel by Jacklyn Tomei]

Dear Youth Passageways Community,

Our organization, the Teen Journey Society, suspended its activities this year and whenever there is a gap – a space between  stories – there is an opportunity for something new to gestate. During this gestation period I am engaging with the question of individual of collective change in relation to Rites of Passage, and I would like to open up this inquiry to a larger community of practice for feedback. One of the premises put forth in this letter is that: Our capacity to be adapted by initiatory events and the transformation of individuals within the community is directly related to our capacity to endure.

I use the word community with intent, because community implies a collection of individuals who are bound together in service to a shared story, or myth, of who they are and what they are here to do. I feel that the Youth Passageways network has taken an important step in creating a platform and identity for the formation of a community that recognizes the importance of the revitalization of both Rites of Passage as a tradition, as well as the entire infrastructure that is required to make this successful and relevant to our modern society and planetary trajectory.

In the words of Joseph Campbell:

“And what it [the new mythology]  will have to deal with will be exactly what all myths have dealt with – the maturation of the individual from dependency through adulthood, through maturity, and then to the exit; and then how to relate to this society and how to relate this society to the world of nature and the cosmos.

All this hope for something happening in society has to wait for something in the human psyche, a whole new way of experiencing a society. And the crucial question here, as I see it, is simply: With what society, what social group, do you identify yourself? Is it going to be with all the people of this planet, or is it going to be with your own particular group? “

The Teen journey vision is “to support the emergence of a global village connected from the heart”. I do believe that this is a simple and profound story, within which lies the DNA of this RoP community. To quote from the opening of the Youth Passageways vision statement: As we confront an unparalleled global crisis — what many are calling a time of collective initiation — there is a growing recognition that the revitalization of rites of passage has the potential to play a leading role in the renewal of our communities and the human family.

In examining the quotes of Campbell, our vision as a society and of the Youth Passageways network, it is clear that we are in service to a perennial challenge of humanity, with an added dimension: of the maturation of the individual and the collective, and to establish this identity in relationship to nature and the cosmos.

Additionally, my notion that this work can be accomplished by an organization in the conventional sense of the word has been challenged. With humility I have come to recognize that our best efforts are placed in aligning the structure and activities of our collective to be in service towards what we identify to be the evolving myth, and be very open to change.

In this letter I open the dialogue by briefly speaking to a few questions:  What is the challenge of change? What is emergence? What is the contrast between global and village? What is a Rite of Passage? How do rites of passage bridge the village and the world? And what role does the heart have to play in all this?

The Challenge of Change:

The biggest challenge faced by any individual or organization is that of change, because it threatens our idea of how we are to ensure our duration. To quote the I-Ching, which is maybe the most developed system of understanding the dynamics of change and duration:

duration is a condition whose movement is not exhausted by obstacles. It is not a state of rest (in the sense of absence of motion), for mere standstill is retrogression. Hence duration is self-renewing movement of an organized, integrated whole which proceeds in harmony with immutable laws.”

According to the I-Ching, duration is achieved through transformation. Resistance to transformation leads to exhaustion, which creates standstill and then retrogression. We learned that our effectiveness is dependent on our ability to continually self-renew – we are challenged to become an emergent system within and without, individually and as an organization.As we have discovered, the process of change can be slow, challenging and unpredictable, and I feel that this is at the heart of The Work. We recognize that in order to endure we must change, yet we unconsciously resist the change that we know we must make. The bigger the change, the bigger the resistance. The more diverse and innovative the community, the more challenging it is to find shared norms, rituals and authorities to accommodate change. Our experience has shown us that to truly transform as an RoP organization embedded in a community requires a degree of responsibility, self-awareness, agility and courage that requires conscious cultivation. In essence, we have to be able to work with the natural law of emergence.


Emergence is a term, commonly used in science, where a complex interactions of natural processes give rise to a new phenomena or organism that would have been impossible to predict prior to the transformation. The interesting thing about emergent phenomena is that it usually cannot be detected through interactions of smaller, simpler entities; the emergence becomes visible through the larger entities, patterns or regularities.

One of the best examples of this is the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly. In the case of this marvelous transformation, there is a tremendous resistance from the caterpillar that is being transformed inside the cocoon. Even though the caterpillar has formed this cocoon to dissolve itself so that it can be reborn into something totally new, it literally attacks the butterfly cells – called imaginal cells – as they replicate and recognize each other to form larger clumps of cells that develop into the various features of the butterfly-to-be. However, as the new identity of the butterfly becomes established by the replication and collaboration of cells that reflect this new self-image, the momentum builds until such a metamorphosis is unstoppable.

In this sense, emergence is a kind of rite of passage found in nature, and this is because natural systems are emergent by design. It is the part of the evolutionary process for all life to undergo the process of emergence. We are discovering principles of emergent design processes are emulated in human systems, and indeed, have been for thousands of years by many indigenous cultures. The most significant of these design principles is that of fractality, or what is also called sacred geometry. In fractal systems, the whole is a reflection of the sum of its parts, where everything is connected and each individual fractal contains the essence of the whole within it.

However, to truly model a fractal system consciously, we must reach a certain degree of inner freedom and spiritual understanding as a group. It is our story of separation, our frozen personalities, our judgements and opinions that stop the fluidity and naturalness of a system that works in harmony with its fractals. The challenge that the individual and the group faces is that the unconscious will often try and prevent the transformation from taking place (just like the caterpillar resists the butterfly). It is by shedding our layers of rigid ideas of who we are and how the world is that we can become natural and fearless enough to allow what is truly emerging in the present moment to arise. Ironically, this takes a deeper kind of structural integrity, one that is totally present, authentic and fundamentally loving. This is where our freedom lies, and it is worth the work to get there.

We at Teen Journey have been learning how to weave cocoons so that emergent processes can take place that lead to transformative experiences for youth. What I have been coming to understand is that the state of adolescence is almost pathological in our society, because so few people have had the womb experience significantly enough to really be re-born. This second womb, or cocoon, was the role of religion before. As uncomfortable as this may make some people feel, I believe that our work is very spiritual in nature, and is also maturing through its relationships with other fields in the arts and sciences so as to access a wider language and not remain dogmatic.

We are now in an age where spiritual work occurs mostly in the domain of the individual, so if we are not doing our Work individually then we cannot fully support the transformations that our youth are undergoing. What I have also seen is that if an organization represents a community, the organization will be tested to see if it can adapt to the needs of the community during a time of crisis. This is where we come into an area of even greater challenge and unpredictability, where the organization itself is put through a Rite of Passage.

Rites of Passage:

The definition of a Rite of Passage by a long time expert in this field, Ron L Grimes, is: “A gesture, swelling up from a sea of relationships, into a momentary performative event.” I like this definition because it acknowledges the deeply emergent nature of ROP. A community’s ability to undergo and perform ROP’s is the defining factor in its capacity for resilience and evolution. The passing away of the young Daniel Rezmer in our community is a perfect example of this, and the manner by which we as a community processed his death will determine the degree to which we were initiated and transformed in service to the myth that is evolving through us as a society.

Daniels passing led to a number of gestures. From the first gathering on the bridge two days from his passing, to his memorial and funeral service, his passing was an initiatory experience for individuals, for a community, and an indicator of our depth and capacity (or lack of) to respond to a ROP event. I bring up Daniel for a number of reasons, and I cannot discuss them all here. I would just like to note for now that there are two main forms of rites of passage for communities, one that is planned and executed by us, and another that is thrust upon us, evoking a gesture as a response from the sum total of relationships as a human fractal.

Indeed, even the ones that are planned and executed follow much of the spontaneity of the second kind (as we have learned through experience). What I would like to propose

here is that a community’s’ capacity to be initiated by the events of its own life are directly proportional to its potency for initiating youth into participation within the life of the larger society

In the case of Daniel’s death, we were challenged in our capacity to grieve deeply as a community, and to act in a way that truly honored his memory and transformed this tragedy into a source of hope. Not hope in the heroic sense of the term, but the hope that comes from knowing that the remembrance of deep humanness is still with us – that we can respond as a village, take responsibility with shared compassion and dignity, and receive the messages that such significant experiences have to share with us.

Daniel, as I said at his memorial, began to display the signs of a whole human being. He displayed the signs of one who was raised in a village devoted to the total potential of a human being; one who is natural, compassionate, happy, and seeking enlightenment while being service to his local and global community. Young people like Daniel I believe are now the norm, not the exception, all they need is the right environment.

His father and mother provided him a place of virtuous influences, nourishing food, wise elders, a conscious space for peers to gather, heal and play, and many opportunities for him to pursue his passions. Can we recreate a village like this today, not in the sense of huts that are all close together, but spaces and influences that provide this nourishment? This is the task that I felt Daniel whispering into my heart as I sat in mass to pray for his soul.

The Village:

This brings up the question: who is the community really? how do we know the appropriate response to life’s initiations and thus know how to initiate our youth? In the context of Teen Journey, the structure that we sought to hold the community is the village. I must admit that I am not an expert in village models, but in some sense, this is also a blessing. In the words of the Zen master D.T. Suzuki ” the beginners mind has many possibilities, the experts few.” It may look nothing like what initially comes to our minds.

Simply viewed, I saw a village as a collection of families, not necessarily related by blood, that share economic, cultural, political, and ecological space and practice. One that includes children, mothers, fathers, youth, mentors and elders, and have a way for them to participate. We require the ability to address a wider spectrum of the different initiations that occur over the course of a life-cycle, and have relatively organic ways of exchanging knowledge and services that support the whole.

I feel that a major part of the effort in developing a village model that speaks to our contemporary realities is to create something that is transcultural – meaning that it is able to draw upon the wisdom and practices of many cultures. A big part of this envisioning what kind of village we want to build. To use a permaculture term, we must “design with the end in mind.” The fractal that we develop on a local level will be the fractal that is shared on a global level.

It is for this reason that I write with such intensity, because I have seen the growing pains of this organization and what it was striving to become – a new paradigm village that addresses the timeless theme of all myths and cultures:  the maturation of the individual from dependency through adulthood, through maturity, and then to the exit; and then how to relate to this society and how to relate this society to the world of nature and the cosmos.

A village may be necessary because all the life cycles are represented in the village, and the lessons of many life cycles are necessary in order for a true preparation for the soul to be initiated and then be of service to its human and non-human community; whether a youth experiences these in one location or many is not as important. Furthermore, our work on a local level must be understood as a contribution and reflection of a global process, of which we are members. For this to occur, real relationships and communication between other such villages is essential, and this is why international work and trips are essential to the unfolding vision.

The vision of a post-modern village is a new one, and it can indeed seem daunting. However, it is my belief that our destiny is to model this in both an urban and rural context, on a city and province context, on a bioregional and international context. We are not alone in this work; I have read many thinkers and met many doers engaged in this soul-work. For indeed, the village we are building is not only for ourselves but for our future generations. We may not see the fruits of our great vision in this lifetime, but we can plant the seeds and tend the garden for our young ones to harvest as they bloom into beautiful flowers of the future.

The Heart:

What then is the role of the heart in all this? The heart is the seat of our divine intelligence, it is the place that receives and transmits the feelings of the universal fractal in accordance with our own consciousness. It is the crucible in which our work takes place. A village cannot be fabricated in a contrived manner, at least not a village capable of Rites of Passage that support our spiritual awakening. For, in order for lasting results to occur, the village must be exist to prepare youth to embrace the call of their souls support them through the process.

This means that the village must itself be practicing living and loving through their spirituality, and responding whole-heartedly to the initiations in its own life-cycle. A village has to be connected from the heart center, otherwise people will not be able to give what is required for the village to thrive. This is why Teen Journey leads youth on a journey to the heart to discover who they are; because who we are is rooted in our experience of interconnectedness, in relationship to those whom we serve and are served by. As our individual and collective identity is maturing, the concept of the village needs to be re-formed to support this maturation.

The education of the heart is what will always keep us on track; it is the guiding light of our mission. It is this work of the heart that forges a community that cares, that can be relied on during times of great difficulty and rejoiced with in times of celebration. It will draw us into the acts of wildness and courage that the small Self will try and dissuade us from. It was such an act that drew the first team who came together for the Teen Journey Camp that was the seed of what we have become today.

Closing thoughts:

If we are to really embrace the capacities of directing, creating policy, and monitoring the activities of an organization that is working towards such noble visions, we must truly be able to engage these concepts; to fluently converse in them, to feel them in our genes. We are after all in service to a dream, to a local and global village that seeks to be forged in the heart, and to a larger mythos of a world that has revitalized the traditions of Rites of Passage and its role in renewing communities and the human family at large.

Our small organization has matured through it’s life cycle, which is usually a seven-year turnover, and is poised to make another transformation soon. My sense is that we are being asked to step into a more rooted and expanded definition of who we are, while  realistically assessing our capacities to perform the mission that we have set out to achieve. Indeed, it will require many partnerships and alliances in the spirit of family and service to our coming generations. I don’t have all the answers for how to accomplish this, but they are certainly available for us to access if we keep returning to these kinds of questions.

It is excellent that we now have this platform to help us share a certain level of understanding that is necessary for such visions to be realized. Love is born of understanding, and through this understanding we can really manifest our work with great love. It is the power of love that is at the heart of this work; it is love that is choosing to initiate us over fear as we embrace a new way of being in the world and pave the way for a generation of youth who’s evolved consciousness will create the communities that our hearts know are possible. I trust in this power.

May love be our guide and the beauty of our village and its young souls be its measure.
All my relations,

About the Author: Zamir Dhanji

Zamir Dhanji is a dharma artist who works with music, poetry, storytelling and cutting-edge scholarship. He graduated with a concentration in Spiritual Economics from New York University, his thesis, titled "Holism and human evolution", explored the relationship between holistic thinking and our views on nature and evolution. Program director for the Teen Journey Society and founder of Akasha Arts, his passion is in synthesizing art, science and spirituality to support the emergence of an evolutionary culture.

Website: www.zamirdhanji.com


  1. “For a seed to achieve its greatest expression it must come completely undone. The shell cracks, its insides come out and everything changes! To someone who doesn’t understand growth it would look like complete destruction.” Cynthia Occe

    I have this quote taped above my desk. I was instantly reminded of it while reading your piece, Zamir.

    First, let me congratulate you on your passionate and wise inquiry. I found it very thought-provoking. I only wish you had included the preface directly into the piece and, in fact, more of the specifics of Daniel’s death and your community’s subsequent actions. For me personally that is not only where the greatest “juice” lies but also where the most helpful lessons of your experience may reside.

    Before I go on to briefly address some of the greater questions your inquiry raises, let me say that my heart weeps for Daniel and for your deep community loss. It is a lasting and abiding sorrow for all to lose one so talented and so full of life so young. Tears are in my eyes.

    Over the years, by virtue of many discussions I’ve had with ROP practitioners, I’ve found many lines of division within the philosophy and practice of ROP: nature-based vs. “anywhere”-based; communities vs. programs; gender-specific vs. all-genders together; culturally specific vs. multi-cultural; age-exclusive vs. age-inclusive; etc.

    One of these fault lines exists between those that say “life initiates” and those that say “the community initiates,” ie., the community must create structures or containers to hold initiation. Two camps. Michael Meade and Bill Plotkin, to name only two, I would put in the former category. Perhaps the vast majority of people in this YP community, certainly most of those who have ROP programs, would probably fall in the latter category. Of course, as is usually the case with seeming polarities, both are true.

    This is never more apparent to me than when I speak in front of urban communities about ROP. So many urban young people, usually of color and low income, do not really need structured ROPs no matter how wonderful those ROPs may be. The reason? Because all too often they have already faced death – through the death of a friend, sibling, parent, or neighbor. One young man in East Oakland who I was filming last year saw his best friend gunned down by a third friend when he was 12 years old. Right in front of him. What boys like him need are mentors to help them understand that “life” has already begun their initiation. To support them through the rage and grief and fear to tease out what is positive and wholesome on the other side – the lessons that are unique to their lives, usually ones related to “What are you now going to do with the gift of your life?” Not surprisingly, the same initiatory pattern holds true for combat veterans, EMTs, firefighters, et al.

    So we as community members have to be prepared to respond when “life initiates” those around us. We have to support them across that threshold. We also have to be prepared to offer initiation processes and ceremonies to those for whom life has not yet forced into this deep reckoning. Those for whom, through smaller signs like thievery, acts of violence, drunken, drugged, or risky behavior, life has shown us wise ones in the community that “they’re ready.”

    And, as you imply, when we meet the above sets of challenges we also effectively initiate ourselves. We enforce greater cohesion of the community as a whole through collective action, collective grieving, collective ritual.

    Recently a man addressed me after a talk I gave. He was adamant that I understand the proper translation of the famous African maxim: “It takes a WHOLE village to raise a child.” The addition of “whole” was paramount for him. I really appreciate his point of view and have subsequently amended my usage of the maxim.

    You allude to this issue Zamir when you state how important it is that all the different life stages are reflected in all the different village members. This is essential. Our culture is so starved for inter-generational relationships that we tend to lump everyone into “elders, youngers, and mid-lifers” when there are so many categories and sub-categories of life experience that need to be on offer. Every village member has something different to contribute from their unique life-stage (and personality and character) vantage-point.

    I also believe that culturally specific and geographically unique initiation, when properly supported and held by the community, can, must, and will open the initiate to the world of interconnection, to the trans-cultural level of understanding. And do so “organically,” ie., these lessons will be experientially embedded in the threshold experience(s). This is a fundamental element of what’s “spiritual” about initiation. It’s hard to imagine an initiation worthy of the name that doesn’t help a person better situate her or himself within a deeper understanding of the cosmos, how their very life is inextricably woven into the fabric of all life. But if for some reason they aren’t, I would then rely on elders to tease out that lesson for them.

    Lastly, I’m left with what seems my perennial challenge to almost all those I come into contact with these days. Zamir, who is mentoring you and your organization? Where were they during this experience? Did you reach out to them? Were they helpful? As a community leader, who holds and supports you? Especially in times of crisis? All too often I encounter visionary leaders who are great at supporting others but less than great at supporting themselves and their work. Is that true for you? Your inquiry seems to hint at a failure of eldership but I can’t really say.

    with deep love and admiration,

    it takes a “whole” village

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