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Initiation and Rites of Passage

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*Article originally published in Circles on the Mountain, gratefully republished here with permission from the author and original publisher


I’ve been wondering what we mean by “initiation.” There seem to be several possibilities. If, as guides, we say we’re offering initiation experiences, what do we mean? And what is the relationship between initiation and rites of passage?

In recent decades, the Western world has rediscovered the vital importance of initiation. We’ve recognized that over a span of many centuries we had lost something essential on the journey to becoming fully human. We’re remembering there’s something crucial that children need at puberty to guide them into a healthy adolescence. We’re remembering there’s something young men (and even middle-aged men) need in order to help them attain what is sometimes called “true manhood.” We’re remembering there’s something young women (and even middle-aged women) need to enable them to embrace the full promise of womanhood.

Most generally, I see three different meanings of “initiation,” corresponding to the beginning, middle, and end of a journey of personal change:

  • inception: the start of a process of transformation from one state of being to another; the first step of a journey (at its root, “initiation” means to begin, to enter upon)
  • the journey itself: the process of transformation from one state to another, a journey that might last months or years; being betwixt and between the old and new, in limbo, a liminal state; the journey includes practices and ceremonies to quicken the transformation and often instruction in mysteries and ritual knowledge
  • the final passage: the shift into a new state of being; the completion of the journey

When we speak about initiation, we might be referring to any one of these three aspects of the journey.

But, to make things a bit more complicated (it’s unavoidable), there seem to be two very different kinds of transitions people refer to as initiations:

  • social changes (including vocational, religious, therapeutic, and academic): acquiring a new social role (such as married, parent, debutante, divorced, retired) or religious status (confirmation and other attainments of religious majority) or religious role (novice, monk, priest, priestess) or academic standing (freshman, graduate, PhD candidate, associate professor, dean) or chronological/ biological state (maiden, mother, crone) or therapeutic status (in a healing process, in recovery, healed) or acquiring new membership or a new role in a social group, fraternity or sorority, gang, trade union, or secret society
  • psychospiritual transformations: major shifts in one’s existential place in the world and the accompanying changes in consciousness; death-rebirth passages; what Mircea Eliade referred to as “a basic change in existential condition” such as major life-stage passages (for example, birth, attainment of self-awareness, puberty, start of true adulthood or elderhood, death), spiritual conversions or illuminations (satori, enlightenment, encounters with the sacred or divine, wrestling with angels), other experiences that change your world (first experience of sex, romance, ESP, appreciating the difference between soul and Spirit, experiencing the cosmos as conscious and intelligent, or the implacable reality of death)

These are two very different categories of transitions. Most social changes do not entail significant psychospiritual shifts. You can get married without any fundamental change in your consciousness or world. You can faithfully go through all steps of an “initiation ritual” without being deeply changed in any way whatsoever, even if at the end you’re given new robes or a new title and people slap you on the back and treat you differently.

Conversely, most psychospiritual transformations entail no changes in social status (or vocational, religious, or academic standing). Although you might be thunderstruck by seeing the face of God for the first time or by your first encounter with the mysteries of your soul, perhaps no one notices or treats you any different — and your boss doesn’t give you a promotion and no university confers upon you an honorary degree.

But some transitions are both social and psychospiritual; or one kind of change triggers the other. For example, after giving birth, perhaps the world is truly a different place, your consciousness permanently shifted. Or you’re wounded in combat, receive a purple star or bronze medal (a change in military status), but also have your first indelible experience of the evil of war or the reality of mortality, a profound shift that permanently alters your life. Or, after your first time in space, you’re inducted into the guild of veteran astronauts but, like Edgar Mitchell, you’ve also had a profound experience of Earth as a living being, an experience that forever changes you and your experience of what the world is. Or, as a Buddhist monk, you experience satori, a Roshi recognizes this, and you’re asked to be a dharma teacher.

When we speak of initiation of either of the two kinds, we might mean the inception of the journey, the journey itself, or the completion of the journey. So, doing the math, that makes at least six sorts of things we might mean when we say “initiation.” For example, the inception of a social-religious journey: “There’ll be an initiation ceremony for Peter when he enters the seminary.” The process of a psychospiritual initiation journey: “By the fall of 1914, Carl Jung was several months into his multi-year confrontation with the unconscious.” A social-academic final passage: “Carlin has graduated from art school; Sunday is the initiation (commencement) ceremony.” Both a social and psychospiritual passage: “During her 13th year, Rebecca and her family joined several other families at a forest camp for a weeklong puberty rite.”

The long ceremony of the vision fast can help facilitate or mark any of the six kinds of initiations — or, in some cases, none of them — depending on such things as the intent of the guides and participants, the life stage and psychospiritual preparedness of the participant, and the design of the ceremony.

With most psychospiritual transformations, the passage is the fruit of a process or journey, often a rather long one of several months or more. No process, no passage. As guides, do we accompany people through their entire journey — or only mark its end with a ceremony? With many social transitions, in contrast, there might be little to no process (e.g., a wedding with no engagement period; or a weekend initiation ritual with little or no preparation). Major life passages usually require a lengthy initiatory process, usually the entire preceding life stage.

One last distinction regarding initiations: There are two kinds of circumstances — having to do with the agent of change — in which people undergo transformations of any of the six kinds:

  • Mystery changes you, shifts your psychospiritual center of gravity, sometimes with the supplemental support of an initiation guide or an entheogenic substance (for the word Mystery, you can substitute life, soul, Spirit, psyche, world, etc.)
  • another person changes you or confers the change upon you: an initiator, guru, priest, rabbi, academic dean, gang leader, superior officer, ritual guide, or elder (“I now pronounce you husband and wife,” “You are now a man,” “Welcome to the sisterhood,” etc.) — or perhaps you confer it upon yourself (e.g., by crossing a physical threshold)

Major life passages, such as attaining true adulthood, are always a matter of Mystery shifting our psychospiritual center of gravity. We cannot do this for ourselves and no one can do it for us, including through a rite of passage.

When it comes to psychospiritual transformations, rites of passage are ceremonial ways of marking or celebrating (not causing) the psychospiritual shift brought about by Mystery. In contrast, with rites of passage for social changes, the shift in social status is not merely marked by the rite but caused by the rite and conferred by the officiant of the rite (or by a whole community).

At Animas Valley Institute, we use the word “initiation” primarily to refer to one kind of psychospiritual transformation, the one we call Soul Initiation, by which we mean either the process (“the journey of Soul Initiation,” which usually spans several months or years) or the completion of that process (the passage of Soul Initiation).

The passage of Soul Initiation is only one of several major life passages possible in a full human life, but one experienced by perhaps only 10% of contemporary Western people. This is the passage from psychological late adolescence to true adulthood, a psychospiritual transformation earned in part by success with the tasks of the archetypal Wanderer, but ultimately brought about and conferred by Mystery. Ideally this passage is also recognized, marked, celebrated, and supported by a community, perhaps partly by way of a rite of passage.
Every major life passage is a psychospiritual transformation in two ways: It is a completion of one initiatory process (the previous stage) and an inception of a new one (the next stage). Puberty is an initiation in this sense — the end of childhood and the inception of adolescence. This is also true for eco-awakening (a first visceral experience of the world as thoroughly animate and of ourselves as native members of such a world). And for Soul Initiation. Birth, too, of course. And the attainment of conscious self-awareness, which occurs around the 4th birthday and which van Gennep referred to as Naming. Following Soul Initiation, there are (by my count) four additional major life passages possible, each of which can be thought of as psychospiritual initiations, the final of these being death.

About the Author: Bill Plotkin

Bill Plotkin, Ph.D., describes himself as a “psychologist gone wild.” An underworld guide, depth psychologist, and agent of cultural evolution, his ecocentric re-visioning of psychology invites us into a conscious and embodied relationship with soul and with the more-than-human world. As founder of southwest Colorado’s Animas Valley Institute, he has, since 1980, guided thousands of women and men through nature-based initiatory passages. He’s also been a research psychologist (studying nonordinary states of consciousness), university professor, rock musician, and whitewater river guide. Bill is the author of Soulcraft: Crossing into the Mysteries of Nature and Psyche (an experiential guidebook), Nature and the Human Soul: Cultivating Wholeness and Community in a Fragmented World (a nature-based stage model of human development), and Wild Mind: A Field Guide to the Human Psyche (an ecocentric map of the psyche — for healing, growing whole, and cultural transformation). To learn more about Bill and Animas Valley Institute, visit http://www.animas.org.

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