Navigating Rites of Passage & Initiation

Rites of passage are accompanied
by tenacity.
The tunnel of death and rebirth
demands supreme effort, 
demands holding on
without orientation
until the light.

—Marion Woodman

 

Rites of passage are initiations. They are a crossing over a threshold into a new way of seeing yourself, another person, a relationship, the world, or into a new way of being.

You may be going through an initiation or a rite of passage now, and if you are you are likely needing to dig deep, hold on to yourself, or hold on for the wild ride.

The experience of digging deep and holding on — the tenacity Woodman speaks of — is the reason rites of passage and initiations make us stronger.

There are many rites of passage in life. Here are a few:

  • Becoming an adult and leaving the family home
  • Getting married
  • Receiving previously unknown information that forever changes the way you understood something, someone, or a relationship
  • Becoming a parent
  • Losing a relationship through separation, divorce, or death
  • Becoming the elder in your family
  • Losing your identity after leaving a job or profession
  • Graduating college
  • Menopause

Some rites of passage are mostly positive, some are a combination of efforting and enjoyment (parenting), and some are excruciating and painful.

All rites of passage require the death of the old, and a rebirth into something new.

The most painful rites of passage are often not of one’s own choosing, or not our first choice. And these initiations are accompanied by intense grieving and disorientation as we face the death of an identity, the death of a dream, or the death of an expected or imagined future.

When initiations are navigated “well enough” they build mental, emotional, and psychic grit that gets carried forward into our new life.

The tunnel of death and rebirth through which all initiations take place is like a threshold. We have one foot on the side of our life we are leaving, and the other foot is in motion — crossing over to the other side — but not quite there yet.

One of the dangers at the threshold crossing is when the transition to the other side is not completed.

For example, maybe a relationship ended and rather than fully accept the death of the relationship and move into your new life, you remain mentally and emotionally corded to the other person — even though by all outward appearances the relationship no longer exists. But it still exists in your mind.

This thwarted right of passage manifests as obsessing about the other person or repeating over and over and over to yourself  that you will never have the relationship you want, or you will never find someone new, or you will never trust again.

Being stuck in this way is like taking up residence in the tunnel — dwelling in darkness.

And sadly, your internal messages will manifest in reality as you remain stuck in the tunnel, or suspended over the threshold, because you haven’t said good-bye to the old in order to create the space to say hello to the new.

The period between death and rebirth is referred to as being in the “bardo” by Tibetan Buddhists.

The bardo is a state of limbo and speaks to Woodman’s description of a rite of passage as, “holding on without orientation until the light.”

As you cross the threshold and as you make your way through the tunnel of death and rebirth you must hold on until you reach the light.

How does one navigate a rite of passage?

Accept what is

Recognize the season you are in for what it is, and constantly remind yourself that rites of passage are difficult and challenging.

Because you are in a period of disorientation, lower expectations around having clarity or direction. Disorientation is a kind of mental, emotional, or psychic dizziness, so it’s not realistic to expect that you will function as you usually do, or perform the way you did before you began crossing over the threshold.

While it may be invisible to everyone else, you’ve been spun around blindfolded and you’re trying to get your bearings.

Accept that this is a season, and be kind to you.

Pay attention

When life becomes challenging it is tempting to want to check out, to go unconscious, or to reach for anything that will distract or numb. Don’t do that (at least not too much).

Pay close attention to what is happening around you, especially anything that is out of the ordinary, and your night dreams.

Once, when I was in a period of massive transition and feeling unsure about where I wanted to live, out of the blue I started receiving mail for another person at the address where I was living. I was immediately gripped by an uncharacteristic feeling of indignation and possessiveness that surprised me, and gave me clarity about my desires.

What is happening around you may hold important clues and guidance for you.

Embrace mystery

Navigating through a rite of passage is a mystery. There is no roadmap and the destination is often not clear or even known.

Western culture has forgotten the beauty of mystery, and prefers that life be logical and rational. Transitions like rites of passage can appear and feel chaotic, confusing, and illogical. And that’s okay.

Simplify

Rites of passage and initiations often require us to reduce or shed activities, obligations, and even people.  It’s as if we’re being called to travel more lightly, at least for awhile.

Reduce expectations of yourself. If you don’t, your journey through the tunnel and into the light may be unnecessarily and painfully prolonged.

Embrace impermanence

Remind yourself constantly that you are in a season of your life, and that it is not permanent.

Expressions like, “This too shall pass,” or, “Let whatever needs to come, come and whatever needs to go, go,” are helpful when you’re feeling frustrated or stuck.

 

Invitations for reflection, exploration, and action:

  • Recall a rite of passage you navigated earlier in your life. How were your mental, emotional, or psychic muscles strengthened?
  • If you are in a rite of passage now, how can you simplify and reduce expectations so that you can experience more acceptance and ease?

 


© Vicki Tidwell Palmer (2021)

Coming Home to Myself: Reflections for Nurturing a Woman’s Body and Soul (©1998)
By Marion Woodman and Jill Mellick
(Reprinted with permission)

*This post is from the Coming Home to You Series. Visit this page for the backstory of the CHTY Series.

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The deepest experience of the creator is feminine, for it is experience of receiving and bearing.”

Rainer Maria Rilke