Spiritual rites of passage and spiritual transitions are essential for building community and preparing us for future life challenges. It makes you wonder why our modern culture overlooks these benchmarks.
Any event which has a significant impact on our lives is worthy of commemorating. Remembering them helps us better prepare for the future. If the event is positive, like obtaining a degree, it helps us remember what it took to achieve it. If the event is negative, it can help us change our behavior so that we don’t repeat it or help us manage the effect, such as the loss of a loved one.
These events are spiritual rites of passage. Many ancient cultures had rituals marking these points, but our modern culture has attempted to remove these from our lives. It makes you wonder why?
To make the culture inclusive, they remove benchmarks unique to specific groups. Then they impose a “one-size-fits-all” approach by creating national holidays. Unfortunately, this often has the opposite effect intended. Instead of creating unity, it erases the identity of ethnic groups and isolates them.
Any major event brings the opportunity to memorialize the transition. It is common to memorize or honor these transitions with a ritual. The ritual involved does not have to be elaborate. A moment of silence is an example of a ceremony to commemorate a significant life event.
Symptoms of Spiritual Transitions
We should not overlook the importance of these benchmarks. They remind us of the different phases in our experience and learn important lessons. It provides us with the courage to heal. Benchmarks are a reminder of the actions that led to the event. These could be transitions can either be positive or negative.
Some transition points are spiritual rites of passage worthy of commemoration; chief among these signs are events that have a long-lasting emotional impact. For instance, births, deaths, graduations, and marriages are significant transitions. Unfortunately, accidents and illnesses can also be important life transition points. Together they are the typical “symptoms of spiritual transitions.”
For example, earning a degree takes a lot of hard work. The degree is a memorial to the hard work to get it. This achievement is a building block that helps us to accomplish other things. Similarly, if the event is an accident caused by negligent or bad behavior, this serves as a reminder of what not to do.
Every benchmark is essential. Every day changes in our lives represent incremental changes. Unless we are self-aware and keep a journal, we miss these. Some changes we plan or expect, and other times they are unexpected. Sometimes they are transitions we anticipate will occur but don’t know when. Our physical death is just such a transition. There are three ways to group these transitions or benchmarks.
- Cultural Rites
- Spiritual Rites
- Personal Rites
Cultural Rites of Passage
Ancient cultures use these transition points and milestones as glue for the culture. They had rites to celebrate every kind of transition from childhood to adulthood. These were opportunities to rally and celebrate. They also provided both examples of acceptable and unacceptable behavior.
Most importantly, they can show the cohesiveness of society. When people share the same spiritual transitions, it can bring people together. Similarly, when people celebrate cultural differences, it also brings people. It’s when nationalism is forced upon people that they cause division. People want the choice to join. Ideologies like patriotism and nationalism create artificial boundaries and hierarchies that are detrimental to the culture over time. So, when a culture integrates these symbols, values, and rituals, they also become spiritual rites of passage.
Cultural rites can include spiritual changes, as well. These events or catalysts do not need to be positive. A catastrophe such as an earthquake or plague can bring out the best or the worst in people.
When people rally around each other, it builds community. For example, people from diverse backgrounds can build healthy communities and protect the weak in the group held captive in concentration camps. Or a crisis can cause the entire culture to fracture if people do not rally around each other. We see people acting with greed and selfishness during the pandemic when leadership does not bring people together for a common cause.
For example, when a leader steps down to give another authority, there is a ceremony to honor his service. It marks the transition of their power to the successor. And, these cultural rites differ depending on culture and situation.
A healthy culture can accommodate several traditions and historical narratives. There doesn’t need to be one cultural narrative that fits everyone. Unification is not the pluralization of all cultures into one. Instead, it is the acceptance of diversity as a means of unification. Diversity is only an issue when one tradition dominates the cultural narrative.
How do you create a unified culture but still celebrate different cultures? It takes conscious work to balance the needs. The goal is to create an inclusive culture while also promoting individual expression. However, it is impossible to create an inclusive culture if elements of a subculture contain negative bias and prejudice.
Unfortunately, many societies are not inclusive. They resort to censorship and groupthink manipulation in an attempt to control conflict. They create scapegoats for problems. It enables one group to marginalize minorities while garnering the necessary support to stay in power.
Spiritual Rites of Passage
There is a typical formula for spiritual transitions; separation, cleaning, death, and rebirth. This process is cyclical, as with the coming of each season. Most interestingly, you’ll see this same pattern reflected in many cultures. Joseph Campbell, a noted anthropologist, uses Hero’s Journey to describe the universal spiritual quest. We use this in the same pattern in our blended learning strategy. This quest is structured in three phases, awakening, transforming, and inspiring.
We need to recognize our spiritual call. If we try to ignore it can result in emotional distress. The first phase of the “spiritual calling” is the desire to explore the unknown. It is a rite of passage that commemorates the first steps on the path.
Separation or Awakening
The separation aspect is essential to draw focus on the processes to come. It corresponds with the awakening aspect of the Hero’s Journey. In ancient cultures, this separation was often a physical one. For example, they take away the candidate on a physical adventure in some cultures. Isolation symbolizes the inward journey. They may even blindfold them and then take them into the wilderness.
Sometimes they put the candidate in a cave, hut, or sweat lodge. Today, the weekend retreat where we turn off electronic devices works as an adequate substitute. Separation provides space for awakening. Solitude separates us from normal day-to-day activities. So we all can take this inward journey.
Cleansing the body and mind, preparing for change is the next step. Some cultures use a ritual bath as a symbolic cleansing of the mind and spirit. Others use special diets for periods and even remove all body hair. Various cleansing rituals focus on the candidate for learning.
Cleansing also can be part of the home. Downsizing or decluttering the house is also a way of cleansing. You are preparing the mind by giving it space. Cleansing your physical area is symbolic of this action.
Symbolic death is a concept in many religious traditions and spiritual rites of passage. It corresponds with the transformation aspect of the Hero’s Journey. In some ancient cultures, the candidates did not realize it was only a symbolic act, and many candidates thought they would die. It’s also a familiar hazing ritual used by secret societies.
Some cultures used scarification, tattoos, and even dismemberment to emphasize their importance. This symbolic death would sign their initiation level, making them worthy, committed, and focused on learning.
Symbolic death often represents the removal of previous beliefs and barriers. Because without the ability to leave them behind, we often cannot access or use spiritual technologies that require an open mind.
Today we use comparative analysis to examine our paradigm. A process like this reveals our sacred ground. It gives us the motivation to move beyond our limitations. A necklace with a small trinket symbolizes this undertaking.
The final aspect of the spiritual rite of passage is the symbolic rebirth. The Hero’s Journey corresponds to both transformation and inspiration elements. We transform to live-in-spirit. It comes about as a direct result of applying the new spiritual technologies. Perception changes to the extent that one adopts to greater awareness.
Seeing things in new ways also has unintended consequences. Your conscience and your heart grow. Now see both the good and the bad, so you must act on these motivations. It is what makes the world better. We need more people who find a passion for the greater well-being of the planet.
Personal Rites of Passage
If the culture does not recognize important life events and benchmarks, people create their own. That’s because they are important landmarks for our psyche. So, if there is no “space” for this in the popular culture, the subculture will develop its “own” milestones to commemorate significant events. These personal rites can reflect elements of both cultural and spiritual traditions.
Gangs and religious sects are examples of the creation of personal rites. They create new subcultures. So, a subculture can contain symptoms of spiritual transition. They develop rites of passage to commemorate entry and levels of rank and hierarchy within the culture. Along with these rites, they create symbols, objects of power, and rituals. The symbolism of these special rites links to psychological typologies that influence our thinking and values. These bond them to the new subculture.
When a culture fractures, it’s a sign that it does not otherwise support everyone’s cultural diversity. Fracturing causes more division as the subcultures set up boundaries, often creating bias and prejudice. The modern culture emphasizes creating a homogenized monotone environment where commerce can occur. It does not support individuality unless they can package and sell it to you.
The loss of something or someone important will significantly impact our lives. It’s why many cultures support the grieving process for the loss of a loved one. Most ancient civilizations were better at this than we are today. That is because the culture recognized these events as spiritual transformations.
Creating Spiritual Rites of Passage
You don’t need to belong to a gang or religion to create meaningful rituals to celebrate significant life milestones. As mentioned above, modern culture often does not recognize these personal milestones. So, you are free to develop your “own” rites and rituals. These are usually the keys to unlocking your spiritual gifts. It’s another reason modern culture downplays these events.
When you create your “own” spiritual rites of passage, you celebrate your heritage and accomplishments. Any significant life event is worthy of this type of celebration. One way to break the monotony of modern life is to recognize our progress. Small steps can be worthy of celebration. For example, if you are trying to lose weight, staying the exact weight is a benchmark that tells you that you are not gaining weight.
Although we live in a modern world, we should not overlook the importance of spiritual rites of passage.
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(1) Joseph Campbell & Joseph Campbell’s book The Hero’s Journey, Wikipedia