Creating Your Own AWEsome Rite of Passage in the Modern World

We think of rites of passage as a way to prove ourselves to our community and to the world; a way to communicate our value and usefulness. Because of this connotation, the opportunity to pass through a coming of age rite has fallen away with the modern understanding that we are all worthy of praise regardless of merit. While we should constantly communicate to our youth (and adults alike) their inherent value, we must also recognize that rites of passage mean much more than demonstrating external abilities and usefulness.

The true meaning of a rite of passage is the opportunity to explore who you are and of what you are capable.

Upon first meeting, Shane and I made an immediate deep connection upon the need for rites of passage in our society. One of the final questions Shane asked his Essentialist interviewees was for their suggestion of a rite of passage for the modern world. Despite prior knowledge of the questions, I failed to give any sort of specific answer. I said that it must include some sort of challenge that will bring both physical hardship and internal struggle.

With our new focus on IHD, I have been considering this question in far more depth and regularity. Rites of passage seem obvious when we see them, but in crafting a recipe, the specific ingredients are much harder to discern. They have an ethereal quality of: “I’ll know if when I see it, but I can’t tell you how it's done.” We can point to the classic, traditional examples but it’s difficult to create a modern equivalent.

The beauty of our modern society is that we have an abundance of experience available to us compared to our primal ancestors. This is both a blessing and a curse. A balanced diet and active lifestyle used to be guaranteed as every human lived in accordance to the tribal needs and patterns hewn from generations of tribal life. Now, faced with the “Omnivore’s Dilemma,”  an abundance of dietary options pulls us away from that natural harmony. Much like our nutritional choice paradox, in a world that provides availability to nearly endless life experiences, which will provide the transformative, positive growth to mimic the rites of passage of old?

There is no “correct” diet. We can only educate ourselves to become the most well-informed omnivores possible. Similarly, you have the opportunity to craft personal rites of passage. I have discovered the three pillars upon which these transformational experiences stand.

Solitude

Solitude, both in long stretches and brief moments, engenders deep growth.

Once the restlessness subsides, extended periods of solitude leave us alone with only our own thoughts.  A personality can be described as the summation of all our thoughts and actions and the evolution of their patterns and trends over time. Interpersonal interactions are the deepest expression of personality. In many ways, we “are who we are” only in relation to others (no man is an island, or something like that). 

Periods of solitude allow us insight to examine what lies inside, free from the constant inflow and outflow of interaction. I spent nearly 9 months traveling alone. I had brief acquaintances and was joined for short stretches by old friends, but I also frequently found myself passing days on end without speaking. This extreme solitude, while not sustainable or fulfilling in the long-term, allowed me  a unique and invaluable opportunity for introspection. I learned to be internally fulfilled, content even in times of extreme boredom. I became a more keen observer of the world around me. Most beneficial, in long periods of introspection, I came face-to-face with aspects of myself that I truly wished to change.

We can also find solitude in micro moments; in situations when you must entirely stand on your own. These moments allow us to both discover and prove our personal abilities to ourselves. When paddling into a huge wave or caught in a storm high in the mountains, we can expect no assistance except that which we discover internally. However brief, moments of self-reliance are an extremely potent form of solitude and a hallmark of the rite of passage.

Deep Challenge

Deep physical, emotional, mental, and spiritual struggle are the most obvious ingredients to create a personal rite.

Ideally, we are confronted with many or all at once. Shane has written extensively (and beautifully) about how challenge and hardship can prove some of the most potent forces for shaping strong and fulfilled individuals. These can be as quick as our beloved RKC snatch test or as grand as hiking the Pacific Crest Trail. 

Mental and emotional struggle almost always accompany physical challenge once doubt and the desire to quit rise to the surface. Learning the ability to push these aside and continue moving forward brings far more benefit than any physical adaptations to follow.

While deep physical challenges (with the inevitable accompanying mental and emotional components) provide amazing personal proving grounds, they fall short of a complete rite of passage. Spiritual growth is the most important aspect of any rite of passage. The spirituality that I am referring to supersedes and jives perfectly with any personal spiritual beliefs you might already hold.

Awe

Before diving in, let’s define awe. While a bit nebulous and highly personal, states of awe are far more profound than the myriad of situations that we so casually describe as “awesome.” 

Awe is characterized by two factors: grandeur and vastness followed by a complete forgetting of the self and ego. It is like a positive and rewarding version of shock. True awe is almost exclusively available in the natural world. It comes in experience of forces and settings far beyond the human scale. Stand at the base of a huge mountain range, at the bank of a rushing river, or at the ocean. Better still: summit that mountain, conquer the river’s rapids, or swim out to be moved in the ocean’s powerful forces.

Awe does not only come from these vast physical experiences. Coming face-to-face with a wild animal (of any size) confronts you with a worldly experience entirely separate from your own.

Experiencing something greater than yourself or a world entirely different from the patterns of your daily life forces you to question who are and to rethink your place in the world. This growth, the dissolving of your current version and shaping of the next, is what a rite of passage truly aims at.

A Coming Together

These three factors allow us to better understand the traditional rites of passage. From a young man’s first hunt, to a long solo vision quest, to climbing a mountain or wrestling a bear; all mean overcoming hardship, completely alone, in an awesome natural setting.

When solitude (vast or micro), struggle, and awe combine into a single experience, an individual cannot maintain their past self in its entirety. Certain pieces cannot survive the forge of deep experience. What remains is forever changed and carries forward joined by new qualities and understandings.

We often think of these experiences as a single, delineating point in the timeline of a young life. It is fair to say that a rite of passage can mark the transition out of childhood, but a human is far from fully-formed after adolescence. We must constantly seek and create our own rites of passage, however minor, throughout our entire lives. Fortunately, you now have the tools to craft your own rites of passage.