Community and Rites of Passage
Our spiritual well being is balanced on a triangle. In one corner sit our own needs. In the second are the needs of our community and in the third is our environment.
-Thomas Flanders, The Way of the Real People
Community is the spirit, the guiding light of the tribe, whereby people come together in order to fulfill a specific purpose, to help others fulfill their purpose, and to take care of one another. The goal of the community is to make sure that each member of the community is heard and is properly giving the gifts he has brought to this world. Without this giving, the community dies. And without the community, the individual is left without a place where he can contribute. The community is that grounding place where people come and share their gifts and receive from others.
-Sobonfu Somé, The Spirit of Intimacy: Ancient African Teachings in the Ways of Relationships
Since our founding 35 years ago, we’ve recognized the importance of rites of passage to the health and well-being of both individuals and the larger community. If people don’t know who they are or what gifts they carry, how can they make a meaningful contribution to their “village” or community? We saw how in our fragmented modern world, people were getting lost in crisis, unable to complete their passages, confused as to their nature, their place in the world and their gifts. In traditional societies, if there was a coherent community, people undertaking an initiatory rite could bring their finest selves back to the container of that community, where they could be recognized, affirmed and encouraged to take their place.
For many years we placed an especial emphasis on strengthening the individual, and that’s a still critical component of our work. If we are not strong and whole as individuals, how can we contribute to the healing and wholeness of our community? An important purpose of rites of passage has always been to strengthen, heal, complete, purify, and give sacred vision to individuals to carry back to their communities.
This individual focus took on something of a heroic cast. Everyone was expected to carry their load, both literal and figurative. You had to find a way to get your two gallons of water into our walk-in base camp! Preparation talks were done with each participant and the guides, while the rest of the group waited, so people didn’t learn from each other’s stories. And bonding within the group was not necessarily encouraged, as we were concerned that people would get too attached to each other, and then reluctant to return home at the end. The experience of living in community in the field was not yet recognized to be of real importance in itself; the task was always to go back home as a hero and begin to give ones gifts.
Several factors have figured into re-visioning this model to emphasize the importance of community. When we asked people about the world to which they were returning after a Wilderness Quest, they would often tell us that their community was damaged, fragmented, or simply missing. How could they envision contributing to community life when they had no experience of it? We began to see that our work was not just as Threshold guides, leading people to a transformed sense of self, but also as Incorporation guides, embracing, and helping others to embrace, the task of creating a world which would welcome initiates when they returned from their rite of passage.
Then there was my experience, beginning in 1991, of actually living in community. I began to see how decisions could be made as a team, without leaving anyone out, and I began to revision those heroic aspects of the quest. “You need to carry 2 gallons of water” became “we need to figure out a way to get enough water for the group into base camp.” Something new was emerging, and I soon realized it was modeling community in the field. In our modern world, we realized we needed to strengthen the not only the individual, but possibility of community as well. Once this became clear, we created a series of community-building processes to incorporate into our programs, from camping and preparing meals together, to deep circles of trust where people spoke of their intentions for the solo, to a final council where we invited the group to become guides in their own lives. And the fear that bonding in the field would lead to excessive attachment? We have not found that to be true. On the contrary, we’ve consistently heard how the experience of being held by community in the field has inspired people to create richer and deeper bonds with the people and places they love.
We also learned a lot from our visit to the Mohawk community in upstate New York two years ago. We were invited by Louise McDonald, a ceremonial leader who had sent two men to quest with us a couple of years earlier. Louise had heard from these men that we had powerful counseling tools based on an indigenous psycho-spiritual model (the Four Directions teachings, first given to Rites of Passage by H. Storm in the 1970’s), and she wanted us to share these tools with the Aunt’s and Uncle’s Councils, which had the primary responsibility for initiating young women and men in the community. Our work was well received, but we got back far more than we gave. We discovered what it means to return to a vibrant community after undertaking a rite of passage. Following a vision quest for three young men, more than 50 people came to the Longhouse to welcome them back and to acknowledge their accomplishment. One thing in particular stands out in my memory from that day. It was lunchtime, and a long line began forming to go into the dining room, where the gifts of the land were waiting to be tasted –deer sausage and moose stew! The three young men took their places at the end of the line, despite having fasted for several days. This was how the community confirmed their new status. They were in essence being told, “You are men now and expected to take care of the people first.” Through this experience I could see how community gives meaning and form to the vision that comes on the mountain.
Lately we’ve been thinking a lot about how to better support people after they return home from a rite of passage. For the past couple of years, we’ve been organizing an on-line council meeting, held a month or two after the program ends. People have really appreciated this meeting, but I felt we could do more. How could we foster more of a sense of community to support people in their journey of Incorporation? I realized that while we can’t return to the original village, we can offer the opportunity for people who have been on a rite of passage to meet, share stories, reconnect with nature, play together, and carry home sparks from the communal fire. Thus was born our four day workshop, Beyond Incorporation: The Village Experience. This feels like an important new program we’ve introduced in years, because of its potential to anchor the journey in the experience of community. It will be held at Regenerative Design Institute in Bolinas, CA, on beautiful land that’s part of Pt. Reyes National Seashore. Designed for folks who have undertaken a rite of passage within any tradition, this should be a fun, challenging and richly rewarding workshop. Years ago, when I was studying African indigenous music, I discovered that there are rhythmic patterns that no individual can hold alone—it takes a village to beat out that dance rhythm. I’m hoping for something similar when we gather in November, the container of the village holding a healing and empowering vision beyond what any one of us can see.