On Initiation

By Alex Stark
This article was first published in LifeSherpa, March 2003


When our daughter Adriana turned 12 years old, my wife and I realized that we were approaching a turning point and that it was time to prepare her for her entry into the adult world. An initiation was in order. We knew from sociological research and from our own experience that uninitiated youth tend to experience greater difficulties as adults. Conversely, we also understood that their sense of belonging and of self-worth can be greatly enhanced by ritual initiation. Neither of us, however, had been raised with a formal initiation, yet we felt strongly the need to provide to her with the strength and wisdom we knew could be found in this process. Like all parents, we wanted her to find a way to access greater happiness and satisfaction in life and felt that initiation could help to provide this.

So, on the day of her thirteenth birthday, we began a process of our own creation, which was meant to provide her with this understanding. For a full year she was to undergo a series of experiences, teachings, and trials, all designed to give her a wider appreciation for the world around her and for the importance and influence of community, ancestry, nature, and the world of spirit. The purpose of this process was to help her reach adulthood in a way that would preclude the traumatic aspects of identity so common among our youth, and to reaffirm in her a sense of belonging and of responsibility.

Every parent of an adolescent child has wondered if their efforts will bear fruit, if the teachings and the discipline we try to instill into our children will in fact help them in their future lives. We know instinctively that the quality of their experience during the early years of their lives will have a significant impact on their later achievements and satisfaction. Often these concerns keep us up at night; though it is seldom discussed with friends and family, anxiety and guilt are one of its hidden byproducts.

Concealed within this understandable concern, however, is the idea that we, as parents, are the only ones responsible for our children’s future. This idea has been fueled by countless stories, by the media, and by our na├»ve understanding of psychology itself. Sociological data, for example, suggests that children brought up in hardship will tend to perpetuate that very hardship in their future lives. Pop psychology insinuates that parental abuse, however slight, may lie at the source of our children’s traumas years down the road. The media, ever so eager for a catchy story, retells these tales of abuse and so the story grows, and with it our sense of responsibility and often, of guilt.

In traditional societies, on the other hand, the fate of children is not so intimately tied to the efforts of their parents. Bound into the process of child rearing is a partnership with other forces that distributes this responsibility into many hands, relieving the parents from such a unique burden. This partnership includes, in many varying combinations, the extended family, the larger community, the natural world, the family’s ancestors, and the spirit world. Marshalling resources greater than those available to an ordinary couple allows the parent’s responsibility in child rearing to be shared. Ironically, this process is also intended to raise the child’s potential for success; since the love and dedication of the entire family and community has been focused on the child, the child’s awareness, power, and influence are automatically increased. This creates in the child a sense of self-worth, importance, and belonging that is absent in situations where the family has to negotiate adolescence alone.

The parents are seen in this sense as the facilitators of a much larger process of child rearing in which these forces work in concert. The community, for example, provides a larger container for both the child’s experiences as well as their validation. In many cases the entire community, be it village or tribe, is involved in the child’s growth. Nature, furthermore, is seen as the energetic context for this process and many of the teachings handed to the youth are delivered in the wild and under open skies.

The ancestors, embodied in the elders and in the teachings of their traditions, provide wisdom and an emotional and intellectual foundation that spans across the limitations of time and biology. The spirit world, understood by traditional peoples as the template behind the physical manifestation of life itself, provides the underpinning on which the entire edifice is grounded. It is through spirit that the mystery of life is made accessible and it is to spirit that the initiate addresses his or her efforts. Through this collaborative effort the young initiate is made ready for the life of adult community. The culmination of this process is the ritual initiation, in which the aspirant is re-introduced to the society in his or her new identity as responsible adult.

Initiation, therefore, is the process whereby the child becomes cognizant of her own power, not by virtue of personal force, but rather by virtue of the connections and relationships she has formed with family, community, nature, and spirit. The initiated person knows that she has a secure and rightful place in the scheme of things that goes beyond personal achievement. And more importantly, she knows that she knows, and that the community knows as well. Ambiguity, and the fear and alienation this brings, is therefore absent in this person’s consciousness. Acceptance into the mysteries of adulthood is therefore a matter of experience and not the product of biological age.

As Malidoma Some explains about initiation among the Dagara of Burkina Faso, an uninitiated person is considered a child, no matter how old they may be: to not be initiated is to be a non-person. For me this has strong echoes in the anger and alienation we find in the gangs of the inner city or the suburban adolescents of Columbine fame. Uninitiated youth the world over can and will become dangerous to their community. Their actions, however, can be interpreted as a call for the support of the very community they appear to victimize, and for the initiation rituals and processes that would have allowed them to join that community as equal participants in the joyful living of the mystery of life.

Although I am not sure of any single form of initiation that would work for all of modern society, I am sure that it is a necessity. I know this because, for reasons that are long and painful to explain, I too was one of those uninitiated males. Yet of all things I have ever wanted, initiation into the acceptance of community and of my own maturity has been my most pressing desire. My entire life as a young adult was characterized by a deep longing to belong, and to understand the mysteries that are at the foundation of life. Deprived of an initiation as an adolescent, I was forced to embark on a search for one as an adult.

I was fortunate to find a traditional teacher who was willing to take me on at such an age. My initiation took years and was marked by prolonged meditations, pilgrimages, and prayer. Although I do not embody the full wisdom that is the purview of those initiated during adolescence, I do feel that my life has been changed for the better. The unconscious anger I harbored against nature, community and life itself has been replaced by a wider acceptance of self, environment, and relationships. Not surprisingly, as my consciousness shifted into a more “adult” mode, my career and family life also changed, and began to reflect a greater sense of the mission to which I was born and the love the now flows more easily in my life.

As for our daughter, her initiation began with a pilgrimage to Bear Mountain, a sacred place overlooking the Hudson River and the repository of my mother’s ashes. There we ritually presented her to the forces of nature, called upon her ancestors to guide her in the trials she was to undergo and requested that the spirit world aid, support, and inform her. Offerings were made in recognition of our gratitude for her life and for the gifts she was to receive. After additional prayers, we descended the mountain for a shared meal and some treats.

In the months that followed she was to study the writings of spiritual teachers and translate them into art and song. We chose the words of Don Miguel Ruiz as captured in the Four Agreements of the Toltec; here was a text easily accessible to a young intellect yet profound in its wisdom. Because we understood that a sense of our own mortality is at the center of the mystery of life, she was also required to undergo training in an activity that represented significant risk to her life; she chose to learn scuba diving. Because my wife and I are children of immigrant parents, she was also required to pilgrimage to the homeland of her ancestors; Switzerland (the ancestral home of my father) was to prove particularly rich in experiences and wonder. Throughout the year she was guided and questioned, and the importance of this process was made clear to her. We tried to convey to her the strength each of these tasks required and the enormous pride they fostered in us.

During the entire process, my wife and I constantly beseeched, on her behalf, the support of spirit and our family ancestors. A special shrine was honored and prayed to. On the anniversary of her first ascent, another pilgrimage took us back to the mountain. Further offerings and prayers sealed the yearlong process and she was formally received into adult society. And not a moment too soon: shortly after her initiation, her grandmother died, carrying with her the last remaining vestiges of her generation. Asked what gift she wanted at the conclusion of her ordeals, she surprised us by requesting a sword. I could not find a more suitable symbol of the new power she has come to embody.

I do not know what destiny awaits our daughter. But of one thing I am sure: that she is guided and protected by the forces of nature, ancestry and spirit, and that she will, in her own time, be able to find herself in her calling, her friendships, and her own family. I know this because I can see in her eyes the force of nature and of our ancestors and of her own spirit, and of the power that she now knows is hers.