In our modern cultures that seem to worship eternal youth—that state of being that gives us permission to be in constant pursuit of our individual pleasure and enjoyment—what will it take to help us grow up?
In today’s world, becoming an adult might seem to be about hitting a well-recognized milestone like receiving a driver’s license, voting for the first time, or reaching legal age for drinking alcohol. For others, the moment of stepping into the workforce, becoming a parent, or making a major investment in home or career might seem the significant step. However, for traditional cultures (and that includes most of the villages of our great-great- or great-great-great-grandparents), becoming an adult was a sacred matter. Initiation into adulthood was a universal human practice, common to most societies, and it is still practiced by intact traditional cultures to this day.
And, authentic initiation into adulthood for men and for women is one of the offerings of Sacred Fire’s Lifeways.
We live in a world in which adults seem to be making quite a mess of things…and just about no adult has been through formal initiation into adulthood in the traditional way. So, this begs the question: why would a young person in the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada, Mexico or beyond make the choice to go through this type of sacred initiation, in order fully to become a woman or a man in today’s world?
“For me, there was an immediate ‘I have to do this,’” reports Madeline of Los Angeles, CA (USA), who went through Sacred Emergence, Sacred Fire Lifeways’ initiation into womanhood.
“I was 19 at the time. I was already fairly independent, without a strong cord between my parents and me, but creating a more direct relationship with divine really added a sense of security that I did not possess before. It also allowed me to be a person who could hold and soothe my younger self in a good way.”
For Abigail Murray-Nikkel, the decision to seek formal initiation came when she met a young woman who had recently completed that journey herself. “She felt settled in herself. Something in her felt turned on and I couldn’t get enough of it. I was intrigued about it and knew exactly then I wanted the same for myself.”
Colin Lenhart of Seattle, WA remembers, “It took me at least a few months or longer before deciding to jump in. But I was definitely intrigued. I felt there was more to life than what I was being presented with.”
Ritual initiation into adulthood, such as offered for instance through the international Sacred Fire Community, requires significant self-exploration and preparation. It is often supported by a community of people who are there to welcome back the initiates, helping them to reintegrate into their daily lives and to take on fresh responsibilities that signal their new adult status. Profound internal changes that have occurred may not be visible, but it is important that they be witnessed and appreciated by others. What is needed can vary: some initiates revel in a big celebration; others would prefer a quieter welcome home, with plenty of space for contemplation and integration. Ultimately, the initiates hope that the gifts they have to offer their community are acknowledged and received.
Madeline, now age 33, speaks of coming home to herself through the initiation ritual. “I recognized that a relationship with divine was mine to embrace, and this has fostered in me a sense of humility and also bravery. The process of initiation made me aware of how important community is, and now everything I do involves community. As I have gradually moved from my acting career – where I enjoyed the communal activity on set – to social activism, I see how working for the collective good can’t be done alone. Working with others really fires me up. I see the lack of supportive community relationships as a major illness of our time.”
Abigail, two years after her initiation, can now confidently speak about the gifts she brings into the world: “I think these are authenticity and emotional honesty. I also model nurturing and care of self as well as of all life, human and non-human.” Abigail credits her initiation experience with being less self-conscious about showing up as herself. “Negative thoughts still arise, but I can flow easier, almost like when I’m painting. I’m more able to let go of self-judgment, or wondering what others will think.”
Abigail continues: “For me, initiation was also about learning to be present and working with the patterns of the earth and the universe, like the sun rising and setting. I also left with a deeper sense of what my role as a human being is, especially as a woman. I value that. Some people might be turned off by this, because it sounds like I’m talking about traditional gender roles, but what I’m trying to describe is not constraining like that. It feels like something that is grounded in the land and it feels freeing, allowing me to know myself.”
Colin remembers the first year after initiation as the hardest. “There is a dramatic shift that happens; in some ways, your entire world changes, but it takes time for a person to catch up to it and that transition is hard. Especially in modern culture where there is very little understanding of what it means to be ‘initiated’, and very few peers have been through anything even remotely similar. So the community that can help support the freshly initiated young adults is very important, and that is something that we are getting better and better at within the Sacred Fire Community.”
Colin continues: “I now feel like I have a compass for life. I honestly have no idea where my life is headed, but I now have a compass, a way of knowing what decisions and actions are in alignment with the best version of myself. When my actions are in alignment with that knowing, it creates a wonderful feeling of peace and joy in me.”
Do you notice, like we do, that a world of adults focused on seeking personal pleasure, achievement and satisfaction is falling short, leaving us bereft of unity, purpose and those stellar human leaders who work toward something greater than they can be themselves, alone? Perhaps authentic and sacred initiation into adulthood, held by traditionally trained lineage-holders, will find its place, once again, as a crucial and enriching part of human life. Could it be that this important rite of passage is just as relevant for people with mobile phones, Google searches and Facebook as it has always been for all human beings, throughout the 800,000 years of human existence?
The wisdom that initiate Madeline stated above bears repeating: “I see how working for the collective good can’t be done alone.” Initiated adults discover how their lives are inextricably woven into the lives of others; their actions and ways of being affect their communities, and so their lives must be lived in a purposeful way. As Lifeways Women’s Initiation Council member Jessica De la O states, “Indigenous cultures have always embraced initiation as a natural part of entering into adulthood and relating to all of life.”
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If you’re a parent, you may be interested in providing an authentic, not just a symbolic, initiation ritual for your children, but you might be at a loss about how to prepare them or even capture their interest toward such an opportunity. As children move through puberty and start to explore independence, they can be helped by their relationships with older adults. These adults can model social norms of how to live in a good way and how to serve a role in life that benefits the larger community. In addition, if adolescents have a chance to associate with young adults who are now five to ten years down the road after their own initiation, this can spark an interest. If formal initiation doesn’t happen by about the age of 25, then life will create initiatory experiences. Because these do not occur within a consciously held, protective container, the ride can be bumpier, and the purpose-filled transformation into becoming a woman or man can be incomplete emotionally, leaving the new adult feeling that something is missing in their lives.
Authentic initiation, held by traditionally trained leaders, has been a part of human existence throughout time. If you have an interest in participating, either as a parent bringing this opportunity to your adolescent, as an interested person who wants to support initiation, or as a young person drawn to experience this rite of passage, read more and contact Sacred Fire Lifeways.