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Primal Wisdom Part 2: Rites of Passage

Rites of passage are not just ceremonies or arbitrary points in time – they are transformations in consciousness. They are points were we leave one condition and totally come into another condition. They are a dying of one form only to be reborn into another.

There are several of these transformational points that occur in a lifetime, but I’ve selected four to explore more deeply. Below are the four transformations (and the stages of life that follow) that I believe every individual must go through to live a deeply fulfilling life. Although not part of the professional world, Birth (#1) and Death (#4) are critical points to understand because they are the radical transitions that provide useful context for really understanding the other more subtle (but equally important) transformations.

Transformation #1: Birth

Being born. We are pulled out of the water world that is all we have known for nine months and pushed out into a totally new world that is completely unfamiliar to us. In many ways, our birth is an interesting metaphor for all the other transformation that will occur in our life – the world we knew no longer works for us and therefore we need to totally change our relationship to it and our understanding of ourselves. In certain circles, there is the notion that how we came into this world is literally how we will embrace the other major changes that will happen for us.

Stage 1: Childhood

We are born into a family and community and ideally have a sense of belonging provides us with the safety needed to grow and development. From our community, we also slowly assimilate a mental framework through which we understand and interpret the world.

Transformation #2: Finding Oneself

At some point, we reach a point where we have grown enough in their physical strength and mental understanding that we could technically survive on their own and we move from becoming a child to becoming an adult. When this transformation is complete, we have, as Joseph Campbell said, “died” to our world of infantile psychological dependency and been “born” to a new world of adult psychological self-responsibility.

Stage 2: Adulthood

Upon becoming an “adult”, we first need to take on the task of “finding ourselves” – seeking a trade, a profession, a way of living, find out who they uniquely were, what one’s unique purpose might be, and gradually begin to embody that purpose. In the years that follow, we go through a range of trials to build and test our skills and resolve, learning valuable lessons along the way, constantly testing their conviction to their principles, and constantly challenging their commitment to become who we were meant to be. As we pass each test, we earned distinctions – some outwardly visible (scars, ornaments, markings, shrunken heads, promotions, raises, etc.) and some internal (confidence, calmness, patience, respect, contentment, wisdom, etc.).

Transformation #3: Finding our Truth

At some point, we have proven ourselves sufficiently through what we have accomplished and what we have learned along the way. As a result, we have earned a place of respect within our community. In that place of contentment (inner acknowledgement) and respect (outer acknowledgement) we find our individual truth – who we truly are. Now, we can begin speaking and completely living our truth. In finding that truth, one leaves the “strategic path” (that will get them what they want or what is generally desired) to the “courageous path” (that allows them to live fully in alignment with their truth). This is the final conquest of one’s life. The process of understanding and fulfilling the desires of the ego are vanquished, and from their ashes we are “reborn” into the service of others. As Thomas Merton wrote in his Thoughts of Solitude, “Self conquest is really self-surrender. Yet before we can surrender ourselves we must become ourselves. For no one can give up what he does not possess.”

Stage 3: Mentorship & Service

When following the courageous path, one moves from a place of competing, achieving, and collecting to a place of reflecting, teaching, and sharing. This allows for the older generation to be respected and revered for what they have learned and the insight they are sharing. It also makes space for the next generation to find their way and begin realizing their potential. This final stage of mentorship – whether working closely with young coworkers or telling stories to the grandkids – is the only way that wisdom of a lifetime can make the shift from individual knowledge (locked in one’s head) to shared wisdom contributes to and strengthens the collective legacy that we all are a part of. We move from a place of self-discovery and self-actualization to a place of totally giving oneself to the next generation or some other higher purpose much greater than oneself.

Transformation #4: Death

Eventually, we all die. Our physical body will “dis-integrate” from it’s current form and “re-integrate” into everything around it. However, our “body of knowledge” can only be re-integrated back into the world through their mentorship and guidance of the younger generations well before one’s physical death - this is what ensures that their life and life’s work will feed the future growth and prosperity of their community and lineage. The Native American tribes used the perspective of seven generations – what are you doing in your life that will benefit your lineage and the world seven generations from now? What are you instilling in your children and grandchildren that they in turn will pass onto theirs? What are you creating in your work and interactions with others that will cause ripples that will influence and continue to benefit people 270 years from now? That is the measure of a life well lived.

Thomas Jefferson’s gravestone has the following inscription:

Here was buried Thomas Jefferson. Author of the Declaration of American Independence, of the Statute of Virginia for Religious Freedom, & Father of the University of Virginia.

These make up his legacy and still impact people seven generations later. It says nothing about being the third president of the United States.

This entry was inspired by several sources: Joseph Campbell’s Power of Myth, Thomas Merton’s Thoughts of Solitude, and conversations with a dear mentor of mine. Rites of passage are so critical to our personal, emotional, and spiritual growth – and have been for millennia. So the big questions that come to me are: How does our modern corporate world (which usually consumes decades or our lives) enable and support us in going through these transformations? How can we use our professional development to help us find ourselves and then later find a place of mentorship and service – not just a surface level, but through all our levels of consciousness?

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