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May 25, 2021

It’s Time to Honor the Joy & the Pain: 3 Stages of a Meaningful Rite of Passage. 

An Important “First”

“Now that you’ve both had your first relationships and your first breakups, we need to mark the occasion! What should we do?”

This text I sent to both my daughters confused them at first. A ceremony to mark “first breakups” is not generally something people do.

But there’s nothing quite like our first romantic relationship. It leaves a mark on our hearts forever. This is also true about first breakups. I certainly remember these “firsts” in my life. And so I wanted to acknowledge my daughters’ experiences with an initiation ceremony.


“True initiation is a response to an inner calling; it requires that you face personal challenges heroically and experience a genuine rebirth into a new way of being.” ~ Alberto Villoldo

Perhaps when you think about an initiation, you picture a ceremony held to receive new members into a club or group. Maybe it involves acceptance into a society, organization, or religious order.

But initiations can be marked any time there is a death of one way of being and the birth of another.

In Western, modern culture, we hold initiatory celebrations for many special “firsts.” In infancy through toddlerhood, we celebrate the first tooth, first steps, first word, first birthday, and first haircut.

Moving into adolescence and adulthood, we celebrate baptisms, bar and bat mitzvahs, milestone birthdays, and graduations. Later in life, we celebrate weddings, certain anniversaries, new jobs, promotions, new homes, pregnancies, and births. We acknowledge the death of a loved one with a funeral; we occasionally celebrate retirement with a party.

We understand that these life events have initiatory power in someone’s life, and so we honor and celebrate the transition appropriately.

But puberty, a much more powerful life change than merely becoming a year older, has not traditionally been honored as the initiatory life event it truly is. And we don’t talk about, let alone create a ceremony around, the movement into midlife. In fact, we tease, rather than support, those going through a “midlife crisis.” Talking about the movement through menopause is often done in whispers and out of earshot of the men.

Neither do we fully address the painful times we didn’t get the job, had a miscarriage or abortion, or got diagnosed with a life-altering disease. We don’t have a healthy, organic process to move people from active members of society into their “crone” or elder status. We don’t hold ceremonies to help someone move through a divorce or separation. And when’s the last time people gathered to mark the loss of a dream business?

Our society doesn’t know what to do with these powerful transitory events. We’ve never really known what to say or do in the losses and the hardships. So we end up mourning in silence and solitude. We suffer or grieve alone. These events pass through us, often unacknowledged and invalidated.

Every time we turn off one life path to embark on another, there is an opportunity for a true transformation. Difficult life events, such as a divorce, change us as irrevocably as a marriage does—maybe even more so. The painful changes in our lives mark the death of the old and the rebirth of the new, just as much as any celebratory event does.

All initiatory events have the power to transform us into wiser, kinder, and more whole human beings. But to do so, we have to see them in the context of a larger rite of passage.

3 Stages of a Rite of Passage

“Life itself means to separate and to be reunited, to change form and condition, to die and to be reborn. It is to act and to cease, to wait and to rest, and then to begin acting again, but in a different way.” ~ Arnold van Gennep

According to Arnold van Gennep, one of the first scholars to study the rite of passage at the beginning of the twentieth century, there are three stages to a rite of passage. I share the definitions of each stage below, along with a rite of passage example I went through about a decade ago—one that fits in the category of “events we don’t often recognize or create ceremony around (but should).”

Separation/Initiation Stage

This stage is the actual event that separates us from the life we knew or the person we were. All of the events described above fall under this category of “initiation.” Often, initiation creates a kind of wound, visible or invisible, that has the power to carry us into greater wisdom. But it can only do that if we don’t let it stall in this stage but rather move it through the subsequent stages.

While sometimes this stage happens literally — we physically leave a group or place — for most of us and much of the time, the “leaving” is often invisible to others. All the more reason, then, to make it visible.

In action: In 2009, I stepped away from a business I had co-founded just a year earlier. It took me far too long to decide to leave, but once I did, I knew it was the only option. Staying was stagnating my growth and leaking my power. The business was moving on, and I wasn’t part of the direction. Driving away for the last time, I felt the sharp sting of rejection, of exclusion, of my self-banishment. This was my initiation.

Liminal Stage

The liminal stage is the in-between stage. This is the period of time in which we are not quite who we were, and yet not quite who we will be. This period of time can be confusing, frustrating, and lonely. However, if we know that we are in a rite of passage, it makes the void more tolerable.

It is when we don’t understand why this is happening that this stage causes so much pain. Otherwise, we can embrace it for what it is—a time to reflect, reconsider, understand, grow, and prepare for our eventual rebirth.

In action: While negotiating my exit, my soon-to-be ex-partner asked me to sign a noncompete. Even after my lawyer told me they rarely hold up in court, I replied, “I don’t care. It’s the principle. I will not give my her a reason to follow me into my future.” The legal process— dealing with the entanglements, the accusations, and the arguments over property — lasted over a year.

But like swords, humans get tempered through fire and strengthened through friction. The person I was becoming was so much stronger and wiser than the hopeful visionary I’d been going into this business. I learned what my value was. Where my limits were. I grounded in my integrity and stood up for myself. I was ready to find out what was next for me in my life.

Return Stage

In this stage, our transformation is complete and we move back out into the world changed. If our transformation was honored and witnessed respectfully, the society/group/family recognizes the change in us and treats us differently. In our culture, the first and second stages are ubiquitous, meaning we choose and these initiatory events happen all the time. And we all know what it’s like to be in a period of confusion and disorientation.

What we don’t undergo as often is this critical third stage, in which our transformation is witnessed and honored by others or in some other way given space to come alive. Without this stage, the rite of passage will remain somewhat incomplete, and so will our transformation.

In action: The paperwork was finalized and signed by all parties. There was no noncompete clause. I was free in every single way but one:  my ex-partner still had many of my belongings, such as books and furnishings. One agreed-upon night, my husband went to pick them up. While he did so, I put the champagne on ice. Once he returned with a checklist all signed off on, I popped the champagne, poured two glasses, and we toasted to a new, fresh beginning.

The next night, we lit a bonfire in our backyard. I brought my journal, filled with pages of pain. I ripped them out, one by one, and dropped them in the fire. With my husband as a witness, I took my words of pain and betrayal and offered them up to the fire of transformation.

The Ceremony

Initiation ceremonies need not be fancy, time-consuming, or expensive. They require only four things:

>> An intention and awareness of the life change

Write it down, or even better, state out loud what you are releasing or moving into. It’s best if this can be witnessed, but personal, solitary ceremonies are also beautiful.

>> The right place

Be conscious of where you choose to hold the ceremony. Make sure it is a place that has some meaning, and is safe and special in some way.

>> Actions and words for the ceremony

What will happen at the ceremony? Will you light a candle, burn incense, play special music, or read a poem? Plan it out, make it special, stay in the moment. Make sure this sacred time includes moments of appreciation and reflection for the time now gone, as well as hope, understanding, or celebration for the place we are going next.

>> Closing

Consider what lessons have been learned and the changes they will inspire in your life. This can be as simple as a mirror of your opening intention.

Now that my daughters have been through an entire relationship cycle, they will forever compare new relationships with their first ones. They will know with so much more clarity and intent what they do and don’t want in future relationships, and what they will and will not accept.

In other words, they underwent an important rite of passage, which we acknowledged by going to dinner at one of our favorite restaurants where we relived the highlights and lowlights of their relationships, set intentions for their future relationships, and ended it all with a toast to finding love.

Initiatory events happen all the time in our lives, if we pay attention. From losing a pet to losing our hair to surgery to a car accident—initiatory events can transform into wisdom when mindfully moved through a complete rite of passage.

Bring more meaning and purpose to your life by seeing your life changes in the context of a larger rite of passage.


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