The Power of Rites of Passage

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Today, the importance associated with ritual rites of passage is on the decline. We often celebrate birthdays, weddings and other cultural occasions, but pay very little attention to the ways in which these events may mean more than simply an opportunity for festivity and drinking beer. Many of our cultural celebrations are in fact rites of passage, with a much deeper transformational meaning both symbolically and literally.

What is a rite of passage?

Rites of passage are often known as liminal spaces, that is, they usher an old state of being into a new state of being. The concept of liminality was first conceived of within the field of anthropology and was used to explain rites of passage which carried children into adulthood. In the Xhosa culture in South Africa, boys are ritually circumcised, after which they must live alone for several weeks in the wilderness. This rite is performed to signify the transition from boyhood to manhood.

However, rituals such as these are more than merely symbolic – they are considered to have real transformational power. The enactment of these rites doesn’t just represent your transition to a new state of being, but they actually and factually transform you. This idea was taken up in the field of psychology and is known as individuation.

Individuation process

Individuation refers to the process whereby a person becomes a psychologically separate unity or whole. For example, a baby starting to realize that it is not one and the same with its mother, but rather that it exists as a separate being. Therefore, whether one regards the liminal space as an important part of rites of passage on a collective anthropological level or individual psychological level, it performs the same function. The liminal space acts as a passage from a prior state of being into a new state of being. It is a space in which personality and agency can be shaped unrestricted by fixed ways of being.

How modern rites of passage have changed

Marriage is a rite of passage still practiced in most societies, but it is often reduced to a stressful box-ticking exercise that ends in a couple living together. This cannot be regarded as a rational reduction given the sky-rocketing divorce rates that we see today. The sentiment that true love does not need ceremonies seems to ignore the deeper wisdom that more ancient cultures afforded to liminal rites of passage.

The reason why we reduce the importance of rites of passage today is that we value objectively verifiable fact over subjective experiences. The transformational power of rites of passage is a subjective truth as it can only be verified through experience. A couple may report that their relationship feels different after the performance of a marriage ceremony, but this is not something that can be proven. Therefore, we tend to disregard it. Our “rational” approach to life runs the risk of ignoring the transformation potential of experience in liminal situations.

The idea that rites of passage can be truly transformational experiences may encourage us to look more deeply into the rituals we perform in our lives. We may be prompted to examine our actions and the meaning attached to them more carefully, rather than moving through these processes hollowly and without pause. So, the next time an important occasion is on the horizon, take some time to really feel it and the potential it has to change your life.