Initiation, Community, and the Ancient Quest: Finding Yourself

August 3, 2018 | Culture, Events, Featured, People

An Initiation Story…

Muffled footsteps and the stony glint of a knife. A young boy’s slumber is abruptly shattered, as his jaw is yanked open and front teeth swiftly removed. The pain is immense, but the boy must not cry out. A lantern is lit in the small hut. Old men watch the boy carefully for any trace of tears. If he cries, all their work will be lost, an ancient tradition will have proven that this boy is not meant to be a real Massi. The boy doesn’t cry. As the morning sun finds its way into the anxious African village, mothers weep when they see their boys return, a tooth or two less, but alive and now men. Across culture, time and space, indigenous people have preserved their coming-of-age ceremonies for youth. The processes are often grueling, challenging a young person’s mental, emotional, physical and spiritual capacities. Community elders closely oversee each journey, offering guidance and safeguarding ancient traditions that they themselves had to endure. Failure is entirely possible. Succumbing to physical defeat, mental exhaustion, and even death, it is said that about 10% of the youth never gain recognition as full adults in the community. Initiation processes are vital to the survival of a tribe, expanding one’s consciousness from the “I” to the “we,” a worldview shift into altruism – into community. The psychopaths, egotistical, and immature are weeded out. Those who pass through the rites of passage discover their life’s purpose and role within the tribe. In a grand celebration, the returning youth are welcomed back into the fold of the community and recognized as fundamentally changed (often given a new name).

The few “initiatory” experiences modern society has engineered pale in comparison to ancient rites. Graduating high school, going away to college, landing the first big job – these can never sufficiently meet a young person’s primordial need for risk-taking, mentorship, and, ultimately, the profound recognition that they have made it – they are now adults. Even self-manufactured initiations – foreign travels, drug experimentation, wilderness quests – can lack a certain level of meaning that such activities once gave to youth.

Often these elements are missing:

  • Close guidance from elders and mentors
  • Structured activities suffused with sacredness and tradition
  • Training building up to the “big” challenge (usually multi-day long)
  • Inner revelation of his or her life’s purpose
  • Returning to the home community at the end of the process
  • And finally, being witnessed by the community as profoundly transformed

I volunteered in Kenya, East Africa, at age 18. Of all the things I could have done during my summer before college, I told my (agast, yet yielding) mother that I wanted to go to one of the poorest and farthest away places on Earth. There was no explicit reason for it. I had an gut calling – I needed to do this.  Needless to say, the experience was life-changing.

During my time in Kenya, I noticed something peculiar about the traditional villages – all resident adult males had one or two of their front teeth missing. A hallmark of the Massi people’s strength is their ability to overcome some of the most challenging initiatory experiences on the planet. The knocking-out-teeth tradition stems from the days when tetanus infection, often called “lockjaw,” required the removal of front teeth in order to seep medicine into the patient’s mouth. (Or so I was told by a Massi elder.)

Modern-day initiations need not be as physically intense to serve the same function. And, they are not only for young people. I have met old men and women, grown up in modern culture, and now choosing to be guided through traditional initiation rites of puberty, adulthood, parenthood, and eldership over the course of several months or years. For some, the journey begins with an unexpected career shift, physical illness, or sudden trauma. The human spirit seeks meaning in life’s most trialing moments. When held within a supportive community, conscious initiation can help us find purpose and fulfillment.

“Rituals motivate and move us. Through ritual we build families and community, we make transitions and mark important events in our lives, we express ourselves in joy and sorrow, and perhaps, most importantly, we create and sustain identity.” Alison Bone

Advice: if you or someone you know is seeking an initiatory-type experience, consider designing to include the missing elements I mentioned above. Here is a list of networks where you can find intentionally-held experiences at amazing places with community support:

  • NuMundo.org – The go-to for travelers seeking transformational stays and experiences at impact centers – I think of it as the “alternative AirBNB”! (Central America focus)
  • IntentionalCommunity.org – Built over decades, check-out this massive database and stockpile of resources for the lifelong initiation of living in community. (North American focus)
  • Ecovillage.org – The Global Ecovillage Network is linking up networks of ecovillages and communities globally – visit member communities and attend ecovillage events. (Global Focus)
  • Ecobasa.org – For those immersed in and loving gift-culture, this is the resource for you to find places to experience alternative living. (Europe focus)
  • WWOOF.net – Of course, there is the classic and rewarding experience of working on an organic farm through the WWOOF network. (Global focus)

I also recommend these specific initiatory-type programs (all of which I have taken):

  • PossibilityManagment.org – The introductory “Expand Your Box” training promises to do just that – What box? You’ll understand after the course. (Many programs in Europe, with few in the U.S.)
  • OutwardBound.org – Any nature immersion program is bound to support your growth, so get out there! (North America focus)
  • GaiaEducation.org – The month-long “Design for Sustainability” course (also known as the EDE) will give you a broad and immersive take on sustainability topics. (Hosted at ecovillages globally)
  • Goddard.edu – Get society-approved credit while on your authentic journey – like I did to earn my B.A. degree in Sustainability! (Low-residency campus in Vermont, USA)

If you would like further advice on how to navigate the options, I’m happy to chat during a gift-based virtual consultation. I can make recommendations drawing from my wealth of experience visiting ecovillages, intentional communities, permaculture farms and other centers for sustainable living. Get in touch at cynthiatina.com

0 Comments
Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published.

Hi, I’m Cynthia.

I’m the community matchmaker, here to help you find an intentional community to call home. I’ve visited hundreds of communities around the world — ecovillages, cohousings, agrihoods, co-ops, and more.

Blog Archive