Edith Sullwold 
 Edith Sullwold Archive
 "The Ritual Maker Within at Adolescent Initiation" by Edith Sullwold, Ph.D.

Reprinted by permission of Open Court Publishing Company, a division of Carus Publishing Company, Peru, IL,
Betwixt & Between: Patterns of Masculine and Feminine Initiation by Louise C. Mahdi, Steven Foster & Meredith Little, eds.,
copyright ©1987 by Open Court Publishing Company

In her essay, "The Ritual-Maker Within at Adolescence," Edith Sullwold describes the function of spontaneously created ritual action in helping adolescents make the transition to adulthood. In addition, she describes the appearance of initiatory material to be found in the products of the adolescent psyche; such as in dreams and other forms of creative expression. She points to the necessity of "initiatory education" in the schools which could "lead young persons to their own inner resources." Pointing to the importance of secrecy in the initiatory process of adolescents, as well as the need for elders to help guide this process, she concludes that proper "initiation of the adolescent points to the initiation of the culture into its larger human potentialities."

Edith Sullwold, Ph. D., founded the Hilde Kirsch Children's Center at the C. G. Jung Institute of Los Angeles. A graduate of the University of Chicago, she helped found the Center for Healing Arts in Los Angeles and was Director Turning Point, a professional group who worked with children with serious illnesses.

It was autumn in Los Angeles, and out in the courtyard of a children's clinic few leaves were swirling in the brisk wind. Something in the air called for a bonfire in the imagination of the nine year old boy with whom I was spending an hour. The boy, whom I will call Peter, had been suffering from explosive flare-ups of temper at home and at school that seemed to erupt suddenly and without any apparent external cause. On this day Peter led me outside to see what we could construct on the only available inner city space, a large concrete area. A few sticks and some brown leaves served and soon a small fire was crackling.

As I watched, I saw that Peter's interest was not so much in the fire itself, but in his ability to control it – ignite it, fan and feed it, check its boundaries, and eventually put it out. It was as though Peter was acknowledging the fire as a force in itself with its own life, his work being to relate to this dynamic force with careful attention and skill. This process of building the fire, controlling, and extinguishing it was repeated many times.

My concentration on his work was so intense that I didn't notice two other boys joining Peter. They had been in rooms also opening on the courtyard and were fascinated by this fire-making process. Quietly, and without discussion, they entered the scene. At one point when it seemed a satisfactory blaze, one of the new attendants at this fire-becoming-ritual went inside and brought out an empty coffee can. He turned it upside down and began hitting it in a steady, rhythmic beat. Again without a word, the other new boy went to one side of the courtyard and made a stunning leap over the fire. Invited, Peter also went to the beginning place, hesitated a moment, and leapt over. For almost an hour, the three took turns beating the drum, tending the fire, and jumping over it. Then seeming satisfied, they together put out the fire with sand, swept the courtyard and returned to their rooms.

The event was followed by two other appearances of fire as a symbol in a ritual action for young boys or adolescents. A week later another boy, aged twelve, shared a dream in which he found himself with friends at a beach at night. In an area of big sand dunes his friends dug a deep pit in which they carefully built a fire, asking him to leap over it. He did this with both fear and the excitement of victory. A few days later another adolescent boy entering a private school described an actual event in which the new students were accepted by the older classmates only after having successfully leapt over a big bon-fire which he had helped them build.

These events point to the reality of the spontaneous emergence of ritual action in puberty and adolescence. Ritual action acknowledges a major event in the life of the individual or the group for us today as well as in traditional cultures. Like habit, it is action that may be repetitive, but unlike habit is beyond ordinary, everyday behavior. Most often the event which the ritual celebrates is transitional, marking a stage in an individual life such as birth, puberty, marriage or death, or a change affecting a group, such as the seasonal cycles or a new leadership. The action is initiatory in intent, helping to bring the individual or the group into a new state of being. The ritual actions are symbolic of such transitions and are intended to effect a real transformation in the participants.

The experience which I observed raises the possibility that the need for such ritual actions is so profound that it is in the very nature of the human being to create forms for them. In the traditional societies, societies which are cohesive in social structure, the honoring of such transitions generally took the form of elaborate rituals with strict procedures in which the individual and often the whole society took part. In a society such as ours, which is not cohesive, the external individual and collective rituals are becoming more and more neglected. However, the emergence of the fire-building ritual indicates that even without previous instruction or experience these ritual forms and symbols can be created from within the psychic structure of the individual.

It was of course important that I, as a witness to this event, carried a sense of its significance for the boys – a sense of its meaning – and a sense of awe surrounding its intensity. This support provided an atmosphere of safety and understanding that honored their creative and dynamic process of ritual making.


What could be the meaning of such a fire-building event? If one is sensitive and knowledgeable about the changes that are going on internally in a boy or girl in puberty, it becomes clear that the preparation for the transformation of the body from the child to the adult has begun. There are often great surges of physical energy, frequently sexual. The biological forces which are involved in this change are powerful, and frequently seem out of control. I often think of how difficult it must be to be a boy of nine required to ‘sit still’ for six hours of the school day with all this going on inside of him. Often the adults in the children's life do not understand and acknowledge the natural energies which are emerging, and provide few channels for their expression. In such cases, the energy can become destructive. Sometimes the destruction is internal and the child begins to have trouble learning, or begins to have disturbing fantasies or nightmares. Often it is external as in this boy's extreme temper outbursts.

With the event of the fire-building, this boy began to be able to control the temper outbursts. As he was exercising control over the fire, so he learned also to control the emotional fire. However, he needed more space and time for active physical play than had been available to him. When this was understood and provided, he began to move more easily and with less anger both at home and school.

In addition, he needed, as do all boys and girls in this stage of puberty, knowledge of the physical and emotional facts of sexuality including conception. But this knowledge alone is not sufficient preparation for this life transition. Some direct experience and experiment with the handling of these energies is necessary. Ritual action allows for such experiences in a metaphorical manner. In the case of these boys, the initiation into the mysteries of the fire beginning to burn in the body could be experienced by dealing with the outer fire – an equivalent to this inner fire. Here the boys provided for themselves a particular task of courage – to be able to jump over the fire without getting burned. This action, a stretching and testing of their physical agility and awareness, becomes a paradigm of the energies and qualities needed for entering manhood.

This cooperative creation of the fire-building ritual by the boys points to another essential aspect of adolescent transition, the entry into a larger sense of community. The movement begins to shift from identification with the immediate family to the peer group, the school, the culture. In early tribal cultures puberty rites were often given to the boys and girls as a group, already signifying their responsibility to a larger sphere. As Peter and the boys join to create the ritual the effectiveness is increased not only by new ideas, but by community support. The rhythmic beating of the drum invokes and focuses the energy of the group into a single force which supports the courage needed for facing their test of jumping the fire – of crossing the threshold.

In addition to the communal nature of this action, it surrounds as in most rituals, a powerful symbol. The symbol of fire has greater meaning than just that related to the physical and sexual energies of puberty. In all historical times and in all stages of our life we have been attracted to fire, literally and symbolically. It represents life-giving warmth and light of night, promising survival in the cold and dark. But it also destroys. The wood is now ash, and all that enters the fire is also changed. In its destructive aspect, the symbol of fire touches upon the knowledge that in the time of transition the old must be destroyed in order for a full transformation to take place. In the case of adolescence, the physical and emotional 'child' is ultimately to be given up in order that the full adult can emerge. This 'giving up', the destruction of the old, is at the heart of all transition initiations.

This renewal through ritual act was recognized by tribal societies as meaningful not only for the individual child or group of children but for the whole society. In Rites and Symbols, Mircea Eliade describes such initiation as a "recapitulation of the sacred history of the world and its tribe. On the occasion of puberty rites, the entire society is plunged back into the mythical times of origin and therefore emerges rejuvenated." (1958, p. 128) All members had an opportunity to relive their own initiation and thereby to strengthen the deeper significance of such rites, which is transformation. What was witnessed was a particular instance of the continuous process of change – of destruction, chaos, and creation. What was celebrated was new life.

There are also of course other symbolic metaphors for the dissolving of the old form other than fire. There is, for example, a rite for girls among the Nootka people of Vancouver Island, B.C., in which each emerging young woman is left far out in the ocean alone to swim to shore by herself. During this test she gives up her form as a child. Through this act of courage she is 'purified' and 'reborn' from the water as a woman. Here the water is the element of transformation. Anne Cameron (1981, p. 52) related one Nootka woman's remembrance of this event.

And you had to learn or you weren't a woman. It isn't easy becomin' a woman, it's not somethin' that just happens because you've been stand' around in one place for a long time, or because your body's started doin' certain things. A woman has to know patience, and a woman has to know how to stick it out, and a woman has to know all kinds of things that don't just come to you like a gift. There was always a reason for the things we hadda learn, and sometimes you'd been a woman for a long time before you found out for yourself what the reason was. But if you hadn't learned, you couldn't get married or have children, because you just weren't ready, you didn't know what needed to be known to do it right ...
     When you'd learned everythin' you had to learn, and the Time was right, and you'd had your first bleedin' time and been to the waitin' house, there was a big party. You were a woman. And people would come from other places, uncles and aunts and cousins and friends, and there'd be singin' and dancin' and lots of food. Then they'd take you in a special dugout, all decorated up with water-bird down, the finest feathers off the breast of a bird, and you'd stand up there so proud and happy. And they'd chant a special chant, and the old woman would lead them, and they'd take you a certain distance. When the chant ended the old woman would sing a special prayer, and take off all your clothes and you'd dive into the water, and the dugout would go home . . . And you'd be out there in the water all by yourself, and you had to swim back to the village.
     The people would watch for you, and they'd light fires on the beach, and when they finally saw you they'd start to sing a victory song about how a girl went for a swim and a woman came home, and you'd make it to the beach and your legs would feel like they were made of rocks or somethin'. You'd try to stand up and you'd shake all over, just plain wore out. And then the old woman, she'd come up and put her cape over you and you'd feel just fine. And after that, you were a woman, and if you wanted to marry up with someone, you could, and if you wanted to have children, you could, because you'd be able to take care of them the proper way. 
(Cameron 1981, pp. 101-103)

In playing with the fire, or swimming in the cold ocean, the child opens itself to being touched indirectly by the deep forces and mysteries of transformation. In such times of transition there is often an experience of being "betwixt and between" when one is neither here nor there, neither child nor adult. Into this open, undefined space of adolescence, other dimensions of reality enter, often of a spiritual nature. Turning away from personal family identity and not yet having formed a new and independent identity, there is a turning toward the Other for meaning and stability, whether this is called God, or the larger Self, or some supportive life source such as Nature itself. Historically, adolescence was the age of entry into the spiritual teaching, initiated by priests and elders.

Eliade, in Rites and Symbols of Initiation, describes the rituals of initiation as the "puberty rites by virtue of which adolescents gain access to the sacred, to knowledge, and to sexuality, by which in short, they become human beings"(1958, p. 132). To become human means in this context to begin a process of conscious awareness of our nature – what we are as sexual, emotional, mental and spiritual beings with responsibility to the larger cosmos to which we belong. It means to question or search for the vocation or work that allows us to contribute to this larger whole.

In cultures which had traditional forms for such entry into the adult world, the teaching and testing of the initiates was the responsibility of the elders in the society. The teachings were based on collectively recognized and accepted beliefs concerning issues of creation and birth, sexuality, death and its relation to life. A relation to spirit, or some sense of the Other was found in religious practices, myths and tales. The mystery of sexuality revealed in adolescence was placed in the context of social and spiritual law. Ethical prescriptions were taught regarding individual behavior. It is evident that the single and cohesive view of such strongly united cultures as were existent in times of greater isolation and less cross-pollination is becoming more difficult to maintain even in those societies which were built primarily of social and sacred law.

Consequently, adolescents of our time do not find such collective rituals offered by the elders to support and facilitate their transition. Our cultures have become much more complex and the teenager does not cross the threshold into a clearly defined form of adulthood with its prescribed set of beliefs and skills. No cohesive forms of instruction or initiation into the adult world exist in our culture except certain academic expectations and the development work skills. The deep, natural instinctive and spiritual changes which give meaning to the passage of our lives are generally ignored. Many of the religious forms have lost their significance in favor of materialistic values and this potential opening to deeper meaning in life finds little cultural support either within the family or the educational system. Some of the investigators who are concerned with the rapidly increasing suicidal rate of adolescents, especially those from fifteen to nineteen years of age, speculate that this lack of spiritual sustenance may be one of the complex factors leading to despair and suicide for the teenager.

The trend of the Western culture has been toward the development of the individual – an individual who is seen as having full freedom of choice to fulfill his own destiny, whether that is within the bounds of his collective or not. One consequence of this development has been the continued breakdown of collective forms. Such seems the case surrounding adolescent ritual in our time. There is almost no social form other than the giving of a license to drive a car, or the privilege of voting and drinking, to mark the passage to adulthood by civil society. Meaningful Bar Mitzvahs and Confirmations carry some of the elements of initiation, but are available to only a few whose family and personal belief systems make that possible for them.

Because of the complexities of our culture, not only is there a lack of formal initiators, but in general the model for adulthood is not always clear for adolescents. Outside of an occasional teacher, the primary source of modeling for many young people is in the figures of mass media – sport heroes, musicians, film stars, figures of science fiction. These mass media figures tend to constellate archetypal images for the adolescent of the conquering hero or heroine, whether it be through the path of stardom, competitive sports, sexual conquest, or the war against "evil forces." For some the identification with these images is only passive. Others actively search for a test of courage, reminiscent of the demands in earlier adolescent initiation. But there is no content of instruction, discipline, and meaning formerly given by the adult in traditional initiation ceremonies. These adolescents thus turn to their own peer group to create acts of daring, such as car-racing, drugs, sexual promiscuity, and the acts of violence now common in urban areas.

Longing for a collective support they turn to each other for instruction about the issues of life, but lack of experience and knowledge limit the possibility of a true initiation. The high incidence of teenage pregnancies (one out of every five births in 1984) is one current result of lack of real instruction for girls, not only about the facts of sexuality, but also about the realities of conception, pregnancy, and child care. Many girls, not having direct experience of younger children in the community have no vision of these realities. Without this foreknowledge or training, child care can become frustrating. The fantasy of having an object to love becomes tarnished as the life demands of the child emerge, creating impossible situations for uninitiated, non-instructed girls, who in addition are usually isolated from any larger, extended family or community that might assist them and give them advice.

Modeling for the adolescent in the past when there were small communities or even extended families was multiple. All older females were aunts and grandmothers for a girl in the Native American culture. Her experience of woman was varied therefore, within the limits of the cultural mores. Because of this the girl was not limited in her sense of womanhood by the personal characteristics of her mother, or by the way in which the latter related to marriage and child-rearing. She could experience in this way the more general characteristics of being a woman, physically, culturally, and spiritually. Instruction about these essential qualities of womanhood and the responsibility consequent to them were ideally the focus of initiation rites as well.

In our culture, as the sense of the individuality and freedom of movement has increased many family units have become isolated from this sense of extended family. Paradoxically, although the choices are greater and more varied in our culture, it may be more difficult for a girl or boy to find a sense of the essential nature of adulthood. The choices are there, but on what basis are these choices to be made?

As early as 1926, Margaret Mead wrote about this problem in her book, Coming of Age in Samoa. In a final chapter she compared the life of the adolescent in the American culture to that of the Samoan girl. Having described the education of the Samoan girls, she concludes that in that simpler culture adolescence was not necessarily a time of stress, as it so often appears in contemporary America. She sees as the principle cause of our adolescents' difficulty "the presence of conflicting standards and the belief that every individual should make his or her choice, coupled with a feeling that choice is an important matter" (1928, p. 234).

Her suggestion is not that we can or should return to the form of the simpler culture, but that we should more consciously educate to these values within our culture. She says, "We must turn all of our educational efforts to training our children for the choices that will confront them. The child of the future must have an open mind . . . must be taught how to think, not what to think. They must be taught that many ways are open to them and upon them alone lies the burden of choice. Unhampered by prejudices, unvexed by too early conditioning to any one standard, they must come clear-eyed to the choices that lie before them." (1928, p. 246)


That this process of choice-making is inherent in the very nature of the adolescent experience is clear. The adolescent begins the separation from childhood, and from an image of himself which has been determined primarily by his particular family. He moves into an in-between time which presents him or her with many adult possibilities, as yet unknown and unexplored. This potential, defined quite specifically in older cultures in terms of spiritual traditions and social needs, is open to many options in our time.

I remember a scene in which this was vividly acted out. Waking early one morning at the beach where I lived, I saw a young adolescent girl walking up and down the sand. Each time she passed by she tried another walk – a strut, a languid flow, a wiggle, – one after another invention for at least an hour. In a moment of privacy, she was experimenting with as many possibilities of woman as her body and her imagery could create. It was a moment in which the essential nature of the emerging woman allowed her freedom to explore outer shape and style without being fettered or identified with personality or culture.

This experiment, when seen at a deeper level, touches a question of our ultimate reality. Although our multi-culture, multi-image time has the disadvantage of lack of cohesion for the adolescent – a lack of specific modeling, it has the advantage of providing a greater freedom of choice in answering the ultimate question, "What am I?" It is this question, emerging at this time, which makes the adolescent open to spiritual matters. As a part of the old person is dying or has died, what is left? What will be created or recreated? These ultimate questions of reality come up since the quality of one's essential self is in question. C. G. Jung tells in his autobiography, Memories, Dreams and Reflections, of a question which he often asked as a boy while sitting on his favorite rock. He puzzled over, "Am I the one who is sitting on the stone, or am I the stone in which he is sitting?" (1963, p. 20)

Beyond the ambiguity of this question must have been a state of feeling that was also ambiguous. Because these questions and feelings can be so intense and can create a great vulnerability, it seems important that adolescents have a way of finding privacy and protection during this time. When I first worked with adolescents I observed and was concerned that they were not sharing from as deep a place as adults or small children. Then one day I looked at some of the images they were producing in their dreams, writing, painting and clay. Here I saw a clue to the reason for secrecy. I remember especially one painting which seems clear as a metaphor. There was a ship – on a calm sea – itself becalmed. From the ship a long line descended down to an oyster shell on the bottom of the ocean. The picture was entitled, "Waiting for the Pearl." It was clear that the oyster was not yet ready to be opened – it was still in the process of forming the pearl. This seemed to be that pearl which in many cultures symbolizes the Self – the pearl of "greatest price." I realized then that many adolescents consciously or unconsciously were protecting a premature exposure of that deeper Self. It was the essential quality which could provide a basis for new reentry into the world, but it was not yet fully formed, and consequently not ready to be shared. Another image which frequently emerged in the work of these adolescents was a symbolic representation of cell-division. It was as though a new body was being developed, a body which could house the newly developing self. However, the body as well as the ego or new personality was still not fully formed, and consequently not ready to be shared.

The movement from child to adult, between the dying of the old form and emergence of the new, the time of "betwixt and between," can be an experience of non-existence, or "no-form," even invisibility. It is an ambiguous, vulnerable period. Because of this vulnerability, it is important to respect the privacy of the adolescent, providing a container for this secret place of growth.

On the outer level, this period of time is extended in our modern culture long beyond that of the traditional time of initiation. Then the initiate was removed from the family setting and returned as a full member of the larger tribe. Our adolescents remain dependent financially on the family until finishing high school, if not throughout college. This dependence makes it difficult to claim full adulthood and therefore an independent self. This sense of secretive protection may be an important way to keep in reserve a sense of self which does not have full range of expression within the nuclear, restricted family setting.

A Swiss psychologist, Paul Tournier, speaks of this need in his book, Secrets.

The years pass. The child grows. He will have to free himself little by little from his mother, from his parents, in order to become an individual. And his secrets are going to be the indispensable instruments of this emancipation – it is to the extent that he becomes free to keep his secrets from his parents that he gets an awareness of being distinct from them – of having his own individuality, of being a person. One cannot become a person without first being an individual, without freeing himself from the clan, from parental domination, without becoming aware of his own individuality with a right to secrecy. (1963, p. 6)

C. G. Jung also tells of several profound secrets of his childhood, certain dreams and visions and creative actions. He says of these "The possession of a secret had a very powerful formative influence on my character and I consider it the essential factor of my boyhood." One such secret was, for example, a dream that he had when he was very small of an underground chamber in which he saw a phallus on a golden throne. He says, "through this dream I was initiated into the secret of the earth, and many years were to pass before I came out again." What happened then was a kind of burial in the earth, an initiation into the realm of darkness. He could thus say, "I know that it happened in order to bring the greatest possible amount of light into the darkness. My intellect had its unconscious beginning at that moment." (1963, pp.22-23) Some six years later he formed a little figure, reminiscent of this dream and hid it secretly away, almost a totem which kept alive his connection to this individual revelation of the dream. This early secret, well protected, clearly was a dream of initiation for Jung that presaged his life's vocation, his individual path that was to lead him far beyond the parochial boundaries of his family.

This secret time, this sense of the non-formed, all-potential state, was formalized in tribal and ancient ritual passage. Since the rite of initiation was accepted as a form of death, a period of gestation was provided before the new birth. This was clearly and literally expressed in such action as the isolation of the young in a special cabin, sometimes even shaped like a tomb. In some places they were hidden in seclusion in the forest. In others they were "buried" underground, or covered by leaves. In some instances they were put into a clay vessel shaped like an egg or a womb. They were kept until they emerged "re-created." During this period of isolation the initiates might fast, be blindfolded, or might wander around stumbling and awkward. They might be dressed in clothes of the opposite sex, indicating the ambiguity of the state. All these were outer manifestations of the process of transformation to a new, not yet experienced state.

Trust that a new form would emerge came from the presence of those who had already crossed the bridge and who were carrying the model of adulthood. The elders had of course gone through their own essentially similar transformation. The structure of the ritual form gave shape to the process of transformation itself. The imparting of knowledge regarding the social structure into which the initiant was to move provided a situation of stability and security. The puberty initiation of the Apache girl described in this volume gives a sense of this structure provided by myth and ritual.

In our culture, there is a minimal amount of outer structure to guide this process. However, the transitional movement from child to adult is itself a structure to be discovered in the body and psyche of the individual. It is, in other words, archetypal. The process is like the caterpillar in the cocoon that is no longer recognizable as a caterpillar. It has disintegrated into an unrecognizable mass until in its own organic timing the butterfly emerges. The formal rituals emphasize the importance of a time of reconstruction, in the dark secret place in which the work of change in the new takes place. But this archetypal process can also appear in the psyche of the child, experienced alone, and remembered as an adult as a powerfully formative time.

A friend recalled recently that at nine she withdrew into herself totally – to ask about the meaning of life and death. From a very extraverted, active child, she suddenly became quiet, shy and almost non-verbal for several years. Now, in her mature work as a musician and composer, she considers that much of her music was seeded at that time. It was a time of voluntary removal from the extraversion of her family and cultural surroundings. She had, in essence, created her own isolation into her internal "special cabin." In another such recalled memory, Jung describes his own private, personal and spontaneous discovery of himself when he was twelve. "I was taking the long road to school, when suddenly for a single moment I had the overwhelming impression of having just emerged from a dense cloud. I knew all at once; now I am myself. It was as if a wall of mist were at my back, and behind that wall there was not yet an "I." But at this moment, I came upon myself. Previously I had been willed to do this and that, now I  willed. This experience seemed to me tremendously important and new; there was "authority in me." (1963, pp. 32-33)


These were ultimately successful experiences, initiatory in content, which clearly moved these adolescents forward in the creative expression of their adult lives. But for many others these experiences are aborted by the lack of understanding in the adult community toward which these adolescents are moving. What can we do as adults in this time to facilitate for our children this transition into adulthood? First of all, an understanding of the natural aspects of this transition is fundamental. Here even a simple grasp of the elements of adolescent initiation ritual form is helpful, since it is based on deep understanding of the processes of this transition. Perhaps these steps can best be seen in an example from our own Native American practices.

A biographical description of the life of Plenty Coup, a Crow chief, tells of his entry into the male world. It began when he was nine. He was taken from the world of women, his mother, aunts and grandmothers, as was traditional a this age. He was given into the care of the grandfather, a tribal elder. The grandfather gave him tasks, such as the exercise of catching butterflies. Imagine the incredible training for alertness, watchfulness, stillness and agility that would have been. In the evenings the grandfather would tell tales, stories of creation and the history of the tribe, probably imparting some mysteries as well. When the boy was judged to be ready for the test, he was invited by his uncles and father to join a buffalo hunt. The men would stir up a buffalo herd attempting to isolate one buffalo that would come close enough to pierce with their arrows. The boy was asked to stand in front of the buffalo, facing it as it was coming toward the group of men. If he was not able to do so at this time, he was given as many chances as he needed without judgement or a sense of having failed. When he did pass this trial successfully, he was awarded his first 'coup' – a notch in a wooden stick, to which would be added many other coups during his life time. He was then taken in as a full member of the adult male community and a celebration was held in his honor. (Lindemann 1963, p. 29)

In this example of initiation ritual there are clearly a series of phases through which the elder led the boy. First he experiences the stage of separation, secondly he is led through a transitional time of instruction and trial, and finally he begins his celebrative integration into the total community as an adult. These stages are well described in van Gennup's classic work, The Rites of Passage (1960), Victor Turner's The Ritual Process (1969), Eliade's Rites and Symbols of Initiation (1958), and in the article by Stephen Foster and Meredith Little in this volume.

Sensing the reality of life experience symbolized in these ritual elements, an adult may help support an adolescent through this time of transition in a simple offering of compassionate understanding. In a poem addressed to her thirteen year old daughter, the poet Maxine Kumin (1982, p. 223) writes:

     in that uncharted sea
     where no one charts the laws
     of course you do not belong to me
     nor I to you . .

This clear understanding of the necessary separation and the period of uncertainty for both the mother and daughter instructs us all, reminding us of the necessity of releasing our adolescents from a sense of possession so that they do not remain too long in childhood.

But can we, as elders, also help in the second phase of this passage – the time of instruction? Since our culture has belief systems and social forms that are both complex and fluid, no fixed or collective form of instruction seems possible. Although the primary requirement of adulthood in any culture is responsibility to a collective larger than the individual person or family, in this culture this responsibility should be carried out in such a way that the development of the particular character and quality of each individual is not lost. This requires skill in making choices that support both individual development and social concern. Instruction for the adolescent should therefore include awareness of choices that are available, and a sense of the consequences which follow from such choices. In the same chapter in which Mead advocates teaching the child how to think in order to make unprejudiced choices, she concludes that such an education would preserve a primary value of this culture as "the primacy of the individual choice and universal toleration within a heterogeneous culture" (1928, p. 234).

By learning to think, Mead did not of course only mean the development of the mind through the exercise of abstract rational tools. In order to become more aware of the ‘unprejudiced choices,’ a curriculum could be developed which included courses in psychology. A discussion, for example, of the theory of psychological types as well as the various stages of life might help the adolescent become more aware of individual differences and their source. As a consequence, the adolescents might have some basis for tolerance of such differences and a greater sense of acceptance. Especially useful would be reflection about their own individuality, and of the emotional and physical changes which occur during adolescence.

In traditional societies a fundamental form used for achieving a sense of self and one's place in the community was the telling of the myths of origin – "how it was in the beginning." This story gave meaning to the context of everyday life. In order to find such a myth of our time, courses in comparative religion, mythology and anthropology could be taught with a focus on increasing awareness of the collective consciousness of our present culture. Through contrast, the beliefs and value of this system could be examined in order to offer greater freedom of choice for behavior.

The most effective mode of any training is by example. The more adults come to be aware of their own choices and their responsibility in choosing them, the clearer the process will be for adolescents. In addition to the formal courses suggested, adults then need to share their own life experiences, pointing out the negative and positive consequences of their own choices. This honest sharing would maintain the sense of freedom and exploration the adolescent needs for his own development, but it would also give a sense of the fundamental values which have been important to the adult generation.

Beyond such instruction, I believe that individual and collective rituals can also be provided that are relevant to the complexity of our time and conducive to individual development. That fall afternoon in Los Angeles taught me that the ritual maker is alive in us, and if trusted, knows how to create or re-create forms through which adolescents can be honored in their move across the threshold. As an example of such a simple spontaneous ritual a group of women met for dinner to celebrate the approaching twelfth birthday of one of their daughters. During the evening they began to share with each other their memories of being twelve, and what their lives as women had meant to them since that time. In dais relaxed context, the girl began to ask questions about their lives and to share her fantasies of becoming a woman, filled with both fear and hope. That night she had her first menstrual period. This event seems to have strongly supported her entry into womanhood through the mutual sharing and instruction which belongs to the second phase of the initiation process.

The last phase of the transition in ritual form is the celebration of the re-entry of the adolescent into the community. As a simple ritual, it has always seemed to me that the least that could be done to honor a girl's passage would be to send her a dozen roses on the occasion of her first menstruation. This bouquet, or a new article of clothing or jewelry, could mark and honor this event as a birthday of the child-becoming-woman. A gesture such as the offering of the roses can be a cue to our inner knowledge of the elements of initiation, stimulating the development of new, relevant and simple forms which satisfy the requirements of a contemporary initiation.

I once attended such a satisfying ceremony of celebration which followed a traditional Bat Mitzvah in a synagogue. The initiated girl returned home with a group of female friends and relatives and received from each of them a gift in the form of a poem, song, or prayer which told of their hopes for her future. Then her mother, aunt and grandmother led her out the back door. After remaining alone for some time she came to the front door asking to be admitted as a woman. Entering, she told of her personal hopes, making as well a commitment to the world as a caring woman. This moving statement was celebrated by feasting, singing and dancing.

In creating rituals, it is important to be cautious and sensitive in bringing them to the adolescents. We may be imposing our form on to a form already emerging in their life experience, and our forms may not have meaning for them. Adolescents can be embarrassed and awkward with a form that does not fit them individually or that is not acceptable to their peers.

There are some adolescents who need to be supported in their passage by a larger collective event. Very important work in this direction is being done by several groups throughout the country combining experiences in wilderness areas with the vision quest ritual derived from the Native Americans. These vision quests contain essential elements for adolescent transition. They are special events away from the old environment, they demand courage and some survival skills in a strange place, and perhaps more importantly provide a time of aloneness, a secret time, in which each individual can find his or her own symbolic, metaphoric images and experiences. It is a time for the dream, the vision, the deeper confrontation with the self and the forces of nature.

Importantly, there is an opportunity for sharing these individual experiences with a group of peers and their guides – the elders – in this ritual. Sharing, the adolescent begins to participate in the last phase of this transition, the movement into larger community. The larger community itself becomes changed by the sharing of the secrets. The individuality of each person is valued as an essential part of the whole and a sense of individual responsibility for the whole is strengthened.

Paul Tournier underscores this in his book. "Keeping a secret is an early assertion of freedom, telling it to someone that one chooses is going to be a later assertion of even greater value. By opening out, by telling one's secrets – but freely this time, one becomes personally linked with others, and becomes fully a person thereby." (1963, p. 25)

For this reason, there is a tremendous need for the creation of groups for adolescents in which they can share their secrets safely. Some innovative teachers have been able to create such a group within the public school system (Bacon, 1982), while others have done so in a therapeutic outreach for such groups as teenage mothers (Homstead, 1985). The support of such groups led by an adult helps in completing the final stage of the adolescent passage, which is the connection to the larger whole.

In the context of this aspect of the passage, it is important to take note of the appearance in the West of spiritual leaders from Japan, India, Tibet and the Sufi traditions. Native American elders are also beginning to share their teachings. The spiritual tenets of these teachings emphasize in varying ways a view of reality that sees the individual not as an isolated entity, but as part of a cohesive totality. Many young people have been attracted to these teachings for their paths of initiation. They offer a traditional form which provides them one of the few options to join a group which has initiation as its focus.

For many, the attraction to the disciplines is not the fact that they are traditional and collective but that the teachings may offer some answers to their question concerning meaning and the nature of reality – the answers to "What am I" and "What am I doing here?"

There are other collective groups, however, which are based on power and conformity, and this is the situation within some of the cults that have attracted some young people. They are here denied the possibility of individual choice and individual morality. This is the advantage of groups whose leadership provides energy for a collective experience but ensures that the experience itself safeguards the individual, and does not bind the adolescent to a particular group after the experience.                                              


One of the greatest protections for the adolescent's individuality is when the work allows for them to touch upon their own inner resources, including the realm of dream and image. The inner vision, when capable of being interpreted and integrated into the personality and its work in the world, can become a true source of initiation and guidance. In this sense the psyche becomes the teacher, the guru, the guide through the images it brings to the ordinary conscious mind. The dream of the boy in which he experienced the fire-jumping ritual is an example of this inner instruction by the psyche.

It is important as adults to be sensitive to the content of dreams, fantasies, stories, music and the art products which are created or enjoy ed by the adolescents in order to hear and see the statement which they are making about their lives and often about the adult world as well. These products often reveal confusion and pain as well as deep knowledge. Often they are a cry for help. Often they are an inspiration.

It would be of great help to the adolescent process if teachers and counselors were given training in understanding and interpreting these statements from adolescents, not only to be able to offer additional guidance and help, but to support the adolescent's belief in the strength and meaning of his own inner resources (Griffin 1983).

The encouragement of the use of creative forms as vehicles for the imagination is vital. For the contemporary adolescent the pressure of academic requirement, sports competition, and social demands of their peers leaves little, if any, room for the expression of the images which are at the base of all our action. School programs should include theater projects where the adolescents are allowed to create their own story, and classes in which they could make their own music, art and dance not on a competitive basis but as away of reflecting inner movement. The use of journal writing and the recording of dream material are a few of the many possible ways of supporting and integrating this deeper source of the imagination into the adolescent's life.

In a time when the collective community is providing images of increased materialism and of the threat of nuclear annihilation, it is essential that our imagination be tapped for its deep wellspring of creative life-renewing solutions. To revalue and reactivate our own imagination as adults may be the greatest inheritance we can give to adolescents.

In addition to the statements revealed in these creative forms, aspects of adolescent initiation are frequently expressed outwardly in the actual process of daily living, in the solitary place where the child is alone or with its peers, or in the more dramatic forms of adventure, rebellion or creative action. The rebellion and rejection of the family, so often painfully experienced by both adolescent and parent is an example. The ritual separation from the family is seen in primitive tradition as a necessary step in initiation. In our culture the adolescents are left to provide the separation for themselves, and often use the rebellion and rejection as the only available separating-emotional wedge.

If it is so that the psyche already creates ritual action in the lives of adolescents through dreams, images and outer action, why bring consciousness to the ritual form itself? The answer to this involves issues of life and death. The ritual forms may, in fact, be re-enacted in a way which distorts the ultimate purpose of transition and expansion to a larger form. For example, Eliade says, "Initiation implies an existential experience, basic to the human condition, that is, the experience of ritual death" (1958, p. 19). Such ritual death is real in a symbolic way, but it is now being played out in physical reality by many adolescents. The rate of teenage suicide has increased dramatically in the last years. Here such deaths may occur because of an intense desire for change – a hopelessness in life as it is. But the death is achieved literally, not ritually or symbolically. In her important book on teenage suicide, Cry for Help, Mary Griffin (1983) calls for the use of more conscious rites of passage.

For other adolescents, the phase of separation or isolation that belongs to a period of adolescence extends far beyond its time. It may seem that there is no one to relate to in the adult world so that adulthood is without meaning or enticement. There may be violence and destruction in the breaking away from the old, but not always with a sense of the new. We could quote Wordsworth's line from his Ode on Intimations of Immortality, "shades of the prison house begin to close upon the growing Boy." Wordsworth here refers to the growing personality that the adolescent may take on in a culture which may remove him from his deeper nature. The prison house is thus a culture that is too narrow for our full humanity – a culture whose values are too self-centered to provide meaning and community. If the process of death of the old leads only to a hopelessness, we must look for a place of inspiration.

Is it possible that adolescents are playing out the destructive parts of the old ritual form beyond that which is needed to leave the personal childhood – going beyond this to also destroy a form of cultural childhood? If so, it is the responsibility of those who claim adulthood to recognize this, and help to balance this work of the adolescents by understanding and supporting a more complete transformation in themselves and in the world. In this sense, the initiation of the adolescent is the initiation of the culture into its larger human potentialities.

We can perhaps look to processes of the adolescent not only for their perception of what is lacking in our culture, but also for inspiration and solution. I would like to share a final story of a fire-builder whose inner work carries a deep message for change, not only within himself, but within the culture.

This was an eleven year old boy, unusually bright and creative. However, he was becoming increasingly withdrawn from his peers and was suffering from tension headaches and severe muscle pains. It was as though his musculature was holding in some tremendous energy. In my office there was an opportunity for him to work in sandplay. This technique involves the use of many miniature figures which can be placed in a tray of sand, either wet or dry. In this way the inner story of the child can be told. Creative solutions to life situations can emerge in the tray. It was so for this boy who was approaching adolescence and the sandtray was his place of passage.

His first scene showed a pile of airplanes that had crashed. The sense was that his intellect and his creative fantasy, the source of bright, highflying ideas, were not serving his life process at this time. However, one large plane was still there on the ground, an indication that the essential quality of this boy was still intact and there in reserve. In addition there was a place in the center in which some of the crashed planes were being repaired. This indicated that the healing factors in his psyche were already at work. To summarize, this first statement was that his individual gifts were in the keen intellect and creative and probably spiritual insights, but that these had not found a balance in his life.

The next tray began to tell why this was so. It was a zoo in which all animals were in fenced cages. There were extra empty cages, "just in case." In the center was an even more amazing part of the scene – a fence was around the tropical red-flame tree. There was one animal, however, that was free. An old tortoise was following the zoo keeper as he inspected the cages. We can see here a personal but also collective issue. All the animal energies were fenced in, away from their natural setting. Even the red `tree of life,' with its vitality, was caged. Looking at this boy's rigid use of his body, it was easy to imagine it as the zoo-keeper of his own animal forces. But the tortoise was free – the tortoise who carries its own protection on its vulnerable body is also the primitive long-living animal which in many ancient myths is seen holding up the world, or in some Native American creation myths, as bringing up the earth from the bottom of the deep waters.

For this boy, then, although the tortoise indicated vulnerability and a need for protection, it also brought hope of some ancient sense of stability, the strength and foundation of the earth.

But what of all those other vital animals, and the tree that is fenced in? In a stunning act of courage, in the next sandtray, this boy built some fences out of matches in the center, lit the matches, and destroyed those barriers with a blazing fire. In the tray he had placed fire-trucks with their hoses out – "just in case," an action reminiscent of the boys who spontaneously built the fire in the courtyard. There was a sense of control and caution, but willingness to allow the fire to do its destructive work, destroying forms too limited for the next stage of growth.

Not surprisingly, the next tray showed all the animals who had been caged in the second sandtray were now in their natural setting – free in a jungle of green. And most thrilling was that all these animals were facing toward the center, where the red-flame tree was standing, also naturally free. Only two animals faced outwards, –  an adult giraffe and a baby giraffe. Looking at this boy, tall for his age, with his head high and active, but at this time so disconnected to his body, one could easily imagine him as a cousin to the giraffe. The baby giraffe suggests that some new possibilities were coming to him.

His action of lighting the fire symbolically released the animal energies needed for his adolescent transition. Not long after this the headaches disappeared, and he began to play soccer with a few of his former friends. His body regained some fluidity. If one sees the release of these personal energies as the end of such an inner, symbolic ritual-action, this would have been the completion of the transitional process. But, as we understand in ritual, the process is not complete until this new energy carried by the individual – the new 'giraffe' – is brought back into the community, and consequently changes the community.

And so it did, in a most amazing way. In the middle of the next tray he placed a large church. Again he made a fence around it with matches, and burned it down. The fire trucks were there to control the spread of the fire, but the church itself was completely destroyed.

In this courageous action, a clear statement is made. As the zoo had restrained the animals, so the church had restrained the spirit. We know that many old forms in this culture no longer have the vitality to inspire a life of action, to deepen morality, or to instruct us in the mysteries of reality. Deep from within the psyche of this boy came his answer to the proper foundation for the spirit. In the next, most beautiful tray, he used black sand. Here in this dark world, as in a cave or womb, a union takes place. The image shows a body of blue water surrounded by black sand. There is a peninsula jutting into a womb-shaped body of water, very much like the union of male and female. This vision of union in nature is celebrated by angels singing and playing instruments. The black earth is rich with the growth of trees and bright flowers, and there are paths made of naturally polished rocks and shells. In the water are swans, and a peacock, symbolic of transformation and of the presence of the deeper self.

Standing back and looking at this tray, he said quietly, "It is nothing but Nature." At moments like this one experiences a numinosity not only in the tray, but in the energy which was invoked for its creation. Traditional societies understood that to be effective a ritual needed the invocation of greater energies to take the participants out of their ordinary awareness to a place of greater understanding—to a place of original creative source.

C. G. Jung calls this source the Self, not seen as external to the individual but as residing within him, a source greater than the confines of personality and culture which can create new or expanded forms for life. It is the "Nothing but Nature" behind the outer form of the "church."

When both the boy and I had stood silently for a few minutes, celebrating this vision he said, "I must bring something back." He placed a boat on the water, with an image of himself as the driver holding a huge piece of bark from one of the trees in this paradise-like and. He said then, "I'll need this for the building." As in traditional ritual, he was ready to bring back something of his individual transformative experience to the ordinary community in which he lived.

The next tray showed what the particular work was to be. He began to rebuild the church, placing it within an ordinary city. Work trucks, including fire trucks which he had used before, were there to begin the reconstruction. As he put the rebuilt church in its place he said, "Now we know its true foundation." Here was a remarkable insight. This boy, in the midst of his own inner transitional work, understood that the outer forms of our culture were restrictive to the body and the spirit when they lost their connection to a fundamental experience of nature and its creative forces.

This is wisdom much needed in our time when cultural forms have little respect for nature, the earth and all its creatures. The hope which the imaginative work of this boy gives 's that the forms can be transformed and rebuilt through such a connection, and need not be destroyed permanently. In the rebuilding of the church, this adolescent pointed a way to the harmonious integration of nature and culture. If societal forms are not transformed on this basis, there is great danger that, as in adolescent suicide, the destructive conflagration will be externalized and total.

But what of this individual boy and his own adolescent crossing? From his last tray it was clear that he had returned from the experience not only with wisdom for the larger collective, but even with his own new possibilities. In this tray he placed the airplanes with which he had started this inner journey. Two were in fine shape, poised upward for the flight. The large plane which had never been damaged was there still in the background. A few were still in need of repair. Here it was clear that is return to the place of original nature and its creative source had strengthened and healed his individual nature and gifts.

But the tray also showed a freight train going over a track through a bridge. The track made an arc far beyond the limits of the tray. Here we see that he had added symbolically a sense of responsibility to the whole, helping to carry to the collective 'on the ground,' close to the foundation: those perceptive insights which he will find in his gifted flights of imagination.

In a time when we cannot easily turn to collective rituals traditionally used to create the energy needed for personal and collective transformation, it is essential to fully recognize that these energies can be found within the individual, in our own inner "Nothing but Nature" sources – in the imagination which shapes our actions.

This boy's story supports the hope that in our individual nature there is a deep knowledge of the process of transformation and the sources of energy to support it. What we as adults can provide is the receptivity to such processes within ourselves, in other adults, and in our children. Then the children turning-adults whom we call adolescents can share with us their individual concerns and insights which we need to hear, and the vision of the future we need to see, so that our own sense of responsibility for the world is awakened and inspired. Only then will we be able to call them across the threshold with the true wisdom of elders.

Bacon, G. 1982 Essential education. Palo Alto, California: Rainbow Bridge.
Cameron, A. 1981. Daughters of Copper Woman. Vancouver: Press Gang Publishers.
Eliade, M. 1958. Rites and symbols of initiation. New York: Harper and Row.
Griffin, M. and Felsenthal, M. 1983. Cry for help. New York: Doubleday.
Homstead, K. 1985. Group experience for sexually abused adolescents. Unpublished dissertation, University of Massachusetts.
Jung, C. G. 1963. Memories, dreams and reflections. London: Collins and Routledge and Kegan.
Kumin, M. 1982. Our ground time here will be brief. New York: Penguin Books.
Lindemann, F. 1963. Plenty-coups, chief of the Crows. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press.
Mead, M. 1928. Coming of age in Samoa. New York: William Morrow and Co., Inc.
Tournier, P. 1963. Secrets. Atlanta: John Knox Press.
Turner, V. 1969. The ritual process. Chicago: Aldine.
van Gennep, A. 1960. The rites of passage. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.


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