Even in our technologically advanced society the ancient Rite of Passage has much to offer the Modern Man and may in fact help him find his way within it.
Even as a teenage boy growing up in Upstate New York, I sensed that some important part of becoming a man was missing. While my dad and brothers certainly modeled some form of masculinity, it didn’t ring very authentic to me. I just knew there was something far scarier and more crucial to this stepping over the threshold to becoming a man.
My intuition told me that a “real” man faced his fears and to do that you had to go through a process that had you do just that. I didn’t know it at time, but have since learned that in earlier times tribal communities put soon-to-be-young-men boys through a rite of passage. This typically entailed spending time alone in the wilderness to fend for himself, and more importantly, learn who he was as a man emerging from the depths of his very being.
This crucible of transformation usually resulted in a young man returning who was self-reliant, confident and able to stand in face of his worst fears. He was no longer just a boy; instead he was a powerful man who could significantly impact the people around him. He was a man that elicited respect just by being in his presence.
Boy Scouts Just Didn’t Quite Cut It
Like my three brothers before me, I joined Boy Scouts. This was done more out of trying to be like them than any inherent interest on my part. I didn’t take the experience very seriously. I also somehow knew it was a not a real test of my mettle as a soon-to-be man. Too many rules, too much focus on merit badges, and definitely not very scary. While I didn’t know what a rite of passage was back then, I had a strong feeling that being a good scout would not bring me to that place I so wanted to be –a powerful, capable, fierce when needed, yet compassionate man.
Some men discover who they are on the battlefield. War is a cruel and soulless rite of passage whose context is primarily that of survival. As such it leaves many who go through it either in a body bag or severely damaged, physically and/or psychologically. A transformational rite of passage ideally leaves a man stronger, more capable and in peace; not tear him down or destroy him.
A Life of a Thousand Deaths
Most of my adult life I functioned as a man who was a husband, father, provider, protector, entrepreneur (i.e. hunter / gatherer in the modern context). While achieving reasonable success in all those endeavors, I still felt something viscerally essential to my manhood was missing. My constant state of free-floating anxiety was testament to the fact I still never learned to face my fears. I lived in the shadows (and pretending I wasn’t) while dying a tiny death each day. This was the state of my existence as a man until September 2012 when I finally had the rite of passage I so desperately wanted.
The “Yes” That Changed Everything
In June of 2012 I met with a counselor who was helping me explore some other aspects of my being. What came out of one of those meetings was my lack of any meaningful relationships with other men. Thanks to my upbringing, I simply did not trust other men at all. She indicated I might find some value in attending a mens-only weekend called the New Warrior Training Adventure (NWTA) put on by the ManKind Project (MKPusa.org). I had never heard of them and had no clue what the weekend was about yet I still said “yes” to attending. I was learning to say yes to a lot of things at that time. Little did I know what I was in for.
The only problem was, earlier that very day I had ended a very important business / friendship relationship and I was experiencing major grief and loss. There were 24 other men headed to the same weekend “adventure” as me. When that fateful Friday in early September arrived, I agreed to carpool two other men to the camp in Central California where it was being held. I was thinking: “Why am I going to this damn weekend? I don’t even know what it’s about and I can’t think straight right now. How am I possibly going to be able to focus and get anything out of this experience?”
It was certainly not the ideal context to enter into this yet-unknown-to-me rite of passage — it was never described to me that way so I had no clue that’s what it would be. However, it is a testament to the power of that transformative weekend that I came out the other side embodying what I was seeking all those years. In some fundamental way, I finally felt like a man.
I’m not going to describe in detail what goes on during the NWTA simply because my ability to articulate what happened and what I experienced is ineffable. You can read more about it by going to: http://mkpusa.org/trainings/. I will say this however, I faced some *major* fears head on and came out a more complete man as a result. I emerged with the possibility of connecting with other men as deeply as I can with women, of standing up for what’s right even if no one else does, of celebrating my ability to be fierce when needed and compassionate always.
It’s In Our DNA
I think there is something essential and primordial about going through a rite of passage. I’d like to say we’ve evolved beyond needing this kind of ritual experience. Yet, I believe that at a fundamental level, it is a part of who we are; an imprint whose patterns have evolved over eons. While we may no longer need to fight off wild beasts or invading tribes to protect our own, the world is still a very scary place. Greed, denial, consumption, and uncertainty are some modern faces of “scary things” that keep us cowering in the shadows if we let them.
One of the most important things I’ve learned these past few years is that the worst fear is the one we fail to address head on. In turning away, we give our fear far more strength and power than it deserves. Going through a rite of passage, whether the NWTA or some other proven initiation process, is the only sure way I know of transforming that fear into strength. It is the only way I know of living a life driven by purpose and what’s right rather than one dictated by avoiding fear at all costs.
This possibility is available for all of us. All it requires is facing the fear of saying “yes” and taking that first step. A step into an unknown and scary territory where you will finally meet the man you can be.