Please feel free to download Understanding Rites of Passages. for a more conceptual overview, its traditional use and application to our contemporary experiences of change. It also provides a few essential references.


Change is central to the human experience. Its patterns and rhythms follow ancient archetypal processes that can be observed wherever a death and birth cycle takes place—in nature or the human community. Indigenous traditions have a rich repertoire of knowledge about these archetypal processes and have developed practices that support individuals and communities to more fully and consciously engage, guide and work with the momentum that is present in change. Rites of passage is one of those archetypal processes. Compared to many contemporary models of change this model acknowledges the centrality of the spiritual nature that is at the core of transformative change.

Recently I led a session on Rites of Passage for the Sydney’s Facilitators Network that was entitled Change Agents at the Gates of Transformation: Using an Ancient Approach to Harness the Vital Forces in Contemporary Experiences of Change. I designed the session so that the participants could explore an experience of change in their own lives through the rites of passage perspective and then for them to examine the unique roles and responsibilities of the ritual guide and the community supporting the rite of passage. An insightful and intimate interaction ensued between the participants and I about the nature of change and what the rites of passage framework revealed about the changes they were in.

In one of those interactions I asked the participants to notice the feelings, sensations or images that surfaced for them about the change they had chosen to work with. One woman who was perhaps in her late 50’s shared that she had seen the image of a florescent skeleton with butterflies. She revealed that this change had been especially challenging for her and that it had been going on for a while. She also described that the internal aspect of the change she was moving through was bringing about healing for experiences she had much earlier in her life. Most recently she had begun to get glimpses about what is possible for her in the future and she felt hopeful.

The skeleton with the butterfly is a powerful image and poignantly reflects the tensions that define the threshold experience of a rite of passage. This image she saw puts side by side the dying to the old and becoming transformed into the new. In shamanic rites of passages especially, the skeleton signifies the dismemberment of the old self and the death that is necessary for a rebirth to take place. In contrast, the butterfly is a symbol of transmutation and signifies the next step in the transformative process. Richard Back in the book Illusions captured this when he wrote, “What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, the butterfly calls a new beginning.”

Once a few more heartfelt comments were made by the participants about the sense of loss and excitement that is part of change, an authenticity developed in the group that illuminated how experiences with change that seem so unique to the individual reflect basic human experiences that we are all familiar with. Participants were listening deeply and the authenticity that was generated amongst them was palpable. A sense of our shared humanity was present. Rather than just meeting as individuals interested in the topic of change, we had become for a short while, a group that was journeying together across the uncertain territory of change that shapes so much of our lives.

The rites of passage model is an archetypal model of change that maps the phases and significant turning points in a transformational process. Most commonly we are familiar with rites of passage as they are still practiced in indigenous cultures, such as initiations into manhood or womanhood. Others include birth, first love, adulthood, marriage and divorce, becoming a parent, elderhood and death, as well as sickness and other crises that originate out of some kind of imbalance. Of course, these rites and ceremonies take place in ways that is unique to each culture.

The rites of passage framework also provides important guidance for understanding experiences of changes in our contemporary lives. We move through these traditionally identified transition and crises points albeit usually without the ceremonies, ecstatic healing rituals, initiations, and without the support from the community and the wise and supportive perspective of elders or authorized ritual leaders.

During the session another participant shared that she had recently left her job but was unsure about what is next for her. She admitted that being in this in-between place she often felt inadequate and self-conscious as well as unsure about how to respond when asked about her current situation. These feelings of inadequacy usually stem from the feeling of not fitting in with the typical norms and the expectations of the social groups we associate with. In traditional rites of passages becoming invisible and marginal to the social groups we belong to, is a critical part of the rite of passage experience. In traditional ceremonies, initiates are taken away from the community, leaving behind whatever is representative of their old identity, such as their clothing or their name. These rites often take place in secrecy and only those who have experienced them before know the actual aspects of the ceremony. Therefore the ceremonies and participants and their experiences are ‘invisible’ to the community – though the community is well aware of these ceremonies taking place. For the initiate this invisibility and marginality often generates a sense of being alone or loneliness. This loneliness is amplified when experience of change lack any sort ritual guidance, structure or support which is more typical for contemporary experiences of change.

Today, if we have the wherewithal we might have a therapist or coach to support us. We might have a church we belong to. Medical practitioners help us address the symptoms and sometimes the causes of our illnesses. Some of us create our own rituals, go on a sabbatical or take a spiritual journey, and so on, to help us move along the process of change and our development. But by in large it is up to ourselves to initiate and look for the support for our personal growth and healing. In addition to the changes in the domain of the personal, there are social and ecological crisis that are occurring with an increasing speed and quantity and that now seem to be epidemic in nature. The amount of change in our personal and collective lives is creating the sense that change is everywhere and that uncertainty is an underlying theme.

To me the rites of passage framework is such a helpful model because it shows us how to more fully participate in the process of change. It does this not only from the perspective of the person experiencing the change, but also from the perspective of the community and the ritual leader. It provides clarity about their roles and responsibilities for supporting the individual or the change they may be going through as a collective.

The model shows us that in order to transform we have to come face to face with the spiritual and creative nature of who we are. This framework highlights the deeper psycho-spiritual and socio-spiritual dimensions of change. Experiencing change, we dread the sense of loss of what is left behind and we are excited about the creativity that lies at the threshold of the new. Residing at this threshold are the mounting tensions of letting go, entering uncertainty, and envisioning what is possible. Rites of passage show us that a certain ego death is required to create the vulnerability needed to receive the spiritual knowledge and tap into the vitality that lead us out of the change into who we are becoming. This is the place where we open up to something new that comes from a place beyond ourselves or perhaps from deeply within; a place beyond our ordinary reach, a place with immense creativity and vitality.

This post was originally published in my blog Liminal Songlines. The intention of that blog was to help capture my initial understanding of the spiritual healing traditions of the Aboriginal peoples of Australia while I lived in Australia from 2009 to 2012. Much of what I learned there is relevant to my continuing explorations of rites of passages in indigenous and contemporary cultures, the concept of liminality, and working with change in our turbulent times.