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You are here: Home Resources E-Newsletter Archive Spring 2009, Issue III Loving the Questions Themselves

Loving the Questions Themselves

by Darcy Ottey

"Have patience with everything unresolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language. Don't search for the answers, which could not be given to you now, because you would not be able to live them. And the point is to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps then, someday far in the future, you will gradually, without even noticing it, live your way into the answer."- Rainer Maria Rilke, 1903, in "Letters to a Young Poet"

About two years ago, Fred Lanphear, parent and grandparent to several Rite of Passage Journeys’ (called “Journeys” for short) alumni, a local community elder, and guide for our program, When Autumn Comes: Exploring our Elder Years, was describing what makes Journeys programs unique.  “Journeys isn’t about providing answers,” he said,  “It’s about asking questions.” 

“Yes,” I thought.  “That is exactly right.   In our complex modern world, people, especially young people, need places where they can explore questions and find answers for themselves.” The aim of education far too frequently is on information collection, cramming answers for the coming test just to be forgotten when the next subject is most urgently at hand.  With the internet’s ubiquity in our daily lives, any question can be answered with just a few clicks of the mouse, at practically any place or time.  Loving the questions just isn’t something we even consider in our daily lives.

Even with all of these answers on everybody’s tongues, there is no doubt that many of us struggle to make meaning out of our lives.  We sense that there’s something more, deeper, to our lives, and we yearn for it.  Michael Meade, storyteller and mythologist, tells the story of a UN study undertaken to uncover the common underlying issues leading to all the world’s problems in all the world’s countries.  Narrowing it down and narrowing it down, researchers eventually arrive at one single, solitary word to describe the essential issue at the heart of all economic, environmental, political, and cultural issue —meaninglessness.  I have no idea if this is true or not, but it does make an important point.  Gaining meaning from the world around us is a fundamental human need.

This fundamental need for meaning is seated before an increasingly complex backdrop.  On one hand, we live in a very multicultural and pluralistic society, that contains innumerable stories of how the universe was created, and thousands of different values that can drive our actions, and therefore offers a plethora of ways in which we can create meaning.  On the other hand, that indelible constitutional standard, the separation of church and state, requires in us that we avoid a proscription of beliefs. In addition, over the last several centuries, a sort of relativistic thought has developed, culminating in the postmodernist view that there are no universal standards, no universal meaning.  

There have been two primary reactions against this absence of shared meaning.  First, there has been a rise of consumerism as a primary cultural value.  Simply turning pages in a popular magazine, and noticing how many ads promise spiritual fulfillment and happiness through buying products and gadgets, is an indication of this.  Second, there has been a rise in fundamentalist religiosity, containing strong moral imperatives, out of a desire to make meaning in the world.  

As an organization devoted to helping youth, adults, and elders through life transitions, this context to our work is critical to understand.  Traditionally, rites of passage take place out of a single coherent worldview, a single set of meanings about the world, a single set of values. The rite of passage experience is designed to teach, reinforce, and celebrate that orientation to the world.  When a young Apache girl is doused in pollen as a symbol of fertility during her Sunrise Ceremony, she exemplifies the importance of fertile women to these people of the desert, for whom survival has always been a challenge. Contemporary culture-based rites of passage, such as the Apache Sunrise Ceremony, can continue to renew these cultural values even as they change in the modern world.  

For Journeys, our rites of passage take place specifically within a contemporary American context, with all of the ethnic and cultural diversity that implies. Here we arrive at the interesting challenge of a global approach to individual rites of passage—or an individual approach to global rites of passage, because the two are opposite sides of the same coin.  

Over the last two years, Rite of Passage Journeys has engaged in organizational soul-searching to better articulate the values that are at the core of our curriculum.  What has emerged is that at its essence, Journeys programs are about allowing people to explore questions, in order to develop their own strong internal truths.  Specifically, we seek to support people to deepen their relationships with the Self, Community, Nature, and the Sacred.  This is the post-post modernist approach.  This is NOT the same as an approach that claims “everything is relative, there is no truth, there is no shared meaning.”  Rather, our approach says:  there is meaning.  There is truth.  And it’s inside each of us.  In sharing together, deeply, openly, our own inner truths grow stronger.  This is learning to live the questions. 

A deepened relationship with one’s self
To be human
is to become visible
while carrying
what is hidden
as a gift to others.
--David Whyte, What to Remember When Waking

At its essence, Journeys helps individuals to develop a deeper sense of who they uniquely are in the world.  This includes:
•    Exploring personal beliefs and values
•    Identifying unique gifts & challenges
•    Making sense of one's life story.
•    Recognizing passions and interests.
•    Discerning one’s sense of calling and purpose in life.
•    Cultivating openness and creativity.
•    Developing the virtues of compassion

While this can look very differently for a 60 year-old considering the question, “What is my elder work in the world?” or the 8-year old exploring, “What do I care about?”, the essence is the same.  The capacity for self-reflection is a skill to be learned, and atrophied if it’s not practiced diligently.  At Journeys, self-reflection is fostered through journaling, time alone, “circle” time in which participants share with one another, both about their experiences and the gifts that they are receiving from others, and through artistic expression.

Two years ago, a 10-year old girl took part in our Apprentice Journey program.  This program is designed as a fun introduction to nature, community, the self, and the sacred, a first-time-away-from-home weeklong backpacking and camping trip.  This bright and energetic girl, Francesca, said of her experience, “The journey involved going inside yourself and finding out truths about yourself, as well as spending time in nature.  I got to ask, “what do I want to get out of life?  How am I going to get there?”  These words help me remember the hunger that even our youngest youth have to explore deep questions, and what a gift it is to create, amidst the play and adventure, opportunity for pause and reflection, and the value of planting “big questions” as seeds to be tended to by the youth.

For those on our elder program, the nature and depth of self-reflection is different but equally as essential.  One of the important pieces of this program is exploring one’s life story as a means to understand where one is at in this moment, stepping forward into elder work in the world.  This telling and re-telling, imagining and re-imagining, of the life story is important to uncover the patterns, the personal mythology, that makes sense and meaning out of a life already well-lived, in preparation for the next stage of life’s purpose.  This is very different than the notion of “retirement,” which does not imply important work to be done by our elders.  By deeply understanding one’s life story, and one’s gifts and talents at this stage, a sense of purpose going into elderhood can be fostered.  

At the heart of deepening a relationship with self is what Puanani Burgess calls “gift-based education,” or the process of Building the Beloved Community (See an article on Ms. Burgess, with the following story, from Yes! Magazine at In this wonderful story about helping a young man who didn’t think he had any gifts uncover unique and special talents, she asks the questions, “What would his life have been like if [his school] curriculum were gift-based? If we were able to see the gift in each of our children and taught around that gift? What would happen if our community was gift-based?”  By helping individuals deepen their relationship with themselves, we help these gifts grow stronger, and take greater form in the world.

A deepened relationship with community
Near the center of India is a sovereign indigenous village, Mendha Lekha.  The village was left alone to live their traditional ways under British rule.  After India gained independence, the independent Indian government took a keen interest in the village because of the valuable teak forests surrounding it.  Regulations were imposed on the forests, and traditional ways of life were undermined.  One key way the Indian government undermined the community was by encouraging the dismantling of the gotul, a central meeting space to which youth would go to be initiated.  Without the gotul, and with the imposition of schooling in a nearby town, youth began to disengage from traditional village life.  Alcoholism crept in to the village. 

Village elders could see the changes taking place, and they knew that these changes threatened the village.  They sought to strengthen their community.  The most effective way to do this was to reinstate the gotul.  And so one night, they went out, harvested teak—as it was from this precious resource that the gotul was traditionally constructed.  They rebuilt the gotul at the center of the village, all under the cover of darkness.  In the morning, officials came and tore it down, saying that the villagers had illegally harvested the teak trees.  The villagers stood by, bearing witness to the destruction of the gotul, but refusing assistance to the government officials.  That night, they went out and reconstructed the gotul. Several more times this re-construction and subsequent destruction of the gotul took place.  Eventually, the Indian government gave up, and allowed the structure to remain.  The youth returned to the gotul to be initiated.
This victory served as a catalyst for a return to traditional ways of life for the villagers of Mendha.  Alcohol was banned from the village.  Youth initiation once again became the standard.  And the villagers, spurred on by this victory, fought for and won sovereign rights over their village and forests.

Rites of passage are as much for the community as they are for the individual.  This story, relayed to me on a visit to India two years ago, served as a powerful testament to the importance of rites of passage for the strength of a community. 

For our youth programs, much of the deepening of relationship with community is done through skill-building within the community created on the program.  Learning to sit in circle, share, listen to the voices of others, and solve conflicts or make decisions, can provide a powerful framework to take back into their lives back home, whether at school, with peers, or in their families.    For adults, the same practices serve as reminders and reconnections, cultivating a deep sense of belonging. 

Participants in our programs come with many different notions of what is “their community.”  To deepen their relationships with these communities, we help them:
•    Understand one's place in one’s family.
•    Cultivate healthy communication and leadership skills.
•    Understand and accept one’s responsibilities.
•    Cultivate transparency and authenticity in one’s relationships.
•    Cultivate an appreciation & skills for engaging with a diversity of people.

On a recent trip to Hawaii, I had the honor of hearing the story of a Hawaiian mother that wished to initiate her daughter into womanhood in the traditional way.  As far as she knew, the initiation hadn’t been done in generations.  In order to prepare for her daughter’s initiation, she, her daughter, and the other women involved had to re-learn how it was done.  This search included years of research into their family’s ancestry.  As she spoke about the process, she described how powerful it was to learn the family’s history, how this research component was an important part of the initiation itself. 

While quite different in the Journeys context, which is not based within one cultural tradition, this story highlights the essential role of exploring where you come from in the initiatory process.  We ask participants and their families to engage in a less rigorous, though similar, process before, during, and after the program.  We also create opportunities for participants to share stories of the communities and families from which they come with one another.

This is also why we place a high value on family involvement in the program, and strongly encourage community send-offs and return celebrations so that the individual initiate can share their story with the wider community.  After years of taking part in vision quests personally, I have figured out that I must create an opportunity to share my story as soon as possible upon my return, with as much of my community as I can gather at one time.  Sharing my story in this way helps me to make clear to those around me the changes that I have committed to, elicits their support, helps me to remember that my journey was not just for me but for my whole community, and serves to strengthen the communities of which I am a part.  Again, it is not just about the individual—it is about the strength of the whole.

A deepened relationship with the Sacred

Often in our modern world, people feel cut off from their spiritual lives.  For some, organized religion does not resonate with their belief systems.  For others, the beliefs of a particular religion do resonate, but there is a lack of understanding of how to, or desire to, translate this into church involvement.  Key to the search for meaning is the deepening of relationship with the sacred. As an organization devoted to healthy growth and development, it is our belief that spiritual development is part of what we do.  But this is tricky business in an organization that is philosophically and legally non-religious.

We believe that one of the most powerful practices we can offer, as an organization devoted to rites of passage for individuals from a range of cultural and belief backgrounds, is to provide an opportunity to deepen one’s personal relationship with the sacred in a supportive environment in which all beliefs are welcomed and shared.  Youth have very little opportunity to share their individual, and their family’s, spiritual beliefs, to ask one another questions, or develop their own shared group norms around spirituality.  Yet they are hungry for just such an opportunity. A terrific study done by the Search Institute’s Center for Spiritual Development in Childhood and Adolescence was just released last fall.  From 2006 through 2008, more than 7,000 youth from 17 countries on 6 continents participated in this study.  The results are entitled, With Their Own Voices, and can be found at 

Of particular importance to Journeys were the following four findings:
1.    The vast majority of youth in this study believe that there is a spiritual dimension to life.
2.    52% of US youth surveyed see themselves as “very” or “pretty” spiritual.
3.    One in five youth surveyed say that no one helps them regarding their spiritual life.
4.    In response to the question, “What makes spiritual development easier or harder?” 87% of youth—the #1 response—answered that spending time outside or in nature made spiritual development easier.

Randy Morris, professor at Antioch University and Journeys’ guide and teacher, offers insight into what it means to practice spirituality with those of a different faith:

First, the notion that any particular faith has the final answer as to the nature of God has to be placed in the history books as an important but outmoded development in the religious history of humanity.  God is the formless form of forms, the implicate system of all systems, the Great Mysterious beyond all names.  What we need now is a renewed commitment to the idea of deep ecumenism, the sense that all spiritual traditions are welcome as long as they acknowledge the mystery that resides at the heart of creation.  As soon as a religion claims to know that mystery, the mystery disappears and a fundamentalism is born.  In contrast, deep ecumenism honors all of the various faiths as essential portals through which the mysteries of the universe pour into human manifestation.  Each portal welcomes a different face of the divine.  All are necessary for a complete picture, all belong to the common spiritual heritage of humanity. 

Furthermore, we need to understand that just as different faiths are required to encompass the whole, so the varieties of individuals foster unique revelations of God. Is it not more likely that God or the Holy Spirit provides individual revelations to correspond with the uniqueness of the person receiving them?  If so, the truth about God will only be heard in the concert of many voices. 

[Second] is to recognize that a common denominator of all faith communities, something that binds us together as a living practice, is our capacity for gratitude. Joanna Macy tells us that “Gratitude for the gift of life is the primary wellspring of all religions, the hallmark of the mystic, the source of all true art.   … (It) quiets our scattered minds and brings us back to Source. It reconnects us with basic goodness and our personal power.  It helps us to be more fully present to our world.”  The open secret of gratitude, she says, is that it is not dependent on external circumstances.  “It’s like a setting or channel that we can switch to at any moment, no matter what’s going on around us.  It helps us connect to our basic right to be here, like the breath does.  It’s a stance of the soul.  In systems theory, each part contains the whole.  Gratitude is the kernel that flowers into everything we know.” (Joanna Macy, “Gratitude:  Where Healing the Earth Begins”, Shambhala Sun, Nov. 2007.)  Surely gratitude for the gift of life is the foundation stone for a global spirituality.

Here, then, are the central elements at Journeys for helping people to deepen their relationship with the sacred, honoring, recognizing, and celebrating the multitude of beliefs and non-beliefs within any given community:
•    Cultivate gratitude
•    Explore spiritual beliefs and clarify one’s own.
•    Help to create an environment that honors each individual's spiritual beliefs, and supports on-going exploration

Discover and experience universal rituals and ceremonies to honor and come into closer relationship with the Sacred realm.

A deepened relationship with nature
"In the end we will conserve only what we love. We love only what we understand. We will understand only what we are taught."
--Baba Dioum, Senegalese Environmentalist, to the general assembly of the International Union for Conservation of Nature in 1968

For 42 years, Rite of Passage Journeys has taken youth out in nature, believing that connection with the natural world is fundamental to initiatory process.  Each year, it grows a little more difficult to inspire people to do this, as our disconnect from nature grows stronger.  Several years ago, Richard Louv published Last Child in the Woods, and sparked the nationwide No Child Left Inside movement.  He showed how children can more readily name off endangered species from far-off countries than the trees in their backyard. 

He talked about how teaching of all the environmental catastrophes does not foster love of nature, a personal connection to the natural world.  In fact, it may do the opposite, convincing youth that humans are inherently disconnected from nature, simply threats to the natural order of things.  Love of nature comes from personal experience, from slowed-down time running on the beach, in the waves, watching sunsets from the tops of mountains, playing with frogs at the lake edge.  It is through this sort of inspiration that true environmental stewardship arises.

At Journeys, our programs seek to help people:
•    Establish a personal connection with the natural world
•    Understand and appreciate the importance of natural processes, cycles, and rhythms.
•    Develop a sense of responsibility toward the Earth
•    Model practices of living lightly and in connection with the earth
•    Offer opportunities for wonder and awe

The most powerful way that we do this is simply by providing uninterrupted time.  For our 8-10 year olds, this may be a daily sit spot, increasing from say, 20 minutes alone on the first day to an hour on the sixth, time to just observe, watch, listen.  For our Adult Wilderness Quest, it’s 72 hours alone, a chance for truly slowing down to the pace of nature.

Clearly, the above four areas of exploration are not discrete, unrelated categories, but are four ways of seeing the interrelated whole.  As we strive to face the challenges in our world today, seeing and experiencing interrelationships is of utmost importance.  And these relationships need time to unfold, to develop, and for a coherent picture to emerge.  One of the greatest reminders that I’ve been offered by Journeys’ Director Emeritus, Stan Crow, is that we do not go out “on the hill” to get answers.  We go out to find the questions that we spend the next portion of our lives answering.  And so we return to the original, central tenet of Journeys—asking questions.  What would it mean for us as a community if we learned to love the questions themselves, and, as Rilke suggests, “live [our] way into the answer?”

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