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You are here: Home Resources E-Newsletter Archive Spring 2010, Issue VI Rite of Passage and the "Great Turning"

Rite of Passage and the "Great Turning"

By Edith Kusnic. How does our work at Journeys relate to the shift of consciousness that is currently underway? 9/11 rocks a vision quest guide into thinking about the relationship between rites of passage and the "Great Turning."

By Edith Kusnic, Journeys Adult and Community Programs

Questions about the larger implications of rite of passage work came into Journeys abruptly in September 2001.  Four of us, two guides and two apprentice guides, were leading an Adult Wilderness Quest for seven people when planes struck the Twin Towers.  Remote in the Cascade Mountains in Washington State, we did not know of the attack until late the next day.  After sending seven people to their quest sites to sit for three days, two of the guides made the long drive into town to buy supplies and check in with Stan.   What they found was a very different world than we had left.  Having encountered flags flying at half-staff, people glued to TV sets everywhere looking shocked and bewildered, these two guides came back to the quest base camp understanding that the world itself had shifted in some unknown but fearful way while they were gone.  They brought back newspapers; stories of TV image they had seen; and reports of air traffic stopped, spontaneous memorials, vigils and other outpourings of love and compassion.  The world intruded in a Big Way on the Ceremony of the Vision Quest.

One of the things that we teach on a vision quest is that you need to pay attention to whatever comes to you on a vision quest.  You never know in what form important lessons are going to come.   It might be the bees buzzing that help you see that’s how you’re living your life, flitting around from project to project; or a windstorm that stirs up primal fears and helps you make friends of them.  Little or big, we encourage people to watch and listen.  The “vision” may come in many disguises.

For us, September 11th, 2001 came to us in the middle of a vision quest.  A little hard to ignore or overlook!

There is much to the story of that trip:  the choices we, as guides, had to make about when and how to tell participants, what it was like to take in that new reality ourselves, isolated and removed as we were from the community of grief and bewilderment that overtook the country and the world in the immediate aftermath of September 11th, and what it was like when we did tell participants.  What is important here, however, are not all those details, but rather the fact of our being out there on a Journeys trip on that fateful day. 

For me, rites of passage work with individuals became inextricably connected to what was going on in the larger world.  Truly, I discovered, we were not just questing for ourselves, but we were also questing for the world.  That experience triggered in me a hunger to look at rites of passage work in a much bigger context.  It started as a vague urge but prompted me to began asking much bigger questions about the nature and significance of rite of passage work. Thankfully I found others who were similarly provoked.

On another adult quest program a couple of years later, one of the guides brought with her Joanna Macy’s, Coming Back to Life (1998).  In this book, Macy summarizes the work of cultural healing she has pioneered and talks about it as work that is fundamental to the work of “The Great Turning,” the work of transforming human culture into a life-sustaining culture that ceases to be destructive of people and the planet.

In Macy’s formulation, The Great Turning is our collective work to secure a human future — to find ways of living within the constraints of sustainability and to create life-sustaining social and cultural forms. Thomas Berry, another leading thinker about these cultural questions, calls this work to create a viable human and planetary future, “The Great Work.”  Integral to both formulations is a deep appreciation of the need for us human beings to see ourselves as part of the interconnected web of life.

Macy’s book coming to us while leading others on a quest served as a further call for more active thinking about the larger purpose of rites of passage work in the times in which we live and to work to face unflinchingly what it is that is really going on. And when we began to look outward more intentionally, lifting our ostrich heads out of the sand a bit, we saw a pretty sad sight.  What was happening to our world?  I don’t need to run through the evidence about what a sorry state we’re in.

Randy Morris, Journeys Board member and one of the other guides on those vision quests, tells the story of “Credo,” an African medicine man he met in Japan.  While returning from his solitary walk down the path to the shrine to victims of the atomic bomb blast in Hiroshima, Japan, Credo is heard to be chanting the words, “I am responsible.  I am responsible.”  The chant is punctuated by the pounding of his walking stick.  Over and over again, “I am responsible.” Bam!  “I am responsible.” Bam!

An African medicine man who had nothing at all to do with the dropping of the atom bomb pounding himself with his responsibility.  That is how the message about asking these questions about the cultural importance of rites of passage has become for me.  The world is hurting.  How could I begin to take greater responsibility?  Like Credo, I was not taking the blame for what I saw in the world, but called more and more forcefully to take responsibility to change them.

And here I was, working with Journeys, an organization that has pioneered some amazing tools for healing.  I, along with others, began to wonder how the tools we use working with individuals might be of use healing our culture?

As we continued to explore those questions, we began to think about the relationship between individual growth and development and the processes of cultural and social healing.  This brought us to thinking more about where we are in our collective history, what are the big cultural forces at work defining our contemporary world.  That has prompted us to begin to think in terms of cultural rites of passage:  How do we assist the culture in growing into its next stage of being?

From the vantage point of rites of passage thinking, it has not been a very big leap to begin to see humankind itself in an initiatory process moving from one stage of being to a new stage of being.  For over 40 years futurists and cultural historians have heralded the coming of a new era of human civilization, framing that change in a variety of ways.  We seem to be standing between the old way of doing things that have caused great harm — climate change; irrevocable distribution of toxins in the environment that are killing and making people and animals sick everyday; the probable extinction of long-loved species who have inhabited this planet-time with us for thousands of years; violence at every level of society, in families and neighborhoods, through war and institutionalized violence. The old ways are not working.  We know that something new is coming, but the new and unfamiliar bring fear and uncertainty.  How as a human species do we navigate this cultural rite of passage?

This question is obviously too big to answer here, but it is a question that we hold as we work with individual rites of passage and a question we are engaging others with more and more.  How can we more intentionally align our work with the larger work of creating a more life-sustaining and life-enhancing human culture?  How do we help each other wake up to the scope of the damage that’s been done to each other and the world and how to we find the moral and spiritual resources and resilience to heal our culture and our planet? 

I encourage you, from time to time, to ask similar questions about your own life, your work, family, neighborhood, or communities of which you are a part.  What do we each have to do if we are to do what the Pachamama Alliance holds as the mission for its symposium,Awakening the Dreamer:  Changing the Dream:” To bring forth an environmentally sustainable, spiritually fulfilling and socially just human presence on the planet?

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