Reviving Rites of Passage in our Modern World


By Elisa Lee, Cohort 8, Groundswell Build

Each week, a participant in Groundswell’s social entrepreneurship Build program shares reflections, learnings, and experiences from their journey of building a social impact business. Read more experiences in the Student Blog!

The concept of rites of passage first appeared in Western thought in the early 20th century with French ethnographer Arnold van Gennep’s (1909/1960) classic book Rites de Passage. Van Gennep observed that ‘semi-civilized’ cultures progressed through life stages or passages such as birth, coming of age, marriage, parenthood, and death “enveloped in ceremonies” with general similarities (p. 3). These community-held rituals, which helped people navigate the pivotal, powerful, intense, and possibly dangerous times of change in their lives, were collectively coined ‘rites of passage.’ They addressed the psychological, social, and spiritual elements of these big transitions and consisted of clear, conscious, and embodied movement that allowed proper closure with the original stage, and prepared, unromanticized, and celebrated entry into the next.

In our current times, I believe we still have a human need to be guided, witnessed, and celebrated as we move through significant life stages. Unfortunately, we don’t commonly enact rites of passage anymore beyond weddings & funerals, which some would argue have become so commodified that they don’t quite fit the quality of a rite of passage. We’re losing the important skill of honouring the sacredness of our lives as we live them.

Enter me in 2012, really not knowing anything about rites of passage. As an environmental educator and nature lover, I’m at an outdoor gathering where two elder women are offering what’s called a Walkback Ceremony in the Apache culture. This ceremony gave adult women who were not honoured for their coming of age, the chance to ‘walkback’ and reclaim this rite of passage. Over the course of a few days we were put to various challenges and reflective, embodied tasks such as fasting alone in the wilderness for a night and creating our own women’s staff. We also had invaluable safe space to speak the truth of our hearts in a circle with wise elder women. The days were ripe with symbolism and a deep, palpable love from the elders. On the final morning of our rite of passage, we completed our final challenge & initiation ceremony before the entire community of over 200 people. We were formally introduced as women and the crowd erupted in great cheer!

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It’s hard to describe the feelings that ensued and the incredible state in which I found myself. I simply didn’t know it was possible to feel that way. There was a new, intense yet gentle aliveness coursing through my being and I was absolutely radiant. I had a deep sense of belonging not just to my human community but to Life itself, and with that belonging, I could suddenly relax because I knew without a doubt my inherent worth and beauty. It was a newfound freedom and faith. I felt so much love for myself, saw grace in every moment, and had profound gratitude for the privilege of living. It’s as if I never knew that I wasn’t fully breathing. Surprisingly in claiming my womanhood, I also claimed my membership to all of Life and my own core essence of joy.

And the transformation continued well after the gathering. Unbeknownst to me, I had a great warehouse of expressive beauty and personal power locked away in me, and the rite of passage was the key I never knew I needed to unleash that beauty and power. I experienced greater compassion for and acceptance of myself, and no longer worked so hard to prove myself or impress others because I knew my inherent self-worth. I was delighted to hear my voice in situations where I shied away before, and my body had a new capacity to feel and empathize, crying over things that never moved me before and laughing from a place of ecstasy. From this rite of passage, I understood unquestionably that it is an achievement to fully align oneself – mind, body, and soul – with the natural stages of life and how deserving of celebration it is.

Now at Groundswell, I’m working on providing such experiences for girls as they become young women. Since my own ceremony I’ve witnessed enough rites of passage to know that confidence, self-esteem, resilience, and self-love are inherent outcomes in this amazing process where we claim both our membership to universal human life stages and our uniqueness in this world. Even though I existed as a woman before my initiation, a conscious claiming of my womanhood - really saying YES!This is who I am. I am proud to be a woman and willing to face its challenges & joys in my beautiful unique ways - has made a remarkable difference. I want this empowerment for everyone and I’m starting with our young women. Check our my organization called Fire & Flower and let’s revive rites of passage in our modern world:

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