Some personal experiences shape us forever, dividing our lives into a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. They might be sudden events, like a moment when something just clicks and after a long standstill. Or maybe it’s a chance encounter with someone who, in retrospect, turns out to be a life-changing figure in our lives. Or perhaps it’s a serious incident, such as a life-altering accident or the loss of a loved one.
Other transitions take place more gradually, like the physical changes we undergo as we grow up and eventually grow old, or the distance between two people as they grow apart or grow closer.
Why do we need rituals?
Whether we like it or not, life is full of changes. Resisting change often leads to additional pain, which is why there’s no way around it: We must accept when a transition is underway and understand that it almost always comes with uncertainty.
Rituals can build space to accommodate and acclimate to the changes we face in our lives. They can serve as a constant force in our lives that can help make us aware when something doesn’t feel quite like it used to. Our familiarity with these rituals can give us the assurance to confront brand-new situations and encounters, as we navigate a new chapter of life and the associated uncertainty and worries that might go along with it.
Unlike routines, rituals are meant to be meaningful, bringing power and symbolism to a rather routine occurrence. Many times, they’re also associated with groups, rather than just something we do on our own.
In addition, rituals often exhibit a sort of duality: marking the end of one chapter as they simultaneously mark the beginning of another.
The three phases of change
Processes of change tend to have the following phases in common:
- 1. Farewell: Parting with an old identity
- 2. Transition: The in-between phase
- 3. New dawn: A fresh sense of self
The interim transition
‘Liminality’ is the name that’s given to describe the process of transitioning psychologically across boundaries in a somewhat in-between state. The term is rooted in the Latin word ‘limen’, which means ‘threshold’. This is when we are out of our comfort zone, when anything is possible yet nothing is certain. This phase is associated with the greatest insecurity, though at the same time it carries great potential, which is why it’s often associated with creativity.
We know that the old way of going about things no longer works. However, we only have (at most) a vague idea of what the new way should look like. In short, ‘liminality’ is the necessary element of chaos that we sometimes need to turn our lives around.
Incidentally, menstruation can be described as ‘liminal’ as well, since it’s an interim phase between two cycles, during which we might find new footing.< /p>
A transitory phase is, in some respects, akin to a state of limbo. We find ourselves a little outside our old norm, with a different point of view. Whether it’s fear, curiosity or joy that we feel during this time also depends on our ability to control the situation. Our ability to engage might bring us contentment or excitement whereas our inability might bring about much frustration. A ritual can provide us with the necessary grounding as we traverse limboland on our own.
Initiation rituals from around the world
In Western culture, perhaps the most common transition that we focus on is the ‘coming of age’ phase, as it forms the basis for countless books, films and more. ‘Rite of passage’ themes are also found in Christian rituals, such as first communion, confirmation and confirmation, as well as in Jewish rituals like the bar/bat mitzvah, and certain atheistic communities in Germany celebrate Jugendweihe or Jugendfeier, a youth consecration ceremony to mark a similar occasion.
The Apache sunrise ceremony
The Apache tribe located in the Southwestern United States practice an ancient tradition called Na'ii'ees or The Sunrise Ceremony during the summer of a girl’s first menstruation. During this four-day ceremony, she is painted in ochre-coloured clay and is said to temporarily incarnate the spirit leader of the Apache people, known as the N'dee or ‘Changing Woman’ — with all the powers that come along with her — as the girl transitions into womanhood.
The Sunrise Ceremony includes prayers, chants and dances as well. Prior to the passing of the American Indian Religious Freedom Act of 1978, this ritual, like many Native American worship traditions, had been banned for decades.
The Amish Rumspringa
After a relatively strict upbringing, which can feature plain dress and lack of access to modern technology, Amish youth are allowed to take a break of sorts from their community. It’s called a rumspringa and in some Amish communities, it begins at between the ages of 14 and 16, whereas in others it can take place later between ages 17 and 21.
The term rumspringa comes from Pennsylvanian German, meaning ‘running or jumping around’, and in popular culture it’s often associated with reckless behavior, such as alcohol and drug use, or simply abandoning Amish customs, such as the traditional dress code, hair styles and more.
Should the youth decide to return to the Amish church, some communities require a special baptism or marriage even. In fact, it’s estimated that 90% of youth choose to return after their rumspringa.
Gwan Rye in South Korea
This is an old tradition that dates back to Confucian times in China, and a modified form is being partially revived in present day South Korea.
On the third Monday in May, young people who are 20 years old dress in traditional Korean costumes and wear ornamental hairpins and hairstyles that are otherwise reserved for married couples, as they take part in a celebration that’s called Gwan Rye for women and Gye Rye for men.
The goal of the ceremony is to gain confidence in their maturity and to become aware of their responsibilities in society.
What rituals can mean for us today
The official transition to adulthood can be a very special moment that’s reflected differently among cultures from around the world.
While adulthood undoubtedly represents a major departure in our lives, it can also serve as a blueprint for the changes that will define us from that point forward. And rituals can help shape the numerous, often nameless transitions we are likely to face later in our lives, and establish both security and stability.
Time and again we practice rituals without even knowing it. Essentially, they’re what we keep coming back to: That song we listened to when we suffered our first heartbreak and feel the need to listen to every now and then. That movie you can’t help but watch again every couple of years. Those gatherings with old friends when you get to reminisce about the past together. When we’re faced with uncertainty, it’s precisely these customs that can provide us with valuable constants in our ever-changing lives.