By Maureen McMahon and Tara Moreno | Photography by Linda Lawson
What are the significant milestones along a life’s path and how do we give them meaning? The deep human need for ritualization around life’s biggest transitions — most commonly at birth, coming of age, marriage, parenthood, and death — calls us to engage in personal and communal meaning making.
Have you ever wondered, Is graduation for the parents? Witnessing their high school senior being handed a diploma sure feels like it to the parents, but that isn’t likely on the mind of the graduate.
Does witnessing a child recite Torah at age 13 or take Rites of Confirmation signify traversing into moral adulthood, enfolding them in ancient tradition? It’s a conversation they can now have with their elders.
Like couples exploring their stepping stones to the passage of retirement, or a croning woman embracing her post childbearing wisdom at a retreat, or a first time father rehearsing for his new role at a childbirth class, certain cycles of life ask us to slow down and embrace a new awareness. Through rites of passage, we engage in a process of embracing a new role; we transmit the values of the culture.
What is before the change, what marks it, and what is on the other side? What do we ask initiates to consider? What do they ask themselves? And what expectations meet them at inception? What wisdom is now available?
In the book The Art of Ritual, authors Renee Beck and Sydney Barbara Metrick remind us that, “Human beings have used ritual for centuries as an important buffer to change and as a way of consciously recognizing and supporting a life event rather than denying or indulging in it….the end results of all ritual are increased balance, strength, energy, and comfort.”
In this feature article on rites of passage, we use a collaborative approach to explore modern rites of passage. This collaboration arose from conversations and writing from Tara Moreno, Serenity House Flint; Callan Loo and Mara Evenstar, Conscious Rites; Jeanne Adwani, Evenstar’s Chalice; Lauren Tatarsky, Inspired Life Counseling; and Maureen McMahon, Senior Editor of Crazy Wisdom.
We begin with a close-up on “coming of age” and how we ritualize change for teens. How does the movement to intentionally grow through this major transition and consciously step into a new role as an adult show up abroad and at home? We take an in-depth look at Conscious Rites, a Southeastern Michigan nonprofit that provides rites of passage for all stages of life and is at the forefront of personalized ritual by helping all ages to thoughtfully design rituals.
We also spotlight two related organizations — The ManKind Project (MKP) and Woman Within International (WW)— which offer highly regarded retreat experiences designed to support emotional maturity and healing in the company of supportive strangers. These two major initiation networks have come out of the need for experiential personal development programs for men and women and are growing. We seek to answer how consciously planning our rites supports our individual progress and our collective goals. We end with interviews of Callan Loo and Lauren Tatarsky, two MKP and WW participants who are leading the movement to form umbrella networks of gender specific support groups locally.
Our hope is that, in these turbulent times, in the wake of the rise of the divine feminine in 2017, you will feel this topic is germane. May it lead you to consider your own rites of passage. What and when were they? Was the experience supportive? Was it personal? What transition do you want to honor next?
Why We Are Called to Rites of Passage
To address the need for communities to mark transitions and individuals to engage in meaningful rites of passage, two very unique leaders in the Southeastern Michigan holistic community have come forward.
Mara Evenstar co-founded Conscious Rites with Callan Loo of The Intentional Living Collective with the intention that the strength of their work be community building through rites. Together they are consultants providing rites of passage programs and personalized experiences that include coming of age programs, milestone celebrations, weddings, and funerals. They also have held the gatherings New Earth Day in 2015 and the Pachamana Alliance workshop called “Awakening the Dreamer” in 2017.
Evenstar reflected in a doctoral research report that rites of passage often accompany a change in social status or role. With the exception of marriage, primary milestones have biological correlates, indicating that individuals can move through these milestones on a physical level, without them being marked by the community and given meaning.
When this happens, there becomes an unraveling of the communal thread. Both the individual and the community do not see the ways in which they are part of the same picture. In part, the ills of our society are an acting out of these types of disconnections. One does not have a sense of belonging to the other.
Mara Evenstar is in a nexus of spirituality based understanding and formal education. A mother, grandmother, scholar, and business owner, her many endeavors share her interest in exploring the divine feminine. For many years she taught psychology at Washtenaw Community College, has a master’s of transpersonal psychology, and is currently working on her doctorate at Meridian University under Dr. Jean Huston. She has also co-founded two local social enterprises, Sophia Unfolds, a program for transformation and a growing community of awakened women who come together for support, and New Myth Works, an LLC that provides a dynamic sanctuary for our conscious evolution with a focus on evolving consciousness. Last year she opened the Ypsilanti retail store Evenstar’s Chalice with her husband, Russell Jones, a retired EMU professor, and hairstylist Jeanne Adwani, selling art, collectibles, and antiques and providing a sanctuary for gathering and rites that, she noted, has attracted a base that is queer and trans-positive.
Loo, who is originally from Ohio and a father of two young adults, is a former tech sales executive who shifted career tracks intentionally. He felt called to move in the direction of helping people reach their highest potential after seeing a dire need for community support. Loo, who calls himself “a conduit for social change,” and whose build is that of an avid practitioner of martial arts, is co-founder of both Intentional Legacies and The Intentional Living Collective. Both organizations are geared to provide support during big life changes, including unique specialties like end of life planning and green burial. Loo describes Intentional Legacies as a community of good, dependable, helpful people on a mission to manifest communities of people living authentic, heart-centered lives. He is also passionate about helping to heal the divine masculine.
“It was three years in the making and a lot of conversations about the needs of the community,” said Evenstar. With Conscious Rites, “We are being asked to provide unique experiences. People are looking outside of their religious experiences for something more,” she noted. “We have been putting a lot of thought and research into [these] programs.”
Conscious Rites’ approach is partially inspired by Joseph Campell’s 1949 explanation of the hero’s journey. Evenstar explained that first, the individual is “called” and often removed for a time from his or her everyday environment. Then the initiate must pass through the underworld, receiving trials and teachings relevant to the capacities needed on the next stage of his or her journey. The successful completion of this journey into the underworld, and return to the world with new found wisdom, is marked by the communal ceremony, or rite. The final stage of this arch is re-introduction and integration into the community, taking on the roles and responsibilities of the next level of development, and being recognized within the community in the context of these new roles.
For me, it is this connection and context that are critical components of successful rites of passage. A connection must be made with Self, community and cosmos — and this is done within the context of understanding that one is the stuff of and embedded in to the Self, community and cosmos. A rite of passage is not just a ceremony, it is a process. When this process is traversed with consciousness, intention and wisdom, it can become a powerful vehicle for growth and deeper connection.
Coming of Age
Among the major life transitions, a community honoring how adolescents must let go of childhood and embrace adulthood through coming of age ceremonies is most common. Is the transition about biological change? Accepting gender roles applied to adults? A conveyance of responsibility that now “the rules apply”?
There are two phases of coming of age: young teen 12-14 and older teen 17-19. Each phase confers unique responsibilities. There are several magnificent examples of groups taking modern approaches to helping younger teens embrace their new identity and role in the next stage.
If you can recall your teens, what 12-14 year-olds need guidance on usually relates to releasing their childhood and catalyzing responsibility. For example, How am I responsible to… my family, my friends, my homework, my chores, my body, my community?
As Evenstar writes, what coming of age rites of passage must explore is how “adult-making” strategies in Western culture are incredibly deficient, and asking: “How might my life experience been different if the younger version of me had been exposed to these radical ideas of self-possession, self-love, self-respect, and just the pure joy of embodiment? How can we create lifelines for our children and grandchildren in this disembodied world?”
One group in Australia has set the standard nationally for how to help teens ages 13-15. The Pathways Foundation offers a formal rite of passage for both genders, borrowing from the walkabout away from home, but instead of a solo trek teens are asked to be in community. Pathways to Manhood, a five-day bush camp for boys and their fathers or a male mentor, and Pathways into Womanhood, a five-day bush retreat program for girls and their mothers or a female mentor, have helped thousands of Australian families hold a rite of passage outside of religion. It has also become an international model for best practices.
In America, the tradition of the Native American Vision Quest that takes place for Apache 12-year-olds remains a test of strength, endurance, and character intended to prepare the girl for the trials of womanhood. Girls must perform rites and dances and are surrounded by community drumming and chanting. Mothers and their girls spend a year in preparation. For four days the Apache community marks how sacred and significant this time is for their members. The culmination is a grueling day-long dance without pause ushering in each child’s new role.
Perhaps most commonly practiced in America today are religious rites for teens, such as those enacted at church retreats like Kairos, a Christian retreat curriculum, or summer Bible camps. Other pockets of American culture have modernized coming of age transitions into a family celebration. Quinceañera, which originates in Mexico, and debutante parties symbolize introducing a young woman into society, while bar and bat mitzvahs and confirmations signify a religious marriage.
Across cultures, teens are a group that are hard to engage. They have to buy-in and show up, two barriers to success for a lot of these rites. In the absence of conscious, effective coming of age experiences, a tragically high number of today’s youth either enter adolescence or young adulthood feeling disconnected and unprepared for the challenges ahead — or even worse they may receive an informal and often dangerous “initiation” experience from sources outside of their families, such as gangs or interfacing with the justice system.
America has many historically monumental groups like the YMCA and YWCA, Americorps, and Big Brothers and Big Sisters whose social missions are a response to supporting teens whose family or culture isn’t rising to meet the need. These programs emphasize giving urban teens mentorship, a positive environment to go to, and encouragement to become responsible teens.
Joining a conversation with Conscious Rites at the store was another local rites of passage coordinator, Lauren Tatarsky of Inspired Life Counseling. Her previous role had been as a teen mentor and retreat leader in Denver. She added to the coming of age discussion by describing the impact of the retreat she used to lead for Colorado Youth At Risk. Urban teens would spend weeks preparing for a weekend mountain “launch course,” giving them an opportunity to examine their lives away from their influential environment and confront past issues. The retreat culminates in their mentors reading aloud letters written by their parents to them. The act of writing the letter — of honoring, of expressing love and pride, of acknowledging challenges and encouraging their child to overcome challenges — is a rite, too, for the parents. It is deeply moving for the teens to hear this affirmation aloud, and Tatarsky said most of them cry during the reading. Many teens ceremonially burn their own letters in a bonfire. Their mentorship asks teens how to be the authority of their life — who are you, and how do you grow into the life you want? She described their work as a prompt for teens to consciously choose: “If you don’t name yourself, someone will name you for you.”
Tatarsky added: “The role of the adults and mentors is honoring and listening to kids sharing their story, what they’re up against, and adults holding the space and listening to them. It’s an element of what teenagers need.”
Here, in Ann Arbor, many adults mentor these passages as community service. There is the Community Resource Program at Community High School, where an expert mentor from the community guides credited coursework for a student instead of a teacher in a classroom. The culmination of study is presented to “the tribe” — fellow students, teachers, and close family friends and relatives — who gather to witness their presentation as a rite of passage.
Many teens, whether it is conscious or not, also pass through and embrace a new role through extra curriculars: as an Eagle Scout finishing a final project; a recipient of a new belt in martial arts; attaining a lead role in a play or an orchestra; or presenting something polished in public like a spoken word poem, a song, or at an art reception. These rites and rituals have to do with something Ann Arbor values highly: teens in a depth of pursuit of their talents.
Ann Arbor’s Rudolf Steiner Middle School is another school with a remarkable rite of passage process. In-coming eighth graders raise substantial funds to do a ten day wilderness retreat in Ontario called Northwoods. They are without their parents and out of communication the whole time. According to Northwoods program site, youth have to embrace communication, in community and with nature: “Working together to meet the challenges of a wilderness expedition helps adolescents learn to communicate effectively and depend on one another in an atmosphere of respect, understanding, and friendship.” One Steiner parent recalled it was a deeply significant step for his son, as well as for him as a father, since his son had never been away from home for that long. Another Steiner dad said the experience was powerful and exhilarating for his daughter. The trip was physically demanding, emotionally intense, and strongly bonded the group. He wished he’d had that rite at 13.
As a whole, however, most Ann Arborites and most Americans don’t receive a coming of age experience at all. Community feedback gathered by Conscious Rites indicates that many who do often don’t feel that it was a fully conscious experience that effectively prepared them for the next stage. As the American culture shifts from a religious-oriented culture (predominantly Christian) to a more religiously unaffiliated one, and as people of different cultures blend together, many individuals don’t experience religious or culture-specific rites of passage at all.
Conscious Rites: The Teening Path
Here in Southeastern Michigan, Conscious Rites conducted a contemporary coming of age pilot program for children ages 11 to 14 years old called The Teening Path for “creating a coming-of-age experience that is inclusive and focused on the individual’s path to unfolding into a healthy, whole, thriving adult. As we do this, we hope to also catalyze further cultural healing of gender distortions.” The project emerged from their conversations and her doctoral research. What they designed, with input from the families who signed up, was not just a ceremony but also a process with a several week curriculum. What resulted was a family-oriented program, helping children and their parents grow together and build a conscious community around them for support.
Evenstar said the focus of the Teening Path is to understand the needs of the kids and their parents and to help them collectively transition with “ease and elegance” into the teenage years. Evenstar is confident in her role in creating a safe place for people to develop and transition, saying:
I believe I’m here to help create containers, that’s where my gifts lie — to create the place for people to do their growth work. It’s a critical time and so much is shifting. What is needed is a shift in consciousness to address the complex issues we are facing. I want to bring my original unique medicine forward…. it is a calling. It lights me up because that’s what I’m here to do.
Running the pilot over the winter of 2016, Conscious Rites found fertile ground for the work she expressed as revising our “adult making” strategies. She and Loo were charged with fielding families, designing a cohesive curriculum, planning the opening and closing rituals with the kids for each meeting, as well as co-creating a coming of age ritual for program completion. They felt they put in a tremendous amount of intention and work.
In our conversation they reflected on how they discovered what would be the determinant for success with The Teening Path. Loo explained, “What are the participants’ core values is an inventory exercise we use. Who do I want to become? How do I become that person? The work is grounded in core values.” Evenstar added, “What are your values and your family’s values?” And, “Adolescents are projecting out onto the world to understand how they see and are seen.”
They discovered that The Teening Path had to be personalized to be trusted and contain those personal core values — which is revolutionary when considered alongside most religious rites for the same age group. The learning, they said, was that moving forward, Conscious Rites will have to focus on customized rites of passage for families instead of running a group program — at least until they revise the group approach. The pilot only retained two families, in part because the families that initially signed on wanted the curriculum further personalized. They also see the need for Conscious Rites to develop another program designed to support adolescents from 15 to 19 years old.
Conscious Rites currently serves Southeast Michigan and Northwest Ohio, and as a nonprofit they hope to attract funding and resources to make their programs accessible to everyone — including those that wouldn’t normally be able to afford these important services. A recent successful effort involved a group rite of passage and ritual for Russell Jones and his friends around their transitions to retirement. It hits on a deep need for people to recognize that transition beyond the traditional American office party, drinks, or banquet — and to be able to embrace the long view of their life’s work in community.
Conscious Rites intends to take their services nationwide. “Within two to three years we will hope to expand programming to a larger region, and within five years we hope to reach out to other states across the nation,” said Loo.
Callan Loo and The ManKind Project
Alongside the need to “revise our adult making strategies” is a deeply felt quest for adults to mature into spiritually and emotionally sound people and to become motivated by entering retreat. The groups that are making the biggest light on this are co-founded by the same international nonprofit foundation. The ManKind Project and Woman Within International core values are inclusiveness, respect, and integrity; ManKind Project also includes: accountability, authenticity, compassion, generosity, leadership, multicultural awareness, and respect.
The ManKind Project (MKP), which operates all across the U.S. in local chapters and in 11 regions around the world, offers challenging and highly rewarding programs for men through the passages of their lives. They believe that emotionally mature, compassionate, and purpose-driven men will help heal some of our society’s deepest wounds. Their mission for 30 years has been to “create a safer world by growing better men.”
Charlie Penner of Ann Arbor has been a member of the MKP for four years now. He was introduced to it by a high school friend. “One of the biggest motivations [for me to join] was community — it was about finding a group of men to have closer relationships with. I think it’s given me some tools and confidence about what I want and to be more aware of my feelings,” said Penner.
The ManKind Project offers men’s groups and developmental training. One of their biggest draws is an Initiation Weekend called the New Warrior Training Adventure, which is a modern male initiation and self-examination program. On their website, the invitation reads:
Over 60,000 men have taken this step. Men have created spectacular, life-changing, awe-inspiring results. Men like you take this journey. If you’re willing to challenge yourself, you will emerge more the man you were born to be. The world needs you, and a brotherhood of men is ready to support you.
They also reference the hero’s journey and believe the process of initiation is crucial to the development of a healthy and mature male self, no matter how old a man is. Penner said the growth and maturity that comes from this initiation weekend is very noticeable. “It’s rare to have that level of conversation and not be judged for it,” said Penner. There are several local MKP groups meeting regularly, some private and some open to un-initiated men. A good way to check them out is to attend one of their monthly open men’s circles.
Callan Loo also participated in the MKP New Warrior Training Adventure in 2014 as part of his own initiation process. Loo stresses the importance of masculine introspection and development work, and how creating communities of healthy men is critical to the overall health of our society. Loo noted, “We as men often end up growing up and showing up as lone wolves, and we often feel isolated in some of the things we do. If I had a healthy community of ‘brothers’ at critical times in my young adult life I may not have made some of the unhealthy choices I did.” As a young adult in the 1980’s, he experienced overwhelming personal struggle at a time when he faced a core identity crisis and felt that there was a lack of effective community support. In Loo’s account, he said:
Waking up one day, I found I was miserable in what many would describe as a ‘perfect life,’ and as I searched my heart and soul for the reasons, I realized I had made many of my life decisions based on what other people expected of me. I had to look closely in the mirror and I realized I didn’t like myself at all, and in order to become ‘authentic’ I had to open up.
At that point a wave of major life transitions crashed around him, and despite his family’s love and good intentions, as well as attempts to find answers through Western therapy practices, he spent the next couple years “figuring it out on his own.”
Through deep introspection and inner work, over time Loo changed his life from an ego-centered one into a more heart-centered one. He started Intentional Legacies in 2010 on a mission to manifest communities of people living authentic, heart-centered lives. “We go through this journey together. We talk about things like communication, respect, finding your own power, and we talk about values,” he said.
Loo and his team initially developed personal and life celebrations and business legacy planning services to have a ripple effect on the lives of their clients that would be as deep and meaningful as possible. Reflecting on his own journey, Loo started researching rites of passage programs and developmental programming and decided to help others navigate major life transitions in a more healthy way.
In addition to his own initiation ceremony, Loo decided to create a personalized coming of age experience for his son, Jaden. Loo started by defining six core values for Jaden to master, then assembled a “tribe” of trusted men from their community to serve as mentors and work with Jaden on one of those core values each. Starting when Jaden was 14 years old, he spent more than six months working with his mentors on the values of respect, integrity, leadership, compassion, creativity, and courage. After demonstrating understanding and a beginning mastery of those core values, Jaden and his tribe celebrated his passage to a healthy adolescence through a sweat lodge ceremony at the Otter Creek Lodge and a community feast including elders from that Native community, as well as all the important men and women in Jaden’s life.
Jaden is now 18 and he and his father are discussing another rite of passage to prepare him for his transition to young adulthood. His proud father reported, “Jaden earned an academic scholarship at Miami of Ohio where he's a freshman majoring in sociology. He made academic dean's list and he's a member of the marching band and the pep band.”
Sharing his teenage perspective on his rite of passage, Jaden said, “It changed how I viewed things….It helped me to wake up about what is valuable to me. I thought about my actions more and how I affect other people. It made me more aware.” Jaden also said he is more confident from the experience. “I value myself more….I feel a sense of confidence that I didn’t have before this. As a human being, I felt like I’ve grown after [the rite of passage]. I would do it again if I would have an opportunity.”
As we emerge from the political and environmental crises of 2017, we are in a world that is in deep need of rites and recognition. Communities coming together to support those navigating challenging life transitions will make for a more peaceful world. “People will handle transition a lot more gracefully and there will be a lot less tension, stress, and conflict in life. When we live in a place of fear it’s hard to move forward, so we intend to create community programs for people who are trying to live heart-centered lives,” said Loo.
Robert L. Moore, key developer of The ManKind Project, author of King, Warrior, Magician, Lover: Rediscovering the Archetypes of the Mature Masculine (HarperOne, 1991), and Professor of Psychoanalysis, Culture, and Spirituality at Chicago Theological Seminar, echoes this and sends out a call: “The human need for ritualization in many areas of life has not diminished. What has diminished is the availability of knowledgeable ‘ritual elders’ who understand the archetypal human need for ritualization throughout life.”
So, we ask, do you see yourself as a potential ritual elder? Would you like to attend The New Warrior Training Adventure of Woman Within weekend? Would you get involved on a local level with a number of groups in Michigan offering rites of passage practices?
In addition to Conscious Rites, there are many active groups locally, with over 40 Ann Arbor support groups listed on Meetup.com, many offering rites of passage. A Brighton organization started in 2014 called VisionQuest supports rites of passage and vision quests to help clients make healthy transitions from one stage of life to the next. They believe that every defining event in our life story has a distinct purpose, and when we understand that purpose and find its meaning, we can go forward in beauty. Also, the Great Lakes Shamanic Community holds a variety of events and rites posted to their MeetUp site.
Southeastern Michigan’s The Changing Woman Sisterhood started in 1991 with the dream that women of all ages and backgrounds could gather for mutual healing, transformation, empowerment, and learning. It currently offers maiden initiation ceremonies through the EarthWalk Spiritual Community and a Nine Month Journey Regenerating Women's Wisdom currently in its 27th year of rich and significant personal growth and empowerment for adult women. Ellen Miller said, “Each February we offer opportunities for women to sit in Sacred Circle to contemplate their own personal roles as women. Of those attendees, we can enroll 20 participants in the current Journey.”
There are also a growing number of adult gender specific, secular support groups that are gaining membership locally. Lauren Tatarsky, who runs Ann Arbor Women’s Circle monthly meeting, and Callan Loo are both in the planning stages of making official Ann Arbor networks for women and men’s support groups to assist people in finding the right group and strengthening the movement.
For more information on any of the services mentioned in this article, please visit the websites listed. The Intentional Living Collective at www.theintentionallivingcollective.org; Intentional Legacies at www.intentional-legacies.com; Conscious Rites at www.consciousrites.org; New Myth Works at www.newmythworks.com.