Saturday, October 14, 2006

Change as Ritual



In my last two posts on change, I covered the Eight Variations on Change and the Six Conditions Needed for Change. These were prepatory articles for the main point I want to make -- that change can be approached and experienced as an initiatory event, as ritual. In this post, I present the basic idea of change as conforming to the structure of ritual and initiation. In the next post, I will take a more in-depth look at the change process Don Beck and Chris Cowan describe in Spiral Dynamics contextualized within the structure of ritual and initiation.

Change as Ritual

Throughout human history, certain events have been marked as moments of change that not only are worthy of notice, but are so significant that people are no longer the same for having gone through them. These events have been referred to as “rites of passage” and include birth, puberty, marriage, becoming an elder, and death, among others. Nearly all rites of passage are marked with rituals among those cultures noting such events.

As first identified by Arnold van Gennep in 1909[i], all ritual conforms to a basic underlying structure: separation, margin (or limen, meaning threshold in Latin), and reaggregation (more simply, return). Victor Turner has written the definitive statement on this topic[ii], and defines the transformation of states through the ritual as movement from one “stable or recurrent condition that is culturally recognized” to another.[iii] The ritual process can take place within a few hours, or may take days, weeks, or months to complete. Puberty rites can sometimes take several years to be completed from first ritual until the child is finally considered an adult. No matter the length, the basic stages remain unchanged.

The first stage (separation) involves symbolic behaviors representing the severing of ties to the “old” state of being, and with it all the cultural definitions and expectations that accrued to that particular state. In cultures that celebrate puberty rites, this separation may include removal from the family of origin, stripping of clothing, stripping of name, painting the face or body, shaving of hair, and other techniques that symbolically sever ties to the previous identity of the young person. In our modern world, we no longer celebrate puberty rites (the Jewish traditions of bar mitzvah and bas mitzvah are an exception, but only barely), but young boys and girls still find ways to mark the transition, including the move to middle school or high school, the first date, the first kiss, sharing of Playboys among males or make-up among females, and other attempts to try on “adult” behaviors. The lack of adequate ways of helping young people make the transition from child to young adult has resulted in the proliferation of gangs and in books like Robert Bly’s Iron John.

The process of separation is common for adults as well, yet there is little training in how to deal with the situation when it arises. One may leave a relationship, a job, a city, and so on, all of which are often conscious choices and less traumatic than forced transitions. But what about the person who is fired, dumped, loses a parent or child to death, or in some other way is rejected or forced out of an established identity and way of life? There is no structure or training for coping with these events. One is often told to “get back on the horse,” “they’re in a better place,” “time heals all wounds,” “you’ll find something better,” and so on. These attempts to comfort with clichés are futile at best and often experienced as insulting to the pain one is experiencing.

When a person experiences some form of separation scenario, either consciously or against his/her will, the individual has become marginalized, existing in liminal space (“betwixt and between,” as Turner described it). During the liminal period of ritual, the individual is without strict identity, possessing none of the attributes of his/her former life and none of those s/he will have earned upon completion of the transition. In many cultures, entry into liminal space is a symbolic death, and may even involve ritual burial, change of name, or a permanent separation from the birth family. According to Turner, “transitional beings,” while in liminal space, have “no status, property, insignia, secular clothing, rank, kinship position, nothing to demarcate them structurally” from the others who are undertaking the initiation.[iv] A modern individual experiencing liminality isn’t completely stripped of all vestiges of her/his life in this drastic way, but they may feel as if their world has been completely “turned upside down.” The reality of the situation is quite challenging for most people.

In the industrialized, and now post-industrial, informational world, human beings have much more highly developed ego structures than the members of primal cultures studied by van Gennep and Turner, among others. With greater ego development there is a greater sense of personal identity and a greater need to keep the self-sense intact. The ego can create a variety of defenses in order to keep identity intact (Freud made his career, in part, by identifying the ego’s defense mechanisms and finding ways to circumvent them). Liminality initiated by a major life event, or even by unconscious processes in the psyche, has a tendency to poke holes in the self-concept and to reduce the solidity of one’s self-sense. The ensuing internal chaos can be mildly disturbing or intensely frightening, depending on the ability of the individual to comprehend what is occurring.

The final stage, the return, marks the re-entry of the individual into the culture as a new person. The individual assumes the new identity and adopts behaviors consistent with the new role. A boy having completed a puberty rite may now be given a new name, signifying his adulthood, a weapon with which to hunt, a hut in which to live, and so on. He is now a man in the eyes of the group, though he may still have years of training and future initiations to undertake before he is permitted to take a wife, hunt on his own, and be given other rights by the group.

When a western person successfully completes a transitional period, the individual may make certain changes in how s/he is perceived by the world, including clothing, occupation, name, and other “structural” changes, while also adopting less obvious traits such a new perspective, greater depth of identity, more comfort with ambiguity, less rigid thinking, and so on. Because transitions are not socially acknowledged in the west, there are no agreed upon ways to act following a major transition, or ways to regard someone who has completed a transitional period. Even the “ritual” of a hospital stay following an operation or serious illness has been eliminated by the HMO and managed health care systems. The only real tradition still intact for modern human beings having completed an important life transition is the honeymoon, and even that is a waning tradition.

The studies existing on this topic are fascinating, but the anthropological data is of less importance in understanding the change process than possessing a working knowledge of the basic structure of transition -- how to recognize it, navigate it, and use it as a growth experience. Although most of the literature involves traditional rituals, this same structure can be applied to all forms of transition or change. Carl Jung and his followers were among the first to see the benefit of viewing the psychotherapeutic process as a transitional process conforming to the structure of ritual. Jung’s followers, including Joseph Campbell,[v] have done well in bringing this idea into public consciousness (at least among those who care about such things). But it is possible to see the process from an even wider perspective, one that views all forms of transition, including illness, personal growth, meditative insights, job loss, depression, divorce, therapy, surgery, and so on, as conforming to the basic structure outlined above.



[i] The Rites of Passage was not published in English until 1960, despite his early identification of the pattern.

[ii] See The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure.

[iii] Turner, Victor. The Ritual Process, page 94.

[iv] Turner, “Betwixt and Between,” in Betwixt and Between, edited by Mahdi, Foster, and Little (1987).

[v] See The Hero With a Thousand Faces (1949) for Campbell’s contribution. While the book is ostensibly about the myth of the hero, Campbell was sufficiently versed in Jungian psychology to see that the Hero myth is the myth of the common person writ large. His PBS series with Bill Moyers transformed American consciousness about mythology and launched a whole publishing industry devoted to the mythology of the psyche.


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