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Rights of Passage
Vision Quests and How to Die Before You Die
We all live two lives, the old saying goes1. The second one begins the day we realize we only have one.
In our modern culture, most people come to this realization sometime between the ages of 30-45, and it’s rarely reached through conscious, deliberate exploration.
More often than not, it’s triggered by crisis—tragedy that blindsides us, a shattered relationship we thought was fine (but wasn’t), profound illness that reminds us just how fragile humans can be, financial trouble, a brush with death, or the crushing loss of our identity in the manufactured world of status, workism, and relentless upward mobility.
One moment we’re comfortably numb in our safe, climate-controlled, predictable lives, and the next we find ourselves in free fall, wind ripping at us with nothing to slow our plunge to earth.
We look for answers to help us make sense of things, but find none. Instead, we’re lost in the fog of confusion as we’re violently shaken awake by reality.
Or rather, to reality.
In those moments everything changes. It’s as if we’ve embarked on an uncertain passage from one world to another, from one life to another. In the process we jump across a deep gorge, a wound of sorts that now carves a jagged scar through our lives and marks the end of What Was and the beginning of What’s Next.
It also marks the death of one identity and the beginning of another—from who we thought we were to who we have yet to become. Try as we might to hold the fractured parts of our life together, we know nothing will ever be the same.
For modern humans, this is the common story: transformation is forced upon us, not chosen. We go about our lives, minding our own business until life forces us, kicking and screaming, through the eye of the needle of transformation.
This wasn’t always our story, though.
For millennia, humans didn’t wait until life forced us to face Ultimate Questions of who we are and why we’re here. Instead, sometime during the formative teen years, we deliberately sought out the answers through vision quests, solitude deep in the borderlands and wilderness, and spiritual walkabouts (from which some never returned, by the way).
On the other side of the vision quest, should it be survived, awaited the rite of passage, a ceremony that marked the end of the first life before the quest, and the beginning of the second. Often, the initiate was given a new name and the old was never spoken or related to again.
Both the vision quest and the rite of passage were stitched into the very fabric of our individual lives and communities.
Both were a right.
A law as reliable as gravity itself, and just as fundamental to life because it forced the seeker to decide for himself or herself who they really were beyond the name and roles they had been given at birth.
It is an ancient truth taught by all the world’s spiritual traditions: to truly step into the fullness of your life, the identity you were born into first has to die. Said another way, you have to die before you die, and make the passage into your potential.
Having grown up in a hyper-individualistic society that I have found unfulfilling, something in me has been intuitively drawn to the call of questing and passage. Yet, the only rites of passage most of us have ever known are graduating college, getting our driver’s license, losing our virginity, or buying our first house.
I sense this is changing, though.
I was reminded of that a couple weeks ago when I attended a friend’s Hunka ceremony, a traditional rite of passage held sacred by the Lakota people.
It was a multi-day ceremony where my friend was adopted into the Lakota tribe and given a new name, which honored his year-long (plus) vision quest of awakening and the beginning of a new direction in his life.
It was a rite of passage in the most traditional sense, a celebration marked by shared medicine circles, the witnessing of my friend’s life, and the collective blessing and challenge to him to rise into the full expression of his uniqueness.
There was a beautiful, sacred texture to our entire time together. Over those few days I felt like we were etching something vital and holy into the invisible space we shared together. There were beautiful moments and deeply challenging ones, light moments and sobering ones. We all returned home feeling woven together by our shared experience. Many of us met as strangers and returned home, truly, as friends and brothers.
These are the kinds of connections we desire. It is why so many people, now disillusioned by modern life, are seeking to create their own vision quests through sacred plant medicine ceremonies, meditation and spirituality retreats, and shedding corporate life in pursuit of a way of living that feels more authentic to them.
We all know intuitively that one of our fundamental rights as humans is to know ourselves beyond the stories we’ve inherited. Since our culture doesn’t value and make space for it, we must carve it out for ourselves and each other.
This can feel tricky since stepping across the line into cultural appropriation is a real thing. I throw up in my mouth a little every time I see yet another urban white dude who, after having an ayahuasca experience in Malibu, claims to be the reincarnation of a master shaman and begins “offering medicine” to anyone who will pay. Many people are running around, sharing unearned wisdom as if it were their own.
What is the way forward for those who want to create their own vision quests and rites of passage? At the Hunka, only two men holding ceremony were Lakota. I talked with both of them about how I, as a middle-aged guy from Indiana, can remain in integrity in my own personal work and the work I do with clients to create spaces for themselves.
Their answers reminded me of something Saint Augustine once said, Love and do what you will. Because, if you are acting in love, you will seek to honor others while also making space for your own unique expression.
Both can be true.
My friend, whom we celebrated, isn’t Lakota and the act of accepting him as their own, cross-culturally, was an act of unity. It was opening the borders, so to speak, as a way of saying that borders can be moved or erased altogether. Vision quests and rites of passage were made for humans, not the other way around.
Also, everything happens in relationship and lasting transformation is possible only in community. Lone wolves die alone. This is the Achilles heel of the Western (especially American) psyche, that worships rugged individualism without needing others.
What we need is a rugged interdependence, fierce love, vulnerable community—all things which haven’t been modeled well for most of us.
I’m convinced that it isn’t balance we crave, but wholeness. It is a wholeness that cannot be found only in solitude, but must be witnessed and supported by our community of relatives, which in the Lakota cosmology is everyone and everything. All our relations, including all sentient beings and the earth itself.
It is also not simply for our individual good because our good cannot be separated from the good of all. That was clear in the Hunka ceremony. When we come to know our Self, who and what we truly are, we become clear on who and what everyone else is, too.
I arrived at the Hunka as a witness and student, curious and eager to learn. I left with a deeper knowledge of why it’s important to follow the primal drive deep within us all to take radical ownership of our lives and honor our journey in a ceremonial way. I also discovered how to do my own work in deeper, more resonant ways.
I’m convinced that, as the current way of life continues to fail delivering on the happiness it promises, more and more people will gravitate to vision quests, spiritual exploration, and the kind of community I experienced with those men. After all, we were made for connection—with our deepest selves and with each other.
As I’ve said before, humanity itself is experiencing the early stages of a midlife crisis, which merely reflects our collectively needs and desires. We will need tools to help us navigate the years ahead, and thankfully some of them are making their way once again into the collective consciousness.
It’s an exciting time to be alive.
If you’re reading this and feel drawn to learning more about vision quests and rites of passage, drop me a note in the comments. If there is enough interest, I will create additional resources to share.
Confucius supposedly said this over 2,000 years ago, but no one really knows. In his book, The Natural, Bernard Malamud echoes an adjacent sentiment, which I like: “We have two lives: the one we learn with, and the one we live after that.”