Dan Quinn discusses the similarities between traditional initiation rites and the therapeutic process as part of a special section

Throughout the world, as far back as our history can reach, village shamans and elders have led their young through carefully ritualized practices to help them complete their education and cross the threshold into their adult lives. An aboriginal boy in Australia, a Massai boy in Africa, or a Cherokee boy in North America performed remarkably similar rites, faced similar ordeals, and often encountered similar visions. In these high stakes rituals the adolescent initiates might perish before they could emerge as adults on the other side, but the village elders understood that allowing uninitiated adults to claim a place in the village would risk the unraveling of that village society.

An African Dagara elder, when asked if an unitiated man would be allowed to marry, responded with horror, asking, “Would you put an uninitiated man in the same hut with a woman?” (Some, 2001) He knew it would be an invitation to disaster. (Couples therapists, take note.) It’s dangerous to allow inflated, uninitiated boy/men to wander the village (something we might consider in selecting presidents).

No shamans, no elders, no village. Our contemporary society attends poorly to the needs of boy/men and girl/women, and teens go looking for transformative ordeals on their own–in gangs, joyrides, drug addiction or fraternities. Or, a middle-aged uninitiated “teenager” may find himself in the office of a therapist when the neglected need for initiation arises within him unbidden. It appears that the psyche, in the absence of eternal structure, will create its own initiatory processes in the therapist’s office (Henderson, 2005, Hill, 1992), and a patient struggling with symptoms of anxiety, phobia, or depression in therapy may be attempting to self-generate an initiatory experience.

In fact, the therapy experience mirrors the age-old experience of initiation in many ways. For example, both processes usually include rigorous containment of a highly ritualized change process, and equally call upon both a patient/initiate’s instinct to be tested and challenged and the therapist/elder’s instinct to test and to challenge. Both rely upon meaningful, transformative ordeals and the sometimes terrifying destruction of a subject’s identity before a more adaptive one can be formed. And like modern therapy, the ancient work of transformation took time: Plotkin (2003, 2006) emphasizes the importance of recognizing that initiatory rituals are not, alone, the maturing agents, but a symbolic recognition and the culmination of work accomplished over many years as an initiate was guided by the village toward the next stage of life.

The three stages of initiation which Van Gennep (1960) first identified (departure, liminal/threshold, and return to the village, see Marty Wong’s article) all broadly apply to the therapy process as well, but Joseph Campbell (1949) and others identified, within those stages, more discrete initiatory components. These components − found in initiation rituals, within myths, and within most stories − include such recurring dramas as “The Crossing of the Threshold,” “The Encountering of Tests, Allies and Enemies,” and “Resurrection and Transformation Before Reentry to the Ordinary World.” (Campbell, 1949, Vogler, 1998) These archetypal enactments frequently occur in the therapy hour. While it is beyond the scope of the present inquiry to discuss them all, let’s reflect upon a few.

Consider “The Call to Adventure,” often delivered in stories by heralds or messengers, which launches the initiatory process as well as many a hero’s journey. Somebody or something suddenly appears with an invitation to adventure. In the village, when it’s time for the male initiation ritual, the call often arrives in the form of howling or chanting men, dressed as gods, who come to take the boys away. One rarely sees a patient being dragged into a therapy office by a gang of men wearing masks, but he may be pulled in by dramatic pressures exerted from within, the anxiety, the depression, or other forms of intolerable dysfunction, an urgent, wild, perhaps mostly physical sensation that something must be done. Instead of discomforts to be erased, these symptoms may be welcomed as heralds who are surfacing to call upon the patient to embark.

That call, that restlessness, is described by mythologist Michael Mead as the African Gisu people’s concept of litima, “that violent emotion peculiar to the masculine part of things that is the source of quarrels, rootless competition, of possessiveness, of power-driveness, and of brutality. But (litima) is also the source of independence, courage, upstandingness, wildness rather than savagery, high emotions, ideals, the movement toward individuation and the very source of the desire for initiation… Litima names and describes the willful emotional force that fuels the process of becoming an individual.” (Bly, Hillman, Meade, 1991) Shall we consider a DSM-V diagnosis of “Uninitiated Litima?” The Gisu know to expect litima in the uninitiated teen, and know that the intervention of the ordeals and rites of initiation are required to help him contain and channel it.

Not everyone is delighted to receive the call to initiation, and many resist in what Campbell calls, “The Refusal of the Call.” (1968) When the great Father Snake god comes roaring for the foreskins of the boys of the Australian Murngin tribe, the boys run to their mothers. (And who can blame them?) The mothers pretend to protect the boys with spears from the costumed men, and they wail with grief when their sons are taken away. (Campbell, 1968) If not dragged, how many Murngin boys would go voluntarily? How many of our patients, frightened by the roaring of an internal force, are refusing an essential call?

The Call, The Refusal of the Call…these belong to van Gennep’s first stage of initiation, Departure: the need to leave one’s family or home, to leave the warm (or sometimes cold) embrace of the mother, the family, or the role of child behind. In therapy, one thinks of patients who dread leaving their apartments, or who seem to hope that every person they encounter will be a mother substitute. In object relations, we might think of The Call as the precursor to the development of a depressive position, “The negation of subjective fantasy where all wishes may be satisfied without limit or end.” (Colman, 2006, p.23) In The African Kurnai tribe a newly circumcised boy completes his journey by crossing from the group of women to the group of men, turning to throw water in his mother’s face. The shaman crosses between the women and the men, severing an invisible umbilicus. (Eliade, 1958)

Any therapist will tell you that sometimes a patient comes to therapy looking for a good fight. But it can be hard for us to grasp the significance of another phase Campbell terms, “The Atonement With the Father,” during which the initiate is forced to conform to the will of the group. (Campbell, 1968, p. 126) John Beebe refers to this as, “the necessary humiliation.” (2005) In one contemporary example, during the boot camp rituals of the elite Canadian Airborne Regiment, bread is passed among those who are already initiated, and vomited and urinated upon before being eaten by the new initiate. (Winslow, 1999) In another example, the Australian Arunta boy during this stage stays alive by drinking the blood of his maternal uncles, who sometimes pass out from blood loss, while the boy lays his head on his father’s thighs. (Campbell, 1968) Paradoxically, the assumption of the heroic mantle requires a submission to the will of society, and a defiant, inflated young man (or an angry middle-aged woman, or…) may show up in the therapy office looking for someone he respects enough to battle, or to whom he is willing to submit. “When a young man says ‘Fuck you,’ he is saying, ‘You’re hired.’” (Some, 2001)

So many of the dramas enacted in the therapy office can be understood as elements of an initiation process. When we prescribe exposure treatment for phobia − aren’t we sending the patient off to Slay the Dragon? Aren’t patient defenses a contemporary manifestation of The Guardians at the Threshold, warning us away from the adventure? A patient awash in previously unfelt grief can certainly appear to be in The Belly of the Whale, and what about the grin of a patient who finally holds his own – can that be the look of The Triumphant Return? Our patients may be presenting themselves to us with the hope that we as therapists will take up with them some irreducible, timeless enterprise, the work that strains in them for mentoring and the challenge of meaningful ordeals, the project that was abandoned by their village.

Originally printed in the SPSMM Bulletin, Summer 2006.


Dan Quinn, M.A. Doctoral Candidate, The Wright Institute




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