May 10, 2014

What Happens On A Rite of Passage Weekend For Young Males?

In early May, myself and a small band of 20 men from the Desert Men's Council in Tucson, AZ, intentionally launched a dozen young males on their journey toward manhood in a Rite of Passage Adventure Weekend. It was held at a piney mountain top camp about an hour from town. I can say, without reservation, it is always a life-changing experience for all the males involved.

The event's unfolding always goes pretty much the same. The men arrive on Friday morning full of nervous anticipation. In the opening staff circle, the experienced men check in excited about the fun and physical challenges they know are ahead. They speak to the joy of the adventure, anticipation of the young guys arriving that evening, the impact they hope to have on the initiates, and the sheer pleasure of being with other good men in a wilderness setting.

The new staff men usually check in
with fears of inadequacy and general uncertainty...

The new staff men usually check in with fears of inadequacy and general uncertainty on the top. They know that starting at 8 PM that evening, they will be facing an almost continuous flow of scripted drama, late nights, stepping into visible roles, staying up late, and a whole lot of young male energy. Being new to this work, some discomfort is actually appropriate. After a full day of site set up and training, everything is ready for the initiates to arrive. I love the tension in those pregnant moments when all the excitement and fears come to a head. And then it begins.

The van of initiates arrives at the edge of a completely dark site. In the blackness of the cold night, each young man, in turn, steps off the van and, carrying all his gear, begins his long, solo walk down a poorly lit road toward man's world.

From the moment the initiates' commitment is tested at the gateway to man's world, until the new Journeymen are driven away from camp Sunday afternoon, the ancient template of initiation and passage has its way with the young males. They push themselves through the many different challenges, face hard questions about the man they want to become, they receive blessings from the men, and finally, late Saturday night, they are honored and welcomed into the male tribe and given the title of Journeyman.

. . . it's a young man who is different,
new in many ways,
who goes back down the mountain. . .

As a result of all these experiences, the new Journeymen stand straighter, speak louder, look at you more directly, and carry a deeper understanding of the path to manhood in front of them. As it was in ancient times, it's a young man who is different, new in many ways, who goes back down the mountain to his community. Still a hatchling to be sure, and certainly not yet a man, he's now a Journeyman, redirected, more intentional, purposefully launched, with guidance and allies on his path toward manhood.

The tears in the men's check-out circle are always powerful testimony to the impact of the weekend on the men. The ancient template has been working on them, too. They have likely heard one of the young men speak part of their adolescent story, will have witnessed many acts of youthful courage, and heard personal truths spoken by the initiates.

In spite of their early fears, the new staff men will have witnessed the power of their role as makers of men to actually shape the lives of Journeymen. They will have bonded with other good men in the sacred man-making work and will now be brothers in mission. As a result, men's hearts will have been opened and softened. Indeed, it's also new men, changed men, who leave that camp and go down the mountain an hour or so behind the Journeymen.

Here are a few few photos from the weekend. They will mean more to the participants than an outside observer. But if you look closely, you can feel the fun, excitement, and joy in the experience.

What follows is a story I like to share with the men at the beginning of these weekends. It's to remind them that, like the young men about to arrive, they too are hardwired for the experience, and simply can't do it wrong. I remind them what we're doing is terribly important and necessary, and they too will be transformed by this sacred men's work.

The Ancient Call

For thousands of years, it was the custom. When the time was right (and everyone knew), it all began. One day, the men were suddenly gone. But soon, off in the distance, you could hear the sound of drums beating a strong and steady rhythm — softly at first and then louder. Then late one night, when the sky was dark, the men suddenly stormed into the village to get the adolescent boys. Bodies painted, fearsome, masked, they came, yelling for the boys. As the little children cried, the men wrenched the young males out of the arms of the screaming women and then quickly slipped away into the darkness with their stolen treasure.

There was running in a pack through the dense bush, all wild-eyed and breathless as the men dragged their precious prey into the darkness. It was all surrounded by the steamy heat of the night and the stink of male sweat. Nothing was said, and all you could hear were the sounds of heavy breathing, grunting, and crying. After a long march, the boys found themselves in an old and sacred place they had only heard about. The place where the men went. They were thrown into a cold, dark hut and told to wait in silence.

Eventually, it began.
There were fires, strange smells,
and always the pounding of drums.

Eventually, it began. There were fires, strange smells, and always the pounding of drums. Around the fires, the grandfathers recited the old stories, male secrets were shared, and male dances were taught and danced by the men. The boys endured nakedness, cold, hunger, pain, and other trials. Ancient lessons necessary for the survival of their community were unfolded before the boys. They were required to learn masculine skills, men’s language, and how to take on the responsibilities that define a man.

Ancient lessons
necessary for the survival of their community
were unfolded before the boys.

The men considered this to be sacred work. They knew they were making men out of boys, and in doing so, they were shaping the future survival of their tribe. If the boys did not make this crossing into manhood successfully, their world would end.

Like those ancient men, it’s now our time to do something for the boys. Our young males are feeling their adolescent power, beginning to push against us, testing their limits, and causing trouble. Too many of them are not successfully launching on their journey toward manhood and are being lost, dying from young male foolishness, or being imprisoned. So just like those men of old, in spite of our self-doubts, we must act. For the sake of the boys, their parents, our communities, and our world, as men we must accept our sacred, man-making responsibility.

The initiates will arrive soon. Now is the time, and have no doubt you are the men. All blessings on your large hearts and powerful intentions. Now let's go to work.

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