How did you become a man? The lost art of ritual rites of passage.

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Last weekend we took 14 men upstate for another Junto Men’s weekend. The Catskill trees had just begun their fall transformation, golden and red leaves covered the earth beneath us.

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We shared communication tools that empower men to trust themselves, share authentically and hold space for others to do the same.

We co-created a place for men to explore and express their emotions so they could learn more about who they are and what they need from their lives.

And last but not least, we worked our group through a ritual rite of passage…a rite of passage that empowered these men to step into “manhood” on their own terms.

This post is about that last part…

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How does a boy become a man?

From the prehistoric, through the not so distant modern era, this seminal question was answered with ritual rites of passage.

A traditional rite of passage is any ceremony or event that marks a transition from one phase of life to another. These ceremonies often correlate with a significant change of status in the boy’s community. (i.e. boy to man, single to married, dependant to contributor)

So, why did these rites of passage matter for society?

These rituals would give the community an opportunity to recognize the new status of a young man. Being witnessed in this way would hold the young man accountable for honoring his new standing and responsibilities to the group.

For example, I have told Miki how much I love her and how committed I am to her. With that said, I felt a definite shift when I made the same commitment to her in front of 250 friends and family members at our wedding a month ago. This communal recognition instilled a heightened accountability and awareness in me.

These ritual initiations were revered as sacred and provided young men with the opportunity to transform their consciousness. It was a mental marker for them to shift their way of thinking about themselves and how they should behave.

As I have become more involved with “men’s work,” I began to realize how this beautiful tradition has been neglected by society.

We definitely have rites of passages, but I don’t think we recognize the impact they have on the development of our men. Things like sports, fraternities and the military are all cultural institutions that enable boys to enter into “manhood” and express their masculinity.

But there are important ingredients missing from these de facto rites of passage.

As Robert Moore says in his pioneering book “King Warrior Magician Lover”, these rites of passage focus on the more immature forms of masculinity; things like aggression, competitiveness and the need to dominate. He goes on to state that they often leave out the more “mature” aspects of masculinity like compassion, responsibility and centeredness.

Moore’s distinction between immature and mature masculinity really connected for me.

Whenever I bring up this idea, I make a point to call out that none of these qualities are “bad.” All of these can serve a man’s journey through life.

However, when our cultural rites of passage are focused mainly on these dominant and aggressive forms of masculinity, we have a problem.

The culture our boys grow up in limits their perception of what it means to be a man. In turn, adolescent boys walk the well carved path and act out the legend of the dominant, “strong man” as the only way to fit in and earn the respect of their peers.

On top of the limited spectrum of masculinity that we expose men too, many rites of passage that traditionally empowered adolescents to transition into adulthood have become even more unclear.

At 18, it was customary for children to leave the house, go to college, or get a job. This type of independence was a clear societal marker for the transition into “adulthood.”

Today, you have 1/3rd of 25–29 year olds living with their parents.

People also used to get married and have kids much earlier. In the 80’s, the average age of a man who was getting married was 22, it is now 29. The average age of men who have kids is 31, up from 27 in the 70’s.

These rites of passage were an undeniable transition into the responsibility of adulthood for young men. Without them, adolescence can stretch into the 30’s and leave men with an immature sense of self.

So to recap,

  1. The societal rites of passage that exist are not portraying the full spectrum of masculinity.

  2. Traditional rites of passage into adulthood are becoming less prevalent and delayed until much later in life.

We have lost the art of the rite of the passage and society needs it now as much as it ever has.

On top of the factors above, there are things like the #metoo movement, shifting gender roles and the decreasing prevalence of religious rites of passage that make the conversation about modern masculinity more dynamic than ever.

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It’s time to reintroduce these rites of passage into society…but in a different way.

I don’t believe the modern rite of passage will look a group of people or communities dictating what it means to be a man.

Instead, modern rituals will give men an opportunity to explore who they are, define what it means for them to be a man and then give them an opportunity to be celebrated for stepping into manhood on their own terms.

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That’s exactly what we did as the Junto came to a close Friday night. Fourteen men stood around a fire and shared their vision for the type of man they will be in the world.

Rites of passage are not the solution to society’s woes, but I think they will be an important ingredient.

These powerful ceremonies can catalyze millions of mens to explore the parts of masculinity that are often neglected by traditional rites of passages.

These modern initiations will create communities of men who are committed to understanding themselves and serving others.

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So if you are a man who’s sitting there and thinking about how this impacts you or why you should get involved….

If you’re a woman who knows a man that you think is ready to step into this kind of mature masculinity…

Consider this.

Doing this type of work is not simply about “being the best man you can be,” it’s about protecting the people we care about and moving society forward in a more equal way that serves everybody.

Embarking into these rights of passage is an act of service.

The men who engage in this type of exploration of mature masculinity are better friends, present lovers and more conscious citizens…

One of our participants came home from the Junto and had a conversation with his wife about their sex life that they had been avoiding for months and found a new path forward..

Another came back and wrote his distant father a letter telling him how grateful he was for all he had done for him growing up.

Another came back and doubled down on their commitment to community building, sending out an invite for a massive gathering he wanted to plan for the holidays.

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There are dozens of inspiring leaders and worthy organizations who are exploring these topics and creating their own version of these powerful ceremonies.

We created the Junto ( which means a group of persons joined for a common purpose) to highlight these amazing people and programs, to bring men together and to share these important rituals with to the world.

If you are ready to take a step towards mature masculinity or simply want to check out the resources that are available, visit www.wejunto.com.

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So, how does a boy become a man?

You decide.

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