Layers of Belonging

Jeremy Thres, Rites of passage guide

Published in JHH12.2 – Works that Reconnect

When I first heard the term Visionquest, I knew I had to follow it, undertaking my first fast in Russia before going on to more formally train over several years with Steven Foster and Meredith Little, founders of the School of Lost Borders and authors of The Roaring of the Sacred River. With their blessing and encouragement in the 20 years since I have both offered this work, trained others and have been developing new forms to meet contemporary needs. My work has been enriched by connection with many different elders, Jungian, Indigenous, Buddhist both of this land and beyond, Martin Prechtel and Thich Naht Hahn important among them.To support the wilderness work I have also trained in mountain and moorland leadership, psychotherapy with the Karuna Institute, family constellation work, and wilderness first aid. ‘It all turns on Affection


A few years ago I met a doctor from Pakistan who was studying and working in a hospital in the south west of England. He reflected that whenever someone was admitted after having attempted suicide, his unit experienced cultural differences when it came time to discharge them. If they were of an Asian background, the family would rally round to visit in the immediate instance, and there would often be friends or family to accompany them when they were leaving. So staff felt these patients were going back into a community of support. On the other hand, initial visitors to patients of a Caucasian background would often tail off. Nor was it unusual for them to leave the hospital alone or accompanied by just one person. As a consequence staff felt unsure whether patients like this had any real community of support; they were often concerned about letting them go and thought it likely they would be seeing them again before too long.

The mythologist Joseph Campbell quotes one of the 12th century introductions to the marvellous tale of Parzival as beginning: ‘In every action there is both shadow and light – the best we can do is lean towards the light’ (Campbell and Moyers 1988). Traditionally people in Britain have been expected to have ‘a stiff upper lip’, and to display that strangely British mix of conformity and selfreliance. Part of the shadow of this can be isolation for both young and old, and uncertainty as to whether we belong, perhaps even to ourselves.

In Asian culture the tradition of leaning towards family and religious ties remains stronger, and within this there is the possibility of a greater sense of holding and connection. But the shadow can be a lack of autonomy. The film East is East took a bitter-sweet look at this conundrum as it stood in 70s Britain. Yet in recent years I have met second generation British Asians still very deeply torn between their traditional family expectations, and the possibility of following their own personal passions in life.

In this article I want to look at this question of belonging, and the different layers of it, and to consider what sort of conditions might support greater health. In particular I am going to look through the lens of wilderness rites of passage – a field within which I have been both a student and a guide for 20 years. I do this because, although there are many ways one can strengthen connection to a particular layer, I have found that the wisdom of wilderness-oriented rites of passage at their best has the potential to address and strengthen greater health through a great many layers of relationship in one fell swoop.

The layers of connection

We are hungry for connection and blessing, and if we just look to our peers as children and teenagers, they can be a fickle lot. Who has not known the pain of ostracism or the threat of it and sometimes conformed in a number of ways to avoid it. Nor do parents always welcome us in our differences, and the school system too has its own agenda and hoops to jump through. Sometimes it can feel as if having relationship with others means we have to give up relationship to ourselves. If everyone were to do this, the consequence would be a community living increasingly apart from its own truth and centre. Ultimately the repercussions would impact on us all.

Marshall Rosenberg who distilled the practice of non-violent communication suggests many young people feel like PPP – pretty poor protoplasm put together (Rosenburg 2003)! Now if you feel like that, are you likely to contribute to society and have self worth? The Samaritans (quoting from Jay Griffiths stirring book on children (2013) say that ‘leaving school with a poor sense of self worth’ is one of the main contributory factors to youth suicide. Griffiths goes on to point out that the United Nations Committee on the Rights of the Child has referred to a ‘general climate of intolerance’ in Britain towards children. Clearly we need to offer our young people something to counter-balance this.

Rites of passage, which I have come to describe as ‘the ancients conscious approach to change’, are most commonly known for supporting young people coming of age and welcoming them into young adulthood. They offer a remarkable opportunity to bring support to a necessary but sometimes painful separation, and to reconfigure our relationship to our parents and childhood. They support this separation in a way that helps a wider circle to meet, learn of and welcome the young participants, thus strengthening an inter-generational community. In the process the participants learn more of themselves and their relationship with the wider field of life.

Initiation means beginning, so it is worth flagging that this is what such a rite is, a significant enough passageway to count as, and firmly support, the beginning of young adulthood. There is always further maturation to undergo, and stages that may or may not be taken – apprenticeships, marriage, parenthood etc, but still these first rites have the potential to lay foundations that support each individual in relationship to community and forward in their life.

Let’s first visit some layers of community and belonging. For that we need somewhere to do it, and that is space…there has to be space for us to be conceived and born into, and the following layers all emerge from this first one (though like fish in the water it is easy to forget what we swim in). Carl Jung said ‘everything we think we know and understand rests upon a deeper mystery that we do not’ – and that is the enigma of creation and being in the first place! I love this term mystery, for though we may put various ideas upon it, so far as I understand, we are yet to see beyond the so called ‘big bang’ and into the source that continues to impel creation…

From our very first cell the body becomes for us the most common locus of our experience – and that single cell becomes a community of cells to which we belong, with feelings and experience sensing both ways – to inner and outer. This first community is represented by the dot in the centre of Figure 1. I speak of the body as a community because we have many parts and the journey of learning about and relating to them is a huge part of life. I believe that from the outset the cell has sentience, and therefore that its intrinsic being and life thrust, and its very perception of self is coloured by how it is received.

Most important in this process will be the parents, without whom (or at least their sperm and egg) we could not be conceived. So this is the first inner circle, representing the womb, parents and the family nest.

Now our parents could not be here without their parents, and the welcome they offer us has in turn been influenced by the welcome and support they have had and receive. So this is the next circle, a circle of extended family consisting of siblings, grandparents, uncles, aunts, family friends, midwives etc within which the others can exist (behind this layer is another important layer to find right relationship to, that is the ancestors who have passed over).

Now as modern humans we tend to specialise and be dependent on each other. It is only a very rare individual, yet alone family, who could live for any time without the significant support of others, not to speak of aeons of ancestral practical lore, so the next circle is for the essential wider human community, be it village or city in association with which we live.

And this in turn is in a particular place on the Earth, and depends totally upon this planet, its diversity and systems – for air, for water, for food, fibre and shelter, so the Earth is represented by the next circle. And this sits within space – where our story began, a place, in this case the universe and galaxy within which our planet turns.

Figure 1 is a simple map of these layers each contained within and resting upon the next. Now in the ideal, each layer is whole, conditions are such you are born with all your fingers and toes, you have two loving welcoming parents who are supported by an extended family and community, which is not in a state of war, and so they are able to give full attention to nourishing and welcoming you.

In relation to place and the Earth layer, for the greater part of human history you would have been familiar with your sources of water, be they spring, well or river, and sources of food, plants and animals, heat and shelter. And the great majority of people you encountered would have been directly involved in the seasonal rounds that enable harvest and storage each year. In relation to the greater circle of space and mystery, there would be stories and mythology to offer a sense of how your people had come to be and that spoke of a relationship to source in a way that was less likely to be in conflict with the scientific understandings of the time.

Let us compare how this same map may look for many today (Figure 2). Hopefully nutritional conditions make it more likely you will be born physically whole, although pollution on a global level means we may have more chemicals and radiation in us than ever before, despite the banning of some persistent pesticides such as DDT (which famously showed up in high percentages in Inuit women’s breast milk).

In terms of the parental layer a quarter of children today are likely to be born into single-parent families, and 40% of marriages end in divorce (Office of National Statistics 2011). People move around a lot more these days, so one is less likely to be geographically close to one’s extended family. The nuclear family, self-reliance and the growth of television as entertainment versus fires to be gathered round, has all encouraged a greater isolation on a local level even if greater knowledge on a global one.

Most of us now get our water from a tap rather than a spring, and our food from a supermarket. So there are more middle-men and extra costs; it is easy to be less conscious and appreciative of the origins of what one is receiving. So our relationship to Earth is in many ways diminished.

In terms of space, and mystery, though their presence may not have changed, terms of perception there have been huge shifts in the last 100 years. Scientific discoveries have led to declarations that ‘the Gods are dead’ (diminished to inner constructs now); under the bright glare of the rational mind a demystification of the world is occurring. Yet mystery remains: mythology- and creationwise we now have more access than ever before to stories that can offer a deeper sense of our origins and place in the world and universe. However, scientific thinking colours how we perceive myth, because taken literally, much of it can be exposed as false. Yet through the eyes of metaphor, sometimes science reveals that these stories contain deeper truths.

Through the rites of passage lens

The parental circle/nest one is born into can become too tight or too weak (too controlling or too lax), and fledging from it into greater self-responsibility is an innate healthy impulse. Yet however nurturing or unpleasant the family nest has been, there is pain and guilt in separating from it, and so without help this may not take place in a healthy way.

This beautiful quote from Frank Water’s The Man who killed the Deer (1942) illustrates the poignancy of this time:

Father, oh father! I hear weeping. Is it my mother I leave in grief?’ ‘Have courage, my son…In your mother’s womb you were conceived. From an individual human womb you were born into an individual human life. It was necessary, it was good. But individual human life is not sufficient to itself. It depends on and is a part of all life. So now another umbilical must be broken, that which binds you to your mother’s affections, that which binds you to the individual human life she gave you. For twelve years you have belonged to your lesser mother. Now you belong to your greater mother. And you return to her womb to emerge once again, as a man who knows himself not as an individual but as a unit of his tribe and a part of life which ever surrounds him.

This quote highlights a number of important factors. On the one hand is the deliberate separation from the opposite gender parent (and indeed in most rites from both parents) because, it is suggested, the parents know the child too well. And so in holding a rite they might wish to make the rite too hot (macho) or too cool (ineffective). Second, this supported separation from parents is importantly not towards nothing, but toward the wider community – strengthening ties particularly with the elders who are about to support the rite. Third, although separating from the parents, the aim is to create a new relationship to them, rather than break all relationship with them. It may well entail a return to the family compound. For example in Burkano Faso in West Africa initiates will return to the family compound, but never to sleep in their mother’s huts again. Because of the clearly marked separation, and the conscious work done within that – ideally by both parties – a new relationship on different terms can be formed. Parents are going through changes of their own as their fledgling child separates from them, so supportive consciousness must be brought to their pain too, so that the gift of this time completing one phase of life and opening up a new one can be fully appreciated.

In Guatemala, those who go to collect the young men carry staffs, in part to protect themselves from the mothers who, though they have agreed to the initiation, also play their part in challenging physically and verbally those who are coming to take ‘their child’. The timing of this separation is guided by these elders who, out the corner of their eyes as they go about their business, have been closely observing the young ones. Falling in love and getting more serious around sexuality could be the cue for initiation. There are some beautiful teachings relating to this, for example that before a person can marry another, they must first marry their own soul. This theme is echoed in European folk tales, particularly if read as parts of oneself as one can a dream, and in an idea deeply rooted in our mythology that the King and Queen are married to the Land.

Another important image was one given to Malidome Some by an elder during his initiation in Burkano Faso where the purpose of initiation is to support you in returning to ‘your own centre’ (Some 1995); not your father’s, brother’s or mother’s, but your own. Does our culture support us and encourage us to find our own centre, knowing that this will be good for community? Or does it mistrust creation? I feel this is an important question to ask. I also feel a climate of ‘getting ahead’, the retreat into the nuclear family and our society’s allpervading ethic of competition, potentially undermine our ability to really get behind and support the wider community’s children.

The separation, as the quote says, is from the ‘lesser mother’ but includes now being welcomed as a part of the tribe (next level of community), and also now an overtly stated ‘belonging’ to the greater mother (next level), and returning to her womb to be reborn (which implies death to the previous life) as a part of his people (the tribe) and a part of life which ever surrounds him.

This theme is reflected in some Russian fairytales where the blood parents are referred to as the ‘little mother and father’ and the Earth and cosmos the greater ones. So it is to them that initiates are taken, for as stories throughout the world suggest, the healing elixir tends to be found out beyond the castle and town gates, in the wilder land where people usually do not live, east of the sun and west of the moon.

Once there in the wilds, the most common taboos are periods of fasting, alone-time, and vigil (long periods encouraged to stay awake or in prayer). In South African tradition vigil is a big part of such rites, staying upright and awake for long periods of time – deliberately making oneself vulnerable to the wider intelligence that we are a part of. For we are fruit of the tree of life though arrogantly many of us often behave as if there is no intelligence in the tree or its other-than-human branches. The myth and stories, which act as such great guides to such rites (and which in Europe through their pattern indicate the existence of similar rites here), encourage us to let go of such hubris for in these stories the older brothers and sisters who do not do so tend to come sticky ends. For instance in the classic questing story Men and the Water of Life both older brothers, having rudely dismissed the possibility of a dwarf helping them, end up in narrow canyons unable to move forward or back. So stuck that they ‘might as well have been in prison’ (Meade 1993).

The various taboos play a part in evoking what can be called an initiatory state. For many this can be a fearful state: entering the unknown and open to being changed by it. This may excite fear not only in the initiates but for those who know them. However, unlike self-initiations, where one is entering unsupported or being tested, the communal initiations have been guided by elders in communities around the world for thousands of years. No doubt there is potential for them to become distorted and no longer to serve participants’ wellbeing, but rather the hierarchy and its agendas (as could also be the case in a culture which discourages such rites). In the past in cultures where fasting and alone-time were not unusual or where inter-tribal warfare was common, the taboos and ordeals became, perhaps by necessity, more intense, and not all initiates returned. But before judging this, let us be conscious of what happens where, in the vacuum of support to honour this transition to adulthood, a young man/youth is left to find his own immature and dangerous ways to prove his adulthood to himself and others. ‘If you don’t do this you aren’t a man’, is a common taunt between the uninitiated, whereas those who know themselves to be something are less susceptible to manipulation into things which can be harmful.

To really feel one’s way to the other side of this transition requires certain ingredients. An elder of a particular Lakota lineage who I recently shared some time with, Sal Glencarelle, distilled these down to three: the wilds, significant enough alone-time, and elders to guide and affirm the rite. A quote from Gentry in Richard Frankel’s insightful book The Adolescent Psyche (1998) sums up something of what can happen without such rites:

‘Adolescence as we’ve come to know it is a modern phenomenon. In previous societies and tribal cultures, the adult usually merges quickly out of childhood through participation in puberty rites. Now however for ten years or more, modern adolescents must make attempts to say farewell to childhood without the benefit of socially sanctioned rites of passage. Puberty rites of passage have not disappeared. They’ve taken on newer and disguised forms of expression. Today our youth reach out to grasp adulthood in rather dangerous ways. By participating in religious cults, by the abuse of increasingly more harmful substances, by running away from home, by their symptoms of self-starvation, self-mutilation, self-destructive suicidal attempts. The affirmation of self, once the aim of the so-called search for identity, has become a search for self-negation.’

A possible consequence of not feeling they are seen to be adults is that young people may make extreme gestures to make themselves visible. The young pilot who crashed a plane into the Alps killing its passengers, apparently told his ex-girlfriend ‘One day everyone will know my name’. Similar sentiments along the lines of ‘soon they’ll see me’ are expressed by those about to commit shootings in American schools. These individuals have often been bullied and ostracised. Young people need to be seen, and interestingly elders generally suggest that it’s not so much the job of the parents as the children get older, but of others in community to pick up this responsibility (Meade et al 1992).

For anyone interested in sourcing a rite of passage for their own children or community, perhaps the best place to start would be to seek the experienced support you would need to go through such a rite oneself. Few of us have had any kind of conscious initiation ourselves, and whatever our age there will still be phases of life we are approaching or have passed through, and problems for which we would welcome insight and vision. This experience will give you a true understanding of what you might be encouraging a young person to go through. You will also have had a personal taste of some of its fruit. The Wisdom in Nature Network has a list of some UK guides who do this work on its website

The, offers an international listing.

I undertook a transpersonal psychotherapy training to support my relationship to the rites of passage work I had trained in. One of many gems offered on the course came from Franklyn Sills, (one of its co-founders and a respected author (Sills 2009) and elder in a number of fields). He proposed that we do not know what it is that ultimately heals, but that we can still do our best to create the conditions in which healing is most likely to occur. For healing please read ‘wholeness’ for wholeness also embraces the ‘noble truth’ that some degree of illness and ultimately death itself are parts of life. They may even act as even important informers of life, with which we must somehow find a right relationship and learn from rather than struggle to eliminate completely

In therapeutic terms Carl Rogers, in his seminal work on humanistic counselling, had already identified certain qualities conducive to healing. He suggested it matters less which school of therapy a practitioner had trained in, than the presence of unconditional positive regard, congruence (a sense of authenticity in communication) and empathy. Their presence in the therapeutic relationship would make a movement towards healing more likely (Rogers 1989) I applaud and celebrate his findings, and suggest these qualities are also vital in those holding the container for rites of passage. On a wilderness quest the wild land solo element also offers its own holding – an opportunity both to learn from nature and ‘to meet ourselves supported, yet undistracted by our normal circumstance’. Jungian elder Marion Woodman, speaking of wilderness, says, …‘it supports us, particularly in relation to changes we are going through, guides and challenges us. Facing the challenges it becomes a place where we can experience our own strengths, our own resources, and our own truth’. These experiences strengthen our self-worth and can in turn be affirmed by the elders. Another important element is that the taboos and various exercises and tools involved can evoke what Steven Foster calls ‘initiatory states of being’, which have the potential to induce profound visionary states, insight and healing when interwoven with one’s own intent and process.

Obviously humans go through many stages of life. The quality of the early ones and the transitions between them – conception, womb, birth, and initial care – profoundly colour our world view and our relationship to future transitions, for at each stage earlier material is evoked. This offers an opportunity in the present for a different experience to be had provided the combination of community and alone-time gives space in which the organism can move towards healing.

Stanislav Grof, former chief of psychiatric research at the Maryland Psychiatric Research Centre, has written extensively in relation to healing of this nature through what he came to call holotropic states (from the latin holos meaning whole). Grof believes that when people get involved in work of this nature, it becomes ‘no longer necessary to teach them ecology or ethics, for, when they have transpersonal experiences, their systems of values changes automatically and they develop deep ecological awareness, tolerance and compassion’ (Lazlo 1999). I finish with a quote from a mother (an ex-intensive care nurse) whose teenage son worked with us over a period of years:

‘Having a son who has done this individuation work of initiating himself through working with Jeremy on a number of occasions has given us gold. Somehow it has meant we haven’t had to experience the painful struggle of a young person needing to push away the parent in order to find who they are. It’s been a natural soft separating which enabled him to go off into the world to clearly define who he is. Having done that he has been able to return to relationship with me with a full heart, as an adult in his own right able to embrace whatever life we choose to share in our new roles….’


  • Campbell J with Moyers B (1988) The power of myth (DVD), Apostrophe S Productions.
  • Frankel R (1998) The adolescent psyche. London: Routledge
  • Griffiths J (2013) Kith, the riddle of the childscape. London: Hamish Hamilton
  • Lazlo E (ed) (1999) The consciousness revolution: a transatlantic dialogue: two days with Stanislav Grof, ErvinLazlo, and Peter Russell.
  • Rockport, MA: Element Books.
  • Meade M (1993) Men and the water of life, initiation and the tempering of men. San Francisco: Harper
  • Meade, Hilman and Some (1992) Images of initiation, Oral Tradition Archives, Pacific Grove, CA 93950.
  • ONS (2011) Families and households. Available at: (accessed 2 July 2015)
  • Rosenburg M (2003) Speaking peace (Audio CD). Sounds True
  • Sills F (2009) Being & becoming. Berkeley, CA: North Atlantic Books.
  • Some M (1995) Of water and spirit. London: Penguin Books
  • Waters F (1942) The Man who killed the Deer. Ohio: Ohio University Press.


  • Jeremy Thres can be contacted at
  • An initial listing of UK guides who offer work of this nature.
  • offers an international listing.
  • the organisation whose founders Jeremy trained with.
  • Lost Borders Coming of Age in the Wilderness. A documentary film following half a dozen young adults as they go through a wilderness oriented rites of passage.
  • The Roaring of the Sacred River. Steven Foster & Meredith Little, Lost Borders Press 1996.
  • Care of the soul in medicine: Thomas Moore. Healing guidance for patients, families and the people who care for them. Audio CD, Hay House 2010. Fascinating book/audio which includes some reference to perceiving illness as a rite of passage.
  • Betwixt and between (Mahdi, Meade, Foster and Little) and its follow-up Crossroads (Mahdi, Christopher and Mead), two anthologies drawing together rites of passage experience.
  • The Carl Rogers reader – an introduction to humanistic counselling. Kirschenbaum K (ed) (1989). Boston: Mariner Books.
  • Psychotherapy and process. James Bugental, McGraw Hill 1978. A book on the Karuna Institute core process training.
  • organisation offering creative community camps for 14–18-year-olds.