Vision Quest

One of the most interesting practices in archaic cultures was the practice of initiation (coming of age). Initiation was one of the “rites of passage” accompanying the most significant social and personal changes in a person’s life: birth, growing up, marriage, maturity, death, etc.

“The expression “rite of passage” shows that a person has passed from one level of his experience to another. Performing the ritual of transition speaks of the socially recognized right to change or transformation – the right to enter a new level of one’s development…” (E. Errien). That is, as if to pass an exam for a new level of personal and social maturity and receive new instructions for the correct passage of a new stage of life.

The institution of “initiation” is very ancient, it is found in the most archaic cultures – the Australian aborigines and the inhabitants of Tierra del Fuego. In one form or another, it is present in all cultures. All male and female adolescents of this community at the age of approximately 11-13 years (sometimes – 13-15 years) underwent the initiation of growing up.

Rituals, practices and the ideological context of initiation are closely related to the leading ideology, mythology of the tribe and community. This is involvement (not theoretically, but by one’s own experience) in the values of adults, in the knowledge of adults about their personal characteristics and abilities of an adult.


As the leading researcher of mythology, Mircea Eliade, wrote, the initiation allowed the teenager to grasp the “triple revelation: the revelation of Holiness, Death and Sexuality.” All three types of experience are absent in the child. The initiate learns about them, accepts them and incorporates the structure of his new – adult – personality.

In addition, the initiate is assimilated to the cultural ideal of the tribe, represented in the form of a deified first ancestor, hero or deity, whose legendary and difficult path he repeats in initiation. The entire initiation, its entourage and events are saturated with deep symbols and are the playing of the most secret mythologies of the tribe.

Without pretending to be an exhaustive picture, we will give a brief approximate course of initiation. After reaching initiation age, all girls and boys of the tribe are taken from their families. The boys are taken to a secluded place in the forest, jungle or wild, frightening area and gathered in groups under the guidance of a special mentor – the initiate.

There they live in a special hut, they are forbidden to communicate with anyone, to engage in usual activities until the end of the initiation. Each girl is also taken away from her family and placed in a walled off dark corner or secluded part of the house where no one will communicate with her. Then the girls are also gathered in groups under the leadership of an experienced old woman who teaches them feminine, sacred crafts and sciences (weaving, weaving, knitting, childbirth), initiates them into the cult of fertility, and teaches them the art of love.

Forest, darkness, jungle are a symbol of the “afterlife”, death, entry into cosmic Night, primordial Chaos, i.e. the return of the beginning of the cycle. A teenager must symbolically die as a Child and be born as an Adult, to start a new cycle. The hut for initiation is a symbol of the mother’s womb, it is part of the difficult trials and learning of myths about the origin of the world, secret traditions of the tribe, secret names of gods, etc., which are known only to adults, that is, initiation into the ideology and social institutions of the tribe.

The main theme of initiation is the experience of sacrificial death. Initiates are buried in the ground, sometimes covered with dry trees, given the appropriate color, in some tribes initiates imitate the behavior of the dead. This experience is associated with severe, sometimes cruel trials that the initiate must endure. These are ritual tortures, such as whipping, beating, circumcision, tooth extraction, starvation, sleep deprivation, etc. Then follows the experience of rebirth, a new birth, the birth of oneself in a different capacity. Initiates are given new names, taught new, secret words, languages, sometimes they are taught to walk anew, fed like babies, that is, they imitate the behavior of newborns.

Initiation ends with a grand celebration in which the community welcomes and honors its new members, treating them as mature, adults, socializing and affirming their new role, new identity.


Recently, a number of psychologists and researchers have developed methods and psychotechnologies based on the practice of initiations. An example can be the “Vision Quest” training seminar, developed back in 1973 by Thomas Penkson (USA). He used the eponymous American Indian ceremonies and rites of passage in his work with children, adolescents, youth and drug addicts. For the Indians, the Visionary Search accelerated their socio-psychological growth in a potentially crisis period of change and transition from youth to maturity, at the vital stage of forming the image of one’s self, self-identification in the soul.

T. Penkson’s seminar consisted of four stages.

The first is preparation, instruction, creation of a context and rules for working with the inner world, group training in the ability to see and accept one’s feelings, intuitions, dreams, fears and their correlation with external reality and the life of the individual.

The second is purification, fasting and washing, letting go of ordinary, self-centered consciousness.

The third is a period of solitude and isolation in the wilderness where participants enter a special state of consciousness induced by ceremonies, fasting, relinquishing the structure of their normative reality, and experiencing what it means to be a natural being in a natural world.

All this allows you to get in touch with the deeper levels of their being, and, having gone through your fears, worries and repressed emotions, examine your belief systems and guidelines, think about the questions: “who am I?”, “where am I going?”, “what am i doing with my life?”.

The fourth stage is a collective celebration of the newly acquired sense of self and a ceremony of reunification with the social world. It is the interpretation and integration of the experiences of the Visionary Quest into current life.

After going through emotional cleansing, course participants often discover and/or strengthen their inner resources, abilities and skills to cope with stress (adult stress, i.e. get a pass into adulthood) and fear of the unknown. Successfully experiencing difficulties in experience confirms and affirms the hidden strength of the individual (that is, the birth of a mature “I”). Participants talk about deeper trust in themselves, confidence in themselves and how they and the universe jointly create their life and destiny. People begin to treat themselves and others better, find a sense of optimism about managing their lives.

This information is not a purely speculative, conceptual theory from books, on the contrary, it is an experienced inner knowledge of oneself and one’s reality. There is a change in many stereotypes of the system of ideas and limiting behavioral patterns. “Participants finished the workshop with a deep sense of personal, social and spiritual identification. It was a real, direct feeling of one’s “I”, based on direct experience. Along with this, there was a strong understanding of the purpose of life and a conscious, experienced determination to “live like an adult warrior”, that is, taking full responsibility for one’s actions in all areas of one’s life” (T. Penkson).


Studies in the depth of psychology and mythology (K.G. Jung, M. Eliade, S. Grof) show that the experience of “death – rebirth”, “transition” is an archetypal process, that is, a manifestation of the mechanisms of the unconscious (“collective unconscious” according to K. H. Jung). This means that the “rite of passage”, initiation corresponds to the dynamics of archetypal processes (and is its expression) during the period of personality development.

That is, it can be said that adolescence has its own archetypal themes, situations, needs, and psychological states. They will spontaneously manifest in adolescence in one form or another. These are topics such as: escape/care from home, independence, risk, independence, desire to test/test oneself, affirmation of oneself in a new quality, affirmation of oneself in a group of one’s own kind, destruction of parental stereotypes and preferences for parents, encountering chaos and aspiration go through it, sexuality, testing yourself with pain, looking for an example, imitating a hero, exploits, etc.

It is interesting to note how these themes are manifested in the lives of modern teenagers – in cultures where there is no institution of initiation. Indeed, these are also teenage gangs, with their cruel rules and rituals, sexual debauchery, tattooing and self-examination, worshiping pop and sports idols, “heroism”, “feats”, rebellion against parental authority, interests in themes of death and chaos (specific styles of rock music, cinema) etc.

As you can see, these themes find their expression, but mostly in chaotic, destructive forms. All these can be considered as surrogates of initiation or pseudo-initiation. Our culture, which does not have meaningful rituals of initiation, does not get the psycho-social-spiritual means to support an individual who is going through the process of personal change.

Rituals of passage, initiations of archaic cultures played outside the unconscious, allowing them to be met consciously, thus relieving the inner tension characteristic of this age. They directed, accompanied and socialized this unconscious flow, creating a safe context for its manifestation. A teenager is obviously not able to cope with the influx of these archetypal forces in a constructive way on his own, hence the need to create socio-psychological analogues of initiation for modern teenagers. As we have already mentioned, this problem is partially being solved with the help of modern methods used in practice (trainings and seminars).

This problem has another interesting aspect. Recently, the term “parentectomy” has appeared in psychotherapy to denote the procedure of freeing a late adolescent from parental bonds, attitudes. A “late teenager” in this case can be a person of quite solid age who was never able to become psychologically and personally mature, “stuck” in infantile dependence on parents or strong dependence on the opinion of others. Obviously, he never passed his “initiation of growing up”, did not die as a child and was not born as an adult independent personality. This is the main problem of worrying about one’s own fate, which takes a lot of strength.


5th International Conference (September 17 – 23, 2012, Ukraine)