Admittedly, this is an unusually long article and is on a relatively unusual topic. After many requests and some personal reflection I have agreed to share some of the Indigenous teachings that I have learned. I hope this information gives you some perspective and patience with yourself and all of those in your life.
In the Wisdom Teachings of my First Nation’s (Native American) ancestors and relations, life is understood to have four stages. They are childhood, adolescence, adulthood, and Elder-hood. In this tradition many wisdom teachings are organized around what we call the Medicine Wheel; which is a reflection of Nature.
This teaching helps us relate to ourselves by accepting and more deeply investigating where (when) we actually are in life. It also helps us relate to and support others in our life by helping us accept and learn about the stage of life they are in.
Another teaching asks us to explore the experience of transformation that must occur for anyone shifting from one stage of life to the next. In modern life we refer to this experience as a puberty. Strangely, modern culture only acknowledges one puberty and tends to frame the experience as negative, immature, self-centered and ‘just one of those things’ we must go through in life.
From a traditional cultural perception there are four puberties, or times in life when each of us will consciously (or unconsciously) or resist going through these essential and transformative opportunities. We can choose to embrace the teachings of each of these rites of passage or we can distract ourselves to the point that we actually skip past these opportunities to grow and become a whole person. I have seen people in midlife finding themselves going through their second and third puberty at the same time; creating what we call today a mid-life crisis.
Becoming a Participant
The nature of our first puberty is pretty obvious. Our bodies change profoundly and our interests go from toys and playtime to choosing our social group (clique) and chasing girls or boys. The relatively terrifying part of this experience is not having any control over the final outcome of our appearance. Which is especially challenging in a society that puts so much value on how we look.
Traditionally, your first puberty is a celebration of beginning the journey towards adulthood. A ceremony is held where you make certain commitments to your people and to yourself. In most indigenous cultures, your level of self-respect is determined the respect you earn through being honest and fulfilling both day-to-day and spiritual obligations like vision questing and honoring other traditional ways. In my people’s language the word that is often translated as “I” actually means “this one of”.
It is at this time we would choose to become an apprentice to one of the four Wisdom Keepers. Today, that would look like choosing a career path. There is no time limit to this process as each person eventually finds their own way to participate in the community as an adult, or decide to be a child or an adolescent for the rest of their life.
Becoming an Adult
The second puberty usually happens between 28 and 32 years of age. It can come much sooner or much later. It is interesting to me that Western Astrology includes a transformative and challenging time called “Saturn Return” at the age of 28. It is the time of becoming an adult. From a traditional and historical perspective this rite of passage would celebrate your consistent ability to help take care of the people, especially your Elders and your children. At this time you would be given a new name and a mentor who carries an appropriate and special skill would adopt you as a relative and teach you what they knew.
There is a very potent and personal aspect of this puberty that is especially challenging in the modern world. Traditionally, this rite of passage is about coming into your autonomy. This can only happen when you stop looking outside of yourself to know who you are. Today, as young people (15 – 30) our social lives and social ‘scenes’ help define us. In modern life you may choose to be a party animal, an athlete, an intellectual person, a very spiritual/religious person or any other possibility or blend of possibilities. Who we spend time with, the cloths we wear, the music we listen to and the kind of conversations we have give us a sense of where we fit into our particular society. Historically it was the same – it just looked a lot different.
At some point though, each of us will finds ourselves spending a lot of time with people who got to their second puberty in very different ways. Think of all the comedy style movies about two people with very different backgrounds going from mutual disdain to respect, friendship and mutual reliance. At some point each of us must go through the growing pains of trusting ourselves to move into life and to move through life from the inside out more than the outside in. This becomes the experience of self-awareness, self-respect and self-trust that we call autonomy.
Becoming a Mentor
The third puberty usually happens between 45 and 50 years of age. Historically speaking, if you made it this far in life and could still take care of the people, all of the Elders, all of the children and your own family you must be doing something right. This puberty celebrates the letting go of some youthful things and taking on more responsibilities in your community. Choosing to mentor an adolescent into adulthood becomes an essential calling. Passing on the skills, knowledge, experiences and wisdom that you have gained can become an invaluable resource for all of your people. This puberty encourages you to develop the patience and communication skills to engage in long term community projects. Things that, today, look like going into local politics or joining a community support group. One of the greater challenges of these kinds of endeavors is to build a sense of recognition and popularity without losing one’s autonomy.
Becoming an Elder
The fourth puberty usually happens around 60 – 70 years of age. From a historical perspective, maybe one in three people who became accepted adults would have lived long enough to become Elders. Traditionally speaking, Elders are venerated as a precious community resource. Actually, in the Dineh (Navajo) language, the term we use to describe a good (spiritual) life is Sa’ah Naghai Bik’eh Hozho, which roughly translates as “to find beauty in the way that is unique to you, while becoming a skilled and wise Elder”.
This puberty asks us to cultivate even more patience. One of the gifts Elders bring to a community is a lifelong experience with finding balance in relationships, usually through the guidance of their Elders. Elders naturally become the go-to people for individuals, families and clans that are in conflict find peace and harmony again. Another gift and challenge of this puberty is to find and express forgiveness to all those who have wronged us and to forgive ourselves for those we have wronged. The true Elders, the ones who have completely come to a sense of peace and compassion, naturally become the Spiritual leaders of a community without being given any sense of power or superiority. The Grandfathers and Grandmothers I have had the great fortune and honor to spend time with and learn from have been the greatest source of inspiration, guidance and comfort in my life.
Today, however, most people are terrified of old age. Today, most people think of retired people as an economic and social burden.
The reason I wrote this article on the four puberties is to bring your attention to where you are at in your life and to bring your attention to the importance of traditional rites of passage. It is the birthright of every human being to experience the freedom and autonomy that is held Sacred by all indigenous people. This experience of autonomy arise from a depth of self-awareness, self-respect and self-trust. Most, if not all Spiritual paths and indigenous cultures have traditions of committed times of retreat, practice and deep contemplation.
If you feel that you are experiencing a puberty in your life and feel that a rite of passage may be what is needed in your life I encourage you to seek out this profound opportunity.
My friends at the School of Sacred Arts are hosting an event, beginning August 22nd, called Tracing the Roots: Returning to Earth and Heart- A Yogic Vision Quest. I have agreed to help facilitate a part of this event. If you are interested, follow the link below.