The Strange World of Emotion

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Rites  of  Passage

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Integrating Trauma

There is a bleak region of consciousness within each person, and it is a potent source of conflict. This is the abyss of nihilism. I understand the concept of nihilism to mean that a person cannot find any fixed or essential values built into life. The only purpose of life appears to be survival. Life seems to be meaningless.

The nihilism of Western Europe seems to be absent from other societies that are looked down upon as being tribal or aboriginal or even primitive. [¹]

Sub - Headings
Death and rebirth
Psychotherapy and rites

The main indicator that nihilism exists in society is the occurrence of the various forms of madness.  Yet within non-Western societies insanity is still an undeniable reality. So how do they manage to escape nihilism ?

Many forms of madness originate in the experience of psychological trauma in early childhood, and so I call this experience "infancy trauma". This distress occurs when the stresses and negative states of mind of the parents’ own lives are transmitted to the fledgling ego of the infant. Even when infancy trauma is mild and not noticeable, it still sensitises the child to any future psychological disturbance that may happen to it once it has grown into adulthood. [²]

In my view, infancy trauma occurs even in tribal and aboriginal societies. The way that such societies assimilate childhood problems is by putting the children through the rituals of rites of passage.

In their book ‘The Human Encounter With Death’, Grof and Halifax compare the rites of passage of native cultures with psycho-therapy, together with the use of psychedelic drugs within a therapeutic setting. Rites of passage are emotionally-intense rituals which are designed to transform the belief systems of individuals. These rites are performed at important stages of an individual’s life, such as puberty, marriage, birth of children, old age and dying. [³]

The first rite, at puberty, is the most important one. Typically the rite begins by separating the neophyte from his social network. Without his accustomed social support he begins to feel fear, especially fear of the unknown. He is then taught his society’s mythology by the presiding shaman. In the second stage of ritual he begins to undergo intense emotional experiences and learns to interpret them according to his new mythological values. Sometimes psychedelic drugs are used. Finally the neophyte constructs a new conceptual world-view and is re-integrated into his community.

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Death and Rebirth

The central feature of the first rite is the psychological enactment of symbolic death and rebirth. During this process the neophyte is likely to engage in a review of his life, using mythological symbols to understand it.

By comparing rites with the results of death-rebirth scenarios that are produced in Western individuals by psychedelic drugs, I assume that the life review will predominantly bring into consciousness any traumatic and disturbing incidents from childhood. For this to happen, the rites have to be very intense.  To be effective, rites have to reach far enough down into the subconscious mind so that they can connect with early trauma. Then childhood trauma will be re-enacted as a fight against demons. The use of myth as the means of interpretation prevents any repercussions on family relationships.

In the death-rebirth struggle, enormous amounts of destructive and sexual material rise into consciousness. Immature and sorrowful beliefs and attitudes, buried in the subconscious mind since childhood, are re-experienced. When the neophyte successfully assimilates this stage he passes into transpersonal experiences of bliss, cosmic unity, or other features of higher consciousness.

Now it becomes possible to understand the true purpose of rites of passage. The first rite at adolescent puberty is the most important one of all. During this rite the neophyte, if he is successful, learns to overcome and sublimate infancy trauma!  His ego and its belief systems, containing psychotic beliefs intermingled with naive social beliefs, are swept away into symbolic death. His rebirth is the symbolic birth of a ‘new’ ego with beliefs that are now harmonious towards his society. The death and rebirth scenario is actually the death and rebirth of belief systems, so that the ego completely re-orientates itself to a new system of values.

Later rites will focus more on maintaining harmony with nature and the stages of social participation (marriage, children, etc), but such harmony will be prevented till the de-stabilising effects of childhood have been worked through. Rites of passage, especially at adolescence, are the methods whereby ‘natural’ societies resolve infancy trauma and other important social issues.

During the first rites ceremony, emotions and beliefs swing between terror, excitement, sorrow and bliss. This indicates that abreaction is occurring. The process ends in a conversion experience, with the successful inculcation of a new belief system. [4]

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Psycho-therapy and Rites

Western society has no standard equivalent to rites of passage except psycho-analysis, but this takes years. In the view of Grof and Halifax, the combined use of short-term psycho-therapy with sessions of psychedelic drugs produces results that are comparable to rites (so long as there is a supportive network available for the client). Perhaps this is the direction that Western culture has to go. On the other hand, psychedelic drugs are not for everyone. [5]

The pace of social change in western societies is increasing with each generation. This means that the psychological pressures on people are also increasing. Hence the effects of infancy trauma will likewise increase in intensity too.

The problem seems to be that without a viable alternative to rites then Western society is only going to get more violent in each succeeding generation as the pace of social change intensifies.


The number in brackets at the end of each reference takes you back to the paragraph that featured it.  For the addresses of my websites, see the Links page.

[¹]. I explain nihilism both from a psychological view and a philosophical view. For the first, see the article Psychology of Nihilism, on my website Patterns of Confusion. For the latter, there is an article on Nihilism on my website A Modern Thinker, in the section on Free Will. [1]

[²]. Infancy trauma is my name for psychological trauma that occurs in the first years of childhood. An article on Bonding focuses on some problems of a sensitive child and explains an unintentional source of infancy trauma.

In more detail, infancy trauma is explained in two articles on my website Patterns of Confusion. The first article, Vulnerability of the Ego, focuses on the origins of violence. And the second one, Guilt & Meaning - part 2, centres on why trauma can occur unintentionally. [2]

[³]. Grof, Stanislov and Halifax, Joan. The Human Encounter With Death. Dutton, New York, 1977. [3]

[4]. My in-depth analysis of the process of abreaction is given in the five articles on Abreaction. See home page.

The process of conversion is treated in the article The Conversion Experience. The same article also describes the abreactions of narcissism and jealousy.

In two other articles I consider some forms of religious phenomena that induce a ‘conversion’ experience. I look at the techniques of religious preachers such as John Wesley, and at rituals centred on non-stop dancing, as practised, for example, by American Indians and Moslem Sufis.
I also note the effects of the mammoth acid-rock music festivals of the hippie period in the 1960s and 1970s. For example, the 1969 Woodstock festival.
See the articles Drugs & Dancing & Conversion, and Romanticism and Evangelism and Abreaction, on my website Patterns of Confusion. [4]

[5]. Some of the problems of personal change in a fast-changing world are examined in the article Conflict and Change, on my website Discover Your Mind[5]

Home List of  Articles Links Top of Page

The articles in this section are :

Confusion - snags and pitfalls of the idealist ; beginning a new quest.

Antithetical Thoughts - voices and unpleasant thoughts.

Alienation - effects of living in a society which is spiritually poor ; stupor.

Justification - from old identities to new ones ; causality & motivation.

Character Transformation - from instability to stability to flexibility.

Reversal of Values - disjunctive states of mind ; ideal mother image.

Rites of Passage - escaping nihilism by using emotional rituals.

The copyright is mine, and the articles are free to use. They can be reproduced anywhere, so long as the source is acknowledged.

Copyright © 2002 Ian Heath
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Ian Heath
London, UK

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