Retirement as a Rite of Passage

by | Retirement

There is a need to mark important transitions in life, retirement being a major one.  It used to be a party and a gold clock or set of golf clubs. But is/was that enough? I still remember my first boss after the retirement presentation, with a cardboard box of possessions, looking forlorn as he left his place of work for the last time.

My doctoral research developed from an interest in Rites of Passage (van Gennep, 1960). Indigenous ancestors used a rite of passage to move individuals through life stages, to mark important transitions such as the move to adulthood, and in becoming an elder.

This is the first of a 2-article series where I consider how to mark retirement. This first article explains more about a Vision Quest which is a noted rite of passage from many cultures and religions.

In this article I’m going to talk you through the stages of the Vision Quest, if you have read Transitions, by William Bridges, (1996) you will be aware that you start with an ending, and letting go, move through the neutral zone (the liminal space) until a new beginning is reached.

What is a Vision Quest?

A vision quest is a ceremony to facilitate change and to help people to move from one stage of their life through to the next. The quest is a liminal state with deep listening and prolonged daydreaming.

The word liminal is from the Latin for threshold. You are severed from the familiar and the everyday – caffeine, phone, watch, food. You have time alone to reflect on your life – the challenges, difficulties, questions about a sense of direction, a consideration of the past. You don’t try and figure it out, you just listen and experience. After 4 days, on return to base camp you tell your story so you can fully hear it and embrace it.

Why I did my first Vision Quest

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We must all follow our vision quest to discover ourselves, and to find our relationship with the world around us.

I completed my first Vision Quest in July 2019, the day after my interview for a place on the doctoral programme. People complete vision quests for different reasons, often to mark a break, a transition from one part of your life to another. Another reason is for a ‘time out’ to consider a question.

I was at a point in my life where I wanted to think again on my life purpose but this time to do it in nature. I want to get in touch with the deeper part of who I am. You may think this would come easy to me, it is an area I work on with my clients, I use psychometric tools and interesting exercises alongside coaching. It’s quite a traditional, and effective approach and yes, I have done it on myself, but now time for a different way. It was also a time to mark the end of my marriage and the start of my new life and to think deeply on what my research focus of my doctoral study should be, if I was to be successful.

I wanted to escape the noise and chatter of my daily life and listen to my inner voice. I’d spent too long looking for the answer via books and other sources of external knowledge. The answer would be within me.

The 3 stages of a Vision Quest

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Stage 1 Severance (letting go)

This process starts before the Quest, I had to write a letter of intention and create a 10-page autobiography. This severance phase is a time of preparation, held at base camp. As part of a small group, we prepare and get clear on what we need to say goodbye to, what we are letting go of. Whilst at base camp we have 4 days to prepare – mentally, physically, psychologically. We learn about the 4 shields, and that on the Vision Quest we focus on one direction per day. These four days of preparation allow us to slow down, we do nature awareness exercises and find our place for our solo fast.

Stage 2 Threshold – The Vision Fast (the liminal or neutral zone)

In this stage we spend 4 days and 4 nights living on our own in the wild – we take water, (5 litres per day) but no food for this time. When I first heard this, I said I can barely go 4 hours without food, never mind 4 days. But as I reflected on this, I felt it was a fear. People do fast, why can’t I do it? I’ll be alone with my thoughts. A lot of time to think. No technology, no watch. I’ll judge the passing of time by the movement of the sun.

How many of us really listen to the sound of the wind and look closely at trees and plants? Before I left, I was looking forward to being away from all distractions; to have nature to guide me and help me find my vision. We travel light, no tent, but a tarp to make a crude shelter. A journal and pen to make notes and any essentials that I’m happy to carry.

Day 1 we face South

… and connect with the emotions of the child within us. This is the day to set up camp so likely to get dirty. We can be a child. This first night we do a ‘death lodge ceremony’, a way to deal with unfinished business we may have with people.

Day 2 we face West

 and consider the shadow side. We look into the darkness at what is hidden – hidden gifts too. We need to internalise this. We can take our inner child with us, to bring in humour and have fun.

Day 3 we look at the North

We look at what is our purpose, what we want to do with our life. We can also make gifts for the other people on the vision quest, to give them when we return to basecamp.

Day 4 we face East

 and focus on spirit. This is the day around creativity, inspiration. Maybe we write poetry. It all depends on what we are dealing with. We will close one part of our life and start a new one. This is also the day we create a purpose ceremony. We will balance our shields and find the focus on the next phase on life.

During this time on our own we have support from base camp, from holding the space to practical help if we are in need of anything. But this is not a time for conversation.

Stage 3 – Incorporation

The 4 days on our own, out in nature allows us the break from technology and all other commitments to focus on the question. For many it is – what am I going to do with my life, but it can also make a clear break between the old life and the new. It could be the retirement transition, or now having an ‘empty nest’, after divorce, or perhaps learning of, or recovering from a major illness.

After 4 days we return to base camp, we get food, and get ‘back into our bodies’. This is time for us to share our story, and to help make sense of what we experienced. Whilst away we’ve been making notes in our journal, they don’t always make sense to us so it helps to talk out loud at base camp with a Vision Quest guide.

And then we leave and return home. People want to know what’s happened, BUT we can’t share our story with anyone, except the other people on our Vision Quest for 12 months. We need to let our story and experience develop and grow. We also rewrite our diary every 3 months, and we learn more about ourselves on each re-write.

I’m now a Vision Quest Guide

I’ve certainly made some significant changes in my 60s – from the end of a 20+ year marriage, buying a wood and alongside my doctoral studies I’ve been an apprentice vision quest guide and completed my second Vision Quest.

Through the combination of my academic studies and this apprenticeship I have become interested in how a Vision Quest could be used to enable people to mark the transition into retirement, or indeed the step before, to give people the space to answer a question on what next in their life.

I’m now ready to lead my own Vision Quests with a special focus on people in their 50s and beyond. If this makes you wonder if maybe this is for you and you’d like more information let me know.

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I’d love to send you a series of articles to get you thinking of your wider life. You will also receive my mid-week 50+ update and the Amazing People newsletter.
Denise Taylor

Chief Inspiration Officer, The 50 Plus Coach.