Recovery as an Initiation Rite

In the two past decade I have studied male initiation rites. In fact I attended a remarkable male initiation performed by Father Richard Rohr in Julian, California. It was a very moving and powerful experience and resulted in the following insight about recovery as a rite of passage, as an initiation rite.

An initiation rite is an experiential event that helps one move through a rite of passage. The process facilitates the transition from one stage of life to another. It creates a personal transformation, a momentous metamorphosis – an experience after which one is never the same again. Its social structure reflects the norms of the culture and is typically organized by the elders of the community.

Some cultures use initiation rites to help boys become men. Other cultures have initiation rites for girls as well. Rohr (1992) noted the following based on his review of the anthropological literature, “It seems that it is only the recent West that has deemed it unnecessary to initiate young men. Other wise, culture after culture felt that if the young man was not introduced to the mysteries, he would not know what to do with his pain and would almost always abuse his power.”

The absence of traditions like these in our culture is problematic. We have lost sight of their importance. We are left to discover our own way, to let life initiate us, to find our own path through many confusing cultural expectations and misleading family rules.

Our lack of a focus on “being” instead of “having” in our culture has devastating effects. Addictions of all kinds are rampant and tearing families apart. The divorce rate continues to rise, suicide rates for teenagers and young adults are at an all time high, anti-depressant medication and anxiolytic medications are being prescribed by general practitioners at an unprecedented rate. Jails are overcrowded, and yet crime is on the rise. Stress related physical symptoms account for the majority of medical problems presented to family doctors. We objectify ourselves and others. Women are viewed as sex objects, while men are viewed as success objects.

We are stuck in this muck. But there is hope. We, human beings, are seekers. Our basic need is to grow and self-actualize. There are many ways to free ourselves from this insanity. Therapy is one path. Recovery is another. In fact I believe the main therapeutic effect of the 12 Steps is to help us discover our lost, true self.

Initiation rites progress through very distinct stages, just like recovery. Let’s look at the stages of an initiation rite and see how they relate to the program of Alcoholics  Anonymous and the 12 Steps.
Initiation rites occur in a liminal space that is created specifically for the experience. Initiation rites typically involve four psychological experiences. They are: 1) Purgative, 2) Illuminative, 3) Integrative, and 4) Unitive. I will define each and how they relate to recovery, but before I do I will discuss liminal space.

Liminal Space

The creation of a liminal space, a sacred space, is critical for an initiation rite. It is a special reality created by removing the person from usual surroundings and placing them in a unique environment with a different set of norms and rules, which are quite alien to the initiate’s consciousness. This has a planned, disorienting effect.

Initiation rites for boys often begin in the dead of night. They are awakened and escorted to a spot far away from the village – this becomes the liminal space where they will be challenged to confront themselves and their fears like never before. They will discuss things that they have never discussed openly. This sacred atmosphere allows the elders to create experiences and ordeals that transform boys into men.

Recovery occurs in a liminal space too. Meetings of Alcoholics Anonymous create a sacred space which is quite different than other social gatherings. For the newcomer it is like being Alice in Wonderland, everything that isn’t – is, and everything that is – isn’t. True and honest speaking sets the tone for A. A. meetings. Members are encouraged to openly and honestly, discuss their problems, their failures, their disappointments, their shattered dreams, their doubts, their despair, their self-centeredness, their selfishness, their immaturity, their insecurities, their dishonesty, their grandiosity, their fears and limitations, and their hopes and successes. Feelings none of us would dare openly discuss in public. Honesty, open mindedness and willingness are critical elements of the liminal space that is created in A.A. meetings.


The first phase of an initiation rite for boys is to purge them of their boyish spirit and immaturity, of their “Imperial self.” Their self-centeredness, their sense of over importance, and their ego centricity needs to be deconstructed. Their limited self-concept and narrow understanding of life is confronted head on in this process. The “Imperial self” is shattered as the boy comes face to face with his limitations through taxing physical and mental challenges, through confronting intense personal suffering and pain. Through being wounded and bleeding, he learns humility. He learns that he is at once less than he thought he was, and more than he thought he was. This deconstruction is necessary to become a man.

The first of the 12 Steps confronts the alcoholic in a very similar way. It challenges what Vern Johnson described as the alcoholic’s “sincere delusion,” the belief that he or she can control the use of alcohol. This is a paradoxical intervention. The alcoholic surrenders to their powerlessness, to gain freedom from their fatal malady.

But the First Step doesn’t stop there – it goes on to further deflate the alcoholic’s ego or “Imperial self” by shattering his or her reliance on their false-self. This is a very difficult for the alcoholic to accept, but necessary.

Surrendering is critical to recovery and leads the alcoholic to an acceptance of being powerlessness over alcohol and that their life has become unmanageable. This creates a deep sense of hopelessness and despair. This hopelessness and despair is therapeutic. Bill Wilson described the experience as “deflation at depth.”

This is an essential experience in the process of recovery. The alcoholic must be convinced without a doubt or reservation that he or she is suffering from an illness caused by “an allergy of the body and an obsession of the mind.” The idea that an alcoholic can drink like a normal person has to be completely smashed. Bill Wilson recognized the following relationship between hopelessness and recovery. He stated that “Recovery is based upon a spiritual experience set upon a pedestal of hopelessness.”
As in any effective form of therapy, when an unhealthy solution is removed, something better must replace it or we will return to what we know. This is exactly what happens in the next stage of the initiation process as well as in the next stage of recovery.


This phase of the initiate process introduces the initiate to the mysteries of life. It tells the young man what is worth suffering for and what is truly glorious to die for (Rohr, 2007). An important part of this phase of the initiate’s experience is his relationship with the elders. Once the boy has started to let go of his Imperial self, the self-centeredness and other ideas connected to his immaturity, he becomes open to learning.

Lessons are taught and realized through the experiences that force the boy to confront the limitations of his consciousness. Elders provide a context or world view to help him assimilate these new experiences and expand his consciousness. They help the young man in understanding the most important things about life and manhood. By providing an experiential context, the initiation rite grounds maturation in the process of learning from experience, and in the value of having an enlightened witness in your corner.

This process is very similar to what takes place in Alcoholics Anonymous meetings and through AA Sponsorship. AA provides a framework through the 12 Steps to convert weakness into strength, suffering into knowledge, and vulnerability into an asset. The Steps systematically create a momentum of personal transformation that is hard to stop once it begins.

The collective consciousness and wisdom of the AA group becomes a valuable resource to understanding the mysteries of recovery and life. Through AA sponsorship, the newcomer is mentored in recovery, similar to how the boy is mentored by elders. The sponsor becomes the newcomer’s personal guide to the 12 Steps. One drunk talking to another is a cornerstone of the AA program.


In order for wisdom to be useful it must be integrated into behavior. It cannot be a purely an idea or intellectual exercise. It must be pragmatic, it must be relevant to the desired outcome of the initiation. In the case of the boy he must learn things that will help him claim his place, as a man, in his society. Initiation is always about transforming. Rohr (2007) believes the essential messages of a male initiation must communicate the following:

  • Life is hard – if convinced of this early in life a man will not waste time trying to avoid it or search for the easiest possible way. He will learn how to turn weakness into strength, pain into knowledge, doubt into certainty. He will be able to respond to what life expects from him rather than to impose unrealistic expectations on life and then get angry when others refuse to cooperate with his nonsense.
  • You are going to die – the certainty and reality of one’s death must be made very real. The young man must live as one who has already died the first death and is not protecting himself from the second. Suffering is part of the deal.
  • You are not that important – humility is of central importance  for truth and happiness in this world. Humility keeps a man rightly situated in the world. Littleness or ignorance or making a mistake is nothing to be denied or disguised or ashamed of, but rather gives a basis for all community, family and service
  • You are not in control – the illusion of control must be surrendered by a deep experience of one’s own powerlessness. Usually, only suffering accomplishes this task, especially unjust suffering or struggling with things one cannot change.
  • Your life is not about you – an initiated man realizes that his life is a part of something much bigger than himself. This is the essential summary experience. Human experience takes on a dramatically different character. We call it spirituality or “holiness.”

These concepts reset the young man’s expectations. His perspective on life is transformed, it is enlarged, his consciousness expanded.

Working the 12 Steps results in exactly the same thing. For the man or woman who has descended into an alcoholic abyss, and who has surfaced on the other side, there is an ultimate new shape to the universe. Life is re-enchanted, life is re-calibrated or recovered, and now works in a way other than expected. The alcoholic finds a solution to their alcoholism that is embedded in a set of solid psychological and spiritual principles.


The final phase of an initiation rite involves reuniting the initiate to society. A ceremony marks the return of the boy to his society and he is now recognized and celebrated as a man. He is reunited to his community as a man who is now ready and willing to take his rightful place. He becomes a true citizen in the deepest sense of the word.

An essential therapeutic outcome of working the 12 Steps is that the alcoholic now reunites with his family and community and becomes a true citizen. He is no longer a liability, but becomes a respected member of the community, and an asset to his or her family.


As you have seen, the stages of recovery can be compared to the stages of an initiation rite.
During recovery, we are purged of our false-self (our defiant-self), and we are assisted in finding our lost, true-self. We learn to “be,” and live, life, based on a set of spiritual principles. Our consciousness is expanded and we discover a new purpose in life. And finally, during the process of recovery, we integrate many disowned parts of ourselves, and become re-united with our families and our communities.
The process is remarkable indeed. Recovery involves a personal transformation, a momentous metamorphosis – an experience after which we are never the same again.


Grimes, R. L. (2000). Deeply into the bone: Re-inventing rites of passage. University of California Press.
Rohr, R. (1992). The Wild Man’s Journey. St. Anthony Messenger Press.

Rohr, R. (2007). Personal communication.

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