Rough Initiations – Rites of Passage

December 29, 2023  •  Leave a Comment

Rough initiations is another term for rites of passage, which can be ceremonial events that mark important transitions in an individual’s life. A rough initiation refers to the challenging aspects of an initiation process or symbolic ritual. These events often involve the change of one’s social status, roles, or responsibilities within a family, group or community. Initiations are a common element within rites of passage, taking various forms or presentations. Challenges may involve physical and/or psychological challenges of endurance, meant to push an individual to achieve their full potential, capacity or limits. By overcoming these challenges, the individual can demonstrate their willingness and qualifications to accept new roles or responsibilities within a particular group or community. Rough initiations are integral to various cultures and traditions around the world, where they are often designed specifically to assess an individual’s strength, fortitude, courage, resilience, and loyalty to a group or community. Details and particulars for rough initiations vary widely, but most have the underlying purpose of facilitating personal growth, strengthening of social bonds, and promoting a sense of identity and worth within the group.

I don’t think that our current American culture offers much in the way of positive reinforcement of any real “coming of age” initiations or rites of passage. Common American initiations over the years have typically been the introductions of smoking cigarettes, drinking of alcohol, driving our first automobile, graduation from high school, and religious ceremonies of confirmation, bar/bat mitzvahs and other initiations that usher the individual into adulthood. Some of these previous examples other than the religious ones, can on some level be loosely interpreted as Francis Weller defined initiation, as “a contained encounter with death.” Upon further reading of Francis Weller’s Rough Initiations, what first started to catch my attention is that not everyone experiences things quite the same way. For what may be traumatic for one individual might be trivial or an inconvenience for another. My understanding of trauma beyond the actual definition of events that our done to someone mentally and physically that manifest suffering to the individual, is that trauma most often comes at us unwelcomed, unannounced and usually free of a monetary charge. Initiations (rough or otherwise) on the other hand, are often welcomed, announced well ahead of time, seen as acceptance into adulthood, and for some there may be a monetary reward or financial fee in order for the initiation to be held. Trauma is firsthand experiences or witnessing of physical injury/violence, abusive/toxic environments, death of a loved one, etc. Modern day rough initiations might be seen in religious ceremonies, the first hunt/fishing, cold/hot plunge, an intense mountain hike, college all-nighter, fasting, isolation, sleep deprivation and other tests that may challenge someone to perform at higher levels of physical activity and mental discipline. Basically, trauma comes to us, whereas we may pursue rough initiations, or so I have come to understand. We are all quite literally wired differently in regard to our own physiological nervous system, that often helps us to interpret stimuli as either positive or negative to mental, physical, and spiritual well-being. I do think that other cultures, may still hold their initiations of upmost importance, as I have come to learn more about that of indigenous peoples throughout the world.

This is not a new concept as we can see examples from ancient times, where groups such as the Spartans, Romans, Vikings, Samurai, Mongols, the Knights Templar, Benedictines, Franciscans, Native Indigenous people worldwide, secret societies, and perhaps many others have had their own particular initiations and rites of passage. In more modern times, rough initiations can still be found in various presentations, although they may not be as common or standardized as some traditional cultural practices. Here are some examples:

  1. Cultural or Social Initiations: Cultures, subcultures or social groups can have initiation rituals that require symbolic actions or engaging in challenging tasks that can range from endurance challenges to symbolic acts designed to demonstrate loyalty to the values of a group.
  2. Fraternity/Sorority Hazing: Many organizations discourage, restrict and even ban hazing, however some fraternities and sororities still include initiation rituals that can be physically or emotionally challenging.
  3. Sports Initiations: College and professional sports may have initiation rituals that involve rookies undergoing tasks or challenges, or participation in team-building events in order to demonstrate their commitment or loyalty to their team.
  4. Military Training: Military basic training involves physically and mentally challenging tasks needed to prepare recruits for the demanding risks they may encounter in their roles as soldiers. Initiation activities may include intense physical fitness routines, such as “hell week,” and other psychological stress events that help to build discipline, resilience and camaraderie.
  5. Specialized Training Programs: Elite military units, law enforcement agencies, first responder emergency teams and others may require their members to participate in stressful training which may be considered as extremely rough initiations, to ensure they are prepared for life and death situations.

Authors in the book and movie industry have played an enormous role in promoting this whole concept of rough initiations as can be seen in a seemingly endless stream of titles such as Star Wars, Harry Potter, Narnia, The Matrix and many, many others. Challenging initiations can help to cultivate a sense of belonging, camaraderie and commitment, however there is a nuanced relationship between beneficial rites of passage and detrimental hazing practices. Many organizations now deliberately discourage or restrict activities that can potentially put individuals at physical or mental risk, compromising their overall well-being. Most would agree that responsible and respectable initiation processes should focus on the individual’s personal growth, social connections, and instilling a positive sense of belonging.

Iron Palm training (strategic trauma or rough initiations)

Reading Rough Initiations brought some memories back from my first years in my martial arts (cult)ure and having experienced many initiations. I refer to it as such because at this time of the early 1980’s, American and Eastern cultures from China and Korea did not exactly assimilate well with each other in the conservative Midwest. One person’s culture can very well be seen as another’s cult. This can be quite apparent as seen today regarding one’s religious, philosophical, and sometimes political beliefs. Even facets in pop culture, social issues and sports can reflect this divide between perspectives of what trends seem to have their own culture. With the former being said, the martial arts community of years past was often viewed as having its own unique culture as demonstrated in its traditions, rituals, and ceremonies. My lineage did indeed focus beyond the basic goal of self-defense, due to the deep Taoist and Buddhist roots of my teachers. I was not quite aware of this before my first introductions, but I would soon learn that most martial arts systems are indeed rooted in having a series of initiations or tests, designed to bring an individual at least from being physically and mentally weak to that of enhanced physical and mental strength, and for those interested in cultivating higher spiritual awareness. I too have sought out rough initiations or “voluntary suffering” in what I would later learn to be called strategic trauma. Intense exercise, meditation, fasting, sensory deprivation, isolation and other methods of self-cultivation can be considered types of self-induced strategic trauma. “Iron palm” training is one such method of self-induced trauma that I did willfully partake in. Mental, physical and self-awareness benefits can be achieved from skillfully hitting bags of dried beans, and then applying medicinal herbs and acupressure techniques thereafter to promote healing. I think when others recognize an individual for having accepted these challenges either on their own volition or with the guidance, encouragement, and assistance from others, these events are now transformed into initiations. We as a group, consisting of my teachers, peers, and later my students under my guidance, did heavily invest in Weller’s five variables of initiations that are the same used to heal individual trauma. These variables are community, ritual, the sacred, time and place. These components can help stabilize and anchor our inner dialogue, when either coping with traumatic life-changing events or self-cultivation.

Iron Palm – Jing Well Acupressure lecture


Writings. (n.d.). Francis Weller.

Hewitt, D. (2021, November 27). 18 Memorable Coming of Age Rituals from History. History Collection.


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