Ceremony - The Breaking of Sticks
It was a perfect spring evening as we sat around the glowing campfire. We welcomed the occasional wisps of cold, memories of winter’s frozen march, as the days grew longer under the sun’s gaze. It would not be long before the stubborn sunburnt evenings reminded us to be more grateful for a night like tonight.
Our current group, an eclectic mix of adolescent boys hailing from homes scattered from coast to coast, sat mesmerized by the flames. As dusk unfurled, draping everything in a gentle shade of black, one of the boys took a thumb-thick branch of juniper and uttered the words signaling an impending ceremony.
He asked, “Is anyone opposed to the breaking of the stick?”
Letting dusk further blanket the campsite, he paused, waiting to make sure that all were ready. With no objections, he eased the wood until it let out the loud “Crack” as its fibers unzipped.
He then whispered, “Moment of silence… hands open when you’re ready.”
He paused again; waiting for the open handed cues that meant his peers were ready to proceed. Thanks to the fire whirring and whooshing as it fed off the kindling, each boy’s face caught the light. Looking around the circle revealed a wide pallet of responses to this process. The winter-forged veterans, having seen hundreds of these ceremonies over the course of their days, each had a ritual to fill these moments. Some practiced mindful breathing, helping them tune into the present moment, others let themselves glaze over getting lost in the dancing flames. One of the newer members, bit down on the back of his index finger, forcing himself to respect the group’s silence despite his anxiety.
After nearly a minute, which felt like hours to some, ten hands lay opened to the flame; the first part of the ceremony had ended and the group discussion could begin…
We begin with this story because it describes the most foundational ceremonial group practiced at Evoke. It is a simple, meaningful, and accessible ceremony, and it is one of the first that our students are invited to lead. It is also the most prolific. We ascribe metaphor to the actions therein, and ask that participants in a ‘sticks group’ (or group therapy) elevate themselves to a higher level of emotional safety.
Ceremonies or rites of passage mark or signify the passage of time or a significant event in a person’s life. Ceremonies or rites of passage are used to mark birthdays, baptisms, communion, graduation, Bar (or Bat) Mitzvah’s, weddings, retirement, death, and funerals. Ceremonies are also associated with sporting events like the Olympics, seasonal changes like the winter solstice, or the inauguration of an elected official. Rites of passages are plentiful in the Boy/Girl Scouts and the military. Today’s rites of passage can also include when a person gets their first iPod or car; or when they sign up for their first Facebook or Instagram account. Rites of passage have shifted with some people suggesting they have been de-emphasized in today’s culture.
In Wilderness Therapy we see ceremony and ritual as a vital part of the process. To us, ceremony is a process that transports and transforms. In the case of a ‘sticks group’ (the ceremony described in the story above), each participant is invited to step into a more sacred, more intentional space… a space that they themselves create and maintain.
In teaching this ceremony we first describe the heartwood. By breaking the stick, we expose its heartwood. Despite being the hardest, most dense part of the wood, the heartwood is also the most vulnerable. When it is exposed and not taken care of, the branch often dies. This parallels the act of opening ones’ self up and helps explain the necessity for emotional safety. If others do not respect our acts of vulnerability, we often wither as well.
Additionally, the dialogue offers choices at each level of this process. Initially, each participant is asked if they are open to the breaking of the stick… if they are open and willing to safeguard vulnerability. Again, after the stick is broken, they are given time to reflect on this choice and signal when they are ready to participate. As this is first and foremost an invitation, a participant may leave at any point in this therapeutic process if they are not, or others feel that they are not, contributing to an emotionally safe environment.
Furthermore, the position of the hand following the moment of silence also has meaning. We open the group with hands making a gesture that represents giving. Each of the participants is asked to give, at a minimum, respect to the therapeutic process that follows. Depending on the conversation that occurs after the ‘sticks group’ is open, participants are typically invited to share their own vulnerabilities, experiences, and emotions.
The “breaking of sticks” is one type of ceremony participants experience in the wilderness. Others are initiated to mark the transition from one program phase to another; for example, when a participant joins his or her group they are transitioned from the “front country” to Earth Phase or the initial step in the program. They also create ceremonies as they move from Earth Phase to Fire Phase, Fire Phase to Water Phase, and so on. Typically, these ceremonies become more elaborate or meaningful to match the meaning of the step or process being acknowledged or celebrated. Other rites of passage include solo ceremonies, welcome ceremonies, ‘letting go’ ceremonies, transition ceremonies, and goodbye ceremonies.
One of the more powerful ceremonies for young people in the wilderness is the goodbye ceremony, a celebration of one of the group moving on to the next step in their therapeutic process. Often this includes the entire group, the staff team, the person leaving, and their parents. The boy’s peers will share memories, give feedback, provide encouragement, and reminisce about their time in Wilderness. One parent recently noted to her son, “You can take the boy out of the wilderness, but you can’t take the wilderness out of the boy” as she shared her appreciation for the work she saw her son doing. The goodbye ceremony is a powerful transition that not only provides closure as the group says goodbye to a friend, but also marks the culmination of growth that the young man or woman undertook while at Evoke.
…As the discussion wound down, some of the boys looked around anxiously, waiting for someone to close the group.
Noticing this, he picked up the two jagged fragments of the juniper branch and asked, mirroring the words in the opening ceremony, “Is anyone opposed to the tossing of the stick?”
A third time that evening he paused, giving space to anyone who might have a last thought. This time, a round of tender “No’s” escaped from each of the boys in the circle. The group was ready to leave what was shared in the emotionally heightened state that they had engaged in for the past hour and a half.
With a sigh, he breathed, “Ok, stick one tossed… moment of silence. Hands closed when you are done.”
He threw the shorter half of the branch onto the swarming flames, and most of the boys watched the juniper kaleidoscope from green to black to grey. This time only a few of the seasoned boys had their eyes closed, engaged in their own breathing rituals. The boys who had shared more took more time with the silence. They let it wash over them as they inscribed the stories to their memories. All the anxiety had dissipated from the first moment of silence to this one; leaving just the calmness that comes with deep, steady thoughts and connections made through vulnerability.
As all ten hands came to rest facing the flames, leaving behind what had been shared, the boy threw the remaining branch into the heart of the group.
“Stick two tossed,” he said softly, “…thank you, group closed."