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Opening Us to the Unexpected & Magical

by Abigail Brenner, MD

Journeys are one of the most powerful and literal tools for making passages because they manifest our internal drives and desires in the outside world. The journey is a deliberate effort to move beyond ourselves. We venture into unfamiliar territory to seek challenge and change, to find new answers and dimensions. Journeys free us from the bounds of our own space, allowing us to experience things in a way that is not possible in our home environment. They open us up to the unexpected and the magical. Such experiences can be consciously recognized as markers of past growth and impetus to further growth, as steps beyond limitations and into freedom, as leaps into new aspects of one’s identity.

Journeys also help us connect with the universal sense of what it means to be human. When we journey among others beyond the familiar, we have the opportunity to see what is common among all people: how we love, how we work, how we relate in family and community, what our basic needs are and how we meet them. Journeys connect us with the pathos of the human experience and through this, teach us compassion for others. They broaden our understanding, heighten our experience of who we are, and challenge us to express our true nature more fully.

The journey may be a trip to just get away for a while, or a move to a place that becomes our new home. It could be a "call to adventure"—the hero’s journey—following a deeply felt desire, an instinctive pull to a place for some purpose. Our journey may be to overcome a specific obstacle or to connect with a spiritual or historical source. Or perhaps the impetus simply resides in the knowledge that going someplace new will bring new opportunities for change. We may not know what we’re looking for, but we know we’re looking, and the journey helps us to find it.

There is a long history of renowned rite-of-passage journeys. In literature, the protagonists of works such as The Odyssey and Pilgrim’s Progress were transformed by epic journeys that moved them through several phases of their lives. The enlightened religious masters tested their faith, strength, and resiliency, or strove toward a higher level of understanding, in solitary journeys. Pilgrimages are another classic form of the rite-of-passage journey. According to anthropologist Victor Turner, the pilgrim hopes to have "direct experience of the sacred, invisible, or supernatural order, either in the material aspect of miraculous healing or in the immaterial aspect of inward transformation of spirit or personality."

In contemporary culture, the hero’s journey is a widely used rite of passage. Its appeal is evident in the enormous interest in reality TV shows which depict all kinds of challenges and transformations. This phenomenon is evidently tapping into the collective unconscious: exploration and pioneering are, once again, exciting to the human psyche. Something stirs inside us when we see human beings entering forsaken lands, carrying nothing to insure their survival but their personal baggage. We encourage from our living rooms. We root for someone with whom we identify. We plan strategies, fantasizing how we would be, what we would do, if we were there. This same enthusiasm can serve us immensely if it moves us beyond spectatorship, spurring us off our couches and into the adventure of our own lives.

I’ve found journeys to be a great tool for making passages in my own life, and recommend them when feasible to my patients. Journeys may serve to give them a boost, remove them from a difficult situation, or help them experience new things without daily life excuses, gain new perspectives on their psychological life by wandering alone or speaking with strangers, acquire enrichment through embracing other cultures and traditions, and generally do things they would never do at home and be someone they would never be. The journey is often the key to moving them into new phases of their lives.

Each journey carries us forward on our journey of a lifetime, which is to come to know ourselves and to become our own best friend. In mastering our lives, our task is to be open to all the possibilities of who and what we are and to accept what is without making judgment. Humans are complex creatures: the good, the bad, the ugly, and the divine, reside together within us. If we can honor and work with all aspects of ourselves, we move toward completeness.

Rules of the Road

The journeys of passage we make, both external and internal, involve physical, intellectual, emotional, and spiritual challenges. In preparing ourselves to meet these challenges, we should begin with a level head and an eye toward the practical. Here are some general principles to bear in mind before setting out to lands unknown.

1) Don’t run away from something; run to something. Although journeys take you away from the familiar, the intention is not to escape from something unpleasant. New territory may actually provide a better, more fertile environment for finding new solutions or new ways of viewing a situation.

2) Travel light. Take as little baggage along as possible, literally and figuratively. Too much baggage is hard to keep track of. Too much energy and time is expended packing and unpacking and packing again. Essential items may get lost. If you need something badly enough you will find a way to acquire it.

3) Don’t assume anything. And especially, don’t assume that what you do at home is the way people do it elsewhere. Observe and appreciate differences.

4) Don’t expect anything. Setting yourself up limits your experience. Thinking in a limited way will give you a limited experience. Be open to new ways of experiencing and doing things.


5) Do expect the unexpected. Being present without your usual routines, habitual behaviors, and attitudes creates room for new impressions in all realms, and allows for new discoveries by all of your senses.

6) Be prepared to meet the stranger. Strangers you meet are mirrors of yourself. Conversations with strangers may provoke a dialogue with parts of yourself that seem unfamiliar and foreign.

7) Remember that the way you choose to view the world will be the way the world reveals itself to you.

Abigail Brenner, M.D. is a board certified psychiatrist in private practice for more than 25 years and a Fellow of the American Psychiatric Association. Dr. Brenner has pursued her interest in clinical work, formerly as an attending physician at the Bellevue Hospital adult outpatient clinic and as a clinical professor at New York University –Bellevue Medical Center. Dr. Brenner lives in New York City with her husband and is a mother and grandmother. Be sure to visit her website: www.abigailbrenner.com

*Excerpted from the new book

Women’s Rites of Passage: How to Embrace Change and Celebrate Life

by permission of Rowman & Littlefield. For more information on Abigail Brenner, MD, visit www. AbigailBrenner.com

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