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by Renée Tillotson

Ever been surprised by looking in the mirror? It seems to be happening to me a lot these days. I recognize the eyes… I’m just not quite sure to whom the rest of the face belongs! 

Walking past hundreds upon hundreds of faces in Denver International Airport last week, I contemplated the possibility that LOTS of people might be having similar experiences behind the faces they were wearing. In case you have had or will have such an experience, I bring you this tale.

Sustained happiness, I’ve realized in the last few years, depends on a radical ACCEPTANCE of what is. So, when our daughter Sandhya told me about her plan to go on a wilderness retreat called Honoring Change after her honeymoon and before her return home to start married life, I was intrigued. Here I was, cringing every time I saw my reflection or a recent photo. Getting married has so much more of a feeling of choice. Getting older feels inevitable. I had my own change to not only accept: I could actually honor it! 

Now, five days roughing it in the wilderness in tents, without showers, toilets or sinks, is not my favorite way of living. It has been at least a quarter of a century since I’ve done any wilderness camping, so I was a bit wary. Sandhya, my outdoor adventure girl, was so encouraging in inviting me to join her that I ultimately overcame all my inner voices of resistance and booked my flight to Colorado. 

The program we were attending trains counselors, teachers, and facilitators to take others through rites of passage, specifically outdoors. Our retreat leader greeted us heartily at the gate as soon as Sandhya and I drove onto the land where the retreat was to take place in the mountains above Boulder. Her wide smile and kind, insightful eyes immediately put me at ease. It was Katie Asmus herself, founder of the Somatic Wilderness Therapy Institute.  And Glory be… they had a cabin where we could store our food in coolers, a water hose (yes!), and a composting toilet. Hallelujah! Now we’re talking! I mean, it could be worse….

Katie, a psychotherapist, leads people through self-transformational experiences – whenever possible in Nature – with rituals, ceremonies, and rites of passage marking life changes.

The heartbeat sound of a skin drum summoned us from the tents we had just set up to our outdoor meeting circle. Katie laid out a purple cloth as an “altar” with a collection of sacred objects: a bag of crystal stones, a piece of driftwood with a poem inscribed on it, a heart-shaped piece of orange rock salt, a stick of dried herbs, and flowers bound together with twine, etc. She invited us to add to this altar as we liked. An antler and a small wooden labyrinth eventually joined Katie’s pieces. I lent a photo of myself with my two mothers, Cliff’s and my own mom, two of my beloved elders.

Each of us explained why we had come to the retreat – me to face my aging process, Sandhya to leave behind her old life and enter her loving new married life, and the others for all sorts of life questions and changes. When we are around Katie, we become aware of all the beings in the natural world who have their own wisdom to offer us when we learn how to listen. We use ritual and ceremony to deliberately shift our state of mind, our state of being, into a more open stance for receiving our own inner wisdom, which Nature can help us to awaken. Somehow, for me, choosing to be in that very uncomfortable physical context also contributed to that shift out of my normal state of awareness into one that was more heightened. Katie now sent us out to explore and get to know the “nature beings” around us. She advised us to even converse with them.

In our first little wander on this dry, grass and rock-filled land, I found my way to a small pine tree and attempted to quietly chant an oli I’ve learned from our kumu Mālia called Noho Ana, a Hawaiian chant of protection to clear the path. My mind was too muddled, my heart too unsure, and I mixed up the ending. As I made my way to a second pine, a bird hopped in a friendly way to a branch before me. I asked it to sing its song for me. Instead, the bird gave me back my oli, which I could once again hear clearly in my head. A butterfly danced past me, delighting me with its brief, bright, fluttering lesson: Take joy even in things that will quickly disappear. A pile of rabbit droppings reminded me to shed what I’ve already processed. To the third and largest of the pines, I asked what I might learn from it. All its long needles curved upwards to the sky, guiding my thoughts likewise. Although perched on a sharp incline, the tree had planted its roots firmly, reminding me to hold fast to my purpose. Its branches swayed gracefully in response to the winds of change, while its trunk surged steadily heavenward. 

Given the changes we were each undergoing, Katie let us know that we would all be crafting a rite of passage that would help us on our journey.  Katie helped us to understand that rites of passage generally have 3 stages: letting go of the past, entering into a state of the unknown, then a new beginning. The important through-line to our ceremony would be our intention. Katie is all about intention. In the first two days, we spoke together and journaled alone, each crafting our intentions for our solo time.

Oh, the Solo! Yes, as if it weren’t enough to be sleeping on the ground in tents, meeting together under the shade of a broad Ponderosa pine – rain or shine, and heating our food on a Coleman stove, now she was inviting us – giving us a big gentle nudge – to wander away from base camp and find a new, more distant location to spend 24 hours alone. On solo, we were to create and conduct our rite of passage ceremonies for ourselves. We could fast if we chose – and we had readings explaining the benefits of ceremonial fasting. Oh boy. Another hurdle. 

I can truthfully say that I did not have complete confidence heading into a solo wilderness experience at age 66, when I had never before done such a thing. I’ve always had Cliff with me. The evening before we all left for our Solos, Katie gave us some final prepping. All I can say is that Katie’s laughter-filled pantomime of how to use our personal “wag bags” instead of a toilet did NOTHING to allay my dread of this new phase of the adventure! (Be sure to check out our video below of how WAG Bags really work!) My hackles about sanitation deprivation came up all over again! I had to remind myself of people throughout the world who live every day without plumbing. The food part turned out to be not such a big deal after all. I decided that I would honor with my fast all the victims of war and famine who have no food to eat.

In the morning, after breaking down our tents and repacking, the whole group of us began our Solo together, silently following Katie and her drum down to the small river. She invited us to each interact with the stream individually, asking what it had to teach us. To ritually cross the threshold into the ceremonial space of our journeys, we each stated our intentions aloud. I began by chanting the Noho Ana oli, simply making way for it to resonate through me. That it did: deep and clear, beginning to end. Then I stated my intention: 

I intend to release my youth and step into the ‘kupuna’ – the elder – phase of my life, taking with me my inner child with its playfulness and Joy. 
After we each splashed or submerged ourselves in the stream, Katie asked whether we would like her blessing – and all of us did. Each of her smiling, glad blessings was unique, fitted to the individual seeker, sometimes made us laugh, and always touched our hearts at how well it fit. She blessed me as a kupuna. At my suggestion, we all then blessed Katie, which seemed to utterly delight her.

Then we headed off to Honor our Changes. I cinched on my heavy pack and hiked up to a ridge with a grand view of one valley to the east and another to the west. A winding little pine that looked perfectly bonsai’ed called me to a flat gravel shelf large enough for my tent. The large boulder immediately behind it seemed like a perfect spot for snakes to inhabit, which gave me a bit of a tremor. But I pulled out the ceremonial rattle I had borrowed from Katie’s altar and spoke to any of the serpent clan who might be nearby, saying that I came as a friend and asked permission to stay for the night. A soft breeze came up, seeming to give assent to my staying there. 

As it turned out, the gravel beneath my tent was only about half an inch deep, bottoming out in stone. My tent stakes useless, I took Katie’s earlier advice to ground my tent with stones. A semi-circle of four squat brother stones seemed willing to serve inside the four tent corners. I used my meager equipment supplies to tie the bottom of the tent to two boulders and a small tree. 

I then turned my attention to finding my ceremonial spot, considering where I might find a flat surface and shade from the 100-degree heat. As I headed towards one then another likely tree, a wind came up, pushing me away from those spots. A beautiful bird I had never seen before began chirping insistently, drawing me to a large stone under another tree. I drew closer to the stone and looked over the edge. There below me lay an enormous pile of grey, broken limbs and branches, scattered like a graveyard of bones.

Whoa. If I’m performing a kupuna ceremony, this is the place for me, I thought. I remembered that rites of passage need to start with severance, and my intention included releasing my youth. I saw beside me a small area of gravel that had clearly come from the rock above it loosely crumbling down over time. Such a ‘dust into dust’ symbol! I scooped up a handful of gravel and let it gradually fall through my fingers onto the “boneyard” below me as I consciously released my youthful looks. I reflected that this rite of passage was the precursor to a later rite of passage I would need to actually prepare for leaving my body. Maybe Sandhya would be with me for that one, too.

Laying out a green towel on a turquoise mat, I rang a small brass singing bowl, sounded the OM, and dedicated the rite of passage to the world, symbolized by a glass globe marble I usually carry in my purse. Following Katie’s instructions to bring all those who support me to my ceremony, I honored each of them, either with symbolic items I had packed from home, or gifts from nature that surrounded me on all sides. I gave gratitude to all of my teachers and their teachings. I thanked each of the beings who have supported me on my journey and many that I also stand in support of. I found pinecones with the promise of incipient trees to represent our grandchildren Ryder and Indi, and a strong piece of coral-colored stone to represent our granddaughter, Coral. I reverently plucked a seed-covered juniper twig to honor all our family’s progeny yet to come. Still & Moving Center and the Academy of Mindful Movement each found a place. So did the bleached white piece of an animal bone that I had found while fetching other natural elements for my altar.

I reflected on the teaching the river had given me as I sat beside it that morning: This is the river of life. We are all somewhere upon the river, whether newborn, bubbling out of the river’s source, or rolling along in the middle of the river, or pouring into the great ocean, to be evaporated up and then rained back onto the earth again. Why worry about where I am in the river? There is always someone enjoying their youth – it doesn’t have to be my youth. I can simply enjoy their enjoyment! In fact, in the faces of my grandchildren I sometimes even catch glimpses of my own childhood face. Big sigh of contentment.

The ceremony also reminded me that I have been entrusted with so many precious teachings from such wise beings, I truly have a duty to the children around me to share some of those life lessons. So I reminded myself to create a children’s group called “Wisdom Seekers” this autumn. You’ll read more about that in an article below.

Just as I completed my ceremony, a HUGE gale arose, sweeping down the hillside, threatening to blow my tent over like a tumbleweed. I added a 5th big brother stone to the inside of the tent, but I had nothing to secure the top of the tent.

Deciding that false bravery without adequate equipment to solve the problem was NOT the better part of wisdom, I broke my Solo to seek Katie’s help. I was also running out of water in the intense heat, which I considered unsafe. Waiting until the wind calmed, I hiked down to base camp, used the latrine (avoiding the dreaded wag-bag 🤢!), and refilled my water bottles. THEN I sought out Katie, who collected cordage, and together we hiked up and secured my tent. Mahalo, Katie! 

That night in my snug tent, I mused over the day’s unfoldings, and I began to pick up a niggling little voice somewhere inside me. It seemed to be the collective body system giving off hurt, worried feelings of being neglected, something like: “Oh, so we’re nothing but a disintegrating pile of bones, are we? Just dust into dust? So you’re just going to let us deteriorate now that you’re ‘releasing your youth’? Don’t you care about us anymore???”

Oh no! What had I done with my intention? Did I actually ask for something I would regret? Was my health going to go south on me all of a sudden? Was it too late to change what I wished for? Such questions frayed the edges of my Solo day. 

“Don’t worry,” counseled a calmer, wiser part of myself, as I envisioned the vast, star-sprinkled sky above me. “You set a very good intention. We can always add to it as needed to address the body’s concerns. I have an idea for tomorrow morning. Now get some sleep.” And so I did.

When I awoke in the morning, a favorite scene from the delightful Irish film “Waking Ned Devine” floated into my mind. In it, two old duffers are bathing in their ‘birthday suits’,  when all of a sudden they have to hop onto a scooter or motorcycle to deliver an urgent message to their village. With our culture’s worship of youth, this scene would normally be a rather distasteful shot of saggy, baggy senior citizens who make you wish they would quickly put some clothes on. Instead, the cinematographer uses his camera in such a loving way, it’s almost like watching a couple of toddlers with their cute, chubby bodies riding along on the motorbike. It was very sweet. I could care for my body in that same way, I mused.

I started by reconstructing my altar overlooking the “boneyard” and making it even more beautiful and meaningful, with 3 scarves for the beginning, middle and end of life. I loved that altar! 

Now I walked to my bonsai’d pine tree, and took off every stitch of clothing to stand in the sun’s newly risen light. With water and a small washcloth, I ritually bathed each part of my body, telling each part how much I love and appreciate the work that it does, how functional it is, how beautiful it is. I honored the body as an ever-faithful servant. I even bathed this face I have been looking at in the mirror and thanked it and my hands for all their expressiveness.

I now restated my intention to release my youth and go into my kupuna phase with my joyful inner child, adding: 

And I will continue to keep my body safe and healthy as long as it is mine to keep.

My rite of passage ceremony felt complete, and my little worry-voice inside settled down, satisfied.
I packed up and hiked down the hill to rejoin our group at the river. What a joyous occasion that was, celebrating our journey’s end! Everyone came back clearer, stronger, and more truly at peace with themselves. Sandhya was positively radiant, and I was SO glad I hadn’t missed the opportunity to share this special time together. [Note to parents and grandparents: When your kids want to spend time with you, do your best to ALWAYS say “Yes!”]

Katie had the group spend the next day and a half processing our rites of passage together. She reminded us that it would take us a full year to fully embody it. One of the questions I enjoyed the most seemed to come straight from Joseph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey. It was, “What gifts are you bringing back to your tribe?”

I guess my simple answer might be: “A keener attunement to Nature, a glad heart in a healthy body, and a good story.” And the last is my gift to you! 

Renée Tillotson

Renée Tillotson, Director, founded Still & Moving Center to share mindful movement arts from around the globe. Her inspiration comes from the Joy and moving meditation she experiences in the practice of Nia, and from the lifelong learning she’s gained at the Institute of World Culture in Santa Barbara, California. Engaged in a life-long spiritual quest, Renée assembles the Still & Moving Center Almanac each year, filled with inspirational quotes by everyone from the Dalai Lama to Dolly Parton. Still & Moving Center aspires to serve the community, support the Earth and its creatures, and always be filled with laughter and friendship!

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This post is also available in: 日本語 (Japanese)