Rites of Passage

What emotions do you notice in times of greater unpredictability and feelings of isolation? Do you feel afraid, vulnerable, alone, apprehensive, lacking, limited, uncertain OR calm, grounded, confident, loved, good enough, supported, happy, abundant, optimistic? When you don’t have enough inner strength & resources, how do you return yourself back to a calm, centered, positive mindset? Oh, you mean we can do that?!? These important practices and resources can have a powerful impact on everyone’s daily lives, let alone for head trauma, other major life trauma and survivors of all types.

It’s September 28th, 2011. I’m a completely healthy, 40 yr old, longtime yoga practitioner, married dad, business owner, athlete, health & wellness guy with no prior symptoms nor warning signs of what’s to come. I calmly went to bed after my all-time favorite yoga sequence. We crazy yogis did 90 mins of intensive, physically demanding poses first followed by deeply restorative postures to intentionally get our physical bodies and thoughts to let go so deeply that we could  get our brains to soften into the midpoint and away from the inner surface of the skull. I “attempted” to create more space between my brain and inner skull, which turned out to possibly be the most important decision of my life.

At 1:30AM, I was startled out of my sleep and literally flipped out of my bed with what I immediately recognized as the worst pain in my life. Despite having broken every finger and toe, torn both ankles, wrists and a hamstring, chipped a knee cap and had four trips to the ER for stitches growing up as an athlete, you could wrap all those up together and the pain wouldn’t even touch the galaxy I now called home.

Although almost pitch black and silent, everything seemed too bright and too loud despite the tranquility of this very early Wednesday morning. What’s going on, I wondered. I never get sick. Did I have a migraine? Did I eat something bad and get food poisoning? I quickly felt as if I could get sick, so I made my way to the bathroom. Once there, I began to alternate from scorching hot like I was burning alive in fire, to shaking freezing as if I were naked in the Arctic. At this point, I realized something more serious was going on.

The “magic” of yoga occurs when we’re faced with all the things we can’t imagine being possible suddenly becoming… and then find ourselves doing them either by choice or inspired by chance. When I look back closely and honestly, I can often trace my moments of greatest success to times I would lean into and leverage my traditions, rites of passage, rituals and routines. They naturally guided me to a greater sense of inner-knowing, showing me how to hold space for what I needed most. Faced with the possibility of my own death, I leveraged my best yoga concentration, breathing, focusing, allowing my body to let go and soften as I had been doing just hours before in hopes that whatever was happening would stop and I could crawl back to my bed. It was not to be as my symptoms quickly worsened and I staggered back to the bedroom, woke my wife and requested she help me. I was in so much pain it was scaring me and I didn’t feel safe being alone.

My wife came to the bathroom with me where she administered a wet compress to the back of my neck and head and gave me a couple advil hoping to help the pain and scorching/freezing sensations. I can still see them going down the “slide.” The moment the advil hit my stomach I immediately became violently ill. Though she kept the compresses on my head and neck and was massaging my shoulders, nothing gave any sense of relief, so I had her lean her entire body weight through her elbow into the right side of my neck as I felt like my carotid artery was bulging and throbbing. The counter-pressure of her entire body weight seemed to bring momentary relief to the overwhelming pressure intensifying in my neck and head. She looked down at me crumpled on the floor at the base of the toilet and started to freak out, She asked me in panic, “Marc, what the hell is going on here? Did you do any drugs? Anything I need to be aware of?” I swiftly pleaded in my mind’s voice, “I swear, I’m innocent! I don’t know what’s going on!” With that she looked down at me perplexed. She’d not heard me clearly, rather she’d heard some garbled nonsense, noticed the left side of my mouth drooped and she blurted out words I’ll never forget. “Marc, you’re having a stroke!” 

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Traditions are interwoven with rites of passage, rituals and routines. All have been important tools for almost every species across time. At their most fundamental level, every living thing leverages these to create greater order, organization, focus and connection in a wildly unpredictable, distracting and isolating world. 

Similar to a tradition, a rite of passage is a ritual event that involves experiencing a significant change often marked by three phases: separation, transformation and manifestation. First, you’re separated from your old identity (often through physical means). Sound familiar survivors? Ever feel like this? In transformation, you’re in an ever-changing state between your old self and what you are becoming. Ever feel like you’re floating in between who you once were, yet still not knowing who you are nor who you’ll become? Are you welcoming in your transformation or are you still holding it off and disabling your present self from arriving by holding on for dear life to your past, who you once were, the toxic comparisons with pre/post versions of self, you versus everyone else, before/after, feeling the need to prove to oneself and everyone else that you can still do it all, etc.? Any of these sound similar? I struggled with and experienced this non-stop evolving, holistic transformation for the last 9+ years. But I’m getting ahead of myself…

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A stroke? As this penetrated my existence, I laughed inside thinking, “I’m not having a stroke?!?! I’m just feeling hot/cold and getting sick from something?” With this, a series of magical stars perfectly aligned enabling me to survive and be alive to write this today. In what felt like mere moments from when my wife called 911, the paramedics miraculously arrived, checked me out, discussed things with my wife and placed me into what appeared to be a chair strapped onto the front of a hand truck (vs. a standard wheelchair). The paramedics proceeded to bang me and my head down each & every step, all the way out the front door of my 3rd floor apartment and into the ambulance for a one-way trip to UCSF. Just after being placed in the back and putting an oxygen mask over my face, I got sick into the mask and on my face for the 5th time. They cleaned me up, reassured me it was ok, then lights out! Without ever imagining it, my yoga traditions, this terrifying rite of passage, and other rituals I practice regularly were about to save my life.

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When you hear the word traditions, what comes to mind first? Take one slow, full, deep breath and enjoy a magical expedition back in your family’s history while you reflect on what the word traditions mean to you and your family. Where, when and who planted the seeds for the traditions you hold most dear today? Were they inspired by your parents, grandparents, their prior generations and have you created any of your own? When enjoying your traditions, who do you think about and feel most connected with? Have you ever felt a sense of deeper connection with yourself and purpose when enjoying your traditions?

Continue breathing slowly, deeply and ask yourself, why are my traditions important to me? When I enjoy my traditions, who do I like to share them with most? Why? What memories and emotions fill my heart? Where else in my body do I notice these emotions, feelings and physical sensations activate most when enjoying my traditions?

Pay close attention to your experience within. You may notice your traditions bring you a feeling of warmth and opening in your heart space, a natural deepening of breath and softening in your abdomen and where I notice each breath helps me feel more deeply within myself from the inside out. You may feel a connection to your roots, entire family history, the people and experiences that you love and care about the most. You may even experience a feeling of plugging into your greatest energy source within the depth of your soul. This experience often brings me a greater sense of belonging, connection, togetherness, wisdom, foundation, strength, safety, confidence, happiness, creativity and possibility.

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The first thing I remember hearing after surviving my brain surgery was my nurse letting me know, “You’re all done.” You did great; everything went A-ok.” Next, my neurosurgeon leaned in close and gently shared: “Marc, I don’t know where you were or what you did before you came to me today, but whatever it was, you made my job in there much easier than it usually is. There was more space.” (Dr. Michael Lawton 9/30/2011)  I’d done that. Me. My yoga, my traditions and rituals. 

Being a head trauma survivor who was released from the hospital 5 days after brain surgery with almost zero resources, I’ve been forced to learn how powerful traditions, rites of passage, rituals and routines are for decreasing stress, anxiety, unnecessary struggles, suffering, providing improved focus, energy, creativity, cognitive performance, emotional adaptability and holistic stability. My traditions are also what bring me a deeper sense of love and connection to fond memories, people I’ve lost along the way, and they’re also the seeds of wisdom, inner resources and strength allowing me to lean into myself more effectively, to plant within my daughter, and to pass along for future generations to benefit from.

But hey; it’s been a wild, heavy and crazy ride. If a life threatening head trauma and life saving brain surgery isn’t enough, add child illness, divorce, loss of career, financial devastation, parental illness, cognitive decline and loss on top as life doesn’t cut you any slack just because your head blows up. What does the world say? “Best of luck with that, now go get a job.”

Although these challenges are real for many of us, so is the possibility to thrive to our greatest heights yet. So the real question is how might you leverage traditions, rites of passage, rituals and resources to best fuel your dream achievement?

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Yes, there is value in keeping/creating traditions during a time of great change.

Not only can connecting with existing traditions and creating new ones be a way to tap into your most powerful inner strengths and resources, but they can also activate humanity’s greatest pillars of need within ourselves: feelings of stability, connection, love, safety and satisfaction during everyday challenges, as well as times of great change when we’ll likely need more of these resources and support just to keep us in a grounded, centered space.

“He who saves a single soul, saves the world entire.” –  Oskar Schindler, Dr. Michael Lawton’s favorite quote.


Click the photo to learn more about Marc Stiglitz.