The Power of 4

I can see how numerology developed both in ancient times and continues to fascinate people today. When you keep coming across a certain number, it’s like coming across a new word you keep hearing—you think there must be a reason for that (even if ultimately, it’s probably just coincidence). For Christians, of course, that number is three. For me, that number is increasingly four.

When I latched onto the astronomical symbol of Earth as the symbol for the Gaian Way, that just felt right. It was simple, had a long history, it incorporated a cross (which has a deep symbolism already), and it incorporated both the spherical Earth and the four corners—suggesting direction, purpose, and at the center, the human (interwoven in Gaia and poised to connect with and help Gaia in any direction Gi takes).

Earth symbol on a wall in the Netherlands (Image from Willem Nabuurs via Wikipedia)

But four keeps coming up in other ways:

  • The four elements: fire, earth, water, air.
  • The four seasons (at least for a New Englander like me).
  • The four major marks of the wheel of the year: winter solstice, spring equinox, summer solstice, and fall equinox.
  • The four phases of the moon. 1

As well, four has started embedding itself into Gaian practices. Bart Everson, in his discussion of Gaian practices, divided these into four categories: the active; pedagogical (educational); community, and contemplative.

And as I’ve taught forest bathing, I’ve incorporated the martial arts idea of sanchin2—aligning Body, Mind, and Breath—and added one more: Gaia/Earth/Nature, once again bringing a triumvirate into four parts (shichin). 3

Interestingly these map somewhat naturally onto the Gaian cross (some fit smoothly, others grouping well). Now, while I don’t take this numeric motif too seriously, it’s nice to visualize where they might be placed.

Rites of Passage

I want to add one more foursome to the mix: rites of passage. Across all cultures, there are rituals celebrating/commemorating certain steps in life: particularly birth, adulthood, union, and death. There are others rites of passage (such as choosing to be a monk) but most cluster within these four major life stages (even monastic vows fit under ‘union’ as monastics are choosing to bond with their higher being/calling instead of a partner). By celebrating life transitions with a rite of passage this often makes them more meaningful, healing (such as in the case of death), and more enduring (as in the case of union).

One rite of passage that in the U.S. is pretty mediocre is our coming of age rituals. Some sub-cultures celebrate with big parties (e.g. the Quinceañera) and with some require studies to go along with the celebration (Bar/Bat Mitzvah). But for most American youth, adulthood comes with high school (or college) graduation, or maybe getting a driver’s license (after all, you are now licensed to move a multi-thousand pound metal box at deadly speeds—which assumes you have adult-level maturity). But those are rarely communicated as adulthood transitions—and college, being a four-year liminal state means for many, adulthood doesn’t start until around 22 (which is unrealistically late).

Rather, I like the idea of having an intentional training of youth to become adults (at the time of puberty—the physiological adulthood transition), and making that more connected with nature. I’ve thought nature education programs might fill this niche but in my experience, it seems these are more focused on games and following community rules (important) than on developing Earth skills and reverence for nature, let alone preparing children to become Earth-reverent adults. What would that look like?

Some rites of passage, like the Quinceañera, are highly resource intensive and reinforce the dominant consumer cultural paradigm. (Image from Christopher Michel via Wikipedia)

The Four+ Elements of Becoming a Gaian Adult

I imagine four trials that show mastery of surviving in one’s bioregion, around the key basics. As Tom Brown Jr. notes, a human dies quickest from freezing to death, then from dehydration, then starvation, but there are ways that one can avoid all of those grizzly ends: making a basic survival shelter and making a fire; learning to purify water; and gathering food from the landscape. Four ways that connect with the four elements at that. I imagine an intensive skills course as one is going through adolescence that teaches some of these skills:

  1. How to make a simple debris hut.
  2. How to make a bow drill kit and make a fire with it (ideally without even a knife or rope).
  3. How to purify water several different ways (both evaporation and filtering with sand and charcoal (from one’s fire) and then boiling).
  4. Foraging food from the landscape and effectively preparing it (all seasons).
The skeleton of a debris hut (Just add lots and lots of leaves). (Image from Emily Heath via Flickr)

The experience could culminate with a rite of passage with a young person having to survive a few nights in the woods—making a shelter and fire, purifying water, and foraging off the landscape (this would incorporate some level of fasting as calories would be far scarcer than in our processed food landscape, which would also help in drawing out the ritualistic/liminal experience).4

The finished debris hut (ready for occupancy). (Image by Emily Heath via Flickr)

I recognize that this is an aspirational idea, and unrealistic for 99% of Americans currently. I think it’d be hard even for most of my son’s outdoor education peer group (probably including my son). But I think if this was an expectation, and trained for from a young age, it’s certainly achievable—and something worth trying with my own son (and me, because frankly I’m still a child following this rubric!).

There are some efforts like this (Boy Scouts in theory), but perhaps the closest I’ve seen to this (minus the Earth skills) is the Duke of Edinburgh awards in the UK. I remember participating in this youth rite of passage (at a compressed rate) when living in England at 18. To get the medal, one had to complete a certain number of volunteer hours, develop one’s skills and physical fitness, and go out for expeditions. To achieve the Silver level, that included a four-day, three-night hike. In the end, I wasn’t there long enough to fulfill all the conditions (as this is usually spread out over a longer period) but doing community service and hiking (including some shorter practice expeditions), certainly helped me develop and integrate into my school community.

Truthfully, the community service component is one that is essential, and that could be a fifth element of the Gaian adulthood ritual—represented by the circle surrounding the four directions. At the least, this could mean helping other youth to prepare for their own transition to adulthood (teaching skills, knowledge, and confidence), or perhaps a larger community service project to give back to the community that helped raise you. Clearly, there’s much more to develop here (including around the other three rites of passage),5 but it’s worth putting it out there for more discussion. What do you think:  What’s the best way for a Gaian youth to become a Gaian adult?


1) Of course, the directions, wheel of the year, phases of the moon, all could be further divided into eight (or some other number of) parts….

2) Sanchin means three conflicts. Shichin, four conflicts. The goal is to align body, breath, mind, and nature so that they are no longer in conflict.

3) I also incorporated four into this Four Directions of Forgiveness Meditation (which includes a more nuanced eight direction version as well).

4) Yes, this is similar to what some Indigenous communities did traditionally and even continue to do today. Having a trial to become an adult (even if risks are minimal) makes the transition all the more powerful.

5) Here are some reflections on union, birth, and death.

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4 Responses

  1. Ann Bright

    Great reflection, Erik! I am saving the youth rite if passage ideas for my grandson in a few years.

  2. Anna Churchill

    I’d love to hear more discussion on this topic. I know Earthspirit has rituals around coming of age. I would add that for females there are the significant milestones of menarche and menopause.

    • Erik Assadourian

      Great additions! The transition to elder (physiologically and psychologically) is a potent fifth rite (one too often marked by irrelevancy or isolation here in the U.S.). After I wrote this I learned that there are several Earth Education groups that offer teen rites of passage programs (including one just starting for adolescent women), so I’m glad to learn these do exist in some form already. Here’s a link to one listing: and here’s one in Massachusetts:

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