Archive for August 2012

About Initiation, Part 4   2 comments

Go to Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

Many people share a hunger for meaningful actions and deeds, choices and moments, in their lives.  We especially seem to long for meaning in the face of so many acts in our daily experience that, without the gift of some kind of transformation, can seem so deadly, vacuous and meaningless.  We wait in lines, we reflexively check Facebook and email countless times a day, we make the same daily drive to work, we pay the same endless bills month to month, and talk with the same acquaintances who never seem to grow and move beyond their original assumptions and opinions — we tire and bore even ourselves with our own personalities and routines and habits …

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers;
Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away

as 19th century British poet William Wordsworth remarks in a sonnet named for the first line.  That sensation and the force that drives it have only intensified in the intervening two centuries.  Whatever stimulant of choice we turn to, we need increasing doses just to keep going:  stronger energy drinks, more vivid cybersex, the overhyped fake violence of summer blockbusters, the brief but lovely bliss of cutting and piercing.  And if you agree as I do with the adage that anyone who points out a problem is also challenged at least to begin to offer a solution, and not just complain about it, here goes another reflection on initiation.  Site stats continue to identify this topic as one of the most popular over the past months — and there are good reasons for this.

How can we start to open up a way forward? In the 24 November 2009 post on his blog, The School of Myth, Martin Shaw identifies three common stages of initiation:  severance, threshold, and return — a sacred triad all its own.

Shaw astutely diagnoses us:  so often we’re addicted to severance, while never moving beyond it to the next stage of initiation.  We know how to do this part; we’re severance experts.  We endlessly cut ties, get divorced, quit jobs, abandon projects, dump friends, remaking ourselves any way we can, redecorating our homes, tatooing, starving and stuffing our bodies, changing styles, desperate for healing change, for “something more,” for the authentic, the genuine, the real, in a world that, whenever we touch it, feels increasingly plastic.  Sometimes only pain feels anything like real.  Once a core initial experience of initiation, the doorway, a “shock to the system” because it immersed us in something new, severance is now often the default setting of our lives.

Shaw then focuses on threshold, noting that

Any individual, deprived of certain staples and put into a ritually held disorientation, can open up to the time-honoured fruits of the experience. With Vision Quests, the focus is not on cultural costume or mythic inflation but a whittling away, a search for a certain ‘core’ of you. It is kept empty of any ethnic affectations, but seeks some universal ground of being that is ageless.

At some point in this period of liminality, perceptions of community are radically expanded; personal mirrors are held in moss and rock formations as well as the family and marketplace. The experience of separation from earth diminishes, it has information for you, you are related. This has huge implications in an era of climate change and global warming. It is from the edge of things that wisdom originates — the hope is that the edges of our imagination are porous enough for such dialogue to take place.

So this part of the process seems possible, viable, even crucial for re-negotiating (or re-membering) our relationship to wild nature. The emphasis has to be on the core spiritual and psychological opening initiation offers, rather than a self-conscious aping of cultural costume.

But it is return, Shaw observes, that has become for contemporary humans the hardest of the three stages.

Initiation is a process dependent on grief and focuses on a de-[s]cent, a pulling away, a going down. When we refuse to go down, we run the risk of anaesthetising ourselves. Cultural anaesthetics could be described as engendering a subtle trance, and so the shining and uncertain face of the returning initiate carries a kind of beauty that society is trying to defend itself from — the implications are simply too challenging.

Returnees from initiation threaten the status quo — they’ve seen what others refuse to acknowledge, they’ve confronted what others have no desire ever to face if they can possibly avoid it, because it will mean the end of their carefully constructed lives built on false foundations, on accommodating pain and suffering, on acclimating to misery.  And no one wishes to support and nourish and sustain the awareness pouring out of the returnee, the new initiate with the “shining and uncertain face” — or even if they wished to help, they wouldn’t know how.  The cultural mechanisms to feed the new initiates more of the kind of energized life they experienced at initiation, and especially the presence of older initiates who have themselves assimilated some of the lessons of their own initiations and can often help the most out of personal experience, are too often lacking.

Hence the prevalence and popularity of workshops, retreats, weekends, camps — any means by which initiation can be fostered and even temporarily encouraged to continue its transformation as long as the special group consciousness persists which acknowledges and cherishes and values it.  We have an abundance of gurus and guides, true and false, reliable and negligent, like James Ray whose inexperience and carelessness led to deaths of three clients in a sweat lodge during a 2009 retreat.  The impulse to induce severance was certainly valid, but its form was too extreme and poorly managed.

One place to begin is to reflect on past initiations and more fully absorb their lessons.  Keeping a journal, blog or some kind of record of experience and reflection over time proves invaluable in accomplishing this.  Today is a good day to begin.  We obsess over what we still need to learn and explore, and if we can’t see these things in our own lives, often we can detect them in others’ — and they in ours.  As we become more familiar with the ongoing effects of past initiations, we’re more likely to discern new ones as we enter them — and they exist in abundance in everyone’s lives.

More in coming posts.

Go to Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6

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Images:  Ghana initiation; Catholic ordination; Sikh Amrit Sanchar.

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Return   Leave a comment

After my father passed away in the winter of 2008, I wasn’t able to scatter his ashes the following spring as I’d planned.   A cancer diagnosis laid me low soon after his final decline, and his childhood home in Niagara Falls in western NY state, as well as the farms he had owned and worked for decades, and where I grew up, were 450 miles from my wife’s and my home and jobs in CT. During my medical journey, we’d also bought a house in VT, and with follow-up radiation and a personal leave from our work, along with numerous loose ends to tie up, there’d simply been no good time.  And the task and my intention, if not my father’s, deserved good time.

My dad had always been indifferent about the whole thing.  Beyond asking to be cremated, he seemed to feel, perhaps from the many animal deaths and births that inevitably accrue in a lifetime of farming, that one more dead body was something to dispose of, but nothing worth much fuss.  “Throw me on the manure spreader when you go out next, and toss me at the back of the cornfield,” he’d  always say in his wry way, whenever I asked him one more time about his wishes. That was what we did with the occasional calf that died of pneumonia or scours.   In six months, crows and time would eventually leave just whitening bones. But at the time of my dad’s death, we no longer owned the farm, and in any case, beyond a certain undeniable fitness to his request, a desire to make that one last gesture for the good of the land, as human fertilizer, there was the small matter of legality.)

This summer a family reunion in Pittsburgh provided the opportunity to attend to this final matter.  My wife and I drove there and back, and on the way out last Friday afternoon, after a slow cruise along Lakeshore Drive that hugs the south shore of Lake Ontario, we made our way to downtown Niagara Falls and then over the  bridge onto Goat Island.  So around 2:00 pm or so, you could have seen me squatting at the edge of the Niagara River, a few hundred yards above the Falls, on the second of the Three Sisters islands that cling to rocky outcrops in the rapids. The day was overcast but pleasant — typical of western NY, with its delightfully mellow lake-effect summers.  Between my feet rested the heavy plastic bag of dad’s ashes, in the plain box the funeral home had provided.

I had nothing to say — no particular ceremony in mind.  Words earlier, words around and after his death, words a week or so ago in a dream, but nothing now.  This was for experiencing, not talking. Six years before, I’d returned my mother’s ashes to the Shellrock River in the small Iowa town of her childhood.  That day, the easy meander of the river, the June sun on my back, the midday stillness, and the intermittent buzz of dragonflies skimming the water lent the moment a meditative calm.  As my wife and two of my mother’s cousins watched, I slowly poured the powdery ashes into the river, and the water eddied and swirled as it bore them downstream.  Watching the ash disperse downstream, I felt peace. Thus we can go home.

This day was different.  A steady damp breeze rustled the leaves of the trees.  On another treeless outcrop a short way upriver, the harsh voices of the flock of gulls were only intermittently inaudible over the tumble of water and the dull roar of the falls downriver.

I sat, heels in mud, watching the current on its endless course past and away.  When I opened the bag of ashes, a sudden gust of wind caught some and dusted my left arm, which startled me, then made me smile.  It was as if my father approved — that behind his gruffness, the elemental beauty of the spot, a family favorite, might matter after all.  I brushed off my arm, and then poured the chalky ash into the spinning waters and watched it spread and then, eventually, the water cleared as it washed away.

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Druid of the Day (2)   Leave a comment

Today’s “Druid of the Day” also happens to be a Druid full-time:  presenting Cat Treadwell, a British Druid who lives in Derbyshire, UK.  (That’s “Darbyshire” for us Yanks who might actually trust English spelling, along with “clerk” and “Berkeley” as they’re pronounced in the mother country.)  Cat’s out about her Druidry, her blog The Catbox is worth reading, she’s just published a book based on her experiences, and there’s a fine interview of her at the Wiccan Pagan Times.  So if you’re inclined, there’s some reading for you.  I won’t spoil it by discussing it here.

Most of all I honor Cat because she exemplifies the spirit in the villanelle by Theodore Roethke, “The Waking”:

The Waking

I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I feel my fate in what I cannot fear.
I learn by going where I have to go.

We think by feeling. What is there to know?
I hear my being dance from ear to ear.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Of those so close beside me, which are you?
God bless the Ground! I shall walk softly there,
And learn by going where I have to go.

Light takes the Tree; but who can tell us how?
The lowly worm climbs up a winding stair;
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.

Great Nature has another thing to do
To you and me, so take the lively air,
And, lovely, learn by going where to go.

This shaking keeps me steady. I should know.
What falls away is always. And is near.
I wake to sleep, and take my waking slow.
I learn by going where I have to go.

“Great Nature” always has other things to do, and doesn’t hold back but simply does them.  And for three of them right now — you, me, and Cat Treadwell — I’m grateful, and offer this short post in thanksgiving.

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In the grove the Druid sits — Part II   2 comments

[Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3 | Part 4 | Part 5 | Part 6 | Part 7 | Part 8 | Part 9]

The day was fading into twilight, and I could feel the dew settle around us like a third party at this meeting.  “What is your name, master?” I asked him.  In a grassy spot near us I made a firepit, seeing and touching the rough gray stones, feeling their weight to make it real.  Then I gathered a bundle of sticks and lit a fire, because now there was an evening chill in the air.

“I’ve been given many names.  Some of them I even like,” he said in a wry tone, smiling at me.

Suddenly I knew his name.  “Wadin Tohangu,” I said.  “That’s an African name?”

He nodded.

“You’re an African Druid?  Is there even such a thing?!”

He chuckled at my surprise.  “I travel a lot. And you’re as much a Druid as I am.”

This wasn’t exactly the answer I expected.  And I wondered what he meant.

“Yes, you may call me Wadin Tohangu.  Call on me when you need help,” he said, “or if you wish to talk, as we are doing today.”  He spoke English clearly and very well, but the way he said his name, with the slightest accent, set off echoes in my head.  A familiar name.  I knew it somehow.  How?

“It’s a name you can use,” he said, as if in reply to my thoughts.  He put his hands out toward the heat of the fire.  “It’s as magical as you are.”

“Some days I don’t feel very magical,” I said, and paused.  Time always seemed to pass differently in the grove, both slowly, and faster than I expected.

“That’s one key, of course.  How you choose to feel,” Wadin answered.  “Which things are your choices and which are simply given to you would be helpful to contemplate.  We confuse those two quite often.  And which to be grateful for, we misunderstand even more!”

“How much can we be grateful for?” I asked.

“That’s a question to answer by experimenting,” he replied.  The pile of burning twigs and small branches shifted, settling.  “Gratitude is another key.”

“Choices and gratitude,” I said, half to myself.

The dog started barking again somewhere in the distance.  I swallowed a flash of annoyance.  This was important — I wanted to hear everything Wadin was saying.

“Yes,” he said.  “And a third point is attention, as we’ve seen.”

I looked at him.

“For you that dog is a most useful guide,” he said, laughing at my expression.  “Why not find out his name, too?”

The darkening sky behind him showed several stars.  He stood up.  “Each moment offers what we need, both for itself, and for moving on to the next one.  How else can time pass?”  As I watched the firelight flicker on his face, he said, “Remember these things.”

I looked around at the grove one more time, and when I turned back, Wadin was gone.  I stood up.  Then I moved to touch the altar and said goodbye to the trees.  The fire had died down to glowing embers. I stirred them with a stick, pushing them into the sand of the pit.

The dog was still barking.  So I followed the sound back to my room, where it was coming in through a screened open window.  I heard a car door slam at Jim’s place, and voices.  Then everything was still again, except for crickets chirping in the dark.  I turned on a light, and sat there quietly for  few minutes, thinking about the experience, and writing it down in my journal.

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Updated 23 April 2015

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