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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2 responses to “About Initiation, Part 4

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  1. There is quite a lot in this post to reflect on, and I thank you for taking the time to write it. The excerpt from Martin Shaw, particularly the following, was especially resonant for me:

    “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.”

    I would say that the whittling to release the core is where I’ve been at for the past couple of years; and the warning about failing to move on to the next stage leading to anaesthetisation is one I will keep in mind as I try to make sure I’m whittling away to my core, and not at my core.

  2. Thanks for your comment. I also found Shaw’s point useful, since Druidry has one foot in Celtic culture, and at times “Celticness” can seem to overshadow practicality. We seem to be afraid of discovering what our core really is, and fear and ignorance keep us from living fully. I see that in myself, I see it in others.

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