Archive for the ‘rite of passage’ Category

About Initiation, Part 5   2 comments

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Much of what we can do with initiation consists of bringing the inner experience outward, establishing it in consciousness, so that we can begin to live in and from the new awareness.  That can often mean we find ourselves expressing it through light, sound, color, form, in painting, drawing, photography, dance, music, writing, embroidery, etc. — some way to bring that inside stuff into this realm of touch and smell and contact and physical sensation.  The correlation doesn’t need to be, won’t be, exact.  Doesn’t matter.  It’s a bridge to somewhere over the rainbow, where the sidewalk ends, where the path disappears into a pool of still water.  Pick(le) your metaphor.

Believing, as the (transformed) saying goes, is seeing.  We see it through, we manifest it, because we’ve seen it before, maybe via an inner sense that doesn’t always feel like sight but may come as some other way of knowing.  Do we need to be told “what to look for and when” as the cartoon suggests?  Only if we’re focused on proof rather than transformation.  Only if we’re trying to see somebody else’s vision.  Ours, however, is ours — it doesn’t require tricks.  (True, it may sneak up on us, or we may be the ones doing the sneaking.)  Others may well “believe” it when they see it in our lives, when they have something they can contact that reassures them we’re still grounded here. Even if — or especially when — we’re not, anymore.  Or not like we were, exclusively.  We’re not freaks (at least usually not obvious ones).  But the life that flows through us when we complete the circuit and connect to both poles comes across to everyone.  Each person is charged at least a little, whenever any one of us is.  The democracy of spirit.  The changes come, and with a measure of luck and grace and good weather, we survive this life again, and enough of our loved ones are still with us to carry on.

If it’s a difficult initiation — unwanted or unsought — we may resist the awareness.  The divorce, the scary diagnosis, the death of a friend, the chronic pain.  But even if it’s the events and timing of the outward initiation that seem to be the launch-pad, the dividing line between our old and new selves, almost always, in my experience, sign-posts and markers of the inner preparation and change have shown up beforehand.  We just may not recognize them till later, if at all.  Scant consolation when your life falls apart all around.  And even less welcome are the well-meaning Others in your life who may let slip that they “saw that one coming a mile away.”  (But could we listen, could we hear the warning?  Nope.  Absolutely not.  Don’t want to, don’t tell me, I don’t want to hear it!)  Sometimes deafness is protection, the only shield we have at the moment.  Compassion for ourselves, for others in that moment, and after.

One of the reasons I maintain this blog is the opportunity it gives me to test and measure some part of my inner worlds against this outer one.  After all, this is the world I live in with a physical body, and if I want to use here what I’ve experienced elsewhere and inwardly, it needs to be adapted to the dynamics of this world.  This physical life is one pole of the circuit that is our existence.  The other pole lies in our inner worlds, but that’s no reason either to discount it or to grant it a superiority over everything else that it doesn’t deserve.  Who has explored “everything life has to offer”?  I’ve been around for several decades, and I still feel like a rank beginner, like I’m only just starting to do more than scratch the surface.  And yet at the same time as doors open, a strange-familiar welcome lies on the other side, like I’m returning to something I’ve always known but haven’t yet walked.  Now (first time?  second time?) I’m setting foot there.

In the first branch of the Mabinogion, Pwyll prince of Dyfed encounters Arawn, Lord of the Otherworld, and the exchanges that develop between the two realms profit both of them.  It’s a circuit both literal and figurative, as most things are:  accessible to the metaphorical part of our minds, but also to our inner senses, if not our physical ones.  And sometimes the division falls away and no longer separates the worlds. In the Western Tradition, Samhain or Hallowe’en celebrates just such a thinning of the veil.  The Otherworld enters this one, or we journey there in dream or vision, and we become walkers in both worlds.  Sometimes this world can then go transparent, and we see both worlds simultaneously, that old double vision that dissolves time and distance and the game of mortality.  Then the veil falls again, easy concourse between the worlds slips away, and we resume to our regularly scheduled lives.  Except not quite.  We’ve changed.

As the old U.S. Emergency Broadcast System (now the EAS) used to say, more or less, “Had this been an actual emergency, you would have received instructions about what to do next,” except that instructions are already hard-wired in our hearts.  Listen without listening, and all we get is static.  The station has nothing more to say to us.  No instructions.  It seems like no one’s at the controls.  No directions.  If we can’t easily access them any longer, out of neglect or fear or ignorance, sometimes there’s a gap between learning about the “emergency” and “receiving instructions ” — a gap of hours, months, years, lives even.  Where to go, what to do, how to go on, all become unknowable, impossible, lost to us.  And so the ferment works in us, till we’re driven to find out, to quest for wisdom, to cry for vision.  And what we ask for, we receive — eventually — as the Great Triad records:  Ask and you will receive; seek and you will find; knock and it will open to you.  Eventually.  Patience, old teacher, maybe the earliest and longest lesson of all.  Another face of that strange love that sometimes seems (dare we admit it?) built into things, that will not ever let us go.

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Updated 15 March 2013

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Images:  mystical dancer initiation; proof; b&w figures

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About Initiation, Part 4   2 comments

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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.

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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About Initiation, Part 2   2 comments

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I speak for myself, of course.  It’s all that any of us can do.  But as I approach what is most deeply true for me, I find I can begin to speak true for others, too.  Most of us have had such an experience, and it’s an instance of the deep connections between us that we often forget or discount.  I’m adding this Part Two because the site stats say the earlier post on initiation continues to be popular.

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Within us are secrets.  Not because anyone hides some truths from us, but because we have not yet realized them.  The truest initiations we experience seem ultimately to issue from this inner realm of consciousness where the secrets arise.  Deeper than any ocean, our inner worlds are often completely unknown to us.  “Man is ‘only’ an animal,” we hear.  Sometimes that seems the deepest truth we can know.  But animals also share in profound connections we have only begun to discover.  We can’t escape quite so easily.

Our truest initiations issue from inside us.  Sometimes these initiations come unsought.   Or so we think. Maybe you go in to work on a day like any other, and yet you come home somehow different.  Or you’re doing something physical that does not demand intellect and in that moment you realize a freedom or opening of consciousness.  Sometimes it can arrive with a punch of dismay, particularly if you have closed yourself off from the changes on the move in your life. In its more dramatic forms initiation can bring with it a curious sense of vulnerability, or even brokenness — the brokenness of an egg that cracks as this new thing emerges, glistening, trembling.  You are not the same, can never be the same again.

The German poet Rilke tries to catch something of this in his poem “Archaic Torso of Apollo.”  He’d been blocking at writing the poems he desired,  poems of greater depth and substance, instead of the often abstract work he’d composed until then, and his friend the sculptor Rodin sets him to studying animals.  Rilke admires Rodin’s intensely physical forms and figures, and Rilke ends up writing about a classic figure of Apollo that is missing the head.  Yet this headless torso still somehow looks at him, holds him with eyes that are not there.  Initiation is both encounter, and its after-effects.

We cannot know his legendary head
with eyes like ripening fruit.  And yet his torso
is still suffused with brilliance from inside,
like a lamp, in which his gaze, now turned to low,

gleams in all its power.  Otherwise
the curved breast could not dazzle you so, nor could
a smile run through the placid hips and thighs
to that dark center where procreation flared.

I may witness something that is simply not there for others, but nonetheless it is profoundly present for me.  Or I see something that is not for the head to decipher, interpret, judge and comment on.  There’s nothing there for the intellect to grasp.  In the poem, the head of the sculpture of Apollo is missing, and yet it sees me, and I see or know things not available to my head.  I feel the gaze of the sculpture.  I encounter a god.  Or just a piece of stone someone shaped long ago into a human figure, that somehow crystallizes everything in my life for me right now.  Or both.

The sensation of initiation can be as intensely felt and as physical as sexuality, “that dark center where procreation flared.”  It hits you in your center, where you attach to your flesh, a mortal blow from a sword or a gesture that never reaches you, but which still leaves you dizzy, bleeding or gasping for breath.  Or it comes nothing like this, but like an echo of all these things which have somehow already happened to you, and you didn’t know it at the time — it somehow skipped right past you.  But now you’re left to pick up the pieces of this thing that used to be your life.

Otherwise this stone would seem defaced
beneath the translucent cascade of the shoulders
and would not glisten like a wild beast’s fur:

would not, from all the borders of itself,
burst like a star: for here there is no place
that does not see you. You must change your life.

You feel Rilke’s discovery in those last lines*, the urgency, the knowledge arriving from nowhere we can track.  I have to change, and I’ve already changed.  I know something with my body, in my gut, that my head may have a thousand opinions about.  I may try to talk myself out of it, but I must change.  Or die in some way.  A little death of something I can’t afford to have die.  There is no place in my life that does not see me, that feeling rises that I can’t escape, and yet I must escape.  It’s part of what drives some people to therapy.  Sometimes we fight change until our last breath, and it takes everything from us.  Or we change without knowing it, until someone who knows us says, “You’ve changed.  There’s something different about you.  I can’t put my finger on it,” or they freak at the changes and accuse us, as if we did it specifically to spite them.  “You’re not the person you used to be,” meaning you’re no longer part of the old energy dynamic that helps them be who they are, and now they must change too.  Initiation ripples outward.  John Donne says, “No man is an island, entire of itself.  Each man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.”  Sometimes it’s my own initiation, sometime I’m feeling the ripples from somebody else’s.  The earthquake is in the neighborhood, right down the street, in the next room, here — or across the ocean.  But ripples in each case.

Sometimes we “catch” initiation from others, like a fire igniting.  We encounter a shift in our awareness, and now we see something that was formerly obscure.  It was there all along, nothing has changed, and yet … now we know something we didn’t before.  This happens often enough in matters of love.  The other person may have been with us all along, nothing has changed … and yet now we feel today something we didn’t feel yesterday.  We know it as surely as we know our bones.  We can feel the shift under our skin.  The inner door is open.  Do we walk through?

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

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*Mitchell, Stephen, trans. The Selected Poetry of Rainer Maria Rilke (English and German edition).  Vintage, 1989.

About Initiation, Part 1   2 comments

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With energies flowing around us from so many end-of-year holidays and celebrations, it seemed fitting to think and write about initiation.  It’s one more piece of a Religious Operating System (ROS), it’s an important key to Druidry and — most importantly — it’s something we all experience.  For good reason, then, the subject cuts a large swath through spiritual, religious and magical thought and practice.  As author Isaac Bashevis Singer opens his book The Chosen, “Beginnings are difficult times.”  That’s one reason New Year’s resolutions often end up on the cutting room floor of the film version of our lives.  (Some ways to keep them alive and well and not merely part of the special extended version of our lives that may not see wide release into the “real” world will be the subject of a post upcoming in the next few days.)

Some opportunities for initiation recur each year, and are built into our cultures.  Right now the festival holidays of Hanukkah, Christmas, Diwali, Kwanzaa and so on are opportunities for annual initiation — if we let their celebrations reach into us and change us.  As breaks from “profane” or ordinary time, holidays take us into altered if not sacred space, and then return us to our lives somehow — ideally, anyway — changed.  Of course, specific religions and spiritual paths each offer their own initiations.  For Christians, it’s baptism (and for Catholics and some other denominations, confirmation as well).  A Jew passes through a bar or bat mitzvah, and so on.

But we needn’t look so far or so formally.  First kiss, first love, first sexual experience, first drink (consider the particular sequence of these in your own life).  Driver’s license, prom, graduation, military draft.  Each transforms as a rite of passage.  We “pass through” and come out on the other side, different, in ways others may or may not notice.  We ourselves may not fully absorb the changes until much later.

As with the kinds of freedom I considered in a previous post, there seem to be both “transitive” and “intransitive” initiations — initiations which enable or empower the initiate to do something — typically in the future — and initiations which recognize a standard or awareness already attained, and put a “seal of approval” on it.  Of course these need not be separate.  Both kinds can occur simultaneously.  Initiation is a “beginning” (from Latin initio “start, beginning”) both a path or direction that another agency, power or person starts us on, and also something one does or experiences oneself.

Some big initiations are inclusive.  Like annual holidays, we all experience them.  Though we may not often think of it, death — our own, or that of a loved one, or of a public figure with symbolic power, like a John F. Kennedy or a Princess Diana — can be a powerful, transformative initiation.  Through the grief and the inevitable breaks in familiar routine that come with the first shock, the family gatherings, the arrangements and the funeral itself, we’re brought to face loss, change, mortality, and endings and beginnings in ways.  We may take on new, unfamiliar roles, like caretaker, mourner, survivor, with all the challenge and growth they can bring.  The first death we encounter (apart from pets), given the usual number of years between generations, comes almost like clockwork sometime in our teens, with the passing of a grandparent.  In the freshman dorm at the boarding school where I teach and serve as adviser, there are four or five deaths of grandparents each year, and all the myriad changes they carry with them for those involved.  It’s a close study in family dynamics (and our capacity as advisers to provide support) to witness how kids and their families deal with it all.

Marriage often seems to occupy a sort of middle ground as far as these categories operate.  On the one hand, no one is married in the eyes of either the law or a religious organization until they pass through the requisite ceremony.  Yet we all know couples who are already “so married” that the ceremony confers nothing that they don’t already manifest in abundance.  In this case, the initiation of marriage simply recognizes and formalizes a connection and a state of relationship that already exists and — if the ritual or ceremony still carries any power — blesses and charges the thing consecrated.  My wife and I have two anniversaries, ten days apart, and each conveyed to us different energies.  First was a spiritual ceremony by a cleric in our tradition, and second came the state ceremony, performed by a justice of the peace.  Interesting, too, who we see as performing or undergoing the initiation.  Ideally, to my mind, the one experiencing the initiation should play at least some part, if not an active role, in its enactment.  For initiation takes place both outwardly, where it is often witnessed by the state if not also by family, and  more importantly inwardly, on the subtle planes (which deserve their own post or series of posts).

“Where is wisdom to be found?” goes the old query.  Initiation is one major source.  Not all initiations “show” right away, or even ever.  What we begin may never end.  It can take a lifetime to sort out the effect of even “lesser” initiations, to say nothing of the big ones.  Those “long” words, never and always, very much belong with initiations.

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

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Image credits:  Knighthood — “The Accolade” by Edmund Blair Leighton

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