Thomas Berry, a Catholic monk and universal philosopher, says “One of the most frequent archetypes is the performance of death and rebirth ceremonies. Humans are not fully human until they’ve gone through some ceremonial rebirth.”
Initiation is one way of coding difficult or archetypal experiences as death/rebirth journeys, a marking of rites of passage using a transformational lens. Seeing a life transition as an initiatory crossing can become a vital perspective on change, pain and suffering, to give it meaning or wider purpose. This is something that humans have traditionally done to help each other hold a “big picture” and pass wisdom from the more experienced to the less experienced members of community.
A traditional initiation in an indigenous culture would likely begin with a symbolic death and culminate in a rebirth ritual. How then does the use of initiation as a model affect our human health and spiritual development in contemporary times?
It is said that the only thing we can count on is change. However, when changes come, we can feel overwhelmed and alienated from our families and communities. We know that life changes are normal and many are inevitable. People die, work changes, relationships end. This isn’t new information; we are fully aware that change will happen. What is impossible to prepare for is the effect of these transitions on our lives. I will never be ready for my life to shift in the striking ways that it does and I have absolutely no control over this. I am regularly amazed at how much of my life force energy I spend guarding against the unavoidable changes that are coming, rather than savoring every exquisite moment of my days.
The context of initiation is deeply valuable because life always holds the inevitability of potentially devastating experiences. Our ability to shift our perception in regards to these situations helps us to survive the most difficult times. Using a metaphor of a death/rebirth cycle to code our struggles gives us some sense of hopefulness that may otherwise feel far away. Remembering that time is not only linear can remind us to seek joy and the possibility of rebirth even in the midst of pain and know that that the arduous times right now will not last forever. In this archetypal pattern, death is not the end. Rebirth always pursues it. Winter never happens without spring following on its heels. Initiation offers a toolbox for those of us experiencing suffering. What have people before us done to move through these situations? How might we transform our present sense of hurt into future wisdom?
David Richo, a psychotherapist, educator and author, reminds us that “it is precisely the pain and shock of the initiation ceremony that initiates…we are always dying to what is not essential.” We can either shrink from the aspects of our life cycles that feel like death or we can recognize them as a crucial part of the process. We do not have any significant incentive to release our comfort or the parts of our stories that are already known. Initiation can give us inspiration to more gracefully release our illusions of control and move into the mystery. Seeing our life events through the eyes of a candidate facing initiation firmly removes us from our self deceptions of victimization and invites us back to empowerment.
Often, what is the most difficult about a change is the passing of the way it was before the difference happened. The second most difficult part is the acceptance and adjustment to the “new normal” and attempting to integrate the variation into a routine. We rarely have any jurisdiction over the modifications that life makes; we can only determine our reply to them. We spend a lot of time worrying about what will happen next rather than training ourselves to respond to the situation at hand. If we can learn to better see where we are, we can often create a better platform from which to get where we desire to go.
In modern times, there is less emphasis placed on the seeking of initiation for people who do not seek to become healers or spiritual leaders but it is no less vital of a paradigm from which we can draw courage. Most initiations are characterized by the endurance or completion of a set of challenges before celebrating the individual’s progress, journey, and arrival at the other side or return home. Sometimes these challenges are physical, they are usually designed to prove commitment to the path. Many people describe their experience of an recovery from an illness to be an initiatory experience, emerging with a greater fidelity to their lives and dedication to their health. Sometimes the challenges are mental/emotional or spiritual; the candidate must complete tasks, face some inner demons, learn a practice, or devote to something.
Candidates for initiation are often asked to pass a test or exhibit bravery in a dangerous situation, whether the danger is real or perceived, before coming to the initiation ceremony itself. In many indigenous cultures, initiation asks that something precious to the candidate be released in order to create an opening for the rebirth experience. In initiation ceremonies, the candidate will often have to pass over some kind of a threshold. The successful crossing of this threshold is often the key to the beginning of the ritual. There are challengers or guardians waiting at this gate who ask the candidate a question or pose a threat that must be overcome. The symbolic death or sacrifice is necessary to reveal the circumstances for impending birth.
Another characteristic of many initiations is that there are mysteries or core truths that are passed to the person after crossing the threshold, completing the challenges and participating in the ritual. Our perseverance is rewarded and we receive wisdom from a source beyond ourselves. These might not even be lessons that are conveyed in words nor understood solely with the intellect.
After initiation, something changes and the person who has undergone and passed over the threshold carries more responsibility. Sometimes there is a new name that the initiate takes or a new title/role in community. There is also a greater degree of insight after initiation and the acknowledgment of a clear initiator who led the way, whether that be another person or the experience itself.
The gifts of initiation, along with a sense of accomplishment and wisdom, can include the duty to hold the container for others in the same process. There is some kind of leadership or service that is expected, or at least role modeling from someone who has been through this experience.
What can service mean in these contemporary times? In modern times, the intensity of our life stress and personal problems may obscure any obligation to those outside of our immediate family or friendship circle. In the absence of tribe, we search for communities who hold values that are similar to ours. It is a human need to feel useful, to believe that one’s life experiences have meaning that goes beyond the personal. There are so many places and people who need help in our own towns and in our world. Where can we be the most effective?
Who are we responsible to? An initiation can be a highly individualized experience, but the completion of it may carry a commitment to aid or teach others. Survivors of an illness are often asked to share their stories with folks who have recently been diagnosed. Those who live through childhood abuse and find peace and function in their lives can provide needed models to others who don’t believe it possible. When we are suffering, we are hungry for details of what to expect, hungry for examples that we hold when we feel we can’t go on. It is a service to tell these stories of our own deaths and rebirths and give people hope that they too can survive and thrive.
The completion of an initiation can ignite the call to service within us, highlighting our passions and showing us that without which our lives would not be worthwhile. People who have been through a traumatic experience often say that afterward, they stop taking their life for granted, that they somehow “wake up” and begin to appreciate more subtle things. Perhaps, initiation allows us to remove many layers of distraction from our lives or dissolve some of the compartmentalization that keeps us separate from the world around us.
What initiations have you experienced? Were they mindful excursions or sudden explosions? Who helped you cross the doorstep, who lit the dark way for you? For whom are you acting as initiator, consciously or not? How could you be of service to others who are stepping onto this path? How can you hold the lantern and offer assistance to others wandering in the darkness?