We humans have been fond of initiation rituals since our beginnings. Archeologists have plumbed the historical depths of our world to uncover evidence of ancient religious rituals among the oldest cultures, and across the world’s cultures. We know bits about initiation rituals performed by the Ancient Greeks and Egyptians, the Mayans, the Norse and some cultures of the East. Some of those old religious rituals survive, though most are transformed to fit our current social expectations. These religious initiation rituals bring us deeper into belonging, knowledge and responsibilities. We also engage in heartfelt rituals of bonding, like weddings, baby-namings and baptisms.
On the secular level, we also engage in initiation rituals when we join orientation at a new school or job; as we understand how to negotiate in a new place, we are simultaneously being initiated into that place’s culture. Many civic organizations have lengthy, sometimes secret, ceremonial initiations; I chuckle to think of Fred Flintstone’s initiation into the Loyal Order of Water Buffaloes by that order’s Grand Poobah. A frequent activity in the Internet Age is a “guided tour” of a new or upgraded app. In that tour we are being welcomed more deeply into the mysteries and power of our software.
These initiation rituals are usually beautiful, celebratory events, often long-prepared for and scripted to something close to perfection.
Shamanic initiation, however, is usually nothing like that. In shamanic initiation, we are issued an invitation to step into our own death. This invitation, issued by Spirit, not a fellow human, is a summons to step away from everything we know, perhaps even our life itself, in order that we may be free to evolve into what we are capable of becoming next. That next “self,” should she or he survive, may be a human with a bigger or more precise vision; a greater understanding of his or her “purpose” for being here; a greater capacity to bring his or her gifts and powers into the world; and a greater possibility of creating a life of meaning.
In older days, the call to shamanic initiation would often take the form of a life-threatening illness or experience. If a human could find a way to access resources from Spirit to survive the ordeal, they might be prepared to bring those resources and medicines to others. In our time, shamanic initiation often comes in the form of a diagnosis of “mental illness,” including schizophrenia, psychosis and other diagnoses. The initiation typically asks us to begin perceiving in the Spirit world, and interacting with the beings we find there, in order to survive our ordeal. For better or ill, when we experience an alternate reality these days, we are promptly medicated out of the situation. We live in a time when most have lost understanding of the shamanic perspective, and cannot see that such an illness can lead to the death of old understandings and ways of being our Selves.
From my perspective, the invitation to initiation comes from both sides of the transaction; it is a collaboration between Spirit and the initiated human being. It is true that Spirit delivers the event(s) that constitute the initiation. But I think the process actually originates as a longing of the human soul to know itself and to step into living its very highest Self. The experiences and products of our lives accumulate around us in layers, like an entire wardrobe of clothing under which we labor. We usually live out the topmost layers, which define us by our jobs, our places in our families, our places in the culture and socioeconomic structure, our hobbies, our talents, our learning.
Perhaps you can feel or hear your soul at the very center of you, still breathing its Purpose, waiting to be let free from the accumulated layers of who you have been. Perhaps your soul is calling for initiation, so that those old layers can finally be let free to die, and new, more vital ways of being can be taken up. Perhaps you will consider making your own invitation to Spirit: I want to do the work I came into this life, on this world, to do. Please invite me.
As you await your invitation you can bolster your initiation skills in some small, practical ways:
- Practice letting things go. Find a part of your life that has accumulated too many old objects. It might be a bookshelf, your office, or a closet. Perhaps it’s your contacts list, or a too-long task list , or old commitments that take up your hours and days. Develop a practice of selecting something that has to go; do it until you can let objects go without regret or fear. The more you practice, the better you’ll be able to respond when the moment arises.
- Practice letting go of your beliefs about what is true. You have a lot of understandings about what is true, how things work, how a person “should” live. Some of those were given to you by your family, culture, religion, etc. Some you created on your own. Pick a belief you hold to be true. Live the day as if it were not true. Do witness yourself in this newly-opened space without judgement. See what you understand now.
- Explore a new field of knowledge, preferably one that is either mysterious, rebellious, or just plain wrong. See what you can know from this new field: what flowers might grow here that couldn’t grow anywhere else?