On Initiation and Becoming . . .
There are certain moments in our lives that require of us our most full devotion, not some momentary glance, or the paying of customary lip service to the expectations of a seemingly indifferent culture. No. These moments are special, they are the moments and times of our making, should we choose to perceive them this way. They are times in which we are offered a choice: to dance with the voluptuous wholeness of life or her famine decimated third cousin removed.
If we choose the former we choose a lively dance partner, one that demands us to move our limbs in time with her vital and unpredictable rhythm, to dance beneath the night sky through a thick syrup of passion and spontaneity, joy and grief, a dance that is fuelled both by the fires of our loss and the celebration of life. But to choose the latter is to choose the unbearable pain and limitations of such a dance, as we are reminded of a life undernourished and abused, of tragic sacrifice, as we too become shadows of our former selves, victims of a destructive belief, as others dance by.
This choice exists in the times we share, the big and small life changing events we are all deeply effected by. These are the moments of birth, childhood, puberty, and education. They are the moments in which our hearts are broken for the first time as our longing is not met, the moments in which we bleed and move from adolescence into adulthood, become mothers and fathers. These moments could also be the loss of a job, the rafters above our head, or even worse the death of a dear friend or family member. They can also be moments of great success, the moment we ask the person we love to accompany us on this ride called life until ‘death do us part’ and mean it. Some of these moments are unruly in their nature, jumping like shadowy beasts onto our back and wrestling us to the ground at the most unfortunate of times, a time when we felt completely unstoppable and in our flow. Others appear in all our lives as experiences of our common unity, as the passing of time is inescapable for everyone, for now at least.
How we meet these moments and our choice of dance partner depends upon the perspective we have available to us, the education and experiences our lives have bathed in, our worldview. If we are fortunate enough this will include a scrapbook of mythical stories that contain beneath the veil of their entertainment the DNA strands of deep transitional wisdom, stories heard and shared around an open fire or the words of a song that we have learnt to cherish like a compass on a foggy moor. Our community can only watch our back to a point. The rest is up to us.
How we are met and handle ourselves at these times not only affects our individual wellbeing but also the wellbeing and the very nature of our community, especially if we become lost. And for this reason this is why tribal cultures place so much focus on the upkeep of initiation and rites of passage traditions that mark an individuals passing through corridors of it’s cultural time. The practicing of these rituals is the very survival of the tribe and its culture. From a highly individual western perspective this could be viewed as indoctrination but my experience has taught me that these practices run much deeper and deal not only with maintaining the very culture of a tribe, one that is always deeply rooted in place, but also speak to the void that can exist between an emergent consciousness and an animal body that has adapted, evolved and survived throughout millennia, our wild self. These practices tend to a deep need for guidance in what is often experienced as uncomfortable or destabilising moments as our bodies and lives go through changes we find hard to reconcile.
As our current culture of civilisation tries to lay claim to all our commons, these moments that cry for ritual holding, if acknowledge at all, become not moments of expansion or of becoming more deeply rooted in the magical substrate of life. They become instead moments of coercion and manipulation into ideas and lives that work to limit us and break our common unity, ideas that result and arise from the classification and stratification of life and its reduction into economic terms devoid of spiritual and phenomenological significance. A world in which our rites of passage experiences although common in their arising differ hugely depending upon the lottery of birth. Our moments of vulnerability could see us tempered by ideas of class, entitlement and power over, joining the army or being initiated into gang life as we shave our heads in search of family, heroics, and the need to avenge personal or quasi tribal injustice, to seek an encounter with death perhaps. Our young bodies and minds could become objectified and sexualised by a media culture that views flesh its ultimate currency as consumerism masquerades as spiritual reverence and liberation.
Alternatively, these moments, and the rituals created around them, have to power to reverse the toxic trends of an ecocidal culture, to expand awareness and tend to the health of the life they so deeply honour and have evolved alongside. Some of us were blessed to receive wise words or actions at a time when it really counted. Others of us found our own initiations in the everyday when the beast jumped on our back and there was nothing that could be done but fall to our knees. Some of us don’t even realise a choice exists, the voluptuous dancer is nowhere to be seen, despite a strong sense she is out there somewhere and we would love to meet her. There is healing in all of this.
Karla Hackenmiller – Liminal Assemblage, 2011
A rites of passage ceremony consists of three clear stages: separation, transition, and reincorporation. In the first stage we are withdrawn from our current status and enter into a realm of uncertainty and unknowing as we embark on a journey into a new phase of our lives. This stage marks a point of detachment from everything we thought we knew, and from the person we considered ourselves to be, a ‘Civilized’ being perhaps. The second stage, also called the liminal, is the world between worlds, neither here nor there, the threshold in which we receive our medicine, a vision that transforms our very sense of self and with it our view of the world. The third and final stage is that of the return, the point at which we journey back into our community, as transformed and initiated beings, the hero’s return. Michael Meade shares a story about the Gisu of Africa, in it the tribe’s adolescent males are marked out by the rest tribe for special treatment. For they are in a moment of their lives that can commonly be described as being in the “red”, a moment of great significance. It’s the moment in a boys life in which their body becomes flushed with testosterone as they struggle for there place in the pecking order, play fights get a little bit too serious and childhood friendships become tested, especially when there is a girl involved. At this point these soon to be men are painted red and decorated with the feathers of a bird. The elders of the community then feed the flames of their youthful boasting and displays of manhood as they gently temper them into becoming males that will not only serve themselves but also the health of the community, into honest and measured men who can become both good husbands and fathers. True warriors. It’s a period that can last up to twelve years.
The role of the elders, as the initiated and wise, and the community as both witness and place of welcome return are essential for the alchemical gifts of rites of passage to be shared and to contribute to the value of the whole. Unfortunately in these deeply polarized times of conflicting world views many of us have experienced the pain and frustration of not being welcomed back from our travels and having our gifts refused. Unless you return with the gifts your community value, you will be sorely disappointed and they will remain bereft of its medicine. This is both a tragedy and a place of deep personal grief.
After a few years of dis-ease, I was finally able to return from a liminal stage when a female of magnificent power entered into my life and would not let go as she awaited my return, a moment that I am deeply grateful for. Suddenly my whole being, my grief, it gifts and ultimately my love had a place to call home and someone to walk my truth with. The last four years of our life together have been spent in deep search of community. One that is not only able to receive us both, but also one that is also able to recognize the significance of these life moments. A community that understands how they respond individually and collectively plays a key role in enabling its members to choose wild and vital dance called life. This community is one that I am grateful to have found in the many friendships of recent and not so recent years. It is a community I want to extend my warmest love and thanks toward for the welcome it offered as I returned from my last voyage into world between worlds, a moment in which I came near to losing the life of the woman I love so deeply moments after the birth of our beautiful daughter. It is the community I offer this as a gift to. We are not the world presented to us in school history books, glossy magazines or the news. We are far more “uncivilized”. And the honoring of life and its sacred moments is our work and our challenge.