Initiations and Initiatory Experiences

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When I first began studying and working with shamanism and shamanic practices, I heard a lot about 'initiations' and initiatory experiences. I thought I knew what people were talking about, and I naively figured that this meant taking certain classes, mastering certain techniques, and being given a diploma of some sort or having an instructor give me a "atta boy" pat on my head. In my mind, an initiation was a graduation exercise in which a person would congratulate me on having attained "(fill-in-the-blank)" rank or status, and then would officially and publicly confer upon me the rights, authority and privileges thereof. Easy, nice and tidy. And the public part was important to me.

What I actually had my first spiritual initiatory experience, I thought I was having a stroke. Or maybe a heart attack.

In my experiences and from speaking with other colleagues about this, we are given initiatory experiences when our spiritual helpers decide it's time to move to the next level of understanding. Let me be more clear: we don't create transformational initiatory experiences; they happen when conditions are ripe. True, sometimes transformational initiatory experiences happen in ceremony, but creating a ceremony in which such transformation is guaranteed is, in my opinion, not possible. You may disagree, and I'd truly love to hear from those who have been able to do this.

A transformational initiation is just that: it changes you. Forever. In a way that is not reversible. Some mystics speak about these events as "rebirth", as dying to your old self and being reborn completely anew. This is exactly how it as been for me.

Neither birth nor death are clean, antiseptic, or orderly. Initiatory experiences aren't clean, antiseptic, or orderly, either. They jangle you, rearrange your molecules, pull the rug out from under you, shake you up! And when the dust settles, you are a new you. You have new eyes, a new understanding; you're suddenly standing and looking at the world from a different point of view, a point of view you've never been able to achieve before. And you'll never be able to get back to your old one. What is seen from this new perspective cannot be un-seen.  

Like birth, my initiatory experiences have all been preceded by a time of doubt, discomfort, stuckness, and a sense of some sort of pressure building up. Sometimes this has lasted for a year or more. Some of these times have been rather short. Usually during these times I'm doing intense personal work. Sometimes I'm just working on "little" side issues. But that's how it is: you can push and push and push and push, and then something gives somewhere, you don't always know what, and suddenly a brand new life is brought into the world! When I had a garden, something like this would happen whenever I was trying to get a big rock out of the ground: I could dig and dig and dig, and nothing would happen. And then, I'd remove that one magical handful of dirt, and the thing would just come loose and lift out easy as pie.

These things happen in a moment, as if we have been struck by lightning. We're suddenly new, different, standing in a new place. And we find that with this initiation, we have a new level of understanding and also often access to a new level of power. The understanding is often about what it means to actually have power and what it means to use it. This new flash of understanding is often also about the towering responsibilities that come with such power. 

For me, these initiatory experiences have given me raw, naked looks at myself. They have allowed me to see myself as I've never been able to see myself before. It's rarely pretty, and it is always necessary for whatever I'm working toward. In this regard, my initiatory experiences have been major course corrections, waypoints along my journey. And yet, they've always been packed and delivered with great love, albeit tough love. Let's face it: explosive diarrhea in the middle of the night while camping at 15,000 feet and being told seven different ways and in no uncertain terms by the local mountain deity upon which you are presently camping that I was completely and utterly full of shit was not my idea of fun. Especially when I wanted that glowing, knowing "atta boy!" pat on the head while the Angels sang.

But it couldn't have happened in any other way and made the impact that it has made. In each case, my transformational initiations have all involved the message, "oh come now; you can do better than that!" from the spirits, a complex message of smackdown-with-encouragement. Often, there is a LOT of humor in these kinds of initiation for me, either embedded in, or circling around, the main message. Finding a wadded up single-roll toilet paper wrapper for the Peruvian brand, "Ego" at the bottom of a woven bag I'd bought expressly to increase my own visibility and status, is, you have to admit, hilarious. Finding it the day before we started that camping trip to the sacred mountain at 15,000 feet made my laughter the nervous kind, though. I suspected what I was in for, and I could feel that familiar pressure building.

What, then, seems to be a common feature of transformational initiations, or maybe only the ones that I personally have had, is that I get to see myself in a more clear, more objective light. That is most often what the viewpoint shift is all about. Being able to take in these views is the most growth-inducing motivation I know of :-) The universe's fun-house mirror helps us see, and helps us to grow.

Getting kicked out of our comfy nest is scary, and maybe we flap a little on the way down. We surely don't want to do that again! But soon enough, we're flying. The fall is part of our new ability to soar.