What is Initiation?

“There may be no time more suited to the study of rites of passage than the threshold between the end of modernity and the uncertain future of humanity.”

-Michael Meade 

Something is profoundly amiss in the masculine psyche today.

Storyteller Michael Meade, one of the founders of what is now called the “mythopoetic men’s movement,” has worked in the realm of masculinity and depth psychology for over 30 years.

In his book The Water of Life: The Wounding and Healing of Men, Meade writes, “Men are particularly dangerous when they reach maturity without initiatory experiences that crack the ego and open the heart and mind.”

One can easily see this dangerousness playing out in schools, shopping malls, and religious sites around the world. Meade explained, “The lack of meaningful rites of passage leaves many men deeply unsure of who they are in essence and what their inner life might be.” 

Initiation is Ancient

Comparative religion scholar Mircea Eliade described the lack of initiation as a foundational aspect of the modern world:

“It has often been said that one of the characteristics of the modern world is the disappearance of any meaningful rites of initiation. Modern man’s originality, his newness in comparison with traditional societies, lies precisely in his determination to regard himself as a purely historical being, in his wish to live in a basically desacralized cosmos.”

The earliest scholar to define the basic structure of initiation was Arnold van Gennep. In his 1909 text, The Rites of Passage, van Gennep argued that initiation rites are present across all cultures, abide by patterns that mimic cosmic and earth-based cycles, and apply to every aspect of human life.

Van Gennep divided rites of passage into three stages, which continues to inform our understanding of initiation to this day:

1) Rites of separation, characterized by removal from the familiar and often symbolized by ritual cutting or piercing;

2) Rites of transition, also known as the liminal, characterized by the revelation of sacred knowledge and often an ordeal in which the initiate must literally or symbolically face death;

3) Rites of incorporation, characterized by a return to society as a transformed individual. 

Both Van Gennep and Eliade drew from a variety of indigenous cultures to illustrate this ancient and omnipresent aspect of human culture. While ceremonies of initiation may have looked different across cultures, what remains constant is their importance to the health of that society.

Modern culture, with our shallow graduation ceremonies and lost weekends spent in a haze of drugs and alcohol, is grasping at something it has forgotten even exists. 

In other words, our cultural lack of meaningful rites of passage makes us the exception, not the rule. 

Initiation is Archetypal 

Joseph Campbell, in his famous text, The Hero with a Thousand Faces, elaborated upon van Gennep’s structure in the creation of his concept of the Hero’s Journey, what he called the “monomyth.” 

In the introduction to this book, Campbell penned his long-standing axiom, “And where we had thought to be alone, we shall be with all the world.”

What Campbell suggests here is an even deeper layer of psychological significance contained within initiation: a collective, archetypal element inherent in these experiences.

Read: 5 Things You Need to Know About Archetypes

Depth psychotherapist Richard Frankel wrote that initiation is a “structural component of the psyche.” Because of this, according to Frankel, it “is going to occur whether or not a given culture formally invests in such rites.”

We can begin to see the risky behavior of adolescents, especially teenage boys, as the psyche grasping for something it can interpret as initiatory. It is a cultural tragedy that so often this deep psychic desire results in disaster. 

Initiation involves Both Healing and Wounding. 

Working with at-risk youth, war veterans, and groups of adult men, Meade wrote about the poetic and dangerous nature of the initiatory wound. Using the word litima from the Gisu tribe of Uganda, Meade illustrated the double-edged nature of this masculine, adolescent fire that “expects to be initiated”:

“[Litima] is the source of the desire for initiation and the aggression necessary to undergo radical change.”

Commenting on both the destructive and creative nature of this energy, Meade explained, 

“To educate means to lead out, to educe, to elicit, even to extract something. Litima is an ancient reference to that something—both the capacity to erupt in violence and the capacity to courageously defend others, the aggression that destroys things and the force that can create and protect life.”

Drawing upon ancient folktales and 20 years of experience as a rites of passage guide in his native England, Dr. Martin Shaw elaborated on the perspective-altering effect that initiation imparts: “In the myth world, it is not the steady road of societal affirmation that defines us but rather that we orientate ourselves through hierophany—sacred rupture.”

That “sacred rupture” can take on many forms. Tragic loss or trauma, military service, profound heartbreak, experiences with psychedelics, or even gang violence are some well-known examples of potentially initiatory experiences young people might have today, 

In indigenous cultures, however, initiation was a structured, communally held and understood practice, where one was separated from the known world and taken deep into the sacred mysteries of the tribe, totem, or spirit.

Quite a far cry from the blackout frat parties of today.

Shaw contended that without initiation, societies develop a “chaotic sickness or malaise that invokes a very real sense of dislocation from the wider community.” 

According to Shaw, “These ritual forms are the secret history of the world: they are medicine. . . . To face the world without them is to walk naked into a blizzard, to enter a desert without water.” 

Many people today are indeed naked in the blizzard of the world, stranded in a psychological desert without any connection to their soul, what Meade called “the water of life”.

Initiation is Specific

As if to ward off any potential for initiation to become mechanized or diluted by modern culture’s commodifying grasp, Shaw wrote:

“To present initiation as a psychological exercise or an attempt to make ‘good little boys and girls’ is to vastly under-prepare the Initiates for the realm they are heading toward. The Underworld has medicine specifically for you, but the degree of its potency is conditional. It is uncertain, it is frightening, it is the edge.”

In other words, one becomes initiated into something. That something can only be known by the person who experiences it. Usually, this is one of the most significant experiences in a person’s lifetime. 

Initiation Never Ends

Meade wrote, “Initiation never ends. When rites are ongoing a person can move from being guided through the emotions and spiritual ordeals, to preparing the rites, and to helping pull others through them.”

All signs now point to the responsibility held by initiated individuals to enact their visions and revelations in daily life.

Yet this requires a profound level of integration, ensuring that the life of the initiate be forever located, as anthropologist Victor Turner said, “betwixt and between.”

Shaw expanded on this notion, describing this marginal existence as dwelling in the dynamic “tension of a ‘crossroads’ of Village and Forest, and that this very complexity provides the grounding of an authentic human life—a strange accord with ego and soul, rationality and vision.”

Once you experience initiation, your life must forever move from that place.

Initiation Serves the Community

Returning to society and integrating what one has learned is where initiation gets real. Traditionally, one was expected to come down from the proverbial mountain with something to offer the people below.

Shaw wrote, “The Return in any great story or initiation ritual is a place of blessing, encouragement, celebration, and integration. But it requires a grounded, rooted environment for your insights to flourish within.”

If the culmination of initiatory experience is to return with some renewed vitality or vision for the community, what does it mean when there is no village to return to—no elders to sing one back into the fold of family, work, community, and culture? 

The return, as Campbell called it, may be the most challenging aspect of initiation for modern people. Without proper integration, we run the risk of leaving our gifts atop the mountain, never figuring out what that unique, transformative experience meant, how to put it into practice, and offer it to the world. 

This is the purpose of these lost rites: to find your gift, and to learn how to give it. 

“The symbols of our inherited traditions lay broken around our feet,” wrote Campbell.

Now is the time we pick up the shards.

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