Some People Wake Up: Reflections on Initiation- Francis Weller
Again and again
Some people wake up.
They have no ground in the crowd
And they emerge according to broader laws.
They carry strange customs with them,
And demand room for bold gestures.
The future speaks ruthlessly through them.
-Rainer Maria Rilke
No doubt you have noticed that we are living in turbulent times culturally and as a planet. All pretense of immunity is collapsing as we realize how completely entangled our lives are with one another, with kelp beds and calving glaciers, with refugees and the dreams of young people everywhere. The disequilibrium shaking the world feels like a continual tremor on the fault lines of our psychic lives. Very few things feel stable. It is like a fever dream. It may be that this is the initiatory threshold we require to wake us up. Whatever is happening, much will be asked of us if we are to make it through the whitewater of this narrow passage. We do not know what lies ahead, but one thing is sure: This is a time for bold gestures. It is time to wake up and humbly take our place on this stunning planet. The future is speaking ruthlessly through us.
The immediate need of our time is for ripened and seasoned adult human beings to take their place in our communities; individuals who carry a deep and abiding fidelity to the living body of this benevolent earth, to beauty and to their own souls. Traditionally, these were the ones who had successfully crossed a series of initiatory thresholds and had come through as protectors and carriers of the communal soul. They were the ones whose artistry and wisdom kept the current of culture alive. We live in a society that has all but abandoned rituals of initiation. Consequently, we are languishing from the absence of mature and robust adults.
How do we become seasoned adults, a true human being? This is not a given. Traditionally this was the work of culture. Through the long labors of multiple initiations, individuals were gradually crafted into persons of substance and gravity. The process yielded someone more attuned to responsibilities than rights, more aware of multiple entanglements than entitlements. They were initiated into a vast sea of intimacies; with the village, star clusters and gnarled old oaks, the pool of ancestors and the scented earth.
Through the sustained attention of culture, individuals were ripened into adults capable of sustaining culture: A marvelous symmetry.
We are meant to cross many thresholds in our lifetime, each a further embodiment of the soul’s innate character. Yet many of us carry the uncomfortable thought that we are unsure of our place in the world, still anxious about our sense of value and our right to be here. The unfinished business of adolescence haunts us and makes it hard to live into the larger arc of our lives.
Crossing the threshold from adolescence into adulthood requires an ordeal, a tempering of the individual that begins the process of ripening. There is no easy passage. Many traditional cultures escorted their youth into the world of adulthood and the sacred through an elaborate series of rituals. These rituals occurred in nature, in the holding space of forests and caves, savannahs and bush. It was a space outside the ordinary world of the village, apart from the community and often took place over many weeks and even months. It was a time of tempering the young ones with intense ritual ordeals that took them beyond their capacities to endure. Something died in the process. Something needed to die in the process. And something needed to come forward. Some new shape of identity that was wedded to the silt and slope of the land, that spoke the feathered and furred language of the creatures and the song of the dawn. This new identity was commingled with the holy topography. They became one and the same.
Underneath and holding up this initiatory process was a deep and abiding relationship to the wild world and the spirits of place. This passage was rooted in a nearly endless succession of generations that had come to learn the necessity of such a transition. The awareness for this is essentially universal: our souls must be shaped by a process of intense ritual encounter, communal reflection, and immersion in the natural and supranatural worlds. In other words, to become an adult, certain gateways needed to be crossed for that territory to be fully embedded within the person.
What we witness daily in the litany of injustices and exploitation of others and the world are the actions of uninitiated individuals. It is not difficult to see how questions of adequacy and inclusion are often portrayed in gross exaggerations of power and force. Nor is it a stretch to see how the persistent hunger in the unripened psyche of so many is at the heart of our violent consumption of the planet.
Initiation is an entrance into a place, a terrain. It is a courtship of a large dreaming animal. It is not an abstract ideal of psychological accomplishment, but rather an entrance into the specificity of locale, of geography, of rhizomes and crab thought, mercurial imaginings, moon cycles, and seasonal rhythms, with eyes that regard these as sacred. Through these intimacies, a grand landscape comes into vision: a world riddled with spirit, ancestors, community, cosmos and the dreams of those yet to come.
Initiation, in its deepest traditional sense, was meant to keep the world alive. The purpose was not individual, but cosmological in scope. It was never for the individual. This is very hard for us to get our minds around, having been conditioned within a psychological tradition that fixates everything upon the “self.” It is always about me and my growth! Here’s the truth, however: Initiation was an act of sacrifice on behalf of the greater circle of life into which the initiate is brought and to which they now hold allegiance.
Can you feel your longing for just such a knowing?
At the same time, initiation profoundly affects us as individuals. It activates and authorizes the particular soul thread we came to offer the waiting world. Much like those seed pods that only germinate in the heat of fire, the soul seed we carry responds to the heat generated by initiation.
The soul is fully aware of the reciprocal relationship it has with the wild world, with the worlds of spirit and the ancestors. Soul recognizes the innate requirements for maintaining these connections. It was the role of mature individuals to honor our place in the family of things by carrying out the rituals of gratitude and renewal that sustain our relations with the breathing, animate world. Initiation embeds in us a fundamental requirement of being human:
We are meant to feed Life in an ongoing way!
As we mature, we are asked to come into a more reciprocal relationship with the earth. We are called to develop the manners which help sustain the body of this exquisite world. Values such as respect, restraint (our least developed spiritual value), gratitude, and courage help to fortify our ability to stand and protect what we love. We are here to participate in the ongoing creation, to offer our imagination, affection, and devotion to the sustaining of the world.
It is not difficult to see how far we live as a culture from these practices. The central question is, how can we, once again, recognize the transforming cadence of initiation in a time of amnesia, a time in which the old forms have been abandoned?
The truth is initiation is not optional. Every one of us will be taken to the edge, pulled by the gravity of the soul to engage the rigors of ripening us into something substantial. No one is exempt. Imagine if we could see the circumstances of our lives as the raw material necessary for the movement across the threshold into our adult lives. This could free us in radical ways. From a mythic perspective, these are the conditions that can cook the soul and bring us closer to the mystery of our own singular incarnation. The rough initiations of loss, trauma, defeats, betrayals, illness, become the Prima Materia, the beginning matter, for undertaking the crossing into our more encompassing life. So much depends upon how we perceive what it is that is happening in our world. Taking a mythic view enables us to see our circumstances as necessary, even required, for the work of deep change to take place.
The need is clear: we must cultivate a robust collective of adults whose primary fealty is to the life-giving world upon which we depend. We must be able to feel our loyalties to watersheds, migratory pathways, marginalized communities, and the soul of the world. We must feel the bedrock of our aliveness, and the reality of our wild and exuberant lives. Initiation tempers the soul, drawing out its hidden essence and calls forth the medicine we came to offer this stunning world. It is time to wake up!
Francis Weller, MFT, is a psychotherapist, writer, and soul activist. Author of The Wild Edge of Sorrow: Rituals of Renewal and the Sacred Work of Grief, The Threshold Between Loss and Revelation, (with Rashani Réa) and In the Absence of the Ordinary: Essays in a Time of Uncertainty, he has introduced the healing work of ritual to thousands of people. He founded and directs WisdomBridge, an organization that offers educational programs that seek to integrate the wisdom from indigenous cultures with the insights and knowledge gathered from Western poetic, psychological and spiritual traditions. Francis’ writings have appeared in anthologies and journals exploring the confluence between psyche, nature, and culture, including The Sun magazine, the Utne Reader, Kosmos Journal, and Ruminate. Francis is currently on staff at Commonweal Cancer Help Program, co-leading their week-long retreats with Michael Lerner. He is currently completing his fourth book, The Alchemy of Initiation: Soul Work and the Art of Ripening.