Let’s talk today about Initiation.
The word brings up a number of trials and celebrations, from the baptism and bat mitzvah of Christianity to Judaism, to the walking-on-hot-coals of TonyRobbinsism. ‘Initiation’ calls to mind all kind of exotic passage to manhood: the vision quest, wearing the gloves of stinging ants, overnight burials in the deserts of Burkina Faso. The army, national service, war, all offer (typically unwanted) initiations.
It is generally agreed within men’s work that we today need initiation. This is why teenagers turn to drugs and gangs, they say, because in an absence of a true initiatory procedure, drugs seem our sole path to spiritual revelation; gangs our best bet of realising our personal power.
Long-term traveling was my gang of choice. It was my drug, also. But since the hardy wanderer hasn’t a guide but merely a guidebook (telling where to catch a train or find a decent hostel), initiatory moments befall a traveler less through planning but by accident. I never found a structure that would help me ‘self-initiate’. It took years of scrabbling around to fulfil this deep, inner need.
So What is Initiation, Exactly?
Every initiation is a full-scale, mind-and-body experience of a specific state of consciousness. As you encounter the wide range of initiatory experience piece by piece, you collect the full range of your wisdom, your adulthood, and your presence. These ‘initiated states’ might blow your mind at first. But they settle and become resources: human virtues you can revisit throughout life, whenever the need arises.
Being handed the key to your first house is a classic rite of passage — a symbolic, socially seen moment where you cross an important threshold. But the initiation into responsibility, for example, is when you file your taxes when you really don’t want to (you plod at that spreadsheet even though your inner child is kicking and screaming and begging to run off and smoke weed). Something in you steps up to the challenge, though, and you transmute those rebellious feelings into a state of tidy, wholesome orderliness, which amplifies all the more once the dreaded taxes are filed.
The rite of passage is a celebration of you crossing an outward threshold. Initiation is the psycho-emotional experience of you growing, being tested, and prevailing—despite the odds. Many of our initiations are private, intimate affairs.
Responsibility is but one adult quality to come to discover within oneself. There is rabbit-hole to all this, oh yes…
Love and Sex
Sex and love are also critical initiations. As we see, so many legal adults in our society are hesitant to express love or attraction—they never had the full experience of feeling (and being received) in these states, so how can they confidently lead a woman now?
Like many, I was ‘under the influence’ when I lost my virginity. God bless the woman who yanked me by the arm and gave me this gift, but I wasn’t conscious or open enough to that sexual experience to let it impact me that deeply. I had too much fear—I was trying to hide the fact that I was a virgin and masquerading like I knew what to do—that I never dissolved into the moment and became truly naked with that woman.
Dissolution of the ego, as we will explore, is core to any initiatory experience.
I believe there should somehow exist a legion of tantric muses around the globe—an army of sexual goddesses—whose job it is to initiate teenage boys into what it means to truly give and receive love.
The ethical implications of having that in society are, of course, tricky. Still, if no woman initiates you into a sublime experience of pleasure, where are you going to learn how to give this yourself? If no-one steers you into sharing the sweet romance of your heart while bursting with animal passion at the same time, how will you ever discover the flavours of love?
You’ll just have to luck out, and find some decent guidance on the internet, I guess.
The Mechanics of Initiation
Initiation is always a psycho-spiritual process. Psychological, in that it cuts through (and changes) your personality, your resistance, your façades. And spiritual, because you discover — at the point of initiation — a state of profound wonder. Something so deep it’s beyond words.
Externally, initiations take many shapes and forms—but every procedure is merely a design to unite community, and invoke a particular inner experience within the initiate. Internally, each initiation requires three core things:
- A dissolution of your walls, defences, protective mechanisms (your ego)
- A strong and full-blooded emotional experience (normally emotions out of reach in your day-to-day experience: anger, grief, terror, fear, and so on)
- A challenge that has you ‘burn through’ the emotion that threatens to overwhelm you. This is what some call emotional alchemy: a process that transforms core emotions into states of revelation and presence.
As you stay present during the emotional ordeal, you notice how anger turns into compassionate strength, for instance. Terror into perseverance and will. Grief into acceptance, forgiveness, grace…
A man who knows compassionate strength, perseverance, grace, and so on—and who has had a full-bodied experience of feeling such states maximally—well, he’s often a man we feel as virtuous, trustable, whole. Bit by bit, the initiate matures.
Every well-honed initiatory process guides you through a number of steps so you can feel these ‘transcendent’ states of presence. A manufacturing plant for maturity, let’s say. But while rituals and processes are interesting, fast-tracked, and utterly needed, if you have the right attitude, life itself will naturally present moments that offer you initiation. Do you allow yourself to fall in love or do you keep it a secret? Can you let a woman walk out of your life with courage, non-grasping, and grace? Can you accept the grief that comes with the loss of a parent? Will you set a boundary with your boss, and demand to be paid your worth?
‘I have to be honest, I’m a virgin. I’m really happy to be with you though. Can you show me exactly how to make love to you, in the most amazing way?’ To give a concrete example, if I’d only spoken those words during my first night of making love, it might have changed the future of my relationships entirely.
We are either open or closed to such opportunities in life. By living and speaking your truth, you will naturally face challenges that, if taken consciously and full-frontally, can offer you an initiatory rite.
As you can no doubt see, the magic spell of initiation isn’t done to you by some weird mason in robes (no matter how much he promises he’s the ordained one—and no matter how much you project exaltation onto him!). Initiation happens best when you have a specific inner attitude that helps you face your trials entirely yourself.
This doesn’t make guidance inessential, though.
We all have our defences, our stubbornness, our blind-spots.
On Light and Dark
Let’s be clear: full initiation can never be a comfortable experience. You will never become whole unless initiated into the dark as well as the light. A man needs to feel his insanity, his hatred, his defiance, his solitude—he needs to know he can kill, defend, bite—if he is to know his inner psyche, right down to the lizard brain.
In Conrad’s masterpiece Heart of Darkness, Marlow is pulled up the Congo river by a thirst for initiation. But the source of Marlow’s fascination is not bliss but the darkness of man, man’s lunacy: what happens when an intelligent, cultured leader goes rogue and lives in savagery, where nobody knows him, and where there would be no consequences. The ‘heart of darkness’ Marlow seeks is not just uncharted central Africa—although he does love a good map. No, Marlow seeks to understand just how dark a man’s heart can be in this world, and he is subsumed by this curiosity.
‘Initiation into madness’ is similarly the theme of Apocalypse Now.
If you only seek the initiations of love and meditation, you risk becoming ‘top-heavy’. You get the wisdom of the dove but not of the snake. Wholeness requires both. So it is useful to know, as a man, who you are and what you will do, when alone in some dark country, when everything is on offer, and there are no consequences for your deeds…
It is good to uncover your own capacity for corruption, exploitation, aggression, hypocrisy, hate.
Since modern culture is afraid to allow its youth to undergo a full-scale reconnaissance of their spirit and psyche, we need to find such adventures for ourselves. Travel is the easiest way: outside of your known experience, in cultures that embody traits you’re scared to own for yourself, and in the sheer, stark solitude of the wilderness… you’re afforded mainline access to potentially transformative, mystifying moments.
The ego can’t function in the same way, when you’re fresh in some foreign land. Mysterious new emotions rise to the fore. Can you ride these feelings out into presence?
You won’t come face-to-face with such experiences, however, if you stick to the tourist trail. Solitude, contemplation, courage—and most importantly, imagination—are all vital if you are to step outside of the ‘ordinary world’ of your ego, and plunge yourself into your existential fears.
Boy into man, self-doubt into presence, doesn’t occur in a week-long retreat. It unfolds in its own time—just as love isn’t discovered in the honeymoon phase, but after the battles a good year or two deep. Collecting every sublime state—light and dark—available within the human soul is an adventure of a lifetime.
Want to know more?
Then join me for my upcoming Masterclass, The Art of Initiatory Travel, and we’ll explore the living depth of this theme.
I will provide understandings and tools you can use for your own initiatory explorations, and all your questions will be answered.
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