On rites of passage
I find myself up writing this at some indeterminate hour of the night. Up out of bed because I've learned in 48 years that there is no great purpose to lying in bed for hours awake, and the cadence of sensation, emotion, and thought has clued me to the irrefutable awareness that I myself am in the midst of an initiation. So what better time to story this?
The arc of a life evolving, the origami of becoming, the developmental lines along which we are architected to unfold. We seem, innately, to be hard-wired for neuro-development and social development. The baby is born, and then upon some kind of cosmic clockwork, these developmental sequences begin to unfold. We know, collectively, the early milestones. When baby begins to walk, to talk. But these are merely the grossest transformations; there are many far subtler yet perhaps no less dramatic.
I remember with wonder watching my daughter, approaching three months of age, discover that the arms moving in slow strange ellipses around her face belonged to her. What we were watching together, as she discovered, was in fact the myelination of voluntary muscle. Her will moving into the neural wiring of the arms. An everyday miracle; a developmental unfolding. I remember watching her learn to ride a bike.
If you study these events closely, you begin to realize there is something always uncanny about them. My daughter failed to ride a bike repeatedly for a very long time. The moment when this changed, it changed completely. Somehow all the various movements required coordinated. There was really no half-riding. Before, nothing was working, and then suddenly it all came together, organized itself into a higher order process, and an entirely new motion was born. There is a before and an after, and they bear little resemblance to one another.
I'm circling here, in this essay, spiraling in on initiatory process. We have preserved, in parts, in the modern world, elements of initiation, because some of them are biologically innate. Becoming a parent is an initiation. Its not just a baby that is born. Parents are born with the baby. When my daughter was born, my fatherhood was born. My wife's motherhood was born. Some of the initiations we preserve are cultural: marriage, for example. Marriage is an initiatory process. A ceremony, witnessed by the community (the ancestral village, as it were), of uniting. Through this uniting a new identity is born.
If we really show up for an initiation–if we allow it to work us over, which is what it is designed to do, it brings the power to transform. I didn't sleep for five nights in a row before my wife and I got married. I simply could not sleep. I lay there, in bed, as our families began to arrive from out of town, the day got closer, and I began to wonder how on earth I would function, let alone host people graciously, on zero sleep for several days. I tried everything. Herbal sleeping remedies, sleep aids, etc etc. Nothing worked. On the fifth night, ragged beyond reckoning, I was banging my face against the mattress when my then fiancée awakened, startled by the noise. "What's wrong?" she asked me. I was nearly incoherent with fatigue. "I can't sleep," I told her. "I haven't slept for days. I don't know what's wrong with me. I'm not going to be able to function." My body knew that something of real magnitude was about to happen, and that I didn't know, couldn't know, what it would be like. There was coming, just ahead, a turn in the road beyond which I could not see. She wrapped herself around me, took my head in her hands, and at some point I just began to weep. It was frustration, and fatigue, and a feeling of helplessness, and a feeling of relief...so many different things, lying there. That there was a 'we' forming, being born, and I wasn't going to be able to understand it with my mind, but that I could allow it with my body. A sort of dam burst, and at some point my body just surrendered to the not knowing. And I finally slept, in her arms.
In traditional and ancestral cultures, which are closer to the rhythms of nature, and of human development, there are ceremonies of the seasons, and ceremonies to mark the seasons of life. We see elements of this preserved in the Jewish Bar and Bat Mitzvah, in Christian Confirmation– an initiation marking the passage from childhood to the realm of the adult. Yet many of us are sorely in want of these rites of passage. We hunger to be witnessed, by ourselves and by our communities, as we pass into new stages of our becoming. The power of the community is central. It is said that no one becomes an Elder, for example, of their own volition. The community decides when you are an Elder.
Various among us in modernity have sought to avail ourselves of, and sometimes appropriate, the initiatory rituals of other cultures. From vision questing to ayahuasca ceremonies, these are often attempts to plug ourselves back into a more primal, a more original framework of meaning.
Yet the structure of the initiatory experience is innate. The confrontation with a task, a project, an undertaking that is beyond our current ability, the break with everyday routine required to open a liminal space in our lives where we can situate ourselves in relationship to this new thing required of us, and a confrontation with unknown forces, both within and without... all of these are hallmarks of the initiatory experience.
It's important to gather wise guides around us–not just for initiatory experiences, but certainly then. It is important to be witnessed by people who have succeeded in crossing the river you are attempting to cross. But there is also, in initiation, always a confrontation with self. There is, always, in initiation, the possibility of failure, of destruction, of annihilation. And so when we sense an initiation coming–or when it comes upon us unbidden–it is a good idea to turn our full attention to it, to allow ourselves to confront it, to seek alliance from helpers known and unknown, and to connect with our hearts.
All real initiatory experiences teach us that we are not in control, and that we can't think our way through it. As I sit here, eating buttered toast at 1:41 AM, touching my own grief of change in the initiatory process I find myself in, I find comfort in the notion that this may reach you, on some similar night you can't sleep and have made your way here, looking maybe for some guidance, looking to feel less alone.
I imagine us sitting up, around the ancestral fire, in this deep of night, comforted by the presence of one another, and the awareness that even in the uniqueness of our struggles to become what we are being called to, there is an innate architecture to the experience that is both necessary and beautiful.
Related Practices:For deeper examination of elements of the depth psychological structure of initiatory process, see Mary Watkins on Psychologies of Liberation. See Building Peace with Pete Jackson. See Deprogramming the Colonial Mind. See The Original Language: How to Talk to Everything. See Dream Tracking. See Ways of Knowing and Ways of Knowing with Your Feet. See Indigenous Voices , Follow Your Heart, Becoming a Real Human Being, Hawa'iian Indigenous Natural Farming, and The Yawanawa Light. See The Thanksgiving Address.
Who taught us this?
Something we've learned along the way...
Who taught us this?
Something we've learned along the way...
Video: Cottonbro Studio | Photography: Cottonbro Studio | Licensed from Pexels.com, used with permission.