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INITIATIONS: universal processes that spark transformation

Sep 14, 2023

VIDEO

Art Credit: Jano Tantongco jano.tantongco@gmail.com

AUDIO

The archetype of Initiation is primordial, and its force shapes our transformative transitions. For Jung, this change reshapes spiritual, emotional, intellectual, behavioral, and social dynamics.

Informed by his anthropological studies, Jung understood the necessity of formal ceremonies, accentuating their role in facilitating separation from parental influences and integration into the adult community. These rites fulfilled archetypal developmental demands to mark a clear break from childhood and foster a deeper connection with the adult community, often through physical and symbolic rites. On a cultural level, these ceremonies helped contain unconscious forces that made collaborative culture possible.

Originating from the Latin initium,  Initiation represents the beginnings we all experience, drawing us out of primal states and urging us toward higher levels of understanding and consciousness. This is not just a personal journey; it is a collective venture, with stages that resonate universally, often reflected in significant life milestones that serve as initiations into different realms of human experience. These initiations are marked by archetypal activations, core experiences that are fundamental to us all.

Initiation contains three universal elements: separation, liminal space, and reintegration. This universal process is approached through a structured and ritualistic path in modern contexts, particularly in Mystery Schools. It begins with a separation, where we transition from our outer lives, setting aside our previous roles and responsibilities.

Following this is the stage of preparation that involves purification—where we identify and discard what is alien to our true selves—and consecration, where we dedicate our efforts and lives to a higher purpose. This resonates with the process of individuation. When the preparation is complete, we are ushered into a sacred space. The first step is an expression of humility through accepting our common state of ignorance and identifying it as the primary cause of suffering. In Jungian terms, this reflects an acknowledgment of unconscious shadow and a dedication to the value of consciousness.

This is followed by ritualized tests and trials. Various characters engage the candidate, representing characteristic flaws like indolence, rage, materialism, and cruelty. When the ego defenses are challenged, and the moral work to be done is accepted, there is a shift, and a hierophant is revealed.

Hierophant means ‘revealer of the sacred. This character introduces the candidate to sacred objects and images that symbolize archetypal forces to be activated through conscious study, spiritual practices, communal rituals, and moral discipline. The candidate is welcomed as an initiate into the community of those who accept the yoke of spiritual discipline and pledge to support each other in their mutual growth.

Finally, the initiate returns to their relationships and responsibilities with the possibility of new attitudes that enlarge the personality. These rituals also reflect a process of transformation that may activate autonomously. Jung recognized this in the alchemical dictum, “solve et coagula,” dissolve then solidify. He also realized that the interruption of this process was often the cause of neuroses.

When the transformative process is stymied, ‘big dreams’ may intervene. Mythic characters and motifs activate, compelling the dream ego to move forward. Much like the ritual dramas, this may involve confrontations with inner monsters and characters we find repellant. The aim is the same: to broaden the personality beyond its conventional confines.

The loss of most formal initiations in modern culture leaves these archetypal forces with no aesthetic process to affect the individual. Once lost to culture and consciousness, the forces remain potent and act invisibly. Expressed unconsciously, they emerge as fraternity hazing or surviving a violent gauntlet to gain gang membership.

Various mythopoetic movements have attempted to restore initiations for sons and daughters, bar mitzvahs carry ancient themes into contemporary life, and Freemasons strive to maintain ceremonies that make good men better. The archetype of Initiation is still alive and potent, perhaps struggling to find modern idioms and values to carry its transformative power forward.

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4 Comments

  1. Todd Crosby

    When i was a young man, i worked in cultural conservation in west africa, i was able to document an ancient initiation process in the hinterlands of Mali. The Djo society, an ancient framework of society thousands of years old, had an initiation for boys that occurred every seven years and all the village boys that fell within the ages of 10-17 would be initiated at that time whether they wanted it or not. The boys were removed to the sacred forest for an entire summerand many rituals and stages occurred over the course of that summer. The boys were stripped to their loincloths and slept on palm leaves. It was similar to Malidoma Somé’s description. The heart of the process in the deep mid summer occurred when the old men would wash the initiates with a concoction made from herbs and toad poison…. which would put the young boys into a stupor…a state of suspended animation…they referred to it as death… and then the boys were buried up to their necks for up to seven days (they had reduced it to 3 by that time)…but like Joseph mentioned, a good number of boys did not survive this process…therefore they reduced the number of days. Thus, the boys were facing their deaths in a very real way during initiation. On the 3rd day then the elders came and raised the boys from the dead by washing them with an antidotal concoction. They said that the fear of death was gone…. and the bond to the elders was cemented forever. They were men. They re-entered the village at the end of the summer. We saw them from a distance as they exited the sacred forest.. they loped like monkeys covered in Rafia bark cloth…grunting like chimpanzees and gorillas.. as they neared the village… they threw the rafia into the trees and started to run …it was a race..seven times around the village…the first boy the completed the seven circles ran to the center of the village near to L’Arbre a Palabras …. a flute waited there… the champion played a tune on the flute. He was raised high as a champion for the rest of the year. That is what ended that central part of the process. The animal had transformed into a civilized man… a responsible member of society. Other things happened before and after this…

    The hero’s journey is sort of a detailed map of the initiation process. I had previously thought of the hero’s journey mostly as a specific time in life, notably that around 18 to 30 or so where someone goes out into the world to find their identity (ego) and their place in the world. However, someone I heard recently, said basically what you say about initiation…that’s it’s a repeat process throughout life. The hero’s journey is so important and event in all culture at all times, not because it’s a critical period in a time in a young person’s life, but because it is the blueprint for initiation writ large. It’s so critical, because initiation is a repeated cyclical process that carries us through the various phases in our lives…. Thus the hero’s journey can also be seen as that blue print for initiation …and it is so important to get it right because if we don’t we get arrested at specific points in our development. If we do get it right early in our life, we will find it easier to engage in initiation at all points.

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  2. Carlos M Flores

    How can I quote this article for my dissertation? I am writing on Rites of Initiation and this I can’t tell you enough how helpful this article and podcast episode has been.

    Reply

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