Men of spirit: year-long initiation program
“We cannot, today, recreate the original ‘wilderness man’ in shape, form and habitat. But we can recover him,
because he exists in us. He is the foundation in spirit or psyche on which we build, and we are not complete
until we have recovered him.”
-Laurens van der Post
Many traditional cultures escorted their young men into the world of adulthood and the sacred through an elaborate series of rituals. These rituals occurred in space set apart from the rest of the community and took place over many weeks or months. Preparation for initiation was often extensive and included witnessing the ongoing life of the people and observing the qualities displayed by men of spirit. Underneath and holding up this initiatory process was a deep and abiding relationship to nature and the spirits of the place. This passage was also 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: a man’s soul must be shaped by a process of intense focus, communal reflection and immersion in the natural and supranatural worlds. In other words, to become a man, certain gateways needed to be crossed in order for that territory to be fully embedded within the man.
What we witness daily in the litany of injustices and unconscious exploitation of others and the world are the actions of uninitiated men. The failure to cross the gateway keeps an individual caught in a perpetual recycling of adolescent themes: Am I good enough? Do I belong? Questions of adequacy are often portrayed in gross exaggerations of power and force. As we glance out and view our culture we see an intense absorption in these concerns.
Seldom do the questions arise that reflect a successful passage through the gate: How are the children doing, the salmon, rivers, trees and air? The near total absence of these questions reveals a near total failure on our part to adequately prepare and present our young men the opportunity to step through and find themselves in the world of adult men, carrying the responsibilities of men for the community.
Initiation, in its deepest traditional sense, was meant to keep the world alive. The purpose was not individual, but cosmological in scope. In other words, initiation was an act of sacrifice on behalf of the greater circle of life into which the initiate is brought and to which he now holds allegiance. The indigenous soul is fully aware of the reciprocal relationship it has with the wild world, with the worlds of spirit and the ancestors and recognizes the innate requirements for maintaining these connections. It was and is the role of mature individuals to honor our “place in the family of things” by carrying out the rites and rituals that sustain sacred relations with the world. Initiation is a process of breaking us open to a recognition of our participation in a vast array of “otherness.” A sea of intimacies is available outside the constraints of a narrowly proscribed identity. We are part moon, part wind, part creek, part antelope, part cloud. Our deep memory knows this is true and the process of initiation, from the perspective of the indigenous soul, is to shake loose those memories, that form of remembering that affixes those linkages in our hearts.
Initiation is an entrance into a place, a terrain. It is not an abstract ideal of psychological accomplishment, but rather a cosmological entrance into the specificity of locale, of geography, flora, fauna, cycles, rhythms, with eyes that regard these as sacred, as relations of magnitude. Through these intimacies a vaster landscape comes into vision: the world of spirit, of ancestors, the world of community and cosmos.
Having said this, the depths of psychological changes available through an encounter with initiatory process are profound. If we take the statement above as a beginning, any extension of identity into the surrounding field will, by its very nature, increase our sense of belonging, our sense of wholeness and our sense of purpose. To inaugurate such changes through specific, focused ritual processes helps us to face the most immediate challenges to our life being our own.
One further thought concerning the need for initiation. To the indigenous soul, the world is meant to be in a state of continual renewal. Cycles of rituals assisted in this process of regeneration making it possible for the earth to re-create its basic essence. It was the role of initiated men and women to see to it that the ever renewing processes of life were well tended. This may sound abstract to a degree but experience says that one of our deepest longings is to feel that we are significant to the cosmos. Imagine knowing that one of your roles, as an initiated man was to receive the energy of the sun and dance it into the belly of the earth to keep her fertile, as they do in Arnhem Land in Australia. They know this is true. It is not a symbolic gesture but a reality based on a profound level of familiarity between them and the earth. We can barely sense a place of correspondence between our actions and the ongoing regeneration of the life-giving character of the land.
This is where we must go however, as men brought into a larger arena of awareness. We must divine the ways in which our participation is required; find our ways to feed the earth and spirit. We must become porous enough to be “inspired” so that we can remember the means whereby life is renewed, not just consumed. In a culture seemingly obsessed with death, we are being asked to turn our direction towards the service of life.
An additional value of initiation for modern men concerns the need to reestablish a link with the wild. Some say this constitutes a regression to the past, while others see it as an opportunity to sanction a letting go of restraint. While these two options are intriguing, they are nonetheless far from what is being advocated. Thoreau said, “In wildness is the preservation of the world.” It is precisely this wildness that we are in search of, one that fosters an authenticity that is most like nature. The depth of conditioning that we are shaped by is immense and the levels of crippling self-consciousness that results depletes a man until he lives a life, as Thoreau also said, “of quiet desperation.” The world is in great need of men who live genuinely and who are willing to stand outside of consensus reality and speak words of truth.
The Commitment It is our commitment to reimagine, revision and re-inaugurate a comprehensive initiatory process for our men and young men. It is our obligation on behalf of the generations to come to pick up the remnants of this tattered cloth and stitch the fabric back together. Helping to shape men of eloquence, beauty, power and compassion makes our world safer and saner. Having these men take their place in the world offers to communities a body of men capable of holding a vision of the sacred in front of the troubling questions we are all facing. Questions of inclusion, belonging, sustainability, diversity, conflict and protection all require the input of men and women who have successfully addressed the issues of their own adolescence. The continuous self-referencing must come to an end all the while learning to care for the self with utmost regard.
Our efforts are to shape an initiatory process of sufficient intensity and relevance for our psyches. We cannot simply adopt or mimic other cultures in our desire for a true passage to the adult side of our life. The value and power of the rituals of these cultures is undeniable but they address a psyche emerging out of a different soil, suffering from different wounds and returning to a vastly different community. The rituals that have evolved for us reflect who we are, what our places of suffering look like and the scarcity of meaningful community to return to. In truth, we are listening to hear spirit’s voice in shaping these new mysteries and in so doing we have been gifted with rituals that do carry us across the threshold, do shape a man’s soul. The gratitude of the community for receiving these men back into their lives has been a thing of beauty.
The Format The format for this process is extensive. The means of undoing the conditioning that men endure is intense and calling forth the indigenous soul requires patience. The time line is approximately ten months in length during which we will meet for three extended weekends addressing specific facets of the initiated life: carrying the grief of the world, facing the collusions to live a contracted life, finding our medicine in the territory of defeat, knowing our place in the world, deepening our intimacy with spirit and the ancestors, walking with power as an instrument of relationship and finding our commitment for the generations to come. The men will be required to meet weekly between these gatherings to become thoroughly known to one another to maximize the trust held in each man for the other. A fourth and final meeting will last five days and will be the initiation time. Here you will be taken through a series of rituals that will seek to cook the soul and install your medicine. Upon completion of this weekend, a celebration of family and friends is held honoring what has begun. The process for the youth only involves the five-day initiation weekend. The sequence for the gatherings is as follows:
Weekend 1: Fire in the Heart, Drinking the Tears of the World
Weekend 2: Making Sweet Honey from Old Failures
Weekend 3: Walking with Power, Courtship of the Heart
Weekend 4: Cooking the Soul, Blazing with Love, Emerging from the Belly of the Earth.
Weekend 5: Finding Our Way Home
This is not an easy task. To revision the initiatory process after a long absence is difficult. We inevitably will miss many pieces, not the least of which is the lack of a profound and extensive intimacy with the place upon which we will be enacting these rites. It is clear that much of the power that imbued traditional initiations was directly attributed to the familiarity with the surrounding environment. After going face-to-face for inestimable generations, those presences that dwell in the land are accessible through deep ritual and become active participants in initiation. We hope that the spirits found in nature and the other worlds will bless the direction we are taking and will, with time and continuity, become known by those who follow. This we must do.
We have seen the ways in which initiation has changed men’s lives. More importantly, we are seeing the ways in which it is changing the shape of the communities in which they live. There are many things we each can do to help fashion a more livable world. Making the radical choice of committing to our collective future through the process of initiation is a powerful choice on behalf of the generations to come.
To Participate If you would like to participate in an initiation process or would like to organize a group of men for this experience, please let us know and we will work with you to set the event in motion. A minimum of ten men is required to begin. For more information, please contact Patrick Mullin at firstname.lastname@example.org.