You have been through some things, I know, and you have such a story to tell. You’ve survived intense, life-changing things and come through to the other side. You’ve reinvented yourself through career, relationship, parenthood, death and loss, or spiritual transformation. You are not who you were before, and you might even think about your life as before the thing and after. In the West, we call this “having a hard time,” but in indigenous societies, they might call your experience an initiation.
We usually think of initiation as something like a vision quest or esoteric tribal ceremony, something that involves a material change like tattooing or the taking of a new name. While the structure and timing of ritual initiations may vary from culture to culture, the function is universally understood: initiations subject us to difficult trials so we grow in skill and wisdom, more fully able to share our gifts with the community.
And that word — community — is vital. It’s often the missing piece in our initiatory work here in the West.
After an initiation, we know in our bones that we need some sort of recognition and public understanding of what we’ve encountered, even though our culture doesn’t give us that framework outside of weddings and funerals. We sometimes feel desperate to tell the story, though we don’t know who should listen. Long after the event has passed, we may still feel a sense of incompleteness or that there is unfinished business, and we might continue to “process” even though we’ve done so much of the emotional work already. When we’ve met the new partner, started the new job, gotten the degree, the new home, the clean bill of health, when the paperwork is complete and people have stopped asking how we are, somehow still we can’t just put it all away and enjoy that we’ve arrived.
A few years ago, I felt compelled to get a new tattoo. I’d been through a divorce and written the first draft of my book, and I intuited some need for a physical change (that tattoo is the one on my wrist). But I remember feeling incomplete, craving something I couldn’t put my finger on. “I think I need a graduation ceremony or something,” I said to a healer friend. And like the sassy teacher she is, she made me actual paper graduation certificates and presented them to me before we went out for a glass of wine.
According to West African scholar and elder, Malidoma Somé, “What is lacking in this rich life experience is a community that observes the individual’s growth and certifies that one has passed through an initiatory process…The issue for Westerners is not so much the absence of initiation as it is the absence of a community to recognize initiatory passages…Where mentors and elders are lacking, and where initiation in one form or another is not recognized, there can be no support system capable of curbing the intense sense of aloneness that haunts the psyche of the modern person.” (The Healing Wisdom of Africa, p28-29)
In other words, we need to be witnessed and received by others when we’ve been transformed or else the transformation is not complete. We need someone who can deliberately create a strong space to ask us, “What have you experienced? Who are you now? What new gifts do you have to share with us?” We need some version of the tattoo and graduation certificate (though perhaps more profound) to show our corner of the world that we are different, and we need that world to respond. It’s only with community that our initiations can be fully materialized, integrated, and confirmed. We need them to attest that we are transformed, as though they are a mirror in which see ourselves more clearly. The community reminds us that we have survived, that we are here, that the story matters.
Truly, we need each other. We need your story and the gifts you’ve brought back from your quest. If I can support you – as a part of your community – with a healing session or if I can help create a workshop with your local circle, please be in touch. It would be my honor to witness you.
Questions to consider:
What initiations have you already been through?
What rite of passage did you have or miss as a young person? What rite of passage might you need now to mark a life transition or major event?
Where do you feel unresolved, incomplete, or unrecognized? What story do you have to tell about who you were before and who you are now?