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Shamanic Initiations

Shamanic Initiations

Shamanic lore throughout history is imbued with tales, most often cloaked in mystery, of important initiations that the young shaman-to-be had to face. The mystery around these initiations is intentional due to an agreement between teachers and students to not to talk about these experiences. This is not because of any misdirected conspiracy to keep powerful knowledge in the hands of just a few, but simply a historically effective strategy to maintain the freshness and power of the experiences for each new individual who faces them. Because of the nature of these experiences, one is left afterwards with a natural sensitivity to exactly how intimate and important they are. You first hear the lore, but only after experiencing initiations directly do you truly understand why such silence has been maintained.

Initiations are often quite ancient and like the rest of shamanic knowledge and awareness, are at their core, very similar throughout the world, over time, and among radically different cultures. This is because humans in their core are everywhere so similar to one another. It would actually be surprising if were not the case that widely separated initiatory experiences were not so parallel at their root! In one way or another, important human initiations have underlying basic templates that have existed very much the same since times long forgotten: basic formulas for catalyzing certain kinds of experiences that open us up to deeper understandings.

There is no 'secret handshake' before, or after initiatory experiences, or entrance into some private community. Shamanic initiations are just practices, only they are ones that are not done frequently because they open up an unusually powerful kind of liminal ‘space’ where a practitioner can make profound discoveries. To do an initiation repeatedly would only weaken its power. An initiation creates a ‘threshold’ space between psychological and metaphysical realities in which there appears a passage for the one experiencing it to transition from one understanding to another that is far more comprehensive and deeper. Because initiations can do this, the steps are maintained and passed down.

Needless to say, a shamanic initiation experience is not for everyone. If there were several mountain ranges ahead on the path of a growing shamanic practitioner, this is one that eventually, a practitioner must climb. And, though I encourage people to try to not worry about the initiations, we inevitably do. I say this even as it is also true that a certain heightening of anticipation and ‘charge’ about an initiation encourages a stronger experience, I encourage people to reach this heightened state prior to undergoing an initiation.

Most of today's students taking coursework in shamanism are not from Siberia, nor ordinarily from deep in a Brazilian jungle. Today's students are not typically from an indigenous, tribal community where some of the most rigorous initiations are said to take place. In fact, most of us today have not had a preparatory cultural and physical conditioning that comes from living amidst a climate and lifestyle where endurance and toughening would prepare us for some of the initiatory ordeals about which you may have heard rumors.

Never should a person have to face more than they can handle, and each person should have a complete choice whether or not they will experience any initiation at all. Everyone on the shamanic journey of education and training goes towards what is right for them, and them alone. I always encourage people forward to experience initiations, however I know from my own experience that we are ready for such things only when we are truly ready for them. Such readiness cannot be hastened. Initiations are strictly for a person's benefit, and one can take them, or leave them.

Some of the initiations students experience are during specific journeys, while others involve a combination of non-ordinary and ordinary reality aspects. Naturally, given everything I have said (and obviously, everything that I have not said) I will not be proceeding to describe specific initiation steps. However, students often have spontaneous initiations because of their preparedness and the effort they put into giving themselves to this kind of study. I am pleased to be able to present some of these to you, for they do not disclose initiations that are intentionally kept silent, yet they do speak very clearly to an initiatory experience itself.

A Self-Initiated Directed Initiation

Practitioner's Letter: “…it was around the winter solstice. I had mentioned to you I was going to hold a fire ceremony in the mountains during the eclipse and I did that.  At 10,000 ft on winter solstice in Colorado the elements can be bitterly adverse. I had set my intent and was prepared for whatever the night would have to offer. I was very pleasantly surprised when I arrived at one of the places I frequent to find only six inches of snow on the ground. Typically, it would be four feet at this time of the season.

The wind however was blowing fiercely. I cleared the snow and built the fire. I called the directions and opened sacred space, then proceeded to feed the fire for the next 5 hours, and I burned it strong. There was so much that happened that night I could probably turn it into a book. But it was like all the spiritual doors there are were opened to me. I danced my soul and I sang my soul and I don't know how many times I was overwhelmed by tears of joy.

Nearing the end of the eclipse, but it was still full, there were two spirit helpers that showed themselves to me. One from the lower world and one from the upper world... I thanked them and asked them to wait for me until the time was proper for me to engage with them...”

My Reply:  Your experience on the Solstice was a self-initiated, initiation. This is the kind of experience that we find honored in religious texts, and is more of a reflection of the power of a person on their spiritual path than anything having to do with a particular spiritual path itself. This is one reason why initiations throughout the world turn out to be so very similar, as they are more like doors, rather than the ‘to’ or ‘from’ that doors are between. There is a deep inner consistency within much of spirituality, but that is another investigation. What is important here, is that you have chosen to take your spiritual path in no halfway measure.

A Spontaneous Initiation into Deep Interconnectedness

 Practitioner's Letter:  "We... returned to the lower world but they take me to a different place. This is one of (one of my spirit helpers) homes, which is a hole in the ground, and we go into a tunnel that opens to a large comfortable room. There we sit, then dance and sing, seems like for hours. We leave the den and go back to the surface where they (several spirit helpers) begin to take me on a tour. We travel to the east and then to the south, (and) the areas that were shrouded in a dusty haze are now clear.

I am feeling a fresh oneness with all of creation, a sense of belonging with intensity I have not experienced before. This is the power of my soul connecting with the power of all the souls in the universe and I get a glimpse of how all this is interconnected. I am dumbstruck… speechless… totally numb!!  How can I possibly hang on to all of this?

This power has been missing in my life only in the fact that I have not been aware of it. Then I'm not sure that this is an accurate statement or not as I have always believed that we are one, interconnected, but never have I 'seen' it before. This is something I'm sure will be unfolding for the rest of my life. It has been an entire paradigm shift. I don't know how else to put it."

My Reply:  This which you have experienced, is an initiation, one that proceeded to unfold before you by the work and preparation you have done, and by the genius of your spirit helpers. You did not - as in formal initiations - have someone directing you into the experience, nor was your experience particularly ritualized. In a classic directed initiation, a transitional and transformational experience (such as stepping through a door, over a threshold) is directed and ritualized.

The education you received through this is in the experience. Having ‘been there’ into the experience you had is like having taken a hike to a lofty peak: you can’t take the peak or the view back with you (ok, you can take a photo, but that is just a meager representation). What you do take back is the experience, which is now in your bones and heart, and which proceeds to integrate with the person who you are becoming. This is the essence of initiatory growth.