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Posts from — November 2019

Initiations

So you must not be frightened if a sadness rises up before you larger than any you have ever seen; if a restiveness, like light and cloudshadows, passes over your hands and over all you do. You must think that something is happening with you, that life has not forgotten you, that it holds you in its hand; it will not let you fall.
| Rainer Maria Rilke

Initiations

One of the most remarkable shifts we see in philosophical counseling sessions is the surfacing of seemingly independent forces in the psyche that call for a redefinition of self and reality. These forces do not ask our permission, but erupt with determination, purpose, and formidable if not unstoppable power when their hour comes ’round. They may arise from what Jung calls the “shadow,” from parts of us long denied or never acknowledged, from experiences of early trauma locked away in neural memory, or perhaps from even deeper regions of consciousness that extend beyond the local self we take ourselves to be. Outwardly, these intense internal transitions show up as external crisis situations that overwhelm us, demanding that we abandon beliefs and assumptions about reality and our relation to it that no longer work. Usually, clients struggling in the throes of this sort of foundering an old identity come to counseling in flight from it, but soon learn there is no escaping whatever is happening to them, that as the Borg of Star Trek Next Generation put it, “resistance is futile.” Whatever has their life by the throat is done waiting. Something bigger than their will has taken over. Like it or not, they are being initiated.

Sadly, Western civilization makes no provision for rites of passage from one stage of life to another. From studying tribal societies, however, we know that such initiations typically involve a wounding—perhaps a knife cut to the thigh or the knocking out of a tooth. The wounding acknowledges that the transition between identities is difficult and painful—the skin of self is not shed easily. But the containment of all this in ritual makes it far more accessible than it is for those of us in the West who sooner or later and without warning are likely to find ourselves abducted by inner forces that we cannot understand, violent forces that hold out no guarantee of a new identity as they systematically tear down the old one. The Sufis say that from conception to birth, the new human passes through 7,000 veils—3,500 losing the divine attributes and 3,500 taking on the earthly ones, and that the parent should always hold the infant when it cries, because it is remembering. Every subsequent birth in the course of a life has its contractions, its loss of a familiar and reassuring reality, its death of self and resurrection in a greater self.

As Jung pointed out, these reincarnations are not something we do; rather, they do us. At such times, there is only one wise direction to take: nonresistance. As a friend of mine once told me, “If you can’t get out of it, get into it.” What can be almost impossible to see heading into the turbulence of initiation is that there is a new and unimagined integration waiting on the other side to receive us. Death is always only half the story.

This is all well and good, until the flames are at the door. Then what—especially if we don’t have even the consolation of ritual to sustain us? A little reframing here can go a long way. The wisdom of Hawaiian shamanism, known in the West as Huna, tells us that there are four levels of reality: physical/rational, energetic/connection, symbolic/meaning, and mystical/oneness. At each level, respectively, awareness expands, taking in aspects of reality that the less expanded levels consider either incredible or crazy if they consider them at all. Each more expanded level conserves the less expanded ones, so that no aspect of self or reality is lost as we evolve. That said, the transitions can be bumpy to say the least, and more so as awareness expands.

At the physical/rational level, reality is engaged and understood in terms consistent with Newtonian physics and Aristotelian logic. As separateness rules here, we experience ourselves as separate from the world and from each other. The mind at this level operates rationally, analyzing (literally “dissecting”) things in order to conceptualize and categorize them. At the energetic/connection level, consciousness expands beyond the strictly physical/rational realm to take into account the quality of its interactions and transactions with others. At this level, for example, we might recognize that someone who is presenting an angry affect actually is deeply sad, or that someone offering a favor is not to be trusted. Energetic/connection awareness requires an empathic receptivity that goes beyond sensory data and reason, one that takes context and intention into account. Philosophical counselors, psychotherapists, and others in the helping profession typically operate at this reality level and may go beyond it to incorporate symbolic/meaning awareness, as well. Logotherapy, dream analysis, shamanism and phenomenology are some examples of reality models and methods that recognize and work with symbols and meaning as microcosms of reality. A shaman, for example, may work directly with a symbol in order to treat the condition it represents. Philosophical counseling also may work at the level of meaning to help clients reframe their experience, step clear of contradiction, and dialectically transcend suffering. Finally, at the most expanded level of reality, mystical/oneness, awareness expands to include the whole of existence. This is the experience of nirvana, satori, the true Self, the universal wave function—it goes by many names, all of them necessarily inadequate, since language is limited to duality and logic. Mystics, yogis, and shamans embody this awareness, which in spiritual texts is likened to reunion with the divine and associated with liberation from suffering.

The hidden currents of the psyche that flow along the continuum of these levels of reality carry us with them. In the transition from one to the other, we may feel as though it is reality itself that we are losing—which is why just knowing that there are other levels than the one we’ve always assumed can be more than a little reassuring and even can provide us with a place to stand for the time being. Every life has its initiations, its deaths and rebirths. Like physical birth, death itself may be an initiation into greater life. When it seems that all is lost, when nothing makes sense, and everything we thought we knew no longer works, we can still trust that life knows what it’s doing, and that the hands that fashioned us and our world will see us through.


Another year has flown by, and it’s time for Musings to “go dark,” as they say in the world of theater. We thank you for your interest in our work, and look forward to reconnecting with you in 2020. In the meantime, wherever your path takes you, all our best wishes go with you and yours.

November 30, 2019   Comments Off on Initiations