Part 1: Initiatory Sickness
There appears to be some misunderstanding over what exactly the term ‘initiation’ means. Occasionally one bumps into people on the scene who term themselves as ‘initiates’ and seem to consider themselves somehow ‘above’ the rest of humanity. Particularly irritating are the self-styled ‘initiates’ who let drop teasing bits of obscure information and then refuse to explain any further because their audience are not ‘initiates’. The term itself seems to crop up in a wide variety of contexts - people speak of being ‘initiated’ into groups, onto a particular path, or of initiating themselves. Some hold that ‘initiation’ is only valid if the person who confers it is part of a genuine tradition, others that it doesn’t matter either way.
Dictionary definitions of initiation allude to the act of beginning, or of setting in motion, or entry into something. One way to explain initiation is to say that it is a threshold of change which we may experience at different times in our lives, as we grow and develop. The key to initiation is recognising that we have reached such a turning point, and are aware of being in a period of transition between our past and our future. The conscious awareness of entering a transitional state allows us to perhaps, discard behavioral/emotional patterns which will be no longer valid for the ‘new’ circumstances, and consciously take up new ones.
What magical books often fail to emphasize is that initiation is a process. It doesn’t just happen once, but can occur many times throughout an individual’s life, and that it has peaks (initiatory crises), troughs (black depression or the ‘dark night of the soul’) and plateaus (where nothing much seems to be going on). becoming aware of your own cycles of change, and how to weather them, is a core part of any developmental process or approach to magical practice.
In ‘shamanic’ societies the first stage of the initiation process is often marked by a period of personal crises and a ‘call’ towards starting the shamanic journey. Apart from youthful rebellion, most of us are quite happy to remain within the conceptual and philosophical boundaries of ‘Consensus Reality’ (the everyday world). For an individual beginning on the initiatory journey, the crisis may come as a powerful vision, dreams, or a deep (and often disturbing) feeling to find out what is beyond the limits of normal life. It can often come as a result of a powerful spiritual, religious or political experience, or as a growing existential discontent with life. Our sense of being a stable self is reinforced by the “walls” of the social world in which we participate - yet our sense of uniqueness resides in the cracks of those same walls. Initiation is a process which takes us “over the wall” into the unexplored territories of the possibilities which we have only half-glimpsed.
This first crisis is often an unpleasant experience, as we begin to question and become dissatisfied with all that we have previously held dear - work, relationships, ethical values, family life can all be disrupted as the individual becomes increasingly consumed by the desire to ‘journey’. The internal summons may be consciously quashed or resisted, and it is not unknown for individuals in tribal societies to refuse ‘the call’ to shamanic training - no small thing, as it may lead to further crises and even death.
One very common experience of people who feel the summons in our society is an overpowering sense of urgency to either become ‘enlightened’ or to change the world in accordance with emerging visions. This can lead to people becoming ‘addicted’ to spiritual paths, wherein the energy that may have been formerly channeled into work or relationships is directed towards taking up spiritual practices and becoming immersed in ‘spiritual’ belief systems. The ‘newly awakened’ individual can be (unintentionally) as boring and tiresome as anyone who has seized on a messianic belief system, whether it be politics, religion, or spirituality. It is often difficult, at this stage in the cycle, to understand the reaction of family, friends and others who may not be sympathetic to one’s new-found direction or changes in lifestyle. Often, some of the more dubious cults such as the Moonies take advantage of this stage by convincing young converts that “true friends” etc, would not hinder them in taking up their new life, and that anyone who does not approve, is therefore not a ‘true friend’. There are a wide variety of cults which do well in terms of converts from young people who are in a period of transition (such as when leaving home for the first time) and who are attracted to a belief/value system that assuages their uncertainties about the world.
Another of the problems often experienced by those feeling the summons to journey is a terrible sense of isolation or alienation from one’s fellows - the inevitable result of moving to the edge of one’s culture. Thus excitement at the adventure is often tinged with regret and loss of stability or unconscious participation with one’s former world. Once you have begun the process of disentanglement from the everyday world, it is hard not to feel a certain nostalgia for the lost former life in which everything was (seemingly) clear-cut and stable, with no ambiguities or uncertainties.
A common response to the summons to departure is the journey into the wilderness - of moving away from one’s fellows and the stability of consensual reality. A proto-shaman is likely to physically journey into the wilderness, away from the security of tribal reality, and though this is possible for some Westerners, the constraints of modern living usually mean that for us, this wandering in the waste is enacted on the plane of ideas, values and beliefs, wherein we look deeply within and around ourselves and question everything, perhaps drawing away from social relations as well. Deliberate isolation from one’s fellows is a powerful way of loosening the sense of having fixed values and beliefs, and social deprivation mechanisms turn up in a wide variety of magical cultures.
— Kalkinath & Vishvanath