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Tuesday, April 9, 2024

Initiation, Pt. 1: The Encounter, The Moment, The Question

 A friend asked me about initiation. 

I think, generally, when asked about initiation people will explain the rules or process for their organization or system. After all, it's usually asked in the context of a group. Outside of that context, you might explain what system you're in and whether or not you have the authority to initiate someone, and again, talk about the process. For a lot of us, initiation has as much of a social and institutional component as it does a spiritual one - regardless of whether we want to consider the social and institutional elements as important or not. 

In the OTO, if someone asked me to sponsor them for an initiation I would ask what they've worked on since their last initiation, and explain that if they wanted me to also sponsor their next one I'd ask similar questions then. An initiation is a start of a process, even in those organizational contexts, so questions like that can frame it as a beginning. They help us think about the fact that initiations only matter if we do something with them. 

In the AA, you're tested and recognized to the next grade rather than initiated so there is often an element of being reminded it's time instead of asking for it. My experience in another teaching organization was similar. You worked the curriculum, were tested, and then the next initiation was arranged. Contexts like that might create a very different perspective as the process moves along rather than you seeking it out. 

In this case, I was asked about initiations more generally, outside of the context of an organization. I'm not actively with an organization in a temporal card carrying membership kind of way. At least one of the above three mentioned groups works in ways where that temporal bit isn’t the important part, but still, I'm not actively working that system with people, even if the door isn’t closed to it happening. 

My answer to my friend was: 

“Formal initiations can be good but aren't always needed. Think about why you want initiations and what you want to get from it and then we can talk about what solutions to that are.”

A lot of the time, when people are looking for initiations and memberships, they're looking for something deeper and more intrinsic than formal membership and status. What they're actually looking for might not be provided by initiation; it might be better achieved through work. Initiation might help, but maybe not through conventional groups. Conversely, maybe what someone is looking for would fully be answered by some group. 

We can't know unless we ask “what do you actually want?” Because the surface thing we ask for is often how we think we fulfill the need we feel or perceive, but until we have it, we might not know if it's the right thing. Digging deeper into what the actual shape of that need is can help us save our efforts for the right solution. 

In a way, this itself follows the framework of some approaches to initiation. 

In Babylon 5, the crux of the battle between cosmic order and chaos was distilled to the two questions “Who are you?” and “What do you want?” 

In a way these can be taken as the same question. The perspective is different. Answering either completely involves understanding the answer to the other. 

As a young adult it struck me when initiations seemed to be asking similar questions and teachers of initiatics framed the process of initiation as unfolding a series of questions with ceremonies that give answers simply to help you explore the questions and find deeper more personal answers. In some approaches, instead of an answer the candidate is given freedom to improvise an answer on the spot to force them to look at their initial reaction and hopefully continue building a better answer as time goes on. 

These questions don't teach us sorcery or unlock currents of power. They teach us to understand ourselves, the world, and the interaction between the two. This is a framework for understanding and using power and making choices about its use. They can take us in directions of mysticism, but they can also be tools for exploration that aid us in practical endeavors. 

What questions do we ask ourselves as we unfold this process of understanding and exploration? They follow the basic series of interrogatives, who, what, where, how, and why…when doesn’t seem to come up as much. 

Who are you?

What do you want?

Why are you here?

Where did you come from? Which could also be, where are you going?

How did you get here? Which could also be, how will you get there?

These questions can be encountered and explored in a variety of orders. They can be explored situationally, and then the answers might shift as we try to resolve new situations. They should also be explored intrinsically. What are the answers and what do they mean for us in an on-going sense. When we treat them as core ways of exploring ourselves and our lives they are still questions that need to be revisited because as we grow and develop we might understand the answers differently. Exploring how that different understanding might look like a change to the answer but might instead be a continuum through which the same answer evolves is also important. 

The order we explore the questions in might also impact how we interpret, understand, and shape our answers. There isn’t an exact right order for exploring them. Different approaches might present them in different ways. We can also choose to explore them in various orders each time we revisit them. This is because, again, they’re all pieces of the same core question. I’m not sure there is a way to express that core question, but, like blind men feeling an elephant, each question is asking something about ourselves from a different perspective. Each question informs the other questions. Some are more directly and obviously related, but all of them are about understanding yourself. That self is a combination of substance, character, movement, impulse, and origin; all of these things are contextualized and their meaning is enhanced by the world around them. 

We don’t need orders and ceremonies to explore these questions. We just need reflection, a good balance of objective introspection and subjective insight, and a willingness to pause periodically to honestly explore ourselves. Asking these questions, digging deeply into them, and exploring our reflections within ourselves and the world around us can be enough to begin that process of unfolding. Repeating this as we go through new things and add to our understanding of ourselves and the world continues that process of unfolding. Linking back and exploring today’s reflection vis a vis the one a year ago, and then again the one two years from now is part of the process of seeing the thread through the continuum.

This is one part of the occult concept of initiatics. It isn’t the only part. It’s an important structure and element of initiation. Initiation can refer to a lot of things depending upon the system, the method and the goal. To explore the rest of it, we can consider esoteric initiation and magical initiation as two components. There are also social initiations and religious initiations. For our purposes, religious initiation can be considered along with magical initiation, and social initiation is irrelevant to our discussion. 

This first part, the encounter, or the moment, in which we are confronted with the question…or rather a piece of the question, is enough for this first installment.

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