Just back from a week in windy Norfolk and Lincolnshire, and lovely it was too.
Books currently reading are: TIMES ALONE: Selected Poems of Antonio Machado, OWLS: Their Natural and Unnatural History-John Sparks and Tony Soper,THE GOLDEN TREASURY OF ENGLISH SONGS AND LYRICS-Francis Turner Plagrave, TALIESIN: Shamanism and the Bardic Mysteries in Britain and Ireland-John Matthews.
I recommend earlier work by John Matthews, although i don't enjoy his conveyor belt of Arthurian books (over 90!) thrashing the last pennies out of an exhausted market. You can trust his scholarship and his steady writing. Not many animals living in the ink, but a reliable resource.
I recommend Coleman Barks newish book of poems, 'Scrapwood Man' for some great new translations of Medieval Welsh Poems, some of which you probably know well. Freeing birds from their cages as usual.
I am adding a look at three stages of initiation today-what follows is a slightly amplified version of certain points in 'Lightning Tree'-so you may have read a varient here before. I apologise if it is depressing reading, in the next few weeks i will add a succession of additions that lift the picture somewhat! if you are already conversant with these thoughts please skip- but i'm still getting alot of letters asking about the below:
STAGES OF INITIATION AND ITS CURRENT FORMS
SEVERANCE: In western culture we are actually experiencing an addiction to severance. We sever from relationships, jobs, friendships, towns, ideas about our societal identity. What was once seen as reassuring permanence can often been seen as potential stagnation. The once heavily ritualised act now seems an oddly contemporary form of dislocation, almost familiar, accepted.
Whether an at-risk youth or CEO, this stage has often created less distress than anticipated. Whilst loss of status still appears to disarm, the process of walking away from the established has often appeared less dramatic then one might assume. At first.
In everyday society, the genuine grief attached to severance can be deflected in many ways; in a bottle, new relationship, application for job, keeping those eyes firmly fixed on a new horizon. When we think of attention deficit disorder we see an illustration of this fractured nature, an inability to sustain long, unbroken, committed concentration.
However, when you experience Severance in the context of a rite-of-passage, this deflection is not encouraged. Even in the days before the wilderness fast, an initiate would sit fully in the emotional impact of having left the familiar-to have actually ‘died’ to a former stage. The common thread between participants is actually a tangible grief that, a grief that is often curtailed or suppressed in their everyday life. At this stage there is often a desire to make ‘right’ some element of their life that had ignored. Often letters are written (even on the side of a mountain), and sent to an ex-lover or employer, teacher, friend or enemy. So a rite-of-passage such as a Vision Quest involves a ‘dropping down’ into emotional terrain connected to severance that generally society is uncomfortable with: ‘pull yourself together!’.
The dazzling speed in which information is now presented to us engenders this sense of rapid movement . The days of watching a band develop of several albums or even decades is usually over; we are deluged by wave after wave of new contenders eager to grab our attention. There is little to be loyal to, except the alter of progress.
So culturally our experience of Severance is radically different to how it was one hundred and fifty years ago. You will not be ostracized till death; it is now generally financially possible to dwell in a very contemporary form of isolation. This is not a luddite cry for a return to tribe mind, but awareness of the darker side of the search for individuation. When there seems to be so little to hold on to, when religion has collapsed or frozen into fundamentalism, when previous generations are viewed with suspicion, when our main point of reference is our peer group, then there seems to be little incentive to stay with anything for long. So fundamentally the shock of Severance is gone-for many it has become habitual.
THRESHOLD: Practical experience of this process has shown that it is still possible to have a profound opening in nature; relationship to tribe or so-called primitive societies are not essential for this part of the process. Any individual, deprived of certain staples and put into a ritually held disorientation, can open up to the time honoured fruits of the experience. With Vision Quests, the focus is not on cultural costume or mythic inflation but a whittling away, a search for a certain ‘core’ of you. It is kept empty of any ethnic affectations, but seeks some universal ground of being that is ageless.
At some point in this period of liminality, perceptions of community are radically expanded; personal mirrors are held in moss and rock formations as well as the family and marketplace. The experience of separation from earth diminishes, it has information for you, you are related. This has huge implications in an era of climate change and global warming. It is from the edge of things that wisdom originates-the hope is that the edges of our imagination are porous enough for such dialogue to take place.
So this part of the process seems possible, viable, even crucial for re-negotiating (or re-membering) our relationship to wild nature. The emphasis has to be on the core spiritual and psychological opening initiation offers, rather than a self conscious aping of cultural costume.
RETURN: Hostility and Indifference. That most crucial of stages-the need for blessing and witnessing. In a related move to the addiction to severance, the return ‘home’ is more hazardess and fraught with peril than the movement into wilderness. There is rarely a long term container of support for the returning initiate. By definition, they have gone where the community held back, therefore they return carrying an ‘otherness’. When the ceremony is taken out of the context of a wider cycle of community what happens? The potentency remains but the whole process shifts emphasis. The fragility of vision is in a process of stages-it needs protection and nurture. No matter the ephinany on the mountain, without profound support the chance of it withering on the vine are high.
So another reversal. No dancing elders but a society often indifferent or actively hostile to your experience. In initiation, the Return is not an afterthought, a full stop tacked on the end of the adventure, it is crucial. ‘Live the Vision so the People can See’. The initiate represents a process at odds with their culture.
In the 21st century, the greatest stage of disorientation is not the Threshold but the Return.
The seeds of this are sewn with our resolve to sever, our distance from grief and our love of the ascendant. Initiation is a process dependent on grief and focus’s on a de-cent, a pulling away, a going down. When we refuse to go down, we run the risk of anaesthetising ourselves. Cultural anaesthetics could be described as engendering a subtle trance, and so the shining and uncertain face of the returning initiate carries a kind of beauty that society is trying to defend itself from- the implications are simply too challenging.
Over a decade of both living through and witnessing this process in others, I have gradually refocused my perception of it. The attention, if rites-of-passage are to continue, surely has to be on the establishing of a coherent community to return and blossom in, even if they don’t live in the immediate geography. My concern is not whether we can ‘create’ an experience that feels authentic enough to facilitate real change, I believe we can, it is the acknowledgement that the process continues and changes shape on the return.
This is not ‘after-care’, we are still fully in the experience-what we need is support and tools.
Tools? The ability to incubate and create some expression that animates the journey we are on, that is of use to others. That often involves amplifying the fragility of that relationship to the earth, to animals, to weather.