Doesn’t it often appear as if life is an ordeal, with ever-renewing challenges, disappointments and obstacles just around the next bend? Isn’t it ironic that we exist in a culture and a time that bears so many ideas and modes about how to make life “good”, or to find a “quick fix”? Many of us may feel we ought to be able to embody the latest and most effective “self help” technique for creating some form of happiness that would seem, ultimately, to be elusive – yet, if these tactics and techniques worked, wouldn’t we be there by now? If it were simply the case that each of us only needed to generate “good thoughts”, attract “what we want” and recognize abundance, and if these is the missing keys, why are there so many who are suffering so profoundly at this time in the world and wouldn’t you know, right next door?
When I came to the crossroads of what we call “midlife” I found myself once more on the road of ashes, asking questions about who I was and why I came to be here to be alive in the first place. I was fortunate to discover vital communities in which the emphasis and focus was on witnessing each other, from the soul, amid a disciplined atmosphere where wise and instructive practices were maintained for the cultivating of deeper initiatory passages culminating for the folks involved. In being witnessed and invited to recognize a Deep Self within and also in Others, I was able to regain my focal point as a helper and to take up my task on the road of life and death, which it appears we each must travel in this lifetime.
It would seem that there might be more to the picture than meets the eye. In our western civilized pursuit to conquer and secure the wild forces that exist within as well as without, we continually find ourselves riddled by the mantra of “progress” on the one hand, and the emerging realities that appear in nature, on the other. We’ve largely divorced ourselves from the actual rhythms of the cosmos in an attempt to make our lives easier and better. So it would appear.
In America, at least, we’ve lived with the hopeful promise of psychotherapy for over a hundred years now. Why is the natural world in such a state of dire threat if we’re truly about the business of healing? Maybe we lost the thread of what it truly means to “heal”. The word itself bears origins with the word “whole”, which itself is also woven into the words “hole” and “holy”.
Folks from non-industrialized cultures, whom not a few of us have turned to over the past century to seek to understand how to live, love, grieve and die, remind us that we are essentially bound up with the age-old practices of initiation as they’ve been practiced and developed for thousands of years. Initiation rites have been a part of most, if not all, cultures around the world for ages. Even Europeans and their descendants, at some point in time, have also maintained such wisdom traditions. With the advent of empirical science, the proverbial baby was thrown out with the bathwater, however, and western cultures have turned to scientific-rational knowledge while mostly leaving the wisdom of the heart and the soul behind, “in the dust”. Our people have done so in favor of growth, development, and notions of being able to overcome illness, death and disease through medicine and technology, ‘once and for all’.
I’m not saying these efforts at creating a better life don’t have something useful or desirable in them. And yet, it’s a paradox, because the very technologies we’ve hatched seem to threaten, at the very least, our viable human future on the planet. They also currently result in the deeply ironic and mounrful extinction of approximately 200 species of life a day. Extinct means forever.
What might all of this have to do with being awake or waking up? Perhaps the time is upon us to question how we can bring our unique gifts to life and to dying, for the sake of all that lives and perishes, and not just for ourselves. Maybe the time of “self help” is dying to change into the times of an awakening to the project of “help for one and for all”.
In initiation or rites of passage, as these have been practiced and handed down through generation to generation, the idea is that something which no longer serves the individual or the culture must die away and be made sacred through the course of an ordeal. This is the critical journey that so many of us have become akin towards in our studies of mythology and everyday life.
In the modern world we seem to be going under as a result of the inability to act, see and consider beyond the “me” in the equation of life. Perhaps we got lost in a forest of “personal needs” and individual concerns. The ordeals of our lives aren’t witnessed, because those who could witness us returning from the quest are too busy marching forward, looking in the mirror, or posting another “selfie” to the Internet, feeling the need to “take care of myself” all over again. It is important to “know thyself” yet have we also forgotten to know “the Other”? Rites of passage call for a community, a village, not simply a “network” of so-called friends. In a community, old, young, in between, even friends and foes will be present. In a community, we witness one another and give space to the seeing and the acknowledging of the difficulties of the trials that have taken place during the ordeal for one another. If we aren’t welcomed back, like veterans of any war, we can’t and don’t feel or experience that we’ve returned.
When the community and the individuals within it turn their eyes and hearts to us and when we each can be seen coming back, we may know that the ordeal is, for now, finished. This allows us to offer out the boons we’ve discovered through our hardships, and helps us to clarify what it is that we came here to give to others and also to receive, our selves.
In this sense, waking up has to do with awakening to the needs of others, as well as our own, and to be recognized for our unique gifts. Each of us has a different skill and talent to bring and all are needed. With this understanding, our ability to offer what we have to give becomes recognized and we no longer find ourselves traveling the world unsure of what that is or seeking to continually convince others that we have a valuable gift in the first place.
Perhaps one of the most telling venues of this phenomenon in my own life was to be found in the professional musical circles and arenas I found myself in during my thirties. I left the helping professions when I was 33 to become an “Indie” musician for eight years. Everyone in those circles is clamoring to get noticed. Groups of performers and audiences gather to deliver and receive their supposed and apparent gifts. A common problem is that there is not enough audience to receive the offerings – everyone present says, “look at me”, “look at what I am and what I can do, isn’t this great?!” It could be an awesome venue for recognizing the return, yet, alas, the clear understanding that we each need to be witnessed for our unique gifts is not conscious or present enough for that, in almost every case.
Healing arts like Dream Work, Storytelling, Breath Work, Soul Painting and Shamanic Journeying help us get in touch with the vitalizing energies within ourselves and all of nature and assist us to seek to come into balance with the spirit and the soul, to locate and honor our “holes” and also how we might seek to feed and be fed by “the Holy”, the wholeness to be found within and without in these challenging yet enriching times which we seem to have chosen to live within throughout the days and nights of this advent we might call “the Journeying Road of Our Living and Dying”. Working with these practices amongst others and with the understanding that we each need many witnesses to help us make the return leg of the journey may just assist us to find our places in the culture, to create a culture that can withstand the challenges of the day and allows us to bring and offer the gifts that are so dearly needed in any community.
For information about ways you can get involved in this vital work go to: