This is derived from a class I taught on the role of initation in making effective strategic choices in life.
The basics of this class was: To explore how an individual is accepted by a group through a specific rite, ritual, or ceremony.
Definition: Initiation – A formal rite of passage, often a ceremony, marking entrance or acceptance into adulthood or into a certain level or formal component within a group or society.
Q & A
STUDENT: What is the source of the word initiation?
LEWIS: It comes from the Latin, initium: “a going in.” It was originally used to describe “an entrance” or “beginning”. The English verb “initiate” means to begin or start a particular event, happening, action, or circumstance.
STUDENT: What is the importance of the initiation process for the individual and for a group?
LEWIS: An initiation not only formally defines the agreement between the initiate and the group, but the initiation process may also signify that a transformation or “rebirth” has taken place.
STUDENT: Anyone can simply say that a person has had a transformation through some ritual or ceremony. What makes an initiation anything more than a new myth or story without any real substance?
LEWIS: A shift actually takes place in the most authentic initiations. There is a real process involved in an initiation with substance. The shift is both in the perspective of the initiate and of how the group views the new initiate. The simplest way to describe the shift is to say that the initiate has earned and has been given a new role within the group or society of which he may already a member.
Examples of transformational initiations that signify a transformation in which the initiate is “reborn” into a new role may include the Jewish bar or bat mitzvah, a college graduation ceremony, a Christian baptism or Confirmation (Christian sacrament), a ceremony within a martial arts school where a student earns a higher level belt, a mystic school where an initiate is given “secret” codes or information. Other examples include a fraternal organization, a secret society, a religious order, and a recruit training for a military or Para-military organization, such as a militia or the Mafia.
STUDENT: Why do we need initiations at all? We certainly could survive without them.
LEWIS: It may be that human beings are hard-wired to join groups, and groups are hardwired to create some initiation process. It may be that in order to function effectively in life we need support systems and boundaries that help define our relationships to these support systems. An initiation is a formal way of creating a relationship where those who are at a more evolved, transformed, or influential level in a group guide the initiate through a process of greater exposure of knowledge specific to the group.
STUDENT: Are there any common elements that might be found in most initiation ceremonies?
LEWIS: In most initiations, the individual conducting the initiation (the initiator) possesses or is believed to possess a specific power or state of being and has the ability to transfer this power or state to the person being initiated. As a student of Shamanism, I went through such an initiation process. I was introduced to certain words and certain meditation practices which I was told would open the “Inner Door” to certain insight and mystic knowledge.
STUDENT: What type of knowledge or access to knowledge is imparted at an initiation ceremony?
LEWIS: It may be essential factual information, such as what a post-graduate student might receive from his or her noble prize winning professor. It may include secret mantras or words as are given in mystic yoga initiations, secret hand-shakes used by street gangs, and specific revelation of private symbols or codes that might be used in a secret society, such as the Masons. Some information is reserved for those at the higher level of understanding within a group, a bishop or cardinal in the Catholic Church, for instance.
STUDENT: Where does the concept of initiation fit in the process of self-actualization, especially in the life of an extraordinary person?
LEWIS: Self-Actualization comes in many ways. If one has belief in religion, spirituality, or esoteric philosophies, an initiation may cause a fundamental process of change within the person being initiated. Self-Actualization almost always involves some type of personal transformation. This is also the case in most initiation processes. What most initiations have in common is the concept of simultaneous death and rebirth. Initiation is an end and a beginning. One level of being drops away as another ascends.
STUDENT: What role is the initiate expected to play in an initiation?
LEWIS: The willingness to be initiated in thought word and deed. In many groups it implies that the initiate agrees to certain requirements such as living a certain lifestyle, prayer, meditation, etc.
STUDENT: Are their many initiation processes that have no relationship to religion, secrecy, or spirituality?
LEWIS: Yes. In fact, most initiation ceremonies are secular. In many groups the use of the word “initiation” represents a brief familiarization with basic rules, guidelines, codes, and procedures of the group. Some groups may charge a one-time initiation fee. Unions, professional associations, and many clubs would fit into this category. Generally, you might say that there is the form of a specific ritual and then there is the function or the value of the initiation to the group.
STUDENT: Are all initiations formal?
LEWIS: There are many initiations, symbols, and rituals that are tied to specific communities that are unspoken and yet would be defined as a rite of passage. They are not true initiations in that nothing is asked of the initiate. It is merely a joint event in the community that a person has participated in. An example might be a sports coach winning his or her 1,000th game or a baseball player hitting his 100, 200, 300 or 400th home-run. For some individuals an initiation of sorts has taken place when they have crossed the equator on board a naval ship or as passengers on board a cruise liner. There are, literally, thousands of such initiation rites, some with long histories behind them and some newly created.
STUDENT: What is the most common initiation practice in the world?
LEWIS: Probably puberty rites. These are sacred collective rituals whose function is to facilitate the transformation of an adolescent to an adult. There are records of puberty rites going back to the dawn of human history.
STUDENT: What is the most common form of spiritual, if not religious, initiation?
LEWIS: In the last few decades there has been an increased interest in different “New Age” and Shamanic approaches to initiation. Some are quite serious and profound while others are no more than exercises in spiritual materialism. Authentic Shaman initiations are generally limited to those few who have a passion and a calling to do inner work that is not accessible to the rest of the community but may ultimately serve the community.
STUDENT: What other types of initiations are there?
LEWIS: Aside from formal initiation ceremonies, there are often unofficial initiations held or practiced within subcultures of the larger group. Many aboriginal tribes use initiation to both reflect and define the tribal identity. Initiations can include many different practices including: circumcision of males, genital mutilation of females, sub-incision and scarification. In these cultures initiation truly is a rite of passage in every sense of the word; preparing a young person to be a good husband or wife.
STUDENT: How large does a group need to be to have an initiation?
LEWIS: There is no standard for this. Initiation, formal and non-formal, exists in sub-cultures within larger groups. Such small communities exist within groups like the Green Beret’s, Navy Seals, and on board military vessels. Members of these groups are often tightly knit communities that are so internalized that they function like families, even after the initiate has left the military. These subgroups, like the larger groups they are part of, may have a hazing or a trial before a new member can be formally accepted.
STUDENT: How extreme or dangerous can an initiation ceremony become?
LEWIS: They can get pretty extreme. Of course, much college fraternity hazing is designed to be humiliating and can be dangerous without any deeper meaning of transformation. It’s just about “belonging to the group” and doing anything one can to be accepted.
STUDENT: How long does an initiation ceremony take?
LEWIS: There is no way to define this since some initiations go beyond a single ceremony. My Shamanic Initiation extended over the course of two days. My Bar Mitzvah took a few hours. In some Aboriginal cultures initiations may take 3-4 months or even longer.
STUDENT: Is initiation really important in our modern society?
LEWIS: I would say more than ever and yet the more modern a society is, the less likely that initiation and rites of passage will be taken seriously regarding an individual’s growth and development. The anthropologist Joseph Campbell discusses this in his PBS (Public Broadcasting System) interviews with Bill Moyers. Without initiation and rites of passage society loses much of its reason for being; and that which was once held as sacred is lost. In some tribes initiation is essential if a person is to be regarded as a full member of the tribe. Otherwise, the individual may not be allowed to participate in core social rituals and ceremonies.
STUDENT: Is there a sacred element to the concept of initiation that is separate from religion or spirituality?
LEWIS: Yes. If we are hard wired to create community and to form groups (see the Level: Community) then we must also have a reason for doing so. The group, as well, must have a reason for existing. This reason is sacred in that without it the community would have no reason for existing (see A Conversation: “What is Sacred?”). Thus, initiation becomes sacred because it reconnects us to who we are, who we are to become, and where we are in the community. The initiation process also reconnects the community to its own history, origins, mythology, and culture.
STUDENT: What are the greatest benefits of a truly transformational initiation?
LEWIS: There are many and they may vary from culture to culture. Here is a list of the most universal benefits of initiation:
- Ritual death or “Dying while Living” enables one to live life more fully and guide a person to conquer the fear of real death.”
- To reveal the deeper meaning of our existence.
- To help a young person to accept accountability for his or her actions, and to hold them to a higher standard so they may be powerful and effective participants in the group.
- To make them aware, on a transcendental level, of whom they truly are.
- To ground them in “what is” so they might be fully open and available for “what might be”.
STUDENT: It seems as if initiations are merely events that people give meaning to – a sort of cultural meme?
LEWIS: This may be so in some groups but there are initiations that are structured to bring individuals into an authentic transformation. Many of these initiations can bring a person into an altered state of consciousness.
STUDENT: Can you give me an example of some physically extreme initiation?
LEWIS: Some Native American tribes practice a “Sun Dance” that requires intense mental and physical endurance. You may research “Sun Dance” to learn more.
STUDENT: Is there some kind of initiation in your work as a mentor and coach?
LEWIS: No. This work is not spiritual, religious, or group oriented in that sense. However, initiation is an important part of any transformational process.
STUDENT: Can you speak about the idea of initiation and “Rites of Passage” and how they connect with the stories we create?
LEWIS: We all seek power in our lives. A person in possession of real power knows that we are all limited or empowered not by our experiences alone but by the stories we create about these experiences. We create different life stories for a variety of reasons, some within our control and others not. We can exert power over others and be controlled by others’ powers because of many different factors, some under our control and others beyond our control. These factors may include gender, religious beliefs, cultural background, age, or general life circumstances. The popular motivational author and lecturer, Leo Buscaglia, defined six stages in a person’s development. These stages are infancy, childhood adolescence, maturity, intimacy, and old age. Different types of power will be important to an individual based on where they are developmentally. The stories they create and the stories they will cherish from the past will often reflect the stage they are presently in.
Lewis Harrison, the author of this blog is a speaker, consultant, and Contemporary Spiritual Teacher. He is a pioneer in the personal development movement The author of nine self help books on human potential he offers seminar, workshops, retreats and phone based coaching. He is creating a series of ebooks entitled “Ask Lewis…” which will be available on line
Lewis offers phone-based and on-line life coaching services and created the course on Life Strategies www.LewisHarrisonsAppliedGameTheory.com – a simple system for decision making based on Game Theory, the idea expanded on by John Nash, the Nobel prize winning subject of the biopick “A Beautiful Mind”.
LEWIS WILL BE OFFERING A WEEKEND BOOTCAMP IN SEPTEMBER ON LIFE STRATEGIES AND APPLIED GAME THEORY.
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Lewis hosts a weekly radio show “What Up” that explore game theory. The show broadcasts Wednesdays and Thursday on WIOX 91.3 FM – 4:00 PM – 6:00 PM (EST). The show is also available as an internet stream at the same time period at WIOXRadio.org