Thinking about Initiation

There are certain thinkers, like Richard Rohr, who believe “initiation” is a key part of a child’s acculturation that is missing from modern society.

My impression is that initiation is a process that is intentionally designed to produce the following outcomes in the initiate:

  1. Humbled, in the sense of each individual brought to the end of their strength;
  2. Made aware of their dependence upon a higher power;
  3. Made aware of their dependence upon the community;
  4. To emerge with a vision and a sense of purpose for their life in the context of that higher power and community.

How do you do this in a litigious society, and in such a way that is psychically healing and not destructive?

A person is humbled when they come to the end of their own strength, when they recognize their interdependence with others and with the very cosmos itself.  That is, the person who believes himself self-sufficient and perhaps even self-reliant is not humble.

This whole idea of humbling or humiliating a person is repugnant to our modern western society.  We don’t want to humble or humiliate our children.  We want to make them proud, and to think they can do anything.  I don’t think many of us would choose to put our children through an ordeal that we expected to humble or humiliate them.

Probably the closest thing I can think of in modern society to this kind of initiation is the military boot camp.  Per Wikipedia regarding recruit training:

“…if a recruit cannot be relied upon to obey orders and follow instructions in routine matters it is unlikely they will be reliable in a combat situation…the recruit who can’t work as part of a team and comply with the routine tasks of basic training, therefore, is more likely to place themselves, comrades and the mission in jeopardy.

I believe Rohr’s contention, and that of others like him, is that when we fail to intiate children into adulthood, the resulting adults will be toxic to society until they somehow stumble upon these realizations on their own, in a way that is more likely to be harmful both to society and the individual.

Security, Certainty, and Safety

Perhaps after happiness – security, certainty, and safety are the things we most want.  Yet imagine a story of a character whose life was secure, certain, and safe.  Nothing could be more boring.

Living an adventure is stressful, unpredictable, uncertain, and risky.  Adventures are often unsafe.  But they make for a good story.  The first stories, the myths and legends of various cultures, are nearly all adventures.

Our own stories are full of adventure.  Those parts of our lives that stick with us the most are those ordeals we’ve passed through, particularly those we shared with friends and family.  They are often transformative: we learn from them, and are changed by them.  They bind us together with a particulare imprimatur.  We are marked.

So how can we learn to ride the waves of adventure, the uncertain chaos of an ordeal, in such a way that we enjoy it?  Because in this world we live in, there is no escape from it.  Change and volatility come in ever more frequent and more violent waves.  And if we can learn to ride these waves, we can trade the sameness and boredom of a safe and secure life for the transformative variety and challenge of an adventure.

Fortune favors the prepared mind – Louis Pasteur.  Our practice can stretch us and strengthen us across all the domains of life.  Our practice can still the silent screams of our anxious and fearful mind.  Our practice can empart to us the gifts of confidence, courage, and the determination to persevere.  Our practice can teach us the balance to stand upon our board on tall waves that cast us in shadow, and propel us at breathtaking speed.

Wisdom’s Apprentice

Who is wisdom’s apprentice?  What sort of person is on the path to wisdom?

  1. A person who is self-aware, and has a longing to understand her place and connection with God and the Cosmos.
  2. A person who longs for goodness, truth, and beauty.
  3. A person who seeks to walk in equanimity, gratitude, and awe.
  4. A person who seeks to live empathically and compassionately.
  5. A person who acknowledges their need for grace, and seeks to be full of grace: forgiveness, acceptance, and completeness.
  6. A person who seeks a vocation they enjoy by which they can bless themselves and others, and by which they can earn a living.
  7. A person who seeks to live simply and within their means; who is moderate in all things.
  8. A person who enjoys a civil discussion about ideas that matter; who can bless a person who disagrees with her.

Is the wise person an expert?  I don’t believe the qualification of expert is either necessary or sufficient to be wise.  Oftentimes experts are arrogant.  Their skill can lead to hubris that leads them to believe they are beyond the need for grace, compassion, or empathy.  But neither do I believe it keeps them from being wise, or seeking wisdom.

It takes discipline to stay on such a path.  It takes community to stay on such a path.  Since the dawn of civilization, persons have formed communities to help one another pursue these very ends in one form or another; whether as political communities, religious communities, or academic communities.

We need each other to grow.  It is hard, if not impossible, to grow alone.  Can we form such a community online?  Could such an online community meet face to face?

Emotion: the Fifth Circle

You may not think of your emotions as a domain of practice.  I know I didn’t.  I just thought life sucked.

But experience has taught me that emotions aren’t just experienced.  They are influenced by practice over time.

I haven’t always believed this.  For most of my life I believed my emotions were beyond my control.

I’ve seen psychologists and psychiatrists since college.  I’ve memorized scripture about the peace of God that passes understanding.  I’ve prayed.  If there’s a self help book, I’ve read it.  These all helped in their way, but there didn’t seem to be a “cure.”

I struggled with anxiety in particular.  There always seemed to be some general nonspecific anxiety in my body whether I had anything to worry about or not.  Nothing seemed to turn it off, not medicine, not scripture, not prayer.

Finally a friend referred me to an Emotional Polar Therapist.  The practice seemed strange to me, but has proven effective.  In addition to the office visits, she gave me various meditation and yoga exercises to do at home.

The short of it is I’ve finally found an off button to that anxiety.  And I no longer take medication.

But we all are different.  What worked for me may not work for you.  But then again, it might.  The idea behind a practice group is that we can learn from each other, from our mistakes and our successes.

Some questions for discussion might be:

  1. How do I feel?  Where in my body am I feeling my emotions?
  2. How are my emotions affected by my diet?
  3. What am I feeding my head?  How does this affect what I feel?
  4. What am I specifically practicing to improve my emotional health?

Body: the Fifth Circle

There’s a deep connection between the motions of the body and the development of the brain.

In the book Spark, John Ratey asserts that the brain developed as a result of motion or the need to move.  He gives the example of a sea squirt, which has a rudimentary brain it uses to permanently attach itself to coral, and then promptly eats its brain.

It seems body comes before mind, at least developmentally.  The mind functions best in the vessel of a healthy, moving body.  Maybe the circles should be ordered as body, mind, and spirit.

In any case, our health and happiness is to a large extent dependent upon the health of our bodies.

Body, the fifth circle of practice, tries to answer these questions:

  1. What am I eating and drinking?  How much? Are they healthy?  Am I temperate?
  2. How can I keep body fit?  How can I leverage my personality in choosing my exercise?
  3. How can I leverage the mind/body connection?

Oftentimes those things that taste best act like slow poison in the body.  They may have high concentrations of fat or sugar.  Not coincidentally these are often “foods” that take little or no time to prepare; “processed” foods that are ready to eat, but have had all the life processed out of them.  One of the best things we can put in our bodies is water; and most of us don’t drink nearly enough of it.

How can we exercise enough without eating too much?  How can we wire the brain with the body in ways that promote a healthy symbiosis?  How can we detox, de-stress, and renew our bodies and our minds?  Are we competitive?  Do we enjoy athletic competition, or avoid it?

Let motivation be your guide.  If something turns you on and tones your body, pursue it.  A competitive person might choose something like tennis over yoga, and vice-versa for a non-competitive person.  Do what you enjoy, and you will look forward to it.  Nerves that fire together wire together.

Mind: the Fourth Circle

Mind, the fourth circle of practice, tries to answer these questions:

  1. What am I interested in, or curious about?  What holds my attention?
  2. What is good, or true?  How can I increase my knowledge and understanding of the world?
  3. How can I appreciate or create what is beautiful?

Once we begin to find our answers to the questions of the spiritual domain, we naturally begin to raise these questions of the mind.  We want to spend our time, and find purpose and meaning in, those things that interest us, that pique our curiosity, and that fully engage our attention.

We want to pursue those things we perceive to be good, and believe those things we know to be true.  It brings pleasure to the mind to grow in knowledge and understanding.  It also gives opportunity to apply that knowledge and understanding in the world around us, from which come reputation, compensation, and power.

Beauty arrests our attention, whether by symmetry, or rhythm, harmony, or melody; whether visually, aurally, tactilely, or fragrantly.  In some respects it is subjective; in others objective.  We know it when we experience it.  It fills us with awe, with longing, with desire.  To appreciate it is to grow, like a plant toward the sun.  To create it is to bear fruit that blesses the world, like an apple that falls ripe from the tree.

When we can answer these questions with clarity and confidence, then we have marked out an intellectual path before us as plain as the yellow brick road.  To read about and apply those ideas which fully engage us, to grow in knowledge and understanding, to appreciate and create beauty, is to walk the Elysian Fields crowned with laurel.

Spirit: the Third Circle

I’ve written about building a practice group, beginning with the first circle of talk dancing and the conversational space, and answering the second circle question of why you have come to the group.

I start with the premise that everyone lives in the “domains” of spirit, mind, body, emotion, community, household, vocation, and finance.  And while we may not have the same amount of focus or interest in any one of them, none of us can avoid living in any of them.

I believe the domain of spirit seeks to answer three questions:

  1. Who am I?
  2. How am I connected with other human beings, with life, and the cosmos itself?
  3. How can I create a meaningful life for myself, and bless those I care about?

I think it’s important to answer these questions as best you can before moving on to the other domains, because it is easy to get lost in those other domains only to “wake up” one day and realize you don’t know who you are, or how you are connected with the cosmos, or whether your life has any meaning.  Having no answer to these questions is almost the very definition of an existential crisis.

Notice that while I’ve said nothing about a person’s “faith,” it is faith that attempts to answer these questions.  Our faith consists of the assumptions our life is predicated of; of our self-awareness; of our experience of connectedness or isolation, whether with God, or nature, or with other human beings; of whether our lives have any meaning.

The practice group can help us draw out answers to these questions from ourselves and from one another.  We don’t need to be of the same faith, but we do need to respect one another’s faith.  We don’t need to have the same answers but we need to try to understand each other’s answers, and challenge each other to formulate the best answers we can.