Life's Initiations and Rites of Passage

Sannyasi Muktananda (Australia)

The July full moon is the time we celebrate Guru Poornima. A time for honouring all gurus. Guru is our tangible symbol of God, our dispeller of darkness, the one who initiates us into the ultimate path of truth, where little by little we discover our true self. This 'leg' of our journey cannot be done without guru's guidance and grace. Life also initiates us, and we learn about our human nature, but guru takes us much further and initiates us into the Divine.

Life's initiations

Events, episodes and circumstances take place throughout our lives that are actually initiations into higher learning and deeper understanding of ourselves. We may not always recognize these situations as the positive initiations they truly are; in fact, in our ignorance and fear we may try to run and hide from them. However, there is no escape. No matter where we hide, these life initiations always find us. We can relocate to another town or country, or bury ourselves in alcohol or drugs – it doesn't matter, life insists on us undertaking these rites of passage. It's both law and lore.

These initiations usually come in the form of a disappointment or loss, minor and major. But even happy events can unexpectedly turn into intense initiations. These transforming events can be the traditionally recognized rites of passage, like birth, death, marriage, puberty etc., or they can be other transitions like separation, divorce, middle and old age, bad health, exam failures and home or job loss. Even arguments can teach us to listen with respect and to look within, with honesty. We all go through these experiences. The circumstances may be different, but the learning is the same.

We generally think of rites of passage as only birth, marriage, puberty or death. But what does the term rites of passage actually mean? This phrase was coined by anthropologist Arnold Van Gennup. His ethnographic studies into the rituals of a variety of indigenous cultures around the world culminated in his book The Rites of Passage, published in 1908. Traditionally a rite of passage was performed in a ritualistic manner. Simply speaking, a rite of passage is a transition. A moving from an old way of being into a new way of being. For example, various traditional puberty rites for boys are usually a process of challenging fears or pain, be they physical, mental, emotional, or all three. When the adolescent has achieved his goal, he moves from his childhood life, mostly associated with women, into a male adulthood and the various privileges and responsibilities that accompany his new status.

Loss, fear and change

The 'loss' and 'disappointment' initiations and accompanying rites of passage I'm referring to teach us about our various challenging characteristics and our 'dark side', like jealousy, envy, self-doubt, arrogance, selfishness, stubbornness, self-deception etc. We don't always recognize these characteristics within ourselves. These initiations reflect these issues like a mirror, right in our faces; their purpose is to teach us to release the 'dark' and weak aspects of our nature and to encourage us to draw on our inner strength. Sometimes they push us so hard, right over the edge into the 'abyss'. But sometimes it is only when we are pushed this far that we search deeper within ourselves, otherwise we tend to believe our own self-image, i.e. “I can't do this”, “I'm not good enough”, etc. We fear success just as much as we fear failure.

Then there is abhinivesha, the klesha which is the fear of dying. This can be expanded further into the fear of loss and the unknown environment beyond loss. When we lack self-trust and self-respect, we tend to hang on to a detrimental situation because it's familiar, it has a kind of masochistic comfort. “Better the devil you know than the devil you don't know.” Our fear of change is so broad that a new profession has evolved in recent years. Across the world there are now training companies that conduct seminars for individuals and organizations having difficulty coping with change. There are also many books written on the subject.

The list of fears goes on and on; it all depends on the individual karma which particular adverse characteristics we're working through in this lifetime. We have to be pushed beyond what we think are our limits, otherwise we'll never break through the illusion of our negative self concepts.

The phases of rites of passage

Van Gennup identified three specific phases or stages that make up each and every rite of passage. These stages can have a variety of names, but, for simplicity, we'll stick with the following: stage one, separation; stage two, transition; and stage three, incorporation. Van Gennup was focusing on the traditionally recognized rituals and rites of birth and death etc. However, the stages he identified apply to all the initiations and changes we go through in life.

The first stage, separation, is the initial event and the immediate consequences. Separation means, one is taken out of, or away from their normal daily routine, or existence. For example, because of the onset of a serious physical disability or illness, one may be dependent on others to assist with everyday functions like eating, bathing and dressing. This type of situation will no doubt result in a myriad of emotional experiences, especially for a highly independent person. These changes catapult one into an entirely new way of life, separating one from the previous way of living. With some events, this stage can be like falling into the abyss. Although we may think of an abyss as something fearful, it's really a womb, a place where new life is nurtured prior to birth, or in this case, prior to the stage of incorporation.

The second stage, transition, is initially the time spent confused, or in denial, or lost, 'wandering in the darkness', sometimes in despair. At some point in this stage, one begins to find ways to adjust to the darkness, to find various coping mechanisms. Depending on the situation and one's level of awareness, this stage may last a few minutes through to a whole lifetime. Often we die whilst still in the transitional stage of a life initiation, leaving us with karma and samskara to release in other lives. If we move through the transitional stage with awareness, we begin to find treasure. This treasure comes in the form of awakening consciousness, discovering meaning and value in the event that swept us out of our old life. We discover new and infinitely better ways of living and of being. Piece by piece, life begins to reveal it's hidden mysteries, and we discover new joy and purpose. Our trauma has crystallized into a profound truth that we realize can change our lives for the better. We develop a better sense of who we are and what life is all about.

The third stage, incorporation, is where we integrate our new knowledge into our lives. We incorporate what we have learnt as part of who we are now. This is where we apply the lessons learnt in the first and especially the second stage. This is a time of re-emerging, like the phoenix rising from the ashes. It does not necessarily mean one is now 'cured' of the illness of body or mind; there still may be much work to do. However, at this point, you could say one has received the message, one has passed through this particular rite of passage into a new way of being. Of course we can go through these rites and learn nothing at all, in which case, life will continue to present us with more and more such initiations, until we do finally get the message.

Satya and swadhaya

Usually we find it easier to see the negative aspects of others; our own negatives can be a little elusive when we don't really want to recognize them. Sometimes we disguise or justify them if we're not prepared to look within and be honest with ourselves. This attitude will make these lessons difficult and painful. Satya is the yama of truthfulness, in thought, word and deed, honesty with self and others. With the sincere practice of satya in our self-study process (swadhaya), and with the grace of guru, we can transit these lessons more smoothly, like flying on the wings of a swan.

We are always going through endings and beginnings; each ending generates a new beginning. All three stages can take a short or long time to traverse; there is no predetermined time. In fact, the whole of life (birth, life, and death) is one long rite of passage with many major and minor rites incorporated within. Birth is the separation from our Divine Home as well as separation from the womb. The whole passage of life is the transitional stage, incorporating all the aspects of transition, including wandering lost, and making new discoveries. This major rite of passage, called life, culminates in death, often with the opportunity to learn even more in those final moments of intense energy. This is the incorporation of all that has been learnt in the passing life, as the soul moves on to the next experience. Another ending moving into another new beginning.

Discovering our own truth

The purpose in any transition is to find truth, to re-establish the connection with our spiritual selves and to rediscover the greater meaning and purpose in life, the 'bigger picture'. As this process unfolds, we learn to become even-minded, spiritually aware, personally empowered, balanced, and able to stand on our own two feet.

These initiations make up the beautiful tapestry of who we are. Because no matter what the events are, no matter how terrible, there is always beauty to be found within. Finding those gems – those jewels within the 'trials by fire' is the reason we chose to undertake these marvellous excursions into ourselves. Luckily for us we have Swami Niranjanananda to dispel our darkness, to put a mirror in front of us so we can clearly see ourselves, the light side and the dark side, our beauty and our warts!

Through my experiences, the learning of lessons also comes in three stages. First it comes as an intellectual concept; I understand the truth of it. However, at this point it is not yet naturally flowing within me. After experiencing this lesson a few more times, it moves into my heart, and I feel the truth of it, but still it does not flow naturally. Further down the track, after the lesson has jumped up in my face again, (probably several times), I begin to feel it in my belly and then I realize I own this truth, I have fully remembered and incorporated it. It has become a part of me that cannot be removed. It becomes an automatic instinct and reaction. I no longer have to think of it or force myself to remember it; the truth within the lesson is finally a naturally flowing part of myself.

The energy that we call life is continually urging us on to reach the ultimate goal, even if we don't recognize this. All those events and traumas that we try to avoid and deny are really the infinite love of God. The love is always there, calling us, urging us to find our true home nestled within the loving heart of God.

So on Guru Poornima we pay homage to all gurus, especially our revered Swamis Sivananda, Satyananda and Niranjanananda. We are truly fortunate to belong to and be guided by, this exalted family of such immense spiritual calibre. And we must remember to give thanks to our inner guru, which also works hard to guide us home.