Friday, September 22, 2006

Birth of a Poet: Third Meditation

[Please see First Meditation and Second Meditation before reading this, the third installment.]

Meditation III: Creating Roots in Cyclical Time

Much of what we think of as the "search for the sacred" is an attempt to find our grounding in cyclical time. Human beings crave a grounding that allows us to feel part of something bigger than ourselves. For many, the church--in its various forms--fills this need. Through the ritual of communion and fellowship with other churchgoers, we feel part of something meaningful. For a few hours, our unique identity is subsumed into a larger identity--Christ's congregation.

For Buddhists, there is a similar process. When one commits to the Buddhist path, we take refuge in the Buddha, in the Dharma, and in the Sangha. The sangha is the fellowship of other Buddhists, which is most often experienced as the group with whom we study or practice meditation.

However we seek this feeling of grounding, it is a basic need.

In premodern cultures, initiation provided the grounding in sacred space and time that allowed a young person to become a full member of the community. We have long ago abandoned any authentic form of initiation and replaced it with shallow and meaningless imitations. It's no wonder individuals in our culture often experience an overwhelming sense of ennui, not to mention full-blown depression.

I am not advocating a regression into a tribal worldview. What I am suggesting is that a healthy, integral consciousness will have a healthy connection to tribal-magical thinking that allows the individual to feel part of community, both at the interpersonal level of family and in the larger level of tribe, culture, or humanity. In the course of our evolution into the higher levels of development, we seem to have relegated aspects of the lower levels into our personal and collective shadows. Initiation is one of the things we have discarded in our rush into a rational understanding of our world and ourselves. We need to reclaim this vital tool from the trash heap of history.

Initiation follows a very simple pattern, no matter where in the world it occurs. As first identified by Arnold van Gennep in 1909, all ritual conforms to a basic underlying structure: separation, margin (or limen, meaning threshold in Latin), and reaggregation (more simply, return). Victor Turner, who has written the definitive statement on this topic, defines the transformation of states through the ritual as movement from one “stable or recurrent condition that is culturally recognized” to another.

The first stage (separation) involves symbolic behaviors representing the severing of ties to the “old” state of being, and with it all the cultural definitions and expectations that accrued to that particular state. In cultures that celebrate puberty rites, this separation may include removal from the family of origin, stripping of clothing, stripping of name, painting the face or body, shaving of hair, and other techniques that symbolically sever ties to the previous identity of the young person. In our modern world, we no longer celebrate puberty rites (the Jewish traditions of bar mitzvah and bas mitzvah are an exception, but only barely), but young boys and girls still find ways to mark the transition, including the move to middle school, the first date, sharing of “skin mags” among boys or makeup among girls, and other attempts to try on “adult” behaviors. The lack of adequate ways of helping young people make the transition from child to young adult has resulted in the proliferation of gangs and in books like Robert Bly’s Iron John, among other things.

The process of separation is common for adults, yet there is little training in how to deal with the situation when it arises. One may leave a relationship, a job, a city, and so on, all of which are often conscious choices and less traumatic than forced transitions. But what about the person who is fired, "dumped" by a partner, loses a parent, partner, or child to death, or in some other way is rejected and forced out of an established identity and way of life? There is no structure or training for coping with these events. One is often told to “get back on the horse,” “they’re in a better place,” “time heals all wounds,” “you’ll find something better,” and so on. These attempts to comfort are futile at best, and are often experienced as insulting to the pain one is experiencing.

When a person experiences some form of separation scenario, either consciously or against his/her will, the individual has become marginalized, existing in liminal space (“betwixt and between,” as Turner described it). During the liminal period, the individual is without strict identity, possessing none of the attributes of his/her former life and none of those s/he will have earned upon completion of the transition. In many cultures, entry into liminal space is a symbolic death, and may even involve ritual burial, change of name, or a permanent separation from the family of origin. According to Turner [in Betwixt and Between, edited by Mahdi, Foster, and Little (1987)], "transitional beings,” while in liminal space, have “no status, property, insignia, secular clothing, rank, kinship position, nothing to demarcate them structurally” from the others who are undertaking the initiation. A modern individual experiencing liminality isn’t completely stripped of all vestiges of her/his life in this drastic way, but the reality is still quite challenging for most people.

In the industrialized, and now post-industrial world, human beings have much more highly developed ego structures than the members of premodern cultures studied by van Gennep and Turner, among others. With greater ego development comes a greater sense of personal identity and a greater need to keep the self-sense intact. The ego can create a variety of defenses (Freud made his career, in part, by identifying the ego’s defense mechanisms and finding ways to circumvent them) in order to keep identity intact. Liminality brought on by a major life event, or even by unconscious processes in the psyche, has a tendency to poke holes in the self-concept and to reduce the solidity of one’s self-sense.

I propose that we seek out opportunities to "come undone." Coming undone is the way I describe those times in our lives when events or our own choices work to break up stagnant and solidified elements of self-identity. The fundamental element that makes possible any form of change is a reduction in ego defense mechanisms. Traumatic life events serve this purpose but can also plunge us into depths of liminality that we may not be capable of handling on our own. Ritualized initiation can serve this same purpose in a controlled manner. When we emerge from the initiation experience, if it has been given the weight it deserves, we will feel transformed.

The final stage, the return, marks the re-entry of the individual into the tribe, the group, or the culture as a new person. The individual assumes the new identity and adopts behaviors consistent with the new role. A boy having completed a puberty rite may now be given a new name, signifying his adulthood, a weapon with which to hunt, a hut in which to live, and so on. He is now a man in the eyes of the group, though he may still have years of training and future initiations to undertake before he is permitted to take a wife, hunt on his own, and be given other rights by the group.

When a Western person completes a transitional period, the individual may make certain changes in how s/he is perceived by the world, including clothing, occupation, name, and other “structural” changes, while also adopting less obvious traits such a new perspective, greater depth of identity, more comfort with ambiguity, less rigid thinking, and so on. Because transitions are not socially acknowledged in the West, there are no agreed upon ways to act following a major transition, or ways to regard someone who has completed a transitional period. Even the “ritual” of a hospital stay following an operation or serious illness has been eliminated by the HMO and managed health care systems. The only real tradition still intact for modern human beings having completed an important life transition is the honeymoon, and even that is a waning tradition.

Separation / Initiation / Return. The three stages of ritual and also the structure of the monomyth. Everyone must go through this in one way or another. Until we do--through the death of a parent or a friend, the loss of a significant relationship, being fired from a job, or any other form of change, including those we choose--our identity will not be fully formed. It may take several traumatic events to move us toward our true nature. Some people never take the hint and reject every call for transformation.

We must learn to recognize the rupture, the break in plane, when it occurs and to see it for what it is--spiritual initiation. It is the rupturing of linear time and an entry into cyclical time, sacred time. The threshold is the mystery, the risk, the threat. But we can seek it out, befriend it, and learn its secrets. We can cultivate surrender as an active principle. We can sink roots into cyclical time so that no matter how challenged we are in the linear world, we will have a grounding, a connection. We can activate the tribal level in our consciousness and experience the world as an interconnected mystery, a sacred place. This is not regression, but becoming more whole.

[Some of the material in this post is from a manuscript in progress, The Structures of Change.]

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