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Rips to the Edge

1981... walk forwards onto a knife-point and a voice in my ear says "Better that you should fall onto this blade than have doubt"... and in the background, the clash of gongs. The next day. A cold voice on the telephone "we've made a mistake. The Elders say that you should never have been initiated. You shouldn't be doing magic at all. It'll drive you mad if you don't stop."

So I ran away to collect myself. A pause for breath whilst I figured out what my life was for.

1982 ...then came the loudest, longest CLICK in the world. Then silence, shattered by Avrim's crazy laugh "You're lucky, English. You got a dud shell in the chamber." Carefully, I placed the revolver, a 1913 Webley, on the floor. I reached across miles of table and tasted my first sip of beer. Israeli Nesher beer. Gaseous, it burst across my tongue and I felt each bubble pop like it went on forever.


Much has been written over the last few years or so concerning the initiatory death/rebirth experience. From anthropology to New Age Shamans to Rebirthing to Stanislav Grof. Crowley unwound his mystic visions into purple prose, the Beats documented their trips to the edge, and Joseph Campbell plotted the Heroes' Journey. But does it always help, I wonder, this weight of information about other people's descents into darkness? It's good to know that there are archetypes, present in the Fool's Journey in the Tarot or Coppola's Apocalypse Now! But the pattern is too clear, seen through the eyes of another. What they don't tell you is that the hand of Chaos is only a breath away.

Dictionary definitions of initiation allude to the act of beginning, or setting in motion, or entry into something. One way to explain initiation is to say that it is a threshold of change which we may experience at different times in our lives, as we grow and develop. The key to initiation is recognising that we have reached such a turning point, and are aware of being in a period of transition between our past and our future. The conscious awareness of entering a transitional state allows us to, perhaps, discard behavioural/emotional patterns which will be no longer valid for the 'new' circumstances, and consciously take up new ones. What books often fail to emphasise is that initiation is a process. It doesn't happen just once, but can occur many times throughout an individual's life, and that it has peaks (initiatory crises), troughs (black depression or the 'dark night of the soul') and plateaus (where nothing much seems to be going on). Becoming aware of your own cycles of change, and how to weather them, is a core part of any developmental process or approach to magical practice.

In 'shamanic' societies the first stage of the initiation process is often marked by a period of personal crisis and a 'call' towards starting the shamanic journey. Most of us are quite happy to remain within the conceptual and philosophical boundaries of 'Consensus Reality' (the everyday world). For an individual beginning on the initiatory journey, the crisis may come as a powerful vision, dreams, or a deep (and often disturbing) feeling to find out what is beyond the limits of normal life. It can often come as a result of a powerful spiritual, religious or political experience, or as a growing existential discontent with life. Our sense of being a stable self is reinforced by the "walls" of the social world in which we participate—yet our sense of uniqueness resides in the cracks of those same walls. Initiation is a process which takes us "over the wall" into the unexplored territories of the possibilities which we have only half-glimpsed.

All it takes is one rent in the fabric for pandemonium to sluice through.

William Burroughs, 'Apocalypse'

This first crisis is often an unpleasant experience, as we begin to question and become dissatisfied with all that we have previously held dear—work, relationships, ethical values, family life can all be disrupted as the individual becomes increasingly consumed by the desire to 'journey'. The internal summons may be consciously quashed or resisted, and it is not unknown for individuals in tribal societies to refuse 'the call' to shamanic training—no small thing, as it may lead to further crises and even death.

One very common experience of people who feel the summons in our society is an overpowering sense of urgency to either become 'enlightened' or to change the world in accordance with emerging visions. This can lead to people becoming 'addicted' to spiritual paths, wherein the energy that may have been formerly channelled into work or relationships is directed towards taking up spiritual practices and becoming immersed in 'spiritual' belief systems. The 'newly awakened' individual can be (unintentionally) as boring and tiresome as anyone who has seized on a messianic belief system, whether it be politics, religion, or spirituality. It is often difficult, at this stage in the cycle, to understand the reaction of family, friends and others who may not be sympathetic to one's new-found direction or changes in lifestyle. Often, some of the more dubious cults such as the Moonies take advantage of this stage by convincing young converts that "true friends" etc., would not hinder them in taking up their new life, and that anyone who does not approve, is therefore not a 'true friend'. There are a wide variety of cults which do well in terms of converts from young people who are in a period of transition (such as when leaving home for the first time) and who are attracted to a belief/value system that assuages their uncertainties about the world.

Another of the problems often experienced by those feeling the summons to journey is a terrible sense of isolation or alienation from one's fellows—the inevitable result of moving to the edge of one's culture. Thus excitement at the adventure is often tinged with regret and loss of stability or unconscious participation with one's former world. Once you have begun the process of disentanglement from the everyday world, it is hard not to feel a certain nostalgia for the lost former life in which everything was (seemingly) clear-cut and stable, with no ambiguities or uncertainties.

A common response to the summons to departure is the journey into the wilderness—of moving away from one's fellows and the stability of consensus reality. A proto-shaman is likely to physically journey into the wilderness, away from the security of tribal reality, and though this is possible for some Westerners, the constraints of modern living usually mean that for us, this wandering in the waste is enacted on the plane of ideas, values and beliefs, wherein we look deeply within and around ourselves and question everything, perhaps drawing away from social relations as well. Deliberate isolation from one's fellows is a powerful way of loosening the sense of having fixed values and beliefs, and social deprivation mechanisms turn up in a wide variety of magical cultures.

The Initiatory Sickness

In shamanic cultures, the summons to journey is often heralded by a so-called 'initiatory sickness', which can either come upon an individual suddenly, or creep slowly upon them as a progressive behavioural change. Western observers have labelled this state as a form of 'divine madness', or evidence of psychopathology. In the past, anthropologists & psychologists have labelled shamans as schizophrenic, psychotic, or epileptic. More recently, western enthusiasts of shamanism (and anti-psychiatry) have reversed this process of labelling and asserted that people labelled as schizophrenic, psychotic or epileptic are proto-shamans. Current trends in the study of shamanism now recognise the former position to be ethnocentric—the researchers have been judging shamanic behaviour by western standards. The onset of initiatory sickness in tribal culture is recognised as a difficult, but potentially useful developmental process. Part of the problem here is that western philosophy has developed the idea of 'ordinary consciousness', of which anything beyond this range is pathological, be it shamanic, mystical or drug-induced. Fortunately for us, this narrow view is being rapidly undermined.

Individuals undergoing the initiatory sickness do sometimes appear to suffer from fits and 'strange' behaviour, but there is an increasing recognition that it is a mistake to sweepingly attach western psychiatric labels onto them (so that they can be explained away). Shamans may go through a period of readjustment, but research shows that they tend to become the most healthy people in their tribes, functioning very well as leaders and healers.

Transitional states showing similar features to the initiatory sickness have been identified in other cultures' mystical and magical practices, which western researchers are beginning to study, as practices from other cultures gain popularity in the west.

Now for the 'Confrontation' phase of the Initiation Process, which is characterised by mythic themes such as the descent into the Underworld, battles with monsters, and the whale's belly. This is the stage of psychic dismemberment which culminates in the experience of ego-death and, in some cases, the real possibility of physical death.

Many world myths feature the descent into the Underworld as a central theme for transformation and the quest for power & mastery of self. The recognition of the necessity of 'rites of passage' is played out both in tribal societies where the death of childhood and the rebirth into adulthood is marked by a rite of passing, and in Western magical and religious societies where 'followers' are reborn into a new self.

Death by dismemberment is a strongly recurrent theme in shamanic cultures, where proto-shamans are stripped of their flesh and torn apart by spirits, only to be remade anew, usually with some additional part, such as an extra bone, organ, or crystal as an indication that they are now something 'more' than previously. In some cultures (such as in the Tibetan Tantric Chöd ritual), the dismemberment experience is a voluntary meditation, whereas in others, it is an involuntary (though understood) experience. This kind of transition is not uncommon in Western approaches to magical development, both as a willed technique and as a (seemingly) spontaneous experience that results from working within a particular belief-system. I have, for example, been burnt alive in the pyre of Kali, and more recently, had an eye ripped out by the Morrigan. Periodic descents into the Underworld are a necessary phase in the cycle of personal development, and are also associated with depth psychotherapy.

According to the Western Esoteric Tradition, one of the key stages of initiatory confrontation is the encounter with 'The Dweller on the Threshold'. Less prosaically, this phrase refers to the experience of our understanding of the gulf between the ego's fiction of itself and our selves as we truly are. This necessitates acceptance of our short-comings, blind spots and personal weaknesses as aspects of ourselves that we must take responsibility for. The recognition that we are, ultimately, responsible for all aspects of ourselves, especially those bits which we are loath to admit to ourselves, is a step that must be taken if the initiatory journey is to proceed. It is not uncommon for people to remain at this stage for years, or to come back to it, time and time again. Such ordeals must be worked through, or they will return to 'haunt' us until they are tackled, else they will become 'obsessional complexes' (demons) that will grow until they have power over us. There are a myriad of techniques—both magical exercises and psychotherapeutic tools— which can be actively used to examine these complexes, but the core of this ordeal is the beginnings of seeing yourself. In shamanic cultures, physical isolation from the tribe is often reinforced by physical ordeals such as fasting, sleep deprivation, and exposure to rigours of heat or cold—all powerful techniques for producing altered states of consciousness.

The initiatory cycle can be likened to a snake sloughing off its skin. So too, we must be prepared to slough off old patterns of thought, belief (about ourselves and the world) and behaviour that are no longer appropriate for the new phase of our development. As we reach the initiatory stage of descent into the underworld, so we are descending into the Deep Mind, learning to rely on our own intuition about what is right for us, rather than what we have been told is correct. As the initiatory process becomes more and more intense, we reach a point where we have (to varying degrees) isolated ourselves from the Social World, (physically or mentally), and begun to dismember the layers of our Personal World, so that the Mythic World becomes paramount in our consciousness, perhaps in an intensely 'real' way that it has not been beforehand. When we open up the floodgates of the Mythic World, we may find that our Deep Mind 'speaks' to us using what psychologists call 'autosymbolic images'; that is, symbols which reflect the churnings within us. These may well be entities or spirits from magical or religious belief systems that we have consciously assimilated, or they may arise 'spontaneously' from the Deep Mind.

These 'entities' (whatever their source) may become the first of our 'allies' or guides through the inner worlds that we have descended into. Accounts of shamanic initiation often recount the neo-shaman being 'tested' in various ways by spirit guides and helpers, and, if she or he pass the testing, they become allies that the shaman can call upon, on returning from the underworld. Not all spirits met whilst undergoing the underworld experience will be automatically helpful or benign, and some will try and mislead or misdirect you with their information. In this kind of instance you will need to rely even more on your own 'truthsense' or discrimination. Ghosts are notoriously capricious, and an 'elder brother' once told me to 'be wary of spirits which herald a false dawn under the dark moon'. Particular 'misguides' to watch out for are the spirits who will tell you that you are 'mystically illuminated' beyond a point that anyone else has reached— they are 'parts' of the ego attempting to save itself from destruction. You may have to 'overcome' some of these spirits—not so much by defeating them in astral combat, but by recognising that they have no power over you—that you understand their seductions and will not be swayed by them. The danger here hearkens back to the necessity of attempting to shed light on as many of your buried complexes as possible—'misguide' spirits will attempt to seduce you into feeding those complexes so that you become caught up in them.

Spirit guides and helpers usually come in a variety of form and shape. Their messages may not always be obvious, and may only become clear with hindsight—but then you cannot expect everything to be handed to you on a plate. It is not unknown for spirit guides to put the initiate through a pretty rough time, again to test their 'strength', as it were. Powerful spirits don't tend to 'like' shamans who won't take chances or face difficulties and overcome them. This is a hard time to get through, but if you keep your wits about you and hang on in there, then the rewards are worth it. Guides will often show you 'secret routes' through the underworld, and 'places of power' there which you can access at a later point. Some Amerind shamanic traditions involve the shaman descending into the underworld periodically to learn the names of spirits which, when brought out again, can be placed in masks or other ritual objects.

Another benefit of the 'ordeals' stage is Innerworld Mapping—obtaining (or verifying) a symbolic plan of the connecting worlds that form the universe. Western occulture gives us conscious access to a wide variety of universal route maps, the Tree of Life that appears in many esoteric systems being just one well-known example. Western-derived maps seem to have a tendency to become very complicated very quickly—perhaps this reflects a cultural tendency to try and label everything neatly away. The interesting (and intriguing) thing about using innerworld maps is that you can metaprogram your Deep Mind to accept a number of different maps, and images & symbols will arise accordingly. Our 'tradition' for receiving innerworld maps (and indeed, any other esoteric teaching) is largely through the written word, rather than oral teaching or the psychoactively-inspired communion with the tribal meme-pool which are the most common routes for shamans. But it is worth remembering that all the different innerworld maps had to come from somewhere, and the most likely source would seem to be the initiatory ordeals of very early shamans, which eventually became condensed into very definite structures.

Death and Rebirth

The 'peak' of the initiation experience is that of death/rebirth, and subsequent 'illumination'. That such an experience is common to all mystery religions, magical systems and many secular movements indicates that it may well be one of the essential manifestations of the process of change within the human psyche. Illumination is the much-desired goal for which many thousands of people world-wide have employed different psychotechnologies, and developed their own psychocosms. Illumination has also been linked with the use of LSD & similar drugs, and perhaps most mysteriously of all, it can occur seemingly spontaneously, to people who have no knowledge or expectation of it.

What characterises an experience of illumination? Nona Coxhead, a researcher into "Bliss states" lists some of the prevalent factors as:

  1. unity—a fading of the self-other divide
  2. transcendence of space & time as barriers to experience
  3. positive sensations
  4. a sense of the numinous
  5. a sense of certitude—the "realness" of the experience
  6. paradoxical insights
  7. transience—the experience does not last
  8. resultant change in attitude and behaviour

In neurological terms, such experiences represent a reorganising of activity in the brain as a whole system. The loss of ego boundary and involvement of all senses suggests that the Reticular Formation is being influenced so that the brain processes which normally convey a sense of being rooted in spacetime are momentarily inhibited. The "floating" sensation often associated with astral projection and other such phenomena suggest that the Limbic system of the brain (which processes proprioceptive information about the body's location in space) is also acting in an unusual mode.

What are the fruits of this experience—the insights, perceptions and messages brought back down to earth by the illuminate? Evolution of consciousness, by such means, could well be an important survival program—a way of going beyond the information given— a way of learning how to modify the human biosystem via the environment. Ilya Prigognine's theory of "dissipative structures" shows how the very instability of open systems allows them to be self-transforming. The basis of this idea is that the movement of energy through a system causes fluctuations within it. These fluctuations, if they reach a critical level (i.e. a catastrophe cusp point) develop novel interactions, until a new whole is produced. The system then reorganises itself into a new "higher order" which is more integrated than the previous system, and requires a greater amount of energy to maintain itself, and is further disposed to future transformation. This can equally apply to neurological evolution, using a psychotechnology (ancient or modern) as the tool for change. The core stages of the process appear to be:

  1. Change
  2. Crisis
  3. Transcendence
  4. Transformation
  5. predisposition to further change

Also, the term 'illumination' is itself significant. Visions of light that suddenly burst forth upon the individual are well documented from a wide variety of sources, from shamanic travellers to St. Paul; acid trippers to people who seemingly have the experience spontaneously.

Likewise, the experience of being 'born-again' is central to shamanism, religions and magical systems. One's old self dies, and a new one is reborn from the shattered patterns and perceptions. This is well understood in cultures where there is a single predominant Mythic reality. Death-rebirth is the key to shamanic development, and many shamanic cultures interpret the experience quite literally, rather than metaphorically.

Western psychologists are only just beginning to understand the benefits of such an experience. What is clear, is that for many people who undergo it, the experience is unsettling and disturbing, especially when there is no dominant cultural backdrop with which to explain or understand the process. A good example to look at (which always raises hackles in some quarters) is the LSD death-rebirth experience. Some western 'authorities' on spiritual practice hold that drug-induced experiences are somehow not as valid as one triggered by 'spiritual' practices. Fortunately, this somewhat blinkered view is receding as more information about the role played by psychoactive substances in shamanic training is brought to light. The positive benefits of LSD have been widely proclaimed by people as diverse as Aldous Huxley, Timothy Leary, and Stanislav Grof, all of whom stressed that acid should be used in 'controlled conditions', rather than, as is so often the case today, indiscriminately.

What must be borne in mind about LSD (like other psychoactives) is that its actions and effects are highly dependent on individual beliefs and expectations, and social conditioning. Dropping acid can lead to lasting change and transformation in a positive sense; equally, it can lead to individuals uncritically accepting a set of beliefs and patterns that effectively wall them off from further transformations—witness the number of burnt-out acidheads who become 'Born-Again' evangelicals, for instance. It's not so much the experience itself, but how individuals assimilate it in terms of cultural expectations.

As an example of how this process operates, contrast a proto-shaman against a member of a post-modern, industrial culture such as our own. The proto-shaman undergoes death-rebirth, and, following illumination, is reborn into the role of the practising shaman, with all its subsequent status affiliations and expectations. Would that it were that simple for Westerners! Ours is a much more complex set of social relations than the tribal environment. Though one might be tempted to think of oneself as a shaman-in-the-making, it's a safe bet that not everyone else is going to accede that role to you. It's tempting, and entirely understandable, to think: "Right, that's it. I'm 'illuminated' now—I've been there, done it, etc.", and sit back on one's laurels, as it were. While for some of us, one death-rebirth experience alone is enough to jolt us into a new stage of development, it's more often the case that what we do afterwards is critically important. Zero states of having 'made it' are very seductive, but our conditioning patterns are insidious—creeping back into the psyche whilst our minds are occupied elsewhere. The price of transformation is eternal vigilance. Vigilance against being lulled back into conditioned beliefs and emotional/mental patterns that we think we have 'overcome'. Illumination may well be a 'peak' in our development, but it isn't the end point by any means. Those undergoing the initiation cycle in the West tend to find that many periodic death-rebirth experiences are necessary, as we reshuffle different 'bits' of the psyche with each occurrence. Yet the death-rebirth experience can bring about lasting benefits, including alleviation of a wide variety of emotional, interpersonal, and psychosomatic problems that hitherto have resisted orthodox treatment regimes. I would postulate that the death-rebirth experience is an essential form of adaptive learning, as it is a powerful process of widening our perspectives on life, our perceptions of the world, and of each other. The illuminatory insight moves us toward a Holotropic perspective (i.e. of moving towards a whole) whereby new insight about self in relation to the universe, and how ideas and concepts synthesize together, can be startlingly perceived. At this kind of turning point in our lives, we can go beyond what we already know and begin to manifest new concepts and constructs. We are all capable of the vision—what we do to realise that vision is equally, in our hands.