Do what thou wilt shall be the whole of the Law.
An email discussion I had with a friend earlier this month turned into a wrangle about initiation by yourself versus by others. He’d suggested that self-initiation is a good idea, and was a little surprised by how vehemently I disagreed. But this led further into a “Just what is initiation?” discussion, something we both found interesting.
People seek initiation in order (they hope) to perform magick better, or to get into ‘the club,’ or to attain a broader spiritual vision, or to reach a specific stage of illumination or enlightenment. My own idea of it is that it’s not just the first step towards attaining power or wisdom, but the beginning of an ongoing process. The end is unknowable, but along the way we should surely be aiming for supernal consciousness. Anything less, to my mind, is playing around. Whatever we aim for, we can end up falling short of it, so why not go all out for the cloud-topped summits, and at least make it halfway up the mountain?
Our Temple operates in service to the A.A., with which it maintains direct connection via the International College of Thelema. A.A., as Crowley spells out clearly in various places, is a chain system, so starting out solo, you’ve already cut yourself off at the feet. This doesn’t mean that everyone has to be able to trace back their lineage to the Beast himself, or even necessarily join a specifically Thelemic order if that doesn’t kick-start their mojo. But we can each only be so much better than the teachers we’ve had, so the truer the link to the teaching, the further we’ll go.
There are three principal aspects to initiation. There’s the ritual aspect (the ceremony or sacramental act of initiation); there’s the training by the initiator or his/her students; and there’s the sustained personal practice that continues to clear the path long after the actual ritual beginning.
Let’s start from the assumption that ‘the Truth’ is encoded within us, or is at least accessible to us through some form of introspective activity. Theoretically, therefore, we should be able to call on the Highest and, at least over time, realise that Truth.
Practically speaking, there are huge obstacles to this. Most important, there are the various veils we’ve woven over our core reality, that show up as anxieties and phobias, evasive or compulsive behaviour, accumulated guilt and trauma, and so on. While we might have these things more or less compensated on a personality level, they are going to be activated and charged by a magically intended act that opens the psyche to spiritual energy.
Sorry about this, but it’s Rule No. 1: initiation activates all patterns within the psyche. All that annoying stuff we’d rather escape by getting initiated, inevitably acts out and obstructs our ability to open to Truth. And that Truth, by definition, is transcendental, and beyond anything we can conceive of intellectually. If it wasn’t, we’d conceive of it, or at least figure it out, and solve all problems. But we need help to see through our own complex veils to the deeply encoded Truth, and a teacher is just about essential for this phase.
Then, there’s the related fact that realisation of Truth is, in any case I’ve ever read or heard of, gradual. Yes, people suddenly see the Light or attain Illumination, but usually it’s after training or other preparation. We are, as pre-enlightened human beings, unable to sustain the vision of The All / God / the Void / Great Spaghetti Monster.
There’s been a lot said recently about the hazards of mindfulness practices and other forms of meditation, even for experienced practitioners. Direct encounters with the Infinite or with a significant harmonic of it can be inherently traumatic. They’re scary, and while there’s scary-cool, where you realise you’ve made a breakthrough, there’s also scary-scary. And this has nothing to do with calling up Goetic demons or something out of a Kenneth Grant novel. What is far scarier, because it’s immense in scope, is a full-on encounter with the Divine, whether as ‘God,’ your Holy Guardian Angel, or an indescribable Infinity.
For many people, such awakening is to an utter Void, an Emptiness beyond anything we’ve ever thought of. An opening like this is far different in the course of instructed training than it would be to an uninstructed seeker.
What exactly is initiation in the strict technical sense? It’s no vague injunction to get started. It’s usually a form of psychodrama that encodes certain ‘data’ (to use a very crude term) into the observant parts of the soul, and into the deep memory. Trained ritualists, by word, gesture and symbol, imprint certain ideas on the candidate, within a specially formed ritual space. So, what happens at initiation takes root, gradually broadening. And since formal initiation itself is a type of trauma, albeit a controlled and positive one, it goes in deep.
If we do it on our own, we’re going to encode only whatever we currently understand (or more likely, misunderstand) into a very deep level of the psyche. That means, we could be sidetracked in our actual progress for years. I’m not speaking hypothetically here – I know people who’ve tried the self-initiation route, and some have become, after time, frustrated and quite obnoxious to be around. They end up disillusioned or even a little paranoid because they’re perpetually off-base. They need to take a further step to expand or correct the initial misstep, and disillusioned people aren’t always willing to take it.
The problem will always be that the self-initiator has a conceptual ceiling. We can form an image of the Infinite, or memorise Its Names, but that image and the Names’ significance to us will be limited by our powers of visualisation and conceptualisation, and also by whatever anxieties or blindness they evoke. Powerful symbols always have a strong Shadow, which is why we use them. But a trained external initiator has already passed some of the gates of Gnosis and understands this. A ceremonial candidate will assume and accept this, and is then automatically opened to what’s invoked in the ceremony.
Being initiated into an existing school or tradition automatically takes you beyond your own horizons. Only a deeply enlightened person could do all of it on their own, in which case … why bother? You’re already there. And trying to circumvent doubts or anxieties by consciously including them in a self-initiation ritual will likely program those anxieties and doubts into the psyche on top of any misconceptions. They’ll always haunt your progress. To put it another way, you can’t effectively be your own parent, nor your own child; and it’s shallow narcissism to expect otherwise.
A determined person can push him or herself a good way down the path. I’m not going to say all solo effort is worthless. But at some point the roadblocks arise. Buddha took instruction, or meditated with a group, for eight years before he made his full-on effort at Enlightenment. Crowley was initiated into the Golden Dawn, then studied with Allan Bennett and George Cecil Jones individually, and also with Sri Parananda in Ceylon. Paul Case worked with other Qabalists, and was an initiate of the Alpha et Omega before launching the Builders of the Adytum. Almost any other teacher you can think of has done something similar.
I’ve not written here about the sacramental aspect: that initiation is performed in the name of the Divine, by those consecrated to Its service, in a sanctum conformed to a Qabalistic pattern, and with officers to represent dynamic aspects of the Life Force. Or about the linking into occult currents that most new initiates soon notice. These are vital aspects of an initiation, and while some might show up after a one-person show, the entire spectrum won’t.
And trying to rationalise initiation into something less than a sacred process – a psychological or philosophical prod, let’s say – is possible, but unhelpful. The more limits that we suggest to ourselves are present, the more limitations we place on our own growth.
Some of us will take several initiations during our lives, possibly in quite different traditions. Only we ourselves can decide which might be profitable, and might open up new vistas of wisdom.
But any sensible student looks for experienced teachers, and doesn’t just yell up at the skies to call down inspiration. Deciding we can dispense with the tradition, the community, the teacher-initiator and the ritual is just short-changing ourselves.
Love is the law, love under will,