A Mythic Map of the Territory
Shamanic societies, past and present, not only recognize spiritual initiation as a community event, they also have a map of this mysterious territory conveyed to them through their traditions of story, dance, song, healing, and art. Tribal initiates have elders, teachers, medicine people, and a community in which to contain, affirm, and ground their spiritual experiences.
Contemporary western women who are called to spiritual initiation have had no lineage of feminine spiritual initiation, no map of the territory, until now. Many women have looked to other cultures for direction, information, and containment. Some have sought initiation via Native American spiritual traditions, as well as the numerous spiritual paths of India, Buddhism, Sufism, Kabalistic Judaism, mystical Christianity, and many indigenous traditions. Though different in form and ritual, they each point initiates to the Mystery.
We are not forging the path of Sacred Feminine initiation here, but re-membering it for ourselves, as well as for our mothers, sisters, daughters, and granddaughters. What we do to awaken consciousness, serves the souls of our ancestral lineage, our families and communities, the larger collective and hopefully, seven generations after us. We truly are part of one continuous holographic web of consciousness and life.
My experience is that this path of Sacred Feminine initiation unfolds a step at a time, on a need-to-know basis, in the dark of the moon. We come to rely upon what is directly experienced in the present moment, fresh from spaciousness, rather than referencing what we know from the past. We learn to see in new ways and live embodied lives from deep within our hearts instead of our heads.
Sacred Feminine initiation has the structure and many of the characteristics of a shamanic journey, which has the same archetypal structure as the hero’s mythic journey written about by Joseph Campbell (1949). During my first big kundalini initiation, I found Joan Halifax’s book, Shamanic Voices (1979) immensely helpful in allaying my fears about the psycho-spiritual events that were flooding me in 1982 and ‘83. The book is a collection of interviews of indigenous medicine people and shamans speaking about their call to their path. Each person’s speaking revealed the pattern common to shamanic calls and initiations. I then did not feel crazy or alone when I understood that this is a natural, cross-cultural human experience, a process common to spiritual initiation and awakening.
Campbell divides the journey into three major phases: Departure from our known world or self and crossing the first threshold into the ‘other world’, the great unknown, the underworld where all of the rules of the road are new and different than in our three-dimensional reality. Initiation and the road of trials come next, in which the hero or heroine experiences a psycho-spiritual dismemberment and death, and through all of that finds the priceless jewel. The Return home completes the journey and we share the treasure with others. Numerous, as well as numinous, events occur in each stage of the initiatory journey. The veils between the worlds part. Mysterious, magical events often occur, not the least of which is the initiate sheds the skin of false self and opens to her authentic brilliance and her gifts as a woman, a Queen.
Each invocation of one of the feminine archetypes is a call to adventure and the departure from life as a woman has known it. Many things begin to open and unfold during the phase of initiation, which can be difficult as the de-construction of old psychological and belief structures occurs. Outer events may present huge challenges, as well. Through it all, a woman learns the skillful means needed in order the pass through each gate of initiation. She has guides and helpers and is provided with what is called for at precisely the right moment.
Within the context of the Temple of the Sacred Feminine, the initiate has community support and the wisdom of elders available. While she must meet her trials in solitude, she is not alone. Through dying and being reborn, she is gifted with precious teachings, healings, transformation, compassion, love, and wisdom. She begins to experience the mystery of the koan, “You must carry the fire and not get burned,” and she returns to her community with many gifts to share from her transformative journey.
Within these mythic patterns, there is an infinite variety of experiences and individual variations. Twelve women in an initiation Temple invoking the Amazon will have twelve unique situations arise, each requiring its own specific skills and actions, and yet there is a common pattern to the process of making the initiatory passage. Each of these feminine archetypes is a portal into its own unique heroine’s journey, offering its own particular gatekeepers, allies, obstacles, challenges, mysteries, and treasures. Every initiation calls forth the shadow and gifts of that archetype, requiring its own psychological and spiritual work. There are often surprises—some we like and some we don’t. Every encounter with a shadow aspect of ourselves is a unique portal into a wound that brings its own medicine and path of embodiment, healing, and awakening to the brilliance and beauty of the Sacred Feminine and beyond.
What is beyond? That which is nameless and formless, beyond what we can know with our mind, but can directly experience. It is the ‘space’ in which the world of duality, polarities, and conflict occurs. Spaciousness includes and welcomes everything, including our lives, the good and the evil, the world, the galaxies, and beyond. It is pure awareness, empty of form but full of potential for all forms to appear, as they do. We are not only inhabitants of that space—we are that space!!
Our bodies are made of matter (i.e. mater, ‘mother’ in Latin), and matter is comprised of atoms. When an atom of matter is examined down to its core, it is seen as empty space. Our bodies are also empty space, despite the appearance of form and substance. This empty space is the same pure awareness out of which all form and matter arise. We are both pure formless awareness as well as human beings living our dualistic conditioned human lives—not separate. Human and divine, the holy and the horrible—there is no real separation, only the illusion of separateness, and this can be directly experienced by each of us, also.
It is extremely helpful and comforting to know that there is a pattern, a structure to this journey which sometimes feels totally chaotic and wild. We don’t feel so crazy or lost, or if we do, we know it is really okay as it is. The anxious ego/mind can relax a bit knowing that we are part of a larger context than our own little private lives. We can relax into the experience enough to breathe into what is happening, experience it directly without the stories attached to it, and, learn to allow what is to be what it is. We give up the struggle and resistance. Ultimately, we can learn to directly experience and be spacious with whatever is going on, even our worst, most painful, uncomfortable feelings. We can allow chaos, discomfort, physical phenomena, and even emptiness, when we understand that it is a part of a natural, archetypal process. Nothing is wrong.
Also, within the spaciousness, we can become more easily aware if something needs to be done, an action needs to be taken, or not, and how to proceed. Guidance comes. We see more clearly. Our hearts are open. There is flow rather than rigidity. There is trust in the process and in our own capacity to handle it. The mind cannot ‘figure this out.’ Trying to figure things out creates struggle and pain when it’s not needed, or even possible, anyway. This mythic perspective can also help us to feel and honor our pain fully, even while we learn not to identify with it or take it personally. These are paradoxical mysteries that are revealed continually through each initiation. The sacred witness within us learns to see and recognize the mythic dimension of what is occurring, recognize the archetypal patterns, and hold sacred space for the pain. It is a way of allowing what is happening to happen with some sense of ease and grace. We cannot control or stop it anyway.
We can look at our whole life or a particular situation through this lens, whether it is a severe illness, a new relationship, an old marriage, retirement, the loss of a beloved, or some totally unexpected, shocking experience. Many women find that reading the myths of Inanna, Demeter and Persephone, or Psyche and Eros, is useful in helping them gain a mythic perspective on their own experience. These are all women’s initiation myths. Writing our own myths using Campbell’s structure and our own experience is a very powerful, transformative process, especially when we are going through a difficult threshold.