Is This an Initiation?
An Urgent Invitation to Beautiful Learning
by Martin Shaw
Martin Shaw is a writer, artist, teacher, and mythologist. His books include: Smoke Hole, Courting the Wild Twin, Wolf Milk: Chthonic Memory in the Deep Wild, The Night Wages, and A Branch from the Lightning Tree. Shaw’s translations of Celtic folklore and poetry (with Tony Hoagland) have been published in Poetry International, The Mississippi Review, Poetry Magazine, Orion, and Kenyon Review. He is the founder of the Westcountry School of Myth, a learning community located on Dartmoor in the far west of the United Kingdom.
In pondering whether the coronavirus serves as a rite of initiation, Martin Shaw offers five reflections on the agency that rests within opportunity, the alchemy of experience, and the beautiful learning that is being called forth from this moment.
Here we are, millions of us. Little hermit huts bubbling, all over the planet.
It’s a unique moment in our lives. So I’m sharing five little thoughts here.
I keep getting asked if the coronavirus pandemic qualifies as an initiation or not.
I think so. When people start dying, that’s what we are into.
But—whether we grow wise from it is quite another matter.
And we can’t stretch out the comparison to a tribal or village ceremony too far. Because it’s not something curated by deeply prepared human beings, but by the earth. Much wilder, even more uncertain.
Many of these extraordinary pan-global rituals (Vision Quest, etc.) were an exacting spiritual dry run for the kind of real time catastrophe that can sweep through a culture. They are preparation for the sheer velocity of trying to stay alive in a dark storm.
So, in a sense, the rite of passage equipped you with the kind of wily savvy to really comprehend such a moment. I’ve been leading wilderness vigils for twenty years, worked with hundreds of people in the direst, most god-awful of circumstances, so I’ve pondered this ground for a long time.
Most of us didn’t get that prep. But here we are, nonetheless. Life will do that, I’m sure you’ve noticed.
So I’m seeing initiation through a certain lens, and many would see it differently.
But is a war not an initiation for a soldier? Is profound heartbreak not an initiation for a lover? These immense experiences show up and hopefully rebuild us, ceremonial context or not. Sometimes they don’t.
Think of it this way—three soldiers return home: one commits suicide, one tries to forget, one seeks wisdom. They all had the experience, but three different responses. We could argue that the initiation is actually only a moment in a wider maturation needed to grow the experience to health.
If this is an initiation, what is it an initiation into?
Initiations are not general, but rather specific. As I stated, I think of every house in lockdown as an alchemical hut. Millions of them. This enforced solitude is going to produce many different responses. Some will want to get back to life as it used to be, some will make life-changing decisions, and on it goes. But no one, whatever may be claimed, can know what that is yet. Because it’s going to unfold in the secretive chamber of your heart, not as a generalization. It’s bespoke.
So there may be a general narrative arc to the experience, but differing disclosures.
One size doesn’t always fit all. No more fake news from our still, small voice. Above our attempts to generally wise up to Climate Emergency, what does the intensity of this experience have to teach each of us? I wouldn’t dream of telling anyone what that is.
It’s the back end of the encounter that will produce the most acute wisdom, the maturation. That’s what gives most people the jitters. Holding your nerve.
I appreciate how scary that can feel, that we don’t have the luxury of that kind of time. From a vigil perspective, though, this is only day two of the fast, not yet time to start telling the story of the thing. Rather, it’s a time for listening.
By all means, let’s wonder in words round the virtual fire, but allow some brooding first.
Not all initiations are successful.
Not by any stretch. If we don’t have the language to approach it, we risk getting the rupture but never the rapture. And this isn’t a self-centered perspective—if we don’t glean the gold, then we never have a gift to give to others. And if the initiatory experience doesn’t in the end become a gift to others, then it’s malfunctioned. Look for largesse. Look for gallantry. So let’s educate.
If you are worried about money, then give some away.
Many of us are losing our hat, shirt, boots, family silver. If you are worried about money, then change the dynamic. Reclaim your agency. Give some away. Could be ten pence, could be ten grand, but change the story. That’s what I do with each financial pummeling I seemingly hourly receive, and it’s working splendidly. I know that may not land well, dear reader, but there we are.
Beautiful learning: walk out the other end of this a praise-maker.
If it’s needed, let’s change our lives. Become the storyteller, praise-maker, tradition bearer, innovation seeker, genius scientist, seed grower, boat builder (please continue phrases in your own unique way) that this moment is calling forth. If you never received such a blessing, then try anyway, and find to your astonishment that you are quietly raised up simply by making the attempt.
I’m just hurling shoes at the moon here, but I’ve been asked enough times that I had to mutter a few things. It’s delivered with love, that’s all.
What I do know is this: something urgent is trying to be disclosed to our hearts.
Our response will reveal the pedigree of our attention and the corn that could grow from this.