Can we Engage Environmental Crises as an Initiation?

Can we Engage Environmental Crises as an Initiation?

Making of Ourselves a Light: Engaging Environmental Crises as an Initiation
Excerpt pp. 189-191

by Dr. Renée G. Soule ~


In our modern world initiatory scenarios function only on the vital and psychological planes. Nevertheless, they continue to function, and that is why I said that the process of initiation seems to be co-existent with any and every human condition.

—Mircea Eliade, Rites and Symbols of Initiation


This research does not suggest returning to ancient initiation rites. Instead, I asked how might engagement in environmental crisis be informed by an understanding of initiation. Might this frame of initiation (as opposed to a rite) support engagement in environmental crises as a path toward a more complex and inclusive identity? This research revealed that, despite the lack of a ritual context or even knowledge about initiation, participants experienced personal transformation via committed activism and the contours of this change resemble an initiatory rite of passage.

How can we engage environmental crises as an initiation? Based on learning from this research and the experience of research participants, I am confident that conscious awareness of initiation could support the many different avenues of ecological awakening. Recognizing that this awakening will likely embody the general pattern of initiation, which includes going through phases of severance, liminality, and creative incorporation, people can intentionally evoke and support these phases. In the context of initiation, even resistance to change provides evolutionary pressures par excellence. Creatively responding to challenges and failure is the heart of initiation.

I traversed the layered ruins of the Great Hall of Eleusis early in the day (the site of the Eleusinian Mysteries in Elefsina, Greece) before the busses of tourists arrived. Gleaned from a text written by Aristotle, in this great Hall, mysteries “were revealed” and “things were shown.” It is amazing that what occurred here was kept secret by many thousands of participants for hundreds of years. Maybe telling others exactly what was revealed and shown would have flattened their mystique and numinous powers. What is the reason for this kind of secrecy? Perhaps it is to protect the sacred from banality. Often, the greatest of secrets are not secret. They are obvious, so obvious that we miss them. Like the sun rising every day, or comprehending these words, or commitment to a long project. If the obvious secrets of life are revealed in a special way, under special circumstances, are people better able to perceive their shining significance? Does the act of revealing accentuate what hides in plain sight? How might plain sight obstruct the mystery shining all around us? Rumi says, “Tomorrow you’ll see what you’ve broken and torn tonight, thrashing in the dark.” After thrashing in the dark, what brings light?

Sitting in the sun upon the broke marble ruins inside what is left of the Great Hall of the Eleusinian Mysteries, I wondered if what was hidden and then revealed in this ancient initiation rite is one’s own inner hidden light, the light of clear seeing. The striking feature of what is revealed as sacred in these rites is their simplicity. It is the interpretation that is complex, not the outward form.

While working in places of suffering, like inner city ghettos, destroyed landscapes, or prisons, I have learned two fundamental principles: Garbage begets garbage and light invites light. What happens if humans dare to open their eyes and hearts to the unfathomable fullness of our ecological moment? Both loss and beauty strip away obscurations. Revealing removes. Revealing unfetters. Unfettered, we shine.

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