The Basotho People. Initiation school for young girls. Transformation Resource Centre.

Earth as Initiate?
By Richard Tarnas

"The very absence of initiatory rites of passage in our culture appears to have effectively created a kind of closed container, a psychic pressure cooker, an alchemical vessel that is intensifying the archetypal energies into a collective morphic field of explosive power."

According to Cosmos and Psyche author Richard Tarnas, Earth is undergoing a "crisis of maturation," an initiation as it were, similar to the rites of passage experienced by teens in indigenous cultures. Here he shares his insights into this phenomenon and its usefulness in understanding this pivotal moment in Earth's spiritual evolution. Here is an excerpt from Rick's book, the result of 30 years of research and writing. Please see Shelley L. Ackerman's interview with Tarnas in this edition as well.

I RECALL a lecture by Joseph Campbell in the late Sixties when he told a story of North American shamanic initiation. Rasmussen, the Danish-Eskimo explorer and ethnologist, in the course of his expeditions through the arctic regions of the North American continent, had conversations with many old shamans. One of them told the story of his own initiation as a young boy. He said that he was taken by an older shaman out on a sled over ice, and placed in a small igloo just big enough for him to sit in. He crouched on a skin, and was left there for thirty days with just a little water and meat brought in occasionally during that period. He said, "I died a number of times during those thirty days, but I learned and found what can be found and learned only in the silence, away from the multitude, in the depths. I heard the voice of nature itself speak to me, and it spoke with the voice of a gentle motherly solicitude and affection. Or it sounded sometimes like children's voices, or sometimes like falling snow, and what it said was, 'Do not be afraid of the universe'." This discovery, Campbell goes on, became a point of absolute internal security for the initiate, and made possible his return to his community with a wisdom and assurance that was unmatched by everyone there, so that he could help others from that inner place.

This was the great death-rebirth initiation that, whether in the form of sacred rites of passage or of ancient mystery rituals, has informed indigenous, traditional, and archaic cultures throughout human history. But our own culture is notable for the utter absence of such an initiatory tradition. The dangerous, bold, risk-taking energies of youth are necessary for an initiatory process to take place, as all primal cultures know. Ours does not. Primal societies use these energies to mediate that great transition of each generation from dependence to independence, from immaturity to maturity, from childhood to adulthood, for the sustaining of the community both materially and spiritually. This initiation consists of a profound, very frightening encounter with the darkest aspects of existence: with death, with utter aloneness, with suffering, with a crisis of meaning, with a sense of despair, a leaving of the community. In a sense, it is a leaving not only of the safety of the maternal, familial, and community womb but of the entire community of life.

This encounter provides a rite of passage for youths who can thereby discover their deeper purpose, their meaning, because in that great encounter with death and rebirth they are able to engage and experience, directly in their bodies, in their souls, the powerful archetypal forces that permeate life and nature and every human being, and they thereby come into direct knowledge of the great mysteries of death and rebirth.  From that place, they can re-engage life with a new knowledge; they can bring back to the community an enriched understanding.
Our culture does not provide such an initiation, a rite of passage for youth. But that is just the beginning of it. If all our youth are uninitiated, then of course all our adults are uninitiated too. When one turns on the television, virtually everything one sees is designed for the adolescent mind, of all ages: Pow! Zap! Boom!, explosions, aggression, superficial sex, incessant change, shiny surfaces, ceaseless growth, the new, the fast, the ever youthful, the momentarily exciting. There is no sense of the deeper meanings, the profundity of life, and that our actions today have enduring consequences -- we've been operating with little sense of the fact that decisions about the future need to be made not just from the point of view of what is going to show up on the bottom line of the next quarterly report, but what is going to affect the seventh generation from now. That is an awareness much larger than what is available to someone who has not gone through an initiatory transformation.

The reason our culture does not provide such an initiation, however, may not just be that it has somehow simply forgotten, or foolishly abandoned, its traditional wisdom, and myopically asserted a mechanistic material world with no deeper spiritual purpose or significance.  While true as far as it goes, this explanation does not do justice to a possibly deeper process that seems to be unfolding.  For the very absence of initiatory rites of passage in our culture appears to have effectively created a kind of closed container, a psychic pressure cooker, an alchemical vessel that is intensifying the archetypal energies into a collective morphic field of explosive power. Perhaps the fact that our culture does not provide rituals of initiation is not simply a massive cultural error, but rather reflects and even impels the immersion of the entire culture in its own massive collective initiation. Perhaps we, as a civilization and a species, are undergoing a rite of passage of the most epochal and profound kind, acted out on the stage of history with, as it were, the cosmos itself as the tribal matrix of the initiatory drama.  

I believe that humankind has entered into the most critical stages of a death-rebirth mystery. In retrospect it seems that the entire path of Western civilization has taken humankind and the planet on a trajectory of initiatory transformation, into a state of spiritual alienation, into an encounter with mortality on a global scale -- from world wars and holocausts to the nuclear crisis and now the planetary ecological crisis--an encounter with mortality that is no longer individual and personal but rather transpersonal, collective, planetary; into a state of radical fragmentation, into the "wasteland," into that crisis of existential meaning and purpose that informed so many of the most sensitive individuals of the past century.

It is a collective dark night of the soul, a deep separation from the community of being, from the cosmos itself. We are undergoing this rite of passage with virtually no guidance from wise elders because the wise elders are themselves caught up in the same crisis. This initiation is too epochal for such confident guidance, too global, too unprecedented, too all-encompassing; it is larger than all of us. It seems that we are all entering into something new, a new development, a crisis of accelerated maturation, a birth, an entrance into a profoundly different way of being in the cosmos.

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Planet Waves 2007 Almanac

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