Patterns of Initiation


Part Four: Patterns of Initiation

John Michael Greer

“Initiation” is another concept which has been piled with an obscurity it doesn't require. In magical circles, until quite recently, people tended to speak of it in the same tone of hushed melodrama given to solemn gibberish about Atlantis and the Secret Masters. In the fraternal orders, on the other hand, rites of initiation have too often been treated as though they were nothing more than a sort of formalized hazing. In both settings, too much mystification and not enough thought have kept the process of initiation from being understood with any kind of clarity at all.

The sad thing is that this clarity can be managed quite easily without violating the obligation of secrecy which, for reasons we'll examine in a moment, is standard in nearly all lodge systems. The material I'll be covering here does not include any of the things which are considered secret, either by the order in which I have been initiated or by any other; revelations of lodge “secrets” have been made before, with no noticeable benefit to anyone in most cases. Rather, what I've given is the framework in which these secrets are placed – a framework which, in the lodge system, is what gives the secrets their importance and effect.

As mentioned back in Part One of this article, the process of initiation works by bringing about a fusion between the realms of matter and meaning in the consciousness of the initiate. There are any number of methods for doing this. In the lodge systems of the Western world, it's typically done by means of a set of fairly simple psychological methods.

These psychological methods take many forms, but they all rely on the induction of a certain kind of receptive state in the person receiving the initiation. That state is not particularly hard to achieve; everyone who's lost a couple of hours while staring at the TV has experienced a shallow form of it – whence comes the effectiveness of TV advertising. In a lodge setting, the specific methods used to bring about this state are sensory deprivation, disorientation, sonorous and hypnotic language, and the deliberate use of mild and carefully controlled shock and fear.

One other means of bringing about this state deserves a little more comment, if only because it has been thoroughly misunderstood in modern times. Secrecy has a range of purposes in a fraternal or magical setting, but one of its most important uses is as a means of transforming consciousness in ritual. The specific things which are kept secret by orders using the lodge system are rarely of any importance by themselves, but the fact that these things are secret – and the fact that those outside the orders know that there are secrets inside them – shapes the way in which candidates for initiation approach the experiences of the ceremony. The idea that secrets will be revealed in an initiation creates a sense of expectancy, and can also give rise to a certain kind of fear; both of these are useful in the work of initiation.

The production of this receptive state forms the first phase of the initiatory process. Once it has been reached, the process of lodge initiation moves to a second phase, in which a set of carefully chosen images or events are experienced by the initiate, and then explained. These experiences and their explanations are heightened by the receptive state, and are intended to offer a new pattern for some portion of the initiate's mental map of the world; the pattern may also be encoded, more subtly, in the underlying structure of the ritual itself. If the initiate accepts this new pattern – which does not always happen – the initiation has “taken.”

At this point, the process enters its third phase. The new initiate is given a set of conceptual, verbal and somatic triggers for the new pattern. Just as a memento from an emotionally charged event in the past can awaken not merely memories but states of emotion and consciousness, these triggers reinforce the new pattern every time they are used. They serve, in an important sense, as anchors for the initiation.

The three-phase process of initiation can be handled in various ways, and has been handled with various levels of effectiveness in the initiations used by different magical and fraternal orders. Like any other art, the art of initiation has its failures as well as its masterpieces. Making the situation more complex is the fact that most orders of both kinds use a series of initiations – the usual terms are “grades” or “degrees” – to carry out an extended program of transformation, each change building on the ones already made. In the fraternal orders, the goal of this program is typically nothing more profound (or more sinister) than basic personal maturity. In magical orders, by contrast, the possibilities for change are far greater.

It's possible, though, to sketch an example of the technology of initiation at work, in order to show how the techniques described above work out in practice.

The initiation begins with the ritual opening of the lodge space, following the pattern covered in the second part of this article. Props and other materials needed for the initiation are already in place. The candidate for initiation is outside the lodge room in an antechamber, separated from the outside world but unable to see or hear what is going on inside the lodge.

At the conclusion of the opening, one or more lodge officers leave the lodge room for the antechamber. Their job is to prepare the candidate; this typically involves blindfolding, the most common means of sensory deprivation, and may involve binding the arms or hands as well. In some rituals the candidate may be given a preliminary oath of secrecy at this point. Meanwhile, inside the lodge room, the lodge officers take their places and the lights are turned down.

The candidate is then brought into the lodge room, and moved through unfamiliar space. Darkness and silence, broken only by the specific sights and sounds of the ritual, intensify the experience. Unable to get his or her bearings, the candidate quickly becomes disoriented. The lodge officers recite the sonorous words of the ritual; the candidate may be threatened or challenged, startled or frightened, although this element is best kept under tight control – simple surprise and uncertainty induce the required state more effectively than the more extreme levels of fear and shock. At intervals, the blindfold may be raised to show some brightly illuminated scene or symbol, and then lowered again. At some time during this part of the ritual – different initiations place it at different points – the candidate is given the principal oath or obligation of secrecy and fellowship, and the core transformative experiences of the initiation are enacted.

At this stage the so-called “secrets of the degree” are given to the candidate. These typically take the form of a word, a grip, and a gesture. Evolved from security devices meant to preserve secrecy, and still usually presented as such, these are in many ways the most interesting part of the entire technology. They serve as the triggering elements we've already discussed; first presented in the heightened state of the initiation, and only repeated by the candidate in an open lodge, they serve to recall and thus stabilize the new pattern of consciousness created by the initiation.

The candidate is now an initiate, and is welcomed by the members of the lodge and seated among them. He or she may be lectured, sometimes at some length, about the meaning of the symbols and scenes shown in the initiation. Finally, the lodge is ritually closed, and by this process the new initiate and the other lodge members return to a more ordinary state of consciousness.

The results of the system are variable, as with any system of transformation, and depend on (among other things) the skill of the initiating officers and the mental state of the candidate. Still, it's possible to get remarkable results by means of this system, when the rituals are performed well and presented to those ready to receive them.