Shamanic Initiation and the Legacy of Suffering
“It isn’t the things that happen to us in our lives that cause us to suffer, it’s how we relate to the things that happen to us that causes us to suffer.”
— Pema Chödrön
Suffering has long been associated with the shamanic process. Our studies of ancient shamanic cultures indicate that tribal shamans were often chosen based on how they overcame personal adversity as witnessed by their tribe. Thus, after surviving their soul’s initiation to emerge as a spiritual conduit to their communities, shamans were bestowed with the power to help their communities. This concept has been carried through many histories and cultures as “the wounded healer,” and has been lauded as the singular most pivotal step onto the path of shamanism, even into modern practice.
Contemporary shamanic paths are a mixed bag at best. Indigenous cultures of unbroken shamanic lineage brought their process for moving through initiations and subsequent recognition of the shaman into the present. Those of western ilk generally don’t have a time-tested framework through which to address “spiritual crises” — modern terminology applied to the age-old state as presented to the world by Stanislav Grof in his groundbreaking 1989 text “Spiritual Emergency: When Personal Transformation Becomes a Crisis”. The closest cultural nod of acceptance to the process of the contemporary wounded healer was the inclusion of “spiritual emergency” in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Fourth Edition (DSM-IV) in 1993, as a “Religious or Spiritual Problem,” under which “Shamanic Crisis” is listed. It’s a clinical representation of a spiritual event, but I guess it’s better than nothing? What we still largely lack is a culturally accepted methodology of how to deal with spiritual experiences that fall outside our common bounds of ecstasy or trauma. We definitely don’t acknowledge when someone’s spiritual crisis is the opening to a higher calling.
Not having been brought up in a shamanic tradition, when I identified that I was experiencing a spiritual crisis in my early 20s I was well aware of shamanism, but not of a shaman. My self-care included what options were available to me: psychotherapy, behavioral modification and medication. To my great fortune, it was actually my therapist who connected me with a local shaman, who was able to help me realize my initiation for what it was. I did not go into working with her planning to assume the role of shaman, though it emerged shortly after our time together. In retrospect, my life had fit the classic pattern of a shaman: stunting trauma, followed by spiritual revelation and healing. From that experience, I assumed what had been transmitted to me regarding initiation: There is one shamanic initiation — the shamanic death, which I gratefully survived. Indeed, I did stop the pattern of trauma I had carried through childhood, and in doing so found insight into how to facilitate healing for others.
The euphoria of that experience and new life path stayed with me for several years, well into the establishing of my shamanic practice, Soul Intent Arts, until I was thrown into another spiritual crisis after sustaining injuries in a car crash. This time I recognized what was happening right away and began addressing it appropriately. Despite all the good things I did for myself, and following the insight of the wise caregivers I consulted, pain from my injuries lingered for years. Even when blazing physical symptoms smoldered to chronic pain, I continued to struggle with the emotional and psychological trauma of feeling that I was re-experiencing a shamanic wound. The heartbreak from that observation left me feeling that perhaps I wasn’t meant to be in the role of modern shaman. I thought that having withstood one initiation, I was doing something wrong to be faced with more.
I realized in hindsight that my struggle to find balance with that initiation stemmed from the same broken lineage of wisdom that leaves many modern shamans feeling unsupported. The wisdom teaches that there is no singular initiation into shamanhood, or into any aspect of life. Perhaps a specific initiation brings us to a pivotal fork in our path, such as the one that brings many to shamanism. Still, the fork presents us with options in how we proceed. Grieving that I shouldn’t suffer during a life transformation actually caused my suffering to linger.
Experiencing recurrent initiations doesn’t mean we’re chronically doomed to suffer pain in order to grow. Furthermore, initiation doesn’t have to be painful, it just has to provoke us to make change in our lives. Initiation can come in many guises — sincerely apologizing to someone, volunteering in a community less privileged than our own, realizing a long-held belief no longer suits our present awareness or allowing joy. Most any event in our lives can serve as initiation into a greater experience of ourselves, if we let them. In that wisdom rests the deeper truth — it isn’t what happens to us that determines our fitness, spiritual or otherwise; rather, it’s how we deal with what happens to us. In that choice lies our responsibility to accept the challenges that makes us grow.
Now when I’m greeted with trauma, instead of probing it as failure on my path, I accept it for the initiation that it is; thus, I accept my power in choosing how to move through it. In moving through it, I remain affirmed.