Recently, I had the privilege to be a contributing author for The Art and Science of Initiation, edited by Jedidiah French and Angel Millar, and published by Lewis Masonic. Reading the other essays in that book, and having related conversations over the last several days, has led me to offer the following reflections. As always, I welcome you to take what seems useful and set aside what does not.
There are countless descriptions of initiations and their ensuing spiritual paths filled with promises of inspiration, integration, ascension, liberation, and illumination. They project outcomes of beatific sanctification, unshakable inner peace, untarnished virtue, profound wisdom, perfect clarity, and even magical powers. Speaking from my own firsthand experience, and the experience of working with many other individuals, this kind of “spiritual glamour” can be quite misleading.
Spiritual glamour has lots of shortcomings. For one thing, it places the focus on the supposed products rather than the process of an initiatic spiritual path. By process, I mean the inner work of deep exploration, honest assessment, disciplined adjustment, and intentional actualization of oneself. Without attention to those things, it is very easy to slip into the illusion that the vision is being attained simply by espousing it fervently enough and associating with others who do likewise.
Another problem with the focus on the products is that it assumes an initiatic journey is essentially a recipe to follow for cooking up the thing a person wishes to be. That assumption is not unique to spirituality, but is common in many areas of life. The errors here are (a) failing to recognize that following a spiritual path is a developmental process, which is to say it changes a person in ways that elicit further changes, and (b) failing to understand that the person one is at a given moment may be poorly prepared to accurately anticipate exactly what will change or the effect those changes will have on one’s values, beliefs, and priorities. As an analogy, consider how few of us at 13 years of age could have sufficiently predicted who we would be at 30. Reflect on the phenomenon of about 80% of college students changing their majors at least once, and of most college graduates winding up in jobs not directly related to their bachelor degrees. These issues are not so much due to poor decision-making as they are to our need to continually rediscover and reinvent ourselves as we adjust to the mysterious, complex, and unpredictable demands of life.
Aside from a focus on products, another problem with spiritual glamour is that it can set one up for some pretty destructive negativity when its illusions are shattered. I have watched myself and others be overcome with pain, rage, despair, anxiety, shame, regret, cynicism, and even paranoia when the spiritual glamour evaporated in the absence of any real inner work, or when following the spiritual path failed to produce the desired outcomes. Worse yet, I have seen myself and others double-down on the spiritual glamour, desperately trying to regress into the naïve bliss of something that could be outgrown, and thus willfully create a spiritual dissonance hidden deep within the shadows of the soul, sometimes festering in secret guilt and shame for false faithfulness.
One of the fascinating things about my experience of inner work is that it can actually accelerate the process of shattering spiritual glamour. When one is turned inward, simply observing all the thoughts and feelings spontaneously flowing through consciousness, it can be harder to ignore and deny unpleasant truths, doubts, or uncertainties about life and oneself. Furthermore, when one’s practice includes contemplation and implementation of virtues, mental exercises, and other forms of self-discipline, failures and shortcomings are bound to be noticed. An honest assessment of such things makes it clear that one’s path is often anything but a straight smooth stroll into a lovely garden of transcendence.
In contrast to the relative violence of disillusionment forced by the abrupt emergence of unwelcomed truth, inner work provides the opportunity to knowingly and willingly open the door for change. In fact, this opening is an essential element of initiation, which also includes at least symbolic acknowledgements of the mystery and hard work involved in facilitating significant change. When initiation and inner work is understood this way, one naturally enters upon it with some degree of trepidation. Even so, there is a driving sense of wonder, adventure, and willingness to take the risks that carry one forward. One steps onto the path expecting the unexpected as a necessary and desirable factor for real transformation, and the change of a shattered glamour is somewhat less likely to sneak up and clobber one on the head.
For anyone who is interested in following such a path, it is important to remain mindful that one cannot predict exactly who or what one will become as a result of initiation and inner work. Of course, some general ideas, hopes, and aspirations can be quite helpful. But the extent to which we are unwilling to become different from who we are, or from who we fantasize about being, is the extent to which we erect barriers to authentic learning, growth, and transformation. At worst, it is an attempt to escape the very fact of change itself, for change will happen whether we engage it voluntarily or not.
I have found the effects of initiation and inner work leading me and others through some noteworthy departures from previously held beliefs and understandings of the world and ourselves. They have led to changes in our religion, politics, relationships, and pastimes, many of which would not have been desired or approved by previous versions of ourselves. Furthermore, such changes have often been later supplanted by yet others, so that at times they have seemed more like points in pendulum swings or spirals than any linear course.
On a journey like this, one never has a final destination. It is being willfully expressed as ever-evolving becoming, and it can be truly astounding and filled with wonder, but not quite as glamorous as we might prefer.