Initiation is that which separates us from outmoded forms and opens us up to our unique story waiting to be told. It is the experience that reveals our place in the world and awakens us to what wants to come into the world through us. Initiation results in an intimate encounter with our destiny. Though the transition from childhood to adulthood is an important initiatory passage acknowledged in traditional cultures throughout the world, in fact, life continually initiates us. Any experience that calls into question what we know about ourselves and our place in the world will be a kind of initiation.
In most initiation rites, a symbolic death is enacted. That a symbolic rebirth usually follows does not diminish the harrowing nature of the initiatory experience. Initiation is usually a dark passage, a submission to a painful descent, a night sea journey. It is frightening and disorienting.
It is frequently the case that someone enters analysis feeling lost and adrift. When I hear them speak a desire, I know there is abundant hope. No matter how the person may despair of ever achieving this desire, having a deep want tells me that there is movement within the psyche.
One of my favorite literary examples of initiation by desire is Oliver Twist. It is through daring to ask for more that Oliver’s journey begins. It is by seeking more that he is initiated. In an initiation, symbolic death is followed by a descent into the underworld, after which the initiate returns changed.
Oliver famously draws the short straw and thereby it falls to him to approach the well-fed gentlemen who run the workhouse and ask for more. A small, emaciated boy approaches the corpulent Mr. Bumble. “Please sir,” he says, holding up his empty bowl. “I want some more.”
Such a request is at first a seeming catastrophe. The adults are outraged, and Oliver is immediately ousted from the relative safety of the workhouse to be sold. His initiation by desire follows the expected pattern as he is cast into the underworld of Mr. Sowerberry, the cruel undertaker — the land of death. Later he escapes only to find himself in a different kind of underworld – that of London’s petty criminals such as Fagin. However, it is through his association with Fagin that he eventually comes to find a home with kind Mr. Brownlow, and be reunited with members of his family.
Desire is that which compels us to leave our comfortable sphere. It draws us beyond our usual ambit and out into life. It is only then that our life can happen to us, and that we can happen to ourselves.
There are many instances of initiation by desire in mythology. Perhaps the most poignant is that of Persephone. Persephone is out gathering flowers with her friends on the day of her fateful abduction to the dark underworld of Hades. The abduction occurs when Persephone becomes separated from the other girls, drawn further afield by the sight of an especially beautiful flower. Desire, then, singles us out, causing us to be seen as an individual distinct from others for perhaps the first time in our lives.
It is at this point that Hades bursts forth on his chariot and grabs Persephone. He takes her with him to the underworld where she experiences her own initiatory descent. Eventually, she becomes the powerful and mysterious Queen of the Dead, an important figure who reigns over a vast and silent realm.
Desire that initiates is always a little transgressive. It is dangerous, forbidden. It induces us to cross boundaries and break rules.
In the Catalan fairy tale “The Girl-Fish,” a spoilt and vain girl refuses to help her parents. One day, she comes upon a beautiful fish. “Well, you are a beauty!” she says to herself. “I will have you for my dinner.” But the fish looks up at her and warns that if the girl kills the fish, the girl herself will be turned into a fish. The girl cannot resist the fish, however. Her desire gets the better or her. She eats the fish, and is herself immediately transformed into a fish.
The Girl-Fish descends into the underwater realm where she meets the Queen of the Fishes, who is herself enchanted. The Girl-Fish goes through many adventures, taking the shape of various animals including a deer, an ant, a monkey, and a parrot to complete a quest that will free the Queen from her enchantment. The vain and selfish girl was led by her desire into a descent which required of her to slip into another person’s skin. At the beginning of the tale, she could not be bothered to help her parents who worked tirelessly while she sat idle. Through her initiatory transformation, she is able to feel empathy for the plight of another. In this way, she is opened to the vulnerabilities and satisfactions of real relatedness.
Mark had a successful law career and a solid marriage when he came to see me. He also had a shameful secret. He occasionally shop lifted. The things he took were always small – usually fruit from the produce section of the grocery store. But this behavior perplexed and bothered him as it was so out of character. As we explored this behavior together, Mark told me a story of having to set aside his artistic leanings as a young person in order to concentrate on more practical pursuits. Mark grew up in a working class family, and it was impressed on him early that he would have to work hard and be ambitious in order to rise above his modest circumstances.
In our time together, we explored in minute detail the shoplifting episodes that he recalled. Mark’s demeanor changed from shameful and taciturn to enthusiastic and animated as he described being seized by the beauty of a perfect orange or pear, and then becoming compelled by the desire to claim it without permission, to pocket the forbidden fruit and make off with it. It became clear to both Mark and myself that his shoplifting was about a desire for beauty which felt illicit. It was as if part of his psyche were insisting on having something that he had long ago been forced to deny himself.
Mark’s transgressive desire for stolen beauty lead him into his own depths as we explored those old yearnings that he had long ago renounced. Throughout his adult life, he had repeatedly chosen away from that which he desired in order to hew to the straight and narrow path which offered comfort, security, and approbation. He had some grieving to do as he came to terms with his unlived life, much of which could not now be reclaimed. This descent into grief was indeed a kind of initiation for Mark, allowing him fuller access to feeling, and ultimately, a life that was richer and more satisfying.