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Thoughts on Initiation

I was chatting to a friend recently about her deepening involvement with Vajrayana Buddhism and whether she should take the initiatory step of formerly taking refuge. Her dilemma was whether to “enter the stream” of the tradition or simply continue to benefit from the techniques being taught. For me this highlighted some questions that I’ve been musing on with regards the nature of what initiation is and how it may (or may not) be of benefit.

Arguably, the moment we direct our will and intention towards spiritual or psychological change, we are undertaking initiatory work. From such a perspective each moment in daily life can become an opportunity for transformation. However valid such an approach, as someone who chooses to utilise the tools of ritual and other magical technologies I believe that such change can be more actively pursued and intensified. But why go to all this bother? What is it that I’m really hoping to gain through this investment of time, energy and money? Why not just spend more time surfing? What follows are the beginnings of some answers:

1. Knowledge.
Wizards have always loved books. Checking out the work of Owen Davies we can see that by owning books and even possibly knowing what’s inside them, the magician acquires prestige and thus power. Times really haven’t changed have they? A quick scan of my friends on Facebook tells me that most of us love weird tomes, the more expensive and obscure the better! Rather than wanting to debate the merits of the current trend in talismanic publishing, I’m more interested in what it might represent in relation to people’s search for (cue spooky sound effects) “initiated knowledge”.

As we seek to explore the deeper aspects of both ourselves and the universe, it’s understandable that we should seek expertise in navigating these occult realms. Whatever the credentials and affiliations of such authors, are there real limits to what can be conveyed magically through the written word alone? As many of us spend more time typing, texting and liking, it’s easy to dismiss the idea that certain wisdom can only be conveyed via direct relationship. The Kabbalistic maxim “from mouth to ear” for me conveys something of the person specific tailoring that most deep engagement with a tradition seems to entail. In the context of psychotherapy, Carmel Flaskas speaks of the importance of being “Witnessed”- a sense of being truly seen by the other. There is something profoundly transformational about real interpersonal connection-perhaps even more as we seek to develop soul. This may be about the sharing of some great wisdom, but it might be as much about real presence whilst having a beer together.

2. Collective Identity.
Even for those of us fortunate enough to be part of a regular coven, lodge or working group, it may well be that the majority of our practice is carried out in a solitary context. This may feel fitting given the degree of consciousness needed in order to strike out on a magical path, but for many of us such isolationism rarely sustains the project. However a specific tradition expresses its collectivism, for me one of the key components to initiation is that it is into a community.

Within the Buddhist tradition sangha or the community of practitioners is one of the three treasures (along with the Buddha and dharma). This is a key recognition that for a spiritual path to be sustainable it needs to have a sense of the collective. The parameters around a community will vary from tradition to tradition-some may emphasise ascent to a core set of ideas e.g. Thelema, others may emphasise either adherence to a type of counter-cultural tribalism (some Chaos Magickal groups adopting this pattern). Whatever the social glue that emerges during the life of a tradition, what seems to be important for people giving their allegiance to such systems is the sense of trans-personal purpose in feeling the weight of the groups history, its current egregore/group mind and the potential teleos often connected to its role in some sort of aeonic unfolding!

As someone who has worked within several initiatory traditions I recognise both the strength and potential danger connected with stepping inside the “inner court” of their processes. The Kaula Nath tradition that I’ve worked within for the last ten years is a path that emphasises the connection between tribal identity and initiation (one of the primary meanings of Kaula being clan). Such initiatory families can be a source of support, security and necessary balance, but they can also reflect the less helpful aspects of family life. All families run to scripts-we rely on often unspoken principles and roles in order to create a sense of certainty and continuity. In and of themselves such scripts are not necessarily negative, but what happens if we want to try something new, or re-negotiate our role within the tribe? Along with John Byng-Hall I’d agree that the litmus test for the health of any group seems to be whether we are permitted the reflective space to name the scripts and improvise new ways of being.

3. Direct Transmission
The late Georg Feuerstein highlighted that in the tantric tradition, initiation could take many forms varying from prolonged preparation and elaborate ritual to the lightning flash of the guru staring into the core of ones being. While the advent of skype etc. might make cyber-initiations a useful tool if travel is not possible, for me there is something both potent and fundamentally congruent about initiation taking place in the flesh. For a child to be healthy in early life it needs to be held and truly seen by its care giver-should the needs of the spiritual new-born be any less? Whether our initiation is into the group-mind of an Order or the familial lineage of a guru, it seems that the most powerful transmissions occur via the direct activation of the body, mind and emotions.

For those of us who’ve spent more than their fair share of time lost in the spiritual supermarket, the location of a teacher or a well-balanced tradition can feel like the goal itself rather than the beginning that it actually represents. Any group or guru worth their salt should come with a health warning-if they don’t make at least some effort to put you off I’d be worried. A good friend likened initiation being like spiritual dynamite! This seems to be in keeping with Feuerstein’s observation “the guru’s work with disciples is both a demolition job and a rebuilding.” Indeed! As someone who has sought and undergone a number of initiatory processes, they definitely accelerate a process of change. Be careful of what you wish for!

John Byng-Hall Re-writing Family Scripts (Guilford Press 1995)
Owen Davies Ordinary Magic (Hambeldon Continuum 2007)
Georg Feuerstein Tantra (Shambhala 1998)
Carmel Flaskas Family Therapy Beyond Postmodernism (Brunner-Routledge 2002)
Geoffrey Samuel The Origins of Yoga and Tantra (Cambridge 2008)


  1. Joel
    Posted November 6th 2012 at 1:46 pm | Permalink

    It’s certainly an interesting process of change to spend thirty odd years on discovering that the progressive path is an illusion. As for ‘taking refuge’, is there a difference between doing so formally and doing so informally? It’s arguable that someone who has even turned their head in the general direction of a tradition has taken refuge in it. The only advantage of not formally taking refuge is that one can be more faddish and drop one’s wisdom jewel at the first opportunity to take up another and better wisdom jewel when it presents itself, whereas if one had taken refuge formally one would perhaps have to have a little affair with another tradition. The pluses and minuses of marriage.

    So much seems like a big decision, but whatever’s done is just done. Why agonise? Do or don’t do, thinking about it never actually resulted in an informed decision, it merely satisfied the craving not to make a mistake but never guaranteed it.

    Merely living is initiation. The rest is just joining clubs. Sometimes it seems important to put your money where your mouth is. Other times it seems like just a bother. If your friend is enthusiastic now for refuge, she should probably take it. This time next year she may not care less. On the other hand, she may just think it’s something she ought to do. Isn’t a lot done out of that feeble motive?

  2. steve davies
    Posted November 6th 2012 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    Thanks for your thoughts Joel-yeah interesting to contrast the gradual path with a more non-dual approach-I tend to oscillate between both-yes it is all hear right now but I tend to get this more as I deepen my sadhana.

    I think that formal acknowledgement can be just joining a club, but at its best its also a ritual/magical act-like any real commitment it potentially activates something beyond just thinking it in our heads.

  3. Joel
    Posted November 6th 2012 at 6:47 pm | Permalink

    It can cut both ways. Initiation can be some kind of activating ritual, or thinking it is necessary can be an obstruction. Then there are the initiations that we don’t seek but which appear to seek us, which I would say are more interesting because the form is spontaneously what it is, whereas there is always something arbitrary and constructed about the psychodrama created to serve the specific purpose of initiation in formalised settings. More genuine initiations are such things as taking acid for the first time, or realising that someone one took to be a master is a fool.

  4. steve davies
    Posted November 6th 2012 at 8:29 pm | Permalink

    I think your right-if we stay awake to everyday life initiatory experiences can pour through from every side. The best initiatory ritual make use of fear, anticipation, splendor, taboo breaking etc in order to intensify the possibility of real change occuring, but as you say its no guarantee.

  5. Sheila
    Posted November 7th 2012 at 6:35 am | Permalink

    Thanks for the article. Can you explain to me what a “Kaula Nath” is, please?

    • Steve D.
      Posted November 7th 2012 at 8:00 am | Permalink

      Glad you enjoyed it Sheila-as to what the Kaula Nath path is-big question with a multitude of answers! Basically a tantric path originating with Matsyendranath back in the midst of time-a yogic path emphasising awakening using unorthodox means-for an intro I like check out “Tantra Sadhana” by Mogg Morgan or many of the great articles by Phil and others on this site. Another awesome site for historic source material is I wish you well with your research.