Initiation & the Ego

Initiation is a process of uncreation.

Our nature is divine, and we are always connected to the divine. The soul knows it is the light of pure consciousness and can be no other. It is blissful, needing nothing to be happy, its essence is pure love, it is connected to everything else, it is eternally existent, and cannot be created or destroyed. But why don’t we always experience the spiritual, blissful part of ourselves, the part of us that is spirit?

In the physical realm we forget our real nature. We experience all the opposites of what we truly are in essence – fear, unhappiness, suffering and the illusion of separateness. We identify with our thoughts and emotions. We identify ourselves as separate from the divine, and from everything else.  In spiritual terms, this is called the ego-consciousness, the “I” ness that makes us feel separate. There is me, and there is the other (everything else).

To compensate for the loneliness and vulnerability this brings, we seek pleasures, status and fame and to make us feel good. We use people and situations to validate us and make us feel significant. The ego is created as a way to cope with separation and to navigate life. This is why the ego is concerned with our own safety and our own sense of self-importance. It tries to build up an identity for us, to tell us who we are so we can navigate the world.

In many respects, most people’s egos are built up for some kind of social approval. Even people in the counterculture such as Pagans and hippies usually have a group of people with whom they can identify with and get social approval for going against social norms. Social approval is a kind of success and reassurance to the ego.

The ego expresses itself in a belief that you need something “out there” to complete you. Most of our thoughts are about things we want, or resistance to things that are happening.

The ego is a grouping of personality traits and selected stories from your life. Maybe in a certain group of people you gained approval, and your ego thinks ‘this is part of my identity’. Maybe you were told you were bad or worthless as a child, and deep down this becomes part of the story you tell yourself about who you are. 

Emotional wounds from childhood often support the creation of the personality-self or ego that is preoccupied with getting attention, approval and safety. The ego is the part of us that gets jealous, possessive, anxious, judgmental, fearful and self-conscious. In reality, the ego wants to protect us, but it often manages to do so in unhealthy, painful and inauthentic ways.

The ego becomes a reference point from which you relate to the world around you, no matter how wrong and twisted its messages are.

Most people are unconscious of their egos. They simply assume that they are the way they are, and they want the world to relate to them in ways that work within ways their own egos understand things.  The ego like a mask that you’ve always worn. You never explored what’s on your face or what you are presenting to the world. You simply took it for granted, and you kept adding things to this mask without knowing what you were adding to it. But the ego is a fiction created in the mind, by the mind.

When people embark on a spiritual path, they often assume this is another layer they can add to the ego-identity, another thing they can add to the ego-validation of who and what they are, another set of people they can gain approval from. We usually allow our egos to define what being on a spiritual path means, instead of our souls. The more we do this, the less we identify with the spirit within us.  That’s why being on the spiritual path includes times of such fierce purging of the old that it becomes almost unbearable.

Plato used the allegory of a cave in which prisoners are kept. These prisoners have been in the cave since their childhood, and each of them is held there in a peculiar manner. They are all chained so that their legs and necks are immobile, forced to look at a wall in front of them. Behind the prisoners is a fire and between the fire and the prisoners is a raised walkway, on which people can walk.

These people are puppeteers, and they are carrying objects, in the shape of human and animal figures, as well as everyday items. The prisoners could only see these flickering images on the wall, since they could not move their heads; and so, naturally enough, they presumed the images to be real, rather than just shadowy representations of what is actually real.

The images on the wall would be so real that the prisoners would assign prestige among each other to the one who could recall the most detail about the shapes, the order in which they appeared and which might typically be found together or in tandem. Of course, this was hollow praise since, in fact, the images were not real.

But what if one of the prisoners were to be freed and made to turn and look at the fire? The bright light would hurt his eyes, as accustomed as he was to the shadows, and even in turning back to the wall and its flickering images (which would only be natural), the prisoner couldn’t help but notice that they weren’t real at all, but only shadows of the real items on the walkway behind him.

If the prisoner was then taken from the cave and brought into the open, the disorientation would be even more severe; the light of the sun would be much more brilliant than the fire. But, as his eyes adjusted, the newly freed prisoner would be able to see beyond only shadows; he would see dimensions and reflections in the water (even of himself).

After learning of the reality of the world, the prisoner now sees how ‘pitiable’ his former colleagues in the cave really are. If he returned to the cave and re-joined them, he would take no pleasure in their accolades or praise for knowledge of the shadow-figures. For their own part, the prisoners would see him as deranged, not really knowing what reality is and would say of him that he left the cave and returned with corrupted eyes.

Spiritual awakening – or true initiation – is like a big bang that realigns everything inside your heart, body, mind, and soul. You are never the same again. It’s a brand-new universe, and you can’t go back, although a lot of people may try to.

In true spiritual awakening, the ego, constructed from personality traits, the desire for social approval and the stories you tell yourself about yourself, dissolves.  The universe is not what you thought it was. To the unconscious ego, this looks like the end of the world, and it fights back. 

This is the point where many people try to run back into the cave. They may immediately run away from spiritual concerns or go back to searching and striving for something else, something easier, something that doesn’t challenge their carefully constructed ego-identity.

Even after the dawning of spiritual awakening, many people are still really committed to their old ego habits and patterns. It doesn’t really matter what the story is – victim, perpetrator, comedian, leader, drama queen, mother, father, mover, shaker, whoever. If you are attached to a certain idea of yourself, the process of awakening, of initiation, is very difficult.  Because the true you is not an idea.

The sacred destruction of the old self is part of making space for new growth. Without it, you will always be split. The ego foundation, on which we build our ideas of who and what we are, is full of lies. Many of the attachments, stories and emotions that are part of the ego will arise during the initiation process. The awakened self leaves no aspect of ourselves untouched and no stone unturned. Still, the ego may cling, frantically, to anything and everything. It will cling to spiritual teachers. It will cling to victim identities. It will cling to old relationships.

A spiritual awakening forces us to tear them down.

During an awakening, so much is shifting and changing that you feel like you don’t know who you are. You will try to hold on to the old ideas about who and what you are.When you have the humility to let go, you have come to a very profound space. 

After the Buddha had been enlightened, he was travelling through India teaching.  People could tell there was something different, something special about him. And so one day some people came up to him and asked “are you a god?”  And the Buddha replied “no.”  “Are you the reincarnation of a god?”  “No.”  “Are you a wizard or a magician?”  “No.”  “Are you a man?”  “No.”  “Well, then what are you?”  And the Buddha answered, “I am awake.”

Most people have a goal of an awakening (which we call true initiation) which allows them to keep the ‘I’ intact, thinking they will add qualities to the ego-clutter that already exists, without realising that in a true awakening, a true initiation, the ego, the me, is the dream we wake up from.  

© Anna Franklin, 2021

Author: annafranklinblog

Anna Franklin is the High Priestess of the Hearth of Arianrhod, which runs teaching circles, a working coven, and the annual Mercian Gathering, a Pagan camp which raises money for charity. She regularly speaks at conferences, moots and workshops around the country. She is the author of many books on witchcraft and Paganism, including the popular Pagan Ways Tarot, Sacred Circle Tarot, The Fairy Ring, Herb Craft, Magical Incenses and Oils, Personal Power, A Romantic Guide to Handfasting, Familiars, The Oracle of the Goddess, Hearth Witch, The Path of the Shaman and The Hearth Witch’s Compendium. Anna’s books have been translated into nine languages.

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