We awake as if from a deep sleep. Above us the canopy opens up to reveal brilliant blue skies and the feeling of claustrophobia dissipates. Sunshine bathes us in golden light, energising and life-affirming. Our previous reluctance to proceed any further has vanished and insight finally dawns upon us. We must push on, it is imperative that we reach a place of safety before dark. Our destination lies further down the steep-sided valley, but to reach it we have to make our way along the river. The air is warm and comfortable here, the vegetation lush and profuse. Soon we spot the huge cave entrance high up the mountainside. Our steps lead us to the mouth of a cave along a narrow path. The cave is symbolic of the womb and the Void. It is a space in which we come to face our fears and our true selves. The experience may either strengthen or destroy us. Regardless of the reasons for entering this otherworldly place, transformations will be set in motion.
The Great Mother Bear will welcome her children and prepare them for the journey into the Void. They will be laid to rest within the darkness of her fecund womb until the time of rebirth in the Spring. Before that can happen the person undergoing this rite of passage must reflect upon their reasons for this undertaking. This is important, otherwise the journey has been of little use. We emerge from our musings to find a figure watching us. An androgynous figure, clothed in an animal skin and carrying a thick staff. Two serpents are entwined round the staff which is topped with a pine cone. Their dark eyes survey us humorously. This is our Guide, entrusted with our safety and guardian through the worlds. We are invited into the cave, a simple lamp handed to us to light the way. Now begins the transformation.
This is such an ancient place. It has seen the passage of tens of thousands of years, a place of great power and ritual. Deeper and deeper we travel into the earth, it feels like a place set apart from time. There are images of animals painted upon the cave walls, conveying such beauty and grace. Wildlife flow across the walls, rhinos, horses, bison, lions. All executed with such finesse and artistry. A feat never to be equalled by modern humanity. As we travel deeper into the cave these paintings start depicting cave bears etched in red, to be followed by composite creatures, part bear and part human. Curious…We look back at our Guide, who remains silent. This is our journey, so the insights must come from within. Finally we enter the deepest part of the cave, into a broad, circular chamber. In the middle of this chamber is an altar, upon which is placed the skull of a bear. Numerous bear skulls have been placed around this chamber.
The only illumination comes from a fire behind the altar. By now our sense of reality is slightly distorted, something about the air down here is affecting our sense perception. A circle of figures are sitting round the fire, we cannot be sure whether they are human or animal. Each is clothed in a large bearskin. Their eyes glint brightly at us. The fire throws huge shadows on the cavern wall. Our Guide smiles reassuringly and gestures towards the bearskin placed in front of the altar. We lie down on it automatically, hands then wrap the skin around us.
A rhythmic sound snakes its way around each of the figures and when it reaches us it throbs intensely, echoing the beat of our frightened hearts. This seems to go on for some time. We feel our eyelids closing and try to stop falling asleep. The sound ceases suddenly, the quality of the air changing subtly. We feel our breath force itself through our lungs until it stops abruptly. Our hands reach upwards and to our shock they appear to be huge, clawed paws. No human voice issues from our mouths, only a plaintive mewl. A low hum begins drowning out our cries, strangely it seems to soothe our fears. We look up to see a beautiful, luminous face looking down at us, we see Her. She offers her blessings, love and protection to sustain us through the final part of our journey. We are now ready to release our old selves. She turns to our Guide who nods and bestows a blessing upon us. We cross the threshold between this world and the next and the mists close. In our dreams we enter the cave of our ancestors, to seek their counsel and join our essence theirs, this was our tradition from the dawn of time and will continue until time ceases to be.
The journey is not yet over as we will have to face the truth at the centre of the Labyrinth and return totally transformed by its revelatory message. That is the reality of this experience, we must either return or be destroyed by what has been revealed. Make your choice. There is one certainty though, we will leave the cave when the time comes, as to linger in this sacred space would lead to repercussions. Remember that. It is not to be used as an escape from your problems.
We slumber on the ship of death as it flows towards the Great Sea. The world around us does not stand still as the hand of Time changes all that it touches. Our Guide remains steadfast by our side, that much we can rely on throughout this transition. Soon, so soon we feel the hand of Life touch us. The Universe begins to stir, nature awakes from its sleep and unveils her beauty. We feel her kiss upon our brow. Time to return. We take a deep breath and draw in the universal life force. It kick starts our heart, sacred temple and sanctuary of the Soul. Our Guide gently helps us up and leads us through the labyrinth of passageways to the cave entrance. We look down at our hands and feet, reassuringly human now. Words of wisdom are whispered in our ear, simple words yet so powerful in their affect. The Guardian of Souls and Psychopomp watches another initiate leave, for this what we have become. We traverse the valley and forest at great speed. We have found our mojo! Finally we emerge from the reality that is the Subconscious to the Conscious, the road is crossed and we are home. We look back and notice that there is no sign of the road kill. In fact there is no sign of the road. Curious…
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a thousand faces. Bollingen Series XVII, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2004
Dear Reader, much has happened since my last article regarding the LifeRites Foundation course. The Universe has seen fit to initiate a series of events which have changed my life and the lives of others around me. As I write this article we are in the midst of Winter, the Child of Light has entered this world, and I am at the end of one cycle of life and about to enter another. Cold, short dark days tend to focus the mind inwards. I see death and decay all round me including those aspects of my own life that need to be released. This is no bad thing. A timely reminder that I have been out of kilter with the world around me, enmeshed within the artificial bubble created by our modern world. I have left a job which was becoming increasingly dissatisfactory and leaving a toxic environment which was draining my energies. Stagnant waters breed dis-ease. The old self was in the throes of death, but I was reluctant to let go. My spirit had given up, numbed by a lack of creativity, reason and fear. I sense that this situation is not unique to me.
Something was rising up from the depths of the subconscious and it was scaring me. Forgive me for sharing these personal details, they do have their place within this tale, which is one of death and rebirth. I am speaking of course of things symbolic, of experiences we share on a deep psychic level with our remote ancestors. These experiences are rites of passage –into adulthood, into wisdom of elder years, the birth of a child and death, both physical and symbolic. These are only a few of the threads that connect us to our ancestors across a divide of thousands of years and one can only speculate at the ritual mysteries unveiled to the participants in those ancient times. Things are not so different in modern times, the human spirit is still in need of healing and integration but the healers and shamans have metamorphosed into different entities now. Let me be frank, change and transmutation are not easy experiences. Pain is pain whatever century you find yourself in. Human nature does not intrinsically change. You may or may not agree, that is your prerogative. For one moment though I ask you to shed your modern niceties, find a quiet place, preferably outdoors and just listen to the sounds of your inner world. What can you hear? Are you able to bear the inner silence? (more of this later in our journey)
At times our burdens seem too great to carry but one must not underestimate the courage and endurance of the spirit, if not its practicality. The Universe will only tolerate so much miserable self-absorption on our part before delivering a good kick up the bottom and we then find ourselves in the path of a fast moving vehicle. Ending up as road-kill, to be fed upon by crows. The bloody aftermath can be a little unpleasant don’t you think?
The human psyche is a complex country, our travels along its highways affected by dreams, eureka moments and intuition. Such is the canvas that our Heroic journeys are painted upon, “perhaps some of us have to go through dark and devious ways before we can find the river of peace or the highroad to the soul's destination.”
Quite. As we contemplate this bloody mess our eyes look up to see a great forest unravelling before us. It looks forbidding, almost stretching into infinity. After a little hesitation we move forward, already dead, what else can happen to us? The passage through “dark and devious ways” has begun and we cannot turn back.
With that first step from the road going nowhere we have now entered the realm of the supernatural, the liminal. The Heroic journey has begun. Before we go any further it may be useful to shed light on the constituent parts of a rite of passage (an initiation if you may), a three - stage process that is culturally universal. Consisting of:
A call is answered to initiate a change in your life. This can come in many forms. Preparation is made to leave the old life (its death) and journey towards the new life.
A time spent between the worlds, living a life which is filled with trials and tribulations, where you may be pushed to your limits. Your soul and spirit are tested, as is your resolve to overcame the adversities and remain true to yourself. Rebirth has not occurred at this stage. Usually this period would be spent alone in nature (if your were on a Vision Quest for example) but if this is not possible it can happen in our everyday lives. Perhaps harder to manage in a lot of ways if this is the case.
This is the final stage whereby you leave the place of initiation and return to your community, family and friends. Rebirth has occurred and sacred knowledge is brought back for the benefit of the whole. You are not who you were when the journey began, a change in consciousness has occurred.
I hope you are still with me. Where to now you ask? We move forward into that great unknown expanse of our inner world, that’s where. The sun is streaming through the green canopy creating shadows on the forest floor. Gigantic trees rise majestically into the skies, sentinels guarding the sacred ways. There are deep slashes in the bark of one of the trees, claw marks. Curiosity causes us to place our fingers into the grooves. A surge of energy shocks and exhilarates. For a brief moment we can see through the eyes of this elusive creature, revered totem of many cultures for millenia. Signifying strength and resilience, providing courage in the face of adversity, in touch with the Earth and natural cycles. For it is Bear who guides us in the journey towards healing and well-being on all levels. Out of the corner of our eyes we spot something moving in the undergrowth, the bear stares briefly and then moves swiftly on as if to say hurry up. We lose sight of them in this vast space. It makes us uneasy.
This primeval forest is not at all what we imagined it to be. It feels sentient, knowing and filled with immense power. What is glimpsed between the trees causes us a little anxiety. We ask ourselves whether it was a good idea entering this area without a guide. At this moment the bear makes its presence known to remind us that this is not the case. We ruefully acknowledge this fact, not totally able to relinquish our “civilised” sensibilities. What the hell are we doing in this place? A good question and not easily answered. The world spins around us for one terrible moment as it grows dark. We collapse and fall awkwardly on the forest floor. Nothingness envelopes us. There is no “I”, no memory. This world does not exist.
Campbell, Joseph. The Hero with a thousand faces. Bollingen Series XVII, Princeton University Press, Princeton and Oxford, 2004