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INITIATION...... Joe Scoglio, December 1996
Presentation at inaugural Stamping Ground, January 1997
“Life is a game,the goal of which is to learn what the rules are.”
I cannot remember the name of the book in which I read that, but it does seem to
put into a nutshell an eternal paradox of life. We are different from animals in
that we, as cultural beings with a small “c”, can not survive by instinct alone.
We have language, tools and moral orders which are arbitrary according to the culture
we live in. We need to know different things at different stages of our lives, and
we are prone to questioning if what we are doing is the ‘right’ thing.
Initiation is the rite of passage given by one’s society that allows one to proceed
to the next stage of life in that community. It is a social event whereby the community
recognizes one’s readiness to accept increased social responsibility. The purpose
of an initiation rite is to imprint the psyche with the importance of a new way of
looking at life once one has reached a transition point -- say, between childhood
and puberty, or between single life and married life.
In a traditional society this initiatory imprint is usually done painfully and is
a visible sign for the rest of one’s life. Examples of this are scarring, circumcision
, tattooing and knocking out of a tooth. These visible signs are a public proclamation
of one’s position in the hierarchy, a sign of one’s position of increased privilege
and responsibility. Does the current fashion in our society, of tattooing and body
piercing, fulfill a need to show committment in a society where it is all too easy
to flit from one social impersonation to another? Does the pain involved in such
fashion statements give a heightened sense of being alive in an overly anaesthetized
society where there is a pill for everything?
In Royal Hassrick’s book, The Sioux, he talks about the power that is associated
with dreams and visions. These might come of their own accord or they might be sought
through preparing oneself for them. This spiritual preparation among to Sioux Indians
of the American plains could take the form of fasting alone on a mountain top, dragging
buffalo skulls hanging from skewers that pierce one’s back muscles, or by suspending
oneself from a pole by means of skewers thrust through one’s chest. “No matter what
method they selected, each involved a willingness to endure physical torture, for
self-sacrifice was the most certain means of experiencing rapport with the supernatural”
Privilege and responsibility go hand in hand. Someone pointed out that the problem
with American society is that the American constitution guarantees the rights of
its citizens, but does not mention their responsibilities, and that this tends to
produce people more concerned with taking than with giving.
Be that as it may, all societies have initiation ceremonies, even if, as in our western,
post-modern, fragmented society, they are often unconsciously performed. For us,
teenagers getting their driver’s license is a recognition of increased responsibility
and freedom associated with adulthood. So is being allowed to vote and to buy alcohol.
One’s 21st birthday is usually given heightened significance, not to mention turning
40 or 65 years old. For some, the taking of drugs or binge drinking to the point
of spewing can act as an initiation, or at least a bonding process with one’s peer
group. Here you could ask yourself, “is this group worth bonding to?”.
Our free, materialist, unreligious, individualist society has few formal initiation
ceremonies. We all belong to many, possibly mutually exclusive, sub-cultures. If
one does not have a strong sense of integrity, that is, a sense that one’s life is
integrated and not compartmentalised, it is easy to feel that one’s life is fragmented
and out of control. A youth can have acquaintances in his neighbourhood and have
a different set of friends at a non local school ,with a different set of values.
The neighboorhood in which he lives might not be the one where he spent the first
years of his life. He may participate in a sport or hobby with yet another discrete
set of people with different values. Then there are the values of his family, which
might be challenged by the education system , any of his peer groups or by the mass
media. Such moral tightrope walking is very common and can be perilous. We all accept
this as normal, but really it is a 20th century phenomenon, one that has a lot to
do with the invention of rapid and mass communication and transportation, of which
the automobile is a relevant example.
There is certainly a need for ritual signposting for our youth so that they have
an idea of where they fit in to the chaos of post-modern life. A few years ago Australia
had the highest rate of youth suicide in the world. Maybe it still does. The freedom
of this post-modern age has to be monitored and nurtured for youth by those already
initiated into it. That means the village elders, those who have gone through the
conflicting pulls of life and still retained their integrity. Robert Bly discusses
the dissolution of this system of male initiation in our contemporary society in
his book Iron John.
With the freedom of being initiated into a new way of life must come increased self
discipline. The quest for enlightenment which many young people are involved in means
the search for wholeness and freedom. To survive freedom, one needs self discipline.
Yes, there is knowledge in excess, but only in so far as it lets you know where the
boundaries are, beyond which the fullness of life diminishes. From the 1960s it became
popular to seek wholeness and freedom through Eastern religious techniques and in
drugs. The drugs “blew your mind” of its socially conditioned restraints, while the
Eastern religious techniques allowed you to “keep it together’ consciously and through
Sport has always provided a system of initiation of the young by the more mature
in the relationship of athlete and coach, in its emphasis on participation more than
winning, and on the value of teamwork. Sport , as well as the martial arts,have given
young men a direction in their lives, a means to develop their physiques, and a way
to channel extra energy in a positive manner.
Dance serves a similar function of giving a purpose, a sense of physical well being,
and a sense of identity. For some, dance can offer more than sport or the martial
arts. When you begin to study dance you become accepted into the “artistic community”.
Perhaps the buying of your first pair of tights and dance jock strap is an informal
initiation into that; an event that will probably be remembered. I certainly remember
buying my first practice clothes, and also the person who revealed to me the inner
mysteries of how to arrange my sexual credentials within that first jock strap.
For males, studying dance can provide a good chance at a livelihood. Getting a job
acts as a recognition of one’s ‘mastery’ , of that sense of achievement that young
men need. One’s first job is a form of initiation into the world of the theatrical
Dance can serve as an initiation into a new, creative life. Dance can, and should,
develop the expressive side of the male. If a spate of books such as Men are From
Mars, Women Are From Venus, are to be believed, then men have a basic inability to
be in touch with their deeper self, and an inability to express “what they are not
feeling” , a double bind if I ever heard one! A lot of men are not open conduits
for life’s process, but tend to “bottle it up” until it bursts out in anger, whereas
women have a better ability to verbalise their problems which furnishes them with
an emotional safety valve. Dance can help open a man’s emotional life whereas sports
and martial arts can easily reinforce the competitive, the defensive and the uncommunicative
aspects of many young men- just those qualities that make them vulnerable to thoughts
of suicide. Dance can offer a direct, Zen approach to life. That is, dance on the
technical level offers a form of discipline which transcends the perplexities of
thought; ‘”just do it!”.
Along with the technical, dance involves the expressive and creative. The dancer
of today must be in touch with his or her own source of movement, and not be the
stereotypical ballet dancer of previous generations who stood around waiting for
the choreographer to tell him what to do. Today’s dancers often contribute to the
choreographic process, especially in the area of contemporary dance. Many contemporary
dancers are both dancers and choreographers.
Contemporary dance in the past few decades has been influenced (jargonists would
say “informed”) by holistic movement systems concerned with re-affirming the body/mind
continuum, something that Western, reductivist society is in constant danger of losing.
These movement systems and body therapies include t’ai-chi, yoga, aikido, Alexander
technique and Feldenkrais technique. These forms emphasize harmony, and are used
to develop safe dance for long life dancing.
Learning to dance, works against the impersonalising effect of our megalopolist culture
with its mass media. You can not learn it by sitting in a thousand seat lecture hall
taking notes from a minuscule figure at the lectern. Nor can you learn it through
television or radio’s Open Learning program, nor from the internet. No, you have
to involve yourself in a tradition taught person to person. Every dancer’s lineage
can easily be traced through the several not prerecorded, human beings that were
his influential teachers.
I do not want to over emphasize the benefits of a dance career. For some, the inability
to realise one’s dream as a dancer can be a great frustration. There is the other
problem of the anxiety some dancers feel when they have to give up dance and leave
behind that youthful, attention-gratifying role. Then a new and emotionally painful
initiation back to “civilian life” takes place. Dance , for some, is a Peter Pan
trap which leads to an identity crisis when they stop.
I have just taken you on a bit of a detour away from talking about “initiation” per
se since we all here are interested in dance. But now I should get back onto my topic.
Initiation represents the psychological development of a person. Joseph Henderson
in Man and his Symbols says that initiation involves death and rebirth, the dying
of the old you and the birth of the wiser you. I remember hearing a Buddhist monk
say that wisdom comes from the experiencing of change. There is a children’s song
by Peter Coombe about a tadpole metamorphosing into a frog . The lyrics go, “what
is happening to me ? I’m not very happy, and that’s because, I like the way I was.”
Change, internal or external, can throw us into a panic. I suppose one of the functions
of religion is to ameliorate that panic about life. Priests are supposed to be spiritual
guides. Their job is to explain the meaning , the symbolism , the truth behind religious
doctrine. Religious doctrine can be viewed as a tool, and unless the user knows how
to use the tool properly, he can do himself an injury.
M.-L. von Franz in Man and his Symbols says that some people can find their guide
within themselves. This inner guide has been variously called daimon, soul, genius
and self. In Jungian psychology “the Self can be defined as an inner guiding factor
that is different from the conscious personality and that can be grasped only through
the investigation of one’s own dreams”( p. 163).
Continuing with Jungian psychology, Robert Johnson in his book, Transformation ,
writes about three stages of humanity's development. The early stage , which he calls
the two dimensional, or Don Quixote stage is connected to instinct and faith. The
next stage, three dimensional or Hamlet stage began with the Renaissance and developed
the alienated, existential modern man. God was dead and man was trapped with his
own thoughts and indecision. As Hamlet destroyed Ophelia, so three dimensional man
destroys the feminine within himself. Hamlet failed to recognise the shadow side
of his personality. The final stage is where humanity is now entering, the fourth
dimension, or age of Faust . At the end of Goethe’s Faust the protagonist accepts
his shadow as part of himself, that is, Mephistopheles, and thereby saves himself.
Robert Bly speaks of this need to accept one’ s dark side for the full development
of the human being. The ability to incorporate the “wild man” into the man’s psyche
allows him to achieve a healing, a wholeness, that allows him to act, not violently,
I would like to finish this talk by raising the stakes from the personal to the global.
For those concerned with political or ecological issues, and that should be everyone,
this personal issue of self transformation is essential. The big international problems
that concern such organisations as Greenpeace and Amnesty International are linked
to personal fear and ignorance. One helps in the evolution to a safer, freer and
healthier planet by voicing one’s beliefs, and acting on them. The solutions to these
problems are forming right now. We must act with an awareness of the issues. The
more we are in touch with our deeper selves, the better our chance of making the
choices that reflect integrity.
Joe Scoglio, December 1996
Bly, Robert, Iron John, Addison-Wesley Publishing Company, Sydney, 1990
Campbell, Joseph, The Flight of the Wild Gander, Harper Perennial, New York, 1990
The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Abacus, London, 1975
The Masks of God: Creative Mythology, Penguin Books, England,1976
Hassrick, Royal B., The Sioux, University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, 1964
Johnson, Robert, Transformation, Harper , San Francisco, 1991
Jung Carl, ed., Man and his Symbols, Dell Publishing, 1964
Lawlor, Robert, Earth Honouring, Millennium Books, 1990
Voices of the First Day, Inner Traditions International Rochester, 1991
O’Connor, Peter, The Inner Man, Pan Macmillan, Sydney, 1993
Young, Dudley, Origins of the Sacred, Harper Perennial, New York,, 1992
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