Our Teenage Planet
'Cosmos and Psyche' author Richard Tarnas on Earth's 'crisis of maturation' and pending, radical spiritual evolution.
BY: As told to Shelley L. Ackerman
I recall a lecture by Joseph Campbell in the late 1960s when he told a story of a shamanic initiation. During expeditions through the arctic regions of the North American continent, Danish-Eskimo explorer and ethnologist Knud Johan Victor Rasmussen talked to many old shamans. One of them told him about his initiation as a young boy. He was taken by an older shaman on a sled over ice, he said, and placed in a small igloo just big enough for him to sit. He crouched on a skin and was left there for 30 days with a little water and meat brought in occasionally. "I died a number of times during those 30 days," he said, "but I learned what can be found and learned only in the silence, away from the multitudes, in the depths. I heard nature itself speak to me, and it spoke with the voice of a gentle motherly solicitude and affection. Or it sounded sometimes like children's voices, or sometimes like falling snow, and what it said was, 'Do not be afraid of the universe.'"
This discovery, Campbell said, became a point of absolute internal security for the initiate, and made possible his return to his community with a wisdom and assurance that was unmatched by everyone there, so that he could help others from that inner place.
This was the great death-rebirth initiation that, whether in the form of sacred rites of passage or of ancient mystery rituals, has informed indigenous, traditional, and archaic cultures throughout human history. But our own culture is notable for the utter absence of such an initiatory tradition. The dangerous, bold, risk-taking energies of youth are necessary for an initiatory process to take place, as all primal cultures know. Ours does not. Primal societies use these energies to mediate that great transition of each generation from dependence to independence, from immaturity to maturity, from childhood to adulthood, for the sustaining of the community both materially and spiritually. This initiation consists of a profound, very frightening encounter with the darkest aspects of existence-- with death, with utter aloneness, with suffering, with a crisis of meaning, with a sense of despair, a leaving of the community. In a sense, it is a leaving not only of the safety of the maternal, familial, and community womb but of the entire community of life.
This encounter provides a rite of passage for youths who can thereby discover their deeper purpose, their meaning, because in that great encounter with death and rebirth they are able to engage and experience, directly in their bodies, in their souls, the powerful archetypal forces that permeate life and nature and every human being. And they thereby come into direct knowledge of the great mysteries of death and rebirth. From that place, they can re-engage life with a new knowledge; they can bring back to the community an enriched understanding.
If all our youth are uninitiated, then of course all our adults are uninitiated too. When one turns on the television, virtually everything one sees is designed for the adolescent mind, of all ages: Pow! Zap! Boom!, explosions, aggression, superficial sex, incessant change, shiny surfaces, ceaseless growth, the new, the fast, the ever youthful, the momentarily exciting. There is no sense of the deeper meanings, the profundity of life, and that our actions today have enduring consequences.
The reason our culture does not provide such an initiation, however, may not just be that it has somehow simply been forgotten, or foolishly abandoned its traditional wisdom, and myopically asserted a mechanistic material world with no deeper spiritual purpose or significance. While true as far as it goes, this explanation does not do justice to a possibly deeper process that seems to be unfolding. For the very absence of initiatory rites of passage in our culture appears to have effectively created a kind of closed container, a psychic pressure cooker, an alchemical vessel that is intensifying the archetypal energies into a collective morphic field of explosive power. Perhaps the fact that our culture does not provide rituals of initiation is not simply a massive cultural error, but rather reflects and even impels the immersion of the entire culture in its own massive collective initiation.
I believe that humankind has entered into the most critical stages of a death-rebirth mystery. In retrospect it seems that the entire path of Western civilization has taken humankind and the planet on a trajectory of initiatory transformation, into a state of spiritual alienation, into an encounter with mortality on a global scale—from world wars and holocausts to the nuclear crisis and now the planetary ecological crisis—an encounter with mortality that is no longer individual and personal but rather transpersonal, collective, planetary. It is a collective dark night of the soul, a deep separation from the community of being, from the cosmos itself. We are undergoing this rite of passage with virtually no guidance from wise elders because the wise elders are caught up in the same crisis. This initiation is too epochal for such confident guidance, too global, too unprecedented, too all-encompassing; it is larger than all of us. It seems that we are all entering into something new, a new development, a crisis of accelerated maturation, a birth, an entrance into a profoundly different way of being in the cosmos.