Seven Life Initiations For Human Transformation: And How To Reclaim Them
Watch Isa Gucciardi, author of The New Return to the Great Mother, share insight into seven life initiations needed for human growth and transformation.
Download and listen to the podcast interview
Kindred’s editor, Lisa Reagan, talks with Isa Gucciardi, PhD, about the seven life initiations needed to move into our full state of wholeness and our full potential for thriving – and what happens when these initiations are broken, interrupted, or culturally unacknowledged. Isa shares her considerable insight into how we are thwarted from completing our seven initiations, and how we can reclaim, and even heal, our innate paths to flourishing.
Editor’s Note: Below are the seven initiations excerpted from Chapter 4: The Seven Initiatory Stages, from Isa’s book, The New Return to the Great Mother. This excerpt is edited for brevity. The complete chapter includes stories from women Isa has worked with over many years as they travel through each stage. We hope you will purchase and enjoy these rich, intimate stories.
BONUS GIFT FOR YOU: The Great Mother Meditation, with Isa Gucciardi, PhD, can be accessed here with the coupon code KINDRED.
What Are The Seven Initiations?
The following is a list of the initiations of life for girls and women. I have paired each initiation with the qualities of the Great Mother that become available to us as we pass through each respective initiation. I have also provided exercises to help you gain a greater understanding of your own initiatory experiences. A major opportunity for growth comes when, as the initiate, we are able to recognize and integrate the lessons from each initiation and the qualities of the Great Mother into our life.
Birth is our first experience of the world as an individual being. The qualities of the Great Feminine emphasized in the initiation of birth are nurturance and protection.
Once we are born, we no longer exist as one with our mother’s body. Instead, we begin the natural process of separation, as we move from an aquatic state of complete dependence to a world of air where we must breathe to survive. As relatively helpless beings, we require intense physical care. It is through our helplessness that we learn about nurturing, safety, and security.
Stanislov Grof, M.D., an influential transpersonal psychologist, says that our birth can serve as a template for our life. According to Grof, the experience of being born and the type of nurturing (or lack thereof) that we receive as newborns becomes the foundation for everything we experience later in life. If we are well nurtured, we carry this experience with us, and learn to care for ourselves. If we are not nurtured well, we may be fearful and harbor a sense of lack within us. In fact, it is this lack of nurturance early on that causes many of us to embark on spiritual quests in search of a feeling of wholeness.
The care we receive as infants and children determines how well we are able to trust. Our ability to trust that we will be protected is what sustains us as we move through life’s most challenging moments. This trust can pierce through anything that might frighten us, allowing us to be less fearful and more fully present in the world.
The good news is, regardless of the degree of nurturance we received from our human mother, we can learn to trust in the power of the Great Mother to protect and sustain us. When we realize we can confront our fears and find protection through our willingness to trust, we begin to engage with life in an entirely new way. The nurturing that this protection provides is an essential quality of the Great Feminine, one that informs us all our lives.
The Initiation of Birth
Your birth and the stories around your birth may impact you in ways you may not be aware of. Take a moment to reflect on what you’ve been told about your birth and write it down in a journal or notebook. You may also want to ask any relatives and friends who were close with your family when you were born what they recall about your birth and write down those stories, too. Consider how you feel about the stories you’ve been told about your birth or that you are learning about now. How do these stories affect your feelings about giving birth?
Puberty begins the shift from childhood to adulthood. The qualities of the Great Feminine emphasized in the initiation of puberty are creativity and generativity.
The change we undergo at puberty is very clear. As children, we are incapable of reproduction, but with puberty, we can now participate in the creation of life. As we step into puberty, our childhood falls away and our journey into adulthood begins. The lessons offered to us at this time revolve around identity as we become sexually mature. Questions begin to fill our head: Who am I now that I’m changing so much? Who was I before? Who will I become? What does it mean to be a woman? What will my parents think of me now that I’m not a little kid anymore?
At puberty, we are trying to distinguish ourselves as an individual within and away from our family and society. We are trying to understand what our unique desires and needs are and how to express them within the context of the collective. This type of inquiry is an essential aspect of our spiritual growth. As we transition into adulthood, the initiations our bodies take us through teach us a great deal about ourselves. If we stay close to what our biology is showing us about who we are and how we express ourselves in the world, our self-knowledge deepens.
Unfortunately, this process of self-exploration is often co-opted by our society. By and large, our culture has lost touch with the importance of ancient puberty ceremonies, which are still performed in traditional societies around the world. In these practices, it is understood that there is great power in the moment when childhood is left behind and a new adult is born. Those in charge of upholding the cultural norms of the group oversee these rituals, which are designed to bind the new adult to the priorities of the collective. From that point forward, the new adult is expected to consider the needs of the group and to uphold its values.
It is important to recognize that some puberty rituals or practices from traditional cultures are painful or oppressive for the initiate, and I am not condoning the appropriation of such practices. However, there is a wide span of experience between initiatory rituals that may, for instance, require body mutilation or dangerous feats of courage or strength, and an absolute amnesia surrounding the importance of puberty for the adolescent. And although we have largely lost the ability to recognize and mark significant initiatory moments as a society, there are some traditions that still uphold the sacred nature of this biologically inspired event.
For instance, within the Jewish tradition, the puberty rites of bar mitzvah for boys and bat mitzvah for girls are still very much alive. As a child becomes an adult, they are expected to study the Holy Scriptures, master a passage of the texts, and present their accomplishments by reading this portion to the congregation. They are then celebrated as an adult member of the community who has promised to uphold the values of the tradition above all else. The bat and bar mitzvah rituals are very good examples of a ceremony that marks the moment of initiation, when the old form of the child is left behind as the young adult steps into the community of adults guided by their shared Jewish principles.
The Initiation of Puberty
Your entrance into womanhood began with puberty, when the first shift in hormones caused you to experience your body in a new way. During puberty, we often become more aware of our bodies, and our perspective of ourselves also shifts. Take a moment to reflect on what you remember about this time in your life and write down your thoughts. Then, consider how you might have been affected by these early experiences, and write down those thoughts too.
Menses occurs each month when a woman’s body changes form, and her uterus builds and sheds its lining. While the physical change is evident, the emotional changes she goes through are complex and often not well understood. The qualities of the Great Feminine emphasized in the initiation of menstruation are adaptivity and receptivity.
Perhaps the biggest change that happens at puberty is when a girl gets her first period. This momentous occasion marks her ability to procreate. With the menstrual cycle, our bodies are in a constant state of ebb and flow throughout the month. This ongoing change is central to many women’s experience of life. As women, our bodies require us to continuously engage in the cycle of life and death with the building of form (the thickening of the uterine lining) and the tearing down of that form (the sloughing off of the lining) each month. Through the phases of our menstrual cycle, we are directed biologically toward a deeper inquiry into the nature of change.
As part of the initiation of puberty, menstruation is closely linked to the Sacred Feminine quality of generativity. This is because in order for us to be able to generate new forms, we must accept the dissolution of old ones. If we reject change and attempt to clutch to what once was, we lose the creative potential alive within the new. Creativity and generativity, and their intimate connection with life and death, are the essence of our human experience.
In particular, as women we are called to stay open to the many births and deaths in our bodies and lives. If we’re unable to make peace with the inevitability of this cycle, we may become guarded in an attempt to protect ourselves from the always-changing nature of life. When we respond to our periods in this way, big problems can arise. For instance, every month we may find ourselves in mourning over the end of our childhood and its lost freedoms that we experienced when we first got our period. Or, we may struggle to tolerate the pain that our cycle causes us. Whatever the reason, when we reject our monthly menstrual cycle, we fray the connection between our body and spirit.
As we discussed earlier, our biology is what leads us toward personal and spiritual growth. So if we have a negative response to our period, we may block the creative power that this monthly initiation offers us. We also run the risk of losing connection with our body and our ability to understand and meet its needs. When this happens, any number of emotional and mental problems can arise, from eating disorders to identity confusion. In truth, if we reject the flow of change of our monthly cycle, we can become our own worst enemies.
The Initiation of Menses
The first experience of menses is a significant event in a girl’s life. How you responded to your first period, as well as the response of those around you, play an important role in your relationship to your body and your identity as a woman. Take a moment to reflect on what you remember about your early experience of menses. Write these memories down. Then, reflect on how you might have been affected by these early experiences, and write down these thoughts too.
The first sexual encounter requires that we shift our focus from ourselves to include another. The qualities of the Great Feminine emphasized in the initiation of sexuality are mutuality and receptivity.
The next significant change our bodies take us through is the first sexual encounter with another person. While not generally viewed as an important stepping stone on the path of human spiritual development, sex is a powerful vehicle for gaining knowledge of ourselves and others. The education that having sex offers us about learning to receive (through pleasure) and consider both our experience and another’s (by meeting our partner’s and our own desires) is incomparable.
Spiritually speaking, how we engage with sex determines the lessons we will take away from the experience. To meet someone sexually, we must have a healthy understanding of our own wants and needs. When we have an open relationship with ourselves in this way, we are able to stay receptive to our partner during sex. That’s really what sex requires of us: to be both receptive and giving as we merge into a union that is designed to move us beyond the individual experience of the self. In effect, sex, when engaged consciously, allows humans to fully embody themselves and communicate sexually in order to lift each other up toward a greater awareness of consciousness.
When we know ourselves well and we know our bodies well, we are better able to maintain a strong sense of self, even as we seek to transcend the self through orgasm, which has the potential to awaken us spiritually. When we have awareness around the teachings offered to us as we express ourselves to another intimately, the act of sex can be revelatory. In fact, learning to open and connect in this way is at the heart of the subtlest forms of spiritual inquiry, and is directly accessible through our sexual life.
Unfortunately, in many cultures sex and sexuality have been commodified, making it difficult for initiates to enter into the first sexual encounter with clear eyes and open hearts. Because we are flooded with harsh and, at times, violent sexual imagery through media exposure, many of us struggle to recognize and follow our own sexual desires and impulses in a balanced way. Sadly for some, the first sexual encounter is unwelcomed, which can complicate a person’s relationship to their own sexuality. To compound the problem, some religious doctrine claims that our human sexual urges are sinful, which, of course, could not be further from the truth.
This situation is a spiritual conundrum of the highest degree. All of the misguided sexual messaging flying around confuses and harms us. Awash in the culture’s harmful external input, our ability to trust ourselves and even our own bodies has been disrupted, and the doors of sexual violence in its many forms have been left wide open—something I know many people have been hurt by. In this turbulent environment, the deeper power of sex is co-opted by forces alien to the expression of the Great Feminine, such as pornography, and is now virtually unrecognizable to us. However, we can take back the power of sex by reclaiming our relationship to our bodies and learning to listen to and view them as the great teachers that they are. Only then can we stay open to the power of sex and align ourselves with its greater teachings.
The Initiation of Sexuality
Your first sexual encounter is a significant life event. The conditions and circumstances surrounding this event likely still impact your intimate relationships in ways you may not have imagined. Take time to reflect on your first sexual encounter. Write about it in your journal or notebook. Then, reflect on how you might have been affected by this experience and write down these thoughts, too. You may also want to reflect on and write about other significant sexual experiences and how they have shaped your intimate relationships.
Childbirth requires us to expand our focus from the self to another, redefining ourselves to include the needs of our child. The qualities of the Great Feminine emphasized in the initiation of childbirth are creativity and generosity.
Childbirth is a powerful creative process that seeks to bring us into flow with the creative force at the heart of all manifestation. To be able to move through this sacred initiation successfully, we need to have a connection with this force of creation so that we are able to stay open and surrender to it fully. Also, we must honor and follow our creative instincts when giving birth. For that to happen, we must feel protected and cared for by those around us. Feeling safe and connected in these ways is what allows us to concentrate and to go inward, where we can tap into our deep reserves of strength.
Perhaps more than any other initiation, childbirth teaches us where we are on our path of personal and spiritual development, and how far we’ve come in our ability to face and overcome challenges. As our bodies move us through the phases of the birthing process, we will know which qualities of the Great Feminine we have mastered in past initiations and where there are still opportunities to grow.
No matter how a past initiation may have unfolded, we can gain the lesson our biology sought to teach us by learning to connect with the forces of creation at our core. Not only can we heal experiences of past initiations by aligning with this energy, we can also direct its power toward future initiations. This force is always available to us, and when we engage with it during childbirth and other creative endeavors we are brought into connection with the power of our own creativity.
It is important that every person involved, whether they be mothers-to-be, partners, midwives, doulas, or other birth attendants, recognize and appreciate the vital role they play in the sacred initiation of childbirth. There is a significant amount of power that occurs when a mother enters the initiation of childbirth and her child enters the initiation of birth. For both initiations to move as smoothly and safely as possible, those assisting with the birth need to protect and actively guide this power back to the mother and child. To hold this kind of grounded birthing environment, it is helpful for birth assistants to learn to connect to and work with the power of the Great Mother, which we will discuss in detail in Chapter 7.
As we move through the process of giving birth, we learn how to nourish and protect, watch and guide, and eventually let go altogether as our child evolves beyond us. With childbirth, women enter a whole new level of learning as we become mothers and learn to nurture and protect our children and ourselves. Partners and fathers who participate in the birthing process and in the care of their children also learn these dramatic lessons. In fact, anyone who cares for others, whether stray animals, a garden, or any being in need of tending, is immersed in these teachings of the Great Feminine.
The Initiation of Childbirth
Whether you have experienced the initiation of childbirth or have been a witness or assistant to another’s, the experience of giving birth or being present for a birth is powerful. If you have given birth, take a moment to reflect on the experience and circumstances of each time you gave birth, noting the ways you felt supported or unsupported in your journal or notebook. If you have not given birth, reflect on the significant births you have been part of, or the stories you have been told about birth. Then, consider how you have been affected by your direct experience or knowledge of these experiences, and write down your conclusions.
Menopause requires us to redefine ourselves as we lose the capacity to reproduce. The qualities of the Great Feminine emphasized in the initiation of menopause are adaptability and the capacity to flow with change.
Menopause marks the stage of life when we are no longer able to give birth. Most people think menopause is something only women go through, but, in reality, men lose their ability to procreate too, which is often experienced as “erectile dysfunction.” This initiation, and the meaning we extract from it, is central to the way we define ourselves as we get older. If we are able to meet this initiation with an open heart, we will see it for what it is: another biologically-driven opportunity to look more closely at how we view ourselves and our place in the world.
As initiations go, menopause is most akin to puberty, as menopause requires us to contemplate how we relate to the rest of society and how society defines and relates to us. It is not uncommon for older women and men to feel as though they are somehow less valuable once the creative potential of their biology has shifted with menopause. It doesn’t help that many cultures reinforce this idea. This is certainly true in the United States.
In stark contrast, some traditional societies have women step into positions of power once they have passed through menopause. For instance, among the Haudenosaunee, the Native Americans of the eastern seaboard of North America, it is the highly respected grandmothers, or gantowisas, who have always managed the economic, social, and spiritual requirements of the society. It is worth noting the main ceremonies gantowisas oversee revolve around mutual benefit and gift giving, both important qualities of the Great Feminine. Through regular feasts and ceremonies, these respected elder women manage the redistribution of goods to ensure that no member goes without food or other necessities.
What societies like the Haudenosaunee understand about a woman’s entry into menopause is that the massive creative power of a woman’s body in her reproductive years is now concentrated within her and is no longer being diverted toward the enterprise of procreation. It is understood that this power can be a great source of wisdom and creativity from which the entire community can draw upon.
The initiation of menopause is crucial because it offers us the opportunity to identify and illuminate the lessons we have learned on our journey through life thus far. By turning inward, we can focus our energy on cultivating powerful inner gifts, such as mystic vision and clairvoyance, as well as learn to alchemize difficult past experiences into wisdom. It takes patience and skill to cultivate these qualities, especially after a lifetime of looking externally to define who we are and what our role is in society. Yet once again, our biology, forever the faithful teacher, shifts with the initiation of menopause and invites us inward, so we may discover the power and gifts of our very own spirit.
In our youth-obsessed culture, it is not surprising that so many people resist moving into this later stage of life. As we begin to lose our identity of youthful vigor, we may struggle to reconcile the process of getting older with our youthful image of ourselves. Whether we embrace our move into elderhood or resist, it will impact the quality of our lives. Resisting it could prevent us from fully harvesting the wisdom of our experience and the depth and joy that it brings us.
The Initiation of Menopause
While menopause is an unlikely place for women preparing for birth to be focused, it is an important initiation with opportunities to gain wisdom and power as we mature. It can be helpful to consider this future initiation as it relates to the context of our lives. One day you will enter menopause and no longer be able to bear children. Will you resist like Naomi or embrace your new role in the world like Angela? Take some time to reflect on your ideas about menopause and growing older, writing down your observations. Do you have judgments about it? Do you fear or resist it? Then, reflect on several of the important women in your life who have reached this stage in their lives. Write down your impressions of them and their contributions to you and to others. If you are reading this book and have already entered menopause, reflect on your experience of entering menopause and how it met with or did not meet with your expectations of this time of life.
Death takes us into the mystery beyond life. At the moment of death, we step away from the guidance of our body and rely on our spirit. Our ability to receive guidance from our spirit depends on how well we have followed the path toward spiritual development that our body has laid out for us. The qualities of the Great Feminine emphasized in the initiation of death are responsiveness and spaciousness.
Death is the least understood and most feared of life’s initiations. Due to the great mystery of what happens after we die, many of us try to avoid thinking about death at all. Yet others of us seem to spend our whole lives in search of what lies beyond the moment we are released from our carnal teacher, the body. Regardless of where we fall on that spectrum, death is an initiation that we will all walk through one day. How we meet this initiation depends on our ability to stay open, to surrender to the vast spaciousness of the unknown, just as we have been asked to do by our bodies with every single initiation leading up to death. As with prior initiations, our relationship to the Great Feminine and her powerful, unwavering support is what will sustain us as we move through the final initiatory process of our life.
The initiation of death is important because it is the culmination of all our other initiations. How we have met, or struggled to meet, the initiations that our biology has offered us throughout our life will have a direct effect on our ability to engage successfully with the process of dying. As I write this, I imagine many readers reflexively cringing at the thought of their own death. This is not surprising since our culture encourages us to avoid thinking about death at all costs. In fact, we are guided by the fears of our culture to look away from aging people altogether because they remind us of our own mortality. This kind of head-in-the-sand approach to life’s initiations, especially the initiation of death, leaves us ill-prepared to handle this biological event that, if we have been paying attention, our body has been trying to prepare us for our entire life.
Alternatively, in Buddhist teachings there is an awareness of death that is fundamental to the spiritual practice. Buddhists are encouraged to accept and even cultivate an attitude of surrender to the experience of life. This is designed to prepare those engaged with the process to stay open to the mystery that lies beyond life. This idea is found in the expression: “To live a good life, live your life with death on your left shoulder.”
The vast majority of us fear our own death, just as we have feared the changes our bodies have taken us through as we have moved through life’s initiations. If we struggled as we entered puberty, we may also find ourselves struggling with the initiations of motherhood. If we haven’t made peace with our monthly periods by the time menopause arrives, we may suffer as our definition of ourselves changes and the creative force of our reproductive capacity moves inward. There are numerous personal and cultural reasons why many of us have constricted in response to our biological initiations. No matter how we moved through past initiations, we have the opportunity now to recognize the fact that these events are designed to strengthen our awareness of our bodies and deepen our spirits, to teach us to open our hearts and heal so that we feel supported and empowered when we are facing death.
The Initiation of Death
The final initiation of death is one that is not often considered in the West, but is perhaps the most important of all. As we saw with Joseph and Giulia, how we live our life greatly impacts the way we die. How will you prepare for the initiation of death? Have you ever considered this before? Take some time to reflect on your ideas about death and write down your observations. Then, reflect on several of the important people in your life whose deaths you attended or that directly affected you and write down your thoughts.
Further Thoughts on Initiation
It is truly remarkable how our biology is always moving us toward greater maturity and self-understanding. Through our seven key initiations, from birth to death, our bodies are inviting us to look at the places where we need to grow so that we may open up and fully embody the experience of being alive. As we have seen in the stories shared in this chapter, those who deny or suppress their experience struggle through their initiations—and likely future initiations—and those who are able to embrace the changes their bodies take them through are able to pass with more ease through these major initiatory events.
In doing the exercises above, perhaps you discovered where you have grown as the result of your own well-held initiations. Or, maybe you have noted some areas where healing is needed. Whatever you have learned by looking at your own initiations, know that this knowledge will help you prepare for the initiation of childbirth and other successive initiations. Once again, this is where the Great Mother becomes an invaluable support. In Chapter 7, you will learn how to connect with this powerful presence so that you can feel supported in all of life’s initiations.
Isa holds degrees and certificates in transpersonal psychology, cultural and linguistic anthropology, comparative religion, hypnotherapy, and transformational healing. She has spent over 30 years studying spiritual, therapeutic, and meditative techniques from around the world. She has worked with master teachers of Buddhism, Christianity, Judaism, and Sufism, as well as expert shamanic practitioners from the traditions of Hawaii, indigenous North and South America, Siberia, and Nepal. Isa is the creator of Depth Hypnosis, a groundbreaking therapeutic model that has won rave reviews from psychotherapeutic and spiritual counselors alike.
She has published numerous articles, has been featured in several documentaries, and is the author of several books, including the Amazon number one bestseller, Coming to Peace. Isa is the Founding Director of the Foundation of the Sacred Stream, a non-profit organization and school for consciousness studies. She speaks five languages, and has lived in eleven countries. In addition to directing the Foundation of the Sacred Stream, she teaches and lectures nationally and internationally, and maintains an active counseling practice in San Francisco. Visit Isa at www.sacredstream.org
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