by Dr. Alberto Villoldo: Ancient societies, native communities and shamans understand the importance of ceremony to consciously close each stage of life in order to enter…
fully present, into a new cycle. We call these ceremonies Initiations.
When we fail to complete an initiation, we have unfinished business and may unconsciously be gripped by one of the seven deadly emotions: Wrath, greed, lust, sloth, envy, gluttony, or pride. These emotions lurk in the primitive regions of the brain, threatening to breathe substance into some melodramatic story associated with the emotion, causing it to take on a life of its own.
To understand the role of emotions, it’s useful to distinguish them from feelings. When something happens that upset us, we tend to get angry. Anger is a feeling that passes because the nervous system resets itself, allowing the brain to adapt and recover from changes in the environment. Feelings are new, fresh, and of the moment.
Emotions in contrast, are old, tired, and programmed into neural networks in the archaic brain. If you’re still angry days or years after an upsetting incident, what you’re experiencing isn’t a feeling but an emotion stored in a neural network. You rationalize this emotion, and you come to believe you are justified in acting out the behavior that emotion elicits.
Destructive and debilitating as they can be, emotions once served an important survival purpose. In prehistoric times, survival often required behaviors such as taking from a neighbor, betraying a friend, and hoarding food. Today, these archaic emotions are no longer helpful, and every religion teaches that we must resist them—although history shows that even religious teachings have done little to restrain humanity’s brutish instincts.
Shamans believe you cannot experience peace outwardly unless you recognize how violence can arise within you. You won’t be able to turn the other cheek simply because you heard that Jesus commanded it, nor practice compassion because you read a book by the Dalai Lama. Only through initiation—through facing your demons and defanging them—can you learn the lessons these primitive emotions have to teach you and transform their negative power into fuel that can be used to harvest the seven virtues of the higher brain: Peace, generosity, purity of intent, courage, compassion, temperance, and humility.
The initiation process breaks up the old emotions, along with their habits and behaviors, washing away the long-established neural pathways in the primitive brain like a flood sweeping away the roads. You become free of the debilitating grip of emotions and are able to experience pure feeling once again. You create new pathways in your brain—this time, for compassion, peace, and generosity.
Shamans refer to this practice metaphorically as acquiring your eagle wings. You are able to soar above situations without becoming entangled in them. After you install one of the seven higher qualities, you look back at a memory of a painful experience through new eyes and discover the lessons it taught you. Each time you consciously decide to replace your anger with compassion toward self and others, every time you replace your hurt and pride with the powerful force of humility, you lay down new pathways in your brain. You bring in the angels of the higher self.
For initiation to be authentic, you can’t rationalize your emotions away. Talking yourself out of your rage in the moment is expedient, but it isn’t healing. You must experience how this demon of anger can possess every cell in your body. Feel its power. As you discern the pure anger inside of you, you’ll notice that it begins to dissipate. Then, whenever you catch sight of the old pathway through the woods that you used to walk, you’ll recall what happened on that road, but you won’t relive the past. Memories will surface briefly, then your emotions will be carried away on the wind. You will walk a new path, one of grace and discovery. You will walk the path of the creators.
To firmly install any of the seven new qualities into your life, you need to practice them. Thus, an essential part of initiation is to practice that quality starting immediately, reinforcing your new neural networks. You don’t make plans to change. You change.
After the Conquest, many indigenous peoples of the Americas began to see themselves as stuck in a web of inevitable suffering. Yet after their initiation, they no longer felt the need to bemoan their fate or point a finger of blame upward at the gods or around them at their oppressors. They recognized that we inevitably experience tribulations, including such major ones as enslavement and the loss of culture.
However, they also knew that we can orchestrate a different reality the moment we understand that divine order is conducting the symphony of creation, and we are playing an indispensable instrument as we make music with the heavens. Initiation allowed them to align themselves with that order to manifest harmony in their lives, in spite of oppressive outer circumstances.
Many of us have found that for all the counseling, workshops, and personal work we have done, we still feel drained by the endless battle against forces that appear to be external. We need to understand that the way to win the war is not through resistance, but through acceptance and higher-order consciousness.
The shaman disassembles his hot buttons instead of trying to make the world stop pushing them. His courage and strength grow, tempering him like steel until one day he’s able to say, “If I could live through that, I can live through anything.” He has overcome his fear of death, the great final crossing. He has been initiated.
EXERCISE: Dissolving Emotions
Acknowledging that his true demons are within, the shaman knows what to do when his emotions take hold of him. He enters a state of awareness in which he experiences raw, pure emotion, then allows it to detach from his story. Once the emotion has dissipated, there is no longer “sad,” there is only crying. There is no longer “scared,” there is only running. By separating the emotion from the story, he transforms the destructive forces that, unchecked, would eat away at him. Try this practice the next time you feel anger at someone or something or lust after something you would like to have. Experience pure anger without the story of why you are furious, or who you are angry at. Experience pure lust without directing it at someone or something. When you experience pure anger or lust, it soon dissipates. Experience pure envy and desire, without the tale of why this person or that dress or this house would make you happy. When you experience pure envy, devoid of the story attached to it, it soon dissipates. As soon as the emotion dissolves, call in the angel of peace, of courage, or compassion, and allow this feeling to wash over you.
If you find that a powerful, dark emotion doesn’t dissolve as you hold it in your awareness, it’s because there’s a deeper story attached to it that you must unearth. Sit with your lust or rage, and you will observe how its energy dissipates when you don’t hold on to the story you attached to it. It becomes a pure sensation instead. If this does not happen after a minute or two, you must look deeper for the story or idea that lurks underneath the emotion. Then, like Mother Teresa, you’ll find that it will lead you to your Calcutta, to your calling and creative expression. You will take what has been living in the shadows and bring it into the light, where it can be enlisted as an ally. Peace, generosity, and the higher qualities of the brain will arise naturally within you, lightening your load and uplifting you. You’ll feel happy for no reason whatsoever.