by Alberto Villoldo Ph.D.: ONE OF MY FAVORITE TALES of initiation is the biblical story of Jonah, who is called by God to go to Nineveh and teach the people there. Jonah is comfortable at home raising his children and dealing with everyday domestic affairs. When he hears God’s call, his response is to run as fast as he can in the opposite direction from Nineveh.
Jonah is not interested in heeding this calling; in fact, he’s horrified by the thought that he could be more than a simple fisherman. He believes he doesn’t have it in him to be a messenger of hope, and doubts that he could ever amount to anything more than a simple man who guts fish every morning. Terrified that he might fail at the task he has been given, Jonah boards a ship to get as far away as he can from his calling. When the vessel encounters heavy storms in the Mediterranean, the sailors suspect that someone has defied God, and they toss Jonah into the sea, where he is promptly swallowed by a whale. He remains in the whale’s belly until he is finally spat out—on the shores of Nineveh.
The moral of the story is that life will drag us kicking and screaming to our destiny if we try to escape it. Our choice is to be delivered in grace and beauty, which happens when we say yes to our initiation, or covered in whale spit, which happens when we reject it.
The whale in the story represents our emotions, a huge and irresistible power that threatens to swallow us and keep us trapped for days or years. Remember how long you were stuck in a painful relationship, angry with yourself and your partner, long after you realized it was time to leave? We can spend many years in the belly of the whale dealing with our rage, or our sense of not having the right partner or the right life, or our envy for the youth, success, or wealth others have that we might lack. Eventually the whale spits us out at the shores we were meant to reach.
When Jonah arrives on the shores at Nineveh, he is ready to follow his calling, unhesitant and fully able to access his power and to understand his mission. The shaman understands that there are more elegant ways to get to Nineveh than in the belly of a whale.
During my travels in the Amazon as an anthropologist, I witnessed many rituals that initiated young men into manhood, and young women into marriage or motherhood. But these, like our own Western ceremonies, were often choreographed festivities disconnected from their deeper meaning. Initiation, by contrast, is nothing less than an invitation to an unimaginable destiny. It is fraught with danger and opportunity. The outcome is not guaranteed. It requires a courageous response, and invites us to become the hero of our own journey. Initiation can take place within the secret confines of your heart, where you go to meet the Divine within, or in the exterior realm, anywhere in the world. Regardless of whether it is an inner or an outer journey, if you’re successful you will be blessed and graced.
Alberto Villoldo, Ph.D., is a medical anthropologist who comes from a long line of Earthkeepers from the Amazon and the Andes. The author of numerous best-selling books, Dr. Villoldo currently directs The Four Winds Society in Park City, Utah, where he trains people throughout the world in the practice of energy medicine and soul retrieval.