All true initiations are solitary trials. Certainly they may occur in a group or social context (from the common such as a Bar Mitzvah to the more extreme example of the Sun Dance), but in the end an initiatory experience is one that not only expands our understanding, but expands our understanding in a way that changes us . And we don't change in groups. We change one at a time, on the inside.
Mentors and guides appear when we need them and when we're ready to hear their teaching. Keep your eyes peeled every day -- you never know what unlikely character may show up with something to impart. These spirit teachers, and friends/relatives will all be sources of information and guidance. As we incorporate the things we learn we begin to walk our lifepaths in new ways -- indeed as we sharpen our vision with the help of those around us, we see our path more clearly (or for the first time [grin]).
But there is a difference between knowledge and knowing. As Morpheus tells Neo in The Matrix : "there is a difference between knowing the path, and walking the path."* Eventually, we have to get our knowledge from our head to our heart -- to get out of thinking about what we believe and into living what we believe.
The Medieval Alchemists called it "The Refiner's Fire." In the exoteric (or open) portion of Alchemical philosophy, the Refiner's Fire was that which would remove the impurities from the substance being worked. In the esoteric (hidden) portion, it was the divine force working upon human fallibility or shortcomings to remove impurity or weakness, leaving behind a more divine essence. In other words, when God wanted to help us get closer to Him, he cooked us [grin]. Leaving Medieval philosophy (and its androcentric deity) aside for a moment, let it be enough to say that in initiation we undergo trials that challenge us to overcome doubt, fear and/or the limits of our physical endurance to reach a state of clarity and higher understanding. Just as importantly, if we meet our trials and overcome their adversity, our clarity and understanding *sticks* to our souls in a way such that we cannot live in a manner contrary to it.
To put it another way, under the pressure of an initiatory trial, things we merely know become things we embody -- deep in our bones -- and after we have passed through the trial, we stand on the Earth with new legs, see the world with new eyes, hear the words of others with new ears, touch those around us with new hands...and speak with a new voice.
This is not to say initiation is a pleasant process -- it usually hasn't been for me. Our trials can take the form of learning to stand up to an overbearing parent / boy-girl-friend / spouse / boss, enduring a time of depression, loss of a job, death of a loved one, or the end of a relationship. Of course, it can also take a form we choose -- vision quest, a large creative undertaking, and so forth. But whether or not we choose it, the initiation truly does not begin to occur until spirit turns up the heat and pressure -- and we have to dig into ourselves for courage and strength in ways we never have before. Frankly, if you don't discover something new deep inside yourself, then I doubt it was an initiatory experience at all. And as I see it, any trial we get through using only our own strength is the pale shadow of initiation. In true initiation, we call on strength from outside ourselves. When we ask spirit for help, we get it, and draw closer in relationship to spirit. To paraphrase a Muslim proverb: "When you take a step towards spirit, spirit takes two steps towards you."
In part III, I'll share a tale of my own trial by fire, and my most important solitary spiritual practice.
* For anyone out there who thinks quoting The Matrix is cheesy, well, just ask me about my Shamanic Interpretation of The Matrix sometime...when you have a free hour or three...[smile]