Ordinary Initiations

“I’ve come to think that experiences of initiation are very common, very ordinary, very subtle. They happen to us all as a natural part of living.”

Rachel Naomi Remen
1 May 1999

“I’ve come to think that experiences of initiation are very common, very ordinary, very subtle. They happen to us all as a natural part of living.”

There are times in the course of a critical illness when a door in someone’s experience suddenly opens and the familiar falls away. Their normal view is replaced by a perspective they have never seen before, but one they recognize beyond doubt as their own. These are moments of profound and enduring change. For me as witness, they seem to be moments when the personality recognizes what the soul has always known.

At such times our true life is offered to us, a life more transparent to our deeper values. In the wake of such an experience, I have seen people let go of many previously treasured, hard-earned things and begin to follow a new inner compass. Often they take risks that were unthinkable before their illness. They seem, despite loss and suffering, to have found a greater trust in life and a deeper sense of who they are and what really matters. Seen from this perspective, illness is part of a larger human tradition of initiation, an opportunity in life which is present for us all.

Initiation is commonly viewed in a limited way, as a change in lifestyle, usually marked by ceremony: joining a sorority, graduating, getting married. But such ceremonies rarely include the experience of true initiation. The moment of true initiation is an inward movement, a movement toward our essence, our true nature. Because in that moment we are made able to inhabit that nature more fully, our outer life may become more transparent to it, more coherent with it, more true to it. In initiation, the inner and the outer life become more of a piece, and the result is a sort of healing.

I used to think of initiation as this sort of radical transformation I have seen happen for many of my patients, a sort of epiphany reserved for a spiritual elite. But I no longer think of it this way. Not only my patients but I, too, have experienced a profound shift in my way of seeing the world. I had been someone who saw the world as broken and was always fixing it. I became someone who saw the world as holy and felt privileged to serve it.

This didn’t happen as a single dramatic event. It happened slowly over time through a series of events, so subtly that I could see what had happened only by looking backwards. And so I’ve come to think that experiences of initiation are very common, very ordinary, very subtle. They happen to us all as a natural part of living.

Looking back, I can tell you the very moment my initiation began. At the time I knew my path in life with absolute certainty. I had been preparing for it for years, and had made many sacrifices in order to walk it. I was a young academic doctor managing the pediatric clinics at Stanford Medical Center, and my life goal was to be the first woman to head a department of pediatrics on the West Coast.

But one morning, the man who ran the medical clinics at Stanford came to my office to tell me that a place called the Esalen Institute was looking for twelve doctors to be part of a research program. For the next two years, these doctors would attend a free retreat weekend each month at a beautiful site at the ocean. They would meet people who had some different ideas about human nature and would be asked to consider whether or not these ideas might expand the understanding of how people became sick and how they got well. Perhaps some of these ideas might change the way in which medicine itself was practiced. “I’m going to do it,” he told me. “Do you want to come?”

The year was 1972, almost a decade before the emergence of the field of holistic health. In that moment my direction in life, my whole future, was being offered to me, and I must say that I did have a moment of recognition. At a deep instinctive level I knew that this was mine. But what went through my conscious mind was a single thought: “What a great way to meet men.” So I applied.

Life is a movement toward the soul, but we ourselves are attached to other things. So the soul has to take us and move us along by whatever handle happens to be sticking out. I had just ended a five-year relationship and so I was very available to go and meet men. I believe that if I had seen the opportunity for what it really was, known what I was going to have to surrender in order to have it, I wouldn’t have gone.

This was the first step of my initiation. After several more such small happenings over the following years, I took the first step on a new path. I resigned from the medical school faculty to work to restore the soul to the practice of medicine. I have been doing this work for the last twenty-five years.

We might view life as a movement toward the soul, a return to what is most genuine and unique in each of us. In the trajectory of a lifetime this turning toward personal integrity happens not once but many times. Some of these turnings, these initiations, are small; some are large. All are important.

Much in life distracts us from our true nature, captures the self in bonds of greed, desire, numbness, unconsciousness and drama. These bonds seem strong and unavoidable. But every initiation, no matter to whom and how it occurs, is evidence that the soul is stronger than all that and can draw us toward itself, despite all. Every initiation is a message of grace and bears witness to the possibility of freedom.

Rachel Naomi Remen

Rachel Naomi Remen

Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. is Associate Clinical Professor of Family and Community Medicine at U.C.S.F. Medical School and co-founder and medical director of the Commonweal Cancer Help Program. She is author of the bestseller, Kitchen Table Wisdom: Stories That Heal.