Rough Initiations

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When the door closes to the group room for the first time on Tuesday morning in Kohler House, we enter as nine discreet individuals, often carrying uncertainty and anxiety into the room. Tentative movements are made, perhaps to test the ground to see if it will hold the weight of what it is that has been carried into the circle. At some point, however, one of the participants risks revealing themselves and shares something vulnerable and raw. Suddenly, the space alters and the field thickens; we have entered the healing ground.

The women and men who come to the Commonweal Cancer Help Program are in the midst of what I call a rough initiation. Traditional initiations are a time of shedding old identities and entering into a deepened sense of one’s place in the cosmos. These initiations happen within the context of deep ritual, community, and the sacred. It is the intention of the process to radically alter the sense of self within the initiate. The same is true of any life-threatening illness: we are not meant to come out of it unchanged. In the group sessions, the phrase, “I don’t know who I am anymore,” is frequently heard and, when spoken, there are many nods of agreement. The sacred crisis that accompanies cancer is one that shakes the settled experience of identity to its core and invites a renewed curiosity to explore what may be arising out of this time of illness.

The healing process associated with serious illness instigates a move within the soul to address all the “untended wounds” that have accumulated over a lifetime. I have seen this many times in my practice and in CHP retreats. The initiatory threshold posed by the illness asks each individual to turn toward those places of suffering and to welcome them. In a very real sense, we are asked to become immense, to fully embrace all that has been abandoned, rejected, or denied in our lives. This is often hard to do.

Opening the heart through self-compassion is at the core of the work at CHP. I offer the participants a list of ten practices to work with that helps optimize the healing response of the body/psyche. I tell them that they can do these in any order, except for number one: number one is number one, and that is self-compassion. We are often so hard on ourselves—judging, condemning, and blaming ourselves for whatever our circumstances, even for having cancer. To move into the territory of kindness, mercy, and compassion allows the heart to once again open and touch all of our suffering with a soft hand. This takes practice and support. This is the “solitary journey we cannot do alone,” as one of my teachers said. We heal in community. We heal by welcoming ourselves home and befriending our one precious existence. What began as a collective of individuals, concludes as a new village; a bond has formed between all of the participants, and the profound truth of the South African saying comes to the fore: “I am, because we are.” CHP is an astonishing template for the deep work of transformation. I am honored to be a part of this holy ground.


Header photo by Corinne Bayley