I need to note that I am using the term Neopagan as a reference to any mode of modern religious expression which uses many of the motifs and religious practices of ancient Western pre-Christian animism, pantheism, and polytheism. Within this umbrella, this article speaks to any traditions that observe a three tiered initiation procedure. I am purposely vague, wishing to convey archetypal currents of initiation and responsibility.
With the exception of family traditions, all those who begin their journey come from the same pool of people. The Neopaganism has the term "Cowan", meaning somebody who is an outsider or uninitiated. This does not mean that the outsiders are without latent abilities.
The pool of people available to pursue the paths available is very large. How are applicants chosen? Typically there is a pre-initiation stage that provides a testing before initiation begins. The student declares their desire to follow a tradition and a teacher considers the request. Compatibility between both is measured as the student's desire is measured and weighed. Some paths, such as Reiki, put a monetary price on the training. This echoes the teacher's request for dedication as the person must give up funds to start or continue training. Ideally, there is a moment when both the student and the teacher judge each other, and either can stop the transition to the next step. If all is well, the student moves forward on the path.
Pathworking can occur in the archetypal steps of three. This occurs across many teaching traditions. From my own experience, and observations, I will put forward a theory of why a three-step teaching path both prevalent and why it works. The concept to be presented is very general, and if one looks hard enough, exceptions will be found. At the core of the general model are these three levels of training:
1. Learning - Alignment of Student to Intent of Path - Preliminary Lessons. The student is brought into the tradition.
2. Doing - Knowledge is applied. The core of the path's teachings are conveyed and practiced. The student follows the tradition.
3. Being - Knowledge is applied in daily life. A responsibility is given for the student to become the teacher and continue the tradition.
These three levels of training are often called 1st degree, 2nd degree, and 3rd degree. This is true in both Reiki and Neopagan training. Shamanism has levels that are variable upon culture, but there is a (very) loose correlation to these degrees.
1st Degree - Learning
The most important feature of the 1st degree learning is the student's alignment to the intent of the path. The student is coming into an established tradition, and they must synchronize their actions to that tradition. This often means that the student must suspend their own beliefs while they take on the beliefs of the path. It does not mean that they must discard their beliefs. This can be a time of rebellion as new knowledge is taken up and old knowledge is modified or put away. We all carry baggage, and any tradition worth it's salt is going to have beliefs that are contrary to the baggage the student carries. The 1st degree is a time of testing. Buttons will be pushed and beliefs will be challenged. Those who are not ready for the path of the tradition are removed, and those who have an affinity to the path continue.
The 1st degree is also a time of preparation. Powerful knowledge is either hidden or revealed in riddles that are unwoven later. The student is kept from harming themselves or others with the potentials of the path. Workings are supervised directly or supervised indirectly through safeguards of ignorance. The student must learn to crawl before they walk, learn to walk before they run, and learn to run before they fly. To attempt to fly without full knowledge will only lead to an encounter with hard ground. While teachers may seem cruel or hard, their strictness is there to insure the safety of the student and those around the student. A teacher's perplexing, sometimes capricious behavior, is revealed in later degrees as having wisdom and guidance. The learning and preparation of the 1st degree readies the student to continue on to their own workings.
2nd Degree - Doing
In the 2nd degree the knowledge of the 1st degree is applied in a self-actuated, self-responsible fashion. The teacher stands back and the student gains a measure of both freedom and responsibility. With the granted responsibility, greater mysteries are revealed to the student. In a firearm's analogy, the unloaded gun is given bullets. The separation between student and teacher lessens, and at times they seem to be equals. In some traditions a person is able to teach their own 1st degree students. All but the greatest mysteries are revealed at this level as the teacher shifts from task-master to mentor. The teacher does still keep an eye on the student. Alignment to the intentions of the tradition is constantly tested through both obvious and subtle tests. A student's progression can be slowed or halted if they cannot show that they will handle the responsibility of the 2nd degree. If the 1st degree is analogous to High School, the 2nd degree is analogous to College. The material is more powerful, the teachers can almost be the student's peers, but there is still a hierarchy between the student and those who are the teachers. With this separation, the student could almost go home and forget they were in training for a tradition. They could relax at times, comfortable in the fact that the path was watched over by their elders.
3rd Degree - Being
My advice to anyone considering being 3rd degree is to consider long and hard what their tradition's requirements are for this level. Generally, as a third degree, a person no longer considered a student of the tradition. They can no longer defer problems to their teachers or ask their teachers to protect them. At 3rd degree the full responsibility of the tradition is laid across the shoulders of those who initiate into this level. The task of the continued existence of the tradition is given to the 3rd degree. There are new teachings that are given at this level. The teachings are powerful, and have to be as they are the tools for continuing the path for those who will follow.
The initiatory trials at this level can be very harsh. Since this is a degree of living the tradition, the person is tested to see if they have fully incorporated all of the tools that the tradition avails them. This is especially true in older shamanic traditions. While there may not be the rigid three-tier initiation process, the final shamanic initiation is a do-or-die trial. The tribe depends on the Shaman for their existence, so the to-be Shaman must prove they have the tools to survive the initiation as a precursor to helping the tribe survive. While death is not a component of modern 3rd degree initiations, the person is tested sufficiently to see if they have what it takes to become the caretaker of a tradition and of a people.
There is a shadow side to the 3rd degree. The 3rd degree person has the power to promote others through the lower degrees or all the way to 3rd degree. This responsibility can be abused, and those who are not prepared for the positions can be promoted ahead of their time, if indeed they should be promoted at all. Many traditions pay attention to a person's lineage. Lineage is the measure of who initiated a person, who initiated their teacher, and so on. Lineage is a test of the seriousness and strength of a person's mystical creation. Some lineages are respected and others are considered to be insufficient to the over-all tradition's guidelines. All suffer when a person is initiated improperly. The person is asked to take on duties with insufficient training and methods. The tradition suffers because the original intent is warped and damaged. Future students suffer as their degrees are not respected by the overall community. Aside from reputations damaged, there can be a danger to life or psyche when forces are manipulated without adequate training and safeguards. It is incumbent upon the teachers to properly pick their students. It is also very important for a student to know something about the teacher, and the student should walk away if there are questions about legitimacy of the teacher or their methods.
I hope this article has shed light onto the traditional methods of a three degree system. Each tradition has it’s own requirement for each degree level. I have offered a broad perspective of pathworking. I do feel the sum of the information is sufficient to advise and warn the prospective student to the trials that lay ahead. Taking on the mantle of any tradition is a serious task and should not be taken lightly. There are great rewards of knowledge, self-awareness, transformation, membership in a community, and service to others. In the end, all good paths lead to service, and this is where the student is heading as they leave the pack of Cowan and begin their own pathworking journey.
Can anybody add their own insights into the wide perspective of pathworking in general or the three degree initiatory systems in specific?