by Alberto Villoldo Ph.D.: IN EARLY SPRING, when the child was born, an eagle flew high over the tepee. As the boy grew up, the eagle always followed him as he hiked through the mountains, circling above him. One night in a dream he met the eagle by a waterfall. The following morning he hiked to the waterfall and hid behind the torrent of water, from where he spied the eagle eating a salmon on a rock. As he stepped out from his hiding place, the eagle hopped over to him and offered him the fish. With time the eagle and the boy become friends, and when he became a man he fell in love with the great bird.
One day he climbed high up a cliff to where the eagle had her down-filled nest, and he professed his love for her. She explained that she had watched over him since he was born, and that they could live together as eagles do, but then he could never return to his people or their ways.
Every day the boy climbed down for his water and corn, and brought it up the steep walls. One day he was very late, and when he returned he told the eagle that he must go back to his people, for they were about to be attacked by a fierce neighboring tribe. She reminded him that he had promised never to go back to the ways of humans and their wars, but the young man defied her. That evening the eagle flew over the camp and observed a maiden as she applied war paint to the young man, a tear running down the eagle’s cheek. The next morning she saw the warriors on their horses advancing toward one another on the open field.
In the dust and chaos of the battle, she saw an enemy throw his spear at her beloved. The eagle swooped down from the sky and took him in her talons before the lance struck his heart. As she carried him above the clouds, he said that he knew she would save him. Flying high above the mountains, she cried, and explained that what is destined cannot be changed, and released him—for it is better that death come to you from your beloved than your enemies’ hand.
The tale of Eagle Boy, a traditional teaching story from the Great Plains, shows that once you make your vows of love, you may never go back to your old ways. The price you pay for doing so is death—whether the loss of your life or of a relationship you were not fully ready to commit to. In every great initiation, we have to leave the old ways behind. If we want to fly peacefully with eagles, we must reject forever the ways of war.
In traditional societies, life passages are seen as opportunities for initiation. Puberty, marriage, and parenting all required the initiate to let go of an identity that had become important to him or her. Rituals marking such passages were solemn, a sign of the intensity of emotional upheaval the initiate had to undergo, and the importance of the new identity to the rest of the community. In today’s secular society, however, such rites of passage are commercialized and even trivialized.
High-society cotillions, extravagant bar mitzvahs, grandiose wedding ceremonies—and the inevitable retirement cruise—can get in the way of fully understanding what it means to let go of one stage and embrace a new one. Amid the jubilant celebration, we often forget that growth requires sacrifice.
Initiation allows us to acknowledge the gravity of our loss. The old self shrivels up and peels away, and with it goes a chapter of our lives. Initiation allows us to walk through the door in our new skin. It helps us to make the transition deep in our soul, so that we don’t find ourselves being stalked by our lost opportunities.
If you haven’t already achieved the first awakening by midlife, you will face a loss so profound that it causes you to question all you know and all you are. You’ll wake up one morning and ask: What have I become? Who is this person sleeping next to me? Such a crisis is deeply disorienting.
A monumental crisis will automatically rearrange your priorities. When faced with such a challenge, you must quench the fires, but between breaths you have to ask yourself: What is it that is dying? What is it that is being born? What have I missed in my life? Was I welcomed into the world wholeheartedly? Did I go through my initiation to become a man or a woman? Did I surrender to my partnership or marriage? If you answer these questions truthfully, your ambivalence and self-justifications will disappear. Then you’ll find yourself at the stage of the awakening, ready to embark on your initiation, and choosing to live according to what matters most to you.
Excerpted from Illumination by Alberto Villoldo, Ph.D. Copyright © 2011 (Hay House).