Therapist, trainer, writer

Humanity in a time of Collective Initiation

Winter lake


As our whole global community entered a period of much loss, both personal and collective, the realisation came to me that we are facing a process of collective initiation. Initiation always involves loss of some sort and to some degree, as well as the potential for something new to be born. Initiatory journeys, which have been mapped by shamans since antiquity, and in the myths and legends of various cultures, show us an archetypal pattern of loss and death, dismemberment or burning, followed by renewal and rebirth. We also each know this process, however unconsciously, in our own embodied experience of birth, where the same archetypal pattern can be discerned. In this article I will explore the connection between the birth process, mapped in Grof’s Basic Perinatal Matrix (Grof 1985), and the collective crisis of illness, intense pressure and restriction, loss and death that we are currently facing. Having such a map to contextualise the intensity of experience we are going through is a resource that helps me to be with all that is happening and changing in our world.  

Surrendering to what is

We were three weeks into the lockdown here in the UK and perhaps like many I was beginning to settle in, after the initial shake-up and all the online messaging that we had collectively reached for in order to stay in touch. A book called to be read, written by my dear friend Liz McCormick and her colleague Nigel Wellings, both experienced transpersonal psychotherapists, teachers and authors. The title Nothing to Lose (Wellings and McCormick 2010) seemed a good message in this time that seems so full of loss.

McCormick’s chapter on ‘Descent and Death’, the endless cyclical journey to the Underworld of loss, suffering and death in order that life might be renewed, was a timely reminder for me. I have embarked on and written about this journey myself, and had synchronistically re-launched my book Servants of the Sacred Dream (Hartley 2001) just a few weeks before the lockdown began here in the UK. The core of the book speaks to individual processes of initiation which, like the shaman’s initiation, the mythical journey of the Goddess to the Underworld, and the immersion of the artist in creative process, show us how to be with suffering and loss with consciousness and compassion.  

As I read, the pieces fell into place: we are now in a process of collective initiation. The whole of humanity has been thrown, or guided, or entered out of necessity into an Underworld journey. It has dangers, involves loss and death, and promises rebirth into new ways of being. The question for us is: can we travel together with enough compassion, care for ourselves, each other, and the Earth, and enough conscious awareness, so that the potential fruits of this initiation can be fully reaped in the end? So that we may emerge reborn into a world that is more sustainable, fair, compassionate and kind. The Earth and humanity have experienced global catastrophes before – wars, pandemics, environmental upheavals - but never with the same connectivity and collective consciousness that we share today.

Holding this transpersonal perspective supports and resources me, as I navigate my personal way through the challenges, as well as the gifts of this time. Nature continues to offer her gifts – a beautiful spring with brilliant blue skies, warm sunlight, plants, birds and animals springing into life, as is the promise every year at this time. Many people are commenting on how they can hear the birds more clearly, how they notice the daily budding and blossoming of plants as they take their daily walk or run. Gratitude for all this beauty is needed, to balance the pain and the grief we are also feeling.  

My personal anxiety is a sickening worry for my elderly mother who is living in a care home, where the first case of the virus amongst residents, and a potential case amongst the staff, have been reported (at the time of writing). There are so many people in dire situations - losing loved ones, fighting on the frontline for the lives of those loved ones, losing jobs and income, dealing with intolerable levels of stress, loneliness, and danger if the home situation they are locked into is not safe and nurturing.  A collective initiatory journey that is global. Every single human being on the planet is or will be touched in some way by this, and as a humanity we will be transformed.  

Our earlier passage through birth is a precursor for the initiatory journeys we will be called to make at different stages of our lives, and its imprint within us profoundly influences how we will respond to these later passages. Radical psychiatrist Stanislav Grof has given us a map of this journey, the Basic Perinatal Matric (BPM) (Grof 1985: 98). I have used this map, in both my personal life and my teaching and therapy practice, to help understand the stages of initiation; I feel it could be equally useful to our collective understanding and holding of ourselves through this time of the Great Turning, as this predicted time has been named by Joanna Macy (Macy & Johnstone 2012: 5).  

Despite our many personal sufferings and challenges in life, many of us in the ‘developed’ countries have undoubtedly been living through an age of unprecedented privilege, opportunity, and ease; compared to the lives of our parents and grandparents, who survived one and maybe two horrific world wars, those of us born after WW2 have not had to endure anything like this. Most have been able to increase material wealth and comfort; and some of us have had the extraordinary privileges of being able to study, learn, create and develop ourselves through the process that Jung called individuation (Jung 1976). In the fields of somatic practice, as well as psychotherapy, meditation, the creative arts, and many, many more, we have cultivated personal consciousness even as we have shared in some of the material comforts made available to us. This can be likened to Grof’s BPM 1, the state of being held and nurtured in the womb, everything provided for our growth and wellbeing. But this state cannot continue forever – ‘business as usual’ is not a place we can return to now. A fetus in the womb must be born into a new world when the time is right.

I am full of gratitude for the privileges I have had; and I know that with privilege comes responsibility. The age of demanding that individual rights are met without considering the balance of responsibility towards the collective good is now coming to an end. What we each do now, and going forward, will determine the future that all of us will live in. We are deeply interconnected, and this virus is showing the reality of this in the starkest of ways. We are entering the birth canal, the labour that will propel us into something new. It is unavoidable.  

The Earth as well as the coronavirus (which I see as a messenger from the Earth, the initiator of this crisis) is showing us the way, if we will listen. As we stop, stay at home, empty out some of our busy-ness, we have a chance to rest and yield into this time of restricted movement. Listening to nature and to our own bodies can open us to the lessons that will guide us. In the second stage of the birth process, BPM 2, the compressive forces of the early contractions as we enter the birth canal bring feelings of pain, suffocation, fear that there is no way out; we might feel betrayed as the first stage of largely benevolent goodwill and nurturance has now turned against us and is hurting us. We may feel like a victim to forces far beyond our control, against which we have no power. It might feel as if we are not loved, that we are forsaken, alone, and helpless.  

I am sure many people are experiencing some of these feelings right now. We have collectively entered the birth canal of this crisis and are being squeezed from all sides. What I have learnt from my experiences of working with this model in somatic re-birthing explorations is that we need to accept and yield into these forces (Hartley 2004). The pressure of the contractions in fact helps the birthing infant to connect to an inner core of integrated strength, which enables active participation in the movement of birth. There may still be pain and suffering, but less than if we fight and struggle against what is happening. There is a greater Love that we are all held within, and this force of Love is helping us to evolve right now.  

Sometimes, in my movement practice, I have arrived in a place where I ‘see’ a layer of light encompassing the whole Earth – a radiant crown, a corona radiata (this is the name given to the layer of nutritional cells which surround the pre-embryo in its first days of coming into being) - and it feels as if countless beings or forces or energies have gathered to help and heal us, to midwife us through this time. Maybe the coronavirus brings the solution as well as the sickness; as psychologist Arnold Mindell writes, the healing is contained within the symptom (Mindell 1989: 25). If we can listen deeply to the symptoms of the virus and the messages they bring we might find healing. For now, it is telling us to stop what we were doing before.  

Ultimately our politicians don’t have the answers; they can only scratch the surface and hope to make things less bad. We need to look beyond and open to sources of help we can’t yet see. Like the infant stuck in the birth canal, we cannot see the midwife, nor even our mother, and can only trust in the process we must surrender to. American Buddhist teacher Cynthia Jurs (Jurs 2020) has re-named the virus the karuna-virus. Karuna is the Sanskrit word for compassion. Love and compassion are being offered and are also being called forth from us at this time.  

We see both responses happening: so many people are reaching out to others, offering help and support to those with less resources than they have in many different ways – compassionate action abounds. And many more are encouraging us with wise, funny, inspiring, creative offerings to nourish and lift the spirit. On the other hand, there are communities, especially in the US right now, who are rebelling, fighting against the lockdown, on the streets demanding their right to freedom. Once you are in the early stages of labour this is clearly the wrong demand, though it is an understandable wish. [1] 

The birthing infant who cannot surrender to the constrictions of the first stage of labour may not be able to access the powerful and life-affirming potential of the second stage, BPM 3, when the infant begins to push and find his/her own power and agency. The potential at this stage is to work together with the contracting womb, to listen and find shared rhythm and purpose, as infant and mother yield and push in synchrony to birth the child. Of course, mother as well as infant needs to be in a state of readiness and willingness; in our global situation, we need responsive leadership as well as empowered creative action from the people.  

We are not there yet in this great collective transition. When we arrive there, perhaps in a few months or years, the question will be: can we work with what is, join with the greater forces acting upon us to create something new and beautiful? Or will the majority of us be rebelling against these forces, fighting one another, demanding individual rights over those of the collective? The promise of the fourth stage of the birth matrix, BPM 4, is of a joyful re-union between mother and child when the pain and fear of the birth process has been met, yielded into, accepted, and worked through together. The risk is that, instead, we experience the total loss of our known world in the ‘womb’ as death and annihilation, and more anxiety, trauma, and conflict result.  

These days I feel more hope than I have felt for several years that we can come through this renewed and bettered. We are on an edge, in a liminal space, which is a place of much power and potential. We can choose which we way we go, but only through our collective actions, thoughts, and prayers.  

Returning again and again to my Somatic and Authentic Movement practice, I find boundless resources, and this helps me through the difficult and painful moments of this crisis. The inner listening also opens my awareness out to embrace the Earth and Nature, of which I am a part, which holds, nourishes and supports me, and also teaches me. Earth consciousness has awakened too; Gaia is our teacher now. If we can listen to Her messages, we will find the way.  

Yielding into the Support

Whenever we face challenges that we can’t immediately find solutions for, or act to remedy, we need first to find support. Support before movement is a principle of Body-Mind Centering® (Hartley 1995: 42), and it is what the birthing infant needs to discover. I offer a gentle meditative movement process which can help you to find the support of the Earth, which is always there for us. It is also an invitation to slow down, stop and rest, as many of us have been invited to do during the lockdown. Take as little or as much time as you need:  

By yielding our body into the Earth and feeling her support, we might become more open to the support that is available at different levels as we face challenges and difficulties in our lives. We are part of the Earth; as we resource and heal ourselves, we also heal the Earth.    

[1] I do not include in this statement the more recent protests of the Black Lives Matter movement, though it is very much interwoven and part of the global need for transformation and healing that we face. Within Grof’s model, I would suggest that this movement is rightly in the next phase of pushing through, leading the way after centuries of oppression.

To be published in the Journal of Dance, Movement and Spiritualities: Special Covid-19 edition – Intellect, Autumn 2020  


Grof, Stanislav, Beyond the Brain. SUNY Press, New York. 1985  

Hartley, Linda, Wisdom of the Body Moving. North Atlantic Books, Berkeley CA. 1995  

Hartley, Linda, Servants of the Sacred Dream. Elmdon Books, Norfolk. 2001  

Hartley, Linda, Somatic Psychology. Whurr/Wiley, London & Philadelphia. 2004  

Jung, C G, Psychological Typology. Bollingen Series XX. Collected Works 6. Princeton University Press, NJ. 1976  

Jurs, Cynthia, Accessed April 23, 2020  

Macy, Joanna, and Chris Johnstone, Active Hope. New World Library, Novato CA. 2012  

Mindell, Arnold, River’s Way. Penguin/Arkana, New York. 1989  

Wellings, Nigel and Elizabeth Wilde McCormick, Nothing to Lose. Woodyard Publications, Suffolk. 2010      

@ Linda Hartley. Norfolk, UK. April, 2020