Trauma Culture vs Initiation Culture

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Source: Francis Weller interviewed by Alnoor Ladha for Kosmos Journal, Winter 2021 edition.

Francis Weller on soul-centered psychotherapy:

"I began to see the soul is here for the community. It’s not so much an interior project. There’s a saying that ‘the greater part of the soul lies outside the body’. If that’s true, then I’m actually ensouled when I’m participating. When I’m with the atmosphere, when I’m with the colors, when I’m with the trees, when I’m with my other fellow beings, that’s when I’m, in a sense, most ensouled.

Then I began working around cultivating relationships to community-building. I was introduced to the work of ritual through my friendship with Malidoma Somé, the African teacher and elder. We taught together for about six years trying to find this amalgam between Indigenous traditions and the western poetic, spiritual, psychological traditions. That really spurred my desire to create ritual-based community, because that’s the most archaic, that’s the most ancient form of religion.

For hundreds of thousands of years, human beings worked through trauma communally through ritual practices. Ritual was the re-regulating practice after trauma or a death. What happens when we abandon those forms? Again, another thread of what the soul yearns for is dropped. I’ve spent the last 20-plus years developing ritual practices for community around grief, around gratitude, around initiation, around reclaiming lost parts of our being, around renewing the world."

On the distinction between trauma culture and initiation culture

Francis Weller:

AL: One of the things that struck me from your latest essay series, In Absence of the Ordinary, but especially from the chapter Rough Initiations, is the distinction between trauma culture and initiation culture. How do you see this playing out in the dominant culture?

FW: I was working with the people in my practice, and also the community work, and then in the cancer program at Commonweal. I began to really feel into the similarities of my initiation work with men. What these patients were going through, how similar the process was, that in any true initiatory process, there’s three things that happen. First, there’s a severance from the world that you once knew. Then there’s a radical alteration in your sense of identity. And then there’s a profound realization that you can never go back to the world that was. In true initiation, you don’t want to go back to the world that was. Initiation is meant to escort you into a wider, more inclusive, participatory, sacred cosmos.

Trauma, on the other hand, has the inverse effect. The same three things happen. There’s a severance from the world. There’s a radical alteration of the identity and in a sense, you cannot go back to what was. But what trauma does to the psyche is it reduces it down to a singularity. I become cut off and severed from that sense of being engaged with a wider and more encompassing sense of identity. I become isolated in the cosmos. If you talk to anybody who’s gone through trauma, that’s the effect that it has on the body and on the psyche. You are torn out of that sense of being a part of the cosmos.

What distinguishes these two things is initiation, what I call the contained encounter with death. The containment was provided by the community, by the elders, by the ancestors, by the rituals, by the space itself. In a sense, you are initiated into a place, not into abstraction. You are actually initiated into the ground beneath your feet. Those are the five things that provided a containment field for that encounter with death, because all initiations require some kind of encounter with death.

What I call trauma is an uncontained encounter with death. There’s nothing there holding you when that same precipice is approached. You are left basically naked, nothing holding you. Again, you contract back into a place of survival in that moment rather than expand out into that wider, cosmological sense of being. We don’t have those containment fields in white, western culture. We still live through these encounters with death, which are inevitable. I often say initiation is not optional." (

On the Affliction of Wetiko

Francis Weller:

"through studying traditional cultures and Indigenous cultures, I began to look at how they raised people, the value of belonging, the central sense of your necessity, that you were needed, that you were valued, the value of ancestors, the value of ritual. All these practices kept a cohesiveness so that the psyche didn’t go into that place of feeling empty. Where this emptiness comes from is our hyper-focus on individualism, which began several hundred years ago at least with the Enlightenment.

We can go back even further to the disruption of tribal culture in general. If we go back deep enough into our lineages, we all come from intact tribal cultures. The Roman invasions of Europe and various other drivers began to dislodge these things and we began to become adaptive to the dominant culture, but the real rupture, I think, came in the 16th and 17th centuries when the emphasis began to move from a sense of village-mindedness to the individual. That reached its zenith now here in white western culture in America, I think, where we have abandoned primarily all sense of identity beyond my own interiority. We are separate. We may exist, but there’s nothing that really binds us together in this ideology. This ideology of individualism breeds this feeling of emptiness.

AL: Please say more.

FW: What we do with emptiness are all the isms you just mentioned. Patriotism, nationalism, capitalism, racism. All these isms are attempts to stuff the emptiness with something, because the emptiness is intolerable. We cannot endure emptiness, so we fix it. We also neglect what I call primary satisfactions, which are the satisfactions that evolved over our long evolutionary process of friendship and ritual and singing together, sharing meals, being under the stars together, hearing the stories around the fire at night, gathering wood, grieving together, celebrating together. Those are the primary satisfactions, and almost none of those exist any more.

We then lean into our secondary satisfactions. Power, strength, wealth, privilege, hierarchy, rank, etc. On a more personal level, addictions of all sorts are attempts to stuff something into that hole at the core of our lives, because it’s intolerable. As you know, as an addict, you can never get enough of what you don’t need.

You keep filling the hole with more cocaine or more power or more money. The billionaires keep saying, “I don’t have enough.” In the Native American tradition, they call it wetiko, a cannibalistic disease where you can never consume enough. You’re always hungry, always wanting more.

I think that’s partly where this is all coming from, the abandonment of the primary satisfactions, the abandonment of village life, the abandonment of a sense of identity that goes beyond the individual." (

Towards Composite Identities

Francis Weller:

"AL: How do we get back to the sacred grove? What do we need to unlearn both at a cultural level and an individual level, to not eat ourselves?

FW: What we need to unlearn, from my perspective, is our reification of self, because self is a boundaried, encapsulated identity. It cuts me off from you. It cuts me off from the trees. It cuts me off from the turtles and the sky and the moon. What we need to remember, to re-enter, to reanimate is that we are living embodiments of soul life, and soul, like I say, is incredibly entangled with everything around us. Only if we could unlearn the separation through identity….

And I have to confess how much my profession reifies the separate self every day as the epitome of what we’re supposed to be. That saddens me greatly, that there’s no psyche in psychology any more. There’s self. It’s selfology now rather than psychology.

If we could unlearn this artificial encapsulation and the empty self and come back into that robust embrace of the soul, what I call our composite identity, then we would remember our wild entanglement with everything. Then I wouldn’t feel like I’m just in self-preservation, but I would be helping to preserve the living fabric of all things. That would be a holy obligation. AL: That’s a beautiful articulation of the meaning that has been lost when you’re in a context that doesn’t hold up that sacred obligation as the highest act of devotion. Not as an externally imposed duty, but rather, as the reciprocal responsibility we have for the endowments we have been entrusted with. It reminds me of a Sufi proverb attributed to the Great Mother. She says to her children, “You are entrusted with everything and entitled to nothing.”

FW: Right. I recently wrote something very similar. “The process (initiation) yielded someone more attuned to responsibilities than rights, more aware of multiple entanglements than entitlements.” (