This subject seems to come up a lot. One might begin to think it's important or something. I won't go into the "initiation means 'beginning'" thing again (wait, I just did, never mind). Instead I want to look at the idea of various spiritual worlds and their relationship, if any, to esoteric initiation. The general reference here is this blog post: http://gyllenegryningen.blogspot.com/2010/04/o-there-has-been-interesting-discussion.html. To be clear, the following should not be construed as a reply to this, even though I may touch on some subjects that are also in the above post. The following should also not be construed as entering into a dialogue about what theory of initiation is correct, a discussion I am supremely disinterested in. Rather, this was simply brought to my attention lately and I felt like posting something on the subject.
We good? Good.
I am attempting to look at the initiatory process from two related but different perspectives, that of Neoplatonism and that of a five-world kabbalistic model.
Typically, Neoplatonism, following Plato and especially, but not only, the Republic, divides reality into three levels. These are the world of images, the world of reason and the world of forms, which are coupled with the sub-lunar realm, the celestial realm and the super-celestial realm (and yes, there are more terms, like encosmic and hypercosmic worlds, etc., but they all refer to the same thing). We live down here in the world of images. Much as a photograph of a person is not the same as the person, that which we experience in the world of images is but a shadow of the true reality emanating from the world of forms. The next world up is the place of necessities (like a triangle having three sides, regardless of there ever having been a physical triangle) and the world upon which everything below is based. That's the short version, anyway.
R. Yitzchak Luria developed a five-world model of creation in his kabbalah (which was derived from the somewhat more common four-world model). The worlds are those of Asyiah (Action), Yetzirah (Formation), Beriah (Creation), Atzilut (Nearness or Emanation) and Adam Kodmon (The Ancient/Holy Human). For Luria, creation actually occurs below Asyiah, surrounded by the remnants of the Breaking of the Vessels, at least sometimes. BotV is an important concept in Lurianic and post-Lurianic kabbalah. Derived from the Zohar, this idea says that while emanating something went wrong and the vessels made to hold the divine essence shattered. Interestingly, everything below Atzilut (and sometimes even Atzilut itself) fell when this happened, each world sinking down a metaphysical level, with the exception of Adam Kodmon (and maybe Atzilut, or the supernal part of Atzilut).
Now, though kabbalah has, repeatedly, been demonstrated to have significant roots in Neoplatonism, and while there are similarities between the three NP worlds and the five kabbalistic worlds, they aren't exactly the same. At best one might make the following connections:
World of Forms - Olam Adam Kodmon/Olam Atzilut
World of Reason - Olam Beriah
World of Images - Olam Yetzirah/Olam Asyiah (and creation below)
So, the question, apparently, is how does, or at least how can, esoteric initiation link into these?
The short answer is "In a lot of different ways." I'm not interested in the "which is the 'right' way?" discussion, remember? Here are simply some of my ill formed thoughts on some ways in which this might work.
Iamblichus, in his De Mysterii talks about three different kinds of people: those whose theurgy must function on the physical level, those whose theurgy is silent and purely nonphysical and those in between. This is a mobile hierarchy; though there are (A LOT) more people on the bottom (physical theurgy) than the top (nonphysical theurgy), over time (as in over lifetimes, classical Neoplatonism was pro-reincarnation) and continued theurgic praxis, one would spiritually advance from one level to another. The implication is that each kind of theurgic practice is associated with one of three Platonic worlds. Iamblichus also posits that there are three Demiurgoi, one for each world. As theurgy is demiurgery, this makes perfect sense.
In Lurianic and post-Lurianic kabbalah the five-world model becomes greatly expanded. Ideology behind each of the five kabbalistic souls (nefesh, ruach, neshamah, chiah and yechidah) become enlarged. Originally they were connected to either specific sefirot or specific worlds, now they are connected to both: each world has its specific soul and each soul is divided into five parts. So, Olam Asyiah contains the nefesh and the nefesh is composed of a nefesh of nefesh, a ruach of nefesh, a neshamah of nefesh, a chiah of nefesh and a yechidah of nefesh. This continues on up the Tree of Life through to a yechidah of yechidah. Everyone starts out at the same place, with none of the above (in Lurianic kabbalah, other kabbalists would say we start with a nefesh and nothing else). We must earn each level of the soul through correct conduct and, presumably, through practices such as hitbodedut. Before a ruach can be acquired the complete nefesh must be attained and perfected.
As you might imagine, there are more people on the bottom of this mobile hierarchy than the top. Further, some of these souls are considered to be embedded in us, as it were, while the chiah and yechidah were never part of incarnation, shining down upon us and influencing us indirectly, as it were, and are not directly accessible via normal human consciousness. Sound familiar?
Transferring this ideology to an initiatory scheme provides us with some interesting ideas, I think. First, it suggests that as initiation rituals are rituals they largely function on the first Neoplatonic level, corresponding to Asyiah and Yetzirah. Initiation rituals, like all rituals, are massively multi-sensual experiences. There are smells and sounds and colors and shapes and tastes and touches all put together in various ways to have various affects on the candidate. There are invisible things as well, working on the etheric and astral levels (both of which would be part of the world of images), designed for the higher senses to partake of.
So, which world do they work on? That is going to depend on the ritual. Presumably, initial initiation rituals, those that bring a person into an a group or an "outer order" (or equivalent) would function largely on the level of Asyiah. A soul cannot progress to the ruach until it has completed the nefesh. So the real question might be when does a an initiatory schema move from one level to the next (this appears to be one of the main topics discussed in the above blog post)? This is an excellent question and one which I cannot answer for any other system of initiation. The point is that it is theoretically possible for a system of initiations to move from one level to the next.
Is it likely? I'm not sure, but I don't think so. The work of building the nefesh alone is the world of a life time. Further, a person on level one cannot, even through the might and majesty of initiation, raise someone to a level higher than themselves. Such a person would have no recourse to said higher level, but they could help raise someone to the same level as they are. This is one why Adepts perform initiations and Novices don't. It is, I suppose, possible for an Adept to be functioning at the level of ruach. In fact, I imagine that a fully trained Adept should be functioning at that level. So, theoretically, an initiation to Adept level by qualified adepts could help accomplish this. Maybe. Here's what I see happening:
An Adept may very well be functioning at the level of the ruach. Just. That "just" part is important. It implies that the fully functioning Adept (henceforth simply the Adept, the rest is a finger-full!) has mastery over the nefesh and the level of reality associated with it's demiurgos. Such a person can initiate into that world; they are it's master (theurgically speaking). But could they initiate into the next level, one of which they are only a novice (nefesh of ruach)? I don't think so; their mastery of that level is lacking.
The initiatory job of the Adept is to help raise candidates through the levels of the nefesh. Initiation doesn't do that alone, of course; there is a substantial amount of Work on the candidate's part involved. The pinnacle of the initiatory system is not, however, some super-evolved soul. You are not going to be functioning on the level of the neshamah through initiation, sorry. That's on a level that requires more than functioning on the world of images, remember? Chiah or yechidah? Straight out. Rather, the pinnacle is getting the Adept working on the level of the ruach and letting the ruach and it's associated daimon guide the Adept from there. Initiation brings them through the lowest level and their own work takes them through the cusp to the next.
Those, at any rate, are my thoughts on the subject.