Traditional views on Initiation
Initiation ceremonies and procedures have existed for thousands of years throughout many cultures. The basic purpose behind those traditional practices is virtually the same or very similar regardless of the culture. That is, to induce a specific and permanent shift in the world-view of the candidate through a symbolic life-changing experience. Such an experience will always impart some specific teaching or lesson that assists in the growth and survival of the person or his/her community.
Briefly summarized, the techniques made use of in traditional initiations are very simple. First, the candidate is put into a receptive state of mind either through meditation, physical exertion, or consumption of mind-altering plants etc. Then he/she is lead through a symbolic experience designed to implant specific information into the subconscious that will bring about a particular realization or life-teaching. Finally, assimilation and analysis of the new information completes the process. This last portion can take years and be assisted through the reinforcement of the original information via ceremony or even physical scarring that serves as a reminder of the event. The exact types of information and changes in world view that are induced depend on the culture. 'Rite of Passage' or symbolic 'Death and Rebirth' types of ceremonies are forms of initiations in society and mystical organizations.
In the case of magickal initiation, we find many of the same techniques employed in traditional use in order to bring about changes in mental outlook and spiritual development. The most famous forms of Initiations such as this would have to be those of the Golden Dawn in the late 19th century. Each progression of the candidate into a higher 'grade' or 'level' of teaching was marked by an initiation that helped to cement the teachings of that grade into the subconscious of the candidate. Later, study of the Tarot or ceremonial practices laden with related symbolism helped to further develop the process of change.
Something that should be mentioned about the G:.D:. 'grades' is that each new grade/level was also a type of psychic/energy attunement (not unlike reiki attunements in some respects). While a solitary type of 'initiation' could result in (over a period of time) becoming attuned and aligned more with the spiritual aspects of one's self, the temple/lodge types of initiation have the additional element of inoculation with specific types of higher energies (usually Sephirotic in nature). The end result of psychic reunification is the same regardless of how one goes about doing it. However, working in a reputable group can and will hasten this process considerably.
Technically 'Initiation' is an ongoing never ending process when viewed in a broader sense. Part of the work done in a lodge/group following this procedure involves purifying the lesser aspects of the aspirant, inoculating him/her with more divine energies, and assisting to remove the blocks to higher spiritual awareness.
Misc. thoughts on Initiation
Initiation as defined by my initial training and experience was nothing more than "the removal of the block to the spirit." So much hot air has been wasted online and elsewhere by those who've never experienced it, that today the beginning student of magick and the occult has nowhere to turn to get an honest, exact answer about this process. Most define Initiation as simply a symbolic beginning when joining an occult lodge or order. While that is true in some sense, it is not all there is to it. Would-be practitioners sometimes like to shroud the process in mystery since they're really not sure themselves and wish to enhance their own ego by feigning secret knowledge. To my knowledge, initiation is a life-changing event, not merely a symbolic ritual. I believe this should be the same for any truly legitimate magickal order or group as well.
Something to keep in mind, is that some people often experience the same changes brought about through 'Initiation' as the result of very different and often 'non-magickal' events. I've heard accounts of people having similar changes occur in themselves as a result of a near-death experience or recovering from a nearly fatal disease. I've heard of homeopathic medicines causing similar and permanent shifts in energy and consciousness. I've even heard of people abusing hallucinogenic drugs who accidentally made contact with higher aspects of their consciousnesses resulting in permanent spiritual changes that were very similar if not the same as that often experienced from a magickal 'initiation'. There are many ways in which to accomplish any one thing, so it really doesn't matter whether or not someone went through a formal 'initiation' at a magick lodge as long as the necessary changes in consciousness and perception of one's self and the world take place.
Some thoughts on the side-effects
If you decide to go through this process (whether solitary or, more effectively, in a skilled Group) then you can definitely expect to have deep and hidden karmic 'seeds' germinated within your consciousness causing you to work through personal problems, emotional difficulties, and self-imposed limitations whether you want to or not. (It's hard to stop the 'ball' once it gets rolling.) Most people hide their inner problems (karmic, emotional, energy imbalances etc.) from themselves in an act of personal dishonesty and then conveniently forget about them. An initiatory experience in a contemporary magickal lodge (or through sincere powerful efforts while solitary) will expose those problems and force you to deal with them in one way or another. This is NOT a process for the lazy. People expecting to drift through life without ever confronting their fears, self-imposed limitations, and misperceptions of personal reality will NOT be happy with the results of this process since all of those things will come forward into your consciousness soon afterward. If these problems are not recognized and worked out mentally or emotionally, they will then continue to manifest in the form of physical events until you realize your errors and learn from your mistakes. You will have to keep in mind while this is happening that you've caused these problems yourself by having ignored them for so long.
Overall, I believe that exposing and working through internal problems is beneficial and desirable regardless of how unpleasant doing so might be. I say this because I've noticed over the years that perceptual distortions run rampant for those who refuse to do so and continue to practice magick and the occult. Ego-oriented problems are probably the biggest issues of all with most magick practitioners (myself included), and having some way to become conscious of such personal misperceptions and hidden subconscious motives is extremely helpful in reducing any fanatical behavior or delusions of grandeur. Uncovering one's unconscious motives for practice can and will greatly reduce personal hardship later. Israel Regardie mentioned in his texts that he felt anyone commencing study of magick should concurrently enroll him/herself in some form of psychoanalysis. I agree with him now, after seeing the types of things that can happen when confronted with one's own subconscious crud.
For those who need it spelled out to them in plain English: You are and will often be your own worst enemy. If you don't work through personal problems and bring subconscious motives to the surface then you could end up with the scenario where 'one hand will destroy what the other tries to make' and you won't understand why this keeps happening. THAT is the reason why you must purify and balance the lower aspects and expose those internal issues.
DO NOT expect to instantly become some great and powerful sorcerer soon after being initiated into a group. Such skill and power only come to those who work hard, who can handle it, and who have an honest need for it, usually in service to others. Only an idiot would profess such power if he had it, and those who profess to be more than human are usually delusional egocentrics anyway. This process is one of personal spiritual enlightenment, and marks the beginning of serious magickal and spiritual study for those who are just starting out and can handle putting themselves through it.
Who needs Formal Initiation?
If you've never practiced magick before or are just now beginning to sense energy, then being initiated into a legitimate group could be extremely helpful to you. The same process can be accomplished over a number of years through hard personal work and determination, but if you're interested in speeding this up a bit and are fully willing to accept the responsibility for this action, then this experience could be very educational for you and provide much personal growth. Advanced practitioners who are already skilled with astral projection and the sensation of energy may not benefit quite as much from group training since they've already worked to remove any self-imposed blocks in order to perform their magickal arts. (Although there are a few who would do well to unlearn poor practice habits.) Everyone has room for improvement though.
Self-Initiation verses Formal Initiation - Pros and Cons
To those who have embarked upon the path and dedicated their lives to the study and practice, initiation is definitely more than just a formal 'beginning'. If the desire is genuine, then even a personal dedication will have more magickal effect than a poorly done formal ceremony. Every willed act is a magickal act, and consciously willing to begin a path of magick study and spiritual development is still a magickally willed act which serves to plant the seeds of change into your subconscious.
So what's the difference between joining a group and going it alone?
A reputable group of trained practitioners can provide additional support that you wouldn't normally get otherwise. (Who would want to freak out emotionally and undergo psychological changes completely alone with no guidance or assistance?) Learning about magick is much easier when you have personal instruction from someone who has already gone through years of supervised work. Anyone who has been to college or received personal instruction in music, art, or martial arts knows that learning from an instructor is FAR more effective than attempting to learn from a book. Making sure the actual energy changes and other effects actually take place at a specific time to their most effectiveness is also a good thing about being a member of a reputable group. The bad points of group membership? As far as the beginner is concerned, there are virtually none so long as the group's teachings are compatible with the student. For the advanced practitioner though, a group can sometimes be an impediment since some organizations don't allow the study of certain forms of magick. (In the case of G:.D:. related groups, this is understandable. They don't allow the study of Enochian magick until after the initiate has balanced out his/her lower nature and learned the fundamentals of basic practice.)
For the advanced practitioner, the benefits of working alone are complete freedom to study as you please, and not having to answer to anyone else regarding your practices. But for the beginner, starting out alone can be extremely tough! Either he/she won't have the necessary psychic talents to commence any real change, or he/she won't receive proper instruction in order to figure out HOW to perform magick successfully. There are tons of worthless books on the shelves today that serve little purpose other than propping up the side of a couch. As a practitioner, I'm actually against most forms of self-initiation since I feel that it's far too dangerous to attempt such a drastic process without adequate support, guidance, and instruction. Fortunately for the psychically uninclined, self-initiation doesn't usually amount to much more than book-learning and/or slow gradual progress over the course of one's lifetime. The effects achieved at the hands of a group of trained practitioners are usually far more drastic and mind-altering (in my experience of them).
Which is really best? It depends on the person. If you're naturally VERY psychic then all you'll need in most cases is good information to build a foundation from which to practice. If you aren't sure if you've ever had a 'psychic' experience and don't know what they're like, then you might want to look for a reputable group to join and learn from for a while.
Is Self-Initiation Valid? I'd say it is, but ONLY if it produces the same tell-tale effects of initiation. Most people who commence a real initation process with a skilled group usually end up going through lots of personal crises and traumatic emotional experiences while they deal with all the repressed emotional junk that is driven to the surface. Their friends and family often end up viewing them differently as well, often thinking ill of them for a while because they're acting in ways uncharacteristic of the family's conception of them. Every aspect of the person's outlook on life and reality and personal demeanor changes. Magick isn't about status or titles. It's about personal change from the inside out. If all you want to do is put on robes and chant because you think it's cool then you'll get nothing out of either self or formal initiation. One must first WANT to change in order to achieve any lasting effects.
If you'd like more information on joining a legitimate magickal group for study then you may check out my links page. I have NOT included any groups that have been found to be only interested in making money while promising some form of 'astral' initiation. (For legal reasons I won't name names, but let's just say their abbreviated name reminds me of the noun people use to describe the place where they live.) I have done astral initiations before, and I'll tell ya they're a LOT harder to make effective than those groups are making out. It involves lots of personal time spent working one-on-one with the aspirant and it's very difficult to create a receptive state in a person that you're not able to interact with personally. It's also much more difficult to instruct someone when you aren't able to show them something physically so that they can definitely feel it as an example (as is the case with those who have less psychic ability - highly psychic people are easy to instruct whether in person or not).
Whichever path you decide to take, good luck on your journey! Beware those who seek only prestige and money, and you'll be alright. The occult world is full of manipulative scum who prey on the weak and gullible, so make sure you get references and research any group before you join. Talk to some of its members and see what their experience of it is like. The old standards that have been going for years are usually fine to start out with.