Sunday, February 27, 2011
Gather ‘round children and I will tell you a story, a true story. I have a problem with rabbits. It stems from a childhood issue I won't go into here, but trust me; it's a deeply rooted issue. It is important to realize that I work for a Deity who doesn't hold well with issues, deeply rooted or otherwise. He likes to change things, mutate them inside you until they become strengths instead of weaknesses. “Solve et coagula”, that's Him all the way. He takes what has been broken and badly set, and breaks it again to let it heal cleanly.
Let's get back to the rabbits, shall we? He informed me that i was to make a blanket of rabbit pelts. I was to sew them together as if they were a pile of furs, not cut and arrange into a pretty patterns. It was important that they not lose their rabbit nature and merely become fashion. After my usual struggling to assert my right to not listen, I started buying rabbit pelts. Touching them made my heart race with fear, and the gorge rise in my throat as I fought to keep from vomiting. Little by little I sewed the first of them together. Pelt by pelt, never really getting easier to handle, they became a blanket. I suppose I should take a moment to mention here how He told me once that there was no comfort for me, it’s kind of important to the story.
Sometime after the blanket was large enough to mostly cover me, I was told I needed to find someone to beat me for Him. I was not to be allowed to enjoy this beating. After consideration of numerous people, and discussion with someone I trust on these things, He accepted the suggestion of one of my friends. I went to that friend to ask him if he would be willing to not only to beat me, but to do so for my Deity. He is a wonderful friend, and agreed to help me. It’s hard on me mentally when I am not allowed to enjoy a beating. If I am told I may not enjoy it, I can’t slip inside the beating, can’t feel the soaring joy of the sensation, only the dull thuds and sharp stings of it. My mind works that way, something that can be used against me, and has been. If I am told that the sweetest, gentlest brush of the lips against my flesh is not to be enjoyed, it will burn like fire.
The beating was done with skill, and I was greatly saddened to not be allowed to ride it. The beating had me shaking and partially unhinged on the ground. I am not sure what I said, but I still recall some of the things He was saying to me, as well as the things my friend was saying. My friend, you see, doesn’t just strike away wildly at the body before him, he talks. He is quite skilled at what he does, and while part of his skill is in the physical aspect, a good deal of it lies in his mind. As I was shivering on the ground, he spoke of how cold it was, and how I must long for warmth. He spoke of comfort, and asked if I wanted comfort. His words jumbled together into sound, and the only thing I heard and understood at that point was “Comfort”. I did exactly what I know I am not supposed to do, I grabbed for that shiny brass ring. “Yes” I told him, “yes, please.” Comfort, not a very large word, not a very difficult one, but one I will never learn to say no to. I admit to being a fool in this respect, as well as a few others. He moved away from me, quiet in the darkness of the night. “Here is your comfort”, he said as he draped the rabbit blanket over my quivering body. I thought my mind would snap at the touch of that fur, but the feelings inside me twisted and spun until they all fell on that same idea: comfort.
Today, the rabbit blanket not only no longer makes me twitchy, it is a source of comfort that I am allowed. Perhaps I am allowed this comfort because it was earned, I do not know, and it is not mine to speculate about such things too much. It warms me in the freezing air after a ball dance in the snow. It dries my tears at night when I cry alone in my bed. It provides warmth and the luxury of softness in the pile of hides I sleep in. It is my rabbit blanket, and I have earned it. And that, oh my children, is how my Deity works.
Sunday, September 6, 2009
The first installment in this series examined the reasoning behind being broken, what exactly being broken might mean, and some of the spiritual goals one might expect. In this installment, I will move from the theoretical to the practical. I’ll start with a bit on how I came to ordeal work then move on to what I think are some helpful guidelines I try to follow myself when someone needs to be broken.
NOTE: I want to stress that not all ordeal work involves breaking AND that not all breaking takes place within an ordeal. However, the two seem to overlap on a regular basis in a Venn diagram kind of way. Please do not misconstrue my intent here. I don’t believe in absolutes that involve words like ALWAYS, NEVER, and ONLY. I find the gods are not nearly as interested in putting things in neat boxes as we humans are.
I. Becoming an Agent
To begin, I’m going to call upon a crappy, pop culture reference. Bear with me.
In the movie xXx (2002), master thespian Vin Diesel plays Xander Cage, an extreme sports athlete who is content to simply enjoy the adrenaline rush and personal gain of his various stunts. Because of his unique skill set, however, Xander is soon snatched up by the government to be trained as an undercover agent. He’s given only a crash course in special ops before being thrown into serious situations where his life and the lives of others are on the line. One might ask, “How could the government have so much faith in this maverick asshole?” First, they’re desperately short on agents. Second, this guy’s actually been doing the work for years – he’s just always seen it as play.
This is roughly how I see my entrance into ordeal work. It’s not something I sought out or even wanted. In fact, I was pretty sure my spiritual path would focus on divination and meditation.
I was snatched up by Them because I already had the disposition and the training – and They’re desperately short on agents.
Being told by multiple diviners (and the gods Themselves) that I was not only on the ordeal path but would be doing ordeal work for others caused me to re-evaluate my involvement in BDSM. Despite my own mistakes and the imperfections of my human partners, I already knew BDSM to be more than just getting your rocks off. As a submissive, I had used it to open parts of myself to love, to grieving, to owning what it is I really desired. When my first great mentor slowly died from cancer, it was my Dom who gave me the space to release that pain and loss. I had locked my emotions so tightly that no one else could have pried me open and let that out. As I stripped down layers of myself, I paradoxically came to understand myself as a multifaceted, complex human rather than the masks I wore for the world.
When I later began training as a Domme, I helped others explore their own dark places. It took months for my longtime submissive partner, a successful businessman, to trust me enough to share what he really needed from me. He had been badly bullied as a teenager and needed to face those ingrained feelings of humiliation. He needed to confront what had happened to him and not only survive it but have someone see him in that position…and love him regardless. BDSM, because of the nature of the encounter, relies on a firm foundation of trust and exposes where that trust is lacking. One of my friends had fantasies of being tied up, but was scared that once she was, her partner would just walk out the door. She couldn’t trust that a person would want to stay with her, given a chance to leave.
Even though I did not view this as spiritual work at the time, regardless of the role I played, I became familiar with the therapeutic nature of kink (this does not necessarily mean that it should take the place of professional therapy. It is not, however, mutually exclusive from it. There is a growing list of Kink Aware Professionals, including a variety of mental health practitioners). I knew not only how to wield a toy but also how to craft a scene. I learned the intimate ways of negotiating a body as well as the emotional, mental, and psychological terrain of the recipient. Moreover, I knew what it felt like to be that recipient: where I fought, where I found insight, where I flew. I just wasn’t doing it for the gods. Yet.
Looking back, I understand (as many of us do) that those earlier experiences were training for the work to come. I also understand the huge difference between work and play, but I am proud of where I learned many of my skills.
II. When You Can’t Get There Alone
Now that we’re done with the All About Me, you might wonder why breaking sometimes requires another person to be involved at all. If the gods want me broken, surely They can just do it Themselves? This is a valid question.
In my view, the ordeal worker can fill at least four different roles in a scene. This is by no means an exhaustive list, nor are these things exclusive of each other:
1. An extra pair of hands. This is the simplest – you simply can’t do to yourself what the gods require because of human mechanics.
2. A technician. The worker has a certain skill that you don’t, similar to a tattoo artist. Would it be amazingly personal if you did your own tattoo? Sure. Would it come out better if someone who had been trained in this art did it for you? You know it. Does that make the end product less meaningful? Hardly. Even tattoo artists go to other artists for work, just like I go to other ordeal workers.
3. A shaman/priest. The worker has a spiritual skill, can consecrate the work, or use their own relationship to certain deities to assist in the work.
4. A power cord. The worker helps to channel certain energies into the scene, whether it’s the energy of a certain deity, elemental energy, or healing energy.
The purpose of the ritual can vary: it could be cathartic, an offering, a rite of initiation, or a moment of intimacy between you and your gods (in the last case, it doesn’t matter if anyone else happens to be present. Trust me). During the breaking, the ordeal worker is no curing you, fixing you, or doing anything for you: they are opening you up and pulling things to the surface. You must tackle those things yourself.
For more on types of ordeals and where to start if you think you need one, see Kaldera’s Dark Moon Rising, Ellwood and Lupa’s Kink Magic, and my own page “So You Want an Ordeal,” tabbed on the right column of my website, fruitofpain.wordpress.com.
III. Cruelty and Abuse
In a recent conversation with a Norse practitioner, she admitted her difficulty with ordeal work. “It looks too much like cruelty,” she told me. I can understand this reaction, and the word “breaking” in particular can sound like abuse. It was interesting for me to consider this objection, especially since being wired for BDSM as long as I can remember had given me a much different perspective. However, I think there are a few different misconceptions at play here.
The first point to be raised is that breaking someone can look like cruelty because it may use the same props or tools. The best explanation I have found on this is, again, from Kink Magic:
“Any tool can be used for constructive or destructive purposes. Humans have long misused pain and punishment to further their own bad conditioning by turning them on other humans for purposes of destruction. Rather than being used to rehabilitate people and teach them the effects of their destructive actions, punishment and pain have been used in the abuse of power with rehabilitation as an excuse. Our purpose here is to explore the constructive rather than destructive uses.” (116)
An individual tool cannot be called cruel or abusive – the intent of the person wielding it can be. Ellwood and Lupa also raise another point in this paragraph, something very difficult for modern people to grasp: pain itself is neutral. It has no inherent negative or positive charge. Yes, it hurts, but it is also a tool to be used. For the authors of Kink Magic, they differentiate between the two types of pain by the words hurting vs. harming (107). While a process of breaking someone may be hurting them, it is not doing harm to them. To the contrary – it is helping them accomplish something. Some might see this as semantics, but it recognizes the constructive value of a painful experience, physical or emotional.
Finally, there is the issue of consent. All parties give their consent to ritual to be performed, and nothing proceeds without the sanction of the gods. Furthermore, I’ve found that, rather than pain or power hungry fiends, all the ordeal workers I know need to be actively persuaded to take up a job. We invest a lot in each working to make it as effective as possible. No one takes the responsibility of “breaking” someone lightly, which brings me to the health and safety aspects of this essay.
IV. Educate Yourself
If you’ve read my site already, you’ll know that in addition to years of training in the BDSM community, I am also Red Cross certified in Emergency First Aid and CPR/AED use. I believe educating yourself is one of the best ways to be more useful to the gods. By getting as good as I can at my job, I honor my deities and make my work more effective. This means seeking out teachers, having experiences, and practicing.
Let’s face it - unless you’re in a mainstream religious community, there aren’t a lot of other people like you around. If you’re lucky enough to know some who have the skill you want, they are probably beyond busy just carrying their own caseload. This is another point where the BDSM community comes in handy. Most major cities have a BDSM group, and most of those groups teach classes. Take advantage of them. If you can, go to play spaces. If someone is using a skill you’d like to learn, wait until they’re free and respectfully engage them in conversation about it. They might just offer to teach you, or know someone who will. Just because you’re not learning it in a spiritual context doesn’t mean you can’t use it that way. We need to be just as opportunistic as our gods. Even if you’re good at being self-taught, there is no replacement for a human teacher, especially for the more dangerous tools like single tails, needles, or fire play. For everyone’s sake – seek out a master. Your gods would have wanted it that way (and did it themselves).
In my personal opinion, I think you should never do to someone else what you haven’t had done to yourself. If you’ve never been caned, you have no idea what that feels like. Ditto for having anything penetrate your ass. Most skills take finesse, and you’ll have a lot more appreciation for that if you’ve been there. If you don’t have a skilled human partner or friend, many in the BDSM community are willing to do scenes on an NSA basis (no strings attached).
A skilled shaman once told me that one could not be considered needle proficient until doing over 100 needles. I didn’t consider myself a strap-on master until I’d used one regularly for at least six months (luckily I had a very willing, submissive guinea pig). You cannot pick up a toy, read something online, and expect to use it well. Practice glove safety on yourself. Practice on willing kinksters: the fact that they might be getting off on it does not “dirty” the fact that you’re using it for spiritual training – they should be getting something out of this too, right? I don’t think a lack of opportunity is any excuse. Maybe it’s just my friend set, but I’ve had more offers for guinea pigs than I’ve been able to take advance of! Likewise, if we’re friendly and you need to practice something, let me know. I’ll have to run it past the Old Man, but it’s worth asking.
V: Gathering Info
I’ll admit – I’m anal retentive. I like things organized, I like going into situations with my eyes open. The gods like to throw curveballs – we’ve all been there. There always seems to be some little (or big) surprise before a ritual happens. This is inevitable; however, there are some things you can do to minimize these moments. One of them is gathering as much relevant information as possible on the person to be broken.
Before I did my first ordeal, I put together a 14-page questionnaire called the Kink Ordeal Checklist. It is separated into the following sections, and all questions have the caveat of “as much as you’re comfortable sharing”:
• Basic Info (preferred name and pronoun, height, weight)
• Medical Conditions and History (current ailments, medications, allergies, phobias, and past injuries)
• Partner Status (does your partner know about this? can they provide your aftercare?)
• Spiritual Status (who’s human are you? what limits have they given you?)
• Kink / Sexual Status (can you orgasm? have you ever had a traumatic sexual experience?)
• Physical Mobility Checklist (which of these positions can you handle, and for how long?)
• Kink Checklist (which of these acts can you handle, where, and how do you feel about them?)
For some, this might seem like overkill. You might think that if there’s anything you need to know, the person will tell you. You might also think that if something comes up, the presence of the gods will protect you both.
In my opinion, both of these are false assumptions.
People forget to mention things, even major things like the fact that they have a heart condition (I’ve seen it happen). Sometimes they don’t think it’s relevant, other times they are too focused on aspects of the ritual to think clearly. They might not know what you’ll be doing or all the tools you’ll be using. If you are the one facilitating the ordeal, particularly one in which some kind of breaking is happening, it is your job to procure this information. To fail to do so is negligent and dangerous. If you show up to a ritual and realize the person you’re meant to penetrate in some way has a chemical intolerance to all commercial lube, you’re the one who’s fucked. If the gods can’t get what they want because you didn’t do your homework, that’s on your head. Being prepared means more than just showing up with the right tools.
I will admit that at times I cut and paste from the questionnaire, rather than distributing the whole thing. The document is adjustable depending on the act and how much information you already know about the person. If you do this sort of work and would like to take a look at my KOC (hehe), let me know and I’d be happy to send you a PDF (and take suggestions on improvements).
Saturday, August 22, 2009
[A request: If you choose to cut and paste from the following essay (or any of my essays), I would ask a simple courtesy. Please provide a link so that your readers may read the piece in its entirety, as it was intended.
Also, feel free to comment on this blog, even if you disagree with me. While comments are filtered for spam, I will never neglect to post a comment just because I don't like what the author says. Where are we as a community without open dialogue?]
This essay will have two installments. The first will be largely theoretical, explaining what exactly I mean by breaking and what I believe is being broken. My definitions stem both from personal experience (spiritual and non-spiritual) and research in philosophy, psychoanalysis, and kinky spirituality. The second half of this essay, which will follow shortly, will speak more concretely on my experiences breaking and being broken, as well as considerations of ethics and safety.
So, without further preamble, I want to begin with a definition of “breaking” found in Kink Magic (2007) by Taylor Ellwood and Lupa. Although this book pulls from the authors’ combination of BDSM and magical practices over a number of years, it tends to rely on the structure and language of a traditional BDSM scene: a working between two human partners in which a top does something to a bottom. Nonetheless, I believe the definition they give can be adapted more widely to speak to the relationship between some humans and their Gods. (Note: Ellwood and Lupa use “hir” as a nongendered pronoun):
Breaking is a form of psychological edgeplay (a.k.a. “mindfuck”) in which the bottom is swiftly and violently reduced to a point of extreme vulnerability. Breaking may involve physical bondage and discipline, mental triggers, and even energy work to shatter the bottom’s shields and completely bend hir will to the top. Obviously, this is not a practice to be taken lightly, but it can be a highly effective way of reprogramming unwanted, deeply-ingrained behavior patterns and conditioning. (81-2)
From this definition, I can pull several key aspects that apply to the “god bothered,” kinky or not. First, the human is brought in line with the will of the God. As our relationship with Them develops, we desire to do what They will. When that process is not moving quickly enough, a ritual can sometimes yank us into line (or even tell us more clearly what They want in the first place). As I will explore below, however, this hardly means that we are reduced to mindless robots. Second, breaking tends to be psychological in nature, even for those on the ordeal path. From personal experience, I can say that when something painful or scary is happening to you, it isn’t the pain or the fear that breaks you—it’s your own emotions and dark places brought to the surface. This brings me to the third point of this passage: being broken allows us to shed or purge negative behaviors or patterns that have infiltrated our lives. This can include everything from excess pride to worrying about what others think to feelings of worthlessness. Anything that controls us or cripples us must be exposed and released. There is a strong element of catharsis, a letting go that allows us to emerge from our breaking process a stronger, better person. Nothing can rule us—not pride, not fear, not addiction—but our Gods.
But what about all that stuff in the passage about bondage, triggers, and energy work? These are tools, like pain, like humiliation, like tests of endurance. They are not goals. When I underwent my corset piercing ordeal, it wasn’t the needles that were important: it was that they opened me up emotionally, allowing me to feel how much I needed and loved my God. Through that ritual I overcame a large obstacle I’d always had in my life: never quite feeling sure that I loved someone. The way my heart throbbed for Him that day made it pretty undeniable. Why these tools and not others? In a recent conversation with another Northern Tradition practitioner who did not practice ordeal work, I tried to explain it in this way: Each of us has a lock that must be opened in order to serve the Gods. Ordeal happens to be the key that fits my lock. I do not claim that it opens all locks or that it is a superior key. However, I cannot control the shape of my lock. Nor will I be made to feel dirty or ashamed of it. To feel such a thing would be an insult to my divine locksmith.
* * * * *
In my experience, there seem to be two main metaphors for breaking. Like all language, these metaphors are approximations, a grasping after indescribable experience with imperfect language. I don’t think these are necessarily exclusive, but they can help us conceptualize the work that breaking does. In each scenario, what exactly is being broken is somewhat different.
In this scenario, breaking really means “breaking in”, or domesticating. Over centuries, a range of methods have been used by our ancestors to train animals and make them compatible with human beings. Obviously, there are humane and not so humane ways of breaking— the ethics of which I will explore in my next post. When our Gods are the breakers in, They will tailor our experience to Their knowledge of our psychology and the work we’re being trained to do. Some may find themselves broken in through grueling service to others, intense visions, or ecstatic dance. For others, it may be isolation, losing a job, losing family, or losing health. For those who find themselves on the ordeal path, it may also include needles, rope, or tests of endurance. They will use whatever gets us there, docile and wide open to them. However, as anyone who has effectively trained an animal can tell you, breaking it in does not involve breaking its spirit. Quite to the contrary, a good trainer will allow the animal to maintain its personality and shape it into the best it can be. The Gods are not interested in empty, mindless shells of human form.
- City walls
Just as the training metaphor preserves the spirit, so does the image of the city wall. In this scenario, it is our boundaries and blocks They dismantle, crash through, or wear down over time. For my piercing ordeal, the needles physically and energetically penetrated the boundaries I had cultivated around myself, keeping others out. For my relationship with Odin to grow, these walls were a hindrance to Him. I simply could not love and serve my God at arms length.
Why do we have these walls in the first place? For most of us, it’s our last line of self defense. If we’ve been abused in the past, those walls may be covered in brambles, thick vines, and big signs that scream “STAY OUT!” It may be difficult for us to trust anyone, human or divine, with the scarred or hurting self hidden behind our tough veneer. If the walls were to disappear, we’d face the possibility of being hurt again, being rejected, or being ultimately disappointing and not worth the effort.
As a wise woman once told me, a necessary part of love is trust. We cannot love the Gods without placing ourselves in Their hands. Just as in human relationships, the price of intimacy is vulnerability. This does not mean, however, that the self is annihilated. Instead, it’s dug out of the muck of our emotional garbage, carefully polished, and made to shine. On a utilitarian level, this makes us more useful spirit workers, more effective partners and tools of the divine. While I’m wary of those who solely use spirituality as a form of self-help, I do see strong possibilities for self-betterment and healing in building a relationship with the Gods. Ironically, one of the most difficult things myself and others have been asked to is, “Take care of yourself. Stop self-destructing behaviors. Nurture your mind and your body.” It is fascinating to me that, above all else, this is the demand that we tend to fight. I have seen people walk away from their path rather than care for themselves.
* * * * *
While certainly not the ONLY paths to this end (I cannot stress this enough), the breaking accomplished in ordeal rituals can create a space to accomplish the work needed in either of these models: breaking us in or tearing down walls. In Kink Magic, Ellwood and Lupa discuss the profound healing and self-knowledge found in these encounters:
One of the beauties of kink magic is that it can open you up to parts of yourself you never even knew were there, and give you a context in which to explore them in a controlled environment. The things we push away hold pieces of ourselves that terrify us, but which control us in silent ways nonetheless. Embracing that which is Other can allow us to pull the veils from our fear, look it in the eye, and realized that we no longer need to give it power. And that is true liberation. (221)
Writing as a literary theorist, Marianne Noble compares this sense of psychological liberation to the Romantic idea of the Sublime. The sense of being acted on by the Other (in our case, our Gods) and being in communion with Them causes “the dismantling of the self, opening the self up to a euphoric though frightening experience of oneness with totality” (36). This sensation of oneness associated with divine encounters is certainly not new. In Civilization and its Discontents, even Freud (the ultimate secularist) ponders the roots and implications of an “oceanic feeling” felt by a friend during a religious experience. According to Freud, the feeling is what “he would like to call a sensation of ‘eternity’, a feeling as of something limitless, unbounded—as it were, ‘oceanic’” (11).
In my own academic studies, I’ve come to realize how many philosophers, psychoanalysts, and social theorists raise this concept of “oneness” as a foundation for any interpersonal relationship. The concept of intersubjectivity originates in the social theory of Jurgen Habermas, who explored “the intersubjectivity of mutual understanding” in contrast to the individualist theories of Hegel. While Hegel proposed that the self uses others only as a vehicle for his own self-definition, Habermas imagined a more inquisitive relationship between the self and his social domain (Benjamin 22). In the realm of spirituality, I think this inquisitiveness becomes conversation, the give and take between the human and the divine. For those working with the Norse gods, it is the embodiment of the Gebo rune: sacred exchange, a Self speaking with a Self.
In all cases, in order to form an intersubjective relationship, we must make the barriers around the Self permeable. Postcolonial critic Amit Rai has remarked that “some sort of dissolution of boundaries, a blurring of self and Other, is necessary in order not simply to achieve knowledge and understanding of another, but actually, somehow, to experience the Other” (20). To experience the Gods, we must open our own boundaries. In Bonds of Love, feminist psychoanalyst Jessica Benjamin notes that this blurring serves as the foundation for mature erotic unions. In these relationships, two selves undergo “the fundamental experience of attunement—that separate individuals can share the same feeling” (74). Even Freud must admit that this early experience lays the foundation for arguably the most important adult relationship: romantic love. “Against all the evidence of his senses,” Freud marvels, “a man who is in love declares that ‘I’ and ‘you’ are one, and is prepared to behave as if it were a fact” (12-3). While humorously characterized by Freud as “admittedly an unusual state,” love causes the boundaries of the ego to once again become permeable.
We have the Victorians to thank for our resistance to the idea of our personal boundaries becoming fluid. Their core values—which we largely inherited—included the primacy of individuality, rationality, and rigid social and personal boundaries. Allowing the Gods in, however, and our own boundaries to become permeable, does not spell our own self-dissolution. As Benjamin notes, sameness and difference must exist simultaneously in moments of mutual recognition between two selves. “Experiences of ‘being with’ are predicated on a continually evolving awareness of difference,” she writes, “on a sense of intimacy felt as occurring between ‘the two of us’” (47). Again, this is not a loss of identity; it is entering into an intimate conversation.
Stay tuned for Part 2....
Benjamin, Jessica. Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination. New York: Pantheon Books, 1988.
Ellwood, Taylor and Lupa. Kink Magic: Sex Magic Beyond Vanilla. Megalithica Books, 2007.
Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents. Trans. and ed. James Strachey. New York and London: W.W. Norton & Company, 1961.
Noble, Marianne. The Masochistic Pleasures of Sentimental Literature. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2001.
Rai, Amit. Rule of Sympathy: Sentiment, Race, and Power, 1750-1850. New York: Palgrave, 2002.
Sunday, June 28, 2009
I am an Ordeal Master.
I’ve been trained in many different forms of ordeal, and I am learning new forms all the time. Some are simple, some require many hours of work and training. I have always been careful, and no one who has ever come before me and asked for an ordeal has had complaints about my skill or my dedication. They have all come away satisfied.
I’ve been lucky, and I’ve been careful. The second was drummed into me by those who taught me. The first may largely be the protection of my patron deity.
When people want an ordeal, generally they go by word of mouth. They ask around, and eventually someone refers them to someone. In a way, that’s good – it means that people can get an opinion from someone who actually worked on them, or their loved ones. I’m not just a professional in a book. I do also encourage would-be clients to talk to other people who I’ve worked with, to encourage trust and openness.
However, it occurred to me that there could be something more – something that could be entered into that would show clearly the honest intention and good faith of an Ordeal Master. I prayed about this, and was given the words below.
The words below are not an oath. They are a very specific binding spell. They are Pagan, but nondenominational. The spell will bind the Ordeal Master who submits freely and willingly. They will utilize a string with a drop of their blood on it, and this will be bound loosely around their hands and knotted in such a way that it can be removed without untying the knots, similar to a handfasting cord. The words should be spoken in the presence of a representative of a deity of justice or honor or boundaries, such as Tyr or Forseti or Dike or Saturn or Ma’at. That person will be given the cord to keep safe forever.
This way, if someone comes to you and asks, “Have you taken the binding? Who holds your bond?” you can answer with their name and contact information, and they will swear that you were bound in their presence.
Should the Ordeal Master attempt to do something with a good chance of harm to the person for whom they are doing the ordeal, something will suddenly go wrong – something small and annoying, not large and life-threatening. Perhaps several small and annoying things. The car will break down on the way, everyone will come down with a bad cold, mice will have chewed the ropes and dogs gnawed on the implements, a pipe will burst, it will rain, the only needle will slip and land in the dirt, whatever … and it will quietly prevent havoc from happening.
I am not saying that this should be a requirement, or the certification of some theoretical group. This should only be entered into because the Ordeal Master in question believes it to be the right thing to do. There should be no pressure to enspell one’s self. However, to willingly bind yourself to keep others safe is an honorable thing. The spell is specifically written not to interfere with the lawful command of any deity; its primary prevention is our own mistakes. We are all human, and we all err, and we should want to do our best and be prevented from doing harm if possible.
I will be taking this binding publicly at Dark Moon Rising, a Pagan BDSM campout, this September. I welcome any other Ordeal Masters to take it alongside me, but only if they can do it with a whole heart.
O Gods and spirits, hear my words.
I submit myself freely and willingly
To be bound by the powers of the Universe
And this bond to be held unbreakable
Though ego and pride rage against it,
All the days of my work on this razor’s edge.
If I should misunderstand the words
Of the Gods and spirits
Who guide my hands in this work,
Such that there is a good chance
Of harming the one who is in my care,
May I be thwarted by some small thing
And be prevented from doing harm.
If I should undertake some practice
In which I am not yet skilled enough
Alone, and with no elder hands to aid,
Such that there is a good chance
Of harming the one who is in my care,
May I be thwarted by some small thing
And be prevented from doing harm.
And should the Gods and spirits
Who guide my hands in this work
Wish to humble and disgrace me
For my foolishness or pride,
If it is such that they have
The lawful right to do so,
May it be done in such a way
That no one is harmed
Who should not have been harmed,
And may no blame or stain cling to the name
Of any save myself,
And may the nature of the lesson
Be made clear to my opened eyes.
O Gods and spirits, hear my words.
I submit myself freely and willingly
To be bound by the powers of the Universe
And this bond to be held unbreakable
Though desire and fear rage against it,
All the days of my work on this razor’s edge.
Friday, June 26, 2009
by Mordant Carnival
Lies, damn lies, and bad mystics
It's often implied that by talking about our own ordeal practices, ordeal workers are in some way insisting that everybody ought to be engaging in them and also doing-down other forms of service and devotion. The comments range from the mildly snippy—"it's all very well for you, but I've got XYZ responsibilities; I can't put my health at risk like that!"—to the shockingly hostile and defamatory.
You're lying—you never did those things.
You're just an exhibitionist.
You're only doing this because it gets you off.
You've obviously had it too easy in your life—that's why you have to counterfeit suffering this way.
You're misleading vulnerable people.
Putting people through physical ordeals is abuse. You're a predator. You're no better than a rapist.
You're bringing infamy to our faith.
Liar! Pervert! Abuser!
Even when you know that this kind of talk must be coming from a place of deep pain and personal insecurity, it is very, very hard to hear these things said about oneself and one's fellow voyagers on the ordeal path. The friendships I've forged with those who've participated in ordeal work with me are of great value and it really hurts to see mud hurled at those good friends and allies, especially knowing that at least some of it is bound to stick. I've seen all kinds of things invented about ordeal masters I know and respect. Some of this is just exaggeration or garbled versions of real events, but there's a lot of whole-cloth fabrication too—pure fantasy involving accusations of outright criminal activity.
This last is a major act of wrongdoing. Such fabrications don't merely dent feelings and ding egos—they could get people into severe trouble if they were taken seriously, either by the authorities or by hotheaded and violent individuals who might take matters into their own hands. I'm going to go through and try to pick the bones out of some of the more common accusations.
You're just an exhibitionist.
In truth, I find having people witness the ordeal is one of the hardest parts of the work. If a solitary ordeal or some non-ordeal group working can be arranged, I jump at it. I don't like being seen that state. I want people to see me as strong, level-headed, competent and in control. Who doesn't? Who truly relishes the idea of being brought before respected friends and colleagues, people whose good opinion you are strongly motivated to cultivate, and reduced to a blubbering, screaming, shivering puddle of sobs and snot? Who wants to have their composure stripped from them? Who wants to walk around randomly bursting into tears for days afterwards? Would you want people to see you like that? Of course not, and I don't either. No amount of reassurance and comfort from my allies in the working ever makes that part not suck. Being witnessed in the throes of ordeal is a major stressor in itself. In fact much of the ordeal work I've accomplished has been undertaken in private and in secret. I don't write about that side of my practice as much because it's very personal. Not bad, not shameful, not stupid, just mine.
You're only doing this because it gets you off.
Ah, that old chestnut! Okay, let's get something out of the way before we begin: yep, I'm a horrible little pervert. I'm not a heavy player by any means, and I can't claim any great degree of skill or experience, but I am into pain—mine or other people's (well, mostly other people's). I know other ordeal workers who are also kinksters. There seems to be a fair degree of overlap between the groups.
But this routine dismissal of physical ordeal work as "just a kink" or "just a sex thing" could not be further from reality. A BDSM scene could conceivably tip over into ordeal; an ordeal working might possibly contain some sort of sexual component. However in most cases sex is going to be absolutely the last thing on your mind. If it's not pushing you well past your comfort zone and out into the farther reaches of your tolerance, where there is a real risk of lasting trauma, it isn't an ordeal. If you're standing there thinking "hey, this is kind of hot," it's not an ordeal. It's really unlikely that there'll be any part of you left over that could be titillated; everything is eaten up by the wrenching experience you're undergoing. You might as well talk about a broken limb being a turn-on, or a bereavement, or a divorce.
Curiously enough I've found that repeated physical ordeal has kind of "unplugged" my masochistic streak to a great degree. Pain just isn't the turn-on it might once have been; it connects with those experiences now and not with playtime. Might not be a lasting effect, I don't know yet. This is rather sad but I'm okay with it. If I have permanently sacrificed an enjoyable kink on the altar of spiritual development, so be it. As a bystander or as ground-crew, I can honestly say that I've never found witnessing another's ordeal in any way erotic. I would not argue that experiencing a sexual response to another's ordeal was "wrong" in any way, so long as one owned the response and conducted oneself appropriately. For myself I get too caught up in the ordeal worker's suffering to objectify them.
Far from being a liability or rendering the ordeal space unsafe, BDSM players can make excellent ordeal masters. They already have a different relationship to pain and suffering than most people; they know that pain is not necessarily a negative thing to be avoided. A good, responsible kinkster will also come equipped with invaluable knowledge and skills, like advanced BDSM techniques as well as first aid and proper after-care. Every home should have one.
You're bringing infamy to our faith.
I know of no ordeal worker who claims that heathen faith requires ordeal at all; in fact, most are at great pains to emphasise and celebrate variedness in the expression of spirituality. In any case I hardly see that endurance and dedication to one's path in the face of suffering and danger could bring ill-fame to anything.
One common accusation is: "by saying that such-and-such a Power requested that you undertake ordeal, you are putting words into that being's mouth." This is rather a foolish comment. Anyone reading a claim that "God X said Y" knows that this is a spirit-worker reporting their subjective experience, and not a graven-in-stone hard fact. Indeed there is a certain lack of critical reading skills among modern pagans and heathens, but the appropriate response to this is to help foster such skills—not to try and silence anyone you don't agree with. In general, people who incorporate ordeal work into their spiritual practice tend to be much more conscientious about including disclaimers and encouraging a critical reading of their own work. We tend by and large not to be the ones who are running around claiming infallible connections to the Divine or to be living Gods and Goddesses, or whatever wild claim is in vogue this season.
A related complain is "Such-and-such would never be so cruel as to ask a votary to undergo ordeal!" There's a lot of misconceptions at work here, not least that ordeal work is cruel. No, abuse is cruel. Ordeal work is sacred, transformative, and can be very healing. It reveals to you parts of yourself that were hidden. Being put to ordeal isn't a matter of simple chastisement; it is one way in which the Powers can draw closer to us. Another misconception is that Gods are too nice to ask you to do anything scary or difficult. They are glorious, loving, wise, powerful and sometimes unspeakably tender, but They're not nice! Even the Gods and Goddesses seen as "lighter" in nature aren't fluffy bundles of gooey, harmless love. A more ambivalent God like Loki might reveal Himself as a cheerful, irreverent playmate but He's also the Father of Monsters and the Breaker of Worlds, and utilises ordeal with certain of His votaries to confront people with those aspects of His nature. Odin, of course, is heavily associated with ordeal and will certainly ask it of His people, sooner or later, in one form or another.
If people are genuinely worried about ordeal workers somehow bringing the Northern tradition into disrepute, perhaps they could stop lying about the people and practices involved. Every time you make up a nice juicy story about torture, abuse, or medical neglect, or disseminate such without checking its veracity, the faith takes a hit right along with your intended target.
Putting people through physical ordeals is abuse.
I deeply, deeply resent this one. As I said I'm not an ordeal master, I've only ever given support or been the one going through the ordeal. I guess that according to the anti-ordeal brigade, that would make me a pathetic victim.
Well, I'm not a victim. The people involved in my ordeals are not my abusers. They're my allies. In some cases, they're my great friends. They've travelled with me through some of the most extreme experiences I've ever endured. There has been no coercion. Nobody has ever lied to me or misled me. No-one ever said to me "you have to do this or you're not part of our clique." No-one's ever said "we'll think less of you if you don't go through with this." No-one's ever said "you have to do what we say because the Gods will be angry if you don't." Nobody has ever forced me to undergo ordeal. I've walked voluntarily into the ritual circle; I've bared my own back to the whip; I've thrust my own hand into the fire. And I've been supported, cared for, loved. There was proper care, damage limitation, compassionate support, and whatever lessons needed to be learned were duly learned. Where risk has been involved I was properly appraised of it ahead of time, repeatedly and by separate individuals.
Note that an act of abuse by another person can, through the grace of the Gods and spirits, be transformed into Ordeal proper and used for the furtherance of the survivor's personal and spiritual development. However this does not make the abuser an ordeal master, or absolve them of guilt for their actions.
You've obviously had it too easy in your life—that's why you have to counterfeit suffering this way.
Anti-ordeal work people are fond of talking about how they've undergone painful and difficult life events, and contrasting these with the supposed lightweight kinky fun that physical ordeal workers are fictioned as engaging in. They've experienced, to quote one writer, "real trials and tests," whereas we've merely been "poked with sharp objects" in (of course!) "a sexually charged and exhibitionist [sic] setting." Well, I have a few questions for those who offer such cheap, thoughtless little snipes.
What do you think—do you think I've never suffered? Do you think I've never bled? Do you think my whole life was laid out for me like a turf lawn outside a mansion, rolled smooth and free of hazard? Do you think I've never faced hardship, violence, ill-health? Yeah, I know that other people have horror stories worse than mine, but I'll tell you this—it was bloody well bad enough. Although I've made a lot of progress I've been left with areas of permanent and incurable psychological damage by the things that have happened to me. Sometimes it's a struggle just to survive. I am in pain every day of my life because of my past.
Abuse. Bullying. Harassment. Violence. Long term chronic physical and mental illness. Medical neglect. Untreated seizures. An attempt on my life by someone I loved. Many of these things occurred not just once or twice or for brief periods, but all the time I was growing up and well into adulthood. I've had people—not naïve sheltered folks, but people who have seen the worst that humanity can dish out—professionals who work with battered spouses or homeless teens, people who are themselves survivors of childhood abuse—express surprise, on learning the details of my history, that I'm even still alive, let alone functioning as an adult. (I say nothing of the personal histories of certain other ordeal workers I know, whose life experiences make mine look like a weekend at Butlin's.)
Try and imagine how it feels, then, not only to be told that the suffering involved in the ordeal work I've undertaken is counterfeit, but to have everything I went through as a kid and a young adult written out of the script to suit the self-serving agenda of people who don't even know me. Imagine what it feels like to undergo something like the ritual described earlier, and have that dismissed as just kinky shenanigans, not real, not meaningful. I can't speak for anyone else but for me it's gut-wrenching to hear this. It's like being abused all over again. It's like having all the hard work of undergoing ordeal—the preparation before, the ordeal itself, the recovery afterward—smashed in front of you. Think of having a piece of your art or craft-work vandalized while you watch, and you'll have some idea of how crushingly painful it can be to read this kind of thing. One tries to rise above it, but oh, it is hard.
This kind of ill-informed criticism is not just offensive but dangerous. Like it or not, ordeal work is here to stay, and that means we have to have meaningful, reality-based dialogue around it. Making up scare stories, or credulously spreading them around without checking your facts, does not achieve that. All it does is create an atmosphere where the only discussion that can be had is about how awful physical ordeal work is and what terrible nasty people ordeal workers are. If people are so used to having to fight to hold space for their practices that they may be more apt not to register more reasonable notes of caution, this does nothing to improve safety or quality of care.
Risk in ordeal
Although it can be a profoundly healing thing to undergo ordeal—life-affirming, transforming, a source of power and a connection to the Divine—by its very nature ordeal work does involve risk. Without the possibility of failure, there is no ordeal. However we need to be constantly vigilant regarding those risks so as not to allow unnecessary or unacceptable hazards. There are the obvious medical dangers posed by practices such as cutting or branding: transmission of blood-borne pathogens, wounds cut or burned too deep, going septic, etc.—too many to list here. It's every practitioner's responsibility to ensure that they are up to date with the latest information on health and safety relating to the work they do, and that they have regular first-aid training.
Moreover there are more subtle dangers that we need to be aware of. Risks like becoming too reliant on ordeal at the expense of other important techniques; pushing oneself too far, too quickly; becoming emotionally hooked on the process; feeling that one can only ask for help or support in the wake of ordeal proper, and not at other times; delayed adverse emotional reactions. We need to be talking about these things and in an atmosphere of finger-pointing, scaremongering, lies and half-truths it is much harder to do that.
This is an attempt to lay out some of the risks as I see them. It should not be considered exhaustive; I'm sure more experienced folk could add plenty to the list.
If all you have is a hammer...
Ordeal work is tremendously potent and effective. It can succeed where everything else has failed. It can bring you into power that you never knew existed. Thus, if you're not careful you can become a victim of your own success. Serious ordeal should not be your go-to technique every time you feel stuck or hit a plateau in your development. It's especially important for new spirit-workers to be careful here, as those of us who start out young may not have had the opportunity to build up a good varied toolkit, while those of us claimed later in life may find our existing skill-sets stripped away to prepare us for the new knowledge that we must integrate.
Always be ready to adopt new techniques as well as building on existing ones. Experiment with different ways of altering your consciousness. Do not always reach for the most strenuous, difficult practices. Accept that there will be times in your life where things do not appear to be moving forward as you would like. Downtime is not a bug, it is a feature—you need those periods of slow or halted development to integrate and consolidate your development so far. It will pass.
If you do all this, you will not be a worse ordeal worker but a better one: one who uses this set of techniques with the respect it deserves.
It is possible to get hooked on ordeal for other reasons. Human beings need emotional support and care in their lives. They need to receive things like compassion, affection, approval, sympathy. However, some people actually have a lot of trouble receiving these things. Self-reliance is a good thing but it can be taken too far; it is often the more responsible course to seek help than to try and struggle on alone. Yet some individuals resist seeking or accepting help until they are all but broken. This often isn't about being too proud, but an inability to see oneself as deserving. The suffering of an ordeal can give temporary respite from this, "buying" permission from the inner monsters to experience what it is to be cared for and supported. But it is only temporary. The effect wears off, and the person is thrown back into feelings of worthlessness. Such a person may end up turning to ordeal over other, more appropriate techniques in a subconscious attempt to placate those woeful wights of self-loathing; only in the wake of extreme suffering can they receive support from their fellows.
It's good to feel proud of successfully accomplishing an ordeal working, just as it's good to be proud of successfully completing anything important. But it shouldn't be the only way you can feel good about yourself.
This is one of the risks I myself faced. It was handled well, however, and instead of becoming mired in a toxic hurt-comfort cycle the experience of undergoing ordeal and receiving care afterwards became a powerful mechanism for healing in my life. By being broken in that way—being placed in a condition where I had no option but to accept care and support, because I was so utterly destroyed—I was made able to give and receive the same kind of care more freely in other, less extreme circumstances.
Ordeal vs self-harm
This can be a tough one, certainly. There's a degree of overlap between the set of people who self-harm at some point in their lives, and the set who end up on the ordeal path. But there's also a difference between self-harm as a symptom of some severe underlying problem, and the kind of work we're talking about.
First of all, self-harm seldom manages to make the jump to ordeal. People who self-harm are generally engaging in it as a survival mechanism rather than hoping that it will lead to some major breakthrough. Secondly, the nature of the suffering is different. It's very risky to suggest that self-harm is "not severe" enough to constitute ordeal, since some self-harmers are already pushing themselves to the brink of death, but it must be stated that the nature of the suffering is usually different from what is required for ordeal. One is not self-harming to introduce extra stressors into the body-mind system, but to swap out one form of suffering for another. Indeed, since it is more challenging for the self-harming individual to suffer through the impulse without acting on it, resisting self-harm might be more likely to result in an ordeal-type state.
The principle difference of course is that ordeal work is about inducing positive change, whilst self-harm at best represents a stop-gap measure against a downward slide, and at worst is actively damaging.
It should be made clear that a former self-harmer can certainly use the application of painful stimuli for more positive purposes later on. However, such a person must be extra-vigilant so as to make sure that they continue making positive progress rather than letting self-harm sneak back in by the side-door.
The dangers of fasting
Spiritually and psychologically, fasting can have amazing benefits. Physically though, current medical opinion holds that it's not so great. It's become a common belief that fasting "rests the body" or "detoxifies the system." It does neither. The wonderful rush of energy you get round around day two is not a response to being free of toxins, it's your body trying to get you to go out and find food. The human digestive system evolved to have food going through it regularly, and doesn't benefit from being put out of action any more than your muscles benefit from not being exercised. The exception might be when there is an infection present, and the body needs to clear out the waste in the gut to get rid of the bacteria. If you're worried about toxins then eat a healthy diet high in natural unprocessed foodstuffs and leave off things like alcohol, refined sugars, and so on. Oh, and stop smoking.
Fasting presents a number of very significant risks. While fasting for a moderate period won't harm a healthy person, it presents health risks to people with medical conditions such as diabetes or blood-sugar disorders. Fasting rapidly alters your state of consciousness, such that your ability to function in the world may become impaired. You should not fast during times where you're going to need your concentration.
Another high-risk category would be those recovering from eating disorders. A recovering anoretic might find his or her condition triggered by a period of fasting; a person who eats compulsively might find themselves tipped the other way, into anorexia. Conversely a period of self-starvation might cause the opposite problem, as the body goes into overdrive trying to re-feed itself. Such a person should approach fasting with the greatest caution, and consider alternative ways to achieve their goals.
Instead of a full fast, you could try fasting from specific foods, fasting from dawn till dusk instead of all day, or "fasting" from activities. None of these are likely to constitute ordeal, but they can be used to shift the consciousness in other very productive ways.
Ordeal is really a kind of controlled, voluntary trauma, and thus carries the risk of post-traumatic effects. It can have very profound emotional effects that may not appear immediately after the working. Sometimes there is a period of euphoria directly afterwards which may create the false impression that everything is okay when it isn't.
The initial glow of success may give way to an emotional crash. The person may struggle to find the motivation to go about their normal lives. Everything can seem strangely distant and unreal, and everyday situations can become more difficult than usual. I myself believe that a period of low mood and relative inactivity is not necessarily a bad thing; it seems to be nature's way of assuring some downtime which will be invaluable if the person is to properly integrate the experience and learn from it. However, this is likely to be a difficult time and the ordeal survivor will need moral support and reassurance.
Ordeal teaches us about ourselves, and that new knowledge, though valuable, can be painful. Finding that you are capable of acting in ways that you'd previously thought alien to your nature can really shake you up. The only cure for this is time and working towards integration. A friendly ear can help with that; talk to the person, let them know that their new self is loved and valued.
Ordeal can also open a person up psychically. Someone who was used to managing a particular level of input in the past may find themselves overwhelmed by the flood of information, by the intensity of such direct contact. Again, time and patience with oneself are the best remedies. The new level of openness will eventually become normalised.
Note that the ordeal master may also be vulnerable to this one. Someone who goes through that kind of very intense journey with another person needs aftercare too.
Other medical risks
This is a vitally important topic and I fear I would do it an injustice if I attempted to enumerate all the possible risks here. This isn't something you can learn about properly from a written essay in any case. Take a first-aid class, and find reputable trainers for more advanced techniques. I will confine my comments here to a couple of reminders. One, that just because you're in a ritual context, the usual risks presented by sharp objects, broken skin, etc. do not take a holiday. The ordeal workers I've practised with all observed the same precautions that they would in a more mundane setting; I'd like to encourage the reader to do the same. Secondly—there is a lot of misinformation flying around regarding medical risks, with some people dismissing quite proper caution with an airy "but crossing the road is risky!" and others inventing all kinds of horrors based on their own very shaky understanding. Reasonable minds can differ but this stuff isn't a matter of opinion. It's flesh and blood, life and death. Get properly informed.
These risks can be reduced, but they can never be got rid of entirely. Why, then, in the face of all of this potential danger, engage in ordeal work? Why would you worship Gods if They would ask such things of you?
Ordeal is a healing modality. This is quite counter-intuitive, but it's one of the most powerful and effective healing resources I've ever experienced. The joy—yes, joy!—of ordeal is twofold for me: I get to offer up this significant gift to the Gods and spirits I serve, something They seem to truly value from me, and at the same time I receive a gift of healing. I get to leave behind a portion of my suffering, and move forward with my life. I am stronger for this work. I am happier. I am more fulfilled. I am closer to my Gods. Is it worth the hazards? Yes, a thousand times yes
Sunday, May 24, 2009
By Mordant Carnival
Editor's Note: The following account is a beautiful telling of two ordeals from the perspective of the ordealee rather than the ordeal master. They are at times graphic and if this is something that you might find unduly upsetting, please pass on this post.
Ordeal work, particularly physical ordeal work, is one of the most contentious issues in modern spirituality. Regrettably much of the discussion around this important and sacred group of practices is founded on mistaken ideas and tinged with panic and fear. This post aims to dispel the anxiety somewhat by clearing up some of the confusion and misapprehension.
Firstly, what is ordeal? Ordeal can be many things. Work involving pain or other physical stressors is not necessarily ordeal, and ordeal work does not necessarily involve physical stressors. My personal working definition would look something like this:
"an intense transformative experience involving heavy stressors, physical, emotional, or psychological, such as to take the subject out of their normal consciousness for the purposes of spiritual or personal development."
Another important—nay vital—component of ordeal proper would be the possibility of failure: the chance that one might not be able to complete the working as planned, or might suffer some form of lasting harm in attempting to complete it.
Physical ordeal rituals are NOT an integral part of heathen worship. This should be made very clear. Although ordeal work as a valid part of Northern tradition practice can be supported from lore, it is a fringe activity and not a part of mainstream heathen practice.
The first misconception I'd like to address is the idea that all ordeal workers ever do is undergo ordeal, or that this is the most important part of their religious lives. They don't, and it isn't. The most important parts of devotional work, in my opinion, are the quiet parts—the daily prayer on rising, the moments of reflection, the practice of looking for the Gods and wights in all things around you as you go about your day. They are the small sacrifices of time and attention; the larger sacrifices of making good choices about your life even when they are hard choices too. That is devotion. It is not flashy, it is not what is considered notable, and it is terribly, terribly precious. Without a solid devotional practice underpinning it, an ordeal working would be meaningless; think of a deadbeat parent disappearing for years on end then turning up with an X-box and expecting to make everything okay again. In a given year I might undertake serious physical ordeal maybe twice, three times. It would be a very thin practice that only involved devotion a couple of times a year!
The second misconception is that ordeal work is being recommended for everyone. I do not believe that ordeal work is necessary, or even appropriate, for everybody—maybe not even for the majority of people. My understanding is that you have to be wired just right for it all to work properly. Certainly if a person had any appreciable health problems going on I would recommend some other form of work.
The third misconception is that all ordeal work is centered about physical pain or suffering. It is not. A common charge laid against ordeal workers is that they are prioritizing the body, the flesh, over mind and spirit. This is not the case. Ordeals can be wholly emotional in nature. Sensory deprivation, fasting, isolation, being forced to endure verbal insults—these and many other things can represent an ordeal. Where physical stressors are involved they are a means to an end, not an end in itself: they are the scaffolding on which the working is constructed.
Two examples from my own practice
1: a devotional ordeal
In 2007 I underwent what was for me a very extreme ordeal as an offering to my God. To an outside observer it might not have looked so very severe, but it was so wrenchingly hard that I am still dealing with the fallout to this day. It involved a physical-pain component, but it's not that which stays with me.
After turning my back on Loki for a decade, I felt a powerful need to offer up some kind of expiation for that. It was very, very important to me to express my sincere regret over rejecting His call when I was younger, and to affirm my commitment and devotion. I believed and still believed that this was also something that my Friend wanted from me. Of course mortal assertions on the part of the Gods should always be taken with a very hefty quantity of salt—especially when they come from someone with my metric shed-load of emotional and psychiatric problems. I am not quite in my right mind, and sometimes I have believed things about myself that were not true. Fortunately I had connections with a group of spirit-workers and ordeal workers who were prepared to help me arrange a suitable ritual.
The physical pain component consisted of a long and decidedly not-fun flogging—but there was also a psychological component. The pain worked to put me into a particular mental and emotional state; but at the heart of the ritual was the psychological ordeal. The working involved a group of volunteers from the spirit-worker gathering I was attending at the time. (Understand that I met these folk in person for the first time only a couple of days before, though we had talked over email and on the phone, that I held the group in high regard, and was heavily invested in making a good impression.) Those who had agreed to be present were instructed to mock, jeer and sing while the beating was going on.
And. It. Sucked. It sucked it sucked it sucked it sucked.
I really cannot convey to you in words the epic, weapons-grade, end-of-level degree of misery. I have a long history of serious emotional abuse, bullying and harassment, and being subjected to that kind of treatment is well outside my hard limits. It kicks me directly back to the experience of being victimized.
The plan was that when I felt that I'd taken enough, I was to call a halt. For most people this would be a perfectly reasonable set-up, but the nature of my psychological damage is such that there never is "enough" when it comes to suffering. No matter how bad things get I always feel like I deserve more, should be able to take more. And under those conditions that deep, dark hole rapidly broke open inside of me; it seemed to inhale all the suffering like smoke or mist. Every time I felt like I needed to stop what was happening, like I just couldn't take any more, that sucking pit of worthlessness and insufficiency would breathe Not enough. Never enough. I was lost, incapable even of reflecting on the negative effect the whole scene might be having on the participants, or the possible consequences of too severe a beating. All I knew was that I was exactly where I belonged: cold and hurting and despicable, while real people gathered in the firelight and laughed, and my God turned His back on me. I don't know how long it went on. People have estimated from two to four hours.
Eventually somebody else clocked that I had gone too far out to come back by myself, and intervened. I am terribly grateful to this person. Left to myself I couldn't have called a halt if my life had depended on it. I would have stood there all night, under the lash. I would have stood there forever. I was later told by the ordeal master that this intervention was a vital part of the ordeal, exactly what needed to happen, though I had not known it at the time. She was preparing to end the flogging when the audience member stepped forward. That someone else had the courage to step in and speak for me, and acknowledge to everyone else there that I had taken enough, was a big part of the healing process.
The next day, on rising, I discovered that I was in absolutely no physical pain. I'd expected to wake stiff and sore; so did my ordeal master, who brought round a tube of arnica cream and was flabbergasted when told that I didn't need it. The lack of physical pain, though, made the emotional fall-out so much worse. Others told me it was a sign from my God that my sacrifice had been accepted and my debt was paid; but I kept asking myself, again and again, was it enough? Was it sufficient?
Gods, it nearly broke me. Nearly?—No, it did break me. I was destroyed. For months after the event I prayed to die. It took me the best part of half a year to put myself together and get up from what had happened. I was in constant contact, at first every day and then later weekly with my ordeal master and other spiritworkers, who were providing continued care and counseling for me. In a sense, I never really have and probably never will: the joy and reconciliation at the end of the ritual can be drawn to mind only with an effort, whereas the misery and shame have stuck with me, as well as that terrible sense of insufficiency. It's not the physical pain that I recall. It's the emotional element that comes back to haunt me in the small hours of the night; it's the shame that rises up to throw its shadow over every accomplishment I've made since then. The humiliation, the despair, those things linger long after temporary physical pain has faded from memory.
Note that none of the above should be taken to indicate that the working was anything other than necessary or successful. It enabled me to start putting my bad choices behind me, and taught me a great deal about myself. Others who were present learned from it too. And that black hole in my heart—it could have cracked open at any time. Better to have this happen in a relatively sheltered space full of allies. Most significantly from my perspective, the relationship between myself and my fulltrui* was put on a much-improved footing. I had paid my shild,** and thereafter things moved forward in a more positive direction. Whether you parse that as Loki being pleased with the offering or as me resolving some emotional issue on a purely internal level, the net result was a success.
* a Norse word for heart-friend, used primarily with a God or Goddess to whom one is especially close.
2: an ordeal for personal development
The following year I underwent different kind of ordeal with the support of another group: my somafera initiation. Somafera is a modern neologism used to refer to a loose group of practices involving the induction of temporary and/or permanent changes in one's body-mind, to enhance its functioning in various different ways. These altered states are often induced through ecstatic dance, meditation, prayer, or the application of physical stressors—pain, exhaustion, heat, cold, the adoption of stress positions, etc. Increases in strength, speed, concentration, and endurance are common, as are heightened senses. The work frequently has a spiritual component, although this is not the case for everybody. For me, it is an act of spiritual devotion during which I grow closer to the gods and spirits.
Most of us who practice under the umbrella of somafera feel that this is an expression of some innate nature—that we were "born this way." However, gaining conscious control over how or when we will enter the elevated state is important. For this reason, initiatory rituals have been devised. A very intense degree of elevation is induced in the practitioner, perhaps for the first time, with the intent of making the state both more accessible thereafter and easier to control. The somafera group I'm involved with utilizes initiation involving two main forms of ordeal: ordeal by combat (where you go out into an open space and two other fighters set upon you, attacking so as to avoid injury whilst promoting an elevated state) and ordeal by fire, where the initiate must place their hand in a living fire until elevation occurs. I have no fighting skills so I elected to take this second form of initiation.
I prepared ritually with chanting, pacing, the application of painful stimuli such as biting the lips and tongue, and above all with prayer. When I felt that I was ready, I began to recite a verse utilized to great effect by other initiates—an old charm from Russia once thought to transform the speaker into an "oberot," a were-wolf. When this ritual preparation was finished, I knelt by the fire and put in my hand. At first I just felt pain—I had to dip my hand in the flame repeatedly. I believed I was failing my initiation. The last thing I remember is a terrible sense of frustration and self-hate because I could not force myself through the pain barrier.
I do not recall much of what followed. According to witnesses, a sufficient degree of elevation was reached that I was able to place my hand in the fire for upwards of eight seconds, and later to reach in and take up a burning stick from the heart of the bonfire. Apparently I exhibited greater-than-usual strength and aggressiveness, as well as other personality changes and altered abilities. When I came to myself afterwards I had no memory of the fire resistance, and was utterly convinced that I had failed. I was inconsolable and had to be physically restrained from returning to the fire-pit and making another attempt—which, since I was now "down" from the elevated state, could have resulted in serious injury. It took four strong men to remove me from the danger zone without harming me, which says something about the power of somafera.
Again, I faced a period of recovery. The initial few days after the rite were the worst. Elevation and gangr are usually things of joy for me, but in the days to follow the experience was less like the glorious, natural ecstasis I'd previously enjoyed, and more like something from a tacky horror film. Elevation would overtake me spontaneously, in response to pretty much any kind of stimulus (hunger, satiation of hunger, the temperature drop at dawn), and in my state of sleep debt and spent energy it was just horrible. Instead of experiencing a spell of being faster, stronger, and more vital than usual, I would find myself doubled over and shaking as my strained muscles spasmed and cramped. During this time I was provided with a lot of care—fed, watched over, comforted when the pain came. Without the support and compassion I received from my somafera group and later from others, I don't know how I would have made it. Learning that my siblings in the practice were there for me even when I felt both weakest and most monstrous was an incredibly healing experience. The worst passed, and by the time I got home some days later I was able to go back to work and carry on more or less as normal. Although I struggled with integrating the new abilities for some time, I continued to receive support via email and telephone and the net result was overwhelmingly positive and empowering. I was reborn that night. I was made into a new thing.
Somafera is not for everyone, and initiation is not even for every somaferan. You don't have to take it; it's not an end-point on the path or a test that that everyone must go through to prove themselves. Clearly, the ritual itself is dangerous, carrying an obvious risk of disfigurement, amputation, even death. More, initiation is a death of the self, and you'd better hope your new self is ready to come online when you blow up the old one. Even if all goes well, the recovery and integration process presents a serious struggle; some people find the experience of such a deep gangr presents them with a side to themselves they simply can't handle. You do it only because you must, because it is necessary. In my case I had a pressing need to draw that side of my nature to the surface and engage with it. I'd suppressed it for a great many years and was very much impaired thereby. Also, somafera states offer a unique range of tools and skills for addressing various problems, such as managing and overcoming my psychiatric symptoms. Here was a valuable opportunity to become a more functional, more productive, more useful member of society. It was worth the risks a dozen times over.
I've had my somafera practice and this ritual work attacked repeatedly by various individuals since I undertook it. Generally this takes the form of editorializing the whole shebang as something on the lines of a adolescent hi-jinx—a macho stunt undertaken to have fun or show off. All I can say to these people is that my initiation was a matter of dire necessity for me, undertaken only after two years of devotion, meditation, planning and preparation. The group supporting me included trained, multi-skilled individuals who would have been distinctly unimpressed at being used as bit players in someone's ego-trip.
Diversity in devotion
Another major misconception is that ordeal workers look down on practices other than physical ordeal as somehow lesser, not as "hardcore" I really want to lay that one to rest, as it's not merely wrong-headed but actively toxic and dangerous.
It's hard to keep in mind, but negative comments about this kind of devotional work are often coming from a place of great pain in a person's heart. When you see an act of devotion being offered and it so happens that you cannot offer something similar, it hurts! It really does. It's like seeing someone make a generous gift to a lover, one which you can't afford—that sort of feeling. If you're a hard polytheist, then the Tivar and the vaettir really are like your friends and extended family; you receive these amazing blessings from Them, and it is very natural to want to respond with your own love-gifts. A temptation exists to editorialize on the other person's devotional practice, to run it down so the discomfort is eased.
I would like to lay this discomfort to rest and affirm that ordeal work is just one of a multitude of wonderful ways in which you can serve your Gods. People often say things like "I wish I could do so-and-so, but I can't because I have such-and-such a commitment," with the implication that they are falling short in some way. As a faith, we really need to get away from this. People need to be focusing on what they can do, rather than despair over what they can't. So you couldn't engage in military service as a spiritual discipline because of your health? Then look into other paths—scholarship for instance. So you couldn't learn Old Norse because you were working overtime to buy your kid new gear for school—don't you realize that this itself was an act of devotion? When you fulfill such commitments with your heart and mind open to the Gods and wights, you are performing a living prayer. When you have to miss a heathen gathering to take care of your sick child, you are giving care to the Gods who watch over family and hearth. When you go out of your way to help a friend, you are at the same time gifting those other Friends. When you work your backside off to put food on your family's table, you also feed that other Family.
So, you can't fast because you're diabetic or you can't get a tattoo because you are anemic, or you can't risk an act of fire resistance because you're the main provider in your family right now. So what? There are a thousand—a thousand, thousand—ways to offer up devotion. Paint a picture. Learn a poem. Teach a kid to read. Spring-clean your dwelling. Plant a garden. Go about your everyday life in mindfulness of the Gods, the ancestors and the land-wights, keeping Them in your heart and seeking Their mysteries in everything you do. This kind of devotion, it's not some shoddy booby-prize you've switched out for the real deal. It is the real deal! This is where it's at!
The image of the snooty ordeal worker sneering at everyone else, spitefully criticizing other forms of devotion whilst secretly getting a filthy kick out of their own doings might be comforting to some, but back here in reality all the ordeal workers I know take care to emphasize the validity of other forms of worship, and to encourage and support diversity. We are generally not the ones attacking other people's work.