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