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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.