Ordeal and Community

I’ve been facilitating and participating in Ordeal rituals for damn near a decade. One fairly constant aspect of my experience, whether I’m the Seeker or the Guide, is that these rituals tend to be individualized. They are crafted start to finish for one person, with one goal in mind, and the experience of the Seeker rarely affects any larger community.

This is completely understandable. Ordeals are not for everyone, of course, and there is no reason everyone should walk that path. It also plays into the near fetish we Americans have for the individual who exists outside of/rebels against/is distinct from the larger community. Especially in the case of Ordeal work, since so many Ordeal mechanics actively contradict the mores of the larger community. There are logistic concerns as well – getting a number of Seekers undergoing the same Ordeal in the same location as the number of skilled Guides needed to pull it off is incredibly challenging.

While understandable, this individual approach to Ordeal is really unfortunate. It misses an unbelievably huge part of the picture.

There is no question that, historically, some Ordeals have always been solo. There are times we simply have to walk alone, and these rituals emphasize that. However, we tend to forget that there are plenty of examples throughout history and around the world of group Ordeals too. Ordeals that, while affecting people in individual ways, are experienced by many at once. Ordeals that are supported by and provide support for the larger community. Ordeals that, instead of emphasizing the division of the Seeker from community, actually help to further entrench them in community.

I was recently privileged enough to present about Ordeal work and co-facilitate a group Ordeal ritual at Dark Odyssey’s Fusion event in Maryland. I was humbled, awed, and simply blown away by the way doing Ordeal in a group as part of the larger community utterly changed the experience for everyone involved.

Fusion is an interesting event. Up to 1500 people attended this year, all focused on enjoying time to be their authentic selves without the need to hide or defend. In addition to all the amazing programming being offered, this was the first year that a dedicated Ordeal Track was available – a panel of classes, challenges, and shorter rituals all leading up to a capstone Ordeal ritual.

At the end of the day, twice the expected number of people followed the Track. The first offering – essentially Ordeal 101 – was attended by an incredibly diverse group. I don’t think any of them knew each other prior to showing up for this. They were awkward and a bit stand-offish with each other at first, but that changed as we progressed through the preparation as a group. Seekers did the classes together, met the mini-challenges together, and shared a deep need to push themselves through this intense experience in a search for personal transformation and change.

Over the course of three days – just three days! – I watched the connections form. Just how far this group had come from that initial discomfort with previous strangers was markedly visible as we geared up for the final Ordeal ritual.

We met up that night and I gave them a 5 minute warning before beginning. These fellow Seekers, strangers just three days previously, spontaneously held hands in a circle and expressed their support for each other, their faith that they could all make it through to the other side. They were ordered to silence, and they simply continued to support each other non-verbally. One made sure everyone had water, another passed around supplies, and comforting touches were everywhere.

Each Seeker walked the path of Ordeal alone. Many of them were in tears before we even really started. A few hit their limit before the end of the path. But at the end, all were escorted to the same area for aftercare. Even after their own trauma (and yes, it was trauma) they gave their fellow Seekers support, and in many cases they were each other’s aftercare.

After the event (and some much-needed rest) everyone gathered together to process, as a group, what had happened and get some closure for the experience. It was 90 minutes of sharing and commiserating, laughter and tears. Before it broke attendees exchanged email addresses, made promises to keep in touch, hugged and held and honored each other.

I saw a group bond in days, cemented by the Ordeal all experienced. Three weeks later many who went through the experience are still in contact with each other – and with me, which I treasure. I have no doubt that many of them will continue to process the experience together, regardless of physical location, because that’s what the survivors of something transformative do for each other. That kind of support is not possible when Ordeals are undertaken as a solo event, and for many that support is what made the event as transformative as it was.

The larger Fusion community had a part to play in this too. It was in no way a solo experience, and it wasn’t limited to the Seekers who actively walked the path together. The entire Fusion community participated in the Ordeal Track and benefitted from it. People who were totally uninvolved offered cuddles and encouragement to the Seekers as the track progressed. The day after the capstone ritual everyone seemed to assist with aftercare, from offering hugs to giving space.

People in the community also expressed a feeling of being supported by those on the Ordeal track, even if they had no personal involvement at all with the proceedings. It seemed to register to some almost as an act of community service, and members of the community felt supported and valued as people just because the option to do this kind of thing was available for them too.

The importance of this kind of community involvement and support for the experience – especially something that mainstream culture finds “weird” or “scary” – cannot be overstated.

We craft these rituals, we plan these experiences, and they are transformational and powerful and everything else, but when we do these things alone the experience is limited. I want to experience this group-in-community setting for Ordeal again, and try to duplicate this type of experience in other groups, with other communities.

Because honestly? I desperately want to see more of this. I want to watch another group bond over shared trials and successes. I want to see those who participated in this year’s track participate in next year’s track, mentors and examples who can say “we did this and you can too”. I want to see these connections continue to grow and deepen and develop, expanding to accept new people and expressions.

So many of us who dance the edges of spiritual experience, who push ourselves past not just our own limits but the limits society attempts to place on us, can find ourselves walking a very lonely road. Our experiences sometimes set us apart from others. But no man is an island, and totally rejecting/being rejected by a larger community can limit us.

Conceptualizing Ordeal as part of a larger community bridges that gap, making everyone a part of the process. Our spiritual work becomes not something limited to ourselves, but radiates outwards in a tangible way. Fostering connection without sacrificing individual experience transforms not just ourselves but our world, one community at a time.

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Sacrifice and Perspective

Sacrifices can be as varied as any other offering, but usually seem to involve inconvenience, abstention, or discomfort. Fairly common examples include giving up sex, experiencing pain, and fasting. I’m good with that. I start differing even from many of the other polytheists I’ve met when we get to the why, though. Why do we do these things?

The answer can be as varied and nuanced as the practices themselves, but the most common rationale I’ve heard is that if it’s unpleasant and you do it anyway, it means more and thus has a greater value than it might otherwise – to you, the Power who requested it, and perhaps even the world at large. This is a perfectly acceptable reason. It is not, however, the intent behind my practice of sacrifice. While I am not your typical spirit-worker in a lot of ways I’m also not a special snowflake – this perspective can be useful for anyone doing this kind of work.

I think the reason for the alternative view is that I’m working with different Powers than a majority of the people talking about this kind of thing. The whole “unpleasant = value” equation never figures in. Sacrifice is, in my relationships, not a reason in and of itself but a method. Something being difficult or painful is not the point. It’s more about clearing away that which has passed its usefulness to provide space for new growth.

My Lady uses the methods She uses with me because these are the methods that work with me, not out of personal preference. That’s it. If my head worked differently She would use other methods.

A few years ago my Lady demanded that I take a temporary oath of celibacy. Oh, I was pissed. I worked in the sex industry at the time, most of my social contacts were through the kink community, and I had 3 very regular play partners (one of whom I lived with). I loved sex – still do – and saw absolutely no reason to stop engaging with people on that level. Besides, being surrounded by it 24/7 and being unable to partake felt like cruel and unusual punishment. I argued, protested, resisted, came up with excuses, you name it. She was firm, though, and to put a cherry on my “are You serious?” sundae She had it start on Beltane. I was not amused (although my friends thought it was hilarious).

And within a week I felt like a total dumbass. I had more free time, my head was more open, and I unearthed this huge mess in my head I hadn’t even realized was there. Six months into it my life had drastically changed, and at the end of a year my life had so dramatically improved that I asked to make it permanent so I wouldn’t lose any ground (and got a no – I almost cried). I am a much healthier and more balanced person now because of the whole experience.

The thing here? She did not then and does not now care about my sexual partners or lack thereof. My celibacy didn’t do a damned thing for Her. The sacrifice was for me, to give me space to grow and change some patterns that were becoming problems. Celibacy was the method She used to guide me and teach me because that’s the only method that would have worked for me.

Even the more typical Ordeal-oriented sacrifices I’ve done for Her – the tattooing and piercings and brandings, the silences and the fasts, the floggings and the lashes – can be examined under this lens. To really learn a lesson I sometimes need it imprinted on blood and bone. If I don’t experience it and don’t feel it, it’s not real. The deeper a lesson is the more I need to physically feel it. My Lady works with that because that’s my need, not Hers.

For instance, part of my dedication ritual to Her was a flogging. I treated it almost like a hazing, like I had to go through this painful thing without complaint to prove myself worthy to serve Her or something. My top knew my (very high) limits and at my request purposely pushed them to make me work for it. After about 45 minutes, when I was about to fall to my knees again, I rather bitchily asked Her for a little help, since She wanted this and all.

From that moment until the end I didn’t feel a single blow land. Not one. My body moved with the impact, but that’s it. She had been waiting for me to request aid. My asking for help – not the pain itself – was the point. I already received so much from our relationship that asking for more felt like I was being unreasonable or demanding, so I simply didn’t ask. Ever. My Lady won’t help without request. My devotion (aka stubbornness) tied Her hands. In this case the Ordeal was simply a way She could force the issue in a way I couldn’t ignore. I’m much better about asking now.

This view of “sacrifice as method and not goal” isn’t one I see out there very much, and I somehow doubt that my Lady is the only one to approach sacrifice in this manner. It’s an incredibly valuable technique, however, and the perspective is useful. Knowing the reasons why a sacrifice is being requested might help us engage the experience more fully and get everything we can out of it.

Further into Simplicity

I started this whole journey into vastly simplifying my life a month ago. A progress report seems called for.

The overall theme seems to be “awareness”. I am aware of so many things I wasn’t before! And as I’ve simplified, the things I’ve never noticed before are affecting my life in some fairly significant ways.

Take weather. Before now weather hasn’t really affected anything but my commute. I went from a climate-controlled home to a climate-controlled car to a climate-controlled destination. Now, though? My walks and transportation are getting colder as we turn to winter. I also work in a very computer-dense office that’s kept cold as a result. Frankly it seemed a bit silly to spaz about climate control in my apartment when I can’t do that everywhere else (I like consistency – sue me).

Instead of relying on the heater I’ve been doing things like baking at night, so the oven warms my little apartment before I sleep. Clothes air dry more slowly now, so I’ve started doing laundry twice a week to spread it out a bit. I also try to do it in the morning, so the hot water warms the place too. My apartment is small enough that just that, with my comforter, is plenty. (Remember, I live in the South.) We’ve been down to 36* here and I haven’t had to touch my heater. I have no illusions that I’ll do that well in the summer, but I’m hoping to at least minimize A/C use as much as possible.

Another example? I wanted to take simplification of my foods slowly, seeing it as this huge challenge. Nope. It’s all flowing into each other. For instance, I made enchiladas last week. I made my own tortillas, since I consider that in the “bread” category and committed to making all of it. Since I had already done that, though, it seemed a bit self-defeating to turn around and use canned enchilada sauce after all that effort! So I didn’t. I found a recipe online that sounded good and purchased canned tomato sauce. I felt ok with that – and added learning canning to my to-do list for the coming months.

Another thing I’ve noticed is that simplicity seems to be a self-sustaining process. Simplification in one area naturally spreads to other areas. Like so many things it’s a change in perspective that does the trick. I’ve found myself further along in this process than I thought I’d be at this point because of it.

A basic change is that carrying plastic grocery bags as far as I have to walk is hard on my hands (not to mention that breaking bags suck when on foot!), so I got a reusable canvas tote I put things in to make carrying groceries easier. I haven’t used a plastic grocery bag since that started. Is avoiding plastic bags a good idea? Of course. I just hadn’t intentionally decided to do it – it naturally grew out of the other changes I’ve made.

That goes for packaging too. I’ve known for awhile that overpackaging is bad. But now I’m carrying everything by hand, so minimizing packaging just makes sense. This recently came up with those plastic jars spices come in. I put spices in my spice rack, but that means the plastic shaker thing the spices come in are useless. So I asked around and found a place that sold spices in bulk – no shaker to worry about. As a side benefit I’m also buying higher quality spices and have access to a greater variety.

Another example of the packaging thing is the big cardboard canisters I buy oatmeal in. Those tubes, covered with paper, have become canisters in my kitchen. I’m reusing them for something I need. Once I have enough of them I’ll start buying my oatmeal in the bulk section too, again minimizing packaging.

Since I’m already hitting the “reduce” and “reuse” parts of the 3 R’s, I’ve started looking into recycling options for my area. The eco-conscious thing is naturally flowing from simplicity, and I’m not even trying that hard! They compliment each other beautifully.

These changes even affect personal interactions. I’ve often felt like I live in this little hermetically-sealed bubble, separated from the people around me by my life. I’m a part of the neighborhood now. I took a different bus last week, to run an errand, and my regular bus driver asked if I was ok when he saw me again. My neighbor helped me out with a maintenance issue, because we’ve chatted as I walk past in the afternoons. I baked him cookies in exchange for his help – barter at its best.

It hasn’t all been roses – there have been hiccups too as I do this. Lots of them. It’s a learning process. I’ve been shopping on autopilot and picked up bread, not noticing until checkout. I’ve run out of ingredients for whatever I’m making, since I’m not used to everything being separate, and with transportation being so sporadic I’ve had to postpone things until I could get to the store again. I’ve been tired and not wanted to spend hours kneading bread and wringing clothes. I’ve been trapped in my apartment for hours because every stitch of clothing was wet at the same time. I’ve had to scramble to catch the bus, or waited for over an hour to catch one, or gotten off at the wrong stop. I’ve flat forgotten dozens of things that I haven’t quite adjusted to yet. I didn’t have enough patience with the detergent I made so the consistency is off a bit. Etc. The only thing that makes all of it worthwhile – even the screw ups – is that they only have to happen once for me to learn better. I find that highly encouraging.

Overall, I’m loving it. It’s amazing to me how natural all of this seems to be once I took that first step to get started. I still have a month to work out the kinks – which is a good thing – but so far it’s easier than I feared and more rewarding than I’d hoped. I feel more connected to my life and myself, more in tune with the cycles around me, and I’m learning how happy I’m made by little things.

Simple Things

As I start the transition to a vastly simplified life I’ve made some rather interesting discoveries about the whole thing. The biggest change is that I feel more connected with processes and cycles, in obvious ways that really never before impinged on my awareness.

For instance, like most people I buy my clothes instead of making them. And for me the material – and hence the origin of the fabric used to make a garment – never really mattered. I checked for color, fit, and a texture I liked, made sure it was machine-washable, and made sure it fit my budget. End of.

Now I do my laundry by hand. This is forcing me to really learn about the fabrics, and that’s led to all sorts of other things. Such as, did you know that clothes don’t come from stores? They come from fields, from silkworms, from animals. The store is simply the last stop before it gets to me. I somehow lost conscious awareness of that because I was so distant from the process. I knew it, but I didn’t know  it. Working it with my hands connects me to the whole cycle of the items I handle in a way I hadn’t expected.

Spending so much time with my clothing has also made me more conscious of quality – if I’m going to spend this kind of effort to maintain something, it needs to be something worth the bother. That reasoning has moved mending and alterations much higher on my to-do list. I’ve got set time between each “load” when doing laundry, and it’s nothing to quickly stitch on a button or take up a hem by hand while doing everything else.  I’m actively considering making at least some of my clothing by hand in the future, just to better grasp the process.

Transportation is another huge change. I take the bus everywhere. I find myself really studying my neighborhood, learning how it feels and meeting my neighbors. My apartment isn’t its own little island – it’s a part of something larger. Walking it on foot spotlights that in a way driving doesn’t. This is something hardcore urbanites and rural folks both know, but that those in suburban areas often forget.

I’m also much more conscious of transportation logistics. For instance, moving a gallon of milk from the shopping cart to a car isn’t a big deal. Lugging it to the bus stop, managing it on the bus, and then lugging it the ½ mile from the bus stop to my home? While trying to make sure it stays cool for the trip, and juggling anything else I’m carrying? Milk is a pain in the ass. So I have to think – how much milk do we transport by truck all across the country? How heavy is that, and how much energy is used to transport it and keep it cool? I take the issues I have with my short trip and my one gallon and multiply it, and it’s suddenly a problem of which I’m consciously aware. Supporting local agriculture is no longer some abstract ideal for me. I understand the logic more with every step I carry groceries home.

That brings me neatly to another focus. I’m also going for simplicity in my food. I want to totally ditch pre-packaged foods and make everything from scratch. My ideal is to have shopping trips be strictly for staples – flours, beans, etc – and spices. Oh, and to do this with as few specialty tools as possible. *laugh* Because why not aim high, right?

This one is hard. I’m not a great cook to begin with, and growing up Hamburger Helper was high cuisine. I also work a full-time job that’s pushing into massive overtime, and the free time I have is also spent doing the other things I’m doing for simplicity’s sake. So, since all this kicks in for real in December, I’ve decided to take the food transition in steps. A gradual adjustment should be easier to incorporate than changing direction midstream.

I decided to start with anything flour-based, since that’s the most processed thing I generally deal with. I now bake all my own bread. Over the next week or two I’ll be experimenting with making my own noodles and crackers, and eventually with grinding my own flours. Just the bread thing has been a challenge! But, somewhat to my own surprise, it’s been totally worth it. I used to pick up whatever was cheapest. Now I’m much more conscious of what goes into what I eat, how nutritious it is, and how my body feels after I eat it. I find that I’m more consciously aware of the fact that bread is not really created in a vat in the back of the grocery store. I actually stop to consider the various elements individually and how they work together to make the bread I use for my sandwich. And I’m just getting started with this whole thing!

So far this process has been as illuminating as celibacy was. I’ve discovered that – for me, at least – the dependence on automation has really distanced me from the things that make up my world. It has also showcased how far apart an abstract understanding is from practical reality. The more automation I ditch the more I realize how dependent on the earth and other people I am, and how important it is to support both. I’m really looking forward to the perspective changes waiting for me down the line as I continue this path.