Working With Ordeals

excerpt from Wightridden: Paths of Northern-Tradition Shamanism

Why do it? Why do crazy painful things to your body? First, let me say this: I don't think that ordeal work is appropriate before a certain level is attained in your work. If you look at a cabalistic model - not so much accepting the entire cabalistic world-view, but just as a glyph of progression - I think ordeal stuff comes in after Paraketh, after you've got your independent solar furnace. Before that, it's too destructive. It's too easy to get yourself into a "Yes, I really must sacrifice to people who just want to beat on me" or "I just need to beat on people, so I'll pretend it's spiritual." Having said that, I've been doing vicious things to people since I was very young, and I wasn't attained at all, but I would say that the magical part of it starts after you've reached a point of having the divine indwelling to some extent. The early stuff is about learning technique - hurting without harming.

What is it for? Many things. Purification and hunting power, to name a couple. Purification includes regaining humility, offering the pain to a deity in a bhakti-yoga sense, and to recognize the illusory nature of manifestation. It's a courage-increasing activity - once you've hung from hooks, asking your boss for a pay raise is not that big a deal. That's a typical example of a power-hunting application. For me, ordeal is a measure of how far you've come, and what you can do. For those of us who have big "not good enough" complexes, the ordeal path is great for that. For those with big dysphoria issues, it's good for that too. For those who've got big ego issues, it's great for that because you can be seriously humbled by it.

I'll give certain examples of that. Kavadi, for instance, is an offertory rite. In Kavadi you wear a frame that carries spears that press into your flesh. The religious aspect of it is that you offer the pain to the god who is associated with the ritual. It's a devotion. From an engineering-energetic point of view, those spears act like huge antennae. First of all, you collect crud onto your energy body just from walking around in the world. With the spears, this pierces the crud, and it sort of crumbles and falls away. It's almost like you're taking a jackhammer to it, and when you come out of the ordeal you're fresh. It's the same with doing a hook suspension; you often leave the crud hanging from the hooks and you get torn out of the crud. It stays behind. It's all about breaking into pieces and being freed of the layers of crud that you get from interacting with the world.

Kavadi opens your crown chakra in a big way. The first time that I did Kavadi, I was seeing the world differently. My point of view had shifted to a place about four inches above the top of my head, and that was where I was seeing everything from. I couldn't stop it, and it lasted about two days, and it had a permanent effect of opening the crown chakra. For two days, that was where my point of view was, unless I forcibly brought it down to where my physical eyes were. It was a very strange sensation.

Hook suspensions have been around in the Tamil environment and in that of certain Native American tribes for thousands of years. It's been around to a lesser extent in the Urals where you'd have piercings and sit on top of high things, but not necessarily in the same way. How that works is that it's a huge offering of fear and lack of self-confidence, and just pushing through that. It's related to firewalking. The first time you go up on hooks, you just don't have any hope of being able to do it. It's certain failure. You put the hooks in, and you start to put tension on the string, and the moment any tension comes on it, you're saying "Whoa, no, stop!" And you think, fucking hell, I'm supposed to have my whole body weight on this? And you freak out, and you go into a pit of despair, sure that you're not going to be able to do this.

And in fact, most of the time that we do the "pre-flight briefing" with the person, we tell them that there will come a point where you will think to yourself, "There is no way in hell that I can do this." And you have to move on. We actually do this in a series of little plateaus, where you put the pressure on the hooks, and the nerves register the change and freak out. But if you then leave it there at that level, they get used to it, and after five or six breaths you can go to the next level. Some people like to get through it real quick, just "take me up and go through the whole thing at once". For me, that's a waste of the experience, especially for the first time. I want people to experience the full set of "I can't do this" to "ohmigod, I'm doing this!" The incremental process is important.

There are those who do suspensions for sport, thrill-seeking, and it does have a specific effect when you're actually up there, because then it doesn't actually hurt much any more. But people should experience the full process from just lying here with the hooks in, to "oh, they moved and I'm going to puke!" to the moment when they realize that their hooks are getting light on the table, and they are really going to be able to take off at some point too. I have taken off and had it be unbelievable. Especially if you do it with the hooks in your back and the weight in your belly, it doesn't hurt once you get lifted up. If you compare it to, say, flying in a hang-glider harness, it is actually more comfortable, because your whole body is suspended by your skin. Your nerves, where the hooks are, are compressed and they aren't feeling anything any more. You can take about 140 pounds per hook, and you are floating in the air! It's the closest you can come to flapping your wings and taking off. It's really an amazing feeling. I'd advocate it to anyone who is drawn to the ordeal path, purely as an experience of overcoming fear and being rewarded with a marvelous thing.

A fair bit of it is endorphins, but endorphins only last about a half hour to maybe an hour, and everything that happens after that is not endorphins any more. Yes, some people, especially those who have been in chronic pain for a long time, no longer make endorphins; they've used it all up. So perhaps it might not work for some of them, but on the other hand, the guy that I know who loves this the most is someone who is in that chronic pain, and for whom endorphins don't work. He has to get given morphine shots for his pain, it's so bad. But this works great for him, because it's a distraction. The endorphin high may start you off, get you over the initial hump, but it is trivial compared to what is really going on. The reason why the hook suspension doesn't hurt is not because of endorphins but because the nerves are compressed. The nerve reacts to change, not to pure pressure, which is why gunshot wounds don't hurt that much after a while; there's no change to register.

You can distinguish the endorphin-feeling from the underlying chemistry, though. It's like when you get a big tattoo done - the first ten minutes are annoying, the next 90 minutes are kind of OK because the endorphins are there, and after that it becomes awful again. If you carry on past that point, it becomes transcendent, so sometimes the endorphins are actually getting in the way. Some people who do suspensions will actually do things to use up the endorphins beforehand, because of that.

You can certainly use the Ordeal Path as an altered state, but you have to ask: what's the purpose of this altered state? As for things that it's especially good for, there's atonement. Beyond simple purification - getting rid of the crud - if you're a person who suffers from guilt, then you can pay for things with discomfort. It's also a very great relativising force, so if you're a person that tends towards the obsessive or whiny, undergoing a proper, seriously difficult ordeal will make the things that you usually whine about seem much less onerous.

Probably its most potent use, though, is for hunting power, through going into fear and out again. Where fear is, there's power, because fear locks up a lot of power, and if you can go through a fear, or dissolve a fear, or do something despite having a fear, you can then bring that extra energy cell into your body, and you've got more juice than before because you hunted that stuff up. For me, also, it's a way of getting raw; breathing, eating, and life in general becomes quite a lot more interesting. It's a kind of anti-jading mechanism. If you get really properly frightened or really properly challenged, the very fact of being alive becomes a gift. It's the opposite of being bored or numbed-out.

I have noticed also that deities can amplify discomfort a lot. I'd modify a quote by Fakir Musafar and define pain as "an intense sensation that was either unexpected or undesired." What you're doing when you're taking an ordeal on is that you're receiving an intense sensation, but the negative connotations of the word pain frighten you. If you're in chronic pain, you expect it, but you don't desire it. Conversely, I do not like to stub my toe. This is a bad thing. I do not like to have a migraine. Gut cramps suck. But in terms of an experience of overcoming something, pain is really potent, and deities can amplify or remove it.

I had an experience where I fell while walking in the mountains and I dislocated my kneecap. Now normally I can just kind of dissociate from any kind of discomfort if I need to, but there was no dissociating from that. It was the worst thing that ever happened to me. Where the nice dome of the patella should be, there was a dip, and the patella was all the way out to the side. I didn't dare push it back, because I didn't know if there would be nerve damage by doing that. I was like that for an hour and a half while people went down the mountain and got me an ambulance. The point of it, I'm sure, was to endure the madness of really, really bad pain with no safe word, no way out. It just ripped through my whole body like a high-pitched whine; there was no escaping it. It screwed with my breathing. In fact, interestingly enough, there happened to be a midwife there, and she sat at my head and did all the breathing out and in, and that helped, but as soon as I realized that the van had come and they were going to have to lift, me, I freaked out again. And I had done years of breathing control, but this was unexpurgated madness. They picked me up and put me in the van; I was terribly afraid to scream, because I didn't want to upset people, so as they picked me up I warned them that I might have to scream. And then there was this amazing noise in the background - for a moment I thought that it was a sawmill or something - and then I realized that it was me, making this wounded-animal horrendous scream. They took me into the clinic and shot me up with morphine, but it didn't touch it at all.

The point of this is that I'm glad I had that experience, even though I don't ever want it to happen again, thank you very much, but it took me to the outer edge of a place where people in pain go. And ever since then, pain has basically been a cakewalk, including Kavadis, and terrible discomfort while running - you notice that I use the word "discomfort"; it's not really pain. Pain is what happens when your kneecap is dislocated; this is discomfort.

When I had my midriff tattoo, it was done by my teacher, and she was deliberately inflicting pain - partly because we both agreed that it would be good as an ordeal, partly because she was pissed at me - but I sang the pain out then. These are all good techniques for dealing with pain - singing it, breathing it out, or trying to distract yourself. One of the things I've found really helpful is to actually go to the inside of the pain - and I find this particularly helpful during running - and say, "OK, what is this exactly? How does it feel to be next to it? How does it feel to be next to it on the other side?" And just kind of get into what is this sensation exactly, and what is it telling me? Of course, if you're doing an ordeal where many things are happening at once, you don't have the luxury of just meditating on that one particular thing. For single things, like rope bondage or clothespins where it's pretty stable, you can have them meditate on that.

I like the courage aspect of it, I like the cleansing aspect of it. I like the worthiness aspect of it. It's an initiation, a quest, a warrior thing. Now you belong to this group of people who have done this. We sometimes say, when people have done their first suspension, "Welcome to the Club." You're now irrevocably in the special elite club of people who have done this, and in terms of the number of people on the planet, that's not that many.

We know that the Jotunfolk do violent sex - at least, those of us who work with them know that. We know that they do warrior ordeals, and coming-of-age ordeals, and the whole hunter-warrior-lord thing. Angrboda for us is a very strong source of inspiration for us for that stuff, because she seems to specialize in that; the whole "How good are you really?" aspect of ordeals seems to be her forte. Other deities who understand ordeals: Tyr; Odin on the Tree, Angrboda - it's less well written about her, but her spawning monsters is a hint to me of that. Besides, you can go ask her about it. Hela teaches it, but in a very ritualistic sort of way. And of course Fenrir teaches it.

When I wrote the love song to Fenrir, I wrote about the fact that there's no letting it be, sometimes you have to do this to ensure that the world is enlivened. It's an anti-stagnation effect. People are generally so blunted by their daily experience that they don't get anything new and stimulating. For me to take some suburbanite and scare the shit out of them until they piss themselves with fear, or hang them by hooks, or take them on a mountaineering expedition, whatever it is, invariably at the end of it, people look at you and say, "God, I'd forgotten how good it is to be alive." Taking people to the edge of their limits is empowering. I think it's actually good for people with big egos to be shown where their limits are. From a "giving it up" point of view, it's all right to lose control in those situations, because you're in a primal state of worry for your ongoing existence, and it's OK to let go of all the usual stuff.

And if someone was saying this who hadn't actually gone out and done these ordeals, you'd say, "Romanticized crap! Why don't you actually go out and do it, then?" But I have done it for a long time, and I still feel this way about it, because it works. BDSM, for example, is just a sexually-charged way to go through ordeals assisted by someone else, whether it's a shame-confronting, or fear-confronting, or pain-confronting ordeal. Whatever the issue is, get the demon out there and fight it for real. That's where the power is. There are a hundred books on how to do it, but it's nothing to actually doing it.

There's a great book on this by Anita Phillips called A Defense of Masochism, and she argues that you deal with the overwhelmingness of the Universe by actively inviting a part of it to come and ravish and invade you, just puncture your boundaries and overwhelm you, and that's how you deal with the largeness of it all. The other thing that she was on about - which was quite interesting - was that for some people, it's hard to feel like they have any boundaries, or who they are at all, and to be invaded and ravaged means that there was a boundary to cross. You can then feel where it is, particularly for people with identity issues. "I don't know who I am." Well, put them in enough pain, and ravage them, and invade the boundary, and suddenly they know where the boundary is and they can defend it. But until they've experienced where it is, they don't know how.

It can be very therapeutic, but it's not a substitute for therapy. However, in the hands of someone who is actually a psychopomp, somebody capable, it can be very therapeutic. It can replace, or be a better therapeutic intervention, or replace many other kinds of therapeutic interventions. But to see every scene as therapy, or to foist your issues onto your top without talking about it first, or saying that "This needs to get therapeutic now," that's a bad thing, and dangerous.

If you are someone who does ordeals as a sacred service, well, first, I believe that you have to have been there. That's controversial, but for me you have to have been there. Not necessarily the technique that you're doing to them, but the particular flavor of fear and discomfort that goes with it. You're sending someone into a place that's frightening and lonely, and you need to be able to go there and pick them up. At the end of that tunnel, you need to be there with your arms open to receive them, and they have to know that you know that tunnel. I also think that is helps to be horsing a deity, either your patron or a patron of these arts, while you're doing it. It makes you more courageous than you normally would be, and more intelligent about the act.

To do this work properly, you need to be hooked up to a manifestation of the Divine, all the time. Usually underworld or death-dealing deities; that's what they do. You need a clear vision of what you're doing, why you're doing it, what the intended outcome is. Sometimes you need to be willing to take things into your own hands and go beyond what the person thinks that they can manage, so most of the time if it's ritual stuff, they don't get to say stop just because it's intense. If you're going to have this as ritual, then you can't be in control; you'll just have to trust me. If they can't let go, then they're not ready to do the ritual. If they can't trust me, then I'm not the right Ordeal Master for the job.

That's another reason to do ordeal work - it raises a whole lot of power. It's a very potent way of generating raw power. We do ordeals of just pure physical discomfort, or endurance, of fear - dealing with your agoraphobia or fear of heights, confronting the stuff. These can be warrior initiations or they can be power hunts. We do ordeals to raise power, as sacrificial offerings, purifying and atoning ordeals...these are useful when you feel cruddy about something that happened that you didn't have the attainment to prevent, and you can't make it right with the people that were wronged because they're not there, you don't have contact with them, they're dead, and you're feeling like it's a burden that you have to pay for in the ledger, and you haven't had the opportunity to do so.

It can get addictive, if it's done without purpose. There are a lot of endorphin junkies, just going from one to the next, always seeking the next bigger high. The only way out is to improve the education of the community, because that profanes it. It's a biological thing. People have used discomfort and endurance forever for noncorporeal aims.