Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Cleansing, Ordeals and James Arthur Ray

Since my earlier post about the Sedona sweat lodge deaths, James Arthur Ray was found guilty on three counts of negligent homicide.  Cherokee elder, judge and associate professor Steve Russell offered some pointed thoughts on the subject:
For $9,695, Ray promised that Native American wisdom, imparted by him, would make you healthy, wealthy, and wise. People lined up to consume this swill in spite of the obvious fact that most real Indians are neither healthy nor wealthy. 
While Native Americans may have greater problems to worry about (like attacks by racist skinheads and local cops), they have been understandably unsympathetic to Mr. Ray's "Spiritual Warrior Sweat Lodge." Commentary within the magical blogosphere has been even more brutal: Jason Pitzl-Waters has done his usual excellent job of bringing together various opinions on the subject. But while there is near universal condemnation of Ray, there is less consensus on other, thornier issues.   That being said, here are my $.02 on the subject: given the state of the American economy, you may want to spend it quickly.

Sweat lodges - and banyas, saunas and similar ceremonial enclosed structures involving heat and steam  - are places of purification, not trial.    One goes there to be cleansed and renewed, not to test one's limits or prove one's worth. Imagine turning the Holy Eucharist into a bread-eating contest or conflating mivkes and waterboarding.  It's telling that Ray and his target audience missed that distinction.  It's even more telling that he has a long, lucrative history of transforming various modern and indigenous practices into hazardous dick-sizing

The people who piled into that plastic sweat lodge paid Ray large sums of money because they felt they could benefit from an arduous challenge. They wanted to endure physical discomfort for their spirituality, they wanted to prove something to themselves, they wanted to meet a challenge and come out on top of it.  This suggests there is a market  - and an urgent, deep-seated need for and misunderstanding of - Ordeals.

Here I am at a bit of a disadvantage, as many of my friends do far more work on the Ordeal Path than I do.  I am hoping some of them will chime in here.  But based on my limited experience, I would note that Ordeals (at least Ordeals you set up as clergy: the Gods have their own Ordeals) are not supposed to end with the participants dead or hospitalized. An Ordeal is a serious responsibility for both the supplicant and the ordeal master. As my friend and co-author Raven Kaldera puts it
The most important thing to remember with ordeal-work is that it is meant to take you beyond your ego, not simply fluff it up. While some ordeals can give you increased confidence in yourself and your power, if there wasn't a point somewhere in it that was completely humbling, you didn't do it right. Ideally, you should eventually get to the point where the part of you that is ego is irrelevant. That's one of the way that the Ordeal Path resembles the Ascetic Path (and indeed there are places where they combine). The Ascetic's Path works with small, gentle, inexorable steps, and its focus goes inward into stillness, while the Ordeal Path takes great painful ripping steps, and its focus goes outward into a scream...after which one passes out of one's collected muck and finds a place of stillness. In the end, the Wheel of these Eight Paths all lead to the central hub, that place that we may not be able to adequately describe in words, but we all know when we've been to it. 

Sunday, June 12, 2011

A Beginner's Guide to Working With the Spirits Pt. 1: The Ancestors

I get questions from around the world asking about service to the lwa.  Many of these people are unable to travel to Haiti for initiation and study: their circumstances do not allow them to move to an area with an active Haitian community or even to attend fets in person.  Yet they feel called to approach les anges d'Haïti, the Mysteries of Haitian Vodou.  What I have tried to provide here are ways that they might work with their spirits.  This is not intended to be a substitute for a Kanzo or for any other ceremony in Sevis Gineh.

Let's start at the beginning: you were born.  An ovum and a spermatozoon met, consolidated their genetic payloads, and commenced a process which resulted in you.  Were it not for the donors of those chromosomes, you would not be here.  Nor would you be here were it not for the people who joined their bodies together throughout history for love or lust or any of a million other fucking motivations.  The blood in your veins is the culmination of an orgasm which began in the protean past and which arcs shimmering into the distant future.  It is the sap which comes up from your deepest roots; it nourishes your body and spirit and shapes your growth; it carries within it all that was and all that will be.  But to claim its power, you must first recognize its history - your history.

If you live near where your ancestors are buried, or if you can get to an ancestral cemetery, you should make sure their graves are kept clean. You should also make sure to get a tiny pinch of soil from their final resting place.  In Kongo traditional cosmology, and in Vodou and many other African Diaspora traditions, the dirt on the ground can hold and transmit the essence of a place and what has transpired there.  The earth from a grave can provide a powerful link between the realms of the living and the dead - and ancestral spirits are generally inclined to help you, since it is in their best interest to see their (and your) lineage carried forward.

If this is not possible, try to get some dirt from the place where your ancestors were born. If you have a relative who was killed in a battle or who died in some historical event, you can get earth from that site. You can also use dirt from a place where your ancestors lived. If you know where your family came from it would be worth your time to make a pilgrimage to those ancestral homelands if you can.  The earth which provides a carpet for the living and a blanket for the dead can be used to carry messages between their respective worlds.

You will not need any of these things to create a "White Table." While the White Table actually originated in Kardecian Spiritualism, it has become popular among many Haitians in the Diaspora who do not have access to their ancestral graveyards.  As per its name, a "White Table" is a table washed with Holy Water (some use water which contains some of their first morning urine), which is covered with a white cloth and atop which is placed a crucifix and glasses of pure, clean water.  (If your ancestors were not Christian, use an appropriate symbol representative of their faith.  This is important even if you are no longer a believer in that tradition - since they are your elders you must show them respect and honor their beliefs).

You can add to that any pictures of departed relatives you may have - but make sure not to include pictures of the living, since you (and your living relatives) don't want to confuse the two realms.  If you have it, also be sure to include any dirt from ancestral sites, preferably in a small box (a ring box will do).   And light one or more candles atop the table: these will provide light for the departed and help bring them to you.  Then sit back and listen. In time the ancestors will come: you will feel and experience them. Some are able to talk to the spirit world directly, while others just get hunches, impressions and images and some may even become mediums through whom the spirit speaks.

As time goes on you can add more ancestral items to your table: if you can leave it up permanently that is good.  Make sure to get a screen or some kind of block which you can place between your white table and your bed should you have sex, and try to avoid cursing, drunkenness and disrespectful behavior around your white table.  If you cannot you can take it down and put it up as required whenever you need to seek guidance.  Vodou is a flexible tradition which allows for considerable adaptation in the face of necessity, as might be expected given Haiti's long history of scarcity and privation.

This table will provide you with a link to your ancestors and to their protection and guidance.  And while I speak in the context of Vodou, ancestral veneration has been an important part of nearly all spiritual traditions.  No matter what spiritual path you walk upon, you can benefit by learning your heritage and paying proper respects to those who have gone before.  A strong ancestral link will help you to avoid the worst spiritual and material pitfalls and help lead you to the places you were born to reach.

Friday, June 10, 2011