by Randall Auxier
To dangle at the end of a tether seems extreme. But these devout fellows don’t worry about the judgments of other people. What calls human beings away from comfort to freely chosen suffering can’t be fully explained. It’s for those who can discern a reality that exceeds our everyday senses, but also pervades all that we see, hear, feel. There is an aesthetic quality to this religious pull, but the senses are subordinated as the pain becomes a conduit of connection between those who find themselves confined in a human body and those intelligences not so cramped.
Advice to demanders of narrow evidence: If you don’t allow the god of your vision-years to accompany all of your steps in life, you’ll end up with a less interesting god later –an argumentative, dogmatic god who yacks on about scientistic or hedonistic or materialistic values, but can’t tell you why anything is valuable at all; who tells you that you are worthless beyond what you can see or get or sell; who can give you no reason to sacrifice any part of that self to any higher purpose. True believers are kind of scary, but so is the world in general. I can’t see how the elaborate excuses for selfishness devised by unbelievers make the world any less frightening and I can’t see how a secular humanist would be a better companion in a foxhole (or at a civil rights rally when the police are closing in).
So, yes, these guys are religious. The things we humans have done, things that are born in our depths, through which find connection with the spirit world, make for a bizarre list. It is hard not to think of hairshirts and flagellation and other mortifications of the flesh associated with severe forms of Christianity. And then there are Pentecostal snake handlers and poison drinkers. It isn’t just the followers of Jesus, of course. The ceremonial self-immolation of the Buddhist monks during the Viet Nam War and since 2009 among the Tibetans reminds us that the world burns with human suffering. There are also crusaders and kamikazes and suicide bombers who take down enemies along with themselves, but I want to leave the idea of martyrdom for a later piece. Think instead of hunger strikers, such as Gandhi. Or, in certain druidic rituals, there was apparently voluntary human sacrifice. The idea of redemptive suffering is basic.
Some theologians have described the essence of religious faith as “ultimate concern.” We feel that life and death intermingle in such commitments and that mixture becomes visible in such voluntary sacrifices. We comprehend both our immortality and our physical limits in a single thought, and what is such a thought if not a sort of gasp that the finite mind offers to the spirit of the world? Into thy hands I commend . . . It’s dreary stuff to be sure, and yet, there is something life-affirming in all this solemn pathos surrounding ultimacy. We want life and we want it abundantly, do we not?
These dancers are Lakota, but Lame Deer says the dance is open to others, even to ancient enemies, or to anyone else who believes that a personal sacrifice may benefit others. This is not a coming-of-age ritual or any “rite of passage.” Those who dance are called to do so. It isn’t something they necessarily want or even choose. Perhaps some event in their own lives brings them to an impasse and a sacrifice reconnecting what is within to what is beyond is just the right thing to do. One doesn’t dance to get a vision, but a vision might come, and perhaps also the opening of a good path.
Sharp sticks are sunk into flesh and muscle in the pectorals, with leather thongs attached to either end of each stick, and the thongs are held by a rope looped over a cottonwood tree. That tree, ritually selected, cut, and driven deep into the earth in a consecrated place, is the center of the world. The ceremonial circle is open to the sun and the dancers will pull against the tether in rhythm to the drums while staring directly into the sun. Waves of pain coarse through them as they pull. They have fasted for three days, purified themselves in the sweat lodge, and they will take no water during the dance, They blow on whistles made of eagle bone, calling down the spirit of the great bird into whose talons they have put themselves. She knows the sound of her ancestors. When they have expended the last of their strength, the dancers collapse. The sticks will rip through the muscle and flesh and there may be a vision as each dancer is laid gently on a bed of moss.
I wonder how many comfortable practitioners of mainstream religions would be willing to do something analogous for the well-being of their congregations. Some would. There are congregations of Christians who re-enact the crucifixion of Jesus with actual nails (WARNING, this link is pretty graphic). Whatever it is in human beings that pulls us toward something ultimate, it is alive and well today. Lame Deer says that our bodies are all we really “own,” so to sacrifice anything else is to offer to the divine what it already has. But our bodies are a little different. What lives within us is enclosed in a numb sheath. We find out how numb we are when we open our bodies to the world. The Sun Dance opens the body, and the world comes into us, and what lives within gets out. The primal connection is re-established.
It is true that we come from earth and to earth we return. Even atheists can believe that. But for a time we take in the spirit, which is the wind and the sky, and we give it back in gasps and thoughts and acts of kindness and sacrifice. To do that freely is the only sacrifice, and to do it in pain is to be reminded of all the damage we do to sustain our temporary cocoons. I can’t help thinking that piercings and tattoos, even when they are mere fashions, still reach toward that deeper place, where pain is a door to ecstasis and redemption.
Such connection, enacted publicly in religious devotion, not only purifies us individually, for a time. Others may share it. In the physical presence of one who has taken on pain to lend depth to the ritual, we may experience our own feeling of life in renewed waves. I think that this experience of renewal is the goal of the high holy days of every mainstream religion. The magic doesn’t always happen, but sometimes it does. Everywhere people gather and wait for the god who comes, or the god who doesn’t but might the next time. Or the next. We have words to describe such people. These are the people of faith, the true believers. Contrary to the teachings of Sam Harris and Christopher Hitchens, most of the positive changes in the course of civilization were made by such people. One must grant that much wrong has been done by them as well.
Here is a portrait of a true believer who made some changes. Some would say he isn’t like those who pull at the ropes slung over the cottonwood tree, but I think he is. I don’t think this man would shrink from the Sun Dance at all. He knows a different version of that dance, I’m pretty sure.