Bits about Ordeal and Madness

Disclaimer : I apologize in advance if there are many misspellings and grammatical errors due to “mis-typing”, this post was pretty loaded, and hard to write, so I expect it to contain many flaws.


Thanks to an online interfaith community on facebook, I was able to gather some pieces about what ordeals are. I got some remarks by a friend of mine which kind of triggered the realization I might have missed the whole point of my two year diploma. This article by Del is absolutely marvellous, please read it also entirely for it possesses a rhythm and a progression of its own. But I wanted to extract bits here and there in order to show what mattered the most to me, which might help other people wondering about ordeals, and might provide a path to follow for sharing personal stuff.

Many people ask me about ordeal, and they’re surprised when I tell them about my own; we expect ordeal to be physically painful, to be about blood and sweat and tears, and we turn away from that and let it be the story of other people. […] But my story, my ordeal experience, looked nothing like what someone would expect. Many people come to me for ordeals because in their mind, “ordeal ritual” and “hook suspension” have somehow become linked; in the same vein, more ordeal workers than I can count have asked (or sometimes demanded) that I teach them hook suspension, because they feel without that knowledge they are somehow lesser. But my ordeal, my most transformative experience, had nary a hook in sight.

… no black leather, no whips and chains, no sexy dominatrices forcing me to my knees. My ordeal did not happen in a darkened room fitted out to look like a torture chamber or dungeon; my ordeal happened in the middle of a green field, at the peak of summer, during the afternoon.

I had always read that ordeal is personal, no ordeal is like the other. Nevertheless, I was myself subject to those “common views”, I thought that ordeals were close or linked to physical pain. I was looking for definitions because what I experienced, of course, couldn’t be an ordeal. It was all in my head, once again, like everything spiritual…

But what I felt was very peculiar. A feeling, an urge, a need… unidentified, for something greater than myself, some sort of answers, that could only be found through the ultimate kind of test. It is very close to what Del describes here :

Once in a great while, something will come along and afford us the opportunity to have an adventure. But how many times have you heard about something, felt a longing for it deep in your bones, but let the voices of scarcity convince you to stay home? I don’t have enough money. I should be cleaning my house. I need to get more sleep. My body won’t be comfortable traveling for that long. It’s scary and unknown, and I need more comfort in my life.

We yearn for something more, but the yearning passes as soon as we go back to what is familiar. 

 I have enough pain in my life, we tell ourselves, and I don’t desire to be in any more of it.

Something that is entirely unacceptable in the face of Reason with a big R, everyone will talk you down, because it’s not worth it, too uncertain, etc etc. And yourself, you can’t reconcile your good common sense with this urge. It’s antithetical. You have to chose : do you want security, safety ? Or do you want to live this experience ? And the unknowable is weighing on the scale, on your shoulders… those “what if”, what if it’s useless, wrong, what if I fail… It’s a great leap of faith.

We have to find a deeper truth to our lives, in the corners where we do not know all the answers, do not know what to expect, can not set our watches by how long it will take, and most importantly, be in a realm where success is not assured. In order to truly engage in the realm of ordeal, there must be the chance that you’ll never know the real answer. In most ordeals, we only learn that we are asking the wrong questions, over and over again, increasing in volume; if we’re lucky enough to get the answer, it is never a comfort. It only reminds us that we aren’t thinking big enough, wide enough; stuck once again in our boxes of expectation and instantaneous comfort.

It is really about going out of the comfort zone, the control, and the knowing. I wonder how it happens for other people but mine almost drove me crazy.

The interesting thing is that I’ve always rejected physical pain, and I really thought it had nothing to do with that… I focused on the mind. But I’ve just come to realize how wrong that was. It was a double ordeal, or two-folded. It was both physical and psychological. My body started by shutting itself down, bringing me down, to a point of exhaustion beyond anything I had known, and to a point of vulnerability that I couldn’t bear, because those are some things I don’t want to show to people. A part of that trial was to accept that I was sick, highly sick, and that I needed rest, that I was fragile and needed help, and I had to tell people about it, and not hide myself like I’m used to. Then I had to figure out, to waver between two attitudes : accepting that I would have to act despite the sickness, to move forward carrying it ; or, finding a milder equilibrium between action and rest. But the trick is that in both cases I never knew what would come of it. I had to release my wish for control, and to accept that I could fail.

I had had health issues for several years, wondering how I could be so fragile and yet so resistant. So the symptoms, the tiredness… there were a pain in the ass and yet manageable. But there were so many of them yet, that it was a bigger burden that the usual. And then I realized another trick, which leads me to the psychological dimension. The disease, which was first and foremost biological, had also known neurological aftermaths, which started to make me doubts : I started losing all concentration, I could not focus on one thing for more than 10 minutes ; then I started being incapable of reading, putting two words together to form noun + adjective, or noun + verb, and make a sentence in my mind, I just couldn’t ; and last but not least, I started forgetting. Everything that I was trying to put into my mind was vanishing, and old stuff that were there disappeared to. I just freaked the fuck out. It was, and sometimes still is, like losing yourself, like being eaten by a disease, and often you think of Alzheimer – except that I am 24. I was losing all my memories, my knowledge, sometimes I couldn’t even remember my day. Who was I ? How could I be someone when I was collapsing this way ?

And apart from the personality issue, it weighed hard on me, on my project and my “public face”. I was disappearing to myself but trying to conceal it. And more, it was disabling me from doing what I was doing. Who may need concentration, reading and memory the most ? I was, and still am, a student and researcher in literature. I couldn’t read, I couldn’t learn, I couldn’t concentrate. What the hell was I doing in those seminars ? How could I pretend to write my dissertation ? I was losing myself, again, completely. I was cut from my capacities. How could I manage getting in my diploma ?

Ordeal is about showing and facilitating parts of yourself that you’d rather keep hidden; your fear, your rage, your failures, your shortcomings. If you can’t be honest about what those are, the ordeal is meaningless. You must be willing, enthusiastic even, about standing in the fullness of that which you’d otherwise hide. If you’re not ready to bare it in front of witnesses, you’re not ready for an ordeal.

I had to accept to try without being sure I would get it. I had to accept to try and tell other people what was happening. I had to try and do it myself, as I was at that moment, fragile and most, unsure, with my whole being.

And then, I started running straight into a a brick wall. If I don’t look at my issues properly, there were strengthening the brick wall, and I was the stupid wolf trying to blow it away. My issues unknown, deep in my subconscious, were gathering strength and beating me down ; also, acquiring irrational energy, and creating angst.  The writing of my dissertation started getting the worst out of me : it put me into uncontrolled altered states of consciousness, it loosened my grasp on reality. It put me on an alternative madness road. It was excruciating. It is one the most intense and long-term pain I have ever encountered in my life (two years). I was paddling vainly, rather sinking deeper and deeper. It was torture. I wanted to flee, and yet I had to try and do it. But the fact I could fail was killing me. Every attempt was a torture. Uncertain. Vain. Getting my fears and angst stronger. Weakening my mind and my body. I started feeling very fragile : I felt insecure, in the very sense my life was like in danger. My sanity was in danger, when I was getting to my studies, I was unsure if I would slip never to return again. Why “return” ? I experienced the exact same process as the madness that watched me when I went through my shamanic ordeal.  In put me like in another world, in altered state, and every day I was doubting myself, feeling I would be stuck there and lose reality for good. And I felt really, really weird, for I was working on this such brilliant mind, I was feeling closer and closer to this woman of old times… who was sinking and sinking into depression and losing her grasp. Who one day decided she couldn’t stand it and drowned herself. Where was I myself ? Wishing to be brilliant, to deliver some achieved form.

And during this time, I had the impression that the Spirits were letting me cool off. Letting me rest in peace… Was I ? No, in fact,  they were witnessing the whole process, which was part of my spiritual / personal path. Something different was at stake, needing the whole space and discharging me from my death work.

The Spirits are teaching me about myself, about my weaknesses and strengths. About being oneself 100% without shame. About pushing oneself further and succeeding without many handicaps. They are also teaching me about being “bigger”, taking more space, asking for what is mine, wishing for something more, wishing to achieve great things. And they are, once again, to my surprise, teaching me to write. I still can’t accept that but I’ve written about it before on this blog, and I have opened the devotional site they wanted, but I still have no faith in myself and in this message. I assume they will push me harder until I do. And I will try to learn, I have a monograph on the way, I will try to get back to my devotional Death Work pieces, and more. I’m following the stones along the way.


The Death & Rebirth Process Is Not Over

I was being foolish. At least, I forgot an important part of what I had been taught :

The death and rebirth process is very long. Even the death part, for a start, can be. The soul dying from repression, or depression, slows itself down, and shuts itself down, little by little. So that you don’ realise it. It’s excruciating. And once you’ve seen it, there is an even longer road to make.

My shamanic sickness* was of this type. Slow, progressive, extending greatly over the years. My soul was dying. And then, there was the harsh process of realisation, triggered by the Spirits. It was a time bomb, and a cluster bomb too. It exploded in every directions, every areas of my life. My emotions, my relationships, my work, my studies, my path, and my health. It got worse. I was made really sick. It drove me mad at times. I was open enough to get help – professional help that is. But once I started, the obstacles, the road to follow seemed even bigger and farther – and harder – than what had happened before. It was harsh. And the Spirits also tested me during this exhausting step. More and more. Quicker and quicker. Die. Die again ; and again and again. I felt I almost lost my sanity.

It’s been a few weeks since I’ve been feeling a real change. I understood so many things about myself and my path with the Spirits during that most intense year. The shadow work and the work on my psyche – plus the spiritual work – were deep. I’m feeling something new, lighter. It has not only to do with Imbolc ; it is synchronistic though. I’m emerging from my sickness and my death and rebirth’s final step. I’m feeling so much hope… It is new ! No wonder Khepry went back my way. The God of Change, death/rebirth and regeneration. I was feeling small, looking at a wonderful dawn. Khepry. I felt that Imbolc was an irregular tunnel full of bumps, yet helping me shed skins. Looking at the dawning light, I had the impression to be covered by dew. Purified.

But I had forgotten one thing : the death and rebirth process is actually not over. There is one last step to make. When you die, and are reborn, it’s not sufficient to step toward the future. Maybe it’s even impossible at first. You’re stuck. You’re surrounded by shells and waste. If you want to be able to move forward, acknowledging the change is not enough : you have to live it, to stage it.

I was feeling good, purified, but it wasn’t deep enough, not sufficient enough. It is a death, proper. And I had missed a step. I was experiencing a new phase of it : the grieving. I felt something happening but didn’t realise what it was. But that’s it. I was feeling grief – for myself. I have to do it, to feel it, grieve for my old self that died. I am new, but I have to look at what once was and is now dead. Which I have to let go. And to make this step complete, I have to go beyond introspection and contemplation : I have to make myself a ceremony, a funeral. I have to cut off those parts and mourn. And then I’ll purify myself again, to be able to stand in the new dawn.

And then, only then will I be able to make the first step as reborn.


* Let it be noted that a shamanic sickness is supposedly unique (little use to compare) and multifold. Plus, I think it never comes alone. Soul sickness can be a thing of its own, parallel to the shamanic sickness.

Mental Illnesses & Madness on the path

How funny the world can bring at your feet exactly what you need. I was wondering if I just never saw such articles or if the pagan sphere doesn’t really talk about this subject (taboo?), and then I found those great links. If you have any other suggestions please let me know.

Here are other links from my archives :

The traditional topic of shaman sickness by Kaldera

A Loki devotee writes on Madness

Fear, Madness and Magick

The impressive blog of a “sick” pagan (words are bitches…. I’m not sure how to phrase without being rude)

An other article about madness on the path

The Bipolar Mystic Blog (too bad it’s deserted)

New update – Madness Road and Death/Rebirth Processes

Something really different, which speaks of the need for support on the mystic path, and the sudden lack of it.

On spirituality and insanity

Something different about the proximity between schizophrenia and creative geniuses

The Shamanic View of Mental Illness ! 

Shaman Sickness, Part I: Enter the Madness.

Spirit workers are Zombies ?