The Academic Approach to Understanding Sacred Ceremony

On our Lakota trip I had a personal experience that was very sacred during an uncomfortable time of overcoming physical and mental adversity. It occurred on Wednesday when we hiked to the top of Bear Butte. The abundance of air space and lack of land space caused me to have a very overwhelming feeling. I am also scared of heights which caused anxiety. Due to the fact the area is sacred I related the feelings I was having to being closer to the spirits and god. My mental state of not feeling completely in control, and in a way foreign, backed up the feelings I was having of being closer to the spirit world. My physical state was also altered in this experience. Not only was my stomach in a knot from being up there, but hiking up the mountain with no rests took a toll on my body. I don’t have the best blood circulation and it was draining. With my body and mind both strained and vulnerable I felt I was able to embrace the close connection I was making to the spirit world. It took a while to embrace this feeling as I had to put my fear aside to pray for a life struggle and participate in ceremony. I had never before prayed so deeply in a time of great discomfort, unless I was praying for my discomfort to go away. My prayer was beyond the fear and discomfort that was present and even took my mind away from what my body was feeling. After the ceremony ended I felt safe and okay with being on top of the mountain. My prayer had lasted so long that when I stopped praying it felt normal to be up there. This was an amazing accomplishment for me to overcome my fear and never did I expect it to happen during such a sacred moment. There are many academic studies that can help justify why I had this religious experience, but they are limited to secular justifications. The spiritual connections themselves can not be explained in academia.

Smith talks about how people are more likely to apply sacred meaning to occurrences when they happen in a sacred setting. Smith uses a temple as an example for a sacred setting and says, “When one enters a temple, one enters marked-off space in which, at least in principle, nothing is accidental; everything, at least potentially, is of significance. The temple serves as a focusing lens, marking and revealing significance”(Smith 54). Using my experience at Bear Butte to look at how this academic analysis applies is very interesting. Knowing that the land was sacred for sure had an effect on the meaning of what happened. It was those expectations of the mountain being sacred that made me subconsciously decide to face my fears in a sacred light. I was praying deeply long before the pipe ceremony even started, which I don’t normally do. I saw the land in a sacred light and that is a possibility for one of the many factors that make up how I was revealed to my sacred experience.

The root of my individual experience during our pipe ceremony on top of Bear Butte can be understood by academic analysis in another way as well. In Smith’s article, the idea of sympathetic magic is brought up. In summary, sympathetic magic is creating visually and physically a mock of how things are done in reality during ceremony. The goal of this is to achieve better results in reality(Smith 58-65). How this interestingly enough relates to my experience was through a metaphor. I was praying to help myself overcome a life obstacle, while I was overcoming a life long fear. Even though I did not mimic reality, I was able to make the comparison between overcoming obstacles. I figured if I could overcome my current fears while praying and thinking about overcoming my future reality, I would manifest one onto another creating my own sympathetic magic in my practice. Making this relation to my individual experience has broadened my knowledge and understanding of sympathetic knowledge. I now see that a ceremony does not have to be set up for an entire group to mimic their life goals in order for there to be sympathetic magic. In Smith’s article he uses the example of preparing for the hunt in ceremony. Unlike his example of a group planning to do sympathetic magic for better outcomes, my experience is proof that sympathetic magic can occur to an individual in a ceremony where the intentions of the group are not the same.

Academic attempts are limited and can not explain the actual sacred interaction, just the root of how they occur. I believe this is because every one is different. People vary with openness and spirituality and may be revealed to different sacred meanings at different times in their own way. If an academic study goes against a sacred experience one has, it is not to take away from that person’s experience. It can often be hard to take something spiritual and explain it in an academic way. The common themes of where these events usually take place and what can cause them is noted in academic justifications, but the unique experience relative to different people at different times can not be explained as a lot of the understanding is on a spiritual level. When learning only through academic studies and not individual experience there is not as deep of an understanding. Hearing or reading about different ceremonies second hand is based off of trust and when it is told, meaning is lost through language and the picture is not whole. Spiritual events are sometimes hard to believe and outsiders can claim sacred events to be false.

At the same time there is a lot to be learned through second hand accounts of the sacred. It is great for learning how different ceremonies and practices are done and what the desired outcomes are. Accounts of scholars in ceremony can only provide for a better understanding of what happens in ceremony and help back up the truth behind the ceremony to other scholars. When a sacred event is seen first hand, there is no denying it and there is a new view on the ceremony.

A very insightful part of learning through individual experience is the knowledge of how the ceremony can be applied to the individual. When ceremonies are read about, the knowledge of knowing what the ceremony can do for the individual is not picked up. An individual with previous religious background will not know all the similarities and connections they might have with different ceremonies through academic understandings. For me, it takes actually going out and experiencing the ceremony to make those personal connections.

If personal experience is going to happen with ceremony, it is very useful to use academic studies prior to ceremony. This is to provide background of the culture in which ceremony is being performed. This is important to know in order to be polite and not be a distraction to the ceremony and alter it in anyway. I think there is a balance between individual experience and academic studies that is very beneficial. Our class, unlike many individuals, was fortunate enough to have had an amazing first hand experience.  When presented with such a great opportunity it is important to make the most of it by coming to the location or ceremony with previous academic knowledge.  It is also important to look back on the experience through an academic lens to draw conclusions and reflect upon the experience.


Works Cited


Smith, Jonathan. Imagining Religion: From Babylon to Jonestown. University Of Chicago Press, 15 May. 1988. 53-65. Print.

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