Practical and Spiritual Understanding

Harrison Rosenfeld

Indigenous Religious Traditions

November 14, 2012

Bruce Coriell


Practical and Spiritual Understanding

The academic study of religion and the personal spirituality of a person both help as well as limit one’s study of religion. Through the lens of capable, well informed, religious academics such as Robert Segal and the many minds, including Victor Turner, he writes about one is able to explore the universal themes of ritual in religion. In Robert Segal’s “Victor Turners Theory of Ritual” Segal analyzes Victor Turner’s take on religion, and while doing so offers his own insights and perspectives on the topic as well as explores theories from Geertz, Douglas, Durkheim, Marx, Freud, and others. Ritual becomes central to Segal’s paper and the academic insight offered certainly pertains to a personal experience I had at Pine Ridge. My personal experience at Pine Ridge had a lasting impact in my spiritual life as well as of my understanding of religion. Therefore the experience I had, utilizing the sweat ceremonies of the Lakota tradition, has in some ways tainted my personal beliefs on spirits to be as real and accessible as anything through true mastery of one’s spirituality.  At the same time this incidence induced me to personally feel rather scared, it also created a unique euphoria after accessing my deep spirituality through further sweat lodges. The academic study of religion combined with one’s personal spiritual experiences form a successful way to study religion.

During the first night at the sweat lodge I had decided to leave, actually run out of, the sweat when I became exceedingly frightened. My hands began numbing, tingling, and shaking uncontrollably. This intense physical reaction to this sweat, which in retrospect was not nearly as hot as other sweats, at that very moment left me wondering why I had this reaction. Granted I didn’t drink water too much that first day(made sure to drink plenty every other day) it still for me wasn’t enough to explain this intense of a reaction as I had eaten and had some water during the day.  The numbness moved in unison up my hands, spookily  symmetric, and I felt there was something more to this feeling, maybe something warning me to leave the lodge. Luckily, another student had requested to leave, as my hands reached their peak of uncomfortableness in the lodge, giving me one final moment to run out of the doorway. Instantly, I ran to the open air and threw my hands to the sky. I prayed and prayed until after a minute or so I finally gained control of my hands. As I sat around the fire after the sweat, and on the ride home that night I contemplated why I had had this reaction. After really thinking about my night, I remembered using my hands to feed the hungry puppies in the back of Mike’s brother’s house. The food I had fed the puppies was post ceremonial food, previously blessed and not meant for puppies in the back. I anointed this physical reaction I had in the sweat lodge to be a result of me feeding the puppies blessed food. After talking about the incident with Little Mike Jr.and having my suspicions confirmed, I prayed to God  and the spirits asking for forgiveness. I believe I received a fresh start  with the spirits as nearly the rest of my time at Pine Ridge afterwords was an extremely positive spiritual experience.

Robert A. Segal, based on his article Victor Turner’s Theory of Ritual could have some interpretations about my religious experience. Segal discuses one of Turner’s theories writing “Ritual does both (restores order to society and human beings places in society) by acting out, by literally dramatizing, the situation it remedies. To use one of Turner’s pet phrases, ritual is ‘social drama.”(Segal, 332) The sweat lodge absolutely acts as a factory for ‘social drama” because people are pushed to their mental and physical limits while being in close proximity to dozens of others going through intense spiritual journeys as well. Here, academic insight,  granted as well as doing the ceremony yourself, creates a great way  of understanding rituals’ effects on people. The extreme conditions of the sweat lodge, the “social drama”, certainly could have contributed to my spiritual experience as the new and unfamiliar extreme conditions subsequently created a unique reaction. Segal goes on to offer more valuable insight as he states “As drama, ritual does not merely respond to human experience but depicts it. Ritual alleviates turmoil not simply by releasing emotions but by presenting them.” (Segal, 332) Rituals attribute of presenting emotions is demonstrated by the intense chanting and playing of the drums during sweat lodge. While my hands were shaking, I could  hear the chanting and echoing in the background. That night it added to the uncomfortableness of my situation but in future nights the music’s powerful positive energy kept me going when I wanted to give up. Its truly amazing how the energy of ceremony done in ritual can be created to harness both physical and mental reactions. The sweat lodge, certainly on the night of physical reaction, created an environment conducive to present my emotions and eventually bring about my true remorse for feeding blessed food to the puppies.

The academic study of religion can only go so far though. The models that Segal presents based on Turner and other academics offers insight but personal religious experience is exactly that, personal.  For instance one may dispute Segal’s analysis of Turner and his conclusion that “it (ritual) must therefore be not just used but also interpreted. It possesses not just a function but also a meaning.” (Segal, 332) Although pertaining to my situation I found information, both, necessary to be interpreted and find meaning in, there are many religious experiences where this is not the case. People “go though the motions” within their own personal religious experience all the time. I know sometimes  the prayer I say before bed can be a bit redundant and seem meaningless but none the less function for me to offer thanks for all  I have. It is a ritual I do but one I find no reason to be interpreted beyond a bed time ritual and one that sometimes seems meaningless and ineffective but yet serves a personal function of release for me.

Although evaluating spirituality and religion on personal experience has its disadvantages, overall, using personal experience to generate insight on religion can be very valuable.  Sometimes the religion one is raised with and the morals and truths connected to that religion can create a biased lens for people as they explore religion’s and spirituality’s value. Thats is why it is important when a passionate believer is using their spirituality as a lens to use it as a tool to create connections with other beliefs and not as an eye patch turning away different perspectives. One must also be careful when using personal experience as a way to study religion as not to give off the impression that their way of understanding is the right one, as this creates a culture of spiritual superiority. My sweat experience isn’t effected by either one of these issues as I had no pre-conceived notions about the Lakota in respect to their culture’s use of sweat ceremony.  Personal experience is what shaped my impression of the sweat ceremony. This personal experience and physical reaction I had will go farther than any readings about other people’s experience because my interpretation remains genuine and unique to me. Although people will not completely understand how I felt, my ability to now share a personal experience with others will open their minds up to the possibility of trying new spiritual practices in their life as well.Thankfully, I felt great at certain points in further sweats after my scary experience the first night. The ability for my personal story  to offer insight for my study and understanding of religion also has a whole realm of indescribable feelings that occurred during the spiritual journey we had with the Lakota people and their tradition. I am now able to better relate to others who have some sort of reaction from a variety of ceremonies, using experiences induced by the Lakota style of worship.

The academic study combined with one’s personal experience best serves the study of religion and spiritually. The lens of Segal and analysis of Turner offers great insight about the true “social drama” that likely enhanced my spiritual experience that first night in the lodge. The academic study can only go so far though, as the true power of ritual in religion can only be felt through personal experience. The physical reaction I experienced would not have occurred if I was reading about the sweat lodge. I had to physically enter the sweat lodge and put myself, alongside my classmates, in this new and, at first, uncomfortable place. Analyzing this experience through an academic study can certainly be useful, especially through insightful perspectives such as Segal, in order to further explore my religious experience.  My personal experience certainly has created a sort of bias for me in understanding the Lakota traditions as very insightful but, none the less, I still want to explore other traditions . It is important that I use this spiritual event as a propeller to explore other world cultures, religions, `and traditions of exploring the spirit world. The many ways of analyzing my personal religious experience I had during the first sweat and my personal interpretation show in order to understand ritual and religion best, exploring the academic study and utilizing personal experience demonstrates itself as a premier practice.


Works Cited

Segal, Robert A. “Victor Turners Theory of Ritual.” ATLAS, Sept. 1983. Web. 13 Nov. 2012 <>.

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