I am quick to judge someone who labels an experience as perfect. An Olympic diver who performs a triple backflip while spinning five times and then proceeds to make only the smallest of splashes appears to have achieved perfection to their TV audience. But what is perfection? Inevitably perfection could only ever be the result of constant methodical practice, performed over and over again as similar to the end product as possible. Jonathan Smith cites the example of hunters practicing the act of killing animals in ritual so as to prepare for the actual kill. We did the same preparation in Pine Ridge, both in Sweat and in Yuwipi, to prepare for life outside of ritual. Whether it is academic or personal opinion, it seems that perfection in practice is impossible and that the purpose of ritualized religious experience lies rather in the power of preparation for life outside of the ritual.
My ideas on perfection in relation to our Pine Ridge experience began when I first heard about this class. At first it was, “That awesome class you just HAVE to take.” Then it was, “A bunch of crazy experiences in the sweat lodges,” and finally it morphed into a unique spiritual spectacle that only those privileged enough (those with enough points to spare) to make it into the class could see. I made the cut. I was going to have a life-changing religious experience, and maybe even see a few spirits along the way! What an opportunity!
In all honesty I was genuinely excited to have this unique chance to engage in a set of religious traditions I knew almost nothing about. I decided I would attack this opportunity with an open mind and experience it in whatever way I thought fit. However my idealistic view of the experience I should be having during these ceremonies did not change. I still expected to see and hear spirits, and after the first Sweat, this expectation transformed into a yearning as I realized that a new belief in the spiritual world – a world that could visually and audibly manifest itself to me – could personally validate the act of praying which I have always had so much trouble with. I saw the opportunity to transform my view of religion from that of a simple “sense” of “something else” to the idea of conferring with a higher power that I now knew existed.
These expectations became so strong that I began investing all of my energy in Sweat into opening myself up to the spirits I wanted to believe were around me. I prayed to the best of my ability, but I also prayed that these spirits might manifest themselves in a manner that could allow me to pray in a more true fashion. My mind, which saw the sparks of light on the stones and heard Big Mike speaking in odd voices, was ready to believe that these spirits were real but my heart kept telling me that I did not believe in them.
Then came the Yuwipi ceremony. I knew that this was my best opportunity to secure my belief in the spirit world and give weight to my prayers. During the ceremony all the visual and audible signs necessary to change my mind presented themselves: the lights, the whistling, the multitude of sounds. At one point I even stretched out my hand and asked the spirit to touch me. My intent here was not to prove that what I was seeing and hearing was not a magic trick, but rather to attain the information I needed to pray with truth and with power. I was not touched. I was not spoken to. I was not given what I thought I needed, so the door to my heart remained closed to the idea that there was a spirit in the same room as me. This prospect crushed me. It drained me of all my excitements and wonders and left me with nothing. I was an empty drum of despair.
From an academic standpoint, or that of Smith, I was stuck in the “like produces like” mindset, where perfect preparation produces perfect results. But Smith admits that the ritual, or the preparation, is actually much unlike the hunt, or the end result. He recognizes that there is no perfect harmony between ritual and the outside world. They will always be separate and largely incongruous. But it is this incongruity that actually allowed for the deeper spiritual understanding I was looking for in the first place. Implicit in ritual is the presence of flow; a release from one’s ego and the everyday existence in life. In flow one can exist simply as the act they are conducting. Emptiness is a natural byproduct of exiting a state of flow because the subject is essentially returning from a state of “nothingness.” So while I may not have realized it, the emptiness I felt after Yuwipi was actually a product of a successful entrance into a state of flow. This also means that my experiences during this ceremony were not counterproductive after all but rather extremely productive. In fact I now realize that this emptiness was simply part of the healing process of the Yuwipi ceremony. I was purged of my most critical problems, namely social problems I had been dealing with, and given the opportunity to fill this void with something greater.
While Smith’s theories compliment my personal experience, and vice versa, it falls short on an internal level. Most rituals are externally controlled in almost every manner, whether it is the temperature of Sweat or the total absence of light in the Yuwipi, but there are very limited internal controls. Sweat had no definite control over my internal state and whether or not I attained a state of flow. Rather, on the last night of Sweat, I exited the Sweat Lodge feeling quite “full” and “ready” for the Yuwipi ceremony, rather than my normal feelings of emptiness. Personal religious experience, or internal religious feeling, is so much of a variable that I don’t believe it can be controlled. It interferes with theories like those of Smith because individuals are so incredibly different. We all have our own religious beliefs and truths outside of those that are widely accepted in academic texts. This is why perfection is unattainable in my opinion. We treat it as a series of images and feelings defined collectively by those around us. But if we subscribe only to the ideas of those around us we will always find ourselves dissatisfied. We must instead find perfection in each step of our own individual paths, which is our own truth.