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The Path of Pain: Spiritual BDSM

"Pain, when pushed and endured long enough, brings to the surface the uninhibited, raw soul of human beings. When two people can experience this together, it is like meeting on another plane." –FifthAngel

Kink. Sadomasochism. Bondage. Dominance and submission. In mainstream society, these things are often associated with a kind of wink-wink nudge-nudge secret sexuality, uncharted territory that surely lies just beyond the fuzzy pink handcuffs and nurses'-uniform lingerie. Within the world of spiritual BDSM practitioners, however, these activities are far from a novelty.

My initiation to "the scene" happened, as so many initiations do, at a time of crisis. I had fashioned a sedate, secure life for myself in the town where I was born. I had a good job, a spacious apartment, a reasonable social life and good standing in the town's close-knit, conservative community. At the same time, I nurtured a burgeoning literary career initially built on BDSM erotica (Bondage/Discipline, Dominance/Submission, Sadism/Masochism), was involved in a polyamorous arrangement involving five people spread over three states, and had come to feel that no religion or belief system described my personal sense of how the world was ordered. The disconnect between who I was and who I had to be to remain comfortable in my community was enormous, and the strain had become unbearable. The most logical way out involved moving to a more openminded city, but that felt like a pipe dream, something I could accomplish in three or four years at best.

Suffering a constant, low-grade frustration with my life, I signed up to attend the closest reputable BDSM event available — 250 miles away. The event promised hands-on workshops by day and "play parties" providing opportunities for practice by night. I kept my expectations low. I had never been terribly outgoing, and assumed that I could easily don my voyeuristic writer persona and observe from a safe distance.

Within hours, I lay stripped to the waist, blindfolded and bound elaborately by rope. My newfound partner experimented with flat-knuckled punches to my chest, carefully creating maximum sensation with minimum harm. Patiently, my partner led me through the nerves and social barriers that could prevent a full experience. "Let out sound," she told me. When I barely managed a squeak, she elaborated. "Open your mouth. Now make a noise with your mouth open." Punch. I made a noise, felt the energy of the punch travel through my body and exit on my breath. I had the sense that she smiled.

The theft of my eyesight turned my awareness inward, and every thudding blow seemed to scatter my cognitive functions further and further until ordinary thought stopped altogether. Unable to move, unable to see, capable only of assimilating the dull thud of the strikes, I touched on a very pure and unfiltered awareness, something accessible only when enough layers had been pulled away to uncover it. For the first time, I had a sense of truly being myself — no brainspace for taking notes for future stories or distancing myself from my own experience in any way. My standard methods of filtering information were completely shattered.

After a dizzying sampler of sensations, I sat at my partner's feet, dazed and flying on endorphins while she stroked my hair. I recall her introducing me to a friend: "This is Kal. She can't talk much yet." At length, she led me to the snack area and plied me with water, ensuring that I had at least somewhat returned to the ordinary plane before we parted ways.

In many cases, the achievement of "headspace" — that sense of entering into an altered state — is a primary goal in BDSM. Sex, in many cases, is not. The echo of tantric traditions can be recognized in BDSM's tendency to elicit sexual energy but then harness it for a use other than physical satiation. Much of BDSM's equipment and practices also mirror shamanic or tribal initiations: at the event, six-foot-tall X-shaped St. Andrew's crosses provided a traditional framework for flagellation, while a huge free-standing structure allowed participants to suspend one another in midair using rope. One of the hands-on workshops addressed safely embedding flesh hooks in the chest to execute an "energy pull" using this structure. For spiritual BDSM practitioners in particular, the use of sexual energy, pain, constricting bondage or fervent servitude is specifically geared toward the achievement of a psychospiritual state well beyond ordinary consciousness. There are no constants for headspace; what it is like and how it is achieved varies from person to person, and often from scene to scene. The exact nature of the state participants aim for also cannot be predicted. Those in the BDSM community acknowledge this and prepare for all possibilities; in BDSM, as in many other spiritual practices, not all altered states are "fun."

I anticipated discovering a rift between those who felt a strong spiritual connection through BDSM practice and those who did not, perhaps unfairly projecting my own history of spiritual separatism. Refreshingly, the community as a whole is keenly aware of the spiritual aspects of play and seems particularly interested in the impact of energy on scenes. It is not unusual for practitioners to choose where to play based on the energy of the scenes around them. At one of the workshops, the presenter led the audience through a group breathing exercise, then asked the audience to move closer to the stage, unable to feel their energies as well as he would have liked. This, I realized, was a community well aware of the unquantifiable forces that impact emotional catharsis.

The insular nature of the event encouraged a freedom of behavior that would have been utterly unthinkable to me just weeks before. The day after my initiation, I volunteered to receive painful stimulation of pressure points as part of a workshop demonstration. I stripped to my underpants, handed my clothing to the stranger sitting beside me for safekeeping, and stood before an audience of 150 to accept the pain. That night, I crossed paths with my partner again, and she led me into further experiments of sensation, driving hooked needles through the skin of my chest, drawing welts upon my back with a singletail whip.

Once it seemed that we had settled back into our ordinary frames of mind, I decided to leave the party at the same time she did. As we walked out into the crisp night air, she questioned whether I was "back" enough to drive. "I'll be fine," I assured her, "just as soon as I find my car." Immediately recognizing this for the red flag that it was, she ordered me back inside for ten more minutes, another snack, and another glass of water. After that, stepping out the same doors, I found my car immediately — right in front of me. I've come to realize that while I can always tell just how drunk I am, I never have any idea how deep into headspace I am or how altered my state has become.

My initiation and ensuing breakthroughs immediately altered my ordinary life. I was quickly cured of a lifelong mild phobia of elevators. "I've taken two needles in my chest," I found myself thinking; "of course I can ride the elevator." The survival of a specific physical challenge drained all the dread out of anticipating an unlikely future ordeal. Learning to process physical discomfort became a direct template for overcoming mental barriers.

The intensity of the many physical ordeals I enjoyed left me flying for a time, then shattered me. Within a few days, I felt a deep, ugly toxin release, similar to the post-chiropractic effect but much more pronounced. Worse, I could not exercise in an attempt to release further endorphins — movement caused too much pain. Then the bruises began to itch. For weeks I barely slept. The energy lingering from my initiation kept me reaching for the notebook beside my bed nearly every hour. "Now I can see that my life would be significantly and immediately different if I were to move," I wrote. "Not the same life in a new location."

My initiation also broke open the shell separating me from the energy necessary to move forward in my life. A day after the event, a friend offered to let me move in with her until I found a place to live nearby. Eight weeks later, I drove a U-Haul 300 miles to her doorstep and took her up on it. A year later, I attended the same annual event that heralded my initiation. With no plan in mind, following the rhythm of that energy I'd discovered, I found myself assisting in a workshop led by the person who had initiated me. We had a hand, perhaps, in the initiation experience of others in the audience. As I continue to explore my own unique path of spirituality, BDSM remains a highly useful tool. I have often noted that every scene teaches me something about myself. It is a constant path of self-exploration.

This path is not an easy one. When I first caught a glimpse of my bruises in the mirror, I was taken aback. I'd seen one too many Lifetime movies about battered women to initially see them as badges of courage and markings of initiation. There are charlatans and inexperienced poseurs, as in any group, and the wide variety of practices embraced by the BDSM community can sometimes make it difficult to find those pursuing it as a spiritual path. A common problem involves substituting BDSM for therapy, especially regarding sexual issues. And for many, the BDSM path is by necessity a clandestine one thanks to the stigma still attached to certain aspects of sexuality. Weathering such intense spiritual work while hiding it can be maddening.

However, BDSM can also offer modern, urban individuals a way to explore the spiritual potential of sexual energy. It is often devoid of the more flowery, aesthetic terminology some people find off-putting in New Age contexts. Generally, BDSM seems concerned with practical, hands-on applications rather than a "buy-in" to any particular methodology, thus allowing practitioners to follow their own paths. The vast majority of BDSM communities welcome newcomers and interested outsiders, making BDSM fairly accessible in urban areas. At its best, BDSM can serve as a kind of lay ministry, breaking down the barrier between sex and spirit that our culture at large still struggles to overcome.

Photo credit: image by Neil Carpenter, under Creative Commons license.

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