Why justice needs ritual: on the sacred origins of harm
This is a 'classic article' from my legacy website.
Please note that while I still consider my current work to have evolved out concepts and frameworks that I present in this piece and others, I have greatly departed, in both thinking and tone, from the kind of dualist social/racial justice discourse I embedded this piece of work within.
I consider my current work to be fully dedicated to embracing the nondual nature of the cosmos, never hardening into essentials of good or bad, right or wrong.
NOTE: This article contains graphic depictions of childhood sexual abuse as well as other possibly triggering material. Please read with care.
Everything we do is sacred
I would like to start off this post by sharing an experience I had on Lekwungen territory in the November of 2017, that taught me about the inherent sacredness of human experience, including pain.
It was a cold fall. I was living in a city that was unfamiliar to me.
I was in the midst of some heated call-outs on the internet for writing a piece that claimed whiteness as a form of complex trauma. It was a dizzying time and I headed to the local community centre’s pool to hopefully relax and restore.
There, I met an indigenous elder in the steam room AKA white man sweat lodge (his words).
He was teaching some young men. White men.
I asked him where his kindness came from - because it was something I was having a hard time mustering in the moment. But I knew I wanted to.
He talked to me about his people. He said that they, the indigenous people of so-called Canada, were fine. It was everyone else who was fucked.
He told me that the ones that others call drunks and drug addicts were the warriors of his people. After all, what else would you call someone that sacrifices their body so that the teachings of their people can be kept safe from invasion?
As he explained all of this, he flashed a tricky smile.
Next, he told me he was once a warrior.
But one day he was told by a healer of his people that his role as a warrior was done.
And so he became a healer.
And eventually a teacher.
To people like me.
Time slowed down when I talked to this elder. It was like we had entered a whole other mythic world together. Or more like I had slipped into his.
I’m sharing this story to start this post because I have and always had questions about which layer of reality we want to root our liberation in.
It is true that the outrageous amounts of addiction within indigenous communities is a result of colonialism. This is something that we settlers have to bear witness to in a serious way. But I also found that when I talked to this elder, there was a whole new unfamiliar ground to walk our path from. One where all things, even pain, violence and suffering has meaning.
Over a year since this transmission, my emerging understanding is that harm, like every painful human experience, is sacred. In fact, what we call harm is a sacred messenger from the immaterial subtle realm that we are all connected to: the cultural nervous system.
The cultural nervous system
I am sure many of us had an experience in intimacy of noticing a ‘third’ nervous system that arises in the space between you and another. Being close to someone, especially in the same space, can change your breathe, heart-rate, body temperature, and so on.
Now imagine that there is a cloud-like interconnected nervous system that emerges from our complex network of relationships. And that every time we talk to someone, share a viral post, or stand at a protest line, neurons in this collective neural network fire off.
This is the effect of the cultural nervous system - a key concept in my practice of cultural somatics.
Once you become aware of them, you will see that cultural nervous systems are everywhere. QTBIPOC community, Trump-supporting Americans, intersectional feminists … any group of people can have cultural somas (bodies) with cultural nervous systems. Even small groups like families can have cultural somas that include their ancestors.
From here, I invite you to consider, that the revealed nature of what we see as systemic oppression is actually trauma, often ancestral, living in cultural nervous systems. Patriarchy, colonialism, ableism, and other forms of violence aren’t just ‘ideas’ floating in space. They are actually stuck emotional energies that are embodied as traumatized patterns in the subtle body of the cultural soma.
This shift in how we perceive our understanding of trauma, from individual and contained, to relational and permeable, begs us to radically shift our understanding harm.
The origin of violence is spirit possession
Seeing cultures as beings with nervous systems means dipping our toes into the ways of our ancestors saw the world: as a magical place, animated with beings seen and unseen that are all of our relations. As you may have already guessed, they referred to the internal nervous system processes of cultural somas by names such as spirits, goddesses, gods, demons, and ghosts. This allowed them to directly connect with the unseen emotional neural networks that their own bodies were tethered to through the practice of ritual.
Following this wisdom of our ancestors, I want to offer that, what we understand as incidents of relational harm, caused by human individuals, are actually the workings of the cultural nervous system and the traumas that it holds. Our ancestors called this phenomenon spirit possession.
Here is a vivid example of this kind of spirit possession: a first-hand account of father’s sexual abuse of their own daughter (It is typed out in italics so you can skip over it if you do not want to read it):
“All I remember is fear going through my whole body,” Rayne says. “I was shaking. I wasn’t myself.”
As though his body’s movements were on auto-pilot he stood trembling in fear as he watched his hand reach into her underwear to touch her vagina. He penetrated her with his fingers, still shaking, still unable to comprehend his actions.”
At first, this kind of violence may seem alien to us. Yet, it might feel more familiar than you think if you can (safely) check in with your body about how you might relate to this account.
How has your body felt when you yourself had committed an act of violence? Were you in control? Does the way that this father speaks about the dissociative quality behind his sexually violent behavior, of his body and mind being disintegrated and helpless, remind you of the times you have done something you regretted? In these incidents of harm, was it really ‘you’ that was behind the harm?
I believe that if we sit long enough with the bodily sensations of the times we have engaged in violence, we will realize that we were not actually ‘there’ in the ways we originally thought. Rather, our bodies had become complete vessels for trauma responses that live in our cultural soma.
How do we hold spirits accountable?
When we understand that our lives are actually co-creative processes between ourselves and cultural nervous systems, we see that the causation of harm reaches much further, both time in space, than our individual bodies and lifetimes.
Spirit possession is why black youth get shot by police. Why queer and trans people are beaten and killed. Why young indigenous women go missing and murdered. These are deep seated patterns in a collective cultural nervous system we are all tethered to, holding millenia of ancestral trauma across human history.
The truth is, even the most well-meaning of us can become possessed. The most minute of triggers can cause us to be unconsciously possessed by white fragility, transphobia, and other angry gods.
Even worse, some of us are possessed 24/7. When you hear of people who are chronic sexual predators or sociopathic politicians, this is what is happening.
This brings us to a big question: how do we hold spirits accountable?
My belief is that we can't solve this problem through a living-human-centric understanding of accountability. You certainly can’t capture ghastly entities from ancestral trauma and put them in jail or through an accountability process. When we try, we often risk further violence from provoking their rage.
What I think we can do start with dropping, even grieving, our need to right wrongs and zoom out our vision to a place where we can see that harm has a sacred purpose - just like everything else that happens in the subtle realm of the cultural nervous system.
Harm as sacred messenger
While the idea that relational violence has an important sacred function in our culture may seem very counterintuitive, even blasphemous, I would like for us to ground our understanding in the understanding that harm is an experience of a body, one that is not tangible but still has intentions and desires of its own.
I believe that how we treat this body has deep stakes in decolonizing our systems of justice.
Within Western/white thought, pain is seen as a ‘bad’ experience that signifies the brokenness of the body in of itself and must be extricated. This is parallel to the punitive attitude of colonial governmental systems.
On the other hand, animist medicines such as Chinese energy medicine tend to embrace these ‘negative’ experiences as teachers. Pain is especially understood to be a sacred message from the body that alerts us about deeper physical, emotional, spiritual and relational problems. Within this frame, even commonly despised illnesses like cancer are understood to be truth-tellers of unaddressed trauma in the body.
If we scale this way of seeing the body up to the level of cultural somas, we may start to see that relational violence indeed also has a sacred function. The angry gods that possess us are actually trying to let us know there is a deeper morbid problem in the cultural soma. The relational violence we experience is actually a part of the cultural soma’s alert system.
Understanding relational violence as part of the cultural soma’s vital function brings us to consider survivors and perpetrators in a radically different light from how they are seen within modern justice systems, including most mainstream restorative justice initiatives.
This brings us to consider how we might radically shift how we treat the people who are involved in dynamics of harm within our communities.
Ritual as justice
In an animist frame, survivors and perpetrators are in fact community members that have been asked to take on their respective sacred roles, to tell us about the deeper traumas in the cultural nervous system - similar to the ‘warriors’ of indigenous peoples that we commonly write off or try to save as drunks and addicts.
What I would like for us to consider is that, before there is accountability or transformation, we need to offer sacred recognition and thanks to those involved in incidents of violence, including both survivors and perpetrators (sometimes not an easy binary), for putting their bodies on the line. After all, it is through them offering their bodies to spiritual healing that the ghosts in the cultural nervous system can be exorcised and sent home to peace.
What we need then is ritual - especially rites to honor those involved in harm and care for the bodies that have been put to sacrifice. Without ritual we cannot harness the psychological resources of the cultural nervous system, our healthy ancestors and well-meaning spirits, to help us tend to our kin. In my own lived experience, where I have taken on both the role of giver and receiver of relational violence, sometimes simultaneously, it is exactly this holding of pain as sacred that has allowed for me to heal.
I believe lack of this kind of complex sacredness to be one of the greatest poverties of our modern/Western/white justice systems. We’re just more used to bandaid-ing and medicating, rather than sitting with the bitter medicine of violence itself. The result is that the sacred journey of healing often has to take place individually, behind closed doors, rather than through a communal process. When this happens, the gifts of healing are never totally integrated as learning into cultural somas.
Yet justice was always meant to be enacted through ritual. Courts were a place of sacred reconciliation. Prisons were a place of holy refuge. Accountability was a way of restoring spiritual balance in the community.
And I believe that we are in a time, even with many of our elders at the brink of disappearing, that their wisdom may be taken up by us. To bring justice to life once again.
In this spirit, I would like to bring this post to a close with the following blessing:
“Dear ancestors of justice, healing, and the land, I ask for your help in holding the healing of those members of our community who have been tasked, through their bodies, to take on the sacred roles of being recipients and instigators of violence.
Dear ancestors, help us tend to their souls and their relationships with gratitude for their holy sacrifice.
Thank them through giving them access to time and space for comfort and healing.
Thank them through committing to preventatively healing the deep trauma patterns that ail our cultural body.
Dear ancestors, help us in mustering the kindness, wisdom and intestinal strength to meet the sacred within even our most painful actions.
Help us in holding the space for holy reconciliation and repair.
Thank you. Blessings to you, ancestors."
Inspirations and affinities
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Description: This documentary profiles the tiny Ojibway community of Hollow Water on the shores of Lake Winnipeg as they deal with an epidemic of sexual abuse in their midst. The offenders have left a legacy of denial and pain, addiction and suicide. The Manitoba justice system was unsuccessful in ending the cycle of abuse, so the community of Hollow Water took matters into their own hands. The offenders were brought home to face justice in a community healing and sentencing circle. Based on traditional practices, this unique model of justice reunites families and heals both victims and offenders. The film is a powerful tribute to one community's ability to heal and create change.
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