So I was 28 years old. Sitting in the Connecticut living room of my best friend, Michele. A woman I dated for 3 years in college and who has now officially become my sister. And I was lamenting to her my membership in a spiritual group, which shall go unnamed, and which, to my dismay, had offered a mental framework that made it virtually impossible to ever leave. That’s intellectual double-speak for “cult”. I was in an unofficial cult, I believed, with no apparent way out. And my friend said to me: “I see you studying…” She meant spiritually studying. She also meant this as a prediction for the future. “I see you studying with a married couple in Upstate New York and you will be completely out of this spiritual group.”
Okay, I said. Sounds great. I don’t see it. But thanks for the support.
Within a year, having forgotten my friend’s kind prediction, I was studying with a married couple in Upstate New York. B and P. B was from Canada. P, his wife, from the South. They were Lakota medicine people. Their skin was white, but their souls were red.
They brought me into their world. Introduced me to some of their people. And showed me some of their way. They treated me in part like family, in part like an annoying apprentice in need of bringing up my game. And after a summer with them, they brought me with them to the most sacred of Lakota rituals, a sundance.
I won’t tell you much about the sundance. Just like I wouldn’t tell you about a friend’s personal story, because it’s not mine to tell. All I will say is that it lasts 4 days and involves stunning sacrifice by the dancers.
I was one of many who came, not to dance, but to show support. I pitched my brand new Eureeka 3-man tent, my first since Boy Scouts and sat down to dinner with my teachers and their friends. I heard that the dancers, in addition to other sacrifices, would be fasting for the 4 days. I decided, after a big dinner of course, that I too would fast, in a show of support. I didn’t mention that fact to anyone there. I felt it wasn’t something you talk about. I don’t know why I felt that. It seems pretty damn newsworthy to me now. “Hey, I’m not going to eat for 4 days, so… in case I get cranky or – unconscious or something you might want to slip me a chocolate bar.” But I wasn’t the guy that talked about that kind of stuff.
So the days went by. Maybe it was the lack of food and the dire weakness. Or maybe, I like to think, it was my severe emotional retardation. But I felt an increasing sense of isolation. As if I didn’t belong. As if I was being judged. As if I was vermin and everyone either knew it or was about to find out. I felt like an outsider. Each look from a passing face seemed to portend disapproval. Each moment of perceived disapproval caused me to withdraw further into myself. Causing more such looks and more such retreat. You know. The vicious cycle. Don’t pretend you don’t have your own.
And so finally, it was the last day of the sundance. The most dramatic, in which even those not sacrificing hamburgers and fry bread are allowed the honor of offering up something relatively minor. Some flesh. Not much. A token, really.
Having this information beforehand would have been helpful. A weakened, hungry state is not the best time to hear the news about forking over pieces of your skin.
We were all given a choice as to how much skin. 12 pieces if you’re feeling generous. 4 if you already gave at the office. The size of your sacrifice was up to you.
As I stood on the long line that led to a man who was taking the flesh, I had a lot of time to do the math. I was a first timer at the sundance. No one was expecting 12 pieces from a first timer. The price tag was still on my Eureeka tent! 9 pieces? 6? Those were all good numbers. Respectable. I knew for sure I wasn’t going to choose 4. That’s not me. Mr. Lowest Possible Effort. No way. So I came up with the perfect number. 5. It wasn’t 4. It wasn’t like those other cowardly people, whoever they were, choosing 4. It was 1 above. It was 5.
When it came my turn I announced to the man with the cutting implements, with a twinge of pride, 5 pieces of skin. He took a pin to pull up the skin of my arm and then used something super sharp, maybe it was a razor blade, I don’t recall. His skill was such that I didn’t feel a prick. If he was a Moyle and I a full grown man, he could taken my foreskin while I was doing jumping jacks I would not have even known it.
To my surprise, after, I saw that he had taken not 5 pieces, but 4. And not from both arms like most, but from one. And while others around me bled red down their arms from their many small wounds, a sign of honor, on me there was not a single drop of blood.
The sundance ended. And soon after, I returned to the Upstate New York home of my two teachers. I was back for another weekend to resume my studies. B took me aside. He said they couldn’t work with me anymore. They didn’t know what else to do with me. They had tried everything. He said: I’m like a spring of water, burbling up out of ground with a rock on top, keeping the water from flowing out. And he didn’t know what else to do to remove the rock. And so they cut me loose.
I felt at once decimated and admiring of their stunning integrity.
And I left. I spoke with them once, not too long after. I reported on some huge stride I had made in my personal life. An attempt to remove the rock. And they were generous as can be, like the dancers. But that was our last contact.
It’s been more than 20 years and this is the first time I’m telling this story. You see, I’m not the guy who talks about this stuff. I work in a business, The Biz, showbiz, which is built around the acquisition of status and wealth. And the fear of not having them. There is some attention paid to the Inner Life, but that’s not a spiritual thing. It’s how you cope with being in the business.
I don’t talk about my past with people I work with. Even those closest to me. My journey is something I’ve held onto tight, as if telling it would make it dissipate. As if my story was a spring. And the rock on top keeps the water for myself.
But I’ve decided to tell this story now. To you. I no longer want to be the guy who’s not the guy who talks about this stuff.