On how we sacrifice (or don’t)

self-sacrifice

How do we sacrifice?

This is an interesting question to ponder, as I wager many of us don’t do much sacrificing on a daily basis. We are too caught up perhaps in the daily grind, virtual worlds, a “me” mentality. But maybe sacrifice happens more often if you’re a parent, or a community volunteer, or someone working on a crisis hotline. But the act of sacrifice can have great impact; history is littered with heroic stories of personal and collective sacrifice that changed the course of events.

What forms can sacrifice take in our lives? Some years ago, a friend of mine (who’d also introduced me to hatha yoga) had the habit of fasting as part of her spiritual practice. She would sometimes go for days drinking only liquids, and I once even saw her passing out trays of food during a gathering — when it had been her twentieth day fasting. She did not fast as part of any religious observance, nor was it an eating disorder (she ate normally when not fasting), but dedicated this practice of fasting as an offering to others in suffering, to a higher purpose of empathetic oneness with other sentient beings. (In addition to this, she was a caring mother and peace activist.) It was inspiring to see, but a little more difficult for others to understand; I once overheard someone commenting bewilderedly on “why would anyone do something as extreme as this.”

Someone could mention Gandhi’s world-changing fasts and salt marches here — for “fasting was a weapon used by Gandhi as part of his philosophy of Ahimsa or Non Violence” during the fight for India’s independence (I think Gandhi’s title “Mahatma” or “Great Soul” is certainly not misplaced). But perhaps then, fasting is not so extreme in the context of will, especially when there is a clear intention behind one’s will and action (and mind you, not in the name of someone else’s ideology).

Setting the intention is crucial to any practice or ritual (just as in our society’s rituals of consumerism, behind them lay an intention of greed and accumulation); it gives thoughts and action a kind of form. I came across this excerpt and this rang a bell about self-sacrifice (it’s in the context of magic, but from a psychological perspective it still makes sense):

Any personal sacrifice which hurts enough engages a deep impulse to make the hurt go away. The magician can use that impulse to bring about magical change by linking the removal of the pain to the accomplishment of the intention. And I don’t mean magical masochism. We are (subject to all caveats on generalisations) creatures of habit who find comfort and security by living our lives in a particular way, and a change to that habit and routine causes some discomfort and an opposing desire to return to the original state. That desire can be used. Just as a ritual intends to change the world in some way, so a sacrifice forces us to change ourselves in some way, and that liberates magical energy. If you want to heal someone, don’t just do a ritual and leave it at that. Become involved in caring for them in some way, and that active caring can act as a channel for whatever power you have invoked. If you want to use magic to help someone out of a mess, provide them with active, material help as well; conversely, if you can’t be bothered to provide material help, your ritual will be infected with that same inertia and apathy – true will, will out, and in many cases our true will is to flatter the ego and do nothing substantive. I speak from experience.

From a magical perspective each one of us is a magical being with a vast potential of power, but that is denied to us by an innate, fanatical, and unbelievably deep-rooted desire to keep the world in a regular orbit serving our own needs. Self-sacrifice disturbs this equilibrium and lets out some of that energy, and that is why egoless devotion and self-sacrifice has a reputation for working miracles.

— Colin Low, Ritual Theory & Technique

Now looking back, what my friend did was not so extreme perhaps in this light; I think what my friend was doing what she could to shake up some part of this universe of experiences, her inner world with the outer. With the extreme circumstances that we live in today, it calls for the extreme measures of everyday, small miracles that we can enact in our own lives, liberating energy to tie these small deeds for positive change in the wider world.

Photo: herbm / CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

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