Spirit+Flesh: The Energy Pull:
Fakir’s Spirit+Flesh group energy pull and ritual
in Minneapolis, June 2004.
So What’s an Energy Pull?
I first experienced the “energy pull” when I was only about twelve years old (way back in 1942). Being the weird kid that I was, I had already discovered I could pierce needles and pins through my body with impunity — that I could get into a head space where I was a mere witness to cold steel passing through my flesh. In this state of mind I was removed from physical sensation, what the rest of the world called “pain”. But after I had pierced myself, there was no further sensation. Only a static needle stuck through me. It did not hurt. I couldn’t feel it. It was just there.
So wanting to expand my emotional experience, I soon learned to tie a small string around the needle and pull on it. I could pull gently and gradually increase the tension. I was in control of how fast and how much sensation I was receiving. Soon I learned to tie the string to a hook in the wall and pull back against it. I loved doing this and it became a regular practice for me. Every time I did this, I experienced a sweet rush of energy. At this time in my early life, I didn’t analyze what I was doing or try to rationalize it. I just enjoyed it.
In my teens, I lived in libraries (there was no internet for another forty years) and I devoured books. I was very curious to know more about the practice of piercing and pulling. I didn’t take long before I found out that what I was experiencing in my secret basement hideaway was not unique. Piercing and pulling was, in fact, a very ancient and honored practice in several cultures. I learned that in Savite Hindu Culture, they had been doing this kind of body ritual for at least 3,000 years. For them it was a technique for trancing, going beyond the body, leaving the body and allowing the body to be temporarily possessed by higher spirits and archetypes (like Murugan, Lord of Piercing). It was not a display of strength or macho or stoicism or an entertainment. It was the seeking of “a state of grace”.
Even closer to home for me (because I grew up on Indian lands in South Dakota only a few miles from Indian ritual grounds) was the Native American pierce-and-pull ritual called the “Sun Dance”. I didn’t need to study books to learn more about that practice! I had some first hand access to the stories and tales of Native American elders in my own community. I listened to them in the flicker of kerosene lamps as they talked in hushed tones about the glories of the “old days” when Sun Dance was the way to the Great White Spirit. Of course when I was a boy, the ritual had long been made illegal for Native Americans and they could be put in prison if caught secretly doing a Sun Dance. My heart ached for them to be denied the practice of one of their most sacred rites! I guess so far we Modern Primitives are very lucky that what we do has not been made, in most cases, a prisionable offense!
“It’s not how hard you pull, but how long…”
That phrase was a mantra used by Ogallala Sioux medicine men when they were instructing young men before doing a Sun Dance. What most contemporary hook pullers do not seem to understand about this practice is the complex interaction between body and spirit. When one does an “energy pull”, one is manipulating and rearranging the connections between body and spirit. Sure there are physical and chemical changes like the release of the body’s natural opiates, the endorphins. But there is more to it than that. At first there is the sweet rush, euphoria. Some of you know how that feels. But if the pull is prolonged, in concert with strong shamanic intent, there can also be intense visions, healing, travels to unseen worlds, going to core and touching the void. A few of you may have even gotten there. It is not about “trucking” or “tugs of war”.
Since the revival of the Sun Dance in modern times (starting in the 1970s), many of the Native American elders who direct the energy pull called the Sun Dance have noticed and bitterly commented on the conflict they see in some young dancers between traditional Native and Western European values. Western culture, with its focus on competition and individuality, clashes with traditional values of surrender, patience, group energy and letting go of ego. In some recent Sun Dances, young dancers were seen to compete with each other about how hard they could pull, how fast they could break free, how quickly they could be done with the dance. In the old days, a Sun Dance was frequently arranged so whatever the dancer was tethered to could only bend and resist the pulling. Breaking free of the piercing(s) was made impossible. The length of time one could pull against piercings was the truest measure of worth and devotion — and a great way to reach unseen worlds.
Left: 1830’s George Catlin drawing: prolonged energy pull by Ogalala Sioux against a springy sapling. Right: Fakir does three-hour energy pull during 1982 Wyoming Sun Dance and O-Kee-Pa ceremonies seen in the Dances DVD.
Any meaningful energy pull is not about pain, macho, testosterone or stoicism. It is rather a way of slowly increasing and prolonging the tension until one enters an altered state. In traditional Native American Sun Dances, pulling on piercings was not minutes or even hours, but often days. I personally know several recent Sun Dance pledgers who were pierced and pulled for four days! In Penang Malaysia I saw devotees who pulled on their multiple back hooks from five in the morning till eight at night — 15 hours! In my own experience (see the Dances Sacred & Profane DVD) Jim Ward and I pulled for some three hours before opting to break free. As the Ogalala medicine man said, “It’s not how hard you pull, but how long”. That is what makes the difference between a momentary thrill and a truly memorable and life transforming experience.
Tamil Hindus do day-long energy pulls from multiple hooks. Photos taken by Fakir during the 1995 Thaipusam Festival in Penang, Malaysia.
Opening Fourth Chakras
This brings me to the chapter in my life that began about 1987. Until that time, it was inconceivable to me that anyone else, except Jim Ward, might want to try what I was doing. My first volunteer was my life partner, Cleo. She had lost many friends and lovers in the AIDS epidemic that had begun in the early 1980s. She was filled with grief and heart-centered pain. So at her request, I made a ritual out of piercing her upper chest and back — then attaching balls to tug and pull with every movement. She danced for hours up and down a dusty path on a hillside in Northern California. On each side of the path we had placed stakes with photos of sick fiends, dying friends and those who had passed beyond the veil. She cried. I cried. And we both felt a release of heart-centered pain and grief at the end of the afternoon. I called that ritual a “Ball Dance”. It was then I began to realize the therapeutic effect of tugging and pulling on piercings, especially in the fourth (heart) chakra.
Over the following years, we repeated our piercing rituals and introduced them to many others in the subculture. In 1990, a group of us “ball dancers” got ridiculed and laughed at during the first gathering of Black Leather Wings. Some of the Leather Daddies present dismissed our ritual as a silly and trivial event. A few years later, we met with greater acceptance in Dallas, Texas where Allen Falkner hosted a large “Ball Dance” event that even got mentioned in the newspapers.
During the 1990s, I started experimenting with hooks in the chest (fourth chakra) instead of lighter piercings with attached balls or limes. I found them far more effective in opening the fourth chakra and releasing “stuck” energy. So beginning in 1996, I introduced the “hook pull” to various groups of seekers in the subculture.
Group energy pulls during day-long BLW rituals in Northern California, 2003/2004
Over the next nine years, the practice of pulling on flesh hooks spread from my first groups of only five or six people to the large number of hook pullers you can now see in the photos posted on BME. However, there is a difference between the hook pullers you see in photos on my Spirit + Flesh web site, and I suspect, most of those in the BME photos. In our shamanically-directed hook pulls we are very conscious of chakras — those important energy centers related to the body that open, close, and change energy flow in both our psychic and physical world. Of all the chakras, the fourth one, the heart chakra, is the most screwed up in our culture. It is the gateway from lower consciousness (survival, self, base emotions) to higher consciousness (love, clear mental activity, inclusiveness, selflessness). If it is blocked and full of crap, we live in world of confusion and misery. We live primarily as victims and make bad decisions. Read some writings of Caroline Myss for more on this. Actually, I wish we could compel our U.S. politicians (especially you-know-who) to participate in a shamanic hook pull and then send them to Caroline Myss.
With this insight, and what I feel was a strong nudge from my Patron Saint Lord Murugan (Hindu Lord of piercing and opening up), we have been doing public Sprit + Flesh Workshops & Rituals for about five years now — with repeat rituals in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Washington D.C., Phoenix and Minneapolis. My partner and I consider these workshops and rituals a humane and needed service more than a vocation. Obviously, we still focus on opening the fourth chakra, and sometimes chakras above number four. But I don’t see much point in doing knee or elbow pulls because there are no chakras there to open, close or manipulate.
Trance states and the opening of heart chakras was the intent and purpose of group energy pulls in this 2004 Minneapolis Spirit+Flesh ritual. See my web site at fakir.org for participant feedback.
Cleo, My Partner in Spirit + Flesh Rituals Says:
“I have been doing this ritual many times now. Every time it has been a different journey. The whole exploration for me is about altered states, a heightened state, energy, fire (yes it can be really hot), and visions. Most especially if I am pulling alone against a stationary object with my eyes closed. Any awareness of others or spectators quickly disappears. It is a personal dance of ecstatic fire, bright or soft. I went several times to a place that is not a place. Beautiful!”
“My last hook pull ritual was like wringing my heart from its grief. During the second stage it was a very sexy, a big energy exchange with my puller/lover. The third phase was fun and releasing as I pulled in a big circle with other dancers. You connect intimately with friends, lovers and even strangers pulling on your cords, tuning in to each other, experiencing group energy in a ceremonial tribal ring. At the end I was laughing and very high in this pool of energy and fantastic live drumming.
In the second part of SPIRIT+FLESH: THE ENERGY PULL, I would like to take you on a guided tour of some of the more memorable experiences we’ve have had, even in our next ritual which is only one week away in San Francisco. I’ll include some more photos and also feedback comments from energy pull participants. And if hook pulls must be entertainment, at least they can be “art” as my friends Vaughn and Joey Wyman of Body Manipulations did a few years ago. We’ll get into that and more in my next column.
Yours for safe and enlightened journeys,
Suspensions & Tensions:
Today, Part I
TRIP TO HEAVEN, HELL OR SOMEWHERE IN BETWEEN OR BEYOND
In my last column I wrote about the history and origins of flesh suspensions and energy pulls, about some of the customs and rituals of other cultures from which we are just now rediscovering a special kind of magic. I wrote of a boy in South Dakota who was “set on fire” when he first learned of these body rites. Now I continue the path of discovery of that specific boy. Me.
In societies where suspensions by piercings are part of a spiritual tradition, these intense acts are intended to lead one to a transformative experience – an ecstatic state, a dissociation from the body where consciousness is free to explore unseen dimensions of life. It is at the same time a release into one’s own private heaven or hell, then if you are lucky, an escape from that limited state to a special kind of consciousness beyond ego. A universal spacetime shared by all. Suspension by piercings is not a toy. It is not a plaything. As some contemporary suspendees have already learned, when it is attempted as an act of bravado or show of stoicism, it can often lead to a very unpleasant and unrewarding experience. The unseen worlds do not open up. All that’s left when it’s finished are scars and a few rolls of film. For some with an impoverished ego, that may be enough. No problem. But for me it has to be more.
By the time I was ready to try a serious, long-lasting O-Kee-Pa style suspension, I had already learned to dissociate from my body and had experienced leaving it consciously (see “Against the Coal Bin Wall” in Body Play Number 4). By a series of increasingly intense and prolonged body rituals over a twenty year period, the “boy” had prepared himself for a truly significant inner experience.
FAKIR’S JOURNEY TO THE WHITE LIGHT
It began in 1962. I was thirty-two. Fate had allowed me to visit Japan. A very unlikely place for this journey to begin since my roots were on the plains of South Dakota where the mysteries of the O-Kee-Pa suspension had actually taken place a hundred years prior. In the Kanda bookseller’s section of Tokyo, I found a lost book that very few people had seen for nearly a hundred years: George Catlins’s original volume, “O-KEE-PA, A Religious Ceremony of the Mandans“. I opened the red Morocco leather and gold gilded cover. This was a rare original book published in London by Trubner & Co., Paternoster Row in 1867!! I held it in my hands and leafed through its pages. My heart pounded and my whole body began to shake. There it was, Catlin’s color lithos of young Mandan boys suspended by two piercings. How had this treasure gotten to Japan? Perhaps as a gift to some Japanese dignitary by the British, or in a missionary’s trunk? Who knows? My chances of finding this rarity were one-in-a-million, probably more. That day some force greater than myself seems to have directed me to my path up the mountain. My path to the Mandan’s White Light!
The bookseller, not knowing the rarity of this book, sold it to me for thirty dollars. Now I had an ancient guide to my destination and I lived with it constantly for the next year. The descriptions of the ceremony and the crude but vivid Catlin drawings sketched on-the-spot etched themselves into my consciousness. Only one thing mattered: I had to do the O-Kee-Pa!! But there were no living humans I knew who could show me the way. To the best of my knowledge, none of the few remaining Mandan (ninety five percent of them had been wiped out by a smallpox epidemic, a gift from the white man, in the winter of 1832) had ever done this rite in my lifetime. And I had lived among them. I was on my own and my sole guide had to be the same larger force that had mysteriously drawn me to that book on a hot August day in Tokyo, Japan.
By July 1963, I was ready for my first attempt. In the attic room of a small house in Palo Alto, California, I screwed up my courage and began the piercings. I was not prepared to pierce myself in quite the style of the Mandans – cutting deep incisions in my chest and inserting plugs. So I was guided to make deep piercings through my entire breast area, in as much flesh as I could gather up. I used some wire clamps I had made to hold the gathered-up skin in place. The piercings themselves were made by slowly screwing a long 1/16″ thick stainless wire through each breast with yet another home made device, a screw piercer (see photo). As the blunt wire tip slowly forced it’s way through my body (it took several hours to make each piercing), I went into a light trance. At this point I was glad I had fasted for two days, made other physical and mental preparations, and had opted for slow piercing.
The sensation of the slow piercing was intense but bearable. Then, not having anyone to help me, I stood on a pile of books beneath a suspension frame I had made in advance. I gradually let my weight (140 pounds then) be “taken” by the piercings. I had to be very cautious. As the Mandans had learned, and Catlin mentioned in his O-Kee-Pa book, one can only hang by two piercings in the chest for about twenty minutes. After that, strangulation begins and one can quickly die!
Somehow suspension from dual piercings in the back does not cause the same physical effect and one can hang for much longer periods.
Over the next thirty minutes I managed to kick one after another of the books from under my feet. At last I was standing on tiptoes with about 80% of my weight on the piercings. My breathing was shallow and forced. The pain was intense to the point where I didn’t think I could continue. I had “gone out of my mind” and all that existed in the universe was the glowing fire in my heart center. At that moment, I tripped my remote camera, stepped off the last book almost unconsciously and swung free. The pain stopped and I started to drift off. I knew I had to come back pronto or I would be gone forever. So I struggled mightily to get my feet back on a solid surface. I had done it, even if for only three or four minutes! I was glowing, radiant and absolutely obsessed to try again.
My next attempt was a year later, in March 1964. I went through even more demanding preparations this time – I knew what to expect. I pierced my chest again with the same kind of wires which had proven, in 1963, to be large enough to support seventy pounds each without damage or tearing. In 1963 I learned a lesson about how tough living skin really is: it proved to be ten time stronger than dead skin (leather) and extremely plastic. This time I took even longer putting my entire weight on the piercings, perhaps an hour or more. I really wasn’t aware of time when I did these suspensions. This time I was prepared for the intense fire that would burn in my chest when I stepped free. And I was determined to hang as long as I felt I could stay conscious and regain control. I really didn’t want to die… yet!
I desperately longed for a Ka-See-Ka (physical and psychic guide of the Mandans), someone to help me and watch over me so I could totally let go and not be responsible for anything including my life. Finally I did swing free for a second time. I did manage to trip my remote camera again (see photo below). And again start to drift into that pleasant warm space I had experienced when I was lashed against the coal bin wall some twelve years before. This time I hung suspended for about ten minutes and don’t really remember how I got down, or who was watching over me to keep me from harm’s way. But some how I did escape and was more determined than ever to try again with a Ka-See-Ka. And then hang for as long as it would take to enter the unseen worlds and it’s potential transformations.
The next year, 1965, I met merchant seaman and tattoo artist Davy Jones who eventually put the large blackwork tattoo I had always wanted on my back and hips. He had lived among tribal people in the Pacific; he had been ritually tattooed in Western Samoa. We developed a close friendship and spiritual connection while making my “magic mark”. I developed a deep trust in his integrity and he expressed an interest in fulfilling the role or protector and Ka-See-Ka in my next O-Kee-pa suspension. But I had to wait another two years because in 1966 I mistakenly married a woman who really didn’t understand my spiritual quest or support my unusual explorations. She preferred not to be around during body rituals.
By April 1967, I was aching to accept Davy Jones’ offer to help in an “all out”; chest suspension. Nothing would stand in my way. So I gave my wife my car keys, a credit card, and $300; she drove to Palm Springs for the weekend. Again, I spent several days preparing myself for the ordeal to follow, the total “letting go” I desired. I signed a letter to Davy Jones releasing him from all liability and responsibility in case something happened (like serious injury or death). He liked that. The evening before the suspension, he arrived along with Joe, a sympathetic friend who agreed to make an 8mm movie as documentation. No still photos would be taken. I stayed up all night fasting in tight constrictions and other deprivations. I wanted to start a light trance and dissociation from my body before the piercing.
By 6:00 AM the next morning I was ready. In a calm and deliberate way I pierced my own chest for a third time. The energy from Davy and his friend watching was supportive and comforting as I rather quickly screwed the wire rods through my breasts. There was no real pain this time; my body wanted the penetration. The flesh just seemed to part on its own and let the wires pass through. Beautiful. I felt empowered by this. We made loops in the wires, bound the ends and attached a short rope between them. Then I told Davy I was ready for my suspension. Single file we went out into the bright, crisp morning light in the yard and then into the dark and empty garage building prepared for the ritual. The interior atmosphere was similar to a reconstructed Mandan lodge I had visited in North Dakota years before.
I stood on a tall black box in the center of the large room. Davy connected the rope between my piercings to another one dangling from the beams above. Both Davy and Joe gently pulled slack from the suspension rope. I felt increasing pressure in my chest. I was slightly on tiptoe when they stopped. A wonderful feeling swept through me – waves of tingling. This was different than the last time. I relaxed into the feeling. For a long time I stood very still in the silence and darkness. My mind was letting go. My attention focused on feelings and sensations. As we had prearranged, I was to say “UP” whenever I was ready to continue. I said “UP“. Ropes creaked and slipped sending vibrations into my piercings. I threw my head back, felt myself being inched upward until I was on my toes again.
Fire came into my heart center as I let myself sag down onto the piercings. I struggled for breath. But I soon relaxed into some comfortable shallow breathing, small pants. More stillness and adjusting. I started to drift away. I was a little blob of consciousness now, just observing body sensations no matter how intense. And the observer was somewhere remote from the body. I said “UP” again to see what would happen. Instantly I zoomed back to full awareness of body sensations, pain. More stillness, patience and adjusting until I was again safely detached. On the fourth “UP” I reached my limits. With almost all of my body weight on the piercings, I had to make my last conscious decision: give up or swing free!
I hadn’t come this far to give up. I plunged off the cliff and swung clear of the box which was immediately taken away so I couldn’t change my mind. I was floating in a vast sea of vibrations and vibrant colors. Uncaring with no identity, no memories, no body. Since my head was back when I swung free, I was looking up. And there it was at the end of a short dark tunnel, a great shimmering ball of white light!! It radiated intense waves of love like I’d never felt before. This incredible love was directed at me – personal and totally non-judgmental, unconditional, accepting. I passionately wanted to be swallowed up by that Light. In rapid telepathic communication, the Light spoke. It said: “Hello. I’m you and you are Me. And I’m as close to God as you’ll ever be. I am the One who made you and I am the One who will take you back. I brought you here. Remember the book? I am always here to guide you regardless of the form in which you see me“.
I asked the Light, “Do you always appear like this?” “No,” it replied, “I appear in any form you think I can appear“. Again I asked a question, “Is there only one of you?” The Light shimmered again and answered. “Of course not. Everyone has a White Light, but all of us are One. And One of us is powerful enough to create or destroy a world or universe. Let me show you“. I cannot describe what happened then. I was led on a fantastic tour of things made and not made and music that accompanies it all into a Divine Order.
I pleaded with the Light to embrace me. It said no, do not come closer. If I was embraced, I could not go back. The Light told me I had to return to my body and work through it until my task was finished. What task? The next thing I knew, I was back in the darkened garage laying on the floor with Davy Jones and Joe by my side. They said I had hung deathlike for twenty minutes. The experience was truly “transformative”. My life was markedly different from that day forward. I was a battery on “Full Charge” and didn’t have to sleep for the next 72 hours. My mind was ultra clear and all my physical functions seemed to have been enhanced.
Thirty-seven years later, the Light is still there just above my head. It’s my guide, my guru, my protector and my benefactor for everything I need to finish my task. In Part II of this column I will continue with my next series of suspension adventures and the journeys of others I have pierced and coached as a “Ka-See-Ka”. It will include accounts and photos of both horizontal and vertical suspensions that have had a profound influence on people’s lives.
Yours for safe and enlightened body rites,
Suspensions & Tensions:
Today, Part III
FAKIR VS. STELARC, THE LISBON FACE-OFF
I was delighted that Shannon was able to catch up with the elusive Stelarc recently at the TransVision 2004 Conference. I was even more thrilled that he was able to make a video interview, and further, that Stelarc remembered our televised Festival Atlantico confrontation in 1997. You see, I had long been a rabid Stelarc fan since I first saw his 1985 book “Obsolete Body Suspensions”. I had tried in vain to contact him first in Japan and later in Australia. I never got a reply to the many questions I had about the “whys” and “wherefores” of his suspensions. To me, they were imaginative and an extreme visual turn-on. And since I had already done a number of my own suspensions (including several O-Kee-Pa’s), I felt his must have taken him somewhere in the unseen worlds. But he never mentioned this in any of his books, films, or writings.
So we were both booked to perform in Lisbon. Now he could not avoid me! The first time we met face-to-face in the festival gallery, Stelarc was charming, funny, and highly respectful of “Fakir”. He had also heard of me. I was in awe of him and he seemed to be in awe of me. The festival director arranged for a lengthy television interview and debate, in English, for the European TV networks. Now I had my chance, on public media, to ask all those old questions!
Well, he dodged and danced claiming all his suspensions were merely “works of art” and did not go to any erotic or esoteric turf. No masochism. No “unseen worlds”. He said they were only one step in his attempt to explore and improve what he thought was a poorly designed machine. His goal was to become a “Cyberman”, part flesh and part machine. A scientifically improved body. On the other hand, I told him that for me body suspensions were part of a greater ritual that allowed me to bridge the gap between spirit and body — and that for me body was already a great and marvelous creation. I suggested that in his suspensions he may have been at the door to “unseen worlds” but perhaps was afraid to go through. He didn’t seem to like that suggestion! So we parted in total disagreement, but friends. If you would like the full story of our confrontation, go to my site and order a copy of BODY PLAY #16.
Stelarc (Mr. Cyberman) and Fakir (Mr. Organic) as they faced-off in Lisbon.
SHAMANIC SUSPENSION RETREAT
This summer I took a ten-day vacation in the magnificent Northern California mountains between the coastal valleys and Pacific Ocean. Luckily, I have a piercing and suspension loving friend who owns 200 acres of isolated prime wilderness there. On this land’s hilltop, in absolute stillness except for nature’s birds and breezes, I had a vision: devotees swinging in the twisted branches of an indigenous oak forest. What an exceptional place for unhurried shamanic rituals, rituals for those who want an organic suspension experience. The vibes of this California hilltop equaled or exceeded any of the traditional ritual locations I have visited in Wyoming, South Dakota, or Southeast Asia. And it is only a three-hour drive from San Francisco! Better yet, it is only a few miles from my favorite hot springs spa which is also owned by friends. My mind started churning.
Over the next few days I scouted the location, asked questions and found that the nearby hot springs had just built an isolated group building to house fourteen to twenty people. It has a private kitchen, dining area, bath and community space used primarily for tantra and yoga classes. Wow! What a great combination this would be for an exclusive Shamanic Suspension Retreat in the summer of 2005. Now, dear adventure seeking friends, those who have expressed a desire for a more organic and nature-driven suspension, would you be interested in participating in such a retreat? Numbers would be limited. The retreat could be anywhere from two to four days. Devotees could participate in teams of three or four. Everyone gets a turn. Shamanic and medical guidance would be available, including the energy of Fakir and several other skilled psychic and physical guides.
If you long for this type of experience, please write me a private email. I have been in touch with a number of you since my last column, especially those few of you who have tried a true O-Kee-Pa style suspension from two chest piercings. Some of you have had mechanical difficulties with it. From your pictures, I have spotted a few problems, chief of which are:
I’ve also been studying lots of BME pictures of horizontal suspensions (some people call them “Coma” and “Superman”). Again, from my own experiences I see several mechanical problems that can create disruptive and unpleasant sensations that interfere with trancing or prolonged suspension. These are:
SWIMMING WITH DOLPHINS
Experience text by Beth Basar
Long after my return from Lisbon in 1997, I received a letter from my dear shaman friend Bear in Austin, Texas. He told me he had been continuing his practice of facilitating body suspensions for those who sincerely desired the experience of journeying to unseen worlds and inner space. He wrote that he had just completed just such a journey, an outdoors shamanic suspension, with a young woman, Beth Basar.
The whole event was beautifully photographed by Dan McCollum. And even better, afterwards Beth had written about the journey and her subsequent feelings. I have long cherished this account and photographic documentation. It stands out as a prime example of what is available to us if we go about a suspension with integrity and clear intent. Bear, Beth, her husband, and Dan McCollum were kind enough to offer to share this magical event with those who wanted to know more about a spiritually-oriented suspension. In her own words, here is Beth’s account:
In my next column, I will depart for a bit from suspensions and try to acquaint BME devotees with the deeper and more magical aspects of what we have been calling “Energy Pulls”. This is something both Fakir and his partner Cléo have been bringing to cities all over the U.S. and Canada for the past two years in our day-long SPIRIT+FLESH workshops. They loved them in Washington D.C. (twice), Minneapolis (twice), Los Angeles, San Francisco (twice), and next we go to Vancouver B.C. and New Orleans. How about your city?
Yours for safe and enlightened journeys,
Suspensions & Tensions:
CONGRATULATIONS O-KEE-PA GRADUATES!
In the past few months I’ve become aware that many others (photos, stories) beside me have tried and succeeded in being suspended vertically by two piercings in the chest — in essence, doing O-Kee-Pa the hard way.
I’ve seen your photos on the BME site. But I am not quite sure you had the depth of experience the Mandans (or I) had. Please tell me. I’ve sent feelers out to several suspension groups, but so far gotten no feedback. As the guy who kind of started all this in the first place (by example and photos) I truly feel responsible for what happens to you. I am very eager to hear from you if you have ever done an O-Kee-Pa style suspension. How long did you hang? Under what circumstances? Where did you go? What were the after effects? Please send Fakir an email about your experience.
Most of the suspensions I have facilitated and witnessed during the past thirty years resulted in unusual and often fantastic out-of-the-body adventures. One of the most interesting was that of a Catholic woman, Sharon C., who pleaded with me for several years to facilitate her suspension and be her shaman Ka-See-Ka guide/protector. Ten years ago, we made it happen. About seventy of us were gathered in Northern California at a place called Kenton Mine. We were there for two weeks so there was plenty of time to prepare for a special ritual. Since I had hung horizontally for long periods of time in years prior, we decided that a horizontal suspension by multiple piercings was the best way for Sharon to have the prolonged experience she desired. We wanted at least several hours up. Back then, none of us had ever heard of or tried doing this with modified fish hooks. That came several years later. So we settled on piercing the front side of her body with 22 long sterile piano wire loops as I had done several times.
On a sunny afternoon in a deep canyon filled with redwood trees, I pierced her body with the wires, bent them into loops and attached them to the frame I had devised for my own suspensions. The tribe assembled. We beat drums, burned sage, and chanted for beneficial spirits to guide Sharon on her journey. Slowly we inched her pierced body up off the mats on which it laid. Up under the branches of the thousand year old sacred Redwood Tree which seemed to murmur, “let me take this body to its source.” We were hushed and within several minutes, Sharon left her body. It was inanimate “meat” hanging high in the air beneath the branches of the tree.
As the Ka-See-Ka who assumed responsibility for her journey, I was able to see what she saw in her disconnected state. First, she traveled to her private hell (a barren place with no signs of life) and them to her private heaven. I was able to communicate with her lifeless body, and, most unusual, she was able to speak through it! When lost in despair in her “hell” space, I suggested she turn around, look over her shoulder, and see what was behind her. There it was, her private heaven: a verdant forest filled with trees, birds, flowers, and fuzzy buffalos who smiled and wanted to play with her. I told Sharon she could fly and should go down and circle the forest below. She did and soon rested in a comfortable nest in the top of a tree. I told her she could go play with the animals below if she wanted.
“But they are smelly and dirty,” she said.
“That’s ok,” I told her. “You don’t have to step in their shit. You can fly now so just go down and fly above their heads.”
Sharon giggled and I saw her do this and tease the animals as she flew over them. There were many other odd adventures during her journey but finally, as she despaired for company, a luminous being who appeared as an animated blue infinity symbol, spoke to her and then buried itself deep in her heart center. It said to her, “Peace… Be Still”.
But this is not the end of the chapter and book for Sharon. The memory and lesson it held stayed with her to the end. Two years ago, Sharon developed ever worsening kidney failure. On dialysis, she felt the time had come to leave her body permanently. She called me. She was glowing, happy, radiant, as she announced her decision to disconnect from machines. She was not frightened of passing over into the unseen world. She had been there before. Sharon thanked me for my love and guidance. And she parted this world joyously.
JOURNEYS OF OTHER SEEKERS
Another dear friend of mine, Puma (see Body Play #9), had undergone a severe personal crisis in which he had been taken over by an extremely self-destructive (read suicidal) dark side, the “shadow side” which we all have. He went on barely functioning and seemingly headed for a bitter end. A year later, still troubled, he asked me to hang him up by two deep chest piercings. He pleaded to do the O-Kee-Pa seriously and privately so he could resolve this on-going power struggle with the negative energy that was controlling his life. This was to be an attempt to chase the “shadow” away once and for all.
In the absolute quiet of an indoor chamber, Puma was compelled to engage in a long and painful combat (his private hell) before he could let go and surrender; submit his mind and body to what was actually a “shamanic death”. He groaned and fought to stay in conscious control as I slowly inched his body upward against the chest piercings. When he finally let go, suspended, he appeared to be physically dead. His lover pleaded with me to let him down. But I saw Puma’s other electric body shape floating weightless and smiling at me from a remote corner of the room. He was ok. So I let his physical body hang motionless for another ten minutes.
When I finally let Puma’s lifeless form down, just as light flickered back into his eyes, I saw the “shadow” inside them screaming in agony. A voice behind these fiery eyes seemed to say, “If this is what you are going to do to me, I’ll leave!”
And within ten minutes the Puma we know and loved was back in those eyes — exhausted, happy and free. Characteristic of a truly transformative experience, the effect lingers on years later. Puma told me just a few days ago, “I’ll never forget what happened. This was a truly spiritual experience for me and I continue to draw strength from it every day.”
But not every suspension ends with such beneficial results as Sharon’s and Puma’s. Sometimes things go sour when our expectations or approach to the suspension is off-key. I have attended a bunch of these and that is why I am so fussy about having clear intent, inner guidance, and not being swayed by ego when I am advising or helping someone do a suspension. Several suspensions that went wrong come to mind as I write this column. The first was done several years ago by Idexa, the San Francisco tattoo artist. I asked her to write about her vertical suspension that went wrong for Body Play magazine. In her own words, here is what she wrote for Body Play #14:
Another “sour” suspension I witnessed in the last few years was Paul Stolz’s first attempt to do an O-Kee-Pa. On previous occasions I had seen him do several horizontal suspensions facilitated by Vaughn of Body Manipulations. These were sweet — no problems (read the description that follows). But, apparently overcome with self-confidence by them, he decided it would be “no sweat” to hang by two piercings in the chest like I had done. He talked to me several weeks prior.
I warned that this would be different, many magnitudes harder and could not be done without surrendering ego. I told him that after about one minute he would have to go through all the symptoms of drowning or suffocating. Was he ready for that? I asked if he wanted me to “Ka-See-Ka” him. “No, just come and witness,” he said.
So that’s what I did. No rescue offered.
The suspension got off to a good start. Joey Wyman did an expert, shamanic job of piercing two hooks in Paul’s chest, deep and just above the nipples. He took the piercings with a stoic smile. With the same bravado, he stood on a platform dressed in tight black pants and silver boots. This was his moment of glory. He motioned for Vaughn to lift him up with the vertical crane to which he was fastened. Up he went clear to the ceiling. But, as I had warned, the stoic smile and bravado only lasted about two minutes. Then Paul was in obvious distress. His breathing became difficult, rapid. He panicked. His arms flailed about wildly as he gave Vaughn the prearranged signal to bring him down immediately. Paul lay limp on the floor in shock, eyes glazed and pupils dilated. He didn’t quite know where he was or what had happed in those few brief minutes. They helped him upstairs and laid him on a bed like a rag doll. I sat by his side for half an hour moving energy and bringing him back to center. He was ill for about a week. I understand Paul has said the O-Kee-Pa was harder than he ever imagined and he will never try it again.
PAUL FLIES LIKE A BIRD
Unlike his negative experience above, Paul has also had his magical suspensions too. Not everyone has a “White Light” experience like Fakir. There seems to be a different “trip” each time and for each person. Sometimes it is only a heightened sense of body awareness made possible by dissociation (the observer state). And sometimes the strongest effects of a suspension are only felt hours, days, or weeks after the experience. And sometimes nothing much happens except an unusual or adverse set of body sensations because of unfavorable physical or psychic conditions (like with Idexa or Paul above).
Paul Stolz belongs to a group of Modern Primitive explorers. I first met Paul in 1996. Paul invited me to his first “flying suspension” in which he would be moved about freely in three axis by a 3-ton crane inside a huge warehouse building. He knew very little about traditional body suspensions like the O-Kee-Pa of the Mandans or Chidi Mari suspensions of the Hindus. I asked about his intentions, his expectations. He was unclear about them. Seemed like he was satisfied just to do something new, novel, experimental. He wanted to “fly”. Ok, that was a good enough reason. So on evening of March 22, I went to the San Francisco warehouse which had been converted into a performance and play space called The Sand Box (the floor was ankle deep in beach sand).
I entered just as Paul was being lifted up in a horizontal, face-up suspension by multiple hooks. As he floated twenty feet above our heads, then gently moved about the cavernous space by Vaughn, it felt like “electric rain” was showering down on me from his suspended body. There were only a few friends present. The general feeling in the space was peaceful, tingling. Paul was on a trip and in an altered state. The suspension lasted for about an hour. In his own words, here is Paul’s account of his Sandbox suspension (from Body Play #14):
So here are just a few examples and accounts of what has happened to contemporary seekers who have experienced suspensions. How about yours? There are so many experiences I wish to share with you that there will have to be a Part 3 and maybe even a Part 4 to this edition of Fakir Rants & Raves. See you next time for “Swimming With Dolphins” and more.
Yours for safe and enlightened body rites,
Suspensions & Tensions:
"Your body belongs to you, and in the appropriate ritual, it has been given to you to explore the full dimensions of your being."
In 1943, a young teenage boy in South Dakota was bored to tears in the stifling, restricted and limited environment around him. He haunted libraries hoping to find a glimmer of something different, exciting, vital and alive in the world beyond. In the school library, in a musty alcove he hit pay dirt — a complete collection of old National Geographic magazines dating from 1905! Here were pictures of people who looked different, lived differently and had done radically different things with their bodies. This was exciting, WOW!
One photo in particular attracted his attention. In a 1920’s issue he saw photos of young men and women in India with hooks pierced through their flesh hanging fully suspended by their flesh from a rotating cross arm high in the air. Why did they do this, he wondered? How could they do this? What did this feel like? What did it do to you? Several years later, the boy found some descriptions and drawings of Native Americans who also pierced their flesh and either pulled for hours against deep piercings or hung suspended by them.
Discovery of these Native American rituals rang many bells for the boy since many of these rituals had taken place in the same physical space in South Dakota he now occupied, and only about fifty years prior. Following a psychic trail on his bicycle, he found several places where Lakota, Arikira and Sissiton peoples had pierced their flesh and pulled against it. The vibes were still there beneath the rustle of cottonwood leaves on the trees from which they pulled and hung.
The feeling left in these places was infectious. The boy was intoxicated by it. He had to try this himself. In fact, he felt like he had done this before. That boy was me. He has since tried these body rituals many times. Now some fifty years later, in 2003, he finds himself in a strange new world — one where many others have also felt the urge to pierce their flesh and either pull against it or be suspended by it. However, some of these explorers seem to think they’ve just invented the wheel and want some kind of patent on it to claim ownership. So now we’ve got “Superman” and “Coma” suspensions and other new names that just didn’t exist in the world of the people who originated these rituals. But that is ok as long as some credit and honor is paid to the people who came before and showed the way — as long as the inner “magic” and “sacred space” belonging to these rituals is not forgotten or ignored.
ORIGINS & BELIEFS
The practice of piercing the flesh then pulling or hanging by pierced body parts is not a new custom. It has been a part of Hindu Culture in Southern India (Tamil Nadu) for thousands of years, nearly as long among the Sufi of the Middle East, and for hundreds of years as a part of religious ceremonies of Native Americans. It is, until recently, an alien and forbidden custom in mainstream Western Cultures. What useful purpose could this custom have? Why would anybody deliberately choose to “mutilate” their flesh and “suffer” thus? A huge conflict exists between Western Culture and those where such piercing rites are honored and encouraged.
The core of this conflict centers around different cultural beliefs about the body. Who does your body belong to? A distant God who has strict rules about what you can do with it? Or to a Priest or other intermediary of this real or imaginary divinity? Does your body belong to a father or mother? Or to a husband or spouse? Or to the state or a social order or tribe? Does anyone besides you have the right to decide what you can or cannot do with your body? Or does it simply belong to you the one who lives inside?
In those cultures where piercing ceremonies have developed, the attitude is pretty much universal: your body belongs to you, and in the appropriate ritual, it has been given to you to explore the full dimensions of your being. In Western Cultures of the late 20th Century, some of these alien beliefs have replaced old Judeo-Christian ones. Since the 1970’s the widespread practice, acceptance and popularity of body modification definitely says, “My body belongs to me!” However, like many customs and practices that originated in other cultures and were transplanted here, only part of the messsage seems to have been transmitted. For example, the art of tattooing was brought to Europe from the South Pacific by sailors and early explorers. In Somoa and the Marquesas, the custom of tattooing was a very sacred and special rite: “the making of a magic mark”. It was an initiation, a rite of passage, and meant to transform forever the one who bore it. The early sailors brought back the technique to make the mark — but failed to bring back the magic. So soon European tattooing became a mere novelty: marks that don’t wash off, a status symbol of sailors and outcasts. The meaningful and magical geometric designs of the originators were replaced with the only kind of graphic Europeans understood: crude representational pictures or words. The magic and purpose of the originators had been lost in translation.
In most cases, I feel the same thing has happened to the suspensions and related piercing experiences a lot of people are doing today. They are often being done for sheer novelty, attention, and ego satisfaction. I feel very strongly that if one borrows a custom from another culture, it is your obligation to respect and understand, as best possible, the significance and mystery of the practice. Otherwise, it can easily fall into darkness or misuse and undesirable consequences or spiritual degradation can result.
However, at the same time, I feel everybody has a right to do what they will with their body even if it is for sheer exhibitionism. But they should be aware they are missing the full potential and magical significance of the act.
SAVITE HINDU & SUFI PRACTICES
The oldest recorded history of piercing the body and pulling on or hanging by the piercings goes back perhaps five thousand years to the earliest cultures of India. In this great period of human development in the East, the concepts of Hinduism including the various yogic disciplines, understanding of energy centers (chakras), tantra and the Kama Sutra were born. The body/spirit connection was especially explored, and the ability to attain different states of consciousness was both sought after and revered. The idea of “using the body to transcend body” played an important role in religious and everyday life.
Two major Hindu Festivals are especially focused on body piercing rituals: Thaipusam in January/February and Chidi Mari in May/June. Both festivals are celebrated primarily by Savite Hindus (devotees of Lord Siva, Muruga, Murugan, Subramanya, the Great Mother Mari and Kali). Other Hindus, like the followers of Vishnu or Krishna, do not usually practice body rituals or employ body piercing in their religious practice. In fact, they often hold these rites in contempt. The Savites are mostly the dark-skinned Tamil people of Southern India (Tamil Nadu) and direct descendents of the original indigenous peoples of India. Their Tamil language used in the chants of their “Pujas” (worship) is the spoken equivalent of the ancient written language of Sanskrit. Historically, the Tamil peoples have been persecuted for hundreds of years. First by the light-skinned Northern Indians, descendents of Aryan invaders, then by the British colonialists who hauled them off as virtual slaves to work on tea plantations in Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) and other parts of the British Empire. Wherever they’ve been taken by force, the Tamil people have been remarkably successful in preserving their culture and spiritual practices. Something similar is now happening with the culture of Tibet.
As public festivals, both the Thaipusam and Chidi Mari have been effectively outlawed in India and Sri Lanka. Too barbaric. But in other parts of Southeast Asia, especially Malaysia and Thailand, these “torture festivals” still flourish. The Chidi Mari Festival is devoted to worship of the “Great Mother” (Mari) and other female deities like Kali. Devotees are often pierced by two hooks in the back, suspended on the end of a long pole and rotated high in the air. Others are pierced with multiple hooks and suspended horizontally for long periods of time (two to six hours). All this done to attain a “State of Grace” (ecstatic trance) in which the Great Mother possesses their bodies and bestows enlightenment and blessings on them and their families.
Thaipusam is a piercing festival to Lord Siva and especially the Hindu dieties who are “Stars in His Crown”: Muruga, Murugan, Subramanya, Skanda, Ganapati. Devotees vow to bear a gift to the deity (archtype) under physical hardship. This is considered the purest of gifts — the offering of one’s own body pierced with spears, skewers or hooks as it delivers the gift. This is “Worship Through the Body” and such a gift is especially accepted and blessed by such deities (archetypes) as Murugan, Lord of Piercing and patron Saint of the Tamils. When I witnessed the Thaipusam in Penang Malaysia in 1995, I felt the reality of the sacrificial energy released. It was overpowering, intoxicating, sweet, and very similar to the energy that I have experienced at many of the body suspension and hook pulling rituals I have facilitated or witnessed in recent years.
This same energy has historically been a part of Sufi body piercing rituals dating back hundreds of years. In case you don’t know, Sufi is a fusion of ancient Hebrew, Hindu, and Islamic beliefs and practices with emphasis on individual “gnosis”, that is “direct knowing” by means of altered states. Sufi sects that still practice piercing rituals, dervish dancing, and other trance rites are not accepted by mainstream Islam and have been forced underground except in the United States and a few other Western cultures. I even know of one of them in Marin County, California! One of my ardent pro body piercers learned Arabic and was attached to that group. My namesake, the original Fakir Musafar, was a 12th Century Sufi mystic from Meshed, Persia (Iran) who for sixteen years had six daggers embedded in his chest and back plus six horseshoes suspended from twelve permanent piercings in his shoulders and arms. Musafar’s message was much the same as mine: one can access the unseen worlds and find the source of being through the body. Legend has it Musafar was ridiculed for his bizarre practices and that he died of a broken heart because his message went unheard. In many ways, I feel the hand of Musafar and the energy of Murugan in what I have been doing for some fifty years. I also feel the Spirit of the Modern Primitive is an extension of that same ancient and timeless energy.
NATIVE AMERICAN PRACTICES
Strange as it may seem, the practice of piercing the body and ritually pulling or suspending it to achieve some kind of union with divine powers developed quite independently on the North American continent. The exact time frame is unknown since there are no written records left by these tribal peoples — only verbal records and stories told to Europeans in the late 1700’s and early 1800’s. The most significant chronicler of these customs was George Catlin, an Englishman who lived among the Mandan people in the 1830’s and both wrote and painted descriptions of their body rituals. The Mandan, who were not hunters and gatherers, lived in villages and cities along the Missouri River in what is now South and North Dakota. The primary Mandan suspension ritual was called the O-Kee-Pa. It was both a rite of passage for all young men and also a repeated practice for a vision-seeking shaman. Mandan legend says the practice was given to them by a white man who came down from a mountain in ancient times.
After many days of fasting and extreme ordeals, Mandan young men who were about to become adults and enter adult life were pierced twice in the chest and twice in the back. Under the guidance of an older man who had taken this journey before, often many times (called a Ka-See-Ka meaning guide), they were suspended by either set of piercings from the roof of a lodge. In extreme pain, followed by trance, the young men were hung up for about twenty minutes to seek communion with “The Great White Spirit”. Legend has it that initiates traveled out of their bodies in this state and were guided through unseen worlds by their Ka-See-Ka who knew the way. The O-Kee-Pa journey was like a canoe trip on a tricky river: the initiate submitted and just rode in the canoe while the Ka-See-Ka steered it to appropriate vistas and to avoid rocks. Through the years, neighboring tribes, especially the Arikara and Minnetaree, were exposed to the Mandan ritual and developed their own piercing rites, often more severe.
Various Sioux (generic French word used for all tribal peoples living in this area) tribes like the Lakota, Ogalala, Teton and Yellow Hand also adopted or developed shamanic piercing rites — chief of which is called the Sun Dance in which pledgers are pierced once or twice in the chest, fastened to a tree or pole and vow to pull against the piercings until the flesh breaks. Again, the object is to enter an extraordinary state and meet an animal ally or the “Great White Spirit” — either as communion, healing or to obtain special knowledge. The most serious initiates and experienced dancers gained great respect and awe for how long they could pull against the piercings without breaking free. Sometimes this would be several days.
Wonderfully accurate movie reenactments of the O-Kee-Pa and Sun Dance can be seen in the Richard Harris films “Man Called Horse” and “Return of the Man Called Horse”. A documentary film of a real modern day Sun Dance and O-Kee-Pa style suspension can be seen in the film “Dances Sacred & Profane” shot in Wyoming with Jim Ward and Fakir as initiates. When this film was released on videotape it was called “Bizarre Rituals”. Watch my web site for a new tape to be released soon with the last thirty minutes of the “Dances” film plus a short profile of Fakir produced by French filmmakers and Canal+ for European distribution.
Yours for safe and enlightened body rites,
In my next column, SUPENSIONS & TENSIONS: TODAY, I will bring these practices to contemporary times with accounts of my own experiences and the experiences of others. I also wish to alert those who currently do piercing rituals with large hooks of a new and recent danger: MRSA (Methicillin Resistant Staphylcoccus Aureus), a staph infection that is resistant to all current forms of antibiotics. It is real. It is here and I recently had to deal with a case that required two open-heart surgeries! It is easily transmitted by mere physical contact. It is then called CA (community acquire) MRSA. More on this new danger in my next column.
Body Play: State of Grace or Sickness?
Part II: The New Culture Matures
Today is August 10. My seventy-third birthday! It’s a good day to reflect, remember, and take stock of what has happened to me and the world around me. During the 1960s, since I’d “gone public”, I found new opportunities for personal exploration. Instead of isolation, there were now kindred spirits — others to give me encouragement and sanction for a whole new round of “body play” adventures. I asked sympathetic friends, like Davy Jones, my newly found tattoo artist, to put me in a “Kavadi” frame like that of the Savite Hindus. I was pierced by ninety four-foot long steel rods in my chest and back. I danced for many hours with this fifty-pound load. I went into a state of ecstasy and drifted out of my body. It was sweet. It was bliss. I got to know what the Tamil Hindus had experienced as long as a thousand years ago. I repeated “Taking Kavadi” many times after that, and eventually I was asked by other Modern Primitives to put them in it as well. I did so and also acted as a shaman who could safely guide them through the hazards of the “unseen worlds” to which they went.
1967: TAKING KAVADI; SELF PORTRAIT WITH DAVY JONES
In another body ritual, I invited trusted friends to pierce my chest with two large hooks and suspend me by these piercings in the style of the Ogalala Sioux Sun Dance and Mandan O-Kee-Pa ceremonies. That experience proved to be truly transformative; life-altering. After I swung free it took only about ten seconds and I was lifted out of my body where I drifted up to a White Light that radiated incredible love and understanding. The Light said, “Hello, I am you and you are me. And I am as close to God as you will ever be!”
In a timeless space, I had a long telepathic conversation with the White Light. I got answers to many questions. I was never the same after that remarkable trip. Years later I discovered that many others had had a similar life-altering transformation during what is called “the near death experience”. But mine was voluntary and sought after as part of my “body play”.
I repeated the hanging several times after the first one in 1976. Each one contained its own lessons to learn and special places to visit. My fifth hanging was beautifully filmed in Wyoming for a documentary by Mark and Dan Jury, released in 1985 as Dances Sacred & Profane. A video with segments of this hanging and a Sun Dance will soon be available on my web site. I have not done this kind of suspension in recent years — one does not have to repeat a body ritual again and again if the first one resulted in a truly transformative experience. The job is done!
By 1990, the Modern Primitive Movement, with its intricate web of body expression and exploration, had come to bloom. Body piercing was now a mainstream business in large cities — mostly as a result of the diligence of a handful of people in the original 1970s T&P group mentioned in my last column. In 1990 and 1991 I worked as a commercial piercer in one of the largest of these studios in San Francisco. Since I also did, and had done for some years, private ritualized piercing I couldn’t help but introduce this element into what was developing into a commercialized personal service industry. I was curious: why did these hundreds of mostly young people flocking to our studio want piercings? I knew from years of research many of the reasons why people in other cultures did it, but how about these contemporary Modern Primitives?
In the so called “primitive” tribal societies I had studied and visited, about a dozen recurring reasons kept appearing for the practice of body piercing, marking, and modification rites:
Since I was now doing ten to twenty piercings a day, I had plenty of opportunity to ask reasons of contemporary piercees. In the privacy of the piercing booths we used in a commercial studio, I would encourage ritual and ask, “You don’t have to answer me if you don’t want to, but if you don’t mind, could you tell me why you’re getting your nipples pierced today?” Or, “Have you been thinking about doing this for very long? Does it have any special meaning for you?”
I expected answers like “I’m getting this because I think it’s cool” or “I want this piercing ’cause all my friends have it”.
To my surprise, most piercing clients in San Francisco gave me more meaningful answers. The reasons were not very different, in most cases, from those I had found in other cultures where body piercing was sanctioned and a part of cultural tradition… But a few of the reasons were radically skewed from those of other cultures; reasons never or seldom heard in tribal cultures. One that came up often in San Francisco, especially among young women, was a sad commentary on the abusiveness and disregard for others’ Sacred Space in our society. “I’m getting my genitals pierced today to reclaim them as my own. I’ve been used and abused. My body was taken without my consent by another. Now, by this ritual of piercing, I claim my body back. I heal my wounds.“
Some reasons were more obvious and traditional, such as the identification and status marking of certain subgroups like bikers, or the Club Fuck girls of Los Angeles who all wore small colored rings in their nasal septum. But the most common reason given for a body piercing usually involved a rite-of-passage or memorial to some one near and dear to the piercee.
In 1990, while I was piercing commercially, I met Dr. Armando Favazza, M.D., a renowned psychiatric expert on self-mutilation. We were both appearing on a television talk show on self-mutilation and body modification, mostly that of young women who slashed themselves with razor blades. In addition to Dr. Favazza and myself, the program also featured Raelyn Gallina who is renowned for and openly does cuttings on others (primarily women) in socialized rituals. Raelyn and I packed the studio audience with highly modified people, all of whom were either heavily pierced, tattooed, or cut with intricate patterns. They were all very articulate and positive about their experiences. For his side of what became a television debate, Dr. Favazza brought in a young woman “cutter” from Los Angeles who had a long history of isolated cutting and psychiatric treatment. She had just been released from a hospital. I felt sorry for Dr. Favazza — he didn’t have much of a chance to present his side of the story in this setting. We overpowered many of the negatives with our enthusiasm.
After the program, the young cutter from Los Angeles connected with other women in the audience whose urge to express deep feelings by body ritual had been more social and sanctioned than hers. In listening to their conversations, I had the feeling that if this woman had been in San Francisco and had connected sooner with a supportive peer group like this one, her shame and negative experiences as an isolated cutter might have taken a different turn… that she might have avoided the psychiatric ward. Dr. Favazza also noticed this interaction of his patient with the other women cutters and it seemed to register deep in his consciousness. I gave the psychiatrist a tour of the widespread display and acceptance of body modification in San Francisco. In the long run, that kind of exposure added a whole new dimension to his work. He eventually revised his psychiatric text book Bodies Under Siege and a new edition was called Bodies Under Siege: Self-mutilation and Body Modification in Culture and Psychiatry (John Hopkins University Press, Second Edition, 1996).
By 1991, the Modern Primitive Movement was receiving widespread public notice, which in itself was a type of sanction. Rock stars and clothing models began to appear in mass media with body piercings and tattoos. Maverick clothing and personal styles became fashionable. I gave countless television interviews and wrote extensively for the alternative press about these changes. Hundreds of young people responded to the message. They wanted more: more information, more opportunity, and more guidance in body arts and ancient rituals, and more instruction in safe and social ways to express themselves through the body. To provide a reliable channel of information, I started a magazine called Body Play & Modern Primitives Quarterly. This magazine lasted for nine years and served its purpose well through 1999. Then other forums, along with BME, came into being to fill the gap.
For the general public who wanted guided group exploration of body rituals, I started a series of workshops on “Ecstatic Shamanism” in the mid-nineties; these workshops have been given in major cities like Los Angeles, Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, and Washington DC. They are becoming ever more popular and are continuing on in the new century (see my web site for up coming shamanic events). And, close to my heart, in 1990 I started Fakir Intensives to teach the art, skills, safe medical practice, and magic of body piercing and branding. I started this school on my kitchen table with two students. Now it has expanded to monthly classes with ten students and seven very dedicated and skilled instructors. To date this educational enterprise has trained over 1,400 body piercers and branders. Fakir Intensives are registered with the State of California as a Career Vocational Training Institution and instructors are certified for the subjects they teach. This represents a huge advance in social sanction for our body modification passions!
All of these recent activities have given permission and sanction to thousands of young people eager to modify their own and other people’s bodies. Some are sincere, grounded, thoughtful, and stable, open to advice and counsel. Others are so overwhelmed with their passion, so quick to act, that I have adopted a practice of intervening and stalling any rash, hasty, or risky bodymod actions whenever possible. I advise them to study the traditions and reasons behind the practices they are going to do and to consider the risks and possible dangers: physical, mental, spiritual, and psychic. If, for example, a young man wants to do a real Sun Dance, I would encourage him to learn all about the Native American tradition from which it came. I would advise him to find a trustworthy medicine man or shaman and only do the ritual if that mentor felt he was properly prepared and ready.
I’ve had a number or people ask me to help them take the Spear Kavadi of the Hindus. One woman, a Christian, asked at least a dozen times. I made her wait two years until I felt her motives were clear and she was appreciative of the Hindu tradition from which it came. Then I asked her to prepare herself so that finally, on a sunny summer day in Northern California, I could put her into the Kavadi cage for half a day. She had a marvelous transformative experience during the ritual. A few years later, I also hung this same women horizontally by twenty-two piercings in a thousand year old Redwood tree where she drifted into the unseen world and visited her own private hell and heaven. Again she had a deep transformative experience that a few years later prepared her to pass from this physical world altogether!
Others who also facilitate modern day body modifications have adopted a similar practice. Raelyn Gallina, for example, was recently asked by a protégé body piercer trained in my courses to make a series of slashes across his face. The requested modification was radical; the decision to do it was somewhat impulsive. When he went to Raelyn to get this cutting, she asked him if he had given it much thought; seriously considered the consequences. She made three lines with a permanent red marker where he wanted the slashes on his face. She told him to wear the marks for seven days. If he still wanted the cutting at the end of the waiting period, she would do it. This is the type of approach serious, responsible body modifiers should be taking. But not everyone involved in the modern body modification trend are this conscientious. Some see the trend as a way to commercialize and exploit this “urge” that runs so deep.
Why do we do it? Why do people through all ages and in many cultures seek expression of life through the body, through sensation and modifications? I’ve felt the “urge” myself and have come to terms with it. I’ve investigated this phenomena — it runs very deep and is a significant part of human development. The more I look, the more I am convinced that the “urge” wells up from profound universal archetypes that may even be encoded in our genes. Several years ago I had the opportunity to travel and explore the universality of this “urge”. As a young man, I was emotionally moved by the body worship of the Savite Tamil Hindus in such cultural rites as the Thaipusam Festival. As a teenager, I had seen photos of them in old National Geographic magazines — on the streets of South India with a hundred limes suspended from body piercings, in arched frameworks supported by long iron spikes embedded in the chest and back, suspended by large hooks in the back or chest, with long spikes pierced through their tongues and cheeks. The glazed look in the eyes and their seeming indifference to pain said something.
I vowed to witness this event some day, to soak in and understand first-hand what was happening inside these unique people that I had only observed externally in pictures and movies. So after waiting fifty years, in 1995 I finally had my chance to attend a Thaipusam Festival in Penang, Malaysia (see Body Play Magazine, Issue #11). I was not disappointed. A million people gathered — over two hundred thousand in Penang, a half million in Kuala Lumpur, and another quarter million in Singapore on the auspicious day. These were not tourists but devotees with their priests, family, and friends assembled for massive and openly sanctioned public worship through the body. In Penang, the procession streets were purified by smashing over two million coconuts whose milk is believed to clear the way for the passing of the image of Lord Muruga (also know to the Tamils as Murugan, Subramanya, Velan, Kumara, and many other names, each indicating an aspect of an unseen deity).
The atmosphere on the morning of the body piercing and procession ritual was heady and intoxicating. As I watched group after group of Tamil Hindus get pierced to cries of
Body Play: State of Grace or Sickness?
Part I: A New Culture is Born
In the 1970s, an eccentric millionaire in Los Angeles brought a number of “body players” together. His name was Doug Malloy and I first met him in 1972 after he had seen some photos of my early experiments dating back to 1944. We used to meet monthly in the back of Los Angeles restaurants for what we called “T&P (tattoo & piercing) Parties”. The numbers were small, never more than ten to fourteen persons, all we could gather in those days. We shared experiences, did “show-and-tell” and often arranged to meet again later in the day to help each other implement various piercings and bodymods. Over a course of several years, we developed and defined what would eventually become the lexicon of contemporary body piercings: types of piercings, techniques to make them and tools. At one meeting in 1975 I recall we tried to list everyone we knew in Western society who had pierced nipples. There were only seven, all males, except one woman who had been pierced in 1965. None of us in that group could conceive that we would, within a few years, have pierced hundreds of nipples, and that many of those we pierced would later also pierce hundreds more. By the late l980s the sight of pierced nipples — thousands of them — would be commonplace at all large subculture gatherings like Folsom Street Fair in San Francisco.
By the late 1980s, other forms of body modification and socialized body rituals were also emerging from the shadows of American subculture: tribal tattoos, cutting, branding, trance dancing, suspensions and body sculpting. In many ways, I felt responsible for encouraging some of it. In a quiet way in l983 I proposed production of a book on body modification and extreme body rites to ReSearch Publications of San Francisco. They began by taking twenty-seven hours of interviews with me. Along with this edited text, I provided about seventy photos of myself; self-portraits I had taken during my thirty years of secret experimentation. To round out the book, the publishers added other individuals who were also pioneers in modern body liberation. I suggested the title: “Modern Primitives” (a term I had coined in 1978 for an article in PFIQ magazine to describe myself and a handful of other “atavists” I knew). The net result was a book of unprecedented popularity and influence in the subcultures. Since its release in 1989, this book has gone through many reprints and sold tens of thousands of copies. After fourteen years in print, it is still being sold. As a result of this one book, thousands of people, mostly young, were prompted to question established notions of what they could do with their body — what was ritual not sickness, what was physical enhancement not mutilation. The Modern Primitives Movement was born!
Yours for safe inner journeying,
fakir at bodyplay dot com
Fakir Musafar is the undisputed father of the Modern Primitives movement and through his work over the past 50 years with PFIQ, Gauntlet, Body Play, and more, he has been one of the key figures in bringing body modification out of the closet in an enlightened and aware fashion.For much more information on Fakir and the subjects discussed in this column, be sure to check out his website at www.bodyplay.com. While you’re there you should consider whipping out your PayPal account and getting yourself a signed copy of his amazing book, SPIRIT AND FLESH (now).
Copyright © 2003 BMEzine.com LLC Requests to republish must be confirmed in writing. For bibliographical purposes this article was first published July 4th, 2003 by BMEzine.com LLC in Tweed, Ontario, Canada.
Beauty: Eye of the Beholder?
“The body belongs to the spirit that lives inside. And to no one else.”
Welcome to my new column. It’s a genuine pleasure to be a contributor to BME online news for “we the alternative people”. After fifty years of research, my own personal explorations and the mentoring of hundreds of others, I feel obligated to share with all those special persons “who hear the sound of a different drummer.” So every month now, look for this column where I will bring you a mix of news, views and hopefully information that will empower and help you further your own passions. I welcome challenges and questions to answer in the column. So feel free to write me about whatever moves you. As an “old dad” in the body modification movement, I hope to offer this column as a clearing house for new ideas/adventures and hopefully a place to moderate some of the conflicting views that often plague us.
The subject of this first column is inspired by my recent experience with a new television show now in production. The show is a series being called Eye of the Beholder in which the host, Serena Yang, is traveling all over the world to film and interview people who are different — from the moko mark revival devotees of New Zealand to gothic corset wearers in San Francisco to body piercing and tattoo fans in the U.S., Canada and Europe. The series, which will air on Discovery Channel in 2004, has an interesting and intelligent slant. Its theme is exploration of the question: What is Beauty?
Serena interviewed me in depth in May 2003. She will continue interviewing folks of our ilk at the coming APP conference in Las Vegas. She is a sharp and perceptive interviewer who honed her skills interviewing such celebrities as B.B King, Carlos Santana, Ravi Shankar, Martin Scorsese, Robert DeNiro, Robert Redford, Harrison Ford and Sean Penn among others. She has a passion to ask why one does what they do. She has said of herself, “the value of listening to these people is a continuing education for me … the reward is coming away from each person with a wider vision of the times we live in, the issues we need to explore and the choices we can make.”
So with that introduction, I spoke at length to Serena about Modern Primitives, body modification, body rituals, spirituality and similar topics during my May piercing school. She asked good questions and many of them started my mental processes whirling. I began to ask myself questions like: “what really differentiates the visual impact of one body alteration from another”, or “is there a universal, cross-cultural way to gauge the significance of a beauty ideal”? After the interview, Serena came very close to surrendering to our persistent Intensive instructors about having her nipples pierced. We’ll get her next time!
For my next shoot with Discovery Channel, at Dark Garden Corsets, Serena did allow herself to get involved in a bodymod. Fakir laced her rapidly into a tiny corset with a twenty-inch waist. She reeled about, spun on high heels, panted and was totally delighted with the sensation and look. She emailed me today:
The Price of Beauty
Getting down to brass tacks (which are sometimes lovely to sit on), many of us are obsessed with being different, looking different, expressing our differences. Yes? Why are we doing this? What is the payoff? These are the kinds of questions Serena asked me in our interviews. They made me think. What is the Essence of Beauty anyway? What’s the payoff? What are we, or anyone in any other culture, after by making a body alteration?
First it seems obvious we wish to satisfy our own vision of ourselves, how we look and feel to ourselves. And second, and probably more important, we wish to look “beautiful” to others. Of course we must realize some “others” may have different ideas of what is beautiful and claim ownership of what is not rightfully theirs. For example, take the proposed legislative ban on tongue splitting in Illinois. And we know that most of the “others” in our culture are programmed and conditioned to certain fixed notions that may conflict with our own. And that they often try to take our bodies from us — act like they have the right to claim possession of what is ours for “God” and his emissaries, or parents and spouses, or governmental and correctional agencies, or educational and medical institutions. But we know better. The body belongs to the spirit that lives inside. And to no one else.
So in context of any immediate or intimate group that accepts the truth that the body belongs to the one living inside it, the payoff often seems to be to “Stand Out in the Crowd”, to be unique, to be special, to be noticed in that group. This part of the “beauty ideal” seems to be universal in all cultures. In many tribal cultures I have studied, certain members of the tribe either volunteered or were selected by elders to be modified. Example: the young males of New Guinea known as Ibitoe whose septums were pierced for large spikes and whose waists were systematically reduced to wasp-like proportions with tight belts. They were special in their communities, honored, revered. Same goes for women in Africa whose lips were pierced and enlarged to hold huge plates. The larger the plate, the more beautiful. And the Padung women of Burma/Thailand with their giraffe necks stretched to ten inches or more.
So now in the mixed contemporary culture in which we live, there are conflicting standards about beauty and the way it is achieved. On the one hand there is a passion to conform to certain popular beauty ideals by “quick fixes”: injections of botox or collagen, plastic surgery like liposuction or breast implants that make a rapid physical alteration. Or the taking of pills to do this or that with the body without external effort. On the other hand, a different kind of logic rules in those who modify their body in more difficult, more time consuming and more deliberate ways via tattooing, body building, piercing enlargement, corseting and similar practices. I guess that’s most of us. Yes?
So on a universal scale, what are some of the standards by which mankind has cross-culturally gauged the relative value of beauty? How do we rate beauty’s significance on a scale of 1 to 10? After collecting information on hundreds of examples of body mods in different cultures, including our own subculture, this is what I discovered:
So far in this column, I have been examining only one aspect of what’s involved with alterations of the body (what I call “Body Play”): a specific aspect labeled BEAUTY. But “beauty” only deals with the aesthetic side of life, the part of us that dwells in the five-sense world, only relevant with other people. How about the deeper side of us that operates in the “invisible world”? How about the inner emotions, feelings, spirit and energy that animates the body? Or going one step further, how about unseen forces and beings that may dwell outside the body and influence or be influenced by what is happening within body? What if body rituals dealing with the unseen world somehow play a bigger role in our life journey than those so obvious to the five senses? Body rituals like cutting, ball dances, suspensions or hook pulling? Or what if our energy added to such a “gift” delivered under hardship to an unseen deity or archetype adds value to the gift in such a way that we receive a very special blessing in return? That’s what they practice in Hindu Culture in body rites and festivals like Thaipusam.
The aspects of body alteration dealing with unseen forces and energies will be the subject of my next column. It will be called Body Play: State of Grace or Sickness. Again I will focus on the cultural conflicts we are all facing when we give in to our passions.
Yours for more beauty in the world and less struggle,