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Masochism as a Spiritual Path
by Dorothy C. Hayden, CSW

It has only been in the last hundred years that masochism has been seen as a perversion. When the nineteenth-century psychiatrist Krafft-Ebing placed the term masochism under the rubric "General Pathology" in his famous book "Psychopathia Sexualis", masochism began to get bad press. A few decades later, Freud wrote about masochism as a function of infantile sexuality, incomplete development, stunted growth, and childish irresponsibility. Since then, masochism has been irrevocably allocated to the ghetto of "perversion" and the clinical community has viewed it as a pathological aberration that must be cured.

In the thousands of years before that, however, a masochistic-spiritual connection prevailed throughout most of civilization. Whereas psychology considered masochism as a disease, pre-nineteenth century religion regarded it as a cure. The ancients were in touch with the spiritual, physical and emotional value of masochism. For them, it was an essential part of reality; a combination of the soul in a tortured state, rapturous delight, exquisite pain and unbearable passion that brought them closer to experiencing union with something greater than their individual egos.

In the Western religious tradition, the desire to be beaten and whipped reflected the desire for "penance" which often involved humiliation, shame, pain, worship and submission. In monasteries and churches, bowed heads, bent knees, folded hands, covered heads and full-body prostration reflected the basic masochistic posture. The writers of the New Testament made frequent mention of flagellation and physical pain. The entire "passion play" of Christ, a narrative that has been embedded in our collective psyches for thousands of years, involves bondage, flagellation and crucifixion as part of being subjected to the will of a higher power and the subsequent resurrection to a transcendent consciousness. The Psalmists were in the practice of lashing themselves every day. It was part of the Jewish tradition, 500 years after Christ; to lash one another with scourges after they had finished their prayers and confessed their sins.

Flagellation in monasteries and convents were the order of the day. Saints such as St. William, St. Rudolph and St. Dominic would routinely order their disciples to lash them on bare backs. From flagellating themselves, priests began to flagellate their penitents as part of their penance. It came to be regarded as a necessary act of submission to God. Some holy men maintained that whipping had the power to rescue souls from hell. They believed that humiliation and physical pain provided a way in which one could become fully human.

All of the early Christian orders used flagellation as part of their spiritual discipline. St. Theresa, founder of the Carmelites, used severe flagellation as part of her daily practice. Through the birch and the scourge, she entered into states of ecstatic mysticism. The Carmelite nun, Caterina of Cardona, continuously wore iron chains which cut into her flash. She flogged herself with chains and hooks as often as possible and would sometimes flagellate herself for two or three hours at a time. It was said that through these practices, she was subject to mystical ecstasies and visions of heavenly grace. Similar stories abound among the Franciscans, the Dominicans and the Jesuits. Apparently a heavy dose of masochism was an essential part of Christian monastic life.

In the early eleventh century, monastic hermits in Italy took up the practice of self-flagellation and fled the monasteries to take to the public streets and churches. Called the sect of the Flagellants, and organized by St. Anthony, these monks would work themselves up to frenzied desire and could reach consummation only in torn flesh and self-degradation. The Flagellants marched from one town to the next in procession, picking up new penitents as they passed through. Sometimes numbering in the tens of thousands, they would march to a church, form a circle in front of it, and perform a highly ritualized penitential ceremony. Stripped to the waist, the penitents would chant hymns and prostrate themselves in contrition. The ritual culminated in severe flagellation of all the participants, sometimes lasting for hours. In the end, these gaunt figures, faces pressed to the earth in shame and rapture, their backs beaten to raw meat, their whips dyed blood red, were lifted into ecstasy. It seemed to work a spiritual transformation in those who participated.

Western culture does not have an exclusive hold on the use of subjugation and pain as part of spiritual discipline. Zen Buddhist monasteries are known for the master's use of the rod on disciples and for the Zen "slap" which is said to awaken a person to a higher level of consciousness. Zen students often sit crossed-legged on a cushion for 14 hours a day, seven days a week, submitting themselves to the physical agony of staying completely still in the face of unrelenting pain for long periods of time. Hindu disciples subjugate their wills to the will of the Guru; Tibetan Buddhists unquestionably follow the will of their Lama. An early Tibetan saint, Milarapa, was forced by his prospective teacher to undergo hard, painful and arduous physical labor without questioning the master's will before being accepted as a student.

If, in fact, the history of civilization is filled with stories of a masochistic/spiritual connection, how is it that the masochistic attitude is connected to spiritual transformation? What exactly has been the appeal of masochistic submission to spiritual personages throughout the ages?

One possible answer is that modern society has been heavily influenced by the Horatio Alger "rugged individualism" mentality. The goals of contemporary psychotherapy have been aimed at building strong, coping, rational, problem-solving egos. Take responsibility, Take control. Assert yourself. But at what cost? Building a strong ego is only one side of the coin. To experience the fullness of human experience, we need passivity and receptivity as well as assertion. We need a sense of mystical wonder as well as rational problem solving. We need to be in touch with what the psychoanalyst Carl Jung called "the shadow" -- the weak, limited, degraded, sinful side of ourselves as well as the strong, loving, compassionate, competent side. We need to move out from under the onus of our egocentric way of viewing life; to abdicate control as well as to take it. Masochistic submission, in centering on lack, inadequacy and weakness, puts us in touch with the entirety of our humanity. Full humanity requires surrender to the down side of life as well as the upside. Religious penitents knew of the soul's need for suffering. They knew that it keeps us from having hubris, or the pride that keeps us in the limited perspective of having too much faith in our competence and abilities. The Christian and Eastern mystics knew that. "Humiliation is the way to humility and without humility, nothing is pleasing to God," says St. Francis of Assissi.

A scene strips the ego of its defenses, ambitions, self-consciousness and successes. The ego become subservient to the master, the dominant, the soul, or God. Whether we call it submission to the dominant or to the will of God, it nevertheless remains submission - one of the hallmarks of the masochistic posture. The masochistic components -- the longing to serve, to submit, to abandon oneself sexually, emotionally, and physically makes one a slave either to a man, a woman or to God. Submission to that passion is divine degradation.

Another similarity between masochism and mystical ecstasy is that both are motivated by the desire for oblivion and liberation; for getting rid of the burden of self with all its conflicts, burdens and limitations. In former, less secular times, this might be called a striving for mystical ecstasy in which the individual is so taken out of himself that his individual identity is extinguished in sublime union with something higher.

In submission, one is taken out of one's personal limitations and transcends social sanctions while at the same time being reduced, weakened and humiliated. With noses pressed against the ever-present reality of human suffering, it is both an agonizing defeat and a magnificent spiritual journey.


Dorothy Hayden, CSW, is a New York-based psychotherapist who specializes in the scene, fetishes and sexual addiction. She received her M.S.W. from New York University and her psychoanalytic training at the Post Graduate Center for Mental Health. She can be reached at [email protected] or at 646/602-8463.

All work is copyright the listed author.

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