Being a voodoo doll
You may have seen those voodoo dolls. Perhaps you have even used them. People go crazy with it, cloth it up, give it facial expressions. Then they pin it, swear at it, rip it apart, as a way to channel the unsolved tension within them.
I used to think of this such voodoo stuff as shamanic BS until I realize that the modern day equivalent — the punch bag — is no better. If I want to punch someone I’d rather punch something that looks vaguely similar rather than a generic brown wooly thing.
The need to vent our bottled up interpersonal angst onto some representative, sentimentalized objects has not gone away for centuries. We do it when we can’t latch on the culprit directly. More commonly though, we channel our frustration to someone else. That unfortunate cashier who doesn’t know you had a bad day. These fellow pedestrians who startle at your impatient honking because your boss pissed you off at work. Last and definitely not least, your loving partner who never signs the explicit contract to be your daily tantrum-bearer.
Now, have you ever thought of becoming a voodoo doll for other people? Chances are you are already doing it, by profession or simply by being a good person doing emotional labor.
Or, if you are like me, out of curiosity.
There is no better place to play with such idea than a gathering like Touch & Play. T&P is an experimental gathering for 130 explorers of sensuality and sexuality. We danced, touched, exchanged energies with each other and altogether for five days on the beautiful land of Earthdance Creative Living. We explored our own boundaries, ventured in others, and in my case, played with the boundaries of the whole. It was heaven for the curious me.
On Sunday night 3 days in, there was a call for an Un-performance where people could share something they had been working on related to the T&P theme.
I had been wondering about what boundaries did I want to explore with people here. The day before, I learned about BDSM, particularly sado-masochism. I didn’t have as much interest in being hurt or hurting people physically. I could imagine myself doing that just fine, but in this gathering of beautiful dancer bodies, my nimble twisted mind was looking for something beyond physical stuff.
Somehow a thought came to mind “What would it be like to be humiliated in public? How about being treated like an asshole?” I was curious, for most people in my life have been so generous and loving (which I’m infinitely grateful for). This might also be a good test for my resilience.
Given the permission to be “evil”, people would act that way. That much we know from the infamous Stanford Prison experiment. I don’t believe in evil; one definition that stuck with me is “ All evil is an attempt to eliminate evil.” by James Carse. The more interesting question to me is that in such a nurturing environment like this, what would be the impact of exploring this hidden “dark” side? How would these wonderfully loving people around me respond to such provocation?
In Jungian term, I was playing with the personal and collective Shadow. I was dancing at the edge.
A note on Acceptance
Personally, doing this was a personal practice in accepting: I’m here, ready to receive whatever that comes. I wrote recently in my journal “Life is a massage. Sometimes, it’s like Reiki, barely noticeable; other times, it’s like Thai massage, almost breaking bone. The point is that if you don’t resist, you will find it necessary for you” . This philosophy came from reading Shinzen Young and perhaps from having more massages recently too. Good massage can be enlightening ;-)
As a gathering, T&P is at the very edge of mainstream society, where many people who struggle to be accepted can feel at home. But even here, we do have people in our lives whom we have yet able to accept. Can we use T&P as a sandbox to explore such acceptance?
Lastly, as a community, if we indeed choose to be more accepting, then we will have to be prepared to receive the chaos that follows. A more accepting community will be a more unordered community. It is not for everyone. Let’s play with those questions and be surprised.
Voodoo magic requires some suspension of belief and imagination. I invite you to read this section with lightness.
Imagine you were in the audience sitting in an U shape. You saw me going on front stage. There I put my cup of water down on the chair and spilled it on the floor. Perhaps you thought I was clumsy. Perhaps you felt sorry for this glitch before my performance. Perhaps you even got annoyed “Nobody dares to spill water on this sacred dance floor!” I grabbed a cloth nearby to soak up the spill. Someone came with a bigger cloth while I profusely apologized to the audience. Once the floor got clean, I looked up, smiled and asked everyone to stand up, stretch, take three deep breaths to loosen up.
Then I invited everyone to close eyes “Imagine someone whom you had a troubled relationship with, who deeply hurt you and perhaps whom you loved a lot too”. As that person crystallized in your mind’s eyes, you slowly sit down, holding the reality of your thoughts, emotions, sensations. As you opened your eyes, you saw me now fully naked with my arms slightly stretched below the shoulders. In front of my chest was a sign which you squinted to see. I read it aloud “Please treat me like that asshole that you were imagining. Swear, humiliate, kick, whatever you fancy. Please, it’s an open invitation”
Silence. I walked around, expecting. You were expecting too. What would happen?
Finally, someone walked up and stood 10 feet in front of me. Slowly he approached, held my cheeks in his hands, turned my neck sideway and kissed my lips. I felt a sharp bite in my tongue and tried not to yell. His mouth left, his right hand wiped off his lips. “BAM!”. That hand slapped my face. Hearing the sound, you looked up. It didn’t seem like I was affected at all.
I asked for more, almost annoyingly. Perhaps the universe sensed my genuine desire and responded Yes. More people started to join. One stood up and kept punching me in the chest, pushing me off to the walls. As I got pushed back, I pointed at more people to come at me. A few more stood up. One yelled “Who the f**k you think you are?” I muttered sorry. “No you are not”, she said, pissed off, left. I shook my loosy body off. I ain’t got no muscles. I couldn’t do shit. Even my apology was unaccepted.
Another man came up, slowly looked at me in the eyes. Then he bowed down, touched my feet in full devotion. Then he looked up, slowly retreating, disappearing forever. I nodded. “What was that?” you wondered. I shook it off and asked for more, again. “Come and dance at the edge with me”, I joked.
Then a lady stood up, approached, stood an inch from me, her face in my face. Tears swole up in her eyes. Tears rose from my heart. I sobbed. She left. I wiped off my tears, took a breath and smiled again. “C’mon, I’m inviting you all to dance at the edge with me!”. “What the heck is going on?” you asked yourself. “And who are you to dare to play with my emotions?”, another thought might cross your mind.
You might not feel anything. You might be with your imagination still. In your peripheral vision, you saw someone punch my chest again, grab me by the side, kneel me down, gruntingly whispered into my left ear. I spewed out what he said. “You effing Piece of Sh*t”. “Don’t you ever effing dare to do it to me again!” You might find it intense or merely boring. Just as you were getting bored by such swearing, you heard him punched me really hard at my back, jolting you into the present. “Ouch, that seemed to hurt”, you exclaimed inside. It did.
In your imagination, did you see yourself walking up on stage? Perhaps you imagined that last broken relationship you just got out of, the last fight you were beaten in, the last moment you did ever feel anything before becoming completely numb. You hated me so much you didn’t even bother to touch me, let alone hit me. You hated me so much you didn’t even consider me existing.
Silence again. Just as you were not know what to expect, or were burning to go up there, I flipped the sign at my chest to the other side. It said “Treat me like a lover”. A few seconds went by. A surge of warm positive caring feeling rose inside you. Perhaps you and a few others came up, kissed me, caressed me, licked me. Ooooh. Thanks goodness the nightmare was over. Perhaps you just sat there appreciating the scene. Or you might be confused. Or disappointed: “C’mon people, is that really how you treat your lover? That’s just being nice. I would have ditched you long ago if you love me just like that”.
Embodying The Doll
Now you got the taste of the voodoo, maybe you’ll be interested in how embodying the doll felt like for me. Doing it revealed two challenges.
The first was to stay focused on both the other and on my own body. There were some moments of fear and contractions when people swore at me, probably out of some childhood’s automatic responses. Generally I was calm throughout though, and I wondered if I were calm or just slow to respond.
The second was to not over-react and dramatize the scene. I tried to stay present and honest with my inner experiences. If I didn’t feel anything, I wouldn’t respond. I could have acted out more, but since my intention was to receive, I decided to stay silent most of the time. What was profound for me was how not knowing how to react on stage turned out to be the best reaction. Being present is to be surprised, a lesson I learning again every day from the first time I learned to belly laugh.
Nevertheless, there was some moments of reactions, such as saying “I’m sorry” when someone accused me of doing something. Was it the response that the projected “asshole” would give? Probably not. From my end, it was more of a conditioned reaction. When someone get mad at me the instinctual response is apology, regardless of whether I did anything wrong.
One particular moment worth mentioning: when my friend M stood up and cried right next to me, I was moved. I said to her afterwards that I felt a deep sorrow and a struggle to accept, very close but not completely accepting. She was standing next to me, neck to neck, so close yet not touching. That moment felt painfully real. That feeling when we put ourselves our there, into deeper relationships, trying our best, getting so close yet still cannot bridge the gap. When I shared my reading with her after, we were both amazed by how much I could articulate what our bodies resonated with. I received her energy and tried to amplify it, first with my tears, then with my words. It felt rather surreal.
Interpretation & Reflection
I resisted the temptations to make any meanings out of this piece beforehand. In hindsight I understood what an organizer shared “We don’t intend the impact [of T&P] to be healing, although oftentimes it is”. I talked to many people afterwards about how they saw the piece as I was most interested in how we co-created meanings from the shared experience.
Some people shook head in disbelief, wondering if I was simply crazy. Some found it highly disturbing. What if I really got hurt? (I did) Some worried for me “You don’t have to rush into this kinky thing so fast”. Interesting how kinked mind could see this as a pain-loving sadonic play. At one level, I maybe considered a sadist (asking for pain) and masochist (showing that pain to other, therefore causing indirect damage) I somehow felt that such label was too simplistic. If people wanted to see sado-masochist scene play, we had a dedicated space for it. This would be more exploratory.
Many found the piece healing, particularly those who got up and discharged their pent up emotions. You didn’t just see me as your asshole partner. You also saw your asshole partner as me. For the most part of this T&P, perhaps you saw me as this curious joyous young man who loved messing around with people. What if, by playing with me on stage, you could see the asshole partner with a different, perhaps more positive lens?
Someone told me I looked like Jesus. Her explanation made sense: I was raising my arms on the side, naked, sacrificing for people. Put me on the cross, don me some hair, and I’ll be ready to resurrect. The parallel may stop there though. Jesus was pretty dedicated to some Higher Purpose while I was mostly playing. He looked solemn (at least that was what those murals imagined). I looked pretty flippant. Although I did have some Noble Intention about Embracing The Collective Shadow, don’t take me too grand. Ha!
Some thought I was bold. The thing about courage as I’ve learned is that once we are there we often don’t feel like we are. It’s more curious than courageous. What is it like to be on the other side?
Some probably found the piece to be absurd and pretentious, attention- and sensation-seeking but didn’t tell me for that would be too hurtful to say. Nah, no invalid interpretation. Also, it’s worth pondering whether such criticism hurt more than what happened on stage? I don’t know.
Other was somewhat disappointed: Is that all there is? That’s how you REALLY treat an asshole? Conversely, that’s how you REALLY love a lover? Disappointment is one of my favorite response from people, for it gives me excuse to know their expectation. At the end amidst being mushed by people hugging caressing kissing I did yell “This is so worth it”, mostly for comedic effect. Seriously, how many wouldn’t want to get kissed without getting punched? If someone ever does this again, please extend the Lover portion for me. As the saying goes, “there could always be MOAR (of what you desire)!”
Many thought the piece was pre-staged. If I could do that I would have been a master mind. The whole thing was mostly improvised, a fun (and frightful) feast of the unknown. I was prepared though. Before the piece I danced for half an hour, because how else could I prepare? Write a dead wish? Nahh.
Is there any other interpretation? A few nights after, I stumbled upon Victor Turner and in his seminal anthropological study of the Ndembu chieftain rituals.
The night before the chieftain’s accession, he is portrayed as a slave and is submitted to the abuse and arbitrary power of the entire community, forced to undergo violent and humiliating abuse. This is the rite of passage; the last test for the chieftain. Far from being a gratuitous display of hatred by the weak, the future chieftain in this liminal state learns the true meaning of arbitrary authority and abuse of power. In suffering this violence, he displays the self-mastery and control over vicious characteristics such as greed, pride, and anger, required to perform his duties as a good ruler.
I take this half seriously. Skipping the “becoming chieftain” part, I did learn about the arbitrary use of power. I asked to be treated badly for no apparent reason, and I got it. The universe did listen to me. By the way, unless people are willing to follow someone with a tad of craziness, I don’t foresee myself becoming a ruler anytime soon.
In retrospect, I did it mostly because it sounded like something interesting to do, and I was just curious about what would happen. Some people understood and supported that. Dancing at the edge was fun!
I figured out earlier at T&P that my rhythm made me neither a morning nor afternoon dancer. I danced at night. Yet that night after the piece my body could barely move. My guess was that the piece took a toll on me, all that energy it takes to stay present and to digest the energy of others. A personal realization: while some people dance to process pent up emotions, I dance mostly to explore the world of body movements.
The next morning, I woke up and laid down on bed for two hours, listening to my wandering mind and tender body. It was amazing how the body could be both exhausted and joyous. The joy of understanding of the pain and struggle of other people in an embodied way. The joy of becoming a fuller human, capable of seeing and receiving a wider spectrum of experiences. Last and perhaps most strange, the joy of tasting indirectly how “evil”I could be as a person. I could have been that terrible ex-partner, that abusive father, that betraying friend. People read crime novel to experience the world of the psychopath; I got to live it even more vicariously. What a privilege.
Something changed in my relationships with people too, a visceral deepening as if the air surrounding us was thickened with trust. Because I didn’t know what anyone would do to me, I was forced to see everyone as a whole person beyond their usual roles. The connections I experienced with people on the stage, no matter how short, felt like an I-Thou rather than I-It. People have really opened up for me the sides that they didn’t get to reveal so often. People trusted me enough to throw their shit at me, to let their stories and energies permeate through me, this strange little voodoo doll.
Wise people often say that we are not that separate from everything. Maybe they are right. When I let the world in, we may not be that different.
A few days after T&P as I started writing this story, I had a moment of “HOLY COW. I JUST DID SOMETHING CRAZY”. Somewhat typical do-first-freak-out-later me. Somehow I deluded myself that what I did was pretty trivial. Yeah, just go on stage and ask people to channel the energy of their deeper stories through me, right? It was simultaneously trivial and profound.
In hindsight, such self-veiling was absolutely needed to pull this off. I would have been 1000% freaked out had I thought more about it before. In ignorance, there is power.
Speaking of power, I’ve become more sharply aware of how much of it I have. It is frightening. If nobody, including myself, can see Khuyen as an asshole, then imagine how much assholeshery can I wreck if I choose to? I’ll leave that thought for further contemplation… It always raises my hair.
Somehow as I am closing on this reflection, the idea of Fear came up. As someone who likes to play with boundaries, I’ve explored many fears, from Fear of Not Being Enough to Fear of Missing Out and oftentimes Fear of Death. Sometimes during T&P, a particular Fear came up: Fear of Losing Trust. All kind of trust, from the trust everyone had in me that I really meant what I said, to my trust in people freely wanting to play with me, to our trust that the container can handle it.
Indeed it takes a lot of trust in this great unfolding Game of Life to keep playing. It would be a nightmare if one day I run away and delude myself that I can stop playing this game. No, I can’t. I have to continue playing, and I want to enjoy this game, regardless of the outcomes.
One thing for sure: living with openness and possibilities is not going to be all utopia. But hey, I’d rather choose pain over numbness. Too much goodness is uninteresting.
At the risk of putting too much meanings in just 5 minutes of limelight, I’m inclined to say that the piece felt like something. Especially now that it has been written about and possibly filmed. In the spirit of openness to possibilities, let me offer a wild suggestion: what if we could do this or a similar ritual in public, to play with the boundaries of our very day to day reality instead of some outlandish fantasy scene for BDSM? Who knows, the world might become less neurotic.
We know it is possible. Indeed, we have witnessed amazing unexpected co-creation when dedicated playful people are put in the right container. How else did that idea even come from but some alchemical combination of my twisted spirit, this playful place and its beautiful people? To the T&P container and all the people who were part of it, deep awe to you all.
In gratitude for this great Game of Life,