When I was growing up, I can recall sitting in church for at least three hours on Good Friday. The large Catholic church was always packed with people, and the air circulation was poor. The aroma of incense was overwhelming and the distant drone of the priest in Latin was hypnotic. It was a solemn day and we usually fasted, but I had to nearly pinch myself to stay awake. I wanted to feel that special something, that painful and profound loss, and the coming joy; which was the very essence of the Easter celebration.
I always liked Easter, and I marveled at reports from the Phillippines where a few pilgrims every year would allow themselves to be nailed to a cross. Most could only endure the agony for three or four minutes, and they often fainted. Once removed from the cross, they would be cared for by waiting nurses and doctors. That’s certainly a far more intensive way of commemorating Good Friday than I was used to. Still, I wondered: Is there any inherent benefit in harming one’s body in that way? Does hammering nails in your palms make you more “spiritual”?
Years later, in the late 1970s, I began to attend a Survival Training School in the Highland Park district of Los Angeles. This school was somewhat akin to a martial arts school, except that we were constantly pushed in the direction of self-improvement, as opposed to competition with others. Throughout our various exercises and breathing regimens and runs and limit breaks and field events, it was constantly stressed that we were pushing our personal limits, that we were “waking up” our unused brain portions, and that we were using pain as a tool to grow, not as something to be avoided. There was constantly a spiritual dimension to our classes.
Through this school, I learned a unique way to commemorate the Christian Good Friday, and for nearly the last 20 years, I have observed Good Friday in a unique and most dynamic manner.
Students would gather at our class site and prepare themselves by doing a series of regular physical activities. Once a personal limit was broken, each student would then select a heavy log, which we referred to as “crosses.” Each student’s job was to silently carry the heavy cross up and down the dirt pathway to the school until they could no longer carry the burden. We were to remain silent during the entire time, and focus entirely on deep and regular breathing, and upon the specific martial arts-style walking that we’d been taught in class. It was called kamae-striding, a focused way of walking with knees bent, back straight, toes always straight ahead.
We were instructed to select a “cross” that was heavy so that we’d quickly go into a level of pain and exhaustion. On most years, I selected a cut section of a telephone pole, and would begin my very slow walking, breathing, thinking, up and down the dirt path.
The pain for me has usually been so intense that I could focus on nothing else. Thus, I was constantly challenged to find an internal way to deal with the pain, to breath, to focus on the fact that we are spiritual beings and not just the body.
Participants are told, “Pain is OK. Expect to be challenged by thoughts which say `I can’t’ or `I hurt.’ Acknowledge them, but do not fall to them.”
Dauring one of my past cross-bearings, the pain to my upper arms and back was unbelievably intense. I didn’t think I could continue. I wanted it to end. My arms ached. I stopped after going up and down the path three times. My intense pain had triggered an altered state of awareness, and I recall considering the phrase, “Jesus died for our sins.” I got up, continued the cross-bearing, and reflected on the meaning of those words.
As I slowly moved up and down the path, drenched in sweat, wracked with pain, I began to become one with the pain of humanity, the agony, the suffering, the ignorance, the horror of having no way-shower, no guide, being alone in the darkness. I found myself offering my pain to humanity: the mistakes, the blind gropings, the sin. It was then that I realized what Jesus meant. He literally offered up his pain, not for his personal benefit, but for those in dire need. This offering of pain was as real as if he wrote a check and sent it to someone. The giving was real, not allegory. The gift of pain served as strength to others.
Yet, this is no way meant that humanity -- that individuals -- do not need to balance inequities. We must sill pay for our debts and sins. Forgiveness is not synonymous with forgetting.
I would not have gained this insight through intellectual study. I earned this realization via the tool of controlled pain. I had made pain my ally. Obviously, pain for the sake of pain is pointless. But pain can be specifically applied and used as a tool. It can wake one up like nothing else.
As I say, this is just one of many personal insights that I have had while doing this unique cross-bearing.
When I performed the Cross Bearing today, I considered the value and power of Truth, and saw new meaning in the phrase, “What a tangled web we weave, when first we practice to deceive.”