Reposted from the article I wrote for Aeon (published 11th May 2016).
Image of partially buried moai statues on Easter Island by Carl Lipo (CC BY 2.0)
Easter Island, also known as Rapa Nui, is an island in the Pacific famous for the massive humanoid statues peppered along its coasts. These moai are commonly called stone heads, but actually most possess bodies, and the largest constructed stands at over 30 feet and weighs 82 tons. Ever since these monoliths were encountered by European explorers in the 18th century, the history of the island has been a topic of fascination and debate. Most captivating is the mystery of how almost 900 moai were carved and transported, mostly between 1250 CE and 1500 CE, only to be toppled and abandoned by the 18th century.
The history remains contentious and its scholarship is currently hosting a fierce debate between two rival camps. The first account, popularised by Jared Diamond in his bestselling book Collapse (2005), presents the island’s history as a cautionary tale of the destructive potential of humans to overexploit natural resources. A contradictory account has been advocated over the past decade by a group of scholars, led by the anthropologists Carl Lipo and Terry Hunt, who contend that the ‘collapse’ Diamond describes is largely a European myth. Instead, continuity is the hallmark of settlement on Rapa Nui.
Misogi (禊) can loosely be translated as ritual purification by cold water and is a practice most strongly associated with Shintoism. It is also performed by practitioners of Shugendō, a syncretic ascetic sect with a long history in Japan, and by martial arts groups, such as Aikidō practitioners. The precise practices involved vary; at some locations the misogi is performed by immersion in streams/pools and at others by sitting or standing under waterfalls, sometimes the event involves collective practices by large groups (up to 200) and sometimes it is a solitary performance. But despite such diversity a clear unifying thread to all misogi practices is the endurance of cold water in order to purify oneself and by extension the surrounding community.
I’ve now participated in two misogi events: the first was held last year, in a small town called Kikonai in Hokkaidō in Northern Japan and the second was performed just last week, at Teppozu Inari Shrine in a suburb of central Tōkyō. Both events were spectacular and I was extremely fortunate to be invited to take part. However, these two events were also very different and I think they serve as a good illustration of how a single ‘type’ of ritual can be expressed differently, even when performed within the same country (Japan) and ostensibly within the same tradition (Shinto). In this first post, I’ll focus on my experience at the misogi in Kikonai last year, then in the next post I’ll make some comparisons with my experience at the recent event in Tōkyō and finally, I’ll relate both experiences to some important theories which I think help illuminate and explain some of the psychological aspects of these ritual performances.
Japan has a well deserved international reputation for having some of the most lively, bizarre and dangerous festivals in the world. Most of these are organised by various Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines and typically involve receiving blessings which can be channelled into all kinds of practical, or devotional, benefits. However, despite the ubiquitous nature of Japanese festivals, and their general high attendance levels, Japan consistently ranks amongst one of the lowest countries in the world for overt religious belief, coming last in this 2012 survey by Gallup. This seeming paradox can be resolved in a number of ways; one solution is to argue that Japanese festivals aren’t really religious just ‘cultural’ but this seems to be somewhat contradicted by the high level of involvement of religious authorities, the array of religious images and motifs and the fact that most events take place at, or near, temples and shrines. Another alternative is to emphasise that religion in Japan is much more concerned with practice than personal belief and hence, while most people may be personally non-religious they are practically religious, as and when is culturally appropriate. This explanation is more compelling to me but I would add to it that, while Japanese people en masse show a lack of engagement with official religion, there is certainly no shortage of ‘folk’ beliefs in supernatural forces (such as ghosts or spirits) or pseudoscience (i.e. blood type is widely believed to determine personality) in Japan.
Regardless of the motivations underlying people’s participation in festivals, what is indisputable is that a large amount of Japanese people chose to participate in the events every year and thus, as a researcher working on the social and psychological effects of collective ritual participation, Japan provides a rich environment (indeed, that is a large part of why I now live in Sapporo). From amongst those that attend festivals, a much smaller amount also chose to participate in extreme ritual events, such as cold water immersion (misogi 禊) and firewalking (hiwatari 火渡り), and these are the events on which I am currently conducting research. Motivation for participation in such events can be framed as due to some form of religious devotion but obligation and tradition have been more frequently invoked, at least by the participants I’ve spoken to. However, seeking any single explanation for participation is inevitably a doomed endeavour, as motivations are always multifaceted and many operate below the levels of conscious awareness. As such, it’s often valuable to look not just at what people report but also what they do. This is why my current research attempts to collect both behavioural and self reported data. I won’t go into details in this post about the specific measures I use but there are some recent studies which provide useful illustrations of how behavioural measures can be productively employed in this area.
A recent article in Psychological Science by Brock Bastian, Jolanda Jetten & Fiona Ferris (2014) on the basis of some simple but innovative experiments proposes that pain is not always negative and, when experienced collectively, it can act as an effective ‘social glue’ that serves to promote cooperation within a group. This is by no means a new idea, and could even be considered common knowledge by those who play contact sports, but it is also a hypothesis, which, despite its popularity, has received surprisingly little direct attention from researchers. Specifically, while there is a well developed body of literature from psychology and medicine on the effects that experiencing pain (or the threat of pain) has on a wide array of behaviours and attitudes, there remains a notable absence of studies exploring the effects of pain ‘shared’ collectively with a given group. This is a topic which is close to my own heart, not only because I have experienced substantial collective pain in the past through experiences during martial arts training, but more recently because the effects of collective painful or unpleasant (i.e. dysphoric) ritual activities are the main topic of my present PhD(/DPhil) research.