What is an Ordeal?
In order to climb to the heights, one must often first descend unto the depths. But so also does the truest light burn...
An ordeal in the ritual sense is a planned action that puts the participant through a difficult or trying situation in the material world in order to achieve an end. An ordeal by definition fits the parameters established by anthropologists to be considered a ritual, whether any "supernatural" elements are involved or not. Specific techniques used may involve the endurance of pain, sensory deprivation, submissive or dominant role play, bondage, blood rites, and much more. Generally speaking, the more elements are involved and the more extended the rite, the more intense the emotional and psycho-spiritual affects upon the receiving party. Practitioners of Sacred Kink use the altered states generated by engaging in these practices to attain transcendent experiences.
Why do Ordeals?
There are many different reasons one might wish to receive an ordeal. For some, acting out a situation that evokes a particular difficult emotion helps alleviate the intensity of said emotion in day-to-day life. Ordeals have classically been used in a religious context to expiate emotions such as shame and guilt. In some situations, the goal is to externalize and let go of an aspect of oneself that one wishes to permanently change; such as a bad habit or a reoccurring fear, for example. At other times one might choose to partake in an ordeal without a specific desired change in mind, but as a way of opening up to pure, transcendent experience which will itself bring about change. All of these reasons are perfectly valid.
Why does this work?
An ordeal follows the structure of a "Rite of Passage" as studied by anthropologists such as Victor Turner. This three-part process involves separation; a liminal or "in-between" period; and it closes with aggregation. Turner and his fellows look to shamanic indigenous practices for this formula. Regardless of tradition or area of the world this process is evident in rites marking major transitions in the lives of the individuals involved.
Separation removes the individual from his or her everyday context and obligations, making space and time for the change to occur. During the liminal period the participant is neither one thing or the other; his or her identity is in flux. This is the period in which deep changes may occur. At the completion of the ritual actions, the individual takes on his or her new identity or mode of being in aggregation: the new experiences are added into the old, and the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. This step requires the presence of a witness or witnesses, to affirm in community the new person that emerges. (See "Betwixt and Between: The Liminal Period in Rites de Passage".)