Thursday, June 12, 2008

Seven Counterclockwise Turns

National Geographic's documentary Inside Mecca is one of the purest science-fiction trips I've taken in a while. It follows a woman from Texas, a man from South Africa, and a man from Malaysia as they undertake the Hajj. We get to see the Kaaba and the Black Stone, which, for any non-Muslim viewers, is the closest we'll ever get to the physical center of this spiritual pilgrimage, since it's closed off to non-Muslims.

"As part of the Hajj, each person walks counter-clockwise seven times about the Kaaba."

There are many rituals that take place during the Hajj, and though I find them fascinating from a cultural perspective, they say nothing to me on a deeper level. The casting out of Satan (Ramy al-Jamarat) reveals the pilgrims in a trance-like, communal stoning of negative forces. Not surprisingly, this is one of the most dangerous parts of the entire pilgrimage; sometimes people will be crushed to death--yes, they will actually die--in the huge swelling crowd and furious stampedes.

One of the things I dislike the most about what I saw was the philosophical underpinnings, which emphasize transitory states of intense emotion--pleasure, guilt, anger, regret--as inherently meaningful experiences, rather than encouraging the deeper truth of compassionate detachment. The rituals also encourage sameness and unity over individuality and creativity. And of course, the entire pilgrimage is a kind of mega-ritual.

You can't get rid of inner urgings by engaging in their tempestuous rejection, since that's another form of enactment and emotional servitude. Each pilgrim supposedly receives a "clean slate" after the Hajj has been concluded, an opportunity to write his or her life anew. Surely, such an opportunity is available to us at every moment in life, and such not depend on social formalism.

"...and then you get here, and you look around, and you see there's millions of other people, and you're like an ant, and your significance is suddenly down to zero. It's a paradox--but it's a good paradox," says Fidelma O’Leary, the woman from Texas.

That it may be, Fidelma, but because you choose to make it so. And how easily you might make other equally valid choices that would lead to the same spiritual rewards.

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