The Great Ballcourt Initiation: A Field Visit - by Kaysie Dannemiller

 To be blessed in death, one must learn to live.
To be blessed in life, one must learn how to die.
~Medieval Prayer

What I Learned:
We arrived in Big Pine in the Owens Valley with the Sierra Nevada behind and the Inyos ahead. With trepidation and excitement, nine brave questers met before being launched into the high desert to play on the “Great Ballcourt.” The origins of this “game” can be traced back to around 1500 BC. For the Mayans, the Ballcourt ritual “was seen as a transition zone—from drought to fertility, from life to death, from the middle world to the underworld, and from humans to gods.” (Eberle, p. 15) It is said that the captain of the winning team would be beheaded, a sacrifice willingly offered for the betterment of the community.

The Ballcourt players knew that if they played their best, they would die. They also knew that they couldn’t play their best unless they made things right with people. Unresolved issues were like a stone in the shoe and the players had to made amends or they would surely falter. Players were aware of life and death in their bones. This ceremony, played every 52 years, was designed to celebrate life and death and to offer an opportunity for healing in the community.

The “Great Ballcourt Initiation Fast” is a modern day rite of passage designed for people to face their own death. We were encouraged to go through the same phases that the Mayan players went through:

1. Decision Road: the conscious commitment to our own death; allowing the possibility for transformation, letting go, loss, and the end of life as we know it.

2. Death Lodge: Showing up at our fullest requires that we be honest with ourselves and others. We must step into the fire of healing—cleaning up our messes and healing broken bonds before we die.

3. Purpose Circle: Whether or not we’re prepared to die, we will leave a legacy. We are invited to consider what that will look like—to do an inventory of our lives and determine what it is we want to leave behind.

4. The Great Ballcourt: The final dance; the arrival of death. This is the place of transformation and the rituals associated with this stage of the initiation are as mysterious as death itself.

The facilitators, Meredith Foster Little and Dr. Scott Eberle, asked us to step boldly toward the end of life as we know it so that we may be reborn, so that we will make the ultimate sacrifice in service to our community’s healing. We will walk out to a place of transformation—the place of our death. Before sending us out for 4 days and 4 nights alone in the wilderness, they talk to us about death. They call the modern denial of death the “great forgetting.” We pretend death is not real. One trick we use to support this myth is to separate ourselves from nature. Another is our choice not to mark symbolic deaths such as transition from childhood to adulthood, childlessness to parenthood, and the end of our careers or retirement. Rarely do our loved ones die at home and few people know the experience of honoring the life of an animal before killing it to sustain their own lives. We even go so far as to deprive the earth of our own bodies by putting them in boxes as if we haven’t really died. This initiation…this quest is our opportunity to honor life and death as soulmates and to recognize our own mortality. We are called on to die so that we may live more fully.

Personal Insights:
My hand flew up with the confidence of a fifth grader who knew the answer when our facilitators asked, “Who is ready to die?” The notion that we were going to die while we sat alone in the desert was so well characterized that the facilitators had to remind us that this would not be physical death. My life had become unmanageable and my desire to transform it was palpable and overdue. I was ready to run into the desert without “Passing Go.” Having spent many years facilitating other people’s transformations in wilderness, I knew what I was getting myself into. I was also aware that the process could be messy and would last up to a year. I wanted death to be complete and the life I imagined to be offered up on a silver platter. Knowing this wasn’t likely, I decided to drop into the experience with everything I had—no holding back, no avoiding the truth, no mamby pamby platitudes.

After 3 days in council exploring death and what each of us were choosing to release, we walked in silence, carrying everything we would need for the next four days, to the place on the land that would witness the end of life as we knew it. I was true to my habit of walking the furthest from basecamp. High on a ridge overlooking the Eureka Valley, I dropped into ceremony. As I prepared for death, I became aware of the deep relevance and resonance of the other preparations I had been steeped in prior my arrival in the desert. I had been studying the 16 Precepts of the Soto Zen tradition. In five months, I would be “receiving Jukai” which meant that I was to commit to living by the Precepts or guidelines for appropriate conduct. This good Christian girl experienced the guidelines as commandments. The shame of never being able to live up had formed like storm clouds looming. Though this is not how the Precepts are meant to be viewed, I somehow found myself in a stranglehold of my own making. Fasting in the desert alone allowed me to make an honest assessment of myself and the role the Precepts would play in my life. One thing that had to die out there was my belief that everyone could be a bodhisattva except me; my determination that I was not worthy; my ego.

After 3 days of fasting, praying, drumming, sleeping, dreaming, and engaging in the same preparations as the Ballcourt players, it was time to die. The actual moment of death was a gust of wind that nearly blew my altar apart. Simple, sweet, and gentle. I would then spent the next 24 hours in an in-between world, a liminal space as I prepared to be reborn. Meeting death and steeping in it for 24 hours was unworldly. The liminal was truly liminal. I wasn’t sure what would happen next and the not-knowing felt good.

“Trust” was the card I drew on the morning after my death. Little did I know that trust was exactly what was required to get me through my re-birth. This spiritual transformation was not unlike my physical birth—painful, scary, difficult, and without promise of life. Late at night, full moon hiding behind the clouds, I struggled hard to earn this new life. After giving birth to myself, I knew a sleep I hadn’t known in many months. I was off the Ballcourt. I was alive. I was ready for a new life, knowing that the old life would knock on my door from time to time, like an ex-boyfriend who just won’t quit. I was ready to die but had not fully understood the implications of being re-born. Now, many months later, I notice that I’m still learning how to crawl. Though I want to run, I must be patient. Every morning, after meditation, I chant to atone for my “ancient twisted karma” and I endeavor to live up to the precepts. I own my choices and I commit to not squandering my life. It’s an important practice that allows me to stay connected to the work I did and to the new life that emerged.

Applications to Chaplaincy:
Anyone who wants to hold space for people who are suffering must have their own practice of awakening. If we cloud our minds with distractions and lie to ourselves about the truth of our lives, we won’t be able to be truly present to others. Simply taking 4 days and 4 nights alone in the wilderness without food is an enlivening and awakening experience. Noticing what comes up without distraction, books, people around is surprising. How can we truly know the thoughts that linger in our unconscious if we’re constantly barraged with input from the world. I am a true believer in the healing and transformative powers of wilderness. Integrating solo time in nature with a commitment to face our own death brings a whole level of awareness and understanding that is simply indescribable. Rites of Passage are essential to full catastrophe living. We have become culturally averse to taking risks and honoring transitions. Though I am not advocating a return to the type of rituals that actually put our physical lives at risk, I am recommending that we allow ourselves to be uncomfortable and that we take risks that allow us to grow and expand our consciousness so that we may be better equipped to serve our community.

Eberle, S. (2006). The Final Crossing: Learning to Die in Order to Live. Lost Borders Press.

No yearning for an afterlife,
no looking beyond,
no belittling of death,
but only longing for what belongs to us
and serving earth, lest we remain unused.

Ranier Maria Rilke