Iaido Journal Jan 2005
Another Perspective on Misogi
copyright © 2005 Janet Rosen, all rights reserved
A few New Years ago I received invitations to participate in two
different misogi. One was under the auspices of the dojo at which I
trained, the other of a dojo that I visit from time to time. While the
two are of different affiliations, with somewhat different approaches
to the art, the misogi have in common immersion in very cold water and
chanting; in one instance while doing bokken cuts and in the other
while ringing bells.
My immediate response to each was a polite declination. If prodded for
further explanation, I joked about not liking getting up early and
getting wet. However, my real problem is with two beliefs implicit in
the practice: that artificially created suffering is good for personal
growth and that humans need ritual purification.
Life is hard. This is not stated as a complaint; rather as a given. For
35 years, as an activist and as a nurse, I have worked to alleviate
pain and suffering. I cannot get my head around the concept of
purposefully creating a situation that is uncomfortable or painful,
merely in order to be able to rise above it. Real life, with its
attendant illnesses, natural disasters and weird accidents, offers
ample opportunity for such testing. If yours doesn't, then you are
unusually lucky (and I count myself in this group) .
Misogi is often described as a "cleansing" or "purification". In this
sense, it's connected to such religious based rites as the ritual
cleansing of Orthodox Jewish woman in a mikvah (communal bathhouse) and
the medieval Christian practice of self-flagellation. This need to
cleanse stems from a religious or cultural belief that one had become
soiled, sinful. I suppose it's the atheist in me, but I just don't get
it. It seems to me that most of us muddle through the best we can,
apologize like grownups for our errors, and try to be better today than
we were yesterday. Any world view that defines the baseline condition
of humanity as inherently impure is abhorrent to me.
With the religious underpinnings removed, we can redefine the
actual goals of misogi.
If the goal is to test oneself, there are certainly ample activities
that are physically and morally challenging while being a lot more
socially useful. I mean, unless you are taking pledges for each minute
you stay in there, or are carrying somebody's dirty clothes in with you
to pound on the rocks, what actual benefit to accrues?
If the goal is to clear or rebalance oneself, or even to reflect on
one's failings, why can't this as easily be done at a civilized hour
and while the body is comfortable?
I suggest a new tradition in New Years misogi, based on the principles
that life is hard, and that the best way to clear oneself is to relax
and feel good: First, go out and spend some time and money, maybe more
than you'd actually like to, doing something to directly benefit
somebody in worse straits than yours. Then have a nice long soak in a
tub of warm water by candlelight while listening to John Coltrane's "A
Love Supreme". Feel free to chant along or ring bells if it makes you