September 14, 2014

The Spiritual Meaning of The ALS Ice Bucket Challenge: An Existential Baptism. ~ Alexander Dunlop

spiritual ice bucket challenge

The best part of this social phenomenon of the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is to see people willingly expose themselves.

The practice of dumping ice-cold water on our heads strips away our social mask. It clears away the polished and practiced social veneer.

We all try hard to keep up appearances. We want to have good hair days. We primp in front of the mirror. And then, woosh. It gets washed away with a bucket of ice-cold water. We’re reduced to the same level of humanity. We get drenched. We’re wet and vulnerable.

It’s refreshing to see people expose a side of themselves behind the well-put-together social mask. It reminds us that we are all humans together on this planet, on the same level. Whether we are celebrities, billionaires or neither, we share the same basic humanity. The ice bucket challenge unites us on the same existential playing field.

That’s the purpose of a ritual, among other things, to join us together. That’s their place and their role in society. We watch fireworks together on July 4th. We BBQ together on Memorial Day. These are American rituals that connect us together as a nation.

Other rituals like weddings, or candles on a birthday cake, transcend nation states.

And now, a new ritual: dumping ice-cold water on our heads.

You could argue that we’re doing it to raise money for ALS, to help the families of people with ALS and to help find a cure. We may genuinely want to do these things, but that doesn’t require drenching ourselves with cold water. It’s a social stunt that visually captures our interest and shifts our focus to the problem of ALS.

But the real question is why has this ritualized act caught on so completely? Why has it become an all-encompassing social phenomenon?

A Watery Ritual

The use of water in ritual has a long history in all of our religions too numerous to count. These religious water-washing rituals would have surfaced historically with the same initial inspirational force as this ALS Ice Bucket Challenge.

The inspiration comes from the same collective unconscious field then as now. Someone gets the “divine” inspiration to use water as a ritual act, and it has such a powerful hold on our consciousness that we copy it. We do it over and over again… until it becomes so ritualized as to be, well, religious.

But the beginning of all religious rituals is always spontaneous inspiration, “divine” revelation, an unconscious archetype that pops suddenly into our waking consciousness.

Now we’re seeing it again! The collective field of consciousness has given birth to another active water ritual that is uniting us together. In every case, these water rituals symbolize a washing clean. The dirty old is washed away yielding a new, fresh version of us.

In religious jargon, these water rituals are described as outward signs of an inward grace. They have always been used to signify a transition from one inward state to another. In many cases, these ancient water rituals were also an initiation into a higher state of consciousness, like Baptism, which outwardly signifies that someone is born-again into the Body of Christ.

These watery rituals are surface level expressions of something taking place internally.

In other words, if we take the spiritual perspective of this ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, each person participating in this existential baptism is doing it for an internal (and possibly even sub-conscious) desire to personally initiate within themselves a higher state of being.

That’s the real reason why people are enamored with the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge, not because it’s raising money for ALS, but because it touches a deep psychic chord of desire for internal transformation.

Religious Representation

A cursory internet search reveals just how scandalized traditional religious folk are by this public outpouring. Religious wonks are condemning it as a *gulp* watered-down version of their own sanctimonious in-house ritual. Some fundamentalists are even calling it a satanic baptism of the anti-christ. Other particularly right-wing types are calling it a conspiracy of the illuminati to pour cold water over our cherished hopes.

It’s none of these things.

It’s a human experience. More specifically, it’s a shared human experience. Just like we share the experience of breathing oxygen, eating, sleeping etc., we share the same desire for connection.

It’s how religious practices get started in the first place: the shared ritualized experience that connects a community of people—lighting candles together, decorating a pine tree together, dancing together around a May Pole… It’s in these shared rituals that we find our common humanity.

If nothing else, the shared experience gives us something in common to talk about. It’s why sports events like the Superbowl sometimes ascend to this plane of public ritual. It gives us a common thread of discussion that temporarily binds us together. From our disconnected lives, we can watch Superbowl commercials together, and find a common point of community.

The difference here, however, is that this ice bucket challenge also unmasks us. It reveals us in a way that perhaps only those who have seen us first get out of bed in the morning have ever seen us. And to peel away these external layers of our persona is indeed a spiritual exercise.

The Buddha taught that the spiritual pathway is about peeling away layers of the ego like an onion in order to reveal the truth of who we are. Isn’t that what is happening now, at least in part, in this ice bucket challenge? Are we peeling away a thin layer of the outer shell of our ego?

Egoic Transcendence

This ALS Ice Bucket Challenge appeals to the culturally rampant narcissistic impulse that wants to say “hey look at me doing this!” It’s the same vanity that makes people post what they had for breakfast on social media, as if we care what they ate.

And yet each person who performs the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge is acknowledging, at least tacitly, that they are willing to make a personal sacrifice for the sake of other people.

That is one giant leap forward for our self-engrossed, self-obsessed, selfie culture. We are enacting ritualistically our desire to help other people.

It’s a perfect irony. It’s like a judo flip for our ego. Here is a ritual that appeals to our self-absorbed ego as a way to both strip it away and transcend it.

It’s beautiful. It’s inescapable. We participate in the ritual because we want that selfie moment to be caught on camera doing something, anything—even embarrassing ourselves (or else we would simply send a check of $100)—but we can’t not have a layer of ego stripped away once we have a bucket of ice-cold water dumped over our heads. If nothing else, it washes away our practiced social facial expressions. We see the face of human frailty, a face we almost never show in public.

Nor can we do this ice bucket challenge without acknowledging that we are willing to personally do something about our larger shared needs as a human species. By doing it, we acknowledge that we are all in this together—that the pain of someone else is important enough that we are willing to personally engage in a solution for their suffering. Hence, we are, by definition, raising our consciousness—initiating ourselves into a higher state of being.

Each person doing the ritual is pulled (perhaps subconsciously) by this internal desire for transcendence, for initiation into a higher state of consciousness.

A Social Media Ritual

With social media as the playing field of our social interactions, we are more disconnected than ever as a species. Social media works great to help us stay in touch with old classmates and to spread viral messaging, yet it blocks real human intimacy.

On social media, instead of actually meeting up and sharing time together, we’re in separate rooms staring into a pixelated screen rather than each other’s eyes.

As a result we’re mentally connected perhaps, but not as personally invested. We have the information, but not the emotional connection. Social media has created a paradox of disconnected connection.

We are now witnessing a spontaneous answer to our dilemma of disconnection. Into the gap of disconnection a ritual is rising to forge a common bond. It has always been this way. This is how rituals are born. The ritual arises as an inspiration to unify us together in our humanity.

It’s no coincidence that we are performing this ritual in honor of ALS or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. This affliction is a mystery to us. We don’t know what causes it nor how to treat it, and yet we must deal with it. In our history, whenever we have been confronted by an inescapable existential mystery, we have always responded ritualistically. It’s why we ritualize both the experience of birth and death. We have baby showers and funerals, rituals that unite us in the face of the mystery of our coming and our going.

Now the ritual of the ice bucket challenge arises. It does so as the result of something like a perfect storm: a mysterious disease that we seem powerless against combined with social disconnection that we seem powerless to avoid. From this dual vortex arises yet another watery ritual in the vast panorama of our water-based religious rituals.

From the gap of disconnection caused by social media, a solution arises to solve that same disconnection. It’s genius. It comes as an answer from our own collective consciousness. It’s as much a ritual as any other dogmatic traditional religious ritual. It has the same purpose and the same meaning. It bridges the gap of our disconnection to unite us at the starting point of our inescapable human frailty.

On A Personal Note

When I did my Ice Bucket ritual, I followed Matt Damon’s example and I personalized it. I named the challenge I am personally invested in solving: the challenge of meaninglessness in the Western world.

I was in New Hampshire at the time, visiting with my father. I asked him to do the honors. He dumped the ice cold water over my head while my girlfriend filmed it. It all happened on my birthday.

I wish I could say that I carefully orchestrated the event to be so symbolically meaningful. It just so happened that I was visiting him that weekend for my birthday. He certainly enjoyed his role. He said, on camera, that he had been “waiting a long time for this.” I’m not quite sure what he meant by that, but I do know it was a long-overdue healing experience for me.

It brought me a closer to my dad. It stripped away some stuff between us. It opened a deeper connection for us. And as I watched, via social media, my cousins, my sister and my friends perform their ritual, it gave me a stronger feeling of connection with them too.


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Apprentice Editor: Guenevere Neufeld / Editor: Catherine Monkman

Photo: via author

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Alexander Dunlop