Acts have power. Especially when the person acting knows that those acts are his last battle. There is a strange consuming happiness in acting with the knowledge that whatever one is doing may very well be one’s last act on earth. I recommend that you reconsider your life and bring your acts into that light.
– Don Juan, Journey to Ixtlan: The Lessons of Don Juan
Having recently survived a jaw rattling, RV-sideswiping, ocean cliffside-edged, 800-mile bicycling trip along the Pacific coast, from Portland to San Francisco, my thoughts turn towards the concept of honor and danger. It is an old idea: we must stand at the edge of safety & comfort, & flirt with the possibility of death to fully recognize the boundaries of life.
The Plains Indians practiced the art of Counting Coup. To Count Coup you must sneak up to an enemy warrior and touch them with a coup stick . . . and then run for your life! This ritualized combat had little to do with warfare as we understand it in modern terms. The point was not to kill or incapacitate the enemy—although by counting coup the warrior has demonstrated they could have vanquished the foe if they had wanted. It had nothing to do with the modern point of an attack: lessening the forces of the other side. It was instead a form of warfare on a personal level. Do not make the mistake of thinking this merely some sort of game! The stakes for Counting Coup were exactly life & death. This is what gave the act its meaning and power. Honor was once seen as a very real thing, & as something that could be strengthened, fostered and grown by one’s own feats. Tag an enemy warrior, earn a notch on your coup stick.
Nowadays deadly enemy warriors are scarce, but it is still possible to skillfully flirt with risk and danger, and learn from the doing. The simplest example I can think of—short of running up to a group of tough-looking strangers, smacking one on the head with a stick and then running—is to find the biggest, steepest hill in your town and then bomb down it on a bicycle with no brakes . . . but there are an infinite number of ways to Count Coup. I can imagine, my gentle readers, some of you may protest – What!? How is this to be considered magic!? Slapping strangers? Bombing down hills? This sounds more like a bad episode of Jackass. Point taken, but keep it mind that magic is a much larger and more holistic system than we might at first give it credit for, and also that both honor & magic are very ancient concepts, ones which to some degree modern civilization has lost touch with but that I believe to be interrelated. In other words, if it doesn’t make sense, trace back up your family tree far enough and it does. On a simplistic level, when we talk of magic we often are talking about ways of reconnecting to lost & archaic ways of life.
Of course the idea of honor (a real thing that may grow or lessen according to one’s feats throughout life) extends beyond something just practiced by the Plains Indians. It has been a primary attribute of primitive cultures – and by primitive I mean cultures without guns, where combat and war took place on a personal level. Across cultures and history, in all of our oldest literature, from Beowulf to Charlemagne, from Gilgamesh, to King Arthur, to Odysseus defiantly shouting at the blinded Cyclops – we see tales of honor, tales of the hero attempting to gain personal power and renown through acts of bravery, that is to say through acts of survival. The lesson is repeated again and again; you are the sum of your actions. Nothing more, nothing less. This is a fairly alien concept to us in western commercial capitalism, where we are taught that we are our clothes, our food, our cigarette and shoe brand, the music we listen to the car we drive & etc. ad nauseum. Had that always been the case, Homer’s Odyssey would have featured lots of lengthy chapters detailing what rad sandals the hero wore and what great mileage he got in his luxury class leather interior war ship. Modern media claims that you are what you buy. All the old legends say you are what you survive.
In honor of this dictum, today’s spell is Counting Coup: do something genuinely a bit dangerous!
Example Activities that merit Counting Coup :
Note – this is just to give you an idea or two, really anything that involves the possibility of serious injury &/or possibly death works fine:
Zoobombing (It’s steeper than it looks.)
Urban “climbing up stuff” ( I have had great experiences w/ water towers – but smoke stacks are much more surreal.)
Breaking up bar fights
Growing up being yourself in a small rural town
Let’s take a look at just one of the examples: urban exploration. This is the fine art of breaking into somewhere you are not supposed to have access to & having yourself a looksee. Generally the focus is on large and uninhabited spaces, often subterranean, also skyscrapers, sporting venues, tunnels, airports, abandoned factories. Buildings which are not in use, either because they have been shut down, or sometimes because they are still under construction, are usually the best. The Counting Coup is often twofold; not only must you outwit the authorities, but since the buildings are usually in disrepair & this is generally a night time activity, you also risk serious injury at every turn. (Although I have had success getting past security in the daytime by impersonating a delivery person.)
Skateboarding and public protest are both perfect examples of this double duty risk; not only are you taking physical risks, but you are also able to test your mettle against that of “the authorities” by evading them. Know when to stealth, & know when to hide, but also know when to run! Remember that with a little bit of practice, the urban explorer will soon be much more comfortable in the off-limits area than the authorities that guard it. I have successfully hidden from the cops in an abandoned “Superfund” derelict shipyard, until they gave up their siege and left . . . but not before slashing my bicycle tires out of spite!
Thus be aware – the world pushes back against those intrepid enough to peel back the thin veneer of the normal. Counting Coup is not a game – real dangers and real consequences are always involved, otherwise you may as well stay home.
By taking serious risks, we are able to jolt our outlook into radically different territory – this practice is at the heart of magic. One might say that the teachings of Don Juan boil down to “our reality depends on our outlook”. Thus to shift one’s outlook into survival mode is to shift one’s reality.
The classic place for urban exploring is a trip to the lowerworld via tunnels underground. Many large cities have a forbidden underground which is perfect for Urban Spelunking: New York, Seattle, Portland, Buenos Aires, Sydney, Beijing, Paris, Barcelona, Atlanta, and Houston all have extensive underground tunnels, and most large compounds such as Universities have large series of underground catacombs . . . & chances are if you are not near an urban tunnel, you are near a cave somewhere.
I recommend trying this with a friend or two, and choose people you can count on not to lose their cool. While exploring an underground viaduct beneath Portland, I was surprised at the potency of being deep underground and the power with which it affects the psyche. In the pitch darkness, cut off from the officially “sanctioned and safe” reality, what is real quickly becomes mutable. We went down into the tunnel with the hope of exploring connections to other passageways beneath the city. This particular entrance is located at the mouth of a trailhead in Forest Park in Northwest Portland, where a large stream flows underground. To access the tunnel you have to climb down through a wooden lattice which hides it from view.
The tunnel was perfectly round and pitch black. Our little group tramped onward for 15 minutes or so, past some graffiti that soon tapered off, when we reached a section that began to descend sharply down. The tunnel shrank in size and made the water flow deeper, so we had to stoop over and wade in water up to our thighs. After half an hour of this it flattened out again, and as an experiment we turned off all of our lights & continued in total darkness: this is when things began to get interesting. I have never seen such pitch black absence of light. We continued on for about an hour. Interesting things happen to the mind when you can’t see your hand in front of your face. We all began to hear a strange, faint and steady thrumming that was inexplicable. After a long distance underground (and still continuing to descend at a steady pace), with the eyes totally dilated but blind, a strange phenomena begins to happen – you can “sense” with your eyes. There is a feeling of thickness on a spatial level if you hold your fingers in front of your face or somebody stops in front of you. Over an hour beneath the ground, and my companions and I began to get “the fear,” a sort of inexplicable paranoia. The tunnel became very disorienting as a sort of horizontal vertigo set in. The illusion presented itself that, rather than a tunnel, we were surrounded on all sides by an endless void. The possibility of a chasm seemed to loom in the darkness or the possibility that a viaduct somewhere had opened and was flooding up with crashing water, and there lurked the sentiment that somewhere in the darkness was a presence . . . . Of course these fears, and the shared feelings of paranoia, were exactly the point! The thing to be faced – to not panic, to conquer the fears of claustrophobia and darkness, to overcome the fear of the unknown and unfamiliar – is exactly what you gain from such an experience. We marched through the darkest portion of the underground river with spirits high, singing a capella, our voices stretched out and reverberating to infinity by the endless echoing walls, coming back to us as some strange and alien sound, something impossible to hear or ever experience above ground. Then, satisfied with our exploration, we returned home.
I did receive a nasty gash on the top of my head when, upon finally sighting light, I took off my helmet with its attached light, and cracked my head against a low outcrop of stone – the point being: when Counting Coup never let your guard down until you are completely finished with your adventure!
Check back soon for Counting Coup part 2 ; an audio interview with Bill Soder, a man who has been bicycling across America for 8 years!