Trust your dreams, trust your heart, and trust your story.—Neil Gaiman

A couple of weeks ago, I posted this quote on my Facebook page. A friend commented that he liked the quote, but was helping perform exorcisms in his dreams when he woke up that morning, with the implication that he wasn’t altogether sure about trusting in this instance. He shared that he’d fallen asleep watching “The Exorcist”, and presumably carried that with him into his dream life. An aficionado of horror movies, it is not surprising that such images and concepts would infiltrate his sleep. It got me thinking, though: about exorcism, about its roots in a belief of demonic possession and spirits, and the myriad reasons we are drawn to the idea that one might be able to be freed from possession, from that which is negative, harmful, and painful physically and/or spiritually.

Popular culture presents movies in which no exorcism is complete without a full range of cinematic terrors. I confess to a love-hate relationship with such films. This might surprise those with whom I’ve shared that as a rule I do not watch horror flicks, and I never watch them before bedtime unless I have no plans to sleep well that night. The truth is that I am fascinated by the idea that through ritualized action, one might be released from personal terrors. What happens for me in watching such films is that it’s as if every mental pore is opened, the spiritual eye dilated, and I am so overwhelmed by the stimulation that it’s very difficult to wind down afterward.

As a religious practice, exorcism has lost much of its shine as a variety of conditions once seen as the result of possession by the devil—drug abuse and alcoholism, abnormal behavior, illness—became better understood in some instances and more tolerated in others. Having sophisticated explanations for why people do what they do does not necessarily eliminate the need, the urge, to purge oneself of thoughts and behavior that are seemingly detrimental.

After that brief discussion, I found myself thinking about the connections between the intention of the exorcism rites and the deep desire I have experienced to be purged of certain emotional states and thought processes which cut their teeth on painful life experiences. My desire has always been to have an unfettered sense of joy at being alive. I don’t want to hear that it’s a lot to ask! I’ve thought more than once that a good bloodletting might do wonders. It seemed to make a great deal of sense that if something is blocked, something full of pus and carrying disease, then why mightn’t it be a good thing to create an opening, a release? Then again, my thoughts traveled to some of the most remarkable people I have met along the path I have traveled. They carry deep psychic scars that are bandaged up, the protocol for care often a hot-iron burn to cool the flames of the pain lurking underneath the smile, the despondent alcoholic who didn’t even know what pit of hell they were tripping over their own feet into when they picked up the bottle just to bring a little lightness into their life. Some of these friends have had experiences that trump the best the horror flicks can throw at us from the screen.

I discarded the notion of bloodletting a long time ago, and yet the desire to purge remains. It doesn’t seem farfetched to consider expansion of the concept of exorcism from the vantage point of health and strength in body, mind, and spirit. Rituals of cleansing and healing can take many forms. Soaking in a hot springs pool. Paddling along a lake or river. Walking a wooded path. Meditating deeply. Sitting in a 12-step meeting. Talking with a trusted friend about a long hidden wound or scar. Holding a lover close and practicing the art of knowing another deeply. Crying. Being a help to others.

What are you haunted by? What rituals do you engage in so that you might hold the “devil” back? I dream of a life in which nothing is kept at bay, but set to sail depending on need and circumstance. Take a good look at your haunts, and begin to practice those small exorcisms. What shape do they take, what is their heft, their color? One thing I’m sure of is that burying mine in layers of denial simply made them yell louder. I carry within me, along with life’s heaviest burdens, a hopefulness that such practice can lead to that unfettered joy that we each came into the world with, is ours to experience, and which lies just beneath the layers of pain and sorrow.