She was lifting the curtain, looking down from the window in her Civil War blouse, jacket and hoop skirt. Outside, a wagon bearing a flag-draped casket was drawn forward by black horses, flanked with erect soldiers.
Suddenly, it was 1865.
I was 6, and touring the Custis-Lee Mansion at Arlington National Cemetery with my family. And that tiny moment when a costumed docent lifted the curtain on the scene below transported me back in time, began a lifelong fascination with other eras, living history, modes of dress from other times. It was a feeling, a particular and very specific emotional sense, and I was riveted by that: that in a moment, my sense of where (and when) I was could completely change based simply on the emotional tone a given setting evoked in me.
For want of a better term, I called them “atmospheres”. I’ve thought about them a lot: the particular feeling of a place, or a moment. The way a room can fill with tension or coziness or dread or the sense being in another time altogether. It can arise wordlessly and be shared by all who are present.
What IS that? What makes that happen? The physical reality of a room full of people at a funeral may be the same as at a wedding, but they could not be more different in our experiences of them. Our internal, subjective worlds collude somehow to make the feelings of a place tangible.
I don’t entirely know how it works, but I know that feeling it is bound up in thousands of tiny cues which we project and which our minds can seize upon and read: fleeting expressions, body language, vocal tone. Many Pagans call it the “energy” of a place, a ritual event, a group of people at a particular moment, though this is a term I do not prefer because it implies a physical force rather than a feeling.
We really don’t have a good term for it. Yet being able to sense it and cause it to shift or evolve is pivotal to the effective practice of ritual leadership. It is to shape and guide this subjective, emotional reality that rituals are intended.
And there is one very basic rule in working with such “energy” or “atmospheres” or ambience: everything matters. Every last detail that can affect how participants feel during the ritual must be attended to, for we are perceptive creatures, and one little thing out of place can break the spell.
Set and Setting
It is for this reason that we create a conducive setting for our rituals: beautiful and compelling Focuses (altars), dim lighting with flickering candles or firelight, delicious scents of rich incenses, conducive music or sounds . A vividness of experience is called forth by the vividness of the setting; it says, something magical is going to happen here.
It is for this reason that we perform actions like centering, mindfulness, and grounding at the beginning of rituals, to open the participants emotionally to feeling–to create what is known as a correct set (short for “mindset”) for ritual, a sense of Presence in the moment: what I have termed the Ritual State.
It is why we do things like smudging and asperging, to waken the senses.
It is why we sing in rituals, to engage the body and emotional mind.
Think of it as sculpture using emotions: shaping and smoothing the emotional content of the moment through conscious, careful action within the ritual circle.
Emotions are ephemeral and delicate. They can shift dramatically in an instant. This is why, as ritualists, it is our responsibility not to do anything that scrambles the feeling for the other participants. It is our responsibility to help to facilitate, rather than dampen, the emotional dynamic occurring in the present moment, and to help it to move where the ritual means for it to go. So even if something happens that makes us angry, for instance, a sharp outburst is generally not appropriate. Better to retire from the ritual and bring up your grievance with the person or people who provoked it at a later time.
Meanwhile, as ritual leaders, it is our responsibility to ensure that we are not simply driving the participants forward, but are allowing them to have their own experiences, to have the time they need to “get there”, and to express that feeling as is best suited for them, so long as it is not interfering with others. Ritual leadership is guidance more than direction.
The practice in learning to shape emotional tone is to pay attention. Notice how you are feeling, and what you sense others are feeling. Notice how particular kinds of music make you feel, how certain ritual activities make you feel. Learn them, because that means you have a better chance of replicating them.
After a ritual—not immediately after, but perhaps a day or two later—talk with participants about how it felt. Find out what worked for them, and whether there was anything that didn’t.
The art of ritual—which some Pagans, in fact, call the art of “magic”, in the sense that ritual can transform our consciousness—is a subtle one, the nuances of which may take many years to perfect. Learning it is a process that is never complete, but it is an extraordinary skill set which incorporates leadership skills, the ability to shift one’s own consciousness, and a capacity for guiding those of willing participants almost at will. It is tremendously empowering not only in the context of group dynamics, but in one’s personal growth and evolution.
As Atheopagans, our religion isn’t just a set of beliefs about the nature of the world, what is of value, and how to live. It’s also a set of tools, through skillful exercise of which we may grow to be happier, healthier, and more effective in our lives.