John Halstead over at Humanistic Paganism has published a rather sharply-worded piece about “10 Signs You’re Half-Assing Your Ritual”. It’s well worth a read, and in general, he’s right: there is a lot of ho-hum ritual out there and many, if not most of us can do a better job of preparing and enacting our rites.
But I think there is something missing in John’s piece, and that is this: a discussion of what we mean by a “successful” ritual.
This is often a moving target. When you talk to someone who has come out of a successful ritual, more often than not what they will talk about is not the activities that took place within it, but about a feeling—and one that is hard to pin down, at that.
But I think that all of those feelings come down to a particular state of mind: one of focus, presence, sensory awareness, creative flow and fervent dedication to the activities at hand. It is what I have previously termed the Ritual State. Many Pagans also refer to it as trance.
Here at Atheopaganism, I’ve written somewhat extensively about the Ritual State (in fact, there is an Atheopagan Ritual Primer that is all about how to provoke and maintain it). I believe it is a particular brain state that is well known to artists and musicians, but may be less familiar to others, in which the prefrontal neocortical Talking/Thinking Brain relinquishes its usual driver’s-seat role in the operation of the brain to the limbic or Feeling/Creating Brain. The Thinking Brain is still present, and may chime in with recognition of metaphors and symbols that contribute to the Ritual State, but it is the Feeling Brain, which remains firmly in the present moment rather than going off into memories or speculations about the future, that is the primary system in charge.
The primary hallmark of a successful ritual is that it succeeds in bringing participants into that fervent, present, awe-inspired creative state, which can be intensely moving and joyful. Each person is different, of course, so some techniques which work for one person may not work for another, but there are approaches to induction of the Ritual State that have worked for most people for thousands of years: repeated rhythms, dancing, chanting or singing, low and flickering light conditions, and beautiful and colorful Focuses or altars, to give a few examples. See the Primer for more details.
Getting into the Ritual State is a learned skill for participants, too. Experienced ritualists are usually able to suspend the internal chatter and critical voice of the Thinking Mind more easily than newcomers to the art. As simple an act as lighting candles on a Focus and saying a brief word of gratitude and devotion can be enough, with practice.
But the key point is that a ritual is an inductive journey: a set of steps designed to bring participants into an experiential state of holy Presence. Succeed in that, work within it, and then ground it out so participants “land” back in an ordinary state of awareness, and your ritual will be a success.
Key ritual facilitation skills such as singing, public speaking, drumming and ritual movement are worth cultivating. They are deeply helpful in ritual leadership, as they can help lead participants along into the Ritual State.
Preparation can make a big difference, and John’s warnings are worth taking seriously. But in experienced hands, even impromptu ritual can be highly successful.
It isn’t just about having a map, and learning it. It’s about knowing where you intend to go in the first place.