What Makes a Ritual “Successful”?

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.

Advertisements

Godless Paganism declared “The Pagan Book of the Year!”

I was so proud to be a part of the creation of John Halstead’s Godless Paganism, and wanted to let all you Atheopagans know that Megan Manson of the Pagan Tama blog on Patheos has rated it the top Pagan book of the year!

If you still don’t have a copy, you can pick it up at http://www.lulu.com/shop/john-halstead/godless-paganism-voices-of-non-theistic-pagans/paperback/product-22646041.htmlOr save money and paper and buy the e-book at http://www.lulu.com/shop/john-halstead/godless-paganism-voices-of-non-theistic-pagans/ebook/product-22635653.html

Lulu has a 20% off sale going through the end of the year, so get yours now!

Atheopaganism at Pantheacon 2017

John Halstead and I have two events on this year’s Pantheacon schedule—plus a social gathering! This conference/convention, held in February each year, is the largest gathering of Pagans in North America and an important driver of cultural development in the Pagan community: four days of workshops, panel discussions, rituals and performances. It is held at the Doubletree Hotel in San Jose, California; in 2017 the dates will be from Feb. 17 through 20.

It’s also lots of fun! Much socializing and many parties. It’s an opportunity for people who don’t get to see one another often to catch up and work together, as I am looking forward to doing with John.

I hope that as many Atheopagans as possible are able to join us for these events. They are:

  1. Dancing Without Deity: A discussion of non-theist Paganism. Held at 3:30 on Friday in the Silicon Valley Room. We welcome you to join us for a conversation about non-theistic Pagan beliefs and practices. Both curious theists and non-theists are welcome. Moderators John Halstead and Mark Green will discuss the different paths to and within non-theistic Paganism, and will invite others to ask questions and share a little about their paths. This will be an opportunity to foster greater understanding about this increasingly visible part of the Pagan community in an open and mutually respectful environment.Following this event will be a Non-Theist Pagan Mixer, in the Fire Family Suite (room number 241).  Come say hello!
  2. Living Earth Devotional: A Non-Theist Ritual of Commitment and Connection. Held at 11 pm on Saturday in the San Jose/Santa Clara rooms. Devotional rituals can be some of the most powerful forms of rituals. But ritual devotion is not limited to theists. Join us in a rite of devotion to the Earth itself, to the life-giving miracle of the soil, water, air, and sun which sustains us all. The ritual will culminate in an opportunity to take a vow — simple or life-transforming — in service of the Earth and the living beings to which it is home. Both theists and non-theists are welcome. This will be an opportunity for those curious about non-theistic Paganism to experience non-theistic ritual in a non-confrontational environment.

I’m so excited and grateful that the Programming staff at Pantheacon saw these events as worthy additions to the con! There’s a lot to do between now and then, but it’s joyful work and I look forward to it.

Your input is welcomed! If you have ideas for the devotional ritual, use the Contact page form to drop me a line. No guarantees that we will use all ideas, of course, but we will consider all of them.

I hope to see you there!