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.

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Dark Hallows

Hallows is unique among Atheopagan Sabbaths.

For one thing, it’s a week long: it extends from Halloween through the actual midpoint between the autumnal equinox and the winter solstice, which falls around the 7th of November. A whole week of observances, of rituals, of spooky-eerie awareness of Death, of Ancestry, of the Dark.

As it happens, where I live, the transition from Daylight Savings Time to Standard Time happens on the first weekend in November, so there is a sudden plunge into night as the clocks roll back an hour and sunset is suddenly an hour earlier. It doesn’t take imagination to realize that the Darkness has arrived.

And let’s just say up front: if you like a gothic aesthetic, Hallows is spooky cool. Hallows is jack o’lanterns flickering, cobwebs and skulls and bones and graveyards. And witches, let us not forget.

We’re both fascinated and appalled by the prospect of our deaths, and Hallows is the time when we live in that state: with the knowledge that It Is Coming, with coming to grips with that reality, with reflecting on those who are gone, and with contemplating the deep history of ancestry.

Death is the price of the ticket to this glorious ride on Planet Earth. As such, it must be honored. The names of the Beloved Dead must be spoken. The Ancestors—human and non- — must be remembered, and their contributions to the fact of our existence celebrated.

In the secular world, Halloween in particular is a time when we are allowed to play in ways we are not otherwise indulged throughout the remainder of the year. We can dress up silly, or scary, or sexy, and enjoy the thrill of fear and empowerment that comes with each of these qualities. As a costuming geek myself, I love a chance to roll something out from my closet—or make something new— and be Someone/Something Else in public, just for one day. We can play with identity, and gender, and actually get away with it in the homophobic United States. It is no surprise that Halloween is an important and beloved event in the LGBTQ community.

I see Hallows as a week of Pagan celebration that begins with Halloween itself, with its costumes and parties and spooky decorations, and extends through the following week into my circle’s annual Samhain ritual, which takes place on the first weekend in November each year.

During the intervening week, I update my Death Document: my funeral wishes, farewell letter, will, medical directives, important passwords and other information that my loved ones will need when it’s my time to go.

This will be Dark Sun circle’s 27th annual gathering for Samhain. Our ritual includes a hushed circle of remembrance around the unlit fire, a silent walk into the woods to visit the Land of the Dead, and, once there, we speak their names, tell them what we would have liked them to have known about our feelings, our memories, our wishes and our love.

Upon return from the Land of the Dead, we light the fire and the candles and jack o’lanterns on the Focus and celebrate, singing “We Are Alive!”, sharing goblets of blood-red wine and chocolate. And then, when it is time, we go indoors and break our fast with a sumptuous meal.

By the time our ritual and feast are complete, I feel we have turned the Wheel of the Year again. I feel prepared for the arrival of the Darkness as the year ages. And I feel connected with my circle kin, with my broader Pagan community, and with the great cycle of Life coming and going on this magnificent planet. I feel more accepting of the losses that Death has dealt me, and of the fact that one day, it will be my turn.

I feel like an Atheopagan, celebrating his life in the world.

Balance at the Fulcrum of the Year

Let’s just say, circumstances don’t make these great times for perception of balance.

It would be lovely to believe that darkness and light in the world are muddling along roughly in equal proportions at the moment. But that would feel like a big step forward, now. While I sincerely hope the circumstances of your individual life are fantastic, that isn’t what I’m hearing from friends and colleagues. I’m hearing fear, and anger, and a sense of powerlessness to do anything about them. And I’m feeling much the same.

And that makes the Sabbath of Harvest all the more important. Because even when things are really tough, there are countless blessings we enjoy, and we need to pay attention to them. We need to turn around and look, recognizing that those things we may take for granted are not owed to us, that they are precious gifts worth acknowledging, celebrating.

A Harvest feast is a great time for toasting achievements and blessings. For speaking out loud that—all else notwithstanding—we are grateful for what the world pours out for us.

And at this time of year, it’s good to keep this in mind. Yes, we are going into the darker part of the year. Winter is coming, and darkness reigns now in many ways. But en route, there will be the glorious Autumn. There will be the camaraderie and warmth and joy of Yule.

To hold these together in the mind; to not tip over into exaggeration of either how terrible nor how great things are. This is the practice at this time.

As the Five of Cups tells us in the Tarot:  Yes, cups of precious nectar have spilled. Their contents are forever lost.

But remember to turn around and look at what remains.

A happy—yes, truly happy—Harvest to each of you. May this autumnal equinox mark the beginning of more gratitude: more joy.