Journeying in the Inner Landscape

Here at Atheopaganism, we have discussed ritual skills quite a bit. Developing the skill sets that help people to attain the Ritual State (or “trance”) is key to our ability to be  effective ritualists who can transform consciousness in empowering ways. Click here to see previous posts tagged as “Ritual Technologies and Core Skills”.

Thus far, these posts have been about using skills and technologies to induce the Ritual State. But today we turn to another question:  what to do once you get there?

Trance is powerful, and can be experienced simply as a glowing, liminal state within which to conduct ceremonial activities or contemplation…or it can be the context for ritual leaders to introduce suggestion and narrative to take participants on an internal “journey”.

This is old, old magic. It is the stuff of “spirit journeying” as practiced by many cultures throughout the world. The anthropological term for this type of activity is shamanism, from the Tunguskan word of indigenous Siberian people, for those who “journey inward” to interact with “spirit beings”: images and characters in their minds.

Anthropologically speaking, these “journeys” may involve “tunneling down through the Earth” into an Underworld, or “flying high” to reach an Overworld. The character of the experience will vary depending on the psychological nature of the journeyer. But just as in dreams, the experience can be anything that the trancing person can imagine.

The practice of this kind of “voyaging” is so ubiquitous among humans that it can be argued to be an inherent human characteristic. For after all: what is storytelling, or reading, or radio drama but verbal guidance through an inner landscape of visualization?

On your own, while in trance you can create and travel through a landscape of your choosing, and you will be surprised at the characters that will arise unbidden to meet and communicate with you. Often these are family members, ancestors, animals or fantastic beasts such as dragons. Their messages to you come from your deep mind, and are worthy of contemplating carefully.

But it is also possible to define the experience for trancing listeners: to take them on a spoken-word narrative journey to a particular place and to have a particular experience. In Western societies, we call this technique “guided meditation”.

There is an art to creating an effective guided trance journey. Participants must be relaxed and comfortable, feel safe, and then go on a “journey” to a place that feels special and unique. Often there are “guides” there, characters who impart wisdom and encouragement.

Vocal tone. When narrating or reading a guided trance journey, keep your tone low and even, melodious. Make sure that your vocal tone is consistent with being relaxed and comfortable.

Structure. Here are steps to include in a successful trance journey:

1)  Get comfortable. Participants can sit or lie down, but being physically comfortable is very important because discomfort will keep drawing attention away from the journey and back into the body.*

2)  Relaxation. Spend a few minutes relaxing the body and the mind with some simple visualizations of a calming and relaxing setting. Use descriptions of all five senses to paint a vivid picture of this place, which could be a calm meadow, a tranquil beach, or anywhere else that communicates ease and comfort.

3)  The Descent. The Descent is a trance-deepening technique used in hypnotherapy, wherein the guided instructions describe a journey, typically through a natural landscape—up a mountain, down into caves, through a forest, etc., although it can of course go anywhere.  The instructions send the journeyer deeper and deeper into relaxation and a sense of calm, present well-being. This often manifests as a “countdown”, as, “As you descend the stairs, you feel your relaxation and trance deepening: one step, then two…three…four…five. You are now completely deep in trance, relaxed and safe. You have arrived. [insert description of the setting where they have arrived].”

The Descent is sometimes an “ascent”, in that the imagery is of climbing instead of descending: up a ladder, or a tree, or stairs up, or climbing a vine or a beanstalk or simply flying up into the sky.

4) Revelation. After “arrival” at the end of the Descent, the journeyer finds what they have been seeking: animals or characters with instructive advice, magical tools or powers, wise ancestor figures, or visual images that have metaphorical meaning. Crafting this part of the guided journey is particularly sensitive, because you need to be descriptive while allowing enough flexibility for each listener’s mind to create a unique experience for that person.

(Steps 3 and 4 can be repeated if you want to guide participants to multiple “locations” before “returning” to the waking world.)

5)  Return. In the Return. the journeyer “retraces their steps” back to the relaxed setting where they began. This doesn’t have to take as much time as did the Descent.

6) Awakening. The final step in a guided meditation is gently to bring the journeyer back up out of trance and into the waking world.

Accompaniment.  Trance or guided meditation journeying is often accompanied by relaxing music or steady drumming or rattling (either a slow heartbeat rhythm, or a rapid repetitive beat), but it can also be done in silence.

Integration with larger rituals. Trance journeying can be incorporated into a larger ritual. Be aware, though, that because participants are still during the journey, it is important to have activities in the ritual to get bodies moving and “bring up the energy” after a guided meditation.

Use of psychoactive drugs. In many cultures throughout the world, shamanic journeying is associated with the usage of psychoactive drugs (also known as entheogens) such as psilocybin (mushrooms) and mescaline (cacti such as peyote and San Pedro cactus). These substances would obviously increase the vividness and emotional impact of the visualized experience. In some areas usage of these drugs is illegal.

An example.  Here is an example of a guided journey that was incorporated into this year’s Atheopagan ritual at Pantheacon, which was titled “Arming the Earth Warriors: An Activists’ Ritual”:

First, make yourself comfortable: sit or lie down, whichever you prefer. Feel the weight of your body pressing down into the Earth, and as you do, you can smell grass. You hear a soft breeze waving the grass back and forth. Back and forth.

Now, comfortable there, you can feel the kiss of a light mist on your face. It’s cool; the sunlight on your eyelids is diffuse and comfortable. It feels good here. Feel yourself relax as your breath slowly goes in and out. One breath; another; another.

Another. You are in the meadow, and you are at peace.

As you lay there, you sense a faint whiff of wood smoke. Just a bit, then it is gone. But it comes back.

You stand, and open your eyes. All around you is the mist of a low bank of clouds, settled over the meadow but steaming away under the growing sunlight. It is beautiful. Birds have begun to sing, and the trees of the forest surrounding the meadow become visible as the fog lifts.

Then you see it: the mountain. With a trail leading up.

You take a step forward, and then another. The Earth is soft and comfortable beneath your feet as you approach the trail. Your body feels strong and the pull in your legs is satisfying as you climb the mountain.

You are climbing quickly. Rounding a turn in the trail, you come to an Overlook with a wide view in two directions.

Looking out to your right, you see a magnificent vista of mountains and forests, with a twinkling lake far in the distance. This land is lush and green, healthy and beautiful. Take in the beauty of this spectacular view.

Now turn to the left.

There, the landscape is similar, but much of it is on fire. Smoke billows up into the sky, and you can see the stab of bright plumes of flame as they consume the green woodlands. Faintly, on the smoke-flavored wind, you hear the roar of the flames.

The fire is out of control, and though still far away, it is coming closer.

You turn back to the trail. You are almost at the top of the mountain. As you climb, your strong legs moving you up to the peak, you see that at the very summit there is an opening to a cave in the ground.

You step down into the cave, and go inside. There, a wide open cavern awaits you, glistening with stone draperies and stalactites. You can smell wet stone and hear the faint trickle of water. A dim glow suffuses the chamber.

On a low table of stone in the midst of the cavern chamber are some objects of metal. In the dim light, you can see that the Inspiring Activist you called out to at the beginning of our ritual is standing next to the table.

As you approach the table, your Inspiration speaks, saying, “These are for you. They will serve you well as you carry on my work and that of countless others who have come before you.” They pick up the first object, a shimmering shirt of fine chainmail links, and slide it over your head. It is light and flexible, but you can tell it is strong.

“This is the power of Humor. It will protect you from being harmed as you go forward to do what is right.” The chainmail shirt sinks into your body, becoming one with you. You feel a sudden urge to smile.

Next, they take a brilliant emerald amulet and press it against your heart. “This is the Amulet of Health. It will remind you to care for yourself, to pace yourself with patience so you can keep up the good fight for many years.” The Amulet, too, sinks into your body and you feel a surge of wellbeing.

Your Inspiration picks up a large, clear, faceted gem. “This is the Lens of Clarity. It will keep you focused on the goal, and give you a clear understanding of complicated situations.” Pressing the Lens into your forehead, they seal it with a thumb and you feel a still, wise awareness rise within you.

Finally, they raise a glittering sword with a glowing ruby pommel and press the grip into your hand.

“This is the Sword of Courage. It is an extension of your Will, and it is what will carry you through the adversity and challenges that your opponents will attempt to put in your way. It will always be available to you. It will always be at hand.”

The sword does not disappear. It rests in your hand, as power and courage course through you. You can do it. You can make a difference.

You can change the world.

You humbly thank your Inspiration for the gifts, and turn to climb out of the cave. As you descend the trail from the cave, once again you arrive at the Overlook. The fire is noticeably larger. There is much work to do, but you know you have what it takes to do it.

You descend the trail to the Meadow, where you were before. It seems different now: smaller. And you are larger, stronger, more capable.

You walk onward into the world, filled with the power of the gifts you have received, with purpose, and with grace.

Now, when you are ready, open your eyes, rise and join us in a circle, holding hands.


*This step isn’t always necessary. If working with a group of entranced participants who are walking about a fire. for example, you can leave them in their walking meditation while leading them through the spoken-word journey.


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.

Ritual Technologies: Movement

Since probably before humans were even human, there has been music. Rhythm, at least. And where there is rhythm, there is dance. There are preserved footprints in painted caves in France that indicate young boys dancing 20-30,000 years ago. Some ritual dances are still performed today after untold continuous centuries.

Ritual isn’t just something that happens in our heads. When effective, it is an immersive experience, involving our entire beings. We are not, after all, just brains carried by flesh robots…our nervous systems extend throughout our bodies and participate heavily in our brain states.

Effective rituals involve some kind of engagement of the body: singing, for example, or clapping, dancing, walking, or other movement to music or rhythm.

There is good reason for this. Stimulating the metabolism through exercise, especially in a creative, expressive form like dance or music-making, is deeply pleasurable and requires that the participant be Present in the limbic Ritual State. There is a reason why we are drawn to these activities: they are joyful, even when solemn. They enhance our lives’ happiness.

I’m a pretty “heady” person, myself. I feel awkward and it’s hard for me to let myself go and dance (but when I do, it feels like flying!) But I can say with confidence that the most powerful and joyful rituals I have done have all involved some kind of physical exertion, even if it is simply in the form of walking  or dancing free-form about a fire, feeling my body’s aliveness.

Incorporating movement into ritual can be challenging, because participants can be self-conscious and not want to “go first”. Lower light conditions reduce this, so firelight or candlelight or moonlight will help (there is a reason why dance clubs are dark!) As a ritual leader, however, never forget that you are setting the standard for what is “normal” in the circle. Participants are looking to you to see how to behave. So when it’s time to move, move! Push yourself to overcome any shyness you may feel, so others feel “permission” to let go and move themselves.

You can also start slowly, with swaying, perhaps, and raising the arms, and as the musical intensity increases, so does the movement.

Music contains all shades of emotion, so if you use music as well as rhythm, choose carefully. There is a list of recommended music for rituals hereEven better is to have one or more musicians as a part of your ritual, so they can work with the ritual atmosphere or energy in an organic manner.

Be sure to work with movement in an arc: start slower, build up, and then direct where that energy goes, be it into a final joyous sung tone to the sky, or slowing down again until participants are still and silent. There are plenty of possibilities, but don’t just let things go until they peter out: take them somewhere deliberate.

Movement and rhythm—the engagement of the body—are the parts of Atheopaganism that may be most unfamiliar and uncomfortable for those who come to experience it from the atheist community. The point of ritual is to get beyond thinking. Atheopaganism isn’t philosophy: it’s a practice. It is accomplished in the doing. If you or some of your participants, like me, tend to lead with their thinking minds, just know that it is intensely liberating to finally let the thinking go for awhile: to move, and be alive.