The Ecstasy of the Mosh Pit

I love punk rock.

I was in high school at exactly the period that disco became a popular genre (which means that it was already dying in the gay bars and minority clubs where it had been born; by the time straight white people took it—because there was money to be made—it was pretty well wrung out).

Those years–1975-79–saw some of the most godawful popular music that had been seen to date: lush, overproduced orchestral rock anthems with pretentious lyrics, whiny love ballads, the Eagles (enough said) and ubiquitous disco enjoinders to dance and screw, the soundtrack of the Seventies Bacchanal that set the table for the AIDS epidemic.

There were exceptions, of course. Zeppelin’s best years were in there. If you worked really hard at looking for it (at least, in my whole-wheat-bread, armchair-liberal college town), there was funk. But mostly, it was garbage. I can get a bit nostalgic when I hear some of it, just because that happens, but at the time, yecccccchhhhh.

Punk was alive. It had no string sections. It had no blow-dried polyester-wearing Guidos singing falsetto. And as a teenaged foster kid from a rotten family, it told me a much more credible story about the experience of life than the banal I-will-love-you-forever crap that STILL dominates popular music to this day.

Punk was creative. Though it is mostly associated with a particular rapid-fire style characterized by the Ramones, Black Flag, the Circle Jerks and the Sex Pistols, it was really—like Paganism—an umbrella term that encompassed a vast range of styles. X to the Minutemen to Patti Smith to the X-Ray Spex to Fear to the Dead Boys to The Damned to the Plasmatics to the Mekons is a pretty broad range (and I count Devo in there, which makes it even broader). What they had in common was that they were doing it themselves, not with a phalanx of studio players and orchestras, and they were doing it about what was really going on.

Sure, it was angry: we were young and life was pretty damned hard if you weren’t lucky enough to be in the coked-up Studio 54 set. But it was a joyful anger, and its ritual was the mosh pit. The early mosh pit–before the skinheads came along and fucked it up with deliberate attempts to hurt people.

Surrounded by a wall of sound vibrating right through your body, being swung and bumped and surrendering control to the mob, we could shout the lyrics and grin and pogo and rock out in a way that took us into another world, that lit up our nervous systems like the Milky Way.

I was thinking about this recently, and it occurred to me that the first times I had truly ecstatic experiences were in moments of sublime nature, but I found something very similar in grungy clubs like the Mabuhay Gardens: something so stimulating, so pure, so transforming that I went back for it, again and again. And I can still find a glimpse of it just by putting those old albums on, cranking it, and listening LOUD.

Now, that was forty years ago. I haven’t been in a pit since an X/Henry Rollins Band show in 2007, and it had been a long time before that since the previous one. I almost went in at a Gogol Bordello show, but the kids were throwing elbows and I just didn’t want to deal. I like my memories better.

I guess that what I want to say here is that ecstatic ritual is where we find it. I know people who are so tuned into food that a sublime meal casts them into joyful Presence and a feeling of connectedness with the entirety of the Universe.

It doesn’t always have to be fervently standing in a circle and enacting a structured set of symbolic actions. Sometimes all it takes is to put on music and dance, and suddenly, you’re there.

 

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.

 

Ritual Technologies: Scent

As I’ve mentioned before, the most powerfully evocative of the human senses is the sense of smell. The olfactory centers are in the most primitive parts of the brain, and they can summon vivid memories in an instant, simply from a remembered scent.

For thousands of years, people have burned incense and aromatic herbs such as sage, yerba santa and sweet grass to alter the mood and atmosphere around them. They have daubed themselves with perfumes and oils, brought bouquets of aromatic flowers into their homes and temples, and scattered flowers over their dead. Indeed, we have evidence of flowers in burials of Neanderthals from 60,000 years ago; whether this was because they were pretty or because they smelled sweet is a matter of conjecture.

These practices are documented throughout the world. The ancient Egyptians, the Chinese, and early Native Americans all prized their olfactory treasures.

And there is good reason to do so. Pleasant scent can fill us with a comforting sense of ease and relaxation. Frankincense is a known antidepressant, and I would bet that other resinous incenses such as myrrh, dragon’s blood, and Russian Orthodox temple incense are as well. I use them in my rituals and they create an instant mood of sacredness.

One common practice with burning herbs or incense is smudging: wafting smoke over a person with a fan or feather, typically as they enter the ritual space. Some think of this as “purifying”, but I’m with Shauna Aura Knight and don’t believe in purification, myself: everything in the Universe is as pure as it needs to be. So I see smudging as something we do to help participants to enter the Ritual State, to help their minds understand that Oh, things are different now.

I probably have two dozen kinds of incense, and each creates a different mood. Likewise essential oils; I only have a few of these, but they are extraordinarily evocative. Cedar oil, for example, which I associate with the wood of a coffin, I have used as an anointment in Hallows rituals.

In the case of personal scents, in my opinion less is more: a faint note of something can be enticing and delicious, while a reek of scent is off-putting.

Scent may also be used very subtly, as when a sprig of rosemary is dipped in water and used for asperging, which is similar to smudging except sprinkling water instead of wafting smoke.

In any case, we must be considerate of those with allergies and sensitivities, which seem to be on the rise. People who are allergic to scent products can have powerful and dangerous reactions to them, so if you’re going to use incense or scented oils in a ritual, be sure to notify participants of your plan in advance so they can let you know if this will be a problem.

In most cases, you’ll have better luck with flowers: Sterling Silver roses or Stargazer Lilies or hyacinth can fill a room with their marvelous scents, for example; carnations or petunias are more subtle but lovely as well.

Experiment with scents! You’ll be amazed at what they add to the felt sense of your rituals.