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.


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.