At the Gathering‘s hack space discussion group, someone asked the group about what they thought was the minimum requirement for a fulfilling ritual. One participant immediately spoke up with the word “flow”. She feels that a ritual is working when the energy is flowing well. I completely agree with her, but I still feel challenged by how to consistently create that flow in a ritual.
A couple of hours after the discussion group, I found out that, due to some scheduling or communications issues, the skyclad (naked) ritual scheduled for that night had been cancelled. That saddened me, as the Gathering has always had at least one skyclad ritual, and it is many people’s first chance to experience that. Someone offered me the time slot, if I wanted to pull something together. I decided to take the opportunity to try again with the Beltane: The Heart ritual that I had done for my regular working group a couple of weeks ago. I had been talking to members of my community earlier that day about that very ritual, and how I hadn’t felt like it quite worked. It had looked good on paper, but it lacked flow. They gave me some great feedback, I did a quick re-write on my partner’s tablet, and I ran the ritual again that night. This time, it worked.
The first time I ran this ritual, I had several things working in my favour: I had all my pretty altar decorations and ritual tools, I was running the ritual for a group that’s familiar with my style and works well together, and I was well prepared. Yet, it felt rushed and the energy didn’t flow.
Normally, I prepare my larger group rituals far in advance, and I have lists and tools and decorations and typed scripts and I sometimes even hold rehearsals. This time, I had two members of my group who had done the ritual before, a script on a tablet, some hastily written cue cards, a couple of strings of Christmas lights as lighting and decoration (no candles allowed in the camp’s cabins), and ritual tools and food (sliced apples) and drink (water) scavenged from the camp’s kitchen and laid out on a scarf on the floor for an altar. I knew that a lot of people had heard that the skyclad was cancelled, so I wasn’t expecting many people to show up, but about two dozen came, many of whom I didn’t really know and who had never circled together.
I think the biggest change I made was that, at the suggestion of my friends, we added a drummer to control the energy raising. A major issue with the first time we did this ritual was that the energy didn’t have time to build properly. The rhythm never established and settled, and it felt rushed. The flow wasn’t there, even in this group that knows each other really well and works together regularly. In the second version, the drummer kept the rhythm slower until it was clear that everyone was in beat together, and then the volume increased first as people began slapping the floor and/or their legs harder, then it began to speed up more naturally, feeling like a reflection of our increased heart rates from the exertion of hitting the floor over and over. After the ritual, my drummer and I were unsure of which one of us had been leading the speeding up of the rhythm, as it felt organic.
There were some changes I had to make because of the circumstances of the second ritual. For example, no candles and no incense (camp rules and allergies in the group) meant a simplified space cleansing, which I don’t think had any effect either way on the group, maybe partially because we were a little more prepped for ritual, being in sacred space all weekend. But other changes made out of the circumstances improved the ritual further. First, the space we had for the second ritual was much larger than my living room and allowed for enough space for everyone to sit comfortably and both touch each others hands during the meditation and have room to drum and even move some during the power raising. Second, putting the altar right on the floor – because we didn’t have a suitable table – meant that there were no visual blocks when everyone was sitting on the ground. In the first version, a full-sized altar in the centre of the circle blocked some people’s views of each other, and I think that disrupted the energy flow as well.
Another victim of circumstance was my pre-ritual explanation. I get nervous talking in front of a group, and feeling a bit under-prepared meant that I did not explain to the second group exactly what I had in mind for how the power raising would go. I think this turned out to be a great thing for the ritual. When I ran the first version, I gave my group such a detailed description that I think it became part of the analytical, practical side of the brain. I think everyone was a bit self-conscious, trying to remember what was supposed to happen, and we were all thinking too much, trying to follow the instructions. In the second ritual, my much briefer explanation did not get into people’s heads the same way. Instead, I just modelled the behaviour I had been imagining, and people followed along (or didn’t) as they felt inclined. It let people go with their instincts, go with the energy of the group, and it felt much more natural… and it turned out much closer to what I had hoped for than the original, over-described attempt had been.
I can’t say for sure what effect the fact that it was done skyclad had on the second ritual. It was an obvious difference between the two rituals, and there is a different feeling to a group when the members are maybe all feeling a little daring or a little vulnerable because they are all naked. Someone described the second ritual as “sensual”, which definitely was not the case with the first ritual, and maybe the nudity, non-sexual though it was, had something to do with that. It may have been helped along by a small, but important, change in some of the words used. Before the second ritual, I changed every place where I had written “tears” to “sweat” (four changes altogether). There is a distinctly different feeling to “Lord of the wild and passionate heart, we call to You from our bodies. By flesh and breath and love and tears, we call to You…” versus “Lord of the wild and passionate heart, we call to You from our bodies. By flesh and breath and love and sweat, we call to You…” I think I will have to run some more rituals twice – once clothed and once skyclad – to see if any of the improved energy and flow can be attributed to the nudity. Those who circle with me regularly be warned: there may be skyclad ritual invitations forthcoming.
I won’t say that the second ritual worked for everyone who was there, as whether or not a ritual works is subjective. However, I know it worked for at least some of us, and the energy in that circle was much more powerful than in the first one. I hope I can apply the lessons learned by contrasting the two experiences of this ritual to improve the flow at future rituals.