Boredom and Side Conversations in Ritual

DSC02414Another common question I get from people who lead rituals is, “How do you get people to stop having side conversations in ritual?” Truth is, I don’t often have this problem, so it took me a bit to figure out some suggestions I could offer. However, then I went back to some of my early training in rituals and remembered that most of the logistical problems in any ritual (or other facilitated activity) are resolved by skillful setup at the beginning. There are a lot of common ritual problems I don’t run into because I always start with a pre-ritual talk.
However, there are a number of different techniques that can help with unwanted side conversations and other related issues in rituals. The core of this is that you’re trying to get a group of people to focus.
There are a few major tips to help get your group to focus and not be distracted with side conversations.

Pre-Ritual Talk

Before you start the ritual, do a little talk/introduction. Go into the theme of the ritual, teach any chants you’re going to use or discuss any logistics, like, “At one point in the ritual we’ll be writing down our wishes on a piece of paper and then burning them in the fire.” That makes it easier to facilitate during the ritual without a big confusing moment where folks aren’t sure what they’re supposed to do.

The other thing you can lay out during that part of the ritual is agreements for behavior.

Typically I start out with the theme of the ritual, get people excited for it. “Today we celebrate Beltane, and what we’ll be doing in today’s ritual is focusing on ____.” Then I might say, “For today’s ritual, I’m going to ask for a few agreements from each of you. The first is that after we cast the circle, you’re welcome to leave if you need to use the restroom or take some space, but if you leave or return, please just do so quietly and with respect. Also, I ask that once we begin, you give your full attention to each person speaking and not have side conversations. That will help keep our energy focused together for this working.”

You’d be amazed how much asking for something helps it happen. An axiom of facilitation, and of groups, and of relationships for that matter, is that if you didn’t ask for it, don’t expect to get it. When you ask for people’s help in making something happen (like not having side conversations) they become complicit and can actively support it.

In other words, don’t expect people to read your mind. If you want people to not chatter during ritual, to not take pictures, to not text or answer phone calls, you can’t expect people to just know that those aren’t appropriate behaviors. Ask for the behavior you want.

Confidence and Presence

This one can take a little more time for a new facilitator, but when you get to a certain point, you may find you don’t need to specifically ask people to not have side conversations, they naturally won’t because your presence, your confidence, your charisma is engaging enough to keep the group focused.

The reason it took me some time to think about how to keep side conversations from happening is because I don’t even usually outline that agreement any longer. Not for rituals. For workshops, sure; people are naturally chatty during workshops in the format I use. I encourage conversation as a learning method instead of me just being a talking head.

In a ritual, though, I can’t remember the last time I actually asked people to not have side conversations. People just don’t do that when I’m leading a ritual, with few exceptions. I’d say a good percentage of that is because of my confidence, my presence. Some call it charisma, some call it energy. Whatever you want to call it, I (and the other facilitators I’m working with) are focused and present for the work of the ritual, and our focus and presence naturally extends into the rest of the group and inspires their focus and presence.

If you’re a newer facilitator, or you have issues with confidence as a public speaker, just know that this part of things will get easier with time. The more you do it, the more confidence you build, the easier it is to project that energy.

Don’t Design Boring Rituals

Probably the other biggest reason I don’t often have people talking to the side during a ritual is because I design rituals specifically so that there aren’t large chunks of boringness in the middle of the ritual. I often pick on things like Cakes and Ale or smudging, but there are any number of ritual logistics that can take a long, long, long time.

It’s beyond the scope of this brief article to talk about ways to handle ritual logistics and design rituals that aren’t boring, but in my book Ritual Facilitation I outline a number of different techniques for designing rituals and making sure your logistics don’t take forever. However, one basic red flag is if it’s something that each person in the group is going to have to do one at a time, and it’s going to take more than five minutes, you’re definitely running the risk of boredom and side conversations.

A deeper issue (and way beyond the scope of this post) is that many rituals have no point. What I mean is, I’ve attended dozens of public rituals that were boring not just because there was a large poorly-facilitated logistic at the core…but because there was no hook, no reason for me to be there, no reason for me to emotionally invest. That’s a far larger and more difficult issue to address, but it’s worth at least bringing up.

You’ll probably find that when you have a ritual that is–at the core–engaging, a ritual that draws you in, a ritual with deep impact…at these rituals, people are way to busy being engaged with the work of the ritual to have side conversations.

Engage The Group with Chanting

On the same vein, let’s say there are some logistics in your ritual that are just going to take a while. Maybe it’s a ritual for a hundred people and people are going to be lighting candles off of one another. Even if you have multiple candle-lighters, this could take a while. Or maybe you have multiple people aspecting/drawing down a deity, but it’s still going to take a while as each person gets a message from the deity or archetype. Or, you have different altars where people will go and do a thing.

First, if you have a one-at-a-time logistic, try to have another simultaneous logistic that is happening where people can do it as they are ready. If one altar has someone speaking oracles from a goddess and people are visiting the altar for a one-on-one experience, perhaps have another altar or two where multiple people can go at the same time.

My catch-all, though, is to engage the entire group with a simple chant. Even if I have a group of sixty people and it’s going to take them twenty minutes to visit multiple altars, if they’re singing a simple chant while they are waiting it keeps them busy, and it holds and sustains the energy for the whole group.

Picking the right chant, and having solid chant anchors, is crucial for that to work. But with a simple (yet engaging) chant, it’s amazing how much more focused the group can become.

Shutting Down Side Conversations

Worst case scenario here is that you’ve employed some of these techniques and those pesky, distracting side conversations are happening. You’re in the middle of your ritual. Now what? How do you gracefully call out the people talking and get them to stop without bringing your whole ritual to a screeching energetic halt?
The answer is definitely not raising your voice and asking everyone to shut up. Or calling out people from the center in a public and embarrassing way. If you do so, you’ve just tanked the energy of the ritual.
And yet, as the facilitator, if you want the side conversations to stop–and especially important, if you don’t want more people to get the idea that it’s ok to do that and add more distraction–you still need to make it stop.
I was once a supporting facilitator in a large group ritual at a Pagan conference. There were about a hundred attendees in a ballroom, and maybe a dozen facilitators. During the trance journey/meditation piece, there were five of us leading a multi-voice trance journey. I noticed that three women in my section if the circle/room were talking and giggling together. It was becoming more and more distracting.
Proximity is a great subtle way of shutting down those conversations. I didn’t shift what I was saying, but I just started getting closer and closer to them. When they didn’t stop, I gave them direct and sustained eye contact.
Pro tip: Usually at this point most people stop talking and look down, embarrassed. These three women did not.
I got closer still until I was maybe a foot or two away from them. We’re talking, close enough that it would invade our general sense of what’s acceptable social distance. I looked at them directly, dropped my voice down to not be audible to the rest of the group, and said something (still using my rhythmic trancey voice) along the lines of, “And taking a breath now into silence.”
For the people on either side of them, it was obvious I was talking to them and asking them to be quiet, so it wasn’t completely subtle, but it wasn’t like I was yelling at them in front of the whole group.
If you can subtly bring people to silence it’s going to support the energetic flow of the rest of the ritual.
If you have a ritual where perhaps you forgot to mention at the beginning that you didn’t want people to break into side conversations…and then it happens, sometimes it is best to just address that so you can move on. An example: You indicate that your participants should begin lighting their candles off of one another, and as soon as that begins, there are whispers, and then louder voices, and suddenly the whole room is speaking all at once, and that’s not the energetic signature you’re going for.
If you have a sound-making device like a singing bowl you can strike it; that sound will often gracefully bring a large group to silence.
You can also step to the center with your arms raised (do the physical gesture and take the center of the room before you try to speak over the group, just the physical gesture will bring some to silence so that you don’t have to shout as loud) and say something like, “Can I ask you to all take a breath together, let’s all take a breath together,” and repeat some version of that until people are silent again and joining you in a breath. Then, “It’s in our nature to speak while we do this. It’s in our nature to try and break the tension. But here in this moment, we want tension. We want silence. We want focus. Can you each light these candles together with breath, with silence? And if the urge to speak rises up, if you feel the urge to break the silence, to break the tension…just notice that urge, just hold that.”
Or whatever happens to be authentic for your ritual theme. You could also at that point introduce a ritual chant. “I neglected to teach the chant we’ll be singing while we light our candles. Let me sing it once through and then have you join me.”
Having an instrument like a singing bowl on hand is invaluable; the sound is high and cuts through conversation, and the non-human sound will instantly bring many folks to silence, which brings the volume in the room down so that your words can more easily be heard. It can be difficult to be heard over a large group that’s all talking, but it’s also energetically detrimental to try and shout over everyone to get them to be quiet.
Hopefully these quick tips offer you some tools as a facilitator to keep your group focused and bring more success to your rituals!

Filed under: Facilitation, Ritual Tagged: chanting, distractions, facilitation, ritual, side conversations

Chanting, Trancing, and Ecstatic Techniques for Aspecting Part 2

shutterstock_78222514This is part 2 of my post on using singing, toning, chanting, and other ecstatic techniques for aspecting and trance possession in ritual. You’re really going to want to read Part 1, and you’ll also likely want to read this post on the theology/function of aspecting and trance possession.

Toning and Singing

Toning is one of the best ways to get people singing. It’s very safe. And, there are instruments you can use to support and cradle the sound. It’s hard to get a big/enveloping sound with only 3 people in a small group. It’s even hard with 10, unless you’re all really committed to singing and making sound. You can use a singing bowl or a Shruti box or something else that makes a droning/toning sound and sing along with that.

There are two major types of chanting/breathwork–there’s chanting that slows your breathing (like toning) and there’s chanting that speeds up your breathing. One slows your heartbeat, one speeds it up. They do different things to your brainwaves too; the science on that is just a bit beyond my pay grade, but try it some time, you’ll feel the difference.

The type of chanting you use depends on what you want to happen. With trance possession in the style of Vodou, you’re looking at heavy drumming, dancing, and chanting in a faster way that makes your breathing staccato. Whereas if you have seen a roomful of Tibetan monks chanting steadily and slowly, that affects your consciousness differently.

Both are effective chanting techniques, but the question is, effective at what?


Toning and slower chants (like the Tibetan monks, or just singing OM) is an easier place to start. It’s safer, and it will build up people’s strength in their voices and their confidence.

I have a few of songs that I sing along to when I drive (here’s my start-up song) so I’m basically singing, toning, and harmonizing long drones for as long as I can sustain my breath. Here are all the reasons I do this:

  • Personal spiritual practice
  • Keeping my voice warmed up
  • Continually build my capacity to hold more air and control that air so I can sing for longer without needing to take a breath

I can hold a note for 20 seconds with no problem. Sometimes 30 or more if my voice is really in shape. That’s important for the way breathing shifts your body and your heart rate and your brainwaves; you’re using toning as a form of breathwork, and you’re using it to shift your consciousness in a very particular way, so the more control you have over when you take a breath will impact the kind of spiritual work you can do.

It’s also important as a facilitator. If you want to build your capacity to lead chants; you need to be able to control where you breathe. One of the biggest problems facilitators run into when leading a chant is that, when they take a breath, the group stops singing. When I chant with a group, I don’t breathe in the places you’d expect so that the chant just keeps going. I breathe when the group is singing strongly, not in the “expected” breathing spaces between the lines.

Faster/Rhythmic Chanting

Eventually, you might want to try something with more staccato breathing, and bring in drumming. It’s easier to do more complicated chants once your group is feeling stronger about singing and they’re used to it, and when there’s more safety/intimacy as a group.

These could be chants with more words, and chants that are intended to speed up as you go along. More words tends to force breathing more quickly, particularly if you are also moving or dancing, or even just rocking back and forth more and more quickly.

With larger groups, I tend to caution people away from using canned music (ie, playing a CD or MP3) but with a small group, it might work well if you use it a lot and are used to it. Really depends on the song. Pre-recorded music doesn’t allow for the energy to shift in the moment, however, it can be a place to start to help get people more comfortable.

For more physical trancework, think dancing to techno or heavy drumming, bellydance, or firespinning, and singing along with that. The movement plus the chanting will put you into a different kind of altered state than the calmer toning/droning.

Here’s a video that shows two different chants. The first is a slower chant used to hold space while we journeyed to the Sacred Well one at a time. The second chant is faster and speeds up leading to an energy peak. The audio’s not the best but you can at least see the progression.

Trance Possession

If you’re trying to effect a trance possession of one ritualist, then it becomes almost the opposite of what I do when I lead a chant. When I lead a chant for a group ritual, I’m anchoring the chant and working to get the group more comfortable, helping them sing it until it “takes off” on its own and then I guide it, shape it.

With a trance possession, the group encircles the Vessel, and works to get the Vessel possessed by shaping the energy, building it higher. There can still be a facilitator guiding the speed/energy, but the Vessel is giving over to the group energy and letting that shape the experience. The group is using their own energy to help the Vessel “get there.” So the Vessel may be dancing, but the group is singing, dancing, moving as well to help build that energy and help the Vessel get possessed/draw down. It’s a collaborative effort.

Here are some videos that show chanting and drumming used by a very skilled ritual/musical group. This group has practiced together for quite some time and they have a very specific tradition, though I’m unfamiliar with it or its roots. You can see how the group works to use music to build up the energy focusing on the person who is doing the trance dancing, and how they speed up/get more into it as they give over to the music. (There are a lot of videos of this group on the channel, but I’ll just post a few here)

You can get a sense of the kind of vulnerability of the vessel, which is why I so frequently emphasize that the sense of safety is crucial to practices like this in ritual. I’m able to get large groups there because there’s a sort of anonymity in a group larger than 50.

In a group smaller than 10, you need to trust each and every person in that group to be able to go into the kind of deep trance state for invocation/aspecting/trance possession. In our culture, we’re so often wired to laugh at the person who sings and dances if it’s not performance quality, and in ritual work like this, your ability to look “good” dancing isn’t what’s required. It isn’t even required to be a good singer, though being able to stay on the melody or harmonize does help. It’s required that you do it, that you give yourself over to it, that you sing and move your body and go into the rhythm.

It’s required that you participate, that you engage, that you are present, that you are bringing your energy through your voice and body. If you sing quietly or limit yourself to small, tight movements, because you’re nervous that you’ll be judged by the group, because you’re worried someone’s going to see your fat jiggling or any other perceived physical flaw, you won’t be able to go into the depths.

Thus–using these ecstatic techniques goes far beyond just singing and toning during ritual work. All of this weaves together.

Working This Into Group Practice

What I’d suggest more than anything if you want to weave ecstatic techniques, particularly singing, is teaching the techniques themselves and why you are using them. Teach your group the singing and chanting techniques. Encourage them to practice singing as a personal spiritual practice so that they get more comfortable singing alone and as a group together.

Pro tip: I warm my voice up for about an hour before leading a workshop or ritual. I don’t wake up in the morning with a ready-to-go voice, I need to work out the gravelly sound and warm up the muscles. Your voice is a muscle, and you’re more likely to be able to sing and stay on key if you 1. warm up your voice muscles by singing and 2. regularly sing the chants you’ll be singing in ritual.

I wish every ritual participant bothered to warm their voices up before a ritual so that they are ready to jump in and participate!

I learned the hard way that I have to keep my voice warmed up. I had been singing and leading chants in rituals for a couple of years, and then I ran a weekend-long class on Raising Energy in Ritual. The morning the class started, I led the group with the first chant I’d chosen. I’d sung it so many times I was surprised to hear my voice straining to reach some of the notes, and my voice sounding a little wavery, not strong at all. I realized that I hadn’t been singing in weeks. Your voice is a muscle and you lose muscle tone fast. And let’s face it, many of us wake up and cough, there’s phlegm, our voice is deeper and maybe a little hoarse. Not the most pleasant topic, but it’s important if you’re looking to sing in ritual.

It can take me a half hour to an hour to be ready to hit the notes and sustain them for group chanting, particularly if there are difficult acoustics (like I’m chanting in an open field with no tree cover or next to a soccer game). This is part of your work as a ritualist, as a leader, as a professional. Leading rituals is work, and singing in ritual takes dedication and practice just as it does for a professional musician.

Experimenting With Techniques

I also strongly suggest being willing to experiment. You might start out with the toning/droning kind of singing, since it’s a bit more accessible. But then you can switch it up.

There’s a trance technique I use, I call it the Trance Hammer where I have the whole group singing a note/tone, and then I sing something more complicated over that. (That article also now contains a video of the technique.) In that scenario, you only need one strong singer to handle the melody, the rest can handle the tone. This adds texture, and it’s also a trance technique called “confusion technique.” It works because your brain is trying to process two separate things–the toning, and the other song–and it sends you into a deeper subconscious state.

Once your group is comfortable with the idea of singing in ritual and willing to do that, you can try more complicated chants, or add in drumming. And sometimes it’ll work and sometimes you’ll fumble, but that’s the advantage of working with a smaller group; you get to try things out without screwing up a big public ritual.

Advanced Personal/Professional Practice

As part of my own personal practice that crosses over into professional-ritualist-practice, here’s something I do regularly. I practice singing songs/melodies that I’m going to use for sung trances like the cantillation/Trance Hammer technique I mention above. Here’s how I do it.

I’ll play a song that has a melody in harmony with what I’m singing, but with different words. (Here’s the song I use for this most frequently.) I practice singing over that and not getting distracted by the other words; in fact, I try to keep an ear open for the song that’s playing so that I can sing certain words at the same time, or certain notes at the same time. And, I do all that while I’m doing a third task that requires me to pay attention to basic logistics. It could be anything like folding paper or looking up directions on Google maps, just something kinesthetic that takes my attention. In my case, I might practice this technique while painting gold borderwork on one of my art pieces or gluing tissue paper to cardboard.

Sounds complicated? It is. But, it has to be.

I’m training my brain to know that song even in the midst of chaos, in the midst of a really complicated task, and in the midst of competing music. I’m training myself to be able to not just memorize that song, but  memorize it in a way that distractions at a festival, or logistical issues with a ritual, won’t make me lose what I’m supposed to be singing. I’ve memorized the melodies and words in a way that I can sing it even when dealing simultaneously with complicated ritual logistics, or people whispering a question into my ear about their cue for the next ritual part. I can even communicate with others by nodding or offering hand signs while I’m still singing and not lose my place.

And the side benefit is that when I practice this technique at home, I get myself into a trance state and it’s part of my own personal spiritual work.


Filed under: Facilitation, Ritual Tagged: aspecting, chanting, dancing, drawing down, ecstasis, ecstatic ritual, invocation, Pagan, Paganism, possession, ritual, shruti box, singing, singing bowl, theology, trance possession, trance work, trancing

Chanting, Trancing, and Ecstatic Techniques for Aspecting Part 1

shutterstock_76776415Using ecstatic techniques of singing, dancing, and drumming to draw down deities or get possessed by spirits is both an old ritual technology and a new one. It’s been used for thousands of years and you see this in the tribal customs of many religions that have continued on to the present day.

It’s a technique that also has become used more and more in modern Pagan groups, though many Pagan groups have had to rediscover it since certain traditions didn’t seem to use any ecstatic processes for this ritual function. Thus, as these techniques are rediscovered, the old is new again. However, it means we have to re-look at these techniques and look at what will work for us in our own traditions and rituals, and what won’t. And it also serves to burrow down a bit into why it works.

I was specifically asked via my Facebook group on Ritual Facilitation Skills how one could use singing and chanting as part of drawing down, but the answer’s a little more complex than that. It’s worth pointing out the framework of the person asking; she’s forming a small group, so perhaps 3-4 people to start with, and she comes from an Alexandrian tradition.

The TL:DR on this post is, if you want to use singing and chanting techniques in ritual, you have to learn how to do it, and you have to teach your group to do them too. More, you have to get their buy-in, their willingness to do it without you having to pressure them. If you have a very small group and some of them are reluctant to sing and aren’t willing to engage whole-heartedly, these techniques may fall flat.

If you have a group of five people, but only two are willing to sing, it’s like two people trying to carry a 200 pound cauldron while the rest of the group stands there and watches: not going to work out well.

What Is Aspecting, and what is Ecstatic?

Let’s start with definitions of terms. Trance possession, drawing down, invocation, and aspecting are all terms for the same basic function, but they have different connotations, as I mentioned in my last post. Trance possession is typically done with a lot of ecstatic support.

When I say ecstatic, what I mean is physically embodied techniques that take us into a deep altered state. We’re talking drumming, singing, dancing. Now, some ecstatic techniques involve sensory overstimulation, and some could involve sensory deprivation (dancing with a blindfold, sensory deprivation water tanks, etc.) Sometimes alcohol or entheogenic substances are used.

You will commonly see ecstatic work used for trance possessions in African Diasporic traditions like Vodoun when people are ridden by the Loa, or in traditional tribal cultures where the whole community is singing and dancing together and the shaman/spiritworker (or other specific people) go into shaking trances. I’ll go ahead and use the word shamanic in the anthropological sense of how the word is commonly used; these techniques are common in shamanic traditions where the tribal spiritworker is supported in their work by the singing and dancing of the whole tribe.

There’s a great documentary, Dances of Ecstasy, that I often recommend as it offers up video of several different world traditions that use trance techniques. The DVD is available on Amazon or you can order it directly from the people who created it.

Working Within A Tradition

It’s worth pointing out that I have little experience with Alexandrian or British Traditional Witchcraft, and that’s the framework the original question comes from. I’m familiar with what I’d call the “standard Wiccan ritual” format that comes from BTW since I’ve attended plenty of them, so I’m using that as sort of a guideline here for the rest of my response.

However, if you’re in a similar tradition, one potential resource is Janet Farrar. Janet trained with Alex Sanders so she comes from those traditions, but her ritual work has evolved over the years. She gave a talk a few years ago and spoke very specifically about how they are doing a lot more ecstatic trance work in their rituals, and the way they do drawing down is closer to what’s usually referred to as trance possession.

So if you’re working with traditional witchcraft and Wicca, it’s possible that Janet Farrar herself might be a good resource for how to do this within the constraints of your own tradition. She may have written about this as well, but I’m not familiar with the content of her books. (Feel free to comment or message me if you are and can recommend one of her books that might go into her approach on this).

Constraints and Intentions

One of the reasons I don’t work with what I call the “standard Wiccan ritual format” is in part because those traditions tend to offer too many limitations on the shape of the ritual. I could get into orthodoxy and orthopraxy, but the idea is that when you study in a particular tradition/religion and you’re told that the ritual must be done like this, otherwise it’s not correct, that becomes a limitation on what you can and can’t do in your ritual and still call it XYZ tradition.

I take a completely different approach. I’ve mentioned it in a few articles, but basically the way I do ritual is entirely geared toward engaging the group in a trance state. I build up layer and layer of participation to get people willing to sing, move, dance. I’m concerned with trance technique, not orthodoxy.

Some traditions have a set format for how things must be done, and sometimes those things make it hard to engage a group in participation. I talk about one ritual in my book Spiritual Scents where each person was expected to sage/smudge the person next to them, one at a time. With 60 people, that ended up taking 45 minutes, just for smudging. We were all bored to tears before the ritual even started.

The energy was flatlined.

Thus, I look at traditions and expectations around ritual and I may shift things a bit to make it more ecstatic. Cakes and Ale is one I have gone after in some of my articles too; in a larger group, Cakes and Ale is (in some traditions) supposed to be the Big Divine Communion Moment. And instead, it’s this long, annoying process of passing out styrofoam cups, juice with preservatives, cookies with preservatives…not very magical. People start having side conversations while they wait for their juice and cookie–the energy diffuses.

In my ritual work, I don’t do smudging or cakes and ale, and that’s for a few reasons but one is that if it’s going to take a long time and be boring for the group, that’s not going to make it easy to sing and build energy.

Thus, one of the pieces of advice I always offer up is, look at the intention of each piece of your ritual and what it’s supposed to achieve. If you’re told to do ABC format, and the intention is building communal energy, but the ABC format doesn’t do that…perhaps your tradition needs to be updated. Perhaps a different ritual technique would better serve that intention.

Take a look at each piece of your ritual and honestly explore whether or not the ritual techniques you’re taught to use actually effect that intention.

Ritual Logistics That Impact Ecstatic Work

It’s worth mentioning that my specialty is large group ritual; I’m not always the best at small group ritual. However, in large group ritual the challenge is getting a bunch of strangers to energetically connect and be willing to sing/dance/look like a dumbass in front of strangers. In a small group, you have the advantage of intimacy and connection. As the group’s connection builds, it can become easier to do the ecstatic work because you have that relationship and you’re not worried about looking stupid while you sing, dance, etc.

I mention all that because if you want to use singing and other ecstatic/embodied techniques, people need to feel comfortable enough to do them. In our culture, most people don’t feel comfortable singing. We’re taught that only “good” singers should sing.

I get away with it in large groups because, among other things, I’m loud enough to anchor the chant and keep the melody until the group starts to feel comfortable. Plus in a group of 50+ people there’s a certain amount of anonymity.

But the other reason I get away with it and get people singing that weren’t expecting to sing is that I’ve structured my whole ritual to build people up, to help them participate more and more until they feel safer. I don’t ask them to jump in and sing a complicated chant right away, I don’t ask them to jump in and dance in the middle. I ask for them to speak a word, or sing a tone, or to move their arms or maybe sway from side to side. And then a little later, I ask for more sound, more movement, more words.

I build it up layer by layer.

There’s an axiom of facilitation (workshops, rituals, etc) that what you do in the first five minutes sets the tone. That’s true, but it’s more complex than that. If I want the group to participate (not just watch) I do have to set that up in the first five minutes. But, I also have to layer that up through the ritual. I can’t expect someone to be comfortable anchoring a chant, or go into deep ecstasis, if they’ve been standing and watching me talk for 20 minutes. People go into “audience mode” and then getting them to do anything participatory is like stirring glue.

Now…as you can tell, this topic is deeper than just getting people to sing. I’m not explaining simple concepts, so this post has gone on pretty long and we haven’t even gotten to actual singing and chanting techniques. Part 2 will do just that, and you’ll really want to read it now that you have some background information. I also go into some of the chanting and music techniques I use as a personal practice and to train my voice. Sounds simple to say, but you can’t lead chants in ritual if you haven’t prepared yourself to sing.

Part 2 tomorrow!


Filed under: Facilitation, Ritual Tagged: aspecting, chanting, dancing, drawing down, ecstasis, ecstatic ritual, invocation, Pagan, Paganism, possession, ritual, shruti box, singing, singing bowl, theology, trance possession, trance work, trancing

Aspecting, Trance Possession, and Theology

680723_xlI’ve had a few questions lately related to aspecting and trance possession, so I thought I’d do another couple of posts on the topic, specifically on how to approach aspecting/drawing down when you’re a pantheist, atheist, or generally working with deities as archetypes instead of as polytheistic gods. I also want to get into some of the ecstatic trance techniques I use and how those can be used with aspecting and drawing down.


I wrote a longer series of posts for HumanisticPaganism.com on my general approach to deity and archetype in ritual. I wrote the Pantheism, Archetype, and Deities in Ritual series in response to a request from blogger John Halstead, but also in response to technical/ritual facilitation concerns I had from this article on the Atheopaganism site. My issues aren’t with the theology of the author–they’re with the ritual techniques that work to get people into “the zone.”

But the post does bring up the struggle of working with deities as myths and archetypes when you have an atheistic/humanistic view, because it’s a challenge.

How do you work with these in rituals, how do you still have a powerful ritual, without betraying your theological and philosophical beliefs?

If you want more of a background on my theological approach to ritual, here are links to the whole series of posts. Part 3 goes specifically into my approach on aspecting and trance possession when we’re talking pantheistic archetypes vs. polytheistic deities, but I’ll repeat a bunch of it here in an abbreviated form for context.

I’m a pantheist/archetypist. I’m barely a theist; I have had mystic communion experience with the divine, and specifically, with deity forms, but I see these very much as masks/filters/lenses through which I’m connecting to that larger/incomprehensible whole. I see the archetypes/deities/heroes as stories with a certain amount of invested energetic power. As part of that larger whole. I can’t quite call myself an atheist.

When I teach ritual facilitation, I almost exclusively focus on logistics and techniques. I use ecstatic techniques because they work. Singing, dancing, breathing, drumming…these evoke a trance state. It’s just science.

When I facilitate rituals, I do refer to them as gods and deities, and sometimes by name if we’re working with a particular story, but I usually make it clear before the ritual starts that I don’t really care what someone’s theology is. People can join my rituals if they are polytheists and believe in them as distinct gods, if they are pantheists, if they are atheists who just see them as archetypes. I’m still going to use the word gods for ease of use.

Well–unless it’s a hero story like King Arthur, etc. But in almost all other cases, I’m comfortable using the language of myth and deity because it’s effective. For me, it’s important to let people know that I’m not really trying to teach theology. When I lead a ritual, I’m just trying to get people to “the door,” as it were. I’m not there to tell them what’s past the door, what it looks like. I’m not there to preach my own theology. I’m just trying to help them get to a state of consciousness where they can have a potent experience.

There are several terms for the function of invocation, and they have slightly different nuances. There’s drawing down or invoking, there’s trance possession, and there’s aspecting. Aspecting is a term more often used by Reclaiming, and some other traditions. Aspecting holds the connotation that the human aspecting the deity is in control of the process, and that they aren’t being fully 100% possessed. Whereas trance possession holds the opposite connotation, that the human being the “vessel” or doing the “horsing” is blacking out and not going to remember what the deity did while in their body.

There’s another word I sometimes use, “Embodying,” which is a lighter version of aspecting. I use this when I mean that someone is either doing a light aspect of a deity, or even just speaking (in first person) in the voice of the deity. And, this is something I do for deities (like Hephaestus or Brigid) or more gender-neutral archetypes (The Worker at the Forge) or for hero/story characters (King Arthur, the Lady of the Lake, Merlin).

Terminology is difficult. Even the word “invoking” has different meanings depending upon tradition. The way I learned it through Reclaiming and Diana’s Grove, “invoking” just meant “inviting that spirit/deity/energy into the ritual space” vs. horsing the deity/spirit in someone’s body. We called that aspecting.

Let’s Pretend

The Atheopaganism article offers the idea that atheist Pagans would make it clear that, even if they’re talking about a particular god or goddess, that they make it clear that it’s “just pretend.” My issue with the idea of clearly stating that we’re just pretending is that rituals, and in specific, engaging the trance state, doesn’t work very well with this. You’ll lose a lot of your ritual power if you keep reminding people they are pretending.

One of the most powerful pieces of ritual technique is engaging a trance state, and if you keep reminding people that this is all pretend, you’re going to keep yanking them up out of it.

There’s a ritual axiom I use; don’t use transitions like, “And now we’re gonna raise energy,” or, “And now we’re gonna talk to the mask of god that isn’t a real god, just a mask,” or something else that takes people out of the groove. I personally think that it’s sufficient to lay my own theology out on the table before I facilitate and empower people to make their own choices about how they work with gods/archetypes.

The anthropomorphization of deity, and connecting to those huge forces via a proxy/mask in ritual is incredibly potent. It’s why we have statues and paintings and shrines to deities. It’s why we have ritual theater, it’s why we have aspecting and drawing down in ritual. The science of it is in trance work. When you close your eyes and imagine an experience, your mind can make that experience very real. Hypnotherapists can use this to help people re-imagine and re-remember an old painful memory but with a different outcome. It’s transformative.

Chanting, Trancing, and Ecstatic Techniques

One of the reasons it’s important to work with what gets us into trance, and to not fuss so much about whether or not it’s “real,” is because it’s difficult enough to engage the trance state. If you’re trying to work with a deity or archetype in a ritual and trying to get the group to buy into the concept, if you keep yanking them back, no amount of ecstatic techniques will work because everyone’s going to be self conscious.

One of the major paradoxes of ecstatic ritual is, getting people singing and dancing is one of the most effective ritual techniques. And, it’s one of the most difficult techniques to effect, largely because modern people are so self conscious.

And if you’re trying to use singing and chanting in order to get someone trance possessed/drawing down/aspecting, and you keep pointing out that we’re “just pretending,” you’re going to shoot yourself in the foot.

But what if you want to use some of those techniques for aspecting work? How do you do that? What techniques will work?

I’ll go more into using singing and chanting, and other ecstatic techniques in aspecting in my next post, because that’s a complicated topic all its own.

Filed under: Facilitation, Leadership, Ritual Tagged: aspecting, chanting, deity, drawing down, invocation, Pagan, ritual, trance, trance state, trancework, trancing

Do You Have a Spell for That?

shutterstock_101395927 [Converted]I get asked a lot of interesting questions when I travel and teach, or from people on social media; often, they are people I don’t really know all that well. Though I primarily teach leadership and facilitation skills, people often ask me, “Do you have a spell for that?” I’ve also seen people post rants on Facebook about some of the–for lack of better words–sloppy tendencies of many Pagans to take shortcuts. Both of these in many ways tie into some of the bad habits many people fall into when facilitating rituals, as well as issues of personal and spiritual growth. Often these are what I can classify as beginner mistakes, but they aren’t mistakes limited to people new to Paganism.

Out of the Box

I’ve seen a few rants on how modern Pagans just copy and past rituals and spells from the internet or books, vs. doing any personal work. My first thought on this is that using rituals “out of the box” (and by that I mean rituals they found online or in a book, or even that they learned from a mentor) can be a great way to start. It helps people gain familiarity with the structure of ritual by having an example to try out.

The problem comes in when people take it dogmatically–and that’s an unfortunate tendency people have, even when they are Pagans who have converted from more dogmatic faiths. People are often looking for rules and guidance and “Do it like this and it will work” sureties. I hear that all the time as a subtext when Pagans are asking me about spellwork. “And if I use this color candle, it’ll work, right?” or “What if I don’t have that exact oil?” “I need a sure-fire spell for ___, what do you have?”

In my opinion, many “out of the box” spells don’t work work because people don’t know how magic works. “What’s a spell you use for shielding,” or, “I need a spell for ___, do you have one?”

I don’t believe that physical spellwork (using oils, incense, candles, or herbs) works dogmatically. Nor do I believe that if you recite the spell exactly and perfectly it’ll work. I also am not a polytheist, I’m a pantheist. I don’t believe the gods or spirits grant wishes if you are in their favor (and ignore them if you aren’t in their favor).

A lot of people treat spellwork like it’s some kind of recipe that, faithfully followed, will instantly deliver the results you want without any additional work on your part.

That’s the kind of spellwork that you typically see on shows like Supernatural. Burn the right concoction, trace the correct sigil, and say the exactly correct words, and your spell will work. Well…works great as a system of rules for a fantasy TV show, but real life is messier than that. I mean–don’t get me wrong, I also write paranormal romance novels, so I occasionally use the flashy magic like that in my books. But I try to keep really clear on what’s fantasy, and what kind of magic is actually going to help someone in the real world.

So yeah; I think spells and rituals that you find in books or online, or even things that are passed down from your family or other oral tradition, are a great place to start. They can be a framework, training wheels. But that doesn’t mean if you do everything “right” it’ll work.

Now–this also doesn’t mean that you have to reinvent every spell, every ritual, each time. There is an inherent value in repetition. In fact, that’s one of the root meanings of the word “ritual.” But I’ll get to that in a bit.

Ritual Repeat

Sometimes having a ritual outline or script to work from is really helpful to start with. It lets you know what you’re supposed to do and when you’re supposed to do it, and offers up some sample words and phrases. The problem is that a ritual on paper is really different from a ritual with an actual group of people. I write about this particular ritual logistic all the time; most Wiccanate traditions (traditions that come out of or borrow pieces from Wicca) use Cakes and Ale in the ritual. These rituals are typically written assuming a small coven.

However, when a group is asked to put on a larger public ritual at something like a Pagan Pride, something that worked well for 15 people causes a major traffic jam for 100 people. Cakes and Ale can be a beautiful sharing for ten or twenty or even thirty folks. For those big public rituals it usually becomes a train wreck of logistics.

This is why I often stress being aware from dogma. Or more specifically, orthodoxy and orthopraxy…that is to say, being hidebound to documents or practices. If you facilitate rituals from the “It must be done this way!” perspective, then you will often end up failing to meet the actual intention of that part of ritual. Just because you’re doing it the way you read it or it was taught to you doesn’t mean you’ll achieve the spiritual goal of that piece.

What’s the intention of Cakes and Ale? Is there a better way to achieve that intention when you have a hundred-plus people? Just because the ritual in the book says that each person must, one at a time, take the cake and the ale, does that mean it’s a good idea to do it this way?

Pre-written rituals are a great guide, but I always caution people to not get hung up on the logistics. Sometimes, there’s a reason something must be done a certain way. Other times, it’s just that the writer was writing out the ritual with a specific assumption, such as you’d only be doing this in a coven of thirteen people. There are definitely times when spells and rituals need to be adapted. I think a lot of the skillset of moving into advanced work is being able to discern when this is the case.

Scripted Ritual

I have a whole soapbox about scripted rituals, and I’ve written a few articles on it already so I won’t rehash too much of that; I’ve written a few articles on the topic that appear in Circle Magazine, and also are collected in my Ritual Facilitation book. I think in some cases, the poetry of a pre-written ritual can have some magic, but only if the people facilitating that ritual have bardic/theatrical training. The reason is that the words written by the ritual writer might be authentically magical for them…but, generally most people offering a ritual will be able to more authentically connect to their own power/magic/juice by putting things into their own words vs. trying to memorize someone else’s.

The rituals I offer are typically extemporaneous, meaning each ritual facilitator internalizes the piece of the ritual they are facilitating and puts it into their own words based upon their experiences. This essentially forces each facilitator to go deep and do their own personal work to develop a relationship with an element, a deity, or whatever piece/facet of the ritual they are working with.

And it takes time to develop that relationship, just as it takes time to develop the public speaking skills to do a good job leading a group ritual.

Keeping the Pattern

There are definitely times when keeping the pattern of the ritual helps make the ritual more successful. Whether we’re talking about a spell or ritual that has been handed down in a particular tradition or through your family line, or something that has emerged through a festival community, or through another vehicle of tradition, sometimes the specific form of the ritual itself is part of the magic. Or, some of the logistics are what help make the ritual work.

There is absolutely power in repetition.

One way this works is just our consciousness, our brains. There’s a reason the word ritual is synonymous with “repetitive/rote,” because when we do something over and over, it automatically puts us into the right state of consciousness. That’s just science.

An example: At Diana’s Grove and in the Reclaiming tradition, many people use the middle-eastern frame drum to facilitate trance journeys. Specifically, a rhythm in 8 (1-2-3 1-2-3 1-2) played softly. Or, for you trance drummers, Doum Tik Tik Ka Tik Tik Ka Tik….You can watch a room full of people drop right into trance when that rhythm starts because they’ve entrained their consciousnesses that it works. Ritual, repetition, our brain likes it.

Added to that is the group mind; when something works for a majority of the group, there’s a sort of “hive mind” thing that happens and a newer, less experienced person will go into the flow. So if that tradition has been working together for 10 years, or 40 years, or however long, the newer person will have the benefit of that group response.

Another power of repeated work like that is that it does (typically) work to help each individual practitioner to build up their relationship with the aspects of that working. I think that any working becomes deeper once people understand it and its parts, vs. learning it by rote.

The green candle means nothing without understanding what it means on a more than intellectual level, an emotional level. When you’re doing an elemental invocation, you’re going to have more juice when you actually have a relationship with that element, vs. just lighting the sacred candle and speaking the handed-down pre-scripted words that don’t mean much to you.

That’s not to say there isn’t power in often-repeated words. I use a heck of a lot of repeated phrases in my own rituals, usually with chanting. There is power in the poetry of repeated phrases, chants, and songs. Mantras, or the Lord’s Prayer, or popular Pagan chants, or even sayings like “Blessed Be” or “So Mote It Be” or “Merry Meet, Merry Part, and Merry Meet Again.” The rhythm of the words, the repetition, serves the entrainment function of our brains, but it also will go deeper as we understand what the words/poetry/song mean for ourselves and our own relationship with ____, whatever ___ is. Elements, gods, the divine, spirits, etc.


Why Didn’t It Work?

Most magic has nothing to do with the wand, the athame, the incense, or the color of candle. It’s all about our own consciousness and internal work. The tools help get us into the state of consciousness that helps us to do the magic, but we still have work to do after that. In fact, a lot of my issue with people who are looking around for spells is that they are, in fact, looking to outsource their power. I find a lot of people out there feel completely overwhelmed and powerless in their own lives, and what they want out of Paganism, Witchcraft, and the Occult is the Phenomenal Cosmic Power to…take your pick. Get revenge, get out of an abusive relationship, make more money, make someone fall in love with them.

But, I think that’s why people naturally gravitate to those pre-written spells online or in books, and why it’s far easier to sell a 101-level book than the more advanced stuff. The more advanced spellwork and ritual work requires discernment, personal work, engaging our shadows, and adapting and negotiating work to tell the difference between, is this tradition a useful element, or is this dogma that doesn’t serve what we’re doing?






Filed under: Facilitation, Ritual Tagged: magic, repetition, ritual, spells

Ritual Facilitation: Designing Processes

120cover300The most current issue of Circle Magazine is themed entirely on rituals. It’s a great read with lots of tips and tools for ritual facilitators. My own article, Ritual Facilitation: Designing Impactful Rituals, ended up being way too long for the magazine, and so I pulled out a section of it and just created an entire article from that piece. Thus, this article will perhaps have more context if you read the article in the magazine. Below I focus on the specifics of designing processes and how this connects to the design of ritual.

In many of my articles on ritual facilitation I talk about designing rituals rather than writing them; design means to plan. I also talk a lot about the flow of rituals and how each piece of a ritual layers and prepares people for the next piece. What might surprise you is that some of my own background as a web designer and usability consultant impacts how I approach designing rituals.

Process and Space Design
Let’s assume you’ve got a ritual planned, but you are looking at a few complicated logistics. Or, let’s say you’re taking a big step back from how you usually do rituals and rethinking things to try and make your rituals more accessible, more impactful, or just more effective.

There are some secular processes that can help to give you some good examples of understanding how process, flow, and the space where the ritual takes place, all impact each participant’s experience of the ritual. While you might not think that these secular processes have much to do with ritual, it’s important to remember that processes are pretty universal. We humans are going to engage in processes in similar ways whether they are religious are secular. And if you understand processes of any kind, you’ll be a better ritual designer.

This might seem a bit nerdy, but trust me–this will help you design better rituals.

Going To the Store
Think about the last time you went to a larger store like a grocery store or department store. In many stores there is an open space near the entrance. Store designers often refer to this as a “landing zone.” What designers and anthropologists have found in observing people in stores is that people often like to stop and orient themselves when entering a large store. Stores that are too crowded in the entrance way make this difficult, and people feel uncomfortable, even though they can’t necessarily articulate why.

Similarly, stores that try to pack the aisles in too tight also make people feel vaguely uncomfortable. Stores that have plenty of space between aisles make people feel more comfortable. Often store owners will try to cram as many products into the space as they can, but the truth is that when people feel more comfortable, they stay longer and buy more.

I can think of one store where the underwear and sock aisles are all packed so close together that I can barely walk through them. I hate shopping there; that vague sense of discomfort is enough to make me avoid shopping at that store, even if they have good sales on products I need.

While rituals don’t have aisles packed with products for sale, what’s important is to note that the design of the space, the shape of the room, whether or not there are enough chairs, or other aspects of the design of the process of the ritual itself can make people uncomfortable. It’s not about dealing with difficult subject matter, it’s a matter of logistics. Can people sit if they need to? Are there enough chairs? Is the room cramped?

I often shop at thrift stores, but one of the significant challenges that I face is the perfumey smell of the store. All the clothes in the store seem doused in perfume and cologne, which makes my face itch. I’m pretty sensitive to scent. Thrift stores are the only place I can buy frames for my artwork, so I suffer through it, but it’s another example of how something uncomfortable can totally transform someone’s experience.

Do your rituals use a lot of scent? Are you burning sage or other things that people might be allergic to?

In essence, what we’re looking at here are the things that make people uncomfortable. Observing people and how people behave can give you a lot of clues. What is particularly useful in observing processes is finding out key points of pain and irritation. If people aren’t comfortable, they won’t shop at your store, or attend your rituals.

Discomfort and Challenge
I should note that there’s a difference between designing a ritual where you ask uncomfortable questions–such as shadow work–and a ritual where people are uncomfortable because they are standing around bored for a half hour or more in the cold waiting for their turn at an altar. Or a ritual where people are stumbling around in the darkness trying to find their way to the ritual area. Or one of my personal pet peeves, trying to find my way to a ritual or festival at a park shelter when there were vague directions posted, and there is no signage.

In essence, if you want to take people into a deep, spiritual place, you have to know how people work.

Nobody’s going to be relaxed enough to go into a trance state, or trust you to take them on an Underworld journey, if they got lost trying to find your event, if there wasn’t appropriate signage, if the event space is uncomfortable, or if the design of the ritual itself leads to a lot of boring standing around.

Expectations in Process
Why, after all these years, do I still use the Four Elements in rituals I facilitate? Even though I’m a pantheist and I don’t believe in them as actual spirits? Why do I do something that looks like a circle casting, even though I don’t think of it as a magical barrier? Basically, because most Pagans are familiar with Wiccanate (Wicca-like) traditions and expect it.

Now—I’m not saying this is always the way to go, and I may at some point be changing some of my own ritual approach to less resemble Wicca. But it’s part of why I’ve stuck with the common ritual progression of grounding, circle casting, elements, deities, and storytelling/trancework/working.

Because it’s familiar. Familiarity is comforting, and it’s an important part of designing processes.

I’d say a lot of ritual design is balancing the repetition of tradition, which makes people feel comfortable and safe, and adapting or redesigning a tradition when a change would serve the group better.

Think about some of these secular processes you may have engaged in.

  • Pumping the gas at a gas station
  • Calling someone on the phone
  • Ordering a book online
  • Reading a book

You probably don’t think much about these processes. You’re on autopilot. Why? They are systems that you understand. They are habitual, you don’t need to think about them. And yet, any one of these processes was once new. And these processes change.

Once upon a time, you pumped your gas and then paid for it at the store. These days, most gas stations require prepay. This disrupted the system and people had to get used to the change, but now it’s become rote. This is an example of changing a part of the process, but in a way that integrated with the existing process.

Tip: If you’re changing a process in your rituals, make it as seamless as possible and give people a reason to do it so they don’t get irked. People paying for gas at the pump save time by not having to stand in line at the register. Though people are often made uncomfortable when a process changes, and even resist it, if the new process is more efficient, people will be more willing to adopt it. An example might be changing how you smudge people, or changing how you facilitate Cakes and Ale, to make it go more smoothly and not take 45 minutes.

Calling someone on the phone was once a new thing. Then people understood it and became comfortable with it. Now, more and more people would rather text someone than call them. On the other hand, online systems like Google Phone and Skype are best served when they emulate the phone model, even though they don’t need to. Why? Because people are comfortable with the phone and know how it works.

Tip: If you’re designing a new process in your rituals, make it resemble an old process that people are already comfortable with. An example is if people are in line for some aspect of a ritual, and you want more than one person at a time to come up to an altar or a shrine, you can still have people line up; that’s easy, people automatically do that. You’ll just have to overtly invite three or four people to come forward at a time. People will catch on.

Ordering a book online is something you couldn’t do before the internet. Designers (like me) spent agonizing hours trying to design shopping processes (and other online applications) that were easy to use. Many of the early web sites had staggering percentages of people who “bailed” from the purchase process because the process was too difficult to complete. There were a lot of problems, but one consistent problem with any interface (software, website, airport signage) is the failure to communicate to the end user what they are supposed to do to successfully complete the task.

There are still websites that fail to design an interface that is easy to navigate for their users, but the sites that do it well employ a technique called the shopping cart tunnel. That is, the online shopping cart has as few distractions as possible and makes it very clear what the next steps are. If those steps are unclear, or typing in your payment information is frustrating, you’ll bail from the process.

You can see similar frustration if you’re at an airport or bus station and the signage is poor. Walking back and forth with heavy luggage when you aren’t sure where to go is very frustrating, and could be solved with better signage. In essence, better communication.

Tip: If there’s anything about your process that is unclear or confusing, it’s going to frustrate your attendees. Look at your rituals with a critical eye, and watch people. Are there parts of your ritual where people are bored, frustrated, or confused? I’ve been to many rituals where the ritual leaders clearly expected the participants to do something, but never told the participants what they wanted them to do or how to do it. Or, there was too much going on and the participants were confused? Look for these parts of your process; if you’ve ever had a ritual train wreck where the ritual went way off plan and people seemed confused, you need to improve your communication and setup of how the participants can successfully complete that part of the process.

An example is a ritual where cups were passed out and filled with water; people weren’t sure whether they were supposed to drink it right then, or wait for everyone, or do something else. They weren’t told. Another example is a very performance-heavy ritual was led by someone who began singing. The ritual leader got frustrated when people didn’t join in singing the chant/song, but she hadn’t asked them to. Another example was when a ritual team started dancing in the center of the circle of participants, and participants looked at each other wondering if they were supposed to dance too or if they were supposed to watch. They had not been overtly invited to dance, so they were kind of waiting and watching, unsure if they should join in.

People’s desire to not look stupid in front of others is a driving motivation you can count on every time. Ritual processes, therefore, should clearly communicate what people are being asked to do so that the attendees don’t need to wonder, and work to make any participation safe to join into.

Reading a book is a fairly intuitive process. Pick up the book, open it, read the page, turn the page. You observe people doing this at a pretty young age so we don’t even really have to be taught how to do this. Now we have ebooks, which were considered a disruptive technology. This means a technology that it disrupts the way things were done before. Many folks are resistant to the idea of ebooks because they find technology confusing, or because they like how “real” books feel.

One way that designers have overcome some of the resistance to ebooks is by designing them to—as much as possible—resemble physical books. Most tablet ereaders are book-size and book-shaped. They have functionality so that you can flip the page in a similar way to how you would with a physical book. They work to make the new technology as easy to use as the physical book, and that’s one reason why so many have adopted reading ebooks.

Tip: Try to make your ritual processes be so intuitive that participants don’t need to think about what to do. I once was part of a ritual exercise where people were supposed to walk the path of a large pentacle painted on a dropcloth on the floor. They were supposed to remember the names of the five pentacle points and walk them in order, but the concept had been really quickly introduced and the attendees were having trouble remembering the points. So, instead what one facilitator did was get the whole group of people chanting the five points one after each other. It was themed after the Iron Pentacle, so the points were Sex, Pride, Self, Power, Passion.

The other facilitator was visibly frustrated that people weren’t calling out the points in the “right” order and the exercise wasn’t going the way they had originally envisioned, but the setup was poor and people were initially incredibly confused.

Nobody is going to get much out of your ritual if they are unsure of what to do and are confused and frustrated. The adapted process leaned on things that people knew how to do–participants were ready and willing to chant along with the facilitator, and once people walking the pentacle knew what point they were on (because the group was chanting it) they felt better about the exercise.

If you have a complicated exercise or logistic that’s part of your ritual, you must clearly communicate what needs to happen (and ensure everyone’s got it) before the ritual starts. In fact, you should probably practice it. You should also have a backup plan for how to make the exercise simpler if people aren’t doing it the way you envisioned during the ritual.

Some aspects of human behavior just naturally cause bottlenecks or long, and I’d say that bottlenecks are perhaps one of the biggest challenges. Here are some examples:

Everyone is sitting together in a circle. A ritualist asks for each people to pass a stone from one person to the next, and when they are the one holding the stone, to speak about their experiences in the trance. No time limit is given or suggested, and the first person to speak talks for two minutes. The entire ritual lasts more than three hours, long past when people expected to be able to go home, but people stay because it would be rude to leave.

During a ritual each person is invited to visit one of three altars/shrines. The first person to go to the shrine takes about a minute, and people line up behind her. People politely wait their turns but this stretches into being in line for an hour. There’s an axiom that the first person to do the thing sets the tone, and they also set the expected time limit. If your first person to smudge themselves, to go to a deity at an altar, to speak an intention, or any other activity…if they take a long time, each person after them will take about that long. Stack the deck by ensuring the first person does the logistic quickly. Stack the deck further by suggesting that each person should speak just a few words or a sentence, or state about how long each person has to talk/experience in order to ensure each person there has enough time.

During a ritual, people are asked to pass through a birthing/creation gate where the Crones of the community greet them. The Crones begin to hug each person who comes through the gate. Then each Crone hugs each person through the gate. There are 200 people in line at the gate, and what was intended to be a quick influx of several hundred people through a gate where the Crones waved at them and wished them well becomes a receiving line that lasted thirty minutes. I asked one of my ritualist team members to ask the Crones to stop hugging each person, and the Crones flatly refused to stop. Another axiom of processes is that once a process gets going, it’s ludicrously difficult to stop it.

During a ritual, people are asked to cut strands of yarn on a scythe. The strands are red and symbolize something they wish to sever from their lives, something they wish to release. Unfortunately, most people don’t know intuitively which end of a scythe is sharp. (Hint: It’s the bottom/inside, not the top.) So the shrouded figure of Death holding the scythe, instead of being an imposing, silent presence, has to show people how to cut their strand.

Observing Processes
One of the very best things you can do as a ritualist is observe processes. Observe secular processes and what makes people frustrated…but also observe your own rituals, or the rituals of others, and look for the points of pain.

What frustrates people? Getting lost, poor customer service, uncomfortable chairs or the lack of enough chairs, rooms that are too hot or too cold, lines that are too long. I know I get frustrated when I’m given options that don’t make any sense, like when I’m doing my taxes. And then I think about rituals I’ve been to where I was equally unclear what I was supposed to be doing.

Once you begin to get a stronger sense of what is frustrating for people, you can begin to design and adapt processes in your rituals that work better for people. Always go with the flow when you can; people have natural patterns they will follow. If you know what those patterns are, you can predict what people in your ritual will do.

CircleMagazine_RitualAn example: At the recent Paganicon I led the main ritual. There were 150-200 people in a large ballroom, and there were five altars/shrines. People could journey to any one of the five separate altars/shrines to do a specific working in the Underworld. I knew from experience that there was one altar that was likely to be the most popular, and thus, a bottleneck.

I just didn’t know which altar it would be.

It turned out to be the altar where people were cutting away the thread of what no longer served. I only had one sharp knife to use, and people were taking a long time to choose their strand, to step forward, to consider their strand and what it meant, and then cut it, and let it fall away.

When I noticed that everyone else was done at the altars and the Cutting Away altar had about twenty people left in line, I was able to quickly expedite the process. I asked one of the altar facilitators to take the bowl of red ribbons down the line and get everyone to choose their red ribbon and charge it up. Then, I took up the knife myself, and walked to each person in turn. I looked into their eyes and said, “What do you cut away? What no longer serves you?”

I was able to, in the span of about a minute, help everyone cut their ribbon. If I’d just let it go on as it was, it would have taken another 10 minutes.

After, people still took time at the altar to consider what they were cutting away, but I was able to begin to transition the rest of the group into the next phase of the ritual. The process of the line was predictable, and if you as a facilitator know that a bottleneck like that can happen, you can expedite the process. In fact, you can do it far more subtly than I did it if you do it early on. If I had established up front that one facilitator at the altar would pass out the red ribbons, and one facilitator would cut the threads, the line wouldn’t have gotten that long in the first place, and that’s definitely how I’ll be facilitating it in the future. Better yet, have two or more knives, so long as I have enough trusted facilitators to keep track of the sharp objects.

Observe your rituals and what works and what doesn’t work, observe the processes that aren’t succeeding, and you can begin to work to shift them. I have been leading public rituals for years and I still learn a lot by observing ritual processes and what works and doesn’t work.

Filed under: Facilitation, Pagan Community, Ritual Tagged: Pagan, Pagan community, paganicon, ritual, ritual facilitation

Warding and Safety in Ritual: Video

At Pantheacon, I was invited to be part of a panel on warding and ritual safety. I blogged about my thoughts on the topic, but here’s the video of the panel discussion at Pantheacon. It includes everything except the Q&A at the end. So…feel free to ask questions here if you like :)

Filed under: Ritual Tagged: facilitation, Pagan, Paganism, pantheacon, ritual, ritualist, safety, warding

Ritual Technique: Trance, Chant, and Cantillation

889785_xlI’ve been on the road for about two weeks, and I have about a dozen blog post ideas swirling in my brain, but I thought I’d ease in with a ritual technique, since this is something I use frequently when I teach and lead rituals and lots of people ask me about it. My pet name for the technique is the Trance Hammer, since I came up with it during a Brigid-themed event.

First, a bit of background. The word “Trance” in ritual is often used to mean different things. In Reclaiming (and related) rituals, “the trance” is what people call the guided meditation part of the ritual, usually in the middle of the rite. The word meditation isn’t used because Reclaiming, Diana’s Grove, and some other traditions use what’s called dual voice trance. I’ve also heard it called open language trance. The difference is primarily this:

  • A guided meditation tells you what you are thinking, seeing, and feeling
  • Open language trance asks you what you are thinking, seeing, feeling, experiencing, hearing, smelling, etc.


  • A guided meditation is usually one voice reciting a script
  • Dual voice trance often uses one or more voices layered over one another, plus rhythmic assistance like frame drumming, singing bowls, didgeridoo, etc.

Trance and Meditation
The word trance, and meditation, are both problematic when we are talking about ritual technique because of varying connotations and meanings. That’s why I typically use the word “trance” to refer specifically to “the trance state,” which is a state of consciousness, and I use the words “trance journey” to refer to a dual voice, open language trance. Trance journey/guided meditation fulfill the same function in a ritual insofar as giving someone a guided inner experience.

A trance journey sits between a shamanic journey and a meditation; some vocal guidance is offered, but the journey asks questions to help someone create their own experience vs. telling them what everything looks like and how they should feel about that. A shamanic journey typically is just drumming with no vocal guidance.

Meditation and trance are often used interchangeably as well. People refer to “meditating” when what they mean is “achieving the trance state.” I won’t get too much into the nerdery, but getting “into trance” usually means moving your brain from Beta waves (consciousness) to Alpha waves (daydream) and then Theta waves (deeper trance state).

The word meditation, used on its own, often has the connotation of stillness meditation, za zen, empty mind. A lot of people tell me, “I can’t meditate,” because they experience the hamsterwheeling/chattering brain. Here’s a secret: So do a lot of experienced meditators! However, there are a lot of different ways to meditate, including walking, art-making, singing. Rhythmic activities work well. What works for your teacher won’t always work for you. If you are really bouncy and leg jiggly, stillness meditation isn’t going to work so well, but dancing might.

Engaging the Trance State
Let’s get back to trance journeys and the trance state. There are many different ways to get into a trance state; stillness works for some, singing for others, moving, dancing, weaving, jewelry making, staring at a candle flame…lots of roads there. But overall, there are two paths to a trance state; ergotropic and trophotropic. Which are nerdy neuroscience terms for trance through sensory deprivation, and trance through over stimulation.

In my experience, most Americans tend to respond better to an over stimulation trance. Hence, my Trance Hammer technique.

I came up with this technique when I was asked to offer something during a book launch event at Life Force Arts Center. While I wasn’t one of the authors in the Brigit: Sun of Womanhood anthology, I was local to Chicago and Joan Forest Mage asked if I’d be interested in offering something to help round out their book launch’s program of presentations. I offered to read a devotional poem to Brigid, but I also offered to get people chanting and build up a little energy.

Brigid does like the creative fire of voices singing together!

However, I faced a challenge. I design rituals to engage people in a trance state right from the beginning, deepening it with every layer. With the book launch, there was going to be almost two hours of programming that wasn’t necessarily engaging the trance state. I was at the very end and by then, a lot of people would tired of sitting, some might possibly even be a little bored, and certainly the group wouldn’t not ready to engage with singing and raising energy.

It takes a lot of work to get a group to feel comfortable participating.

Dual Voice Without a Partner
I had come up with a modified way of offering dual-voiced trance for when I travel and teach. See, the dual voice technique works best when you have at least one skilled trance partner. You learn each other’s rhythms and you get used to speaking over one another. That’s crucial for that trance technique, that two voices are speaking at the same time. Or more voices; a dual voice trance could have three or five or six or however many voices are needed. For a ritual of 500 people you’ll want at least five voices, perhaps more.

Not having a trance partner when I travel and offer workshops, or when I lead rituals at festivals, I had to adapt. I borrowed from a teaching exercise that I first learned in Reclaiming classes where four people would be asked to stand back-to-back in the center of the circle. They were each asked to choose an element, to close their eyes, and begin to rhythmically speak wisdom from that element. This is a great intro to trance technique, and it’s low-risk for people who are afraid of public speaking because 1. there are multiple voices, and 2. you can close your eyes.

In fact, I recommend this exercise on its own for shy, emerging public speakers looking to take on ritual roles.

So what I had been doing when I traveled is getting three or four volunteers to stand back to back and do this. Sometimes I had them speak the wisdom of the elements, sometimes I’d pick a few rhythmic words based upon the theme of the ritual, sometimes I’d give them a theme to work with that wasn’t elemental. I might have one person do the common Tree of Life meditation (roots down into the earth, branches up to the sky) while another one spoke of Lammas and harvest, and yet another spoke of sacrifice, of what we let go of.

While those four in the center are speaking all at once, I would lead the “plot arc” of the trance journey. I’d tell the story and lead people to the place where we did the thing, whatever that thing was in that particular ritual. It didn’t really matter if people can’t hear all the voices, or if the voices aren’t speaking the exact “right” words. What the multiple voices are doing is engaging the deep subconscious.

Trance Hammer
For that first Trance Hammer, I enlisted four volunteers. Each one would speak to one of Brigid’s triple fires, and one to her sacred well. I gave them a few starter words and had them stand in the center. I had the lights dimmed, and I invited everyone to stand up in a circular shape around the four in the center, and I got them to sing a tone/rolling OM while the four in the center were speaking.

I then sang my Brigid poem in cantillation style over all of that.

Cantillation is basically the technique you hear in Catholic mass or Eastern Orthodox where the priest is sing-songing the liturgy. Or even more potent, the priest sings a phrase and a choir sings it back to them. It’s usually singing the words of a liturgy in a rhythmic way and with just two or three notes; this doesn’t require a complex melody that you have to memorize.

In this case, singing the poem took me maybe three minutes, but that’s all it took to get everyone into a light trance state. As someone told me later, “I was trying to listen to the four in the center, and I was trying to listen to what you were singing, but I was trying to keep singing the tone, and I went to this far out place.”

When I was finished singing the poem, I allowed my voice to fall to silence, and then I brought the four in the center to silence, and then the tone fell away. In that moment, I asked everyone to take a breath, I spoke a few words to give them a chance to catch their breath, and then I asked everyone to join me in a chant to connect to the energies of Brigid, whether they thought of her as a Goddess, a saint, or just a story.

Everyone joined willingly into that chant in a way they wouldn’t have if the lights had been bright and they’d just been sitting there listening to readings for two hours. Even really engaging readings will still put a group into passive/audience mode, vs. active/participant mode, so I had to help them switch gears.

Using This in Ritual
I now use this technique all the time in ritual. Typically I do it as the Center/World Tree invocation after people call the elements. It makes a perfect transition into the trance journey portion of the ritual.

This technique works through overstimulation. What you need to pull it off are:

  • Four people willing to stand in the center and speak loud enough to be heard over the toning
  • One or two people to anchor the toning
  • At least 10 people (15-20 is better) in the remaining group to keep the tone rolling
  • One strong singer with a voice strong enough to sing over what everyone else is doing

There are, of course, ways to modify the technique depending on what your group has. Things to note that have surprised me when I’ve facilitated this: If your group has a lot of smokers, you’ll need more people to anchor the rolling tone. I did this technique in a class of about fifteen people, many who were heavy smokers, and they had a hard time keeping the tone going. Yet, you also need to ensure that the tone isn’t at such a loud volume that you can’t sing over it or hear the four voices in the center.

Also, you’ll need to work with the people in the center so that they know what an appropriate volume is; sometimes they will speak in such a soft whisper nobody can hear them, which defeats the purpose of the technique.

I realize that writing about this technique without the ability to demonstrate it might make this seem a little tricky, however, if you have a group of at least 15-20, you can try it out as a practice session and see how it goes. If you have a group of 10, you can try it with two doing the back-to-back in the center. That leaves 7 to hold the tone, and one to sing over it.

You can also do the basics of this technique with only 2 of the three parts. You can have the whole group toning (or adding harmony to the tone) while one person sings a poem/piece of liturgy/song over that, or you can have the four people in the center speaking while one person speaks (vs. sings) the trance journey.

Pro tip: This works better indoors or in a place with good acoustics. Outside with no tree cover, the sound will disappear fast. This also works well when you have dimmed lighting and a (smokeless) fire in the center to draw people’s gaze. Fire adds an additional layer to the trance and the over stimulation since it’s adding visual and kinesthetic layers.

Comments? Questions? Let me know if you’re interested in trying this out, or if you’ve tried it out and need help with fine tuning.

Filed under: Facilitation, Ritual Tagged: meditation, Pagan, Pagan community, ritual, ritual technique, trance, trance journey

Raising the Sacred Fire: How to Build and Move Energy in Ritual

DSC01798_smallAs I’ll be teaching a number of workshops on ritual facilitation at Pantheacon, ConVocation, and Paganicon, I thought I’d offer up one of my articles on leading rituals that is included in my book, Ritual Facilitation.

I’ve also created a Facebook group with the intention of discussing and teaching techniques for leading more potent rituals. Feel free to join up if you like!

Raising the Sacred Fire:  How to Build and Move Energy in Ritual

Together we are singing, moving, dancing, chanting, and drumming around the fire in the center of the circle. The energy builds and slows then rises up again. I move the drum beat, and the drum beat moves me. We draw closer; I look into the firelit eyes of people around me and we smile as we sing. We drop the chant down to a whisper, then bring it back up again. Our song is a prayer for transformation, a prayer for our individual gifts to be transformed on Brigid’s Forge into their highest potential. I am singing for my gift, and for the gifts of everyone there. Our prayer is singing, movement, rhythm, and our shared intention. The chant moves into a tone that rises and falls like a fire at the bellows until we hold the silence together.

Have you ever worked to build ecstatic energy in rituals?

Raising energy in ritual can be a difficult function to facilitate. Many ritualists get a chant going only to find the group stops singing it as soon as that ritualist pauses to take a breath. Despite the challenges, there are some skills, tools, and processes that you can use to help build potent, transformative energy in rituals.

Facilitating ecstatic energy is the ability to sense energy and the ability to understand the logical energetic flow of any event. Having talent as a singer, drummer, musician, or dancer can help; it’s perhaps more important to have a team of people that is engaged, excited, and willing to model the energy as an example. Excitement is contagious, and if you are invested in the energy, then your participants will be more willing to buy into it and commit their energy as well.

What is energy?

While some ritualists may be gifted with the ability to see auras and energy, I’m not among them. I sense energy more kinesthetically, and I also work with energy less as a metaphysical thing, and more as the life-force cycled from our bodies. Breathing in oxygen, there’s a chemical reaction and we exhale carbon dioxide; chemical reactions release energy. I can also see energy through the physical reality of body language. So sensing energy is largely becoming observant.

Think about the last meeting or class you were at. How were people sitting? Did people look interested or bored and tired? How about the teacher or facilitator, did their voice drone on, or were they excited? Now think about a concert or sports event. How did you know if people were excited? Were people standing up and cheering or dancing? When people applauded, what did you feel inside?

Notice the environment around you and how you can sense the energy level of the group. Energy comes across in our body language, movements, actions, how we are talking, and the look in our eyes. If I’m talking to someone and they’re not looking at me, I don’t feel like they’re really interested in me. But if I go to a friend with a problem and they’re looking deeply into my eyes, I feel like they are really present and connected to me.

Ways to add energy

Here are some ways to add my energy in ritual, broken down by element.

Earth—Body, movement, dancing. Whether I’m a great dancer, or just adding my energy by swaying back and forth to the rhythm of the chant, I’m adding the energy of my body. When I move, my blood moves faster. Calories are consumed, and energy results in my body radiating heat and the energy of my physical life force.

Air—Breath, speech, chanting, singing. In ritual, I add Air when I participate by speaking aloud an intention or wish, when I lend my voice to the chant. When we sing together, we are breathing together, harmonizing our breaths and our pulses. We don’t need to be good singers to still make a sound and add the energy of our voice.

Fire—Rhythm, percussion, drumming. Drummers can add some of the intense sound and rhythm to the ritual. I can also add rhythm by clapping, stamping, snapping my fingers, or through vocal percussion and making rhythmic sounds with my mouth.

Water—Connection, intention, emotion. I can connect to the intention of the ritual within the depth of my heart, and to others in the ritual through deep, sustained eye contact or through touching hands. If I’m emotionally invested in the intention, in the community, if I’m connecting to the divine and to the divine within me, then I am adding my emotional energy to the ritual. Even if I am not physically able to move, if I’m rhythmically challenged, or not comfortable singing, I can add my energy by holding the intention in my heart.

Energy Flow

Any ritual has an energetic flow, and what happens in the first few minutes of the ritual will set the tone for later on. In the rituals I offer, which are in the ecstatic tradition taught through Reclaiming, Diana’s Grove, and other shamanic traditions, I am working to get people engaged in the ritual and inviting participation.

Here is a typical flow of a public ritual in the ecstatic, participatory style. Usually these rituals are facilitated by an ensemble team, so each piece may have more than one person leading it.

  • Marketing/promotion: Emails and flyers set the tone for the ritual theme and helps build communal trust in the ritual team.
  • Arrivals/Greeting: As people come to the space, the ritual team works to greet the participants. Ideally everything’s already set up so that we can welcome people to the space, since welcoming makes people feel more safe, and thusly, more willing to risk singing and moving later. Having social time of at least a half hour before the ritual helps people transition from interacting with traffic into ritual space.
  • Pre-Ritual Talk: This session (15 minutes or less to hold people’s attention) addresses the theme, intention, and any ritual logistics. Give people a chance to speak, even if it’s going around the circle with names, as that sets a tone of participation and helps the group move from strangers into a tribe. It’s a good time to address basic group agreements of what’s ok to do and to teach any chants so that people aren’t stumbling to learn them later. Typically I will also use the elemental model (above) to let people know how they can add their energy.
  • Gathering: Instead of beginning with smudging or similar purifications that involve a long line, Diana’s Grove uses an energetic gathering. This is somewhat a purification of sound and rhythm as well as a way to get people from individual mind into group mind. The idea is to begin at the energetic level of where the group is and take them to a more collective place. You can have the group sing a tone, or you can get people clapping and moving and singing to build up some energetic fuel for later in the ritual.
  • Grounding: As much as the gathering is energetic and group mind, grounding, in this context, is about connecting more deeply to myself, becoming more present to the divine, and connecting to the theme of the work. A typical tree grounding can work just fine, or any meditation to facilitate participants going internal to get into a sacred mindset.
  • Casting a Circle: For the rituals I offer, casting a circle is less about an energetic barrier keeping negative energies out, and more about an energetic boundary acknowledging that we are here together as a tribe. As grounding is internal, circle casting takes us out of ourselves to connect as a tribe. The circle is the edge of our tribe for the ritual, and it’s important to establish connection and safety. This is the cauldron that will hold the soup. In ecstatic participatory ritual, one or two people facilitate the circle casting but the intention is to have participants add their energy to the process. The challenge is to do an inclusive casting, or invocation, in around 2 minutes or less to keep people engaged.
  • Invoking the Elements: The elemental invocations, similarly, are an opportunity to invite participants to lend their voice, body, movement, and intention, as well as to deepen the theme. In the rituals I work in, instead of facing the direction, the elemental invoker moves into the center and facilitates a process where the whole group invokes the element. An example: “Will you join me in welcoming Air? Will you take a breath together, will you make the sound that is the wind in the trees that blows the leaves to the ground, will you move as air moves? Air is the breath of life, can you feel how the change in the air heralds the change in the seasons? Welcome Air.”
  • Center: I typically work with center as the gravity well that draws the community together. What is the reason that people came? This is another opportunity to connect the group together as a tribe, and to the center that holds us.
  • Deities, ancestors, allies: We invite in whichever deities or allies we’ll be working with in as inclusive a way as possible. What each person participates in is more potent than them watching a ritualist do something. Liturgy and poetry can be powerful, but if you want the group to add their energy later on, give them some way to participate in every piece, even if it’s just closing their eyes and imagining the ancestors.
  • Storytelling: Often the working part of the ritual begins with storytelling or some piece to add context to what we’re doing in the ritual. This piece can be longer than 2 minutes, provided people are given a chance to get comfortable.
  • Trance Journey: Storytelling often transitions into a trance journey which takes the theme of the story and move it from a story about gods and heroes into a story that we personally can interact in. Storyelling, and trance journeys, brings people’s energy internal and will require a transition if I want them to come out of trance and be active.
  • Physicalization: As much as possible, it helps to offer experiences for multiple learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc.). If the trance journey took us to a place where we connect with the fire of our personal magic, then the physicalization might be inviting people to choose a stone to represent their magic. Or it might be to have them stand and go to an altar and offer their personal magic to Brigid’s forge to be transformed. A physicalization helps integrate the ritual intention, as well as transitions people from internal to external so they are more ready to participate in the energy.
  • Energy Building: A sustained energy piece is the fuel for the magic. Often it helps to start slow and build through layering chanting, movement, harmonies, vocal percussion, drumming, and more. The ritualist team should be fully engaged; if you aren’t willing to stand up and sing, no one else will be. The energy may rise to a peak of sound and rhythm, and after there is usually a moment of silence. A typical time length for energy is 8-10 minutes; 15 minutes may be longer than many people can chant. The energy, and the ritual, should have a defined ending. People can drum and dance more after ritual.
  • Benediction: Let people know what the ritual was about, such as, “Brigid, thank you for helping us find our personal magic and transform it in your forge. May we support each other in community.” This seals the deal on the working and leads to devoking the allies and elements. Opening the circle is a last chance for the group to connect as a tribe before opening.
  • Dessert/Feast Ecstatic participatory rituals tend to not use cakes and ale within the ceremony because of the energetic lag created by a long wait for food to be passed around. Post-ritual dessert or feasting is an intentional bonding time to grow community.

Layering the energy

To build up a sustained energy, it helps to layer in voice, rhythm, and movement. As each layer builds, gently bring in another layer, as that will feel more natural to the group and they will be more likely to participate. Drummers should follow the group’s energy rather than drive the group; building it too fast and the group may “check out.” If the energy spikes up too fast you can drop the chant down to a whisper and build it back up. You can invite group participation through eye contact, beckoning, or by asking, “Will you join your movement and voice to this ritual?”

Having a team of people willing to sing and dance models what behavior is “ok” to the group and creates safety. Watch a ritual where one person starts to clap; if no one else does, they’ll stop. But if a second or third person does, then others will.

If you have some strong singers, you can use a chant with 2 parts or harmonies to add another layer of energy. A basket of rhythm instruments is another opportunity for people to add a sound.

Working the energy is a balance of letting the group drive how fast the chant builds, and pushing the energy along. The energy will plateau, and rise again when you add a layer. At first it’s hard to sense if the group’s ready to be done, or if it’s just a natural plateau where another layer will build the energy back up.

Noticing Energy

Begin to take more notice of people’s body language. Are these people willing to stand up and sing? The kinds of energy you can build in ritual will depend on your team—do you have drummers and singers? How many attendees—10 or 100? What’s the chant you are using—is it cradling, or an energy-raiser?

Observe the rituals of different groups. What happens to the energy when 40 people smudge themselves or stand in line at an altar? How long do people speak? When is it boring? When are people invigorated, willing to sing or participate? When are glazed over?

While the skillset of building ecstatic energy in ritual takes time and practice, these tools should offer a way to frame ritual in terms of energy and begin to build techniques into your own rituals. With practice, you can raise the sacred fire of ecstatic energy in your rituals.


This article was first published in Circle Magazine Issue 105, Sacred Fire and also appears in Stepping Into Ourselves: An Anthology of Priestessing. It is also one of the articles collected in my book Ritual Facilitation.

CoverRitualFacilitationRitual Facilitation: Collected Articles on the Art of Leading Rituals

Pagans and practitioners of alternative spiritual path face the challenge of learning to lead compelling rituals with little to no training in techniques of facilitation, public speaking, or event planning. Many learn the theology of their tradition and then get frustrated leading ceremonies through trial and error. If you are called to lead rituals and ceremonies, learn how to create potent, powerful rituals that will inspire your participants.

Each of us can learn to create more magical, memorable rituals. Whether you are an experienced ritualist or brand new to ritual work, this collection of articles and essays will help you learn to facilitate stronger rituals. Techniques include ritual structure, handling logistics, common pitfalls, engaging participation, and helping new leaders to step into speaking roles.

Ritual Facilitation by Shauna Aura Knight
Available as an eBook for $4.99 at Amazon  & $15 for the hardcopy. If you need an eBook format other than Kindle you can buy direct from me, just comment here or email me at ShaunaAura (at) gmail (dot) com.

Filed under: Facilitation, Ritual Tagged: ceremonies, community, Energy raising, event planning, facilitation, leadership, Pagan, Pagan community, ritual, shauna aura knight, transformation

Warding in Ritual Part 2

3189948_xlThis is part two of my article on Warding in Ritual. You’ll want to read part one for this to make sense. Here are more questions that have been posed to the panel.

Ritual Safety
I already talked a bit about “mundane” safety, which in my work is synonymous with warding. But it would serve to go into a few more details here. Sometimes people aren’t necessarily interested in taking speaking ritual roles but might be available to help manage the door, help people with a disability, or do other work like making sure there’s kleenex or water available. That’s part of the safety of the ritual space–accommodating people’s physical needs–and thus, it’s part of warding.

Going further, the bigger your event, the more important it is to know where the exits are or what your plan is if someone trips and breaks their ankle. If you have fire, you need fire safety people. If you have people dancing in a field, you need to check the field for gopher holes. How far do people have to walk to get to the ritual? Can people with bad knees make it? Do you have anyone in a wheelchair who needs help? Is it too cold out for your outdoor ritual? Is it too warm?

Are you burning a brick of sage or perfumey incense that will set off someone’s allergies? You need to address the physical safety of the space or you can’t address the metaphysical safety of the group.

The more public your ritual, the more you may want to do outreach to the police or neighbors to let them know what you are up to. I heard about a ritual in a midwestern city which shall remain unnamed. It’s a ritual that was held monthly outside of a bar where they held their pub moot. They burned a small fire, and people had cloaks and swords. The swords were in violation of local laws, as was the fire. When the cops showed up, the ritual leaders got irate. However, this ritual was happening next to the parking lot of a bar, next to a busy road. Of course the police showed up. That’s a warding fail.

What are the different warding roles?
When I travel and facilitate rituals I rarely have access to a ritual team, so I am usually doing most of this on my own, and it works fine if I’ve outlined agreements ahead of time. But there are a few different types of warding roles. One is warding the space, another is guarding the edges. This role is often really useful if you’re doing a ritual at a public park and someone not involved in your ritual (like a cop, or someone on a picnic) wanders over to see what’s going on. There’s also the Tending role which is usually specifically for rituals where there is a drawing down/aspecting/possession. This person is there to keep an eye on the person who is possessed by a spirit/deity and help keep them safe.

Can you ward and take part in the ritual at the same time?
I think this answer applies to any ritual role. When you are facilitating rituals, your experience of the ritual is different than when you are just attending. You have to keep in mind what you are doing, what your ritual role is. You may not get to do the actual working, for instance. However, there are benefits. Often if you are leading a ritual, you’ve also planned it, which means that you’re working with those ritual energies for weeks or even months in advance, and then also after the ritual itself.

It can take a bit of practice to be able to have your own ritual experience while taking on a ritual role. I’d offer, though, that taking any kind of ritual role can lead to you (eventually) having a much deeper experience of ritual.

How many warders, and what qualifications do you need?
This one is tough for me to answer. Often, it’s just me. Whether I’m leading a ritual at a festival or conference, or leading a ritual in Chicago, it’s hard to get people to take on ritual roles of any sort. People are afraid of public speaking, for instance. And most people, I find, are not do-ers. They just want to come and experience the ritual.

I’ll expand the term “warding” to just “ritualists” for the moment. I would say that having 5-10 committed team members at a 50-person ritual can absolutely shift the energy of the whole ritual. It really helps to have at least a half dozen people, if not more, who know the ritual plan and who are committed to participating.

As for qualifications, I’d say that there is a vast spectrum and it depends on so many factors I can’t list them here. First is that the person has to be stable, reliable. I can’t give any kind of a ritual role to someone if I don’t know what’s going to happen, or if they aren’t going to show up. If they are going to be doing public speaking to the whole group, they need to be able to speak at a volume where they can be heard. I think that almost anyone can learn to take on these types of ritual roles, and it often just takes practice.

I will offer the caveat that for a specific subset of warders, more professional training is required. I’m speaking specifically to the types of rituals where people go into an intense and cathartic space and they might need pastoral counseling after the ritual. That’s something that goes beyond just ritual training.

How Do You Ward?
I’ve already addressed the physical logistics of how I approach warding. I think to answer this question I’ll talk a bit more about trance, charisma, and the woo-woo aspects. The question also specifies how I might approach warding for different kinds of work, such as a Journey, Possession, or Raising Energy. In my case, I rarely do possessory work, and I’m always working with some fashion of trance journey and energy raising. For me, most of warding is in those initial agreements, including being very clear with participants what the ritual is about.

While most of warding (for me) is in the actual space the ritual is located, and in those agreements, there’s also a certain part of warding that is in the very charisma of the facilitator. My job, as a facilitator, is to entrance and enchant the group in the spiritual working that we are doing. My job is to hold their focus.

I don’t really use circle casting as an energetic barrier, and I don’t work with the elements as actual spirits/guardians, I don’t really use athames or brooms or salt or incense. What I do use a lot is sound. Singing and drumming.

But what lies beneath that is my own charisma, my authenticity, my willingness to open up to that something larger in order to serve the group. My charisma is sourced in authenticity and that is what gives me energy and helps me bring the group to focus. That focus holds the center of the circle, and that focus holds the edges.

It’s not easy getting a group of a hundred people to sing a chant together. To dance together. To believe that the group won’t think they look stupid if they are singing and dancing and calling out to the gods for communion and connection. Most rituals I attend, people stand around and watch some folks in the center do some stuff, and when they get bored they start having side conversations. That’s a warding fail right there.

People don’t have side conversations when I do a ritual because I hold their focus. That’s as woo woo as I get about warding.

I’d say the single most effective ritual technique I use is group chanting. It works for purification, warding, trance work, energy work, you name it.

Informed Consent
Nothing is worse than arriving at a ritual and realizing that there is a bunch of stuff going on that you didn’t really want to be part of, but you feel like you can’t leave.

For me, informed consent is being very clear with participants what the ritual is about. A “warding fail” that I heard about involved a ritual that was a public sabbat. People were invited and not told what the ritual was about. It wasn’t a Samhain ritual, but after the circle was cast (it was one of those, “You can’t leave once the circle is cast” rituals), the ritualist led them down to the underworld where their flesh rotted, their faces melted off, their eyes burst and ran down their faces. I call this the “face melting trance.” This is a complete failure of a ritual; sure, you get the “surprise” factor, but nobody consented to that. No amount of magical juice in that circle casting is going to give your participants a good experience if they didn’t consent to do this work.

At the beginning, I said I’d talk about the paradox of ritual, and how warding is about ensuring safety, and yet, I don’t believe ritual is safe. Here’s what I mean by that.

First–if I’m doing ritual focused on personal transformation, I’m inviting people to face their shadows, to work with the pain they carry in their heart. That isn’t safe work. I can provide a safe place to open up and do that work, but it’s not safe.

Further, I don’t focus my energies on keeping bad spirits “out” of the ritual, because goodness…people bring in enough baggage with them. We are our own worst critics, we are the ones who get in our own way. We don’t need bad spirits to cause us grief–we do it to ourselves.

And when we ask for transformation, when we ask to connect to Mystery, to the Divine, that work isn’t safe either. Cracking open our hearts to let the light of God/Gods/Divine in means we’re going to change. That isn’t safe work.

Some people are going to have a “bad trip” no matter what I do to ensure that the ritual is set up in a safe way. I can do my very best to ensure each participant’s success by letting them know exactly what we are doing so they can be self responsible and opt out if they need to.

Consent: Mystery Vs. Safety
I don’t believe that we lose much of the Mystery of ritual when we address what’s going to happen. In fact, talking through the logistics ahead of time makes everything flow so that people can open to that Mystery. First, if I’m taking people on a journey to the Underworld to face their shadows, you bet I’m telling them ahead of time.

One time I did a ritual where we made that journey to face an old shadow, an old wound, and to offer that wound up in sacrifice to Persephone to take down into the deep earth for healing. I made very clear before the ritual started, “If you have a big pain from your past that pops up in this ritual and it’s just emotionally too much, you always have the option to take a step back. This ritual isn’t the end of the work, it’s the beginning, and if that wound is too much for you to release, acknowledge where you’re at.  If you had something horrible happen to you, like childhood sexual abuse, that may be too big for this ritual to hold. You have choice in how you participate in this ritual at every step.” Participants should always be given the option to withdraw consent.

Second, if I’m doing anything complicated, like having people visit different altars around the room, or getting marked on the forehead with clay, or choosing a ribbon from a bowl, or putting a stone into water, I need to tell them all that ahead of time so that when the time comes, I don’t have to break them out of their trance groove to say, “And now we will process to the various altars and choose a ribbon from the bowl. No, not like that, over here, like this. No, you’re doing it wrong.” People feeling confused about what to do are not connecting to Mystery.

Warding and Boundaries
I think for me the essence of warding is about boundaries. In the ritual, I’m establishing that THIS is where the ritual will take place, and THESE are the people who have chosen to take part in the ritual, and THIS is our focus. You can think of boundaries as a circle, but a cauldron works well as a metaphor. You are either in the cauldron, or you’re out of the cauldron. Energy in ritual is like boiling soup; you can’t boil the soup without the cauldron, and you can think of ritual energy as spiritual heat.

When you’re establishing boundaries–warding your ritual–you’re determining what’s inside the cauldron, and what’s not. What’s in the soup, and what’s not. The single most effective thing you can do is to hold your ritual in a space you control where you won’t be interrupted and you have privacy. The next most effective thing you can do is ensure that the people attending are appropriate to attend. Anyone who can’t uphold the group agreements should be asked to leave. Finally, the core of boundaries is knowing what your ritual is about. What’s your focus? What’s your connection to that ritual focus? And how will you connect your group?


Filed under: Facilitation, Pagan Community, Ritual

Ritual Facilitation: Why I do it

DSC01624_SmallWhat has sustained me through long years of practice and training in the ritual arts is the desire to facilitate transformative work.

There is that moment when I’m leading a chant with a group of people, and we’re drawing in closer around the fire. They have tears streaming down their faces. They are feeling and connecting and I can see the rapture on their faces.

I have stood by a ritual fire with a black veil over my face while people told me secrets, old pains, things they couldn’t tell anyone else. They were telling the Dark Goddess so she could take their pain beneath the earth. “Will anyone ever love me?” “I left mom to go back home and then she died while I was gone, I feel so guilty.” “Will I be alone forever?” “I’ve gone through my whole life and I don’t think anyone has ever seen me.” “Why did they do that to me? How could they hurt me like that?”

The reason I’m constantly working to learn new ritual techniques, or explore multiple intelligences, or strengthen my voice so I’m a stronger singer, or practice frame drum, or learn didgeridoo…and the reason I’m constantly writing about ritual and teaching people facilitation techniques…is because it matters. Because I want people to have access to that deep-within, to the all-that-is, to that something larger. I want people to feel that the divine is out there, that they are not alone. I want people to be able to do the work that calls to their soul.

Facilitating compelling ritual is a lot of work, but to me it’s worth it. It requires those of us who facilitate rituals to not only learn technical skills of public speaking, chanting, and trance technique, but it also requires us to do our own personal work. If we cannot find our way to the well of divine water, we cannot bring that water cupped in our hands back to our groups. If we cannot face our own shadows, we cannot take our group to the mirror of souls. If we aren’t vulnerable first, we cannot bring the magic.



CoverRitualFacilitationIf you are interested in learning skills for facilitating ritual, you  might consider checking out my book Ritual Facilitation, which you can purchase direct from me as an ebook, via Amazon, or as a hardcopy. If you are looking to buy 5 or more copies for your group I can work out a reduced rate, and I offer wholesale pricing to stores and vendors.

Filed under: Facilitation, Leadership, Pagan Community, Ritual

But I’m Always Right! Pagan Know-it-alls

9046121_xxlI’m on a number of Facebook groups, including groups for Pagan leaders. From time to time, I’ll see people make comments that are really condescending, but that also invite conversation on the topic. However, when people offer a different perspective, or ask what they meant by some of the terms, the person will launch into a heavy debate with them, often escalating into a personal attack. The underlying theme seems be a bait and attack from the perspective of, “You are all neophytes and of course I am right about everything.”

Not a day earlier, someone on a Facebook group for a popular Pagan festival was asking if it was possible for there to be an etiquette guide to prevent attendees at workshops from interrupting the workshop leader or worse, playing the one-up-the-presenter game.

The resulting conversation discussed how it is unfortunately common that at Pagan workshops, there’s often one attendee who will heckle a presenter, particularly a new or nervous presenter. It’s often someone who is an expert–or who thinks they are an expert. Last week I focused on facilitation techniques for how to deal with extreme situations where you’re being interrupted or heckled.

This article focuses more on understanding why someone’s interrupting, and techniques to prevent those interruptions.

I think that both examples above are talking about roughly the same thing. We’re talking about trolls and Know-it-alls. But, in some cases, we’re also talking about people who may have different social norms than we do. And in some other cases, we might be talking about someone on the autism spectrum. Knowing the difference is important.

This article addresses two main factors:

  1. Understanding the difference between social norms, intentional disruption, and whether or not someone is going to be able to be self-reflective about their behavior and recognize what is, and what isn’t, appropriate in a particular group.
  2. The other is, as a facilitator, techniques to keep Know-it-alls and other interrupters from taking over your workshop.

Fear of Hecklers
One of the reasons that I teach workshops on how to teach workshops is that many  of the newer/emerging public speakers that I’ve talked to over the years express that they are absolutely petrified of hecklers. Now, I use the term hecklers because, there’s a huge difference from someone who’s very experienced in an area attending a class, and someone who is interrupting the presenter.

I’m lucky in that in my early facilitation, I was in a supportive environment. But there was a time where, if I had been interrupted by Know-it-alls, I would have gotten flustered, totally lost my train of thought, and had massive anxiety.

Public speaking is especially difficult to step into; in fact, fear of public speaking is one of our most common fears, as humans. Why? Ultimately, it’s fear of rejection–if I screw up as a public speaker, then people won’t like me, moreso, they won’t value me, and they’ll kick me out of the communal cave and I’ll be alone and die. We’re talking to reptile brain here so it doesn’t have to make rational sense.

Facilitation is actually fairly complicated to get good at. I liken it to parallel parking; at first, you’re thinking about every little thing and you’re nervous as heck, but once you get the hang of it, it gets easier.

I myself don’t get many interrupters, in part because I set up really clear agreements, and I have fairly confident body language. Paradoxically, newer, more nervous facilitators are the most likely to get interrupters.

Facilitator Pro Tip
One of the type of facilitation that is the most prone to interruption from a Know-it-all is the “pompous windbag” approach. And, newer facilitators are prone to this, whether or not they intend to be. There’s a huge difference between being confident, and being an arrogant show-off. Many workshop teachers become, themselves, a Know-it-all, and thus they irritate any potential Know-it-alls in their group.

  • If you’re standing up in front of a group and officiously talking at them in “expert voice” for an hour and a half, you’re asking to get interrupted.
  • If you’re approaching things from the, “My way is the One Right Way” approach, that also sets you up for disagreement.
  • If you have a really defensive personality/communication style, that actually invites people to attack you.

When you give people a short opportunity to speak and be heard, especially early on in your workshop, that derails a lot of Know-it-all behavior later.

Know-it-all-itis is fairly common, in my experience, among people who have poor self esteem. In the Iron Pentacle teaching tool that Reclaiming and the Feri tradition use, the idea is that you want to be in balance. Looking at Pride, for instance, or self image, we want to be confident. Iron is where we want to be at; iron is strong, solid. However, we often slide into the Gilded or the Rusted pentacle. Gilded would be arrogance, Rusted would be self deprecation.

Poor self confidence and self esteem are–in my opinion–an example of why Pagans and Pagan leaders often have such a difficult time working together.

In fact, the root of the problem with most Know-it-alls is that they want your respect and admiration because they know so much. Unfortunately, this is what most therapists would probably call an unsuccessful strategy to get their need for respect met.

Default Behaviors
Let’s look at an attendee at a workshop who interrupts, or even tries to one-up, the presenter. The thing is, we all have different cultural assumptions about what behavior is all right in a group. For that matter, we each have differing individual autopilots. There are folks who love to debate and who have no idea how offensive they come across to those of us who prefer nonviolent communication. There are folks who are stuck in the autopilot of “I have to be right” and have no idea that they are coming across in a way that is really pretentious or aggressive.

I’d say a lot of my work as a leader is trying to figure out if someone in my group (or my workshop, or whatever) is intentionally being a jerk, or is just clueless.

For instance, usually I teach in the Midwest. When I teach further south, I notice a lot of people will just light up a cigarette in the workshop. Nobody around Chicago would ever do that. They aren’t trying to be rude–that’s just a social norm there. My long-ago ex husband was raised in a household where people would smash their fists on the dinner table and enjoy a rousing debate, which I found tremendously aggressive and startling.

I think that one of the paths to leadership is being self aware of our own autopilot tendencies, and working on transforming them. I’m not going to be a very effective leader if I keep offending everyone around me. I think there’s a huge difference between the idea of changing ourselves to fit someone else’s expectation and then losing something of ourselves, vs. finding out what we do that’s really offensive and working to shift that behavior.

Example: Here’s a behavior I’ve worked to shift in myself. I used to be the control freak boss/leader who would do a crappy job of explaining what I wanted my employee or volunteer to do, and then when they failed to do it properly, I’d roll my eyes and say, “Let me just do it,” and practically take it out of their hands. Then, my boss did that to me and I realized how annoying it was. It’s still one of my tendencies, but, I’ve worked to notice when I’m doing it so that I can shift my behavior and not be a jerk. I’m a way more effective leader for it.

Identifying Disruptors
In Chicago I hosted a 3-day ritual facilitation intensive and there was one participant who really had no business being there. She was looking for people to do magic for her, not learning how to facilitate ritual. She was clingy with the facilitators and would bug them in the time before, after, and in between sessions asking non-relevant questions or chat their ear off talking. Every time we went around the circle asking people to comment on a topic or ask questions, she’d randomly talk about her family; it was a total non-sequitur.

Basically I tried to gracefully move things along to reduce her impact. At the time I made the choice to not kick her out of the class as I felt that would have been more traumatic and disruptive than minimizing her impact. However, I’d never allow her into an intensive again. Usually someone like that isn’t too disruptive in the 1.5 hour format, but over 3 days it can distract a group.

What’s usually more immediately disruptive is the person who jumps in to talk, or worse, corrects the facilitator. And it is unfortunately really common in the Pagan community.

Supporting a Weaker Facilitator
I admit it. I sometimes I attend workshops and then internally groan because I can tell the facilitator isn’t really knowledgeable, and then I’m stuck there for an hour and a half. Sometimes, I choose to excuse myself if it wouldn’t be horrifyingly rude. More frequently, I attend workshops where the content is good, but the facilitator is so nervous that it makes it hard to listen to them. I usually try to throw my whole focus to that facilitator. Energetically, this helps others to focus on the facilitator.

It’s particularly helpful at a festival where there’s lots of sound distractions.

The only time I would consider offering a comment to contradict with a workshop facilitator is if they are posing some things that are actually a little dangerous. Like, if I attended someone’s workshop and they talked about pressuring people into sexual situations, I’d probably ethically have to step up and say something against that.

But if someone’s teaching a chakra workshop and gets some of the chakras wrong…well, nobody’s going to die. They just might be a little confused when they pick up a chakra book later on.

Dealing with Hecklers
There are ways to facilitate workshops that both 1. reduce the interruptions you get, and also 2. handle the interruptions gracefully. However, these are also techniques that require some practice, and might be difficult for a very new facilitator to use. It’s a lot to keep track of, but it does get easier with time and practice.

I’ll admit, I don’t really have a lot of hecklers in my workshops, even though this is, unfortunately, very common at Pagan events. I do have people who occasionally interject and start taking up too much of the group’s time, or people who start taking things on a tangent.

Partially that’s because I’m a confident facilitator. And partially it’s because at the beginning of most workshops and rituals I set up clear group agreements.

Why You Need Group Agreements
Some groups need really strong facilitation and clear agreements. Others are really naturally polite or at least, share your social norms. It depends greatly on many factors. However, there’s a leadership rule of thumb that is especially visible in facilitation: If you want something, ask for it. If you don’t, then you can’t whine that you didn’t get it. I can’t expect people to read my mind.

For instance, the example I offered earlier about people in some areas who are used to being able to smoke at workshops. It didn’t occur to me to ask people not to smoke in my workshop because I’d never taught at an event where people did that. However, now I know to look at cultural norms; when I teach in areas with a lot of smokers, I ask people to not smoke in the workshop.

Years ago, I helped to bring together about 30 Pagan community leaders in Chicago to meet and network. For the first meeting, I laid out a number of specific ground rules so that we didn’t start some kind of a Pagan interstellar war. One woman later told me that she was offended that I set up those ground rules. “What are we, children?” she snarled at me. “We don’t need to be told to treat each other with respect.”

…….So at the next meeting, we didn’t set up any ground rules. The meeting ran 2 hours longer than we’d scheduled it, people were talking and droning on and on for forever, there was no focus, people got snarky.

At the end, I gently suggested that we might establish a facilitator and some ground rules, and that didn’t mean the facilitator was in charge, just that they were keeping things on track. Some rules we agreed to were things like:

“We come here together in mutual respect. And what that means is, we wait our turn to talk, we don’t have side conversations, and when we’re making a point, we don’t talk for more than a minute, maybe 2 if it’s really important/complicated.” Etc, etc.

Example Group Agreements
One agreement I frequently bring up is, “We’ve only got an hour and a half for this workshop, and it’s my job to keep things on track so I can teach you what I promised. So I might have to interrupt you or close down a discussion, even if it’s interesting, so that we can move forward. This isn’t a judgment, and we can always talk later. Does that sound good?” And everyone nods, so I have their consent on that, and on the rare occasions I do have to shut someone down, they tend to be more agreeable about it.

Now, in the case that someone’s being rude, I have no problems ejecting them from my class. I tend to do a 2-3 strikes thing. And it’s energetic–there’s a difference between someone who clearly doesn’t know that they are rambling on and taking up airtime, or taking us on a tangent, and someone who is being a know-it-all or worse.

I don’t generally need to say, “Nobody punch anybody,” but if I’m hosting a discussion night, I might say, “If you are really passionate about a point, please don’t lean forward and pound the table, or get in anyone’s face. Please do not engage in ad hominem attacks, and please do not shout.”

Here are my more standard group agreements for any workshop where we’re doing deep personal transformation work.

We all come here in mutual respect, and what mutual respect looks like is this:

  • I ask that each participant listen to others when they are speaking and not interrupt or have side conversations.
  • I also ask that you listen to what people are saying, but don’t offer suggestions or try to fix them. Just hear them.
  • I ask that each person speak from their own experience, or I-referencing; if you’re not clear on what that means, don’t worry. I may ask you to rephrase something and see how that changes the meaning for you.
  • I ask that each person take responsibility for themselves. That means if you need to get water or go to the bathroom, or smoke a cigarette, you can take care of that on your own. You don’t need to raise your hand, but if you’re going to smoke you need to be far enough away that it doesn’t drift here.
  • This also includes personal responsibility for your emotions. If we’re discussing an intense topic and you need to step out, you’re welcome to. If you are having an emotional response to something and you are crying, I’m not going to come over and try to hold you or fix you. If you need something, if you want a hug, you can ask for that, but I won’t make the assumption for what you need, and I ask each of us to do the same. Wait for someone to ask for what they need instead of assuming they want us to hold them or fix them. Yes, holding space while someone weeps can be uncomfortable. But, I can tell you that if you come over and make soothing noises and hug me, that’s going to shut down my process when I just need to grieve.
  • Please be aware of how much time you are taking when you speak. We’ll have several opportunities to go around and check in about various topics. Try to keep your responses short. We only have so much time here together, and I want to make sure that each person has an opportunity to speak.

Sometimes there are agreements that I add in as well, like confidentiality, and sometimes there are agreements I don’t focus on as much, like the emotional self responsibility.

The Problem with Late Arrivals
Pagan Standard Time is actually directly responsible for some of the challenges in facilitation. When I facilitate a class, it’s layered. It builds in intensity, and the workshop depends upon the growing trust of the group.

Part of what makes that happen is the first 15 minutes of the class.

  • Introduction (1-2 minutes)
  • Ground rules (1-2 minutes)
  • Check in (5-15 minutes) where each person mentions why they are there. In a large class, I may have to do it more brainstorming/popcorning, but I try to go around and have everyone at least speak their name into the circle.

So imagine someone’s coming in 5 minutes late. They’ve missed the ground rules. Which means I have to decide, as a facilitator, whether or not to take a minute and repeat them, or not. Knowing that if I don’t ask for the ground rules, I may risk the rules not being followed. And that happens all the time; often when I opt to not go over agreements, the late arrival is the one breaking the agreements.

Then imagine someone coming in 15 minutes late. They’re coming in while people are sharing why they are there but they’ve missed what everyone else has said. In some personal growth-focused workshops, my next step is to introduce a topic, and then have people share more about their own experiences. But, when a new person shows up in the middle, they don’t feel safe. That safety is built upon the structure of the workshops, layered intimacy and agreements.

It’s similar in a ritual; safety and intimacy and connection are built over time from people speaking and sharing within the safe container of a group with clear agreements.

Going Deeper into Behavior
As a facilitator and leader, I have read a lot on psychology, personality disorders, multiple learning modalities, and a lot of other related topics. In fact, most of the things that I teach with ritual facilitation is more based in the psychology of how we learn things vs. any one religious or magical tradition.

In other words, I work hard to understand people. And I have to understand the difference between someone who’s being a jerk on purpose because they like drama, someone who’s just clueless and who can learn that their behavior is inappropriate, and someone who is on the autism spectrum who may not be able to read body language.

The woman I mentioned in that ritual facilitation intensive seemed to have some of the behaviors of someone with a brain injury, or who is on the autism spectrum. Her behavior was absolutely not malicious, but she clearly had no comprehension of body language or appropriateness of her topic.

I’d welcome her as an attendee at a public ritual, so long as she wasn’t disruptive, but it’s not appropriate for her to attend a leadership class given the disruptiveness of her behavior in that context.

Poor Social Skills
Now, I’ve also had lots and lots of people in workshops and at events who were just unsocialized, or, who grew up with different social expectations. I mean, heck, I used to be a total shy wallflower who told stupid jokes. I couldn’t even make eye contact with people. I had no idea how to be social, how to be around people without sounding like a doofus.

And I’ll tell you my deep dark secret; when I’m around someone who makes me nervous, I sometimes default to that behavior. I notice it because I have a lot of anxiety and I start making stupid jokes to break the tension. So believe me when I say that I  have compassion for people who are just socially clueless.

At the same time, my responsibility as a facilitator is to make space for the whole group.

One-on-One Conversations
I might have conversations with people one-on-one about their behavior. This is in the context of someone who is a regular attendee of my workshops, rituals, or other events. This wouldn’t really work if it’s just a one-off workshop at a festival. If my energetic read of someone indicates that the person may just not be reading body language, or might be socially clueless as I once was, I’ll have a conversation with them about that behavior and how it impacts the group negatively, and give them a chance to work to address their behavior.

However, there are folks that I won’t have much of an impact with, no matter how great of a leader or teacher I am. I’m speaking of “trolls,” or in other terms, people who seek out drama and who enjoy stirring up trouble. There are also various types of personality disorders that either have no treatment, or that typically don’t respond well to treatment, such as sociopaths/psychopaths (now known as antisocial personality disorder) as well as borderline and narcissistic personality disorder.

I’m going to put my time and effort into people who are genuinely willing to work on their impact.

Making it Easy
The root of the word “facilitate” means “to make easy.” Facilitation isn’t necessarily easy on the facilitator, but it does get easier with time and practice. The more you understand people and behavior, the easier it becomes to set up appropriate agreements, and derail inappropriate behavior.




Filed under: Facilitation, Leadership, Pagan Community