Pagan Community

Compassion, Truth, and Bonesetting

Rift on the earth excellent background

I was taught that setting the bone is a crucial part of being a priest/ess, a leader. That sometimes we have to hurt in order to heal. And I was also taught that truth often hurts. We couch so many things in white lies to salve someone’s feelings, to soothe it over, to make it hurt less. But those attempts to ease pain in the short term often cause longer term pain. In essence–sometimes the deepest form of compassion is to say the hard thing. It hurts in the short term, but it heals in the long term.

I’ve written about the Frosts, and I’ve received a number of comments on my Facebook, and private messages, from people who feel that I lack compassion for Gavin Frost’s family by posting some reminders about their writings where they detail an entire chapter on sexual initiation of barely pubescent minors.

It’s not that I don’t have compassion, it’s that I’m not codependent. I’m not responsible for the feelings of the family members, and I certainly am not responsible for the feelings of those who support them somehow despite the horrific things the Frosts wrote. I am sorry that they lost a loved one, and I mean that sincerely. But I’m not going to lie about the Frosts just to make them feel better.

I’m reporting what has happened because it’s important to the broader community to not lie about Gavin Frost. You can’t ethically/honestly/journalistically write an article about a public figure and speak about the awesome stuff they did without speaking about the horrible stuff too. I’m not defaming the Frosts (or any other leader/elder I speak about), I’m speaking to things they wrote in their book or in blog posts, things they said in interviews.

Defamation means telling a lie, speaking an intentional untruth. It’s not defamation to speak the truth. And it’s not speaking ill of the dead to speak the truth of what that person did in their life.
My compassion is for the broader community, for the current future Pagans that need to remember our history so we don’t repeat it, so we don’t continue making space for leaders and authors that harm us.

I’ve not said anywhere that Gavin Frost sexually abused anyone, because I have no proof of that, so saying that would not be the truth. What I’ve said is that the chapter in the book by the Frosts (The Witches Bible and later, The Good Witches Bible) is a how-to manual for sexual abuse. And it’s a chapter, a guide, that Pagan/coven leaders have used or at least tried to use as a template. I personally know several people (and I know of others) who were harmed by coven leaders who were following the teachings of the Frosts.

My compassion is for the victims. My compassion is for all those who come after us who deserve better. My compassion and my love is for the community that (I hope) survives us. And my deepest hope is that this future Pagan community is not riddled with rape culture, misogyny, homophobia, nor with with unethical, harmful leaders. This goes far beyond the Frosts, but they are a part of our past, and sweeping what they wrote and said (and held to) under the rug is a lie.

I’m speaking up because people are eulogizing Gavin Frost without telling the whole story–or without knowing the whole story. What is remembered lives, and we must remember our failings as a community. One of our grossest failings collectively is failing to speak up when something’s wrong.

I don’t believe Gavin Frost was a completely bad person, any more than my ex was completely bad. People are complicated. The labels of “good” and “bad” aren’t really useful. People can do good things, and also bad things. People can be beloved teachers who helped you find your spiritual path, and they can also have taught and promoted some very harmful practices.

If you believe that I’m heartless for posting about the Frosts now, I’m not going to be able to convince you otherwise. But the way I was trained was in the magic of the bone-setting, of healing the longer term even if there is pain in the short term. That speaking the truth is healing, though it can hurt. There’s no way I can write about the topics that I do without hurting someone, but I do so with that intention of setting the bone, of longer term healing.

I don’t enjoy writing those posts about our harmful leaders and elders. Those are hard posts to write, and they lead to days of stress dealing with angry comments and hatemail. I lose friends when I post about these things. I lose paid teaching engagements. I don’t write these things without a cost to myself, but I write them because I love my community and I want to see it thrive. I want to see a healthy, sustainable Pagan community.

What is remembered lives, and we must not forget the mistakes of the past or we are doomed to repeat them.

Filed under: Activism, Leadership, Pagan Community Tagged: Frosts, Gavin Frost, Pagan, Pagan community, Paganism, rape culture, sexual abuse, The Witches Bible

Pantheacon and ConVocation Schedule

AWLogoIconFor those of you attending Pantheacon in San Jose, or Convocation in Detroit, these are the places you are likely to find me. I have my specific workshops, rituals, and book signings that I’m offering in bold, and in italic I’ve highlighted any workshops that are focused on a project I’m involved in, such as a book launch for an anthology.

For those of you who have attended events like this, or are thinking about it, I thought I’d also mention some of how I list things on my schedule. Events like this get overwhelming and I’ve found it helps to not only schedule my time teaching or attending workshops, but to also specifically schedule social time with people I want to meet with. I also plan ahead for times I’m likely to be too tired to attend a workshop or ritual; I put question marks by these items. I work to carve out “blank” places in my schedule so I know when I might have availability to schedule a lunch/dinner/talk with someone.



6-9pm Registration
3 pm Early Bird Social
7–9 pm  All Pagan and Polytheist Meet and Greet
4pm-7pm ADF Suite
9pm Early Bird Evening Gathering


12:30 PM Opening Ritual
–Drop off books in Vendor Room
1:30 PM Connecting to the Soul’s Wisdom with Hypnosis (Brenda Titus)
3:30 The Outer Circle: Marginalization Within Paganism
5:00 Dinner with Patheos Pagan crew
7:00 Finding Your Personal Magic
9:00 Possessing the Dark, the Art of Choreolalia Ritualistic trance dance?
9:00 pm (til later) Gina Pond/Heretics @ suite


9:00 am The Dark Side of Druidry
11:00 am Black Lives Matter: Restorative Justice for Healing and Change
12:30 pm recording podcast
1:30 pm Godless Bless: A Panel on Atheism/Agnosticism in Paganism
3:30 pm Chanting, Trancing, and Story: Ritual Techniques that Work
5:30 pm Book Signing in vendor area
7:00 PM Gender Diverse Pagans: Inclusivity or Hospitality
9:00 PM
11:00 Crossroads of Memory: A Trance Dance Ritual?
Facets of Freya: A Devotional Ritual in Honor of Freya?
12:15 Drum Jam?


8:00 Voice warm up
9:00 Sacred Sound: Advanced Chanting for Rituals
11:00am – 1:00pm – Trance Roundtable (ADF Suite)
1:30 pm Pagan Consent Culture (Christine Hoff Kraemer in the Assembly of the Sacred Wheel suite)
3:30 pm Radical Inclusion for Pagans
3:30 pm Bardic Magic by John Beckett (ADF Suite)
5:00 pm
7:00 pm Creating Culture of Consent: Sacred Sexuality
9:00 pm Matronae Oracular Devotional: Dancing at the Well?
11:00 pm Mother of the New Time (Bloodroot Honey Priestess Tribe)?


9:00 From the Holy Mountain to the Sacred Cave: Journey of Descent
–or, prep for Sacred Fire ritual
11:00 Sacred Fire: Keepers of the Flame
12:30 pm Closing Ritual




3pm-7pm Setup art in art show
7:00 pm Opening Ritual?
8:00 pm Tentative: Pre-conference discussion/workshop for small group, TBA
10:30 pm Thursday Night Drumming?


9:30 am Climbing the Tree of Life
11:30 am Navigating the Pagan Blogosphere (Patheos crew)
1:00 pm
4:00 Body Stress Ecstatic Practices
5:30 Dinner with ____
10:00 Hel Invocation
Friday Night Drumming?


8:30 Voice Warm up
9:30 am Sacred Sound: Dynamic Chanting for Ritual
11:30 am The Star and the Grail: Lighting our Way on the Hero’s Journey
2:00 pm The Writer’s Craft?
4:00 pm Sex Magic in the Northern Tradition
7:00 pm Summoning the Swan Maidens: An Exploration of Inspiration and Sensuality
9:30 Drumming?


9:30am Rebirth: Pagan Leadership, Ethics, and Community
12:00 pm Encountering the Runes
1:30 Art Show Takedown

Filed under: Pagan Community Tagged: convocation, Pagan, pagan conferences, pantheacon, workshops

Reblog: How To Spot A Spiritual Sexual Predator

I reblog this with some recommendations and some caveats. This post is an excellent overview of many of the red flags of predators within the Pagan community. This is something I’ve written about and talked about at length and I think it’s important for more people to be aware of these dangerous traits.

Here’s one caveat: Many of these red flags are not, on their own, problematic. It’s the constellation of red flags that are the issue, just as with so many other things. The author brings up that sustained eye contact and charismatic behavior is a predatory behavior, and that’s not exactly true; not on its own. So remember–just because some Pagan you know does some of these doesn’t automatically mean they are a predator. Use discernment.

Another caveat: The post is bigoted against polyamory and open relationships. For that reason, I hesitated to share this post, however, the rest of the overview of behaviors is so spot-on that I still find it an excellent resource on spiritual predators. Here’s the thing; just because someone is polyamorous doesn’t mean they are a predator. I’ve seen lots of ethically open relationships. Heck, I’m in one now myself, though it was unexpected. However, where I see poly being predatory is with these additional red flags: When the person is pressuring you to be poly and extolling the virtues of polyamory and how polyamory is better than monogamy, or when the person is telling you they are poly and they’re actually using that as a line to cheat on their partner. Again, use discernment. There’s a big difference between someone new to being polyamorous and enthusiastic about it, and someone who’s trying to manipulate you into a sexually coercive relationship.


 Link to article: How To Spot A Spiritual Sexual Predator

“It surprises me not an iota that a sexual predator would become a prominent new-age guru. The guru-student relationship is fertile land for sexual misbehavior to flourish in. There are too many guru sexual predators to list, but I’ll highlight a few who were exposed relatively recently: John Friend of Anusara Yoga, Bikram Choudury of Bikram Yoga, Eido Shimano Roshi of New York Zen Studies Society, Joshu Sasaki Roshiof Rinzai-ji, Swami Shankarananda of Shiva School Of Meditation And Yoga, and Doug Phillips of Vision Forum….”

Filed under: Activism, Leadership, Pagan Community Tagged: abus, abuse, leadership, monogamy, polyamory, predators, sexual predators

Blogs and Resources Update

9312433_xlI have been woefully remiss in posting here. It’s probably not much of a surprise to many of you, but I have so many projects going on I tend to get overcommitted. In fact, I’m starting to call 2015 the year of digging out of my overcommitments and making my life more organized and sustainable.

While I haven’t been posting here, I have been doing a lot of writing. I thought I’d do a quick sum-up of some of the articles I’ve written that are available online, and a few other projects I’ve been up to and ways to keep posted on things I’ve written.

One of my personal/spiritual goals is to bring more joy into my life, so to get there, I first have to clean up my email inbox, finish up a lot of my “to do” list that is overdue, and feel like I’m at least somewhat caught up on the various active projects I have going on. I’ll likely be posting more about this process as I go along. I’m not currently at any risk of feeling caught up–however, I can see the light at the end of the tunnel. I’ve had a number of books that I’ve been laboring on, and if all goes well, a bunch of them will be coming out over the summer and fall.

That being said, I’m still blogging and writing articles, just not always here. I thought I’d post some places you can find more of my writing.

Articles Archive

I’m trying to keep a fairly updated listing of all my published articles over on my main website. While many of these articles aren’t online, some are. Of course, it also seems to be the nature of the internet that as soon as I put up links to my articles, those websites change their site structure.


I am now blogging for a number of different sites:

Seeking the Grail (on the Patheos Pagan Agora blog)

Pagan Leadership (on the Witches & Pagans PaganSquare)

I’ve been a regular blogger on Pagan Activist though I’ll be blogging less frequently there just for sanity purposes. Don’t worry, I’ll still be crawling up on my soapbox when needed.

I’m also a fiction writer, and if you’re interested in my paranormal romance, urban fantasy, and epic fantasy fiction, you can check out my work at:

FB Groups and Webinars

I’ve started up several Facebook Groups over the past years, and these are a great resource for education on specific topics. If you’re on Facebook, I post articles and conversations on these groups. I’m also going to start hosting some webinars on Pagan leadership and ritual facilitation. While you don’t need to be on the FB groups to participate in those, I’m going to use the FB groups as a way to discuss the topics presented in the webinars. Kinda like…homework. Sorta.

Pagan Leadership Skills

Ritual Facilitation

Chants and Chanting

Pagan WritersIf you’re a Pagan author (fiction or nonfiction) and looking for resources on writing, publishing, promoting, or looking for a place to post calls for submissions, this is a resource for that.


Current Blog Posts

Here are my current blog posts on the Witches and Pagans PaganSquare. You can subscribe to my blog there via email or RSS feed there via a link/button on this page. The blog title is Pagan Leadership: Community Building, Facilitation, and Personal Growth

Paganism and Problem Solving
Being a Pagan leader means dealing with problems. The challenge being, talking about problems are a bummer. Worse, many people join together in a group but have never discussed what the intention of the group is. Is it a small private coven/circle? Or is it a group formed to plan public Pagan rituals? This article addresses some of the issues around expectations and communication that can cause group conflicts before a group even has a chance at succeeding.

Identity and Leadership Failure
One of the core challenges in Pagan leadership is connected to our very self identity. Ego, egotism, arrogance, and shadow all keep us engaging in the same patterns that destroy groups, even unintentionally. Looking in the mirror is hard but crucial work.

Effective Feedback: Giving and Receiving — Part 1 and Part 2
Whether or not you want it, if you’re a leader, you’re going to get positive and negative feedback. First, leaders need to learn how to deal with feedback, their emotions around it, and discern whether or not the feedback is useful. That’s a skillset right there. Also, leaders need to learn how to offer better feedback, and how to solicit feedback that is constructive and useful.

Patheos Pagan: Seeking the Grail

Seeking the Grail: Why Begin the Quest?

Four Treasures: The Chalice, by Shauna Aura Knight

An introduction to Seeking the Grail, a column about spiritual seeking, personal transformation, leadership, and mysticism. What is the Quest for the Grail? How does the journey shape your heart? What calls your soul on this path?




Seeking the Grail: The Waters of Spring

a grail on a blue background bordered in goldOstara hasn’t ever been one of my favorite holidays, and yet I can’t ignore how the first breath of springtime air makes me feel. The rush of spring reminds me of my own Grail Quest to recover my creativity and inspiration after a major depression. What invigorates you? How can you invite in that breath of spring?


Seeking the Grail: Into the Deep Within

facebookbloggraphic_roots-01I sometimes wonder why I bother leading rituals. Why does religion matter? And then, in ritual, I hear the sound of two hundred people singing a chant together in harmony…feet pounding the ground as we dance. People laughing, weeping. People telling me that the ritual shifted something within them, that they felt the divine, that they spoke to an ancestor, that they released an old pain. That it made their lives better.

Mysteries of the Grail: Seeker, Shaman, and Sovereign – Part 1

featuresThe quest for the Grail is the process of moving from the knight, or seeker, into the initiate of the mysteries. But initiation is not enough; to become sovereign, we must take what we’ve learned back out to heal the Wasteland, heal not just our selves but our communities, our land, our world. Very often, the quest for the Grail is catalyzed by difficulties and challenges in our own lives.



Subscribe to my Email Newsletters

I’ll be posting more to these in the future, but I won’t flood your inbox. I’ll post everything from links to articles (like I’ve done here), new book announcements, and the occasional freebie. Subscribers to my fiction newsletter currently have access to one of my novellas for free, and soon I’ll be making a free ebook available to my nonfiction/Pagan email list as well. There are also likely to be the occasional contest and giveaway.

Nonfiction/Metaphysical/Transformative Arts

Fiction Newsletter


10394814_684544694976534_1963218394424402988_nCurrent and Upcoming Books

I can’t believe it’s been over a year since I released The Leader Within and Ritual Facilitation. You can still buy those as ebooks, or print books, and that info is available on my website. I’m currently working on a followup book to my Dreamwork for the Initiate’s Path. It’s called Dreamwork: Underworld Journeys. I hope to have it finished and published within the next months. I’m also working on an expanded edition of my ebook Spiritual Scents, which focuses on the use of scent (or avoiding scent) in ritual. I have a few other nonfiction books I’m working on including Finding Your Personal Magic. I’m also working on some longer, more step-by-step books on ritual facilitation, Pagan leadership, and on general public speaking and facilitation.

Taylor Ellwood and I are finishing up edits on the Pagan leadership anthology, and we’ll be announcing a release date for that soon, probably this fall.

For those interested in my fiction projects, I’ve been mostly focusing on paranormal romance, though I have one urban fantasy story published and more on the way, and some epic fantasy in the works. My most recent release, A Fading Amaranth, is a vampire romance that also hints at my upcoming urban fantasy series. My upcoming release, The Truth Upon Her Lips, features a wereleopard, a Faerie lord, and a woman who has truthspeaker magic that weaves in some “real” magic. Or at least, magic as I see it. Though I do use some of the “whiz bang fireworks” magic popular in fantasy books, I like to weave in some actual magical and spiritual theory int my fiction stories.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community

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

Paganicon Schedule

Well, the lovely folks at Paganicon sure are going to keep me busy! I’ll be leading the main ritual on Friday night as well as showing art in the art show, facilitating three workshops, and sitting on three panels. Plus a book signing. I did tell them to feel free to keep me busy…

Here’s my schedule, for those who are interested. I’m making a note of several workshops I’d *love* to attend if I weren’t teaching at the same time. Oh, for a Timeturner.

Full Schedule:
Learn more or register:

Friday, March 13

Afternoon: Art show setup & ritual setup

5:00 PM Speed Friending

7:00 PM Opening Ceremony

7:30 PM Ritual: Return to the Root (Facilitating)

9:30 PM Panel: How Black Lives Matter Can Inform our Spiritual Practices (Panelist)

Saturday, March 14

9:00 AM Primal Mysteries — Donald Engstrom-Reese

10:30 AM Raising the Sacred Fire: Raising Energy in Ritual (Facilitating Workshop)
(though I’d also like to attend Paganism and Mental Health: Healthy Magic, and The Need for Ordained Clergy in the Pagan Community in 2015)

1:00 PM Sex, Ethics, and Power: Problems and Solutions (Panelist)

3:00 PM Book Signing
(I’d love to attend Beginning to Find Your Voice)

4:15 Cultural Honoring or Appropriation (Panelist)

That evening is the Equinox Ball, though I imagine I’ll spend most of the evening looking for people to talk with on ritual, leadership, and other “shop talk.”

Sunday, March 15

11:15 AM Keepers of the Flame: Pagan Leadership and Community Building (Facilitating Workshop)

12:30 PM Enchantment, Charisma, and Facilitation: Leading Workshops, Rituals & More (Facilitating Workshop)

2:15 PM Crafting and Guiding a Positive Volunteer Dynamic – Blodie

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community

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

Pantheacon and ConVocation Schedule

shutterstock_18656047As “Pagan Conference Season” draws near, I have gotten more and more invites to individual workshops and programming in hospitality suites at the two upcoming conferences, Pantheacon and ConVocation. I went through the process of figuring out my most likely schedule.

Those of us who attend such events also know the amusing axioms of any conference. We forget to leave time for things like eating, we wish there was something stronger than caffeine because we didn’t leave enough time for sleep, and we wish for the ability to bilocate in order to attend all the programming we’d like to go to. In fact, there’s one time slot where I could really use four of me.

Sadly, my magic is not that potent.

That being said, I thought it might interest–or at least amuse–some folks to see my anticipated schedule.

What I thought might be of particular interest is that many of the programming I’ll be attending or participating at Pantheacon focuses on social justice and ethical work within the Pagan community. One of the reasons I highly recommend that Pagans attend any larger event, but especially something like Pantheacon, is that it serves to be exposed to some of the broader issues that come up in Paganism. I believe that it’s crucial to have an understanding of these issues so that we can better work together and resolve our differences.

In some time slots, there are workshops I’d like to attend that would perhaps be more personally “fun,” and yet I feel a calling and obligation to attend the workshops that are about the topics near and dear to building healthier community.

At the end, I’m posting the descriptions for the specific workshops I’m teaching. Workshops, panels, or rituals that I’m facilitating or supporting are bolded. Enjoy!



12:00 PM Opening ritual
1:30 Patheos Pagan Bloggers
3:30 Connecting to the Wisdom of the Soul With Hypnosis – Brenda Titus
5:00 Furious Revels – River Devora
7:00 PM Designing Intensive Rituals
9:00 PM CircleSinging – Deborah J. Hamouris
11:00 Mahal EtnoFusyon in Concert



9:00 Sacred Kings and Priestess Queens – R J Stewart
11:00 Gods and Radicals: Anti-Capitalist Resistance and Pagan Practice – Rhyd Wildermuth & Alley Valkyrie
Merging Movement With Ritual – Tempest & Nathaniel Johnstone

12:00 pm Pagan media Salon Saturday, room 969
12:30 Lunch with Warding and Ritual panel

1:30 Turning The Wheel: Nurturing Young Leaders & Embracing Change panel (panelist)
3:30 Warding and Ritual Safety panel (panelist)

7:00 Bringing Race to the Table panel (panelist)
9:00 Ritual Sonics: How to use Vocalization and Sound – Taylor Ellwood
11:00 Saturday Nite Drum/Dance Jam


9:00 Myth, Ancient Mysteries, and the Soul’s Journey – Daniel Gautier
11:00 Gender variant Pagans, Pandemos suite
Poetess and Prophetess: The Morrigan and Poetry – Morpheus Ravenna & Rynn Fox
1:30 Visioning for our Culture-Gender, Many Genders, No Gender  – Michelle Mueller and Gina Pond

3:30 Honoring or Appropriation? What is the Difference? – T. Thorn Coyle, panel
Restoring Sovereign Order – Christopher Penczak
A Thousand Ways: Exploring Devotional Rituals – Silence Maestas
Book Promotion for Authors – Llewellyn publicist Kat Sanborn.

5:00 Pagans of Color suite: Nurturing Young Leaders discussion
7:00 Leadership: Boundaries, Communication, and Groups – Shauna Aura Knight
9:00 Pagans of Color Caucus


9:00 Hypnosis for Deeper Trance Mike Sententia
11:00 Sonic Alchemy: The Well of Song – Sharon Knight
1:30 Deep Roots and Strong Branches: Essentials of Polytheism – River Devora
3:30 Closing Ritual

Leadership: Boundaries, Communication, and Groups 

Poor boundaries are one of the most common causes of group dynamics and leadership issues. Who are you? Where are your edges? This is the essence of boundaries. Many difficulties in small groups can be connected to poor boundaries and communication. When do you pressure people to say yes? When are you afraid to say no? Your boundaries, and the boundaries of others in your group, affect the health of the group. Using the cycle of the moon, we’ll work with ways to improve healthy boundaries and communication to inspire more sustainable groups.


Designing Intensive Rituals

How do you design rituals with intensity, depth, and impact? Perhaps you facilitate group rituals to explore personal shadows, look into the mirror of souls, or to deal with Underworld or Ancestor issues. How do you break people out of their comfort zones to do deep work while ensuring safety? We’ll discuss choosing a ritual theme (seasonal sabbat, myth, fairytale, etc.), working with ritual techniques to draw people into the theme, and ritual structures that pull people into the deep magic. We’ll practice ecstatic/embodied ritual techniques that can be used to engage a deeper trance state.




1:00 pm Art show setup
7 PM Opening Ritual
8:30 Heavy Breathing – Lorrie Wood
Creativity in Ritual – Melissa Hill

10:30 Drumming and Dancing


9:30 Reconnecting with the World – Kerr Cuhulain
Self Realization through Post-Tribal Shamanism – Kenn Day
11:30 A World Full of Runes – Lorrie Wood
2:00 Designing Intensive Rituals – Shauna Aura Knight
4:00 Finding Your Personal Magic – Shauna Aura Knight, Taylor Ellwood

5:30 Dinner

8:00 pm I’m Still Standing – Kerr Cuhulain (Shauna/Ritual role)
9:30 Drumming


9:30 Ritual Arts: Facilitating Trance Journeys and Meditations – Shauna Aura Knight
11:30 Voices in the Community: Pagan Publishing – Taylor, Corvus

Lunch1pm (meeting)

2:00 PM Iron Ritualist
4:00 Mastering the Movement of Energy – Kerr Cuhulain
Songs and Tales of Wonder – Andras Corban Arthen

5:30 Dinner (writers meeting?)
9:30 Masquerade, Drumming/Dancing


9:30 Energy of Conflict – Meg Bourland
12:00 PM Carrying Traditions Panel
2:00 PM Closing Ceremony

Designing Intensive Rituals

How do you design rituals with intensity, depth, and impact? Perhaps you want to facilitate group rituals to explore personal shadows, to look into the mirror of souls, or to deal with other Underworld or Ancestor issues. Perhaps you want to help participants work past those barriers that hold them back. How do you design rituals that break people past their comfort zones to do the deep work while ensuring some measure of safety?

Finding Your Personal Magic
To claim your magic is to claim the World. In many fairytales and myths there is a magical item that helps the hero to achieve their quest. Often the hero must find or make this magical item. But, what is magic?  How does it work? Together, we will explore the magic that is uniquely yours. What are your dreams, goals, and gifts? This is part of the deep magic that is untapped within you, found only when you have gone down to the depths, faced impossible challenges.

We’ll explore techniques of meditation, music, trancework, artmaking, truthspeaking, and more to connect to our personal power. What will you risk to fulfill your Heart’s Desire? What is your personal magic, your power? What stories and wounds hold you back? Will you reach for your own deep magic?

Ritual Arts: Facilitating Trance Journeys and Meditations

Anyone can read a guided meditation…but how do you facilitate potent trance journeys and pathworking that deeply engage participants in a trance state? The most transformative rituals leverage trancework, bringing participants to profound spiritual places through words, voice, sound, and rhythm.

Explore tools for leading effective trances through presentation, discussion, and hands-on, focusing on techniques of dual voice, open language, rhythm/music/movement, ritual structure, and space setup. We’ll also address resources from educational therapy, Neuro-Linguistic programming, hypnotherapy, shamanic roots of trance, safety, and ethics.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community

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

Warding in Ritual

3303660_xlI’ve been invited to be a panelist on the topic of Warding in Ritual at Pantheacon, which is the largest Pagan conference and takes place in a few weeks in San Jose, California. The folks organizing the panel worked to create an outline of questions and topics, which is very helpful for us panelists! Since I’m thinking about all of these questions, I thought I’d work up my responses as a blog post. In fact, it’s a 2-parter, because (as I tend to) I went into some depth.

Part of why I want to think about these questions a bit is because I’m a bit of the “devil’s advocate” on the panel. Meaning, I don’t really approach warding as a magical act. For me, it’s very pragmatic. In fact, I don’t even really call it warding. And yet, that piece of what I do in a ritual is still incredibly important and is still the foundation of an effective ritual.

Let me back up a bit. I approach religion and spirituality as a pantheist. I’m not a polytheist or an animist. Heck, most days I’m barely a theist at all. It’s not that I haven’t felt the grip of divine communion, of connecting to the greater mystery, it’s just that when that happens to me, even if it’s in the form of working with a specific deity, I look at that deity as a mask, a lens, a part of the greater whole. I see the various deities and archetypes not in a polytheistic sense but as a part of the All That Is.

I’m also not a dualist. Dualism (loosely) means that there is good and evil. Duality is more commonly seen as the idea of transcendance; the idea that the body and earthly concerns are to be “transcended” and that spirit is the ultimate attainment. It implies that spirit (or “up”) is “good,” and earth/body (or “down”) is “bad. Dualism then bleeds into a lot of other dualities–white/black, male/female, etc.

Because, as a pantheist, I believe in the immanent divine–that is, that everything is already divine–I don’t believe that a ritual space needs to be cleared because it’s not impure. I believe that we need purification in the sense of focus. We can’t just go from “driving our car” to “in ritual headspace.”

Being a nondual pantheist, I don’t really work with the idea of bad spirits. In my theology, I don’t need to set up magical protections against evil spirits because I don’t believe there are spirits out there with evil intent.

But that asks the question, what does warding even mean for me?

What does warding mean?
If you’re worried about a bad spirit, I can’t help you with that, it’s not my theology. For me, warding is about the people in the room and their intentions and energies.While I don’t really do much magical warding in ritual, I see the general concept of warding as establishing a boundary of general safety for the ritual work. I’d say that in most rituals, warding serves a few primary functions.

  1. To protect the group from spirits or deities that might cause problems in the ritual.
  2. To protect the group from humans (not present at the ritual) who would harm the ritual working
  3. To protect the group from humans (present) who have ill intent toward one of the ritualists or ritual attendees.
  4. To ensure that the people at the ritual can handle the ritual working, that the ritual won’t harm them, that participants have a reasonable degree of safety within the working of the ritual.

Since, theologically/cosmologically, I don’t really work with 1 or 2, I’ll focus on 3 and 4. Now–I’ll go into this more in a bit, but I hold a paradox about ritual. My job as a ritualist is to make the work as safe as I can for the participants. And, I don’t feel that deep, transformative ritual or any ritual where we’re connecting to the divine is actually ever “safe.”

First, let me talk about my concrete, brass tacks approach to ritual warding:

  1. I tell people ahead of time what the ritual theme is going to be about. If we’re going on a journey to the Underworld to face our shadows, I let people know that in the email or Facebook event invite, and I also address it before the ritual begins. This gives people a chance to opt out if they aren’t prepared for such work. I feel it’s pretty rude to do an intensive ritual and not let people know ahead of time.
  2. I give people some general ground rules. Some are things I don’t generally have to say, like “nobody punch each other.” That one is kind of assumed. I offer a few general agreements such as:
    1. Self responsibilityPeople can leave the ritual space if they need to use the bathroom, get some water, handle a coughing fit, or even just get some space.
    2. They are responsible for themselves and taking care of their needs. I just ask that if they return to the ritual area they do so with respect. That can mean something as simple as opening and closing the door quietly.
    3. Self responsibility also extends to our emotions. Especially if I’m facilitating an intensive ritual, I offer that people are welcome to express emotions. Fear, rage, sadness. That if someone’s on the floor weeping in catharsis, I’m not going to come over and “fix” them, I’m going to trust that they are expressing an emotion and leave them to it. And, if they do need help, that they can ask for it. Or even if they need a hug. I’ll usually have my ritual team raise their hands, and I’ll also have people raise their hands that are happy to give comforting hugs if asked.
  3. I give participatory ground rules. Because I facilitate ecstatic, participatory ritual, I usually need to make clear that people have an obligation to participate, and that can involve speaking, moving, and singing. That participating is important to the ritual, that the ritual won’t work without each person adding their energy. And yet, I also offer choice.
  4. I also address safety. This can range from:
    1. Letting people know where the bathrooms are to letting people know how they can take care of needs like getting warmer, getting water, or sitting down.
    2. I make sure people understand they have a choice in how they participate in a ritual, and that even though I will be inviting them to stand, to dance, to sing, that they can stay seated if they need to, and they can ask for help bringing a chair closer to the center if they like.
    3. On my earlier ritual promotion emails and flyers I used to clarify “no drugs or alcohol” but I have found that it really doesn’t come up in the rituals I offer.
    4. I have also offered words like “all genders welcome at this ritual” which lets trans and genderfluid people know that they, too, are welcome. In essence, I let people know who is welcome and what kind of ritual work can be expected.

In essence, I let people know what behaviors are acceptable in as concise a way as I can. I don’t usually specify, “If you’re here, and that person you hate is here, don’t glare at them,” but I always say something about how I assume that everyone has come to the ritual in the spirit of mutual respect and to do spiritual work.

Ritual Space:
For me, a huge part of warding is the space the ritual is held in. When I facilitate rituals, there are usually three scenarios.

  1. One is I’ve rented an inside venue in Chicago, so the ritual is held in a large room.
  2. Or, I’m offering a ritual at a Pagan festival or conference.
  3. The third is when I’m offering a ritual at a public park venue, such as for a Pagan Pride event.

Where the ritual is located, and how much privacy we have, is core to the concept of warding, safety, and boundaries. There’s an intimacy I can achieve in a group ritual where the doors close that I cannot get in a ritual hosted in a public park where people are standing around watching us. Four walls, or the privacy of a grove of trees at a retreat center, are almost the definition of boundaries. Boundaries are establishing a line, a space. For me, I don’t really cast a circle, it’s more that I acknowledge that the ritual is beginning, that we’ve chosen to be here and do this work, and we are moving into sacred work. Having a good physical space for the ritual where we won’t have interruptions is key.

For instance, the energetic scenario of doing a ritual at a public park for a Pagan Pride and we have people standing around watching us is completely different from an evening ritual after we’ve all been working together for one or two days in a retreat format.

Warding Gone Bad
I can honestly say that the only times I’ve ever had a problem are when I didn’t lay out (or properly uphold) the above group agreements. Typically I facilitate deep, intensive rituals with cathartic, transformative work. I use ecstatic techniques, and there’s often a significant part of the ritual where people are facing shadows or releasing wounds from their past, transforming their pain…really intensive work. In the Reclaiming tradition there’s a phrase for this, “Puking Cauldron” rituals, because sometimes the ritual gets “taken over” by the most overdramatic person who needs a lot of attention.

However, I don’t have this happen in my rituals, largely because I set up pretty clear agreements for behavior.

That being said…there was this one time where I had a guy in my ritual. We’ll call him Anger Management Guy. Without getting into too many details, I was asked to teach some classes on ritual technique and lead an Imbolc ritual for a midwestern Pagan group.

When I arrived, Anger Management Guy was the one who picked me up at the bus station. We had to stop off at his house so he could smoke pot before he took me to the venue where I was going to teach the Friday night class. The guy was very agitated, and he and his very pregnant wife seemed to have a strange dynamic that set off my red flags. But, I was a guest, so I brushed it off. The next day, during the Imbolc ritual, I had three people (including his wife) taking on the role of various Brigids during the ritual. I stood at the altar of Brigid of the Forge.

We were chanting as each ritual participant went to the different Brigid altars. When Anger Management Guy went over to his wife’s altar, he flaked out. He started actually seething, rocking back and forth, shaking, spouting out nonsense.

Now–I was able to manage it in the moment, however, this shouldn’t have ever happened because I should have trusted my instincts about this guy and not allowed him into the ritual. During the car ride from the bus stop, he had told me some things about his life, and he spoke in a way that seriously concerned me.

Warding 101: Before you even look at magical options, just look at logistics. Are you doing an intensive ritual? Is that person really a good fit for the ritual? You’re there to ensure the group’s safety, and each individual’s safety. Trust your instincts, and if you’ve established what behaviors are acceptable and unacceptable, and someone crosses that line, that boundary, it’s your job to kick them out.

In fact, I’d offer that one of the most important warding jobs, particularly at a public ritual, is the person managing the door.

Warding and Psychic Attack
I’ll take that a little further and address the aspect of warding that is related to the function of group safety, and in specific, people who are worried about other people sending negative vibes from outside the ritual, or people who are inside of the ritual sending negative vibes at each other. Sometimes when people talk about warding they talk about psychic attack. A quote I often hear is, “Moonpie was at that ritual. He was psychically attacking me,” or, “Featherbottom was throwing off the energy of the whole working.”

In a purely psychic sense, I don’t really think it works like that.

One single person can throw off the energy of the room, but it usually requires action on their part. One person who keeps interrupting the facilitator, or who is sitting there glaring and being rude to people, one participant who is drunk and disorderly…there are a dozen scenarios where one participant can throw off the energy of a ritual, but simply thinking negative things at someone isn’t going to do a whole lot. It’s when people take concrete actions that things get wonky, like Anger Management Guy.

One negative participant can throw the energy off if everyone’s worried about that participant. That collective worry about aberrant behavior will throw things off. For instance, I led a ritual where one participant got more and more agitated until he left. Until he left, everyone kept glancing over at him. They weren’t paying attention to the rest of the ritual, they were worried about the guy because he’d been rude.

If the presence of an ex or someone you had a falling out with is going to throw you off as a facilitator, there’s an easy answer to the problem–that person shouldn’t be in the ritual. For instance, my ex isn’t welcome at any ritual I offer. I’m not worried he’ll send psychic energy at my ritual and throw it off from outside the ritual, because I personally don’t think energy works like that. I don’t need to protect against him because he’s not in the room.

That being said, I have twice now taken supporting ritual roles where my ex also had a ritual role. One time in specific, another ritual participant was the woman he had cheated on me with and a bunch of her friends who hated me. She literally stomped and pouted when I walked by her. If I’d been leading the ritual, she wouldn’t have been welcome, but that wasn’t my call. This basically breaks my cardinal rules of ritual facilitation, because there were enough people in the ritual who knew about the breakup with my ex, and about the cheating, and all the bad blood and drama. That many people who are aware of drama can, absolutely, throw the energy off.

And for certain, she was glaring daggers at me from across the room and wishing me ill.

In my case, I let it roll off of me because 1. I don’t believe her ill will can actually harm me, and 2. my focus was on the larger group and the integrity of the ritual. I was fully invested in helping to heal the rifts in the community that had sourced from the messy breakup, and so I was able to ignore her pouting and stomping. Ok, I admit, I laughed a little, and that helped.

Essentially, to psychically manage that ritual (since I was responsible for getting people chanting and raising energy), I had to completely, authentically, fully invest in the energy of community building and healing. I had to believe that this ritual would help that process, and that allowed me to move past any fears or nervousness I had about facilitating in a hostile environment. Because it mattered.

Part two will be posted tomorrow!

Filed under: Pagan Community, Ritual Tagged: Pagan community, Paganism, pagans, ritual, shadow work, warding, witchcraft

Book Release: Calling to our Ancestors

CallingToOurAncestors_Front_lowres I’m excited to announce that Calling to Our Ancestors, an anthology of devotional work with ancestors, has been released. I have an essay in it called, “Ancestors and Descendants: Building Connections.

Below is an excerpt, and a little more info about the anthology.

About the book:

This devotional is dedicated to giving a voice to those roads that honor the Ancestors, and to those who seek the Ancestors. The Ancestors can be found by many roads: by blood, adoption, the Gods we worship, and the Elements that sustain us. They can be found in the newly or ancient Dead, in the old forests or the candle flame. The devotional is dedicated to giving a voice to those roads, and to those who seek the Ancestors.

Several excerpts from my essay “Ancestors and Descendants: Building Connections”:

In the fall of 2010, I planned a public Samhain ritual for the Chicago Pagan community. One of my team members was pushing for more work with the Ancestors, and I was pushing for more work with our personal shadows and wounds. Both kinds of spiritual work fit well with Samhain and the Underworld. But once again I found myself faced with my guilty secret as a Pagan leader—that I really didn’t feel any spiritual connection to the Ancestors….

Though my connection to the Ancestors was weak, I was profoundly moved by the Descendants. Those who come after us, those for whom our actions will shape their future…this was an extremely visceral piece for me, often bringing that emotional “full” sensation to my chest and tears to my eyes.  Partly my emotions were triggered because so much of the work I do is around trying to transform and heal this world of ours….

My father passed away the February following that ritual; I had been procrastinating going up to see him. He was young, in his mid 50’s, but he’d had several medical complications in past years….

One month before my father died, he frantically called friends and family. He’d had an intense spiritual vision, a mystical communion and rapture with the divine where he spent two days going in and out of a spiritual rapture. When we talked on the phone about this, he had never sounded so happy. He said he’d been crying at the intensity of love, the feeling of being connected to all that is.

You can read the full essay, as well as many others, in the anthology.

Contributors include:

To Buy:
You can purchase Calling to Our Ancestors in print and ebook forms, or specifically in Kindle format here.


Filed under: Pagan Community, Personal Growth Tagged: adoption, ancestor, ancestors, beloved, blood, bone, book, calling, Calling to Our Ancestors, dead, devotion, devotional, Disir, elevation, healing, hope, inspiration, poem, poetry, praise, prayer

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

Pagan Response to Racism

shutterstock_104520869Crystal Blanton is one of my favorite Pagans. She has been a tireless activist voice within the Pagan community and beyond it. Her focus has been speaking up for those marginalized by society at large, primarily focusing on People of Color, but also focusing on issues around class, gender, and sexuality.

Recently there have been several high-profile cases of unarmed Black men being killed by police officers, and despite the fact that there was evidence that the Black men were not resisting, or evidence (including video in some cases) that the police were using excessive or inappropriate force, the police officers were not charged with murder.

What does this have to do with Pagans? The issue is that Paganism is a minority religion. We’re used to being persecuted, and many Pagans jump at the chance to defend other Pagans from being unfairly treated. The Pagan community has long been a refuge for other minorities, such as GLBTQ community members. Yet, in a recent Facebook post, Crystal spoke up about the silence of Pagan organizations on issues of race. And that silence is something that is worth speaking about.

Here’s what Crystal wrote:

Crystal Blanton:
I am noticing… again… the silence of the Pagan organizations in light of the recent unrest, death of unarmed black men, injustices, protests, and harm within society. As a POC Pagan, I am looking out into my community and I do not see the community standing up for me.

This is an opportunity to stand up and support the people of color within the Pagan community, and society, by saying… we see you. We are not ignoring you, we are not staying silent.

When the Pagan community does not stand up to support the POC members within their community that are hurting, it is an “in your face” way of reminding us that we are not welcomed.

An African Zulu greeting “Sawubona” translates to mean… I see you. More than the normal seeing…. seeing the core, our humanity, our spirit, our worth… our souls.

So tonight I am saying to the Pagan community, I see you….. the question is… do you SEE us?

I thought I’d offer some context about where I stand on this. First, I’m not the leader of any large organization, so I’m not in much of a position to release a formal statement to any non-Pagan group. Or at least, not one that carries any weight with the media. However, I do have a voice within the Pagan community.

My activism has, in the past, primarily focused on environmentalism. And then transgender activism, and GLB activism, within the Pagan community. And then I became an activist for consent culture (vs. rape culture) as well as an activist speaking out about issues of abuse and rape.

Where I’ve tried to be an activist for People of Color, as well as other minorities, is through using my voice to begin to speak to the issue of privilege. I feel that that is a key step in this whole process.

I use myself as an example; I’m white, heterosexual, cisgender, and female. I grew up thinking I was incredibly poor–and by comparison to my classmates, I was. I grew up in an all-white town thinking that racism was over, never realizing how many racist attitudes I was raised with. Several years ago I was (very harshly) privilege checked. The way it was done, it pissed me off and I had a bad reaction to the P-word for years. It wasn’t until talking to Crystal, and attending part of the first Pantheacon discussion on privilege that I really understood it.

A lot of my activism around privilege is practically one-on-one. I post conversations on my FB, write blogs, and I hope to introduce the concept of privilege in a way that is more accessible than how it was thrown at me the first time.

Why do I bother?

Because for me, once I understood privilege, I understood that we don’t actually live in a color blind society. I’m often appalled at my own racist assumptions. And these are just autopilot things that I never even considered; it’s just what people did and said around me when I grew up. “Lock your car door when you’re around Black people.” And, “It’s not racist if it’s true.” And dozens of other things.

By understanding my own privilege, I understood a lot more about racism, and it’s made me a better ally.

What is an Ally?
Certainly I’m not a perfect ally–I’m sure there’s more I can do, I’m just a little clueless as to what. As I said, most of my activism has focused in other areas. I see environmentalism and ecological sustainability as a core issue of social justice. Who lives next to the toxic gas exuded by factories? The poor, who are often minorities. Who gets exposed to the weird chemical runoff in the water that causes exotic cancers? The poor, who are often minorities. Who isn’t going to be able to afford to pay for clean water? The poor, who are often minorities.

My activism is usually twofold. One is, I work to live my own life in a way that is in accordance with my values. I reduce what I use and try to live more sustainably. I’m an advocate for consent culture so I shift my behavior to support that.

The other is that I speak out. Again, my platform is typically within the Pagan community, so I speak out about environmentalism and ways we can change our behavior as a community to be more environmentally sustainable. I speak out about how heteronormative rituals aren’t inclusive of gay, lesbian, and bisexual community members. I speak out against the discrimination against transgender community members. I talk about sex and abuse and consent and rape. I hope to expose people to these concepts so that, even if just within the Pagan community, we can begin to make those changes.


And I also write about privilege because I find that once people can see the perspective on their own privilege, they begin to see how the system harms those at the bottom. People of Color, GLBTQ, Pagans, the poor…there are so many who suffer because the system treats them differently. But we can’t really effectively help, or change the system, until we first SEE the system, and acknowledge our own place in it.

Privilege is usually accompanied by silence. Meaning, people who have privilege–even if they don’t see that privilege or understand how much privilege they have–don’t tend to speak out about injustice because they don’t see that injustice is happening.

And many, many people try to argue with me that they didn’t come from privilege, and they perpetuate the “American Dream” myth that anybody, regardless of class or background or ethnicity or skin color, can pull themselves up by their boot straps if they try hard enough.

As long as we hold up that myth, we are supporting the system that murders unarmed black people.

Being an ally first means acknowledging the system. And then, working to change it, even if all you are doing is speaking up to confront racism in others. You don’t have to join a protest with a sign to be an ally. But, I also acknowledge that it can be difficult to navigate how to best help as an ally.

How Can I Help?
There are ways I already speak out, but I acknowledge that there’s more I can do. Speaking for myself, I don’t always know how I can help. I’ll be more specific. As I said earlier, I’m white, I grew up in a pretty much all-white town. I’ve slowly been learning how many microaggressions I’ve committed against People of Color (check Wikipedia or Google if you want to understand microaggressions) and I’ve worked to correct that behavior.

But I don’t always know how I can best serve as an ally or activist for People of Color. I can work to wake people up to the concept of privilege…but how can I impact the larger system? How can I help?

Going further, how can I help in a way that respects Black and brown voices and doesn’t seek to put my voice above theirs?

I know that many don’t consider themselves to be activists at all. And I’ve heard with some frequency from other white Pagans that they, also, feel at a loss for how to help. What I’d love to do is begin to gather together some concrete actions that Pagans can take to combat racism.

I feel that the first step is for all of us–all of us–to acknowledge our own racism and classism. Our own privilege. Our own discrimination against minorities. Let me tell you, I was a little horrified once I realized how many racist assumptions were just ambient noise in my head. And I’ll be clear–these are things I learned from teachers, classmates, family, television.

Once I began to recognize my own racism and discrimination, I had the tools to begin to take it apart piece by piece.

Concrete Actions
What I’d like to do is put out some information–probably in the form of blog posts–about what are things that people (Pagans) can do to combat racism. And for that, I’d like your help. I’d love to pull together a list of specific, concrete things that people can do to help. Personally confronting our own privilege and racism is a start. And talking to others about racism (and checking others on racist comments) is another. Asking larger Pagan organizations with a media presence to speak out is yet another.

But what else will really help?

I’ve found that running Pagan events is very similar to activism work. When I’m running an event and I post on Facebook or in email and just vaguely ask for help, that usually gets very few results. What works better is asking people, “Will you help? Here are five concrete things that you can do that would help me.” That gets a lot better response.

In fact, in an activism workshop I was in years ago, there’s an entire category of activism that isn’t at all about being out on the streets with the signs–it’s the person who’s good at strategizing those 5 things that people can do, and coordinating the helpers.

Posting on Facebook is potentially a way to shift people’s thoughts and ideas. And I’ll keep posting on privilege because I know I get through to a few people every time I do and build the pool of allies. But I’d love to know what are other concrete actions that I can take that would help this cause.

Brainstorm and Boost the Signal
Send along your ideas in the comments, or repost this blog on your Facebook and put it in the comments there. Tag me if you post this on your Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, or elsewhere, or otherwise send me an email with a link to make sure I see the comments.

If we, Pagans, want to see a world that gives us justice, we can’t sit by and watch People of Color get trampled by that same system. Let’s look at ways we can help change this system for all of us.

Filed under: Activism, Pagan Community

Boundaries, Events, and Event Planning

Posted by on Dec 2, 2014 in Pagan Community, ritual | Leave a comment

5984468_xlRecently Circle Sanctuary opened up registrations for Pagan Spirit Gathering, or PSG. However, in the ongoing process of hosting large-scale events, sometimes the event organizers have to change things. In the Pagan community, announcements of any change in how an event is run leads to feedback both positive and negative.

This post isn’t about PSG so much as it is about Pagans and Pagan events, and in specific, it’s about boundaries, accessibility, and the related challenges within event hosting in the Pagan community.

As a specific case study, PSG will no longer allow people to attend just the closing weekend of the traditionally week-long festival. The announcement sparked a 200-comment thread (and additional threads) with all of the types of things that I would expect, having attended and run many events. Some posts were supportive, some angry, some whiny, some downright confrontational.

As a Pagan event planner, I absolutely resonate with why Circle made this decision for PSG. But understanding the why–and the issues people have with the decision–is crucial for us to explore as a community.

Let’s give a bit of background for this particular case study. PSG is in its 35th year and has been a week-long (Sunday-Sunday) festival. Several years ago they began offering the option of weekend-only passes for the final Friday-Sunday of the event.

Here are the benefits of this:

  • Cost: This allows more people to attend who can’t afford the week
  • Time off: This allows people to attend who can’t get a week off of work (or can’t afford to take that time off)
  • New attendees: This allows people to attend for just a few days if they aren’t sure about attending a week-long event, which is a significant commitment
  • Accessibility: This allows people to attend who can’t cope with camping for an entire week

However, in the past years of offering this option, PSG organizers have observed several significant down sides to this option

  • Logistics: It was challenging for the volunteer staff to accommodate the influx of attendees at the final stretch of the event
  • Experience: People attending the final three days weren’t really getting the experience of the week-long event
  • Energy: An influx of new attendees impacted the energy container of the whole event
  • Behavior: Some of the weekend attendees (though certainly not all) seemed to be more interested in a party than a sacred experience

The complaints that I saw on the comment thread are the complaints I’ve seen any time a Pagan event organizer tries to enforce a boundary. They are the complaints I’ve fielded when organizing my own events.

Here are some of the common complaints that I hear whenever a Pagan organizer enforces a boundary on an event.

  • Cost: I can’t afford to attend that event (or the whole event)
  • Travel: I can’t afford to travel, or I don’t have transportation
  • Time: I can’t take that much time off of work/one of my family members can’t take that much time off
  • Discrimination: You’re discriminating against people who can’t take a week off/can’t afford to attend
  • Location: Why do you host that event there? That’s too far away from me
  • Timing: Why do you host that event then? I can’t attend at that time.
  • Accommodations: I can’t attend your event, my body can’t cope with camping.

Boundaries and Event Energy
Let’s talk a bit about boundaries and energy with a spiritually-focused event. I’ve been to a lot of different types of events. I’ve been to conferences, to festivals, to weekend intensives, to workshops, to coffee nights and bar nights, and to parties. They all have a different vibes.

When I was doing leadership and ritual training, any attendee would travel to Diana’s Grove (never less than a 3-hour drive) and stay on-site in cabins for 3, 4 or 7 days. It wasn’t generally allowed to arrive late or leave early. You were there eating together, sleeping in bunk houses, attending rituals and workshops together, and in general, communing together.

That communal experience was a core part of the work.

Let’s look at a similar style of event. I’ve hosted 1-day, 2-day, and 3-day intensives to teach ritual facilitation or leadership skills. While I typically offer these in a city and we aren’t staying together communally, the work still builds upon what was taught at the beginning of class.

There isn’t a single time that I offer a class where someone doesn’t ask me, “Can I just attend a few hours on Saturday?” Even for a day-long intensive. In fact, the last time I hosted a 3-day Ritual Facilitation intensive, I had several people register for the class who did not attend the Friday or Saturday session, and just showed up on Sunday. They had prepaid, and they were solid members of my local community, but in other circumstances I’d have asked them to leave. I first took them aside and said, “We’ve been working together for two days now so I’m not going to be able to backtrack and cover topics from Friday or Saturday.”

They said that they understood, but after about an hour or two they left looking very disgruntled.

I went into this a bit in my recent post on how you won’t learn the deeper mysteries in books, but in a nutshell–sometimes it’s important for an event to be set up the way it is. There are reasons for it that aren’t about how much the event costs.

There is a communal energy that forms during a weekend intensive, or during a week-long festival. The boundaries of the event and the agreements we share as a community during that time are important to the energy of the whole event. The organizers of the event are structuring boundaries…a container…a circle, of sorts…to hold that event and that community and that intention.

When you shift the boundaries of the event, you impact the energy.

Event Boundaries and Experience
Once upon a time, I offered the main ritual at a smaller festival. It was an intense ritual and people went to a place of catharsis and weeping. One of the attendees was organizing a Pagan Pride-like day-long fest in his local community and asked me to facilitate a ritual like that at his event.

I told him that I was good, but that I would not be able to pull that off. Why? Boundaries and logistics.

I’ve written about this in my book Ritual Facilitation, but the gist is, there’s a big difference in what I can do with group energy after we’ve been living together and communing for three days….and what I can do for a more casual day-long event. In that context, people might be there for workshops or they might just be stopping by for shopping, we have non-Pagans watching us in a public park, cars are driving by, it’s daytime, it’s noisy, and there’s no privacy. We don’t know each other, we haven’t connected.

Energy is sculpted. Event planning is all about sculpting the energy of an experience, whether that’s a conference, festival, intensive, workshop, or ritual.

Deciding what energy you want–what intention you’re focusing on–is a core part of event planning and leadership. And if you’re planning an event, you get to decide what intention you are supporting.

In other words, events are different. And you can’t please everyone–nor should you try.

Discrimination Against the Poor
On the other hand, we do have a real problem in our community that many true and genuine seekers don’t have the money to attend some of these events. Many teachers and organizers are not taking into account how to accommodate our less financially-sound attendees. While I don’t buy into the “Pagans won’t pay for that” mindset, or even the “Pagans are all broke” mindset, I have seen a lot of Pagans who genuinely don’t have the extra cash to attend events.

In Chicago when I’ve hosted events, I have a number of people who are genuinely broke. Like, finding bus fare money to get to the event is a stretch, kind of broke. For the folks that can’t afford to pay the event fee but are willing to help, I’ve always been willing to make accommodations. And, if you’ve ever been to one of my events, you know that I always need help with setup and takedown, because I like blinging out a space with the right decor.

At the same time, my “Sliding Scale/Scholarships/No one will be turned away for lack of funds” policy has also meant that I’ve had to cancel events. And it is, in fact, why I’m not doing as much traveling and teaching right now, and why I’ve taken a brief hiatus from offering events in Chicago.

Put bluntly, I can’t afford to be holding the bag on an event that doesn’t break even. I want to make events that everyone is welcome to, but I’ve run events where we didn’t make enough money to cover the costs of the event.

I’ve worked very hard to make offerings available to people no matter how much they can afford to donate, but in doing so, I’ve ended up covering a lot of those costs myself, and that isn’t fair to me. Nor is it fair to any other leader or event organizer who is doing this on a volunteer basis.

Events and Privilege
The truth is, attending events like conferences and festivals is a privilege. It’s not a right. And, that’s not how I want the world to work, but it’s how it is. In my ideal world, there are enough scholarship funds to go around so that those who have less income but who are dedicated seekers can still attend events.

Why someone has less income doesn’t really matter. Some, like me, live a lean life in order to live a dream as an artist or writer or activist. Others are underemployed or unemployed in the current economy. Some might be stay at home parents or have an ill family member. There are dozens of reasons why someone might not have the extra income to sink into attending a Pagan event.

And for some folks, yes, we can make the argument that “If you just cut back on one cup of coffee a week, you’d have $5 to sock away for XYZ event.” That’s true for some, and I’ve heard that argument from a few Pagan event organizers who run fairly expensive events.

But we can’t have this conversation without looking at both sides of the privilege issue. Privilege is one of those hot button words these days, particularly in the Pagan community.

Privilege is, essentially, the benefits and advantages that we have that are invisible to us. For instance, I was raised by parents who were always broke. We were on foodstamps and welfare, and I grew up thinking I was incredibly poor. And I was, in comparison to my classmates who were gifted cars on their 16th birthday. It took me years to realize I was very privileged; I grew up in a school where I got an excellent education. It was safe to play in my neighborhood after dark. Nobody was getting shot in my school. I’m well-spoken, I went to the doctor regularly, and I’m white so when I get pulled over by the police for speeding, they give me the benefit of the doubt. I could go on, but hopefully you get the picture.

Privilege sits next to entitlement. Privilege is the advantages that we don’t see, and entitlement is when we assume we should have those advantages.

Privilege and Making Events Accessible
It might piss you off to hear this, but attending a Pagan event is a privilege. You don’t have a right to attend for free.

It costs money to put that event on, and chances are that the people organizing that event is putting in a lot of hours without getting paid for their time.

Going further, while anyone has the right to complain about an event, ultimately how the event is run is up to the event organizers. And if they want to enforce a boundary on their event or change how things are run, that’s their prerogative.

On the other hand, I also don’t want to see Pagan events that are only accessible to the privileged. I don’t want to see Paganism lean the way of the New Age movement where events are only available to those who can pay hundreds of dollars.

Problem Solving: Inclusivity and Exclusivity
So what do we do? How do we continue to run excellent events while finding ways to include those who are financially struggling? The answer isn’t “The event price should be cheaper for everyone, it’s too expensive!” Nor is the answer, “Everyone who can’t afford the event should be allowed in for free.”

But the answer also isn’t, “Only those who can afford to attend should be there.” The answer isn’t, “If people just stewarded their resources better they could make it to the event.”

Check out Michelle Hill’s blog post on Pagan Activist about how she was ostracized out of several local rituals because she couldn’t afford to attend.

It’s appropriate to establish boundaries on behavior at events. It’s appropriate to charge a reasonable fee for an event. It’s appropriate to select a venue for the event. For instance, Pagan Spirit Gathering is a camping event. It’s a difficult event for people with physical limitations to attend. Heck, it’s a difficult event for me to physically do, and there will come a day where I’m not able to hack the camping.

The advantage is a camping event is less expensive than a hotel event. Pantheacon, Convocation, Paganicon, and Sacred Spaces/Between the Worlds are all events that might be easier for you to attend if you have physical challenges with camping–but there’s a price tag on it. Hotels are expensive, even if you’re sharing a room.

And when the pricing of an event eventually goes up–because, costs rise every year–people get irate.

Spiritual Home Vs. Capitalism and Consumerism
People get angry when costs rise, or when a family discount isn’t offered, or when there are other barriers to attending an event. And if you are attending an event that you consider to be your spiritual home, where you get to see friends you wouldn’t see any other time of the year…and especially if you’re not active in your local Pagan community and this is the one event during the year where you get to connect to other Pagans, I could see how terrifying that might be to discover you might not be able to go.

Maybe you have been going to that event for years but this year you can’t afford it. Maybe you could afford it if it was just you but now you have a family. Maybe you have physical difficulties this year that you didn’t have last year.

The difficulty here is that the event organizers have to pay the bills. And the event organizers can only do so much to accommodate people’s needs.

People don’t want to talk about money, so that makes it difficult to talk solutions. And Pagans tend to reject the notion of donating or tithing. But the thing is, the successful Pagan events tend to use a capitalist/consumerist model. In other words, you are paying a set fee for a good or a service, instead of donating a percentage of your income toward the hosting organization for them to utilize as needed.

The pay-per-good model tends to shut out those without the money to attend events and, by its nature, prevents the host organization from being able to offer discretionary scholarships.

I only wish that anyone who had the desire to attend an event was able to, regardless of ability to pay. But that isn’t financially sustainable for most groups/classes/events. If we build more of a giving culture in the Pagan community, things might be different. PSG, for instance, is a fundraiser for Circle Sanctuary. Not many people donate to Circle, and their operational costs are primarily raised through the registration fees for PSG. Circle does a ton of things for the Pagan community on a shoestring budget, and most of that shoestring budget comes from what they make from PSG.

We aren’t going to shift the financial culture of Paganism overnight, but it’s worth considering that there are alternatives. The crowd-funding model is one idea, but even that method largely hinges on people who are buying goods and services vs. just donating toward a worthy organization. At the very least, it’s worth considering how we charge for events.

  • For event planners, I ask the question: How might we encourage more sliding-scale payments and additional donations vs. a flat fee?
  • For event attendees, I ask: Would you donate the same amount to that organization every year if you weren’t getting something in return? What would encourage you to do so? Would you be willing to donate money toward a scholarship for those who need assistance?

Defining Boundaries
In essence, different events have a different focus, and it means that not every event is going to be for everyone. Some events are more focused on education. Some events are more of a party. Some are camping events that are really only appropriate for those physically able to attend. Other events are expensive conferences that are more physically accessible but have a higher price tag.

And until we build a culture of giving and philanthropy within the Pagan community, we’re largely stuck with the pay-per-thing model. There aren’t any “right” answers to this, but it’s something to consider when your favorite event raises their prices or changes how they are doing something–or, when your favorite event continues to run just as it is, even though that means you cannot attend any longer.

Remember that event organizers are largely volunteer and it’s a heck of a lot of work. Most event organizers do not have a nefarious plot to exclude you, it’s just that there isn’t always a great way to include everyone.

And if we want to change things for the future, we have to explore different models of doing things.

Filed under: Pagan Community, Ritual

Mysteries: You Won’t Learn This In Books

Posted by on Oct 20, 2014 in magic, Pagan Community | Leave a comment


The first thing most seekers want is books. And yes–books are valuable. I write books, I read books. But some things, you just can’t learn from reading. And that’s people involved in spiritual work mean when we say, “It’s a mystery.” The mysteries are the things that we can write about over and over, but you really won’t get it until you’ve experienced them for yourself.

I field a lot of questions from seekers on various online lists and groups, as well as when I travel and teach at events or offer events in Chicago. What’s the first question people usually ask me?

“What books should I read?”

What Do I Recommend?
First, let me offer what I usually recommend as far as books go, and then I’ll go into the difficulty with the book-focused Pagan seeker.

I usually recommend River and Joyce Higginbotham’s book Paganism because, though it does have a leaning toward a Wiccanate perspective or what I call “post-Wicca,” it’s not teaching Wicca specifically and it offers exercises to determine what you believe before choosing a particular tradition. It’s a book that many people gift to their friends/parents when they are coming out, so it’s pretty accessible.

However–I tell them that this is just a beginning, a way to figure out what they believe. The book offers some tools to figure out, are you a pantheist or a polytheist, what your core beliefs are, and more. These things are all useful in helping a seeker to figure out what tradition might be of interest.

Attend Rituals
Early on I try to encourage people to go and attend public Pagan events to get a sense of what might call to them. I suggest that they attend the rituals of different groups’ rituals. If it’s in Chicagoland, or another area where I have taught, I give them a run down of local groups. I try to give them a heads up on necessary local politics, for lack of better words, without overwhelming them. For instance, “There’s XYZ tradition that meets for sabbats over at ABC venue. They are nice folks, but they’ve been running that group for over a decade so they are a little bit of a clique. However, if you like the ritual work, keep going and you can become a part of the crew, just know that it’ll take time, and I know that’s frustrating for someone who shows up not knowing anyone.” Etc, etc.

But so very often, I know that people don’t ever go out and attend anything.

Why the Focus on Books?
Overall, I hear people wanting me to recommend books. And I think there are a few reasons, some that are helpful and some that aren’t. There are various online programs for Pagans these days that have hundreds, if not thousands of people signed up. Why? They want someone to tell them what to read, what they need to learn, and to say, “Yes, you passed this class.”

In the worst cases, we’re talking about seekers who fit a certain profile. These would be Pagans who come to it wanting to learn “powerful magic.” They want to learn the spell that will “magically” fix their life, which feels broken. Truth is, these folks are often wracked with poor self esteem. These are people who have been bulldozed by life, bullied, hurt. They want the power to change their lives and they think Paganism/Wicca/Spells is going to do it. And for these folks, no spellwork is going to fix their lives, not until they do the deep personal work. That work is possible to do from books, but, it’s also definitely one of those mysteries that a book can’t contain. It’s dependent on the individual practitioner.

I think that a lot of seekers are looking for a way to learn without having to physically attend a class. I also think many seekers are looking for a replication of their primary school experience where someone says, “Yes, I approve of you, you got an A. You have learned these mysteries.” Sometimes it’s a matter of travel distance–they are in a rural area without good transportation to get to any group activities. Or, they are Hellenic Reconstructionist and there aren’t any recons in their area, only Wiccan covens.Add to that all the cranky leaders and dysfunctional groups out there, as well as the really poorly-facilitated rituals, and I can see why people go for books.

Books are easier.

However, we start to run into a problem. Many Pagans confide in me that, though they’ve been reading Pagan books for 5-10 years, they have never ever felt like they could do a ritual, even a private one for themselves, because they are worried they don’t know enough.

Problems With the System
I think that it’s easier for people to go to books because people are afraid of looking stupid. There isn’t a lot of easy access to 101 education except through books. There are teaching covens, and the occasional Pagan class, or a bigger name author comes through town to teach a class, but in many areas there’s not really good access to basic 101 education unless you are taking an oath to a particular tradition. And, I have some issues about that, largely in how the word “oathbound” is often used to facilitate abuse, but that’s another post entirely.

In addition, most public rituals I have attended are really poorly facilitated, particularly in the sense of being accessible to new seekers. Many of these rituals give absolutely no way for people to access the divine unless they are already advanced practitioners on their own. I use ecstatic ritual not necessarily because of my theology, but because of science. It works. I’m not there to tell you what the divine looks like, I’m there to get you singing and dancing and in a trance state so that you can get there on your own.

I have actually burst into tears on a few occasions when people attend one of my rituals and say, “I’ve been Pagan for 20 years and I’ve never actually felt anything in ritual until now.” I’m not trying to toot my own horn–I’m just using the ecstatic ritual techniques that I learned. Techniques anyone can learn to use, but they don’t. They do ritual the way they learned to do ritual, without perhaps every questioning if there is a better, more effective way to do it.

It Takes Time to Learn This Stuff
Right now I’m struggling to write a book on how to facilitate effective rituals, because, it really is stuff that needs to be taught in person. I can talk to you about singing techniques and breath control, which is wholly different from the experience of 50 of us singing together and learning how to use that to connect to the divine. There’s a value in the book as a textbook. As a resource to explain how it works. But if you want to learn how to facilitate effective rituals, you need to do that in person. And you need to devote the time to it.

People often ask me to teach leadership and ritual techniques in 1.5 hour time slots, or maybe 3-4 hours, but when I propose a whole day, a weekend, or a 3-day, they are like, “Oh, no, that’s too long. We can’t take that much time”

It takes days of working together to get a group into an intimate/spiritual/working headspace. It takes that long to begin to break through the ego barrier, and that’s a whole function of the mysteries that is difficult to explain, and must be experienced. At Recaliming Witchcamps and intensives, or Diana’s Grove intensives, we had 3 or more days to get into the groove. They were retreats–you are away from the world, and there’s a reason that that is important for work like this.

Can’t You Teach That in an Hour?
If you want to actually learn leadership and facilitation, or, do deep personal transformative mystery school work, it’s a big time commitment. A decade ago, I experienced that it was a lot easier to fill a room full of 20 people for a weekend intensive. These days, people will ask me, “Can I just show up for part of one day?” Which…totally defeats the purpose of the intensive. Last time I taught a 3-day ritual intensive in Chicago, I had a local group leader (who had pre-registered) and 2 of his volunteers (who had not pre-registered) show up on the third day, and then get frustrated that nothing made sense.

I have found it harder and harder to get people to commit to longer intensives. It’s not just a money thing–given I always charge on a sliding scale. (There is the factor of people who can’t afford to take the time off of work, of course.). I do notice that more affluent people tend to be more willing to make the time commitment. Specifically, even when I offer reduced rates for people that I know are struggling financially, that doesn’t necessarily mean those folks will attend the class I’m offering.

It seems to be partially an issue of numbers within the Pagan community. In any given area, there often just isn’t a critical mass of interested folks to be able to offer education that is energetically and financially sustainable. It’s also an issue of dedication and effort. Again, it’s easier to pick up a book and read it when you feel like it. Way, way harder to drive 3 hours to the woods for several days to live communally, or devote three days a month to intensive education.

It seems like there are less and less people willing to make the sacrifice of the time commitment to do this work. It’s way easier to just buy a book. Even easier to buy a book that sits on a shelf and you don’t actually read or do the exercises.

What Would Offer a Better Model?
The most successful community models I’ve seen are congregational Pagan communities, usually organizing out of a UU church or some other unity initiative where it’s about community gatherings, not about one specific tradition.

I’ve been on a soap box about why Pagans need to learn how to raise money as groups. Because it takes money to be able to offer this work, there’s no way around it. You need space to do the work–land, or a rented retreat center or any private venue. You need facilitators, and you need facilitators who can devote their professional focus to that work. The only way to do that is to have self sustaining clergy/leaders, and the only way to do that is through some kind of tithing/fundraising.

I also see various organizations that serve the broader Pagan community emerging (or growing stronger) and I believe those resources will help.

But ultimately, I have to face a truth. You can lead the horse to water but you can’t make it drink. I can offer education to my community, but I can’t make anyone decide to sacrifice the time that it’s going to take to really learn these things. Individual seekers need to make that decision for themselves. But, there is another simple truth. Either you devote the time, or you don’t. And if you aren’t willing to devote the time, don’t expect to gain mastery.

Books are an excellent resource. They can help you begin your path. They can offer resources as you go along. They can teach you tools and techniques, give you background. Books are still part of the process.

However, if all you’re willing to do is read a book or a web site, don’t expect to experience the deeper mysteries.

Filed under: Magic, Pagan Community

Activism, Burnout, and Magic

shutterstock_18780682Sometimes bloggers will ask me to write a bit about my thoughts on a particular issue…and, being longwinded, I usually have a hard time coming up with a a concise quote. Tim Titus asked a really pertinent question and I had a lot of answer, so here’s the full text of what I wrote in response.

The issue is activism, overwhelm, burnout, and magic.

Tim Titus asked me:

“There are so many pressing social, environmental, human rights, and justice issues across the world right now that it can be hard to keep up. Many witches and other magickal people want to help, but the problems seem so widespread and so intractable that it can be hard to know where to start. Sometimes that leads us to just give up. How do you choose issues to take action on? Knowing that we can’t always physically lend aid, What magickal acts can you suggest to help heal some of the world’s most difficult problems?”


Here’s the original blog post on Tim’s site along with some great quotes from other Pagans.

This topic something I think about a lot. I’ve suffered various types of burnout not just as an activist but as an event planner, as an artist, and a writer. Specifically as an activist, I’ve learned to limit my focus. When I worry about all the ills of the world I get overwhelmed, stressed out, and I freeze up. In fact, as a kid I was so hypersensitive that seeing TV commercials with the starving kids in Ethiopia would make me physically ill. As an adult, I realized that watching the news stressed me out. In fact, I can’t even really watch TV shows about characters who are horrible people because I get too upset. I think about all the horrible people out there in the world and I want to just crawl into bed and hide.

While there are a lot of things in this world I’m concerned about, my activism in the past has primarily focused on environmental issues. While I’ve blogged and spoken about environmental activism to educate people how to live more sustainable lives, the bulk of my activism there has been through living more simply and reducing my own impact. I’ve also done a lot of what I’d call daily activism in the area of speaking up about privilege, bullying, racism, homophobia and transgender discrimination.

Impact on the Activist
Of late, my activism has focused a lot on supporting a sex positive culture and fighting rape culture, particularly within the Pagan umbrella. That’s a type of activism that works well with the resources I have at my disposal—social media, blogs, articles, and public speaking. I have written books, I have a following, and so I have a voice within the Pagan community/communities.

However, I’m the first to admit that this particular activism has also proven to be really emotionally exhausting. Whenever I put up a blog post taking someone to task or asking for accountability, and especially speaking up about sex and ethics issues, what folks might not realize is that I’m then dealing with days of intense comments. I’m dealing with the occasional hatemail, or even just long discussions with people who disagree with me. I value dissent, however, living my values and talking things out takes hours of time, and costs me in terms of stress and anxiety.

I also receive numerous messages from people who have been abused and who need someone to share their story with who will understand. Sometimes I’ll get a huge email from someone telling me about their story that they can’t speak up about because of the recriminations they will face. Other times people ask me to talk to them on the phone. And I’m honored that people feel safe checking in with me, but it is a lot of emotional weight to carry.

So every time I post one of those really intense articles or blog posts, we’re talking at least a full-time day of managing comments and emails, and about a week of what I’d sum up as emotional fallout.

What’s the impact on my life? Well, I’m mostly a hermit.

As an introvert, one of my primary coping mechanisms to avoid stress is simple; I avoid people most of the time. The more anxiety I have in my life, the harder it is for me to have the emotional resources to do things like simple social events. The impact on my life is that speaking up about these things and dealing with the fallout makes it hard for me to write, paint, or design–in other words, to do the things that bring in income.

The impact on my life is that the more stress I’m under, the harder it is for me to want to teach workshops at a Pagan Pride, or to organize a class or workshop in my local community, or even to go out on a date.

I value the work that I’m doing, and I acknowledge that activism is sacrifice. To build the world I want, I’m willing to let a little bit of my own blood. I mean that metaphorically in terms of my own energy. In other words, I’m willing to exchange some of my own life force to bring about the change; no change ever happened by everybody being comfortable. Someone has to sit in the wrong spot on the bus, drink from the water fountain, chain yourself to the tree, blow the whistle.

But, the various shaming, victim blaming, and other crap that I deal with has begun to edge toward “more than I’m willing to give.”

How Does Magic Help?
To the question of what magical acts I can suggest…that’s probably the toughest part of this question, because my relationship to the word “magic” is complicated. Or rather—I have struggled the past years to redefine magic for myself. I look at magic as understanding the mysteries of how the world works behind the scenes. I see magic as the power of transformation. Thus, I understand magic mostly in the sense of, determining a goal, and marshaling my resources (energetic, mental, and physical) toward that goal.

However, in the Pagan community, I experience that many people use the word “magic” to mean, “Imagining that I’m sending energy to something when I’m not willing to do the actual work to make it happen.”

So I tend to be leery of using the word “magic” in terms of activism.

Here’s the thing. Changing the world isn’t easy, and it takes a lot of work. There’s setting intention, and then there’s the physical work to do it. That’s part of magic too. While rituals and spells absolutely serve to set that intention, they also aren’t the whole package. You can’t say, “I want to heal the earth,” and then keep drinking bottled water and using resources the way most people do.

Once, years ago, I was asked to facilitate an earth healing ritual at a festival, and I likely will never do so again.Why? Because years later, the people of that festival leave piles of trash behind them when they return home. They eagerly discuss all year long all the extra camping supplies they’ll bring, and they load in tons of things like flats of bottled water and beer, and then they fail to even sort their recycling.

Maybe the ritual helped inspire some of them reduce their use of resources…but I think for most of them it was a way to fell like they were doing something to heal the earth, when they really weren’t. I think for most of them it was a “feel good” ritual.

Magic and Dedication
If you want magic, if you want change, it requires dedication. One of the daily pieces of magic that I do is speaking the truth. What I mean by that is, I’ve taken a vow to—as best I can—speak the truth. And that’s far more complicated than you might think. However, over time, this means that my words have more power, more magic, more ability to transform the world.

Here’s an example. Most people say, “I have to go do ___.” Do you have to? Or, are you choosing to? It doesn’t matter if the task is unpleasant and you’d rather not. Today I chose to go to the Post Office and spend $100 mailing out packages. I didn’t have to, I chose to. Many people say, “I have to go visit family for the holidays.” Or when asked if they can help with something, people will make up an excuse. “Oh, I can’t, I’m washing my hair.” We tell lies all the time.

I work to speak the truth, even when it’s awkward. I try to keep my tongue clean of lies and half truths. It not only builds up my personal magic, but my relentless honesty is part of what gives my blogs, articles, and public speaking their power. People believe me because they know I speak the truth. And–to speak the truth here, I don’t always manage it. I do my best to speak the truth whenever possible, but there are times when I slip up and speak the easy white lie or the half truth. But this is something I work hard at.

It takes daily commitment, and this is just one of my daily practices. Other consistent magical practices I engage in are relentless personal work and shadow work.

I suppose what I mean is, I think people mistake “magic” for “easy.” Magic is still work. However—what I would say is two things if you are finding yourself overwhelmed.

  1. If you are finding yourself overwhelmed by all the pain out there, you might need to take some space and work on your boundaries. You might need to say “No, I can’t help with that” for a while. And you might need to look at what activism to focus on, which is both looking at what you are most passionate about, and where you can have the most impact. There are a lot of different types of activism. I go back to the axiom, Know Thyself. Focus on what you care about, not on what you “should” be helping with. If you focus on the “shoulds” you’ll lose energy fast. Focus on where your fire is; your passion for the cause is your fuel. A good rule of thumb is, if it doesn’t piss you off, it’s probably not your calling.
  2. The other thing is that there is some magic that is really effective at transforming ourselves to keep our spirits up.

Magic for Centering
As someone who struggles with depression and anxiety, I admit I don’t always use the tools at my disposal. Some of the tools that come from magic and ritual that are excellent for centering ourselves and keeping our spirits up include listening to music, and especially singing along to music or singing chants, using singing bowls…sound is incredibly powerful magic and can help you shift your mood from sad/anxious/depressed and into a more focused head space where you are making better decisions. Light a candle, light incense, do some intentional movement like Yoga or Tai Chi or exercise or go out dancing, or other forms of meditation.

I call this “short term” magic; the various actions we perform when doing ritual, spellwork, or personal devotional practice aren’t necessarily going to change the world in the long term, but they’re going to help you to be able to center and keep your focus so that you can sustain doing the work.

Magic and the Vision of the Future
Overall, a lot of magic is about knowing what the goal is, and looking at how you will approach working toward transforming yourself and the world to support that goal. And—for some of the big activism, there’s the realization that you will die with the work unfinished.

Let me tell you, that one’s hard. I’m still working with wrapping my head around that one. Look at the goals, and look at what you can, as an individual, reasonably accomplish. Keeping focus may help you to reduce your overwhelm.

I wish I could say pretty things here. I wish I could say it gets easier, but the truth is, most activists burn out. The truth is, most activists end up pissing people off because they are vocal about what they’d like to see change and speaking up about issues. The truth is, many activists have a hard time sleeping because they see shit running through their brain and can’t shut it off. Many activists have a hard  time being happy because they are so sensitive tot he pain in the world around them. Because they see past the curtain. They see the Matrix Code, as it were.

I’m writing this at a point of some serious activist burnout on my part. Writing about sex and ethics and leadership ethics in the Pagan community and having so many people tell me they’ve been sexually abused…and so many other people say that they still support leaders/teachers who are abusive. Or people saying that if you take sexually abusive practices out of their tradition it’s destroying their tradition…seeing so many verbally abusive Pagan leaders out there…it’s wearying.

When I post a blog about the abuses I went through with my ex fiance, I will have people simultaneously message me and yell at me to say, “Quit defending him, you keep making excuses for him,” and others messaging me saying, “Quit your whining, you blame everything on him, I’m sick of your woe-is-me posts.” And far worse messages, and the occasional threat.

I’m not really doing a good job with this post on selling people on being an activist, am I?

However, here’s why I keep at it. Because if I don’t, who will do this work? If I don’t act, can I look at myself in the mirror? Can I look into the faces of the next generation and feel like I did my best?

Callings aren’t easy. But somebody’s gotta do it.

For another great post on determining where to focus your energy as an activist, and when to hold a boundary, check out my friend Lauren’s post on Pagan Activist.

Filed under: Activism, Leadership, Magic, Pagan Community

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

Advanced Facilitation: Dealing with Problematic Behavior

shutterstock_187864790smOne of the more common questions I’m asked is, how do you deal with a disruptive participant when facilitating a ritual or workshop? In fact, one of the things many Pagans tell me is they are afraid to teach workshops because of all the heckling and know-it-all behavior they’ve observed as a workshop participant. The purpose of this blog post isn’t to go into why it happens, but to outline a few scenarios and how you might handle them. I’ll talk about workshops, rituals, and touch on behavior that comes up in longer-term groups.

Scenario: Know-It-All Leader
What do you do when a local leader, elder, or otherwise experienced practitioner vocally heckles you in the middle of a ritual? Maybe they are telling you that you called the quarters wrong or something else. Instead of taking you to the side after the ritual, they step into the center and loudly bully you. Not only do you have to deal with them, you have to somehow refocus your group and offer a ritual. 

When someone vocally defies the ritual setup and gets confrontational about it, that is probably one of the most challenging things to facilitate. Harder even than dealing with an altar on fire.

What I can honestly say is that if a facilitator has basic competence and confidence, and sets up their agreements for behavior, this type of thing rarely happens. Really rarely. I’ve heard some horror stories of it happening, but I’ll be honest–this hasn’t yet happened to me. And, I often facilitate rituals that might invite this sort of challenge.

The less aggressive version of this is the sort of standard heckling/know-it-all when facilitating a workshop. I don’t typically have that happen either, though in a workshop setting it’s a lot easier to shut someone down if they are interrupting. If I’ve set up the agreement asking people to not interrupt each other, and if I’ve set up the agreement asking people to keep their contributions brief…heck. Even if I haven’t set up that agreement, if someone is being contradictory, or playing know it all, there are really 2 ways to handle it depending on how aggressive they are.

1. If they aren’t really aggressive and are making a decent point, particularly if they seem actually knowledgeable, I’ll say something like, “You seem to know a lot more about the Occult ____ of tarot, and I just want to reiterate that for the purposes of this workshop, I’m working more with the personal growth aspect of Tarot cards. And there’s a number of exercises I promised I’d do as part of this workshop so I want to go ahead an move on to the next topic, but if you can stick around after the workshop, maybe folks who are interested in talking about Occult ____ can ask you some questions.” This one’s more of a, someone’s making a good point but it’s derailing the class.

2. If someone’s continually interrupting me or being otherwise rude in contradicting me, I will be a little more direct. Again, if I’ve set up agreements, this happens rarely but it does happen. If they are making a good point, I acknowledge it, but I would say something like, “So I just want to refresh our agreements here together for not interrupting. I hear that you ___person’s name__ have a lot that you seem to want to say, and I’m glad you’re excited by the topic, but the focus of this workshop is on ____. I’m going to ask you to hold your comments until the end and I’d be happy to talk more then about your specific ___issue/topic__. I have a lot of material to cover for this workshop and I want to make sure I cover what I promised.”

And, if they pull the KnowItAll/interrupting again, I’ll interrupt them–calmly. “I’m not going to address that at this point because ____ topic, and I again ask you to hold off on tangents so that we can keep on track for the workshops. I want to remind you of the agreements to not be disruptive.” Depending on the room layout, I might use body language, like standing next to that participant. Strike 3, I ask them to leave, but that hasn’t happened.

Ritual Interruptus
Typically, I hear of the ritual interruptus sort of thing happening when someone who is trained in a particular branch of Wicca has an issue with how someone is doing a ritual. I’ve heard of ADF druids having a local Wiccan priestess go off on them for failing to cast a circle. And I’ve heard of other scenarios that basically run out as, the ritual has started, and a well-known local leader literally steps into the center and loudly says some version of, “You’re doing it wrong.”

Again, I haven’t had to deal with this, and my response would greatly depend on the energy of the room and the hostility of the person. However, assuming that we’re at a public ritual with 50+ people, many that I don’t know, and they are all kind of shocked by this, and assuming that the person has just a vague edge of hostility…I might approach it like this.

Assuming it’s me they are interrupting and not one of my ritual team, I’d turn to face them, perhaps step closer to them (but not get in their face). And I’d say something like, “The ritual format I’m using is pretty common to several different traditions and I’m really confident that the way I’ve set things up are going to work for this ritual and for this group. But, I can see that this ritual probably isn’t going to work for you, and your actions are a pretty significant breach of our agreements here together for mutual respect. And with respect, I’m going to ask you to leave this space. Energy like this is not welcome here.”

(Depending on hostility, they might interrupt me before I get that far, of course.)

I’d probably ask everyone else to take a breath and take a step back, and then I’d escort the person out or engage some of my team members in doing that. Then, of course, there’s the work of re-centering and focusing the group. People don’t tend to emotionally deal well with conflict like that, but asking people to reconnect, take a breath. Re-stating the agreements. Asking people what they need to feel safe. Perhaps inviting them to sing a tone with me to help recenter. There’s a way to do it, it just takes time.

Most of the time, what happens is the person interrupting ends up being someone really intimidating, like someone who has been leading a group for 20-30 years but who has issues. And it’s usually a younger, less confident facilitator who is getting bullied. The key is to stay calm, project competence and confidence, and clearly state the agreements and the consequences for not upholding them. Getting angry and defensive just makes things worse.

What Wards and Safeguards Do You Use?
I don’t really use what most people would think of as wards. I work with. I tend to work more with here-and-now behaviors. If someone’s acting in a harmful way toward the group, then I have a responsibility to check in with them, and perhaps eject them from the group. The core of my warding is pretty mundane, but really darned potent. It’s setting up group agreements. The core of it is pretty simple–it’s letting people know what’s acceptable behavior and what’s not. There’s an axiom, “If you don’t ask for it, you can’t be upset that you didn’t get it.” This is really true with group behavior. If I want people to engage in particular behaviors, and not in others, then I have to spell out what the accepted behaviors are.

There are typically some things I don’t have to state. “Don’t start punching each other.” That’s pretty well assumed.

Group Agreements
For instance, most of my events are dry (no alcohol), so I used to explicitly state “no drugs or alcohol.” In Chicago, I don’t really state that on emails/flyers because it’s never been a problem; in all my years of running events, I can only really think of two times someone has come to an event clearly drunk.

However, for any workshop or ritual, I’ll usually offer my standard set of group agreements. For ritual, that includes letting people know that while we are connecting together in a circle, people can go to the bathroom if they need to, or step outside for some air, as long as they come back with respect. The basic agreement is I ask for people to attend to their own needs; if they are cold, come closer to the fire. If they are thirsty, there’s where they can get water. If they need to sit, they can. The agreement is for self responsibility.

Agreements for Emotional Self Responsibility
Agreements for intense work include emotional self responsibility. Those agreements are more complex. Basically I might articulate the theme of the ritual/intensive. Maybe we’re going to the Underworld to release an old wound from our past. I ask people to not try and fix anyone–if someone’s crying, letting them have their process, not go over and try to hug someone and “fix” them. (It’s not actually fixing, it’s derailing both people’s process.) On the flip side, I tell people that if they are crying and upset and they’d like a hug, that they can ask for that. I offer that in my case, if I’m crying and someone comes over to try and hug me, it’s not going to help me, it’s going to make me feel like I need to stop crying.

Similarly, if someone’s focused on “fixing” me, it’s derailing them from doing their own work there in the Underworld. But, it points to how difficult many people find it to just sit there and be uncomfortable while someone else cries.

And then I follow it all up with the info that if someone’s curled up on the floor wailing, I’m going to assume that’s what they need for their process. I’m not going to come over and try to tend them. However–if anyone comes to the end of the ritual and needs a little help coming back, or processing anything, that I and other facilitators are there for that. But I do ask people to be generally self responsible and not do work that is too much for them to do in that context.

That’s a pretty specific, intensive example, but basically it follows the general axiom of, if you don’t ask for it, then you won’t get the behavior you want.

Additional Standard Agreements
I have other more general agreements, such as, asking people to be considerate about how much time they are taking up in a meeting or workshop during discussions or checking in, asking for mutual respect and not interrupting others, or not offering advice to someone’s check in unless they have permission, a few other things.

If people are behaving in ways that are aberrant to this, I might interrupt that behavior. Like if someone’s going on and on and I need to move on with a workshop or ritual, I’ll interrupt them. I give them the benefit of the doubt that they just lost track and were rambling, but, I also check in with them after and ask them to be more aware of how much of a chunk of time they are taking up.

If the behavior is significantly outside the realm of what’s ok in a ritual, I may try to find a way to keep someone calm during a ritual and address it after. If I really had to, I’d eject someone from a ritual. I haven’t ever had to, at least, not from an event I was running.

At an event where I was a guest facilitator, one guy had an episode during a ritual; he was medicated for anger management and he started swearing, rocking back and forth, seething, ramping up to get violent. My cofacilitator pulled the guy over to the altar/station I was managing and told the guy to give his anger to Brigid’s Forge (I was Brigid at the Forge) and in that case, it worked, but I wouldn’t have allowed that guy into a future ritual.

Poor Behavior in Longer Term Groups
With closed rituals and long-term coven practices, you have a lot of advantages, and one specific disadvantage. The advantage of the coven/closed group relationship is pretty specific–you know people more intimately. These aren’t just random people coming in for a public ritual, these are people you’ve worked with before. These people become acquaintances and even close friends, depending on the intensity of the work.

The disadvantage is that when we know someone well, we want to make space for them to heal, we have more invested in each other, and it’s harder to cut someone off. We get into that codependent dance with them–and it’s because we want them to be able to be involved. These are, I would say, the hardest people to cut out of a group, because it’s not that they’re terrible people. It’s just that their actions are consistently destructive to the group.

In my Pagan Activist blog post on mental health  in the first part of the article I offer the example of the group leader working with a woman diagnosed with Bipolar. She worked with that woman for 10 years to the overall detriment of herself as a leader and to her group–the woman kept on stopping her treatment plan, acting out in harmful ways, and one by one, other group members left over the years.

I’ve also written about some of the specific red flag behaviors that a group leader–particularly of a smaller more intimate group or a leadership team–will want to keep an eye out for:

Intimacy and Issues
While I’ve never been part of a coven, the monthly intensives at Diana’s Grove had a similar feel because, after attending events for a year, everyone knows who you are. Everyone knows what baggage you’re working with. Everyone knows each other, and even though the intensives were groups of 30-50, many of us became close friends.

With the advantage of knowing someone, and with the advantage of seeing someone’s behaviors playing out long-term vs. just at the occasional public event, you have the opportunity to address those behaviors with someone. This is especially useful for folks in that gray-zone of, doing some things that are somewhat inappropriate, but, they can probably address their behavior. Vs. the folks that are really acting out in ways that it’s pretty clear aren’t going to change.

Example: Having the Hard Conversation
A quick example–maybe it’s a group that puts on public rituals, or, a group that puts on an annual Pagan Pride, or even just a coven where different people are expected to take different ritual roles or do different organizing of rituals or classes for the coven. If there’s someone who frequently takes on a job and then drops the ball, that’s something where eventually a leader-type person will need to have a conversation with them and outline:

“In the past year I’ve noticed that you’ve taken on tasks X, Y, and Z, and each time you were very excited to step in and help, and each time you did not complete the task and someone else had to do the task instead. The impact that this has is that the people who have to step in and do the task have a lot less planning and preparation, and, they also already have other tasks they are responsible for. I’m guessing that isn’t the impact you want to have, so let’s talk about what’s going on.”

If you look at the “Conflict Resolution Part 6″ blog post linked above, there’s a lot there about behaviors that in and of themselves aren’t terrible, but added together they become a problem.

The idea is that with a longer-term group, folks are more close-knit and there’s more opportunity to see patterns in our fellow group members. The disadvantage is that usually this ends up being an exercise in enabling; people would rather excuse someone’s poor behavior than confront them about it.However, with the right group agreements and skilled facilitation, this can be more of an opportunity to work with someone’s behavior and express the impact of that behavior.

If the person can change the behavior they can become a stronger part of the group. If they continue engaging in red flag behavior, then it’s time to consider removing them from the group.

Confidence and Calm
There are a lot of scenarios that can come up that require leaders and facilitators to address conflict or a really emotional scenario. The key is keeping calm, and being confident. A confident (not arrogant) facilitator will face less heckling, and also will be able to keep more calm when attacked. A facilitator who isn’t confident and who has poor self esteem or other baggage will be more defensive. We defend our weaknesses. Defensiveness will just escalate the issue and cause more drama, whereas confidence allows you to stay centered and clear.

True confidence allows you to be really clear about the issues and keep calm. And, sometimes that’s just something that you need to build over time. If you are heckled and your first urge is to yell at the person and take them down a peg, you’ll want to take a look at why that’s your first response. Being angry at rude behavior makes sense, but also look at the long term impact you want to have. If you are trying to teach a workshop, and you dressing down the rude participant becomes the focus of the rest of the workshop, that’s probably not what you want.

Sometimes you can’t avoid it when someone brings drama to your door, but how you handle it will help determine whether or not you get to finish facilitating that workshop or ritual or if things break down into fisticuffs.

Pro-tip: It sounds cliche, but taking that cleansing breath (or three) before you speak to someone really will help clear your head. Breathwork (and chanting, by extension) are really powerful techniques to manipulate your body’s natural adrenaline response and to bring centering and calm.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community

Conflict, Mediation, and Victim Blaming

shutterstock_60329779Over the past weeks I’ve seen a number of Pagan leadership issues emerge in entirely separate communities. I wrote a bit about some of them in my Pagan Elders post. There are other communities that I’m aware of that have very similar issues, however. Specifically, I want to talk about that problem that seems to be the core of so many Pagan community conflicts. Namely, where Group Leader A and Group Leader B have a problem. Particularly the scenario where Group Leader B is acting in a particularly reprehensible way and Group Leader A is at a loss for how to deal with it.

In some cases, Group Leader A speaks out. Or asks for help from their peers. Now…sometimes this borders into the land of triangulation where one party is pitted against another, but sometimes it’s a genuine attempt to figure out how to resolve the situation. Either way, it’s heartbreaking to watch it play out. The conflict, in some of these cases, is not actually resolvable. Group Leader A speaks out, some people suggest mediation, others blame the victim. It’s so common I can tick off the phases of the process like clockwork.

I’ve seen it happen a few times recently, so I’m offering a generalized process based on a few different real life examples.

Local Leader Issue
Sometimes I get to hear about a local community’s issue with a particular local leader when I travel and teach. I can think of a few examples where I was teaching leadership workshops and, one by one, local leaders and group members would take me aside and say, “So, I have a problem with a local leader.” They’d outline the situation without naming the problematic leader in question, but–given I keep my ear to the ground, I figure out who they are talking about and I say, “Do you mean Group Leader B?” and they say, “OMG, yes. I didn’t want to badmouth them, but their behavior has been so difficult…we just don’t know what to do.”

Sometimes in a situation like that, I’ve had interactions with Group Leader B online or at previous events. Sometimes I haven’t. Either way, it’s like trying to pull together a portrait of someone from a rough mosaic of pieces. Sometimes the portrait is pretty clear, particularly when group leaders and members from various groups are telling a similar pattern of stories that are in alignment with poor behavior I’ve seen from that group leader either online or in person. While it’s all still “hearsay,” it gains legitimacy through consistency as well as through the lack of benefit to the people telling the story. If that many people come to me with a story about a leader, and they don’t have anything to gain by telling me, and in fact, they at first try to shield the identity of the leader they are talking about, that says something.

What Do You Want?
People usually want one of a few things at that point, either from me or just in general.

  1. How can I fix this leader and make them stop being abusive? or,
  2. Can you help mediate this situation and fix it? or,
  3. If there’s no way to fix them, how do I make them stop leading and hurting people? or, when it’s really desperate,
  4. Can you render a judgment against this leader so that they stop?

I’ll start with that last one first. I have no powers to render any judgments. I do use the power of my “bully pulpit” on occasion to speak out against specific leaders, but I typically only do that when I have the direct proof of horrific things they’ve publicly said or written, or, if I have some credible information including first-hand experiences. And, just because I speak out against a leader that I’ve named doesn’t mean I have any more power than anybody else does to “make them stop.” As I’ve said over and over–because the Pagan subculture has no hierarchy (since we’re a collection of hundreds of different religions and spiritual paths) there’s no “Pope” who can defrock someone, with the exception of a few specific traditions.

Therefore, the only power to remove anyone as a leader is really through the mob-mentality politics that run any poorly-managed consensus group, which is to say, the outspoken people, charismatic people, and the bullies all tend to have more power. Generally, it becomes a PR war and a popularity contest, the same as it does with government politics. It’s not pretty, and the “witch wars” of the past are part of why people are now so gun-shy about speaking up about a bad Pagan leader.

Fixing Them
As for “fixing” someone, there are really two basic scenarios, and it ties into mediation. Either the leader who is engaging in harmful behavior is doing so out of ignorance and, when they are confronted and they internalize the feedback, they voluntarily will work to shift their behavior. Or, the leader who is engaging in harmful behavior has some way deeper issues going on and they will never be able to change. Sadly, the latter type of leader will also have the tendency to engage the Jekyll/Hyde pattern common to abusers. That is to say, they may profusely apologize after they’ve done something harmful. And they may even mean it. But, they’ll continue returning to their default behavior.

Sometimes, you have to give someone the benefit of the doubt that they’ll work to change. However, knowing the pattern of abuse and the Jekyll/Hyde pattern, you can observe to see if things really are changing, or if they are just going back to their old patterns. Three strikes is generally a good rule of thumb.

For some of the leaders people have shared stories with me about, we’re talking 15, 30, 50 strikes. And that’s just the stories I’ve heard.

Red Flags
I have a whole series of posts on red flags here on this blog. Those posts are offered in a more logical order in my Leader Within book. But, it’s always worth talking about more to build awareness. Some red flags for me are how those leaders behave online. While I’m not in a position to diagnose a personality disorder, when I see a number of red flags of narcissistic behavior, that’s something I take note of.

It’s also worthy of note to me when I teach in a particular area and hear a lot of complaints about Group Leader B, and then out of the blue, Group Leader B contacts me (unsolicited) and starts complaining about Group Leader A, or a number of other members of their community. It’s also worthy of note when Group Leader B contacts me like that out of the blue and is suddenly very interested in talking to me only after I did a workshop for their “rival” group, and they have in the past ignored my attempts to reach out to them and talk.

Another thing that is worthy of note is when the people complaining about Group Leader B are doing so with compassion. They don’t want to harm Group Leader B, they just want to “fix” them. Or, if they’ve been around the block a few more times and have been harmed by the actions of Group Leader B, they just want the abuse to stop. They ask me,  “How do we stop them from abusing people?”

Observing Patterns
Again, none of these are things I can do a whole lot about other than observe and take note of the pattern. In some cases, the sheer volume of complaints about a particular leader does concern me. I tend to find that the truth points to itself, meaning, the folks that are doing unethical stuff tend to keep doing it and it creates a pattern over time.

But, I’m also not willing to speak out against someone by name without significant evidence.

For that matter, I have to hold an awareness of the difficulty when I’ve gotten to know the people on one “side” of an issue and I don’t know Group Leader B as well. However, when I get to know a group of people, I get a sense of their behavior. Actually, it can tell me a lot when a group of people complaining about Group Leader B are not, themselves, engaging in “red flag” behaviors.

There Are Two Sides To Every Story!
Well, yes, that’s true. And in many conflicts, both parties have made things worse. However, in situations where we have a Group Leader B who has engaged in a long-term pattern of abusive and narcissistic behavior, while Group Leader A may have reacted in ways that aren’t helpful and potentially exacerbated the situation, there’s no amount of “good” behavior on Group Leader A’s part that is going to fix the problem. Group Leader A coming to the mediation table with an open heart isn’t going to fix an abuser or a narcissist.

I have mediated/negotiated conflicts before where there was no “bad guy.” Where both “sides” were engaging in a downward spiral of behavior that just kept getting worse. Sometimes just as it helps in a relationship to go to a marriage counselor to get outside of the conflict and see how both sides are contributing to the problem, sometimes a mediator or negotiator can help point out those patterns from outside. Often the pattern is happening in all innocence. Nobody is Sauron/Voldemort/Darth Vader. It’s just a misunderstanding, layers of frustration and baggage, and anger resulting from that.

However…sometimes one side is, in fact, a repeat abuser. They may have also been abused, they may have baggage, they may have tons of reasons why they are doing what they are doing, but that doesn’t make it ok for them to continue to engage in the behavior.

Complain to Their Superior!
As Paganism grows more populous traditions, there are in fact groups that belong to larger traditions where, theoretically, there is a hierarchy that can censure group leaders under their banner. Here’s the problem. I’m aware of at least two big traditions that regularly fail to address problematic leaders. One tradition I know of likes to have a soft touch; they have eventually dealt with some of their leadership acting badly, but they let it go on for a really long time.

The other tradition that I am thinking of has had several direct complaints about some of their clergy, and they have refused to hear the complaints. I’ve heard of them berating complainers essentially saying that the complainer deserves the abuse for defying their HP/HPS, or that the complainer deserves the abuse, that the gods must have wanted them to suffer, things along those lines. I’m not currently willing to name those traditions as I’m still trying to gather more data. (If you have a story like that about a tradition you’ve worked with, shoot me an email please at ShaunaAura (at) gmail (dot) com. )

In many other cases, I’ve essentially heard from tradition heads that once a person is made HP/HPS or the equivalent, that title can never be taken from them. In my mind, that seems irresponsible…but, that’s how some traditions are run. I have heard on one occasion of a midwestern Pagan leader who was acting so poorly her HPS stripped her of her title and took on her students so that they could finish up their degrees. However, that is really pretty rare to hear of that happening.

But, Mediation!
I recommend mediation a lot, and people rarely actually do it. And–when it works, it’s a great thing. But here’s one problem that a lot of people fail to take into account. Mediation is not at all appropriate in situations of abuse. A mediation gives the abuser access to the victim. One of the hallmarks of abuse–whether physical abuse or emotional abuse–is confusion. The abuse victim is groomed and programmed by their abuser to behave in a certain way. The Jekyll/Hyde pattern of lashing out and then apologizing creates a triggered response.

I’ve fallen for this myself. In fact, it was after a mediation with my ex fiance that I got back together with him for round 2 of abusive relationship Bingo. I later found out that he lied at our mediation session to gain sympathy. It’s worth pointing out that, while mediation is ordered by the court in a number of divorce proceedings, mediation is not allowed in cases where there are allegations of abuse, because it just allows the abuser to suck the victim back into the cycle.

Don’t get me wrong. Mediation is a great tool…when it works. But mediation isn’t going to work with:

  • A repeat abuser
  • Someone with one of the major personality disorders or another untreated mental illness, alcoholism, or other addictions
  • Someone who is just a real jerk and unwilling or unable to look at their behavior

Victim Blaming
So here we come to the problem. When abuse victims speak up about Group Leader B, people who are sucked into Group Leader B’s charisma are going to defend Group Leader B. There are tons of reasons for this, and that’s a whole separate blog post.

However, people who are theoretically neutral are often going to dig into Group Leader A, or anyone else who speaks up about Group Leader B.

Here are some victim-blaming comments that are so common it’s like they come off a script. The sentiment isn’t always wrong–and often folks mean well–but in cases of abusive behavior, you can see where this becomes problematic.

  • “You’re just stirring up trouble.”
  • “If you’d only engage in mediation with them.”
  • “You’ve already made your decision, you aren’t coming into this with an open heart.”
  • “Stop tearing other leaders down! You are destroying our community!”
  • “There are two sides to every story.”
  • “You have responsibility in this too. Stop blaming everything on them.”
  • “I can see you’re not willing to give mediation a chance.”
  • “Why can’t you just get over the past?”
  • “Let bygones be bygones.”
  • “It’s time to move forward and stop blaming them.”
  • “You’re just engaging in a power play. You sicken me.”

As you can see, those sentiments on their own aren’t necessarily bad–and most of us say these things on autopilot. But, put yourself in the abuse victim’s hot seat. You know about the abusive behavior of Group Leader B, and you’ve just spoken up about it publicly because you feel you cannot hold your silence, and you don’t want Group Leader B to hurt anyone else.

Try reading these things out loud from that mindset and see how they feel to you personally.

But What Actually Happened?
So often, the problem boils down to the old “He said/She Said.” We can’t know what Group Leader B did…until we can. When we see a repeatable pattern of behavior, I believe it’s our responsibility as a community to bring scrutiny onto that person. To check it out, to see what we can find out about it. While Paganism isn’t a hierarchy, we deserve better than the justice of the bully/mob and a popularity contest. Our victims don’t deserve to be blamed. That’s not what I want to see in the broader culture, and it’s not what I want to see in my own Pagan back yard.

How do we get past this? Well…right now, all we have is accountability. And what I mean by that is, not looking away. Not saying, “It’s not my problem.”

When a group leader, teacher, or author has done something that is really blatantly reprehensible, like Christian Day, a reasonable response is to cut ties with them. To stop supporting them by buying things or teaching for that person. To stop putting money into that person’s hands.

When a local leader has continued to engage in some questionable behavior, it is worthwhile to try and find out more about what has gone on. Try to find out from multiple sources. I find that the best data comes from people who have nothing to gain; when it’s not “Rival Leader A” making the complaint, but group member C, D, E, and F, none of whom are going to gain any special benefit from telling their story. In fact, they’ll probably be victim-blamed if they speak up and yet are still willing to do so. It’s worth keeping an eye out for Group Leader B and watching them, watching the pattern of their behavior.

Don’t follow the mob, the court of the popularity contest, in either direction. Watch with discernment. Learn if you’re susceptible to the Jekyll/Hyde pattern of abusive behavior and apology. If you find yourself willing to keep making excuses for a group leader because of “all the work they’ve done” or just because they apologized, think about that for a moment. Does the positive work they’ve done diminish the harm they continue to engage in?

There aren’t easy answers for these questions. But, if we continue to talk about it, solutions will begin to emerge. I think right now what is most important is that Pagans become aware that there are these problems, and that no, there aren’t easy fixes. Mediation isn’t always the solution–even though I wish it were.

Filed under: Leadership, Pagan Community