“There are real benefits to rituals, religious or otherwise.Recent research suggests that rituals may be more rational than they appear. Why? Because even simple rituals can be extremely effective.
Rituals performed after experiencing losses – from loved ones to lotteries – do alleviate grief, and rituals performed before high-pressure tasks – like singing in public – do in fact reduce anxiety and increase people’s confidence.
What’s more, rituals appear to benefit even people who claim not to believe that rituals work.
While anthropologists have documented rituals across cultures, this earlier research has been primarily observational. Recently, a series of investigations by psychologists have revealed intriguing new results demonstrating that rituals can have a causal impact on people’s thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.”
In my Ritual and Liturgy class at OSC, we discussed some simple guidelines for effective ritual. The guidelines from a handout by Deanne Quarrie, and my brief thoughts on each, are as follows:
1. Remember the intention
This is of vital importance. You have to have a purpose and passion, otherwise it becomes hollow, meaningless or rote (many women’s experience of ritual from their childhood fall into the hollow category!
2. Let the myth inspire you.
I am probably less skilled with this guideline than I could be. I do not find that I personally connect with many myths/archetypes, and so I don’t use them very much when planning rituals. In our fall ritual which involved a Sagewoman ceremony, I drew on the story of Innana’s descent with the woman each passing through several Gates of Initiation and leaving behind items from their pasts that no longer served them.
3. Use your intuition.
Another vital element, I draw on intuition a lot when leading rituals—perhaps I’ve planned something that is taking longer than I thought and so I may rearrange or eliminate another element without ever mentioning it to the group (if you mention it, they feel like they’ve “missed out” on something or feel pressured to “hurry up”). I make additions or subtractions from guided meditations as I go, depending on intuition to guide me. I let intuition lead at the beginning of the meditations as we begin, spontaneously leading the participants through conscious muscle relaxation and breath work before launching into the actually scripted meditation.
4. A ritual should benefit all and harm none.
Of course! I think it is also important to remember though that we can come into circle with and hold sacred space with people who are not necessarily our best friends. Perhaps we have been hurt in the past by someone, in ritual together we can birth new relationship and leave that hurt behind us. Also, the purpose of a ritual should always hold positive intent and be focused on positive change and not revenge or anything like that.
5. Keep it simple.
I have a tendency to overplan and sometimes that can make a ritual drag on/lose energy. By only included what is necessary and essential to the intention, we reduce the chances of energy leaking/flagging or of people getting tired or bored.
6. Stay balanced.
While it is important to balance the energies of the ritual, I also find it important to balance the activities of the ritual—some energy raising with singing and drumming and some time for inner work and reflection through visualization and meditation. Some scripted words and readings and some spontaneous sharing of here-and-now experiencing.
This one connects to Intuition above. It is important to feel the climate of the group, the energy of the group, and the responses of other people. I constantly keep my intuitive “radar” tuned to whether the ritual is “working” or not—how are people feeling in this circle and at this time. Also, I try to remember to encourage people to share feelings rather than intellectualizations.
8. Honor the power of words.
In a recent past post, I already excerpted my thoughts on this one…from one of the articles for class: “While it is fine for some rituals to provide space for participants to speak from their hearts, for the most part there should be little extemporaneous speaking. Select poems or write words that mean exactly what you wish to convey, and practice delivering them for the best possible effect.” Reading this made SUCH a difference to me. I’ve always felt bad about “needing” written material to read from during rituals. I kept thinking that as I “evolve” as a priestess I will “grow up” and not need pre-selected words and readings, but will be able to spontaneously speak and guide the ritual. As I read this, I realized that my process of carefully choosing and selecting opening and closing readings for my rituals as well as poems and quotes during the circles is actually legitimate and possibly very helpful!
9. Keep the imagination alive and 10. Attend to detail.
In attending a large Goddess festival last fall, one of the things I learned is about the importance of creating ambiance, which includes environmental factors/settings that contribute to the sense of magic and timelessness or otherworldliness/altered consciousness. I’ve been holding rituals in my own living room for a long time. After attending the festival, we held our late fall ritual outside in a tipi at night. There is something so magical about a firelit, nighttime ceremony. It really matters! We set up our Gates with candles and then entered the tipi where my large drum was located with (electric) candles all around it. Choosing elements specifically with ambiance in mind makes a huge difference in the feeling and function of a ritual.