No-Nonsense Paganism: Creating a Ritual

In the last post, I wrote about the when of doing a winter ritual, and now I want to talk about the how. Now that you’ve decided to mark some special event–whether it’s the solstice or the first snow or New Year’s Day–with ritual, how do you decide what to do? Note, the process I describe below can really apply to ritual at any time of the year.


“You know, Joe, if you or other white folks are really serious about our spirituality, you won’t go asking me, or us, or anyone else about what we believe, our ceremonies, our regalia, and stuff. Instead you will go out into the woods and talk to the sky, the earth, the rocks, the rivers, and the streams. And listen to the answers …”— Ernie “Longwalker” Peters, a Lakota Medicine Man, to Joseph “Bearwalker” Wilson in 1977

Ritual should arise naturally or spontaneously from our interaction with the world around us. That’s not to say that it doesn’t require any thought. But we should start with the instinctual impulses which arise within us and then build from there, rather than starting some prefabricated observance created by post-war English would-be witches who lived in a different time and place from us.

So, the first step is listening. The three things you need to listen to are: (1) nature, by which I mean, the other-than-human world, (2) your body, and (3) your unconscious.* I’ll briefly explain each one of these in turn.

“I don’t know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention …”— Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”

The idea of listening to nature is actually what started me writing about Paganism years ago. I was inspired by the writing of Joseph Wilson, one of the elders of Paganism, who was also somebody who wanted to do away with a lot of the esotericism of Paganism and get to the heart of what pagan practice really is.

When I talk about “listening to nature”, I don’t mean it in a metaphorical way. I mean going outside, and opening your ears up. It means finding a comfortable place where you can hold still and be quiet and then listen to the more-than-human world around you. Just listen and notice. And it’s not just “listening” with your ears. You have five senses, and you need to use them all. Look, smell, touch, and even taste (judiciously). Until you do this repeatedly and at length, you really won’t have any idea where you are.

“I have been and still am a seeker, but I have ceased to question stars and books; I have begun to listen to the teachings my blood whispers to me.”— Hermann Hesse, Demian

The next step in listening is listening to your body. A lot of us live our lives in our heads and only notice our bodies when they cry out in pain or hunger or exhaustion. Listening to your body means intentionally directing your attention to other parts of your body than your mind. You can start with your hands and move your way over the surface of you body, pausing as you go. Or you can move your way down from your head, through your throat, to your heart and lungs, to your upper and then lower stomach (solar plexus and navel), to your groin, and then to the part of you that contacts the earth when you’re sitting (perineum). Every one of these parts has its own feeling, which you can notice. It’s important to listen to your body because it is the site which the world’s phenomena come into contact with your mind.

“A rite is a movement in and toward depth. Rites are not invented. They are found, discovered, experienced. They rise out of some archetypal encounter with depth. The purpose of the symbolic act which the rite enacts is to lead back toward that experience of depth.”— James Hollis

And the last step is listening to your unconscious. Not everything that happens in your mind is conscious. Your conscious mind is the part of your mind that is always talking and worrying and making plans. Your unconscious mind is the part of your mind that is “behind” the conscious part. And it’s doing its own work, mostly in silence. There are lots of ways to get there. Buddhist get there through their own kind of meditation. Dreamwork, drumming, and art are other ways.

What works for me is to try to listen to the part of my mind that isn’t actually making noise, the silent part. It’s the place where the words come from–which is different from the place where the internal talking happens. Note, I’m talking about an internal silence here. The world around you will not be silent while you’re finding your inner silence. Fortunately, it doesn’t need to be, though a relative degree of external quiet is very helpful.

When you do this, you’ll realize that silence is more than the absence of sound; it’s kind of its own presence. It is something that can itself be listened to. Doing this takes practice, because inevitably your “talking self” will pipe back up. But you’ll get better over time. It’s kind of like diving into a deep dark pool. At first, you can only hold your breath for a few seconds. But over time, you can last longer and go “deeper”.

Doing this makes space in your head for your unconscious to speak. And that’s necessary, because the unconscious is where inspiration comes from. That’s where ritual should come from–not from someone else’s “Book of Shadows”. As you do this, you’ll notice that words and images will arise seemingly from nowhere. These are not failures in your practice; they are not your talking self. They are expressions of your unconscious, and some of them are worth paying attention to.

From the practice of listening, your unconscious will suggest to you words, music, images, stories, physical gestures, and so on. These will have a “resonance”, meaning they feel especially meaningful. Note, the inspiration for your ritual may not come in the actual moment when you’re actively practicing listening. It may come to you at 4 p.m. on some idle Tuesday. But practicing listening opens up the mental space for your unconscious to speak to you. And if you are also making a practice of listening to the more-than-human world, then it will come, not just from your own mind, but from the place where the more-than-human world and your deep self intersect.

Word & Gesture

“A genuine ritual, like a living symbol or a religious experience, cannot be fabricated; it can only be discovered.”— Edward Whitmont, Return of the Goddess (1982)

Ritual is the product of a conscious form applied to unconscious content. Conscious structure is unavoidable, or else there could be no “ritual” per se. However, to balance the conscious side of the equation, we need to draw the substance from the unconscious. The most evocative rituals I have created came from somewhere other than my rational mind. They combined intuitive bodily movements with what W.H. Auden called “privately numinous words”, words that I had read or heard which had a talismanic-like effect on me.

Ritual can also consist of stories, music, images, and other elements. Here I’m going to focus on gestures and words. It’s tempting to start with words, because we are a wordy culture. But instead, I want to start with physical gestures. Because of their non-verbal nature, they are more direct vehicles to the unconscious.

I did actually learn something from my first public Pagan ritual: the power of simple physical gestures. As we stood in the circle, I noticed several of the participants standing with their arms extended at their sides, palms out. “That’s interesting,” I thought to myself, “I wonder why they are doing that.” It was obviously a deliberate action, but I didn’t know what the purpose of it was. So I tried it myself. I extended my arms at my sides and turned my palms outward. Immediately, I felt a change. Something happened inside of me. I felt less guarded, more open. I felt more connected to the other people in the room. I felt more open to the possibility of the ritual. All this just with a simple gesture.

This was new to me, and I wasn’t convinced right away. So, I decided to experiment. I turned my palms back toward my body, and the sense of openness diminished. I felt like my sense of awareness, which had previously extended outward into the room, had receded back into the physical boundary of my skin. And when I turned my palms outward again, the expanded sense of awareness returned. Sure enough, this simple gesture was changing my experience in a profound way.

This realization transformed my experience of ritual and my understanding of the relationship of the body and mind. I continue to use simple gestures in my rituals. For example, in my daily morning practice, I stand facing the sun, arms at my side, palms outward, and then I raise my arms slowly, while I recite a poem about the sunrise. This simple gesture deepens the meaning of the words. And in fact, sometimes I skip the words altogether.

There are many such gestures which can be part or even the entirety of your ritual. Examples of simple gestures include raising your arms above your head, touching your fingers to your forehead or your heart, pressing your palms together or cupping your hands together, or bending down and touching the ground. Examples of gestures which require other materials include washing your hands in water, daubing oil on your forehead or lips, pouring water on the ground or into another vessel, or passing a flame from one candle to another. Examples of more complex gestures include yoga poses and dance movements.

Ritual gestures are like poetry in motion. Like poetry, they convey more than their apparent simplicity suggests. For instrumental gestures, like picking up a hammer to hit a nail with or closing a door behind you, the ratio of meaning-to-movement is usually pretty low. Although, there are circumstances in which the meaningfulness of picking up a hammer or closing a door could be higher, like threatening someone with a hammer or slamming a door in someone’s face. For ritual gestures, the ratio of meaning-to-movement is very high. The simplest gestures can be profound.

“For most of history, religion was a full-body experience, a primary space in common life where we danced and sang and laughed and cried and ritualized the passages of our lives. Rituals are sophisticated ancient intelligence about the body. Kneeling, folding hands in prayer, and breaking bread; liturgies of grieving, gathering, and celebration–such actions create visceral containers of time and posture. They are like physical corollaries to poetry–condensed, economical gestures that carry inordinate meaning and import.”Krista Tippett, Becoming Wise: An Inquiry into the Mystery and Art of Living (2016)

Your unconscious may also suggest to you words. They may be your own words, or they may be the words of others, which you read or heard sometime. Again, what matters is that they resonate with you internally and with the seasonal changes happening around you. Note, the words don’t have to come from ancient pagan liturgy. It can really be anything. It can be the lyrics to a popular song. It can be something you wrote for a school project years ago. It can just be something you heard somewhere once and you don’t remember where, but you wrote it down and it stayed with you all these years.

“Of the little words that come 
out of the silence, like prayers 
prayed back to the one who prays, 
make a poem that does not disturb 
the silence from which it came.”–Wendell Berry, “How to Be a Poet”

Poetic language is especially powerful. Not everybody loves poetry. But I think a lot of the dislike of poetry stems from a misunderstanding of what poetry is. A lot of people mistakenly believe that a poem is like a riddle, which has a single meaning, and figuring it out is a test of your intelligence. But the point of poetry isn’t what it means, but what it evokes, what it makes you feel. If it doesn’t make you feel anything, if it doesn’t resonate with you, that’s okay. Find other poetry that does.

A poem should be palpable and mute
As a globed fruit …

A poem should be wordless
As the flight of birds. …

A poem should not mean
But be.— Archibald MacLeish, “Ars Poetica”

I have discovered that the power of words in ritual is often inversely proportional to their number; generally, the more wordy a ritual is, the less powerful it is. I think that’s why poetry is powerful; it says more with less. The ratio of meaning-to-words is very high in poetry. Poetry has what Paul Ricoeur calls “a surplus of meaning”. You could explain a poem using many, many more words, and still never quite exhaust the meaning. In contrast, consider an instruction manual, in which the ratio of meaning-to-words is very low.

It’s also important that the words be short enough to memorize. You can read words during a ritual, but reading engages a different part of the mind than reciting. And I have found that reading often gets in the way of feeling the power of the words. If you must read them, I suggest reading a short phrase, then closing your eyes and reciting it from memory, and then moving on to the next phrase.

And that’s it. A simple gesture. Some poetic words. All of it coming from the intersection of the world around you and that place deep within you. You’ll know if you’ve succeeded if the ritual feels like it came from somewhere other than your conscious mind or like it means more than you can say.

“be prepared for something suprapersonal that transcends our understanding to the same degree that the author’s consciousness was in abeyance during the process of creation. We would expect a strangeness of form and content, thoughts that can only be apprehended intuitively, a language pregnant with meanings, and images that are true symbols because they are the best possible expressions for something unknown – bridges thrown out towards an unseen shore.”— Carl Jung, “On the Relation of Analytical Psychology to Poetry”

In the next post, I’ll share what my winter solstice ritual is going to look like this year.


* I previously observed here that these three kinds of listening correspond to the “Three Kindreds” of ADF Druidry: gods (the unconscious self), spirits of nature (other-than-human nature), and ancestors (your body). But that’s one of those Pagan “extras” that I’m trying to pare away in this series.

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