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.— Mary Oliver, “The Summer Day”
I do know how to pay attention …”
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.
In the next part, I’ll share how to create a ritual with the inspiration you have received from this practice of listening deeply.
* 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.
John Halstead is a native of the southern Laurentian bioregion and lives in Northwest Indiana, near Chicago. He is one of the founders of 350 Indiana-Calumet, which worked to organize resistance to the fossil fuel industry in the Region. John was the principal facilitator of “A Pagan Community Statement on the Environment”. He strives to live up to the challenge posed by the statement through his writing and activism. John has written for numerous online platforms, including Patheos, Huffington Post, PrayWithYourFeet.org, Gods & Radicals, now A Beautiful Resistance. He is Editor-at-Large of HumanisticPaganism.com. John also edited the anthology, Godless Paganism: Voices of Non-Theistic Pagans. He is also a Shaper of the Earthseed community which can be found at GodisChange.org.
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