Improvising in Ritual? Learn the Basics First…Trust Me.

So, let’s ditch out of the talk of the impending “Storm”, shall we? There are plenty of folks writing their own perspective of that…plus, my focus is really elsewhere. Instead, let’s drift over to working within one’s own personal Spiritual practice and walk down a favorite trail of mine: improvisation.

Wholly committing to improvisation implies taking risks. It’s a philosophy of leaving yourself open to possibility and leaving yourself open to magic.  –Dennis McNally

The quote comes from the authorized biographer of the Grateful Dead, Dennis McNally. The reference is to the musical style of the band. In hundreds upon hundreds of shows, the band never played the same song the same way twice. Certainly, there were elements that were replicated as faithfully as possible, such as primary riffs and rhythm tempos, but solos were off-the-cuff – and sometimes even the primary elements of a song were taken in directions by various band members. As a group, they were tight enough to work with each change. Sometimes it worked, sometimes it didn’t.

I enjoy the music of the Grateful Dead (and its various spin-offs and incarnations) – enough so that I have somewhere around 2900 tracks, totaling approximately 18.7 days’ worth of continuous music. There is, for me, something truly magickal about the way they approach their music. So free, so pure, with a nearly jazz-oriented approach to just playing for the sake of playing.

A good part of what makes my Paganism comes from this perspective as well. Off-the-cuff, impromptu rituals for one (remember, I practice most of my rituals alone) that leave me so alive and in-tune with the world around me. It truly is a gorgeous thing to behold, at least for me. But there is a key to being able to work on such a high tight-rope without a net (so to speak), and it is similar in nature to playing music improvisationally.

Learn the Basics As Best You Can

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A picture taken by John Beckett at this year’s ADF Texas Imbolc Retreat. For some reason, John takes really awesome pictures of me. The dude has a seriously awesome touch in photography.

Musicians will probably say that individual solos are some of the things that they get to enjoy the most. That moment allows them to showcase what they are good, or even to experiment with a style or technique that they normally don’t get to display. It is a moment of creativity and playfulness that is the crux of why they enjoy playing the instrument of their choice. But before they could get to boogie down on these beautiful moments, they had to learn to play their instruments. That means taking on the basics, and practice, practice, practice. The same can be said for ritual. Learning the basics of the ritual format that you use is essentially to being able to spin off into riffs on what you would normally do.

And I actually speak from experience on all of this. When I first started on my Pagan Path, I was doing things within Wicca. Now, Wicca is not the right format for me. But in my initial training with the American Tradition of the Goddess, I was to learn their format for rituals. To say that I did not enjoy their format is an understatement. So, when my moment came to show what I had learned, I handled the ritual as impromptu as I could. I refused to use the traditional quarter notations, nor did I call the Guardians of the compass locations in a proper manner either. I themed the entire ritual concept around wolves, as the group I was working with were formed around the concept of wolves. It made sense to me. It worked, for me. I wound up being scolded for not following the proper format. I was also praised – by the same person – for my creativity.

Now, all of that had a negative impression for me. It also deeply imprinted upon me how Wicca was not the appropriate place for me to be. Several months later, I parted with the group and became the Solo Pagan that I am today. What I failed to understand was that the creative part was acknowledged, but would have been better accepted if I had shown my understanding and adherence to the basic concepts first. Now, a few decades past that point, I have grown a bit more in who I am, and comprehend the need for basics to be found first – and once those are understood, you can futz with the workings to see what you get. The basics give you the foundation that allows you to stretch your creative muscles across – sort of the same manner in which the bass player and drummer provide a background on which the guitarist can improvise without losing the crowd as to the familiarity of the song.

Do Not Be Afraid to Fail

I grew up in a family where failure was not an option. I was seriously afraid to bring bad grades home, as my typical punishment was to get the strap from my father. Sure, we could talk about the “abuse” that it was, but the point is that I was not provided the opportunity to fail. And in not knowing how to fail, I was always afraid of not being successful. Same goes true for ritual. I always obsessed over the idea that I *had* to get it *right*. Even if I had never done it before. I had to succeed. Failure breeds experience. When I did not get things right, I always examined the “why” of things…I always tried to see where I missed the point or where my effort fell flat. In essence, I was learning.

Thanks to a whole lot of folks within the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids, I have learned that failure is nothing to beat yourself up over. Every year, at the Gulf Coast Gathering, there are mishaps, bad statements, incorrect placement of individuals, misunderstandings of where and when a person should be at this point and time in the ritual. Everyone makes mistakes. Even some of the more experienced folks have had their issues too. And instead of folks scolding others…there are gentle reminders and nudges to get people back into their roles and say their parts. This is lighthearted laughter and friendly cajoling over missed or misspoken lines. There is no judgment. There are plenty of smiles, hugs, and words of encouragement. Because people need to be allowed to fail, so that they can learn from those experiences.

Do Not Be Afraid to Succeed

And then there is the opposite side of that perspective: success. And I suffer from this more than anything else. The other day, I noticed that a recent post of mine, Devotional Practice – My Approach, had reached a level of reach on Facebook I had never seen a post achieve. My reaction was not one of “Wow, that’s amazing!” Rather, it was one of “Oh Gods, what is happening?” I am not really geared for large-scale success, because I truly do expect things to fail. This is a mindset trap that I need to dislodge myself from going forward, but I am sure there are others out there that feel similar.

So, you do the ritual. In the middle of the ritual, you try some magickal working. It has never worked before, why should this be any different, right? Except that it does work. Whatever it was that you were trying to do, happened. What’s next? Well, let’s not get a big head and think that everything else will work if we do things the same way again. After every ritual, I make notes about what I did. If it was a public ritual, I write notes about the part I had in the ritual (if any). How I felt afterwards. Was it indoors or outdoors? Anything of significance to my mind’s eye goes into those notes. And when I get ready for another ritual, I go through those notes. I note my previous feelings for similar rituals. And in my preparations, I try my best to find anchors from the previous ones to help me stay grounded and focused in this current one. And I decide what a “success” will be to me in today’s or tonight’s ritual. And I aim myself in that direction.

Now, one side of this that I have intentionally left out – how I approach all of this with my own devotional work. Why? Because everyone approaches that very differently. Even two people approaching the same God or Goddess. Our individual connections to the Gods are unique between us and each of Them. Trying to tell someone how to approach something so personal and distinct, in my opinion, is not useful whatsoever. Open yourself to your own Gods, and They will guide you on what is appropriate and what isn’t. That’s about as much advice as I dare give in that direction. I am not here to create a dogma of belief for anyone, other than myself.

Just remember…ritual can be your own free-form expression to the Gods. But like any improvisational musician, you need to understand the basic framework of ritual. For me that is the framework within OBOD. Once you are comfortable with that framework, then improvisational work will become a useful tool in your workings. Yes, I did it backwards…and there is a lot I am still unlearning, so that I can relearn it in a proper framework. But I still have the heart of an Al Di Meola or a Pat Metheny when it comes to personal ritual. And improvisation is still such a joy to me…even if I did learn it in a manner that makes learning regular frameworks a bit difficult for me. I hope you can take something away from this post, and place it into what you do – and have the Awen spring up unexpectedly in everything you do.  –T /|\

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3 thoughts on “Improvising in Ritual? Learn the Basics First…Trust Me.

  1. I’ve also found it helpful to see different groups undertaking ritual – because there’s so much diversity out there. I’ve learned from what worked for me, and also from what didn’t…

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