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 /|\

Continued Thoughts on Ritual Improvisation

Yesterday, I went down into the Denton/Lewisville area – the area I used to live in – for a massage therapy session, and to see a movie. It didn’t take long for me to remember why I moved up here, a few miles from the Oklahoma border. The traffic, the teeming mass of humanity rushing everywhere, to be somewhere so that they could scratch an item off their list. It also did not take long for my anxiety levels to ramp up beyond belief. I have only been here in this new house for a handful of days, and I am already feeling at ease with my choice. Granted, my office looks like a bomb went off in it, I am still without a TV/Satellite connection (and not really missing it all that much), and I have two large cardboard piles in the house. But I am in no hurry to unpack too many things. A few things at a time – the essentials:  clothes, dishes, and books.

I have yet to map out a walking path through the neighborhood, but after I finish this blog post, that will happen. Not sure I will walk it today, since I have laundry to do. But it is far too long that I have been off my daily walking ritual. Plus, since I meditate while I walk – it will provide me the chance to reach out to the Spirits of Place and see how the landscape sits here. Life certainly is in a small state of flux, but I have learned that improvisation is the key. Which brings me to the movie I went to see:  The Martian.

Before going to the movie, I had a vague idea of how the storyline was going to go. I had seen a single preview, and then refused to watch any more. This was a movie, like Interstellar, that I wanted to really experience. And while I loved Interstellar, there were parts of the storyline that never really clicked for me. When I arrived at the theater, it was jam packed. Our seats wound up being on the far left side of the theater, up against the wall. Normally a pair of seats I would avoid. But, the seating wound up being ideal. I was able to lean against the wall and relax while I watched the film.

I am not going to spoil the movie for anyone, except to note that it delves into an area that NASA seemingly no longer wants to be in. Improvisation. Somewhere over its history, NASA has built in the idea that redundancy upon redundancy is the ideal way to go. True, redundant systems are necessary – particularly when things fail – and typically things DO fail. But what do you do when things fail, and the redundant systems disappear with it? You have to understand the basic premises of things to be able to improvise. You have to be forget what things were designed to do, and figure out what they are capable of doing. And to be honest, at times it seems that NASA has gotten away from this concept and become far too reliant on scripted processes, and stopping those processes cold when things don’t follow an expected pathway. Sometimes, you don’t have time for a committee to make a decision on what to do next. You have to rely on the issues set before you, make a decision and go. The Martian showcases this in ways it makes both serious, and light-hearted. I won’t spoil the movie beyond that – just suggest that you see it in the theaters. If, like me, you have not read the book (or like me were not even aware that there is a book) – see the movie first.

Kokopelli's Stone Circle at the New HouseOur own Spiritual Paths are like this as well. When we rely on scripted parts and roles, and insist that these roles be followed to the exact letter — we lose a sense of the Divine in that process. We cease using the scripts as a guideline to be followed, to keep us on track of where we need to be in the moment – and rely on them as an unbending gospel of how it should be. Sometimes, its better to set down the scripts – and open our thoughts, feelings and emotions to the moment. What does it matter what words you speak, as long as you put your emotions, feelings, and desires behind it. During Cerri Lee’s presentation on “The Art of Ritual” at this year’s East Coast Gathering, she made this exact point. It speaks to a grander perspective of how I practice my own Druidry – very improvised. More focused on intent, rather than words. But there’s a side effect to it as well….

During her presentation, I could feel myself following her thread of thought – noting where she was taking it, and knew I completely grokked her perspective. But while she was discussing it further, helping others to see where and how improvisation and dramatic presentation could enhance ritual experience, I decided to follow the thread in the other direction. Where was it flowing from? And its the exact opposite. There’s a foundation of how things need to be on a basic level. The framework, if you will. The bedrock upon which everything else is built. Which element is ascribed to which cardinal direction. When each cardinal direction is called. What element of the ritual happens when. Once these are understood and agreed upon, the rest of the ritual can be decorated and adorned with inspiration…allowing the Awen to embrace the role players, as they move forward with the ritual.

The movie The Martian follows some of this as well. To be able to improvise, you have to know two things:  how the process you are working with should work with the correct elements in place, and what other items can be utilized to replace the missing elements you do not have at the moment. I improvise my own solo rituals because it feels “right” and “correct” for me. But my manner of improvisation will not work with a group of people – all of whom understand the bedrock of what is being done. If I deviate too far from what is known and understood, my other participants do not have a common keystone that they can grasp on to. And they will be confused and not truly understanding what they are witnessing.

Its true though. Here in our modern lives, we do not improvise enough. When we are faced with a complex issue that does not meet any of the criteria that we would expect in this part of the process – we typically quit. We find an expert to come and fix our mess. Or we abandon whatever it was that we were working on and never look back. In the first case, I have someone that I can ask questions of, find some answers as to what I did wrong, how to fix it, and/or how to do it correctly. In the second case, sadly I have something that will never be finished. Gasping for metaphorical breath…

Freezing Up

Ever tried to do anything one finger short??  Typing, driving, carrying things…all of that is so much more difficult without the use of the ol’ ring finger on the right hand. I’m adjusting, but I make many more typos than I used to. LOL The finger is not nearly as swollen as before, but wearing the splint makes for some interesting challenges – such as hand-writing notes, and trying to sign my name. But its an adjustment.

Adjustments are interesting things. Its basically compensating for something that either showed up by surprise or has disappeared fairly recently. In my above notation, its the temporary loss of the use of one finger. There’s a few other instances that are added in there, such as the continued covering and rewashing of my gash in my right elbow. (For those who are unaware, I managed to do all of this by falling out of the back of the moving truck while trying to tie down the load before heading down the road) What about adjusting for things such as rituals? Spell-work (for those of you do that)? Well, since I don’t do spell-work (my personal choice), let’s stick with rituals for the moment, shall we?

We’ve all been in ritual and had the momentary, unexpected issue arise. During the ADF Imbolc Retreat earlier this year, I found it very interesting that portions of a particular ritual were punctuated with the crows of a nearby rooster. For some, it may have felt like an odd thing to happen, but for me it was a perfect moment of auditory addition. But seriously, we’ve all had those moments. As a solo practitioner, I’ve had more than my fair share of those moments.

One Beltane sticks out particularly strong in my mind. Most people know I tend to celebrate this term of year as an individual practitioner. Now thanks to the manner in which I set out that particular point of view, I’ve had the snide commentary made via Email that this is the time of year that I look to my right and/or left hand for a date. Cute. A little crude, but cute none-the-less. Anyways, back to what I was discussing….

SunriseOne Beltane, I had decided to celebrate by driving a little west of where I live to a semi-wooded area and following a walking trail. The trail, for those who live here in the DFW area, is actually an old stretch of Highway 377 that has been bypassed for better roadway just to the west of it. The trail is used by hikers and horse-riders, just as another set of trails near my house at Old Alton Bridge (The Goatman’s Bridge) is also utilized. The trail out on Highway 377 is a little difficult to walk by foot, being a little rocky and a bit uneven going up/down the hilly terrain. However, its not far from the road, so I figured walking by myself was not going to be a bad thing. It only took a little under fifteen minutes to reach the old Highway 377 road, where the walking was a bit easier. In the distance, I saw one individual doing the same that I was – walking to enjoy the nice Texas day. After twenty minutes, I reached where the old bridge was no longer standing, and decided that this would be a good place to hold my meditation/ritual. I settled down, grounded, centered, and started down the way of working through my ritual welcoming the Summer into its place on the Wheel. After a few minutes, I felt a presence with me – opened my eyes, and spotted the individual I had seen before on the other side of Denton creek. I never heard him splash across, and saw no immediate way to get across. The creek is a little difficult to cross in this area.

We stared at one another for a few moments, until he waved slowly at me with a jovial smile on his face. I waved back, probably with a look of confusion on my own. In the distance i heard the whoosh of cars passing by on the newer portion of Highway 377, which is substantially higher than where the old road is – probably to keep it from washing away during the rainy parts of the year.

“Please continue,” he said. I must have looked even more stupefied than I was before. He spoke in a normal voice, which I should never have heard. “Please…” he stated again, still smiling. Silently I continued through my ritual, this time with my eyes wide open. I scattered my birdseed I had brought with me. He clapped his hands together once and beamed the widest smile I had seen yet. I offered a libation of water from my water bottle to the Gods, Spirits and Animals of the area. His smile was still bright and clean. And he never moved from his seated position. Our eyes remain locked together through the entire exchange.

When I finished, I looked across the way, a question on my face. He continued to smile, and stood. I noticed then that he had been sitting back on his haunches. Deer legs. His lower torso was a pair of deer legs and the hind end of a deer! “You will understand soon enough!” his voice called out on the breeze, as he turned and melted back into the wooded area on the western bank. I don’t even remember making it back to the Forester or even getting back on to the north-eastern drive of Highway 377 until I was nearly in Argyle.

I have often thought about what else I could have done. What I could have said. How I could have reacted. A better manner of communicating. And I come up with blanks. For a long while, I thought I should see a therapist. That perhaps something psychological could explain all of this. A short while later, Coyote entered into my Life, and I started to understand that the Gods were more than simple archetypes that allowed me to compartmentalize my thoughts in a particular direction. They exist. It was a rather large step for me.

It was an unforeseen moment, and I froze. I didn’t know what to do or what to say. I didn’t understand what I was being presented with. I’ve been in combat situations before. A frozen moment like that can get you killed or worse, the people depending on your decisions killed or injured. And yet I froze. Despite all my military training, the constant discussions of unknown variables in a battlefield environment. And none were a true training for that moment – that moment when everything I understood about my spiritual beliefs was opened up before me, and shown to be something I could not comprehend.

I can’t really say that I’m going to be ready for anything beyond that frozen moment. Perhaps I am better prepared with the knowledge that the Gods exist, that one God in particular takes an interest in me, and that I have found it far easier to find the Spirits of Place than ever before. But I am better prepared to understand that at any given time, my understanding can be stood on its head, spun repeatedly in a tight circle, and made to stand up speaking Japanese. I might still be awe-struck by the moment…but still…

 

Nous Sommes du Soleil – Some Thoughts on Ritual

Many people know my aversion to most things “ritual” in form. And many of those folks are even more puzzled when they discover that I have my own rituals – my morning greeting of the sun (it doesn’t always happen, but I do make a concerted effort), my evening send-off of the sun, and my greeting to the moon.  Yes Virginia, Tommy does have regular rituals in his life…

My Morning Ritual (the abbreviated version)

Perhaps the one ritual I talk about the most is my morning ritual of greeting the sun. Back IMG_2867when I was teaching as an adjunct professor, I had plenty of time to make this into a daily ritual.  I would stand outside by my little stone circle, and watch the eastern horizon as the sun slowly crawled up over the horizon. There’s nothing overly special about it. I would stand next to the stone circle, a fresh cup of coffee in my hand, and greet the morning sun with the Druid’s Prayer for Peace.

Grant, O Great Spirit/Goddess/God/Holy Ones, Thy Protection;
And in protection, strength;
And in strength, understanding;
And in understanding, knowledge;
And in knowledge, the knowledge of justice;
And in the knowledge of justice, the love of it;
And in that love, the love of all existences;
And in the love of all existences,
the love of Great Spirit/Goddess/God/Holy Ones/the Earth our mother, and all goodness.

(Druid Prayer & Devotion)

In the minds of a lot of people (including myself at one time), there’s the terror of having to memorize all of this word for word. The reality is that I have rarely said this the same way twice. I have aspects of this memorized, but the wording as I speak it is rarely the same. To be frankly honest, my memory is not that good. And to be even more blunt, I actually like that I can’t remember stuff like this word for word.

When Ritual Gets Boring (for me)

I remember back in the 7th grade, we did a play about the American Revolutionary War. I went to private schools as a child (a whole different blog post that may never get written) because my parents thought I got a “better” education there. Our class was very small, about fourteen kids in all, and each of us had a compulsory role in the little play. Mine was to be the rebellious son of one of the village leaders, and I was opposed to the little colony village seeking independence from the crown. The term in the play that was used to describe me was that I was a Tory. We practice the play in Government/History class every day. In three weeks, I had my lines memorized (and I had the lion’s share of lines) to the point that I could recite my part while looking out the window. And I honestly was so bored, I spent a lot of time looking out the window. One afternoon, during the recitation, I decided to start playing with the lines a little bit….tweaking them if you will. I had grown up in Europe, and was exposed to the English lifestyle quite a bit. So, I adopted the mannerisms of some of the young adults I had watched from a distance during the late 1970s and early 1980s. Many of the people I was attempting to emulate were involved in the 1981 Brixton Riot.  For the most part, I was ignored, because I was just a “Yank’s kid.” But I remember the pent-up anger and frustration of people living in the area during those times. So I utilized that, along with a terrible Eliza Doolittle cockney accent to help make the character a little more “interesting.” This did nothing to make me “popular” with my peers, since they resented me changing things up from what was written on the paper.

Thinking forward now, I can see where my problem with ritual is – when it becomes rote, habitual, almost mechanical in nature – it loses its touch with me. Ritual should – in my opinion – flow, live, breathe, evolve. There’s a framework that ritual should be held to, but it should be basic and unobtrusive – ready for new things to be added, and aspects that are not entirely relevant to the moment to be removed and packed away for another day. That day might be next year, it might be twenty years down the road — but its always available to be re-added.

Perhaps, this is the reason that I am constantly refashioning the podcast that I do. I am always afraid that the podcast will not have relevant information or formatting for the listeners, and I am equally afraid that it will become a stiff, unbending format that makes doing the show into a chore of sorts. That’s honestly when I know its time to close down the podcast for good and “pod-fade” into the woodwork – when it becomes a chore.

This probably explains my fascination with musical artists like the Grateful Dead, Ratdog, Phish, Widespread Panic and others. None of them play the same performance twice. Every show is a unique entity, where they utilize songs as frameworks to try new things against. As an aside, about ten years back, I went to a Styx show here in Dallas. This was the first tour dates with Dennis DeYoung no longer in the band. When the band played “Too Much Time on My Hands”, I found that I knew all the interspersing dialogue in-between the lyrics — because they were exactly the same as it was on their live album – right down to Tommy Shaw‘s maniacal giggle in the middle of the song. It was a clearly disappointing moment for me. I was expecting the song to somewhat resemble that which was already on their studio recording. What I wasn’t expecting was a note-for-note, word-for-word effigy of a previous live recording. I walked away from that concert with far less respect for a band that had punctuated much of my late teen years growing up.

Spicing It Up

But there is a point of caution to all of this. “Change for the sake of change” is never a good mantra to uphold. Sometimes, changing things up just to be “different” can make something untenable, even somewhat forgettable. I had a report that I had given to my boss at the beginning of my employment in my new job. I had created the report of a need to quench a question I had asked myself. From that, grew a report that I turned over to him. He then asked for other data points to be added to it. As I dug in the system to get this information, I found other information that I added to the report to spice up the information a bit more. The result was a report that I was proud of, but had so much data contained within it that it become an overwhelming tsunami of data, rather than a useful analysis tool. I made changes simply for the sake of making changes – which resulted in something that became unusable. Be sure that you need to make the change to whatever ritual you are looking to alter and not because you want something “different”.

I’m a fan of impromptu ritual. I have been known, on many of my trips to various scared site locations here in the United States over the past few years, to stop and spent time in impromptu ritual or devotion. I started carrying tobacco (loose leaf) during these trips – not because I smoke (I hate smoking being around me) but because I want something to offer back to the Spirits of the Land and the Ancestors that are there but somewhat forgotten. And when I don’t have tobacco with me, I usually carry a sandwich baggie full of birdseed for the same reason. I toss seeds in the four cardinal directions, and pour a small bit of water in each direction as well. Then I sit or stand – reciting the Druid’s Prayer for Peace — either out loud or silently in my mind. Whichever seems more appropriate. And as I noted, the words are hardly ever the same. Nor is the manner in which I make my offerings to the four directions. Nor is the manner in which I try to connect to the Spirits or Ancestors. Mostly because I cannot remember the exact words or gestures, but also because each of them are different. Just as each moment is unique and different. Viva la’ difference! N’est-ce pas?