Ritual safety

Over at The Wild Hunt blog, Jason Pitzl-Waters asks, what should we learn from James Arthur Ray’s return? (Ray is the New Age person whose faulty sweat-lodge set-up killed three people. He served two years in prison for this, and on release, has relaunched himself as a spiritual teacher.)

What can we learn as students of the occult & Pagan paths?

Learn what the warning signs are of a manipulative group, and withdraw from any situation where those warning signs appear. See the section “some danger signals to watch for” in this excellent article by Phil Hine, Approaching Groups.  Find out about group dynamics and how they work. Be aware of what triggers you into a state of passivity or compliance, and seek to avoid situations where that may occur. I once attended a ritual where the temple (a basement room) had a polystyrene ceiling, and there was a cauldron of burning methylated spirit, which we danced round. I was very scared when I thought about it afterwards – but I didn’t leave the ritual. Not because I felt coerced into being there, or anything like that, but because I was “away with the fairies”, and because it would have felt rude to leave.  Another time, I left a ritual without making sure that I was properly grounded, and parked my car in a stupid place where it got broken into. If you are in an altered state, it is very difficult to make rational judgements. It is not a matter of being gullible or stupid – it is how group dynamics work, as any social psychologist will tell you. As soon as people become part of a group identity, they start aligning their views and values to those of the group, and/or the most powerful person in it (not necessarily the named leader; this can be someone with a dominant personality). This happens even in small ad hoc groups such as pub conversations; it happens in healthy groups as well as unhealthy ones (but it is OK if the values of the group are healthy values; not okay if they are unhealthy). If you are planning to join a group, speak to all the members as well as the leader before joining. If there are warning signs, don’t ignore them. Does the leader seek to impose their values or lifestyle on members with different values or lifestyles?

What can we learn as teachers of the occult and Pagan paths?

We need to examine our own ethics and safety procedures, both physical safety and psychological safety.

Psychological safety: Do our practices and rituals empower people? Are we helping to develop people into competent ritual practitioners and functional human beings? Can people leave our rituals if they feel uncomfortable? Do we have an option for them to vent their feelings constructively if they are unhappy about something? Do people feel psychologically safe and nurtured in our rituals? If we are pushing at boundaries, do we have their informed consent to do so?  Make sure your group has sensible guidelines about personal interaction between members. Write the guidelines as a group exercise, so that everyone feels that they own them, and that they are not imposed from above.  Hold regular meetings where people can air any problems that arise (an annual meeting is probably enough, but any member of the group should be able to call a meeting whenever a sufficiently serious issue arises). Make sure ritual participants are properly grounded after the ritual, especially if they are driving home. Have a feast (eating is grounding) and some “mundane time” after the circle.

Physical health and safety: If you have a lot of incense, make sure the room is well-ventilated. If you have asthmatics in your group, make sure they have access to their inhaler whilst in circle. If people are allergic to cats or dogs, have they taken anti-histamine tablets?  If someone feels ill in your circle, stop everything and make sure they are OK before carrying on with the ritual. Their well-being is more important. If you are planning to include dancing in your ritual, are there trip hazards such as loose carpet? Are there fire hazards in the room (naked flame, incense burners)? Candles can actually be really dangerous – have a look at this check-list of candle safety tips, and the sobering statistics on fires caused by candles.


Update, 2 August 2019

Just a note that the loving kindness (Metta Bhavana) meditation can trigger all sorts of disassociation and other jarring effects if you don’t follow the recommended safeguards, depending on what style it is. If it’s the one where it has four steps of sending loving kindness (to a friend, a loved one, an enemy, and a larger group), the safeguards are:

  1. None of the recipients should be dead
  2. None of the recipients should be people you have really strong feelings about, i.e. the loved one shouldn’t be a sexual partner and the enemy shouldn’t be someone you’re currently in active conflict with).

All meditation & mindfulness has the potential to be mind altering — I steer clear of it these days in order to protect my mental health.

Check out my article about the risks of meditation and mindfulness on Medium.

If you enjoyed this post, you might like my books.

2 thoughts on “Ritual safety

  1. All true; also, watch out around the altar candles if you’re wearing long droopy sleeves (or long droopy hair, for that matter). It’s such a drag when the priestess catches fire…


  2. Great article. So many of these things seem like basics–but, they really aren’t. Or more specifically, when I travel around teaching ritual facilitation and Pagan leadership, many folks aren’t thinking about things like this.

    Not that I haven’t made my own mistakes with fire…I was teaching in Memphis in October and lit a whole altar on fire. We handled the crisis pretty calmly and efficiently. However, I’m actually planning on recreating the entire altar/fire scenario in a controlled environment and filming it to put a Pagan fire safety video on Youtube to demonstrate how to do a relatively safe fire, demonstrate the fire safety accident that occurred, and demonstrate how you put a fire out in the midst of a ritual, and why this particular fire was easy to put out.

    I’m glad to see articles like this on the practical concerns of leading rituals and groups. I’ll think I might reblog this over on my main blog where I talk leadership/ritual techniques. 😀


Comments are closed.