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.

Today in Boston

I’d intended to write more about academic (specifically Pagan studies) publishing today, but since I, like everyone else in Boston, am wholly distracted by the manhunt for the Boston Marathon bombing suspect going on in my city, continuing with business as usual seems entirely inappropriate.

Image by the Boston University School of TheologyMy prayers have been with those who were killed or seriously wounded in the bombing. Traumatic events like these can change the lives of individuals and their families forever, and I can only hope that for most, this tragedy will motivate acts of peace and justice. I was touched to see the Boston University School of Theology (BU being my alma mater) asking people to join them in wearing running shoes this week as a symbol of commitment to peace and reconciliation. I’ve heard a number of similar statements around the city declaring that acts of violence and mayhem will not make us afraid. Boston is, after all, a city that has historically valued independence and freedom over a restricted safety–and I do think that there is a necessary tradeoff.

My prayers are also with the innocent bystanders who were made front-page news as potential suspects based on their perceived nationality or the color of their skin. Some of those profiled were runners participating in the marathon to raise money for charity. Listening to the xenophobic overtones of the news coverage today was disturbing: the desperate attempts to paint the bombers as “other,” despite the fact that the younger, at least, came to this country as a child well over a decade ago and seemed to his schoolmates to be a normal American student–an athlete and scholarship winner with friends and a social life. We’d like to think that people wouldn’t hurt their own–their own families, communities, or cities–but statistically, one’s own home, family, or school is where most acts of violence are committed. We are the ones who are a danger to ourselves; no supposedly foreign influence, no suspicious other, is necessary.

My prayers are with the bombers’ family as well. I can only imagine the horror and grief that they must be experiencing, as the interviews I heard this morning suggested that they had no reason to believe their loved ones were capable of such violence.

As saddened as I am by the events of this week, though, they have not changed my perception of the world around me. The world is a dangerous place where people die every day: from car accidents, from starvation, from wars, from diseases. Some of these traumatic events generally only happen far away from me, but the possibility of sudden death is nevertheless real. In just my immediate social network, for example, I know two different people with a young spouse or lover who died suddenly and inexplicably in his sleep. The potential for devastating loss, for the total and unwilling transformation of one’s life, is ever-present.

To me, one of the functions of religion is to help us deal with the difficult realities of the human condition. My practice puts me in touch with the living, sensuous world; even as I write this, I can feel the life-beat of the land and all the creatures that live on and in it, including the noisy humans honking their horns outside my window. I am a part of and connected to something much greater than myself, and I do not believe that death will remove me completely from that web.

My friends, I hope you will be safe today, but more than that, I hope you will remain open and connected to those around you, that you will be motivated by love rather than fear. May justice be done, and afterward, may our grieving knit together the frayed threads of our society and bring us peace.