Ecstatic Ritual – What It Is & Why We Do It

My old computer died an honorable death a couple of weeks ago. It was not unexpected. All rites were observed. It was a mostly trauma-free transition. There was one unpleasant surprise though. My calendar did not survive the Great Crossing Over.

So my calendar did not prompt me that it was about to be New Blog Post Day here at Expanding Inward. Fortunately, a fellow conspirator did. Unfortunately, not until this afternoon.

Here’s the lemons-into-lemonade part. Without time to write something new, I went looking for something old. And I found an article River Roberts and I wrote many years ago about the ecstatic ritual style we were all trained in at Diana’s Grove.

As many of you may have seen/heard, we have an event coming up in April in Kansas City. Sometimes people ask me about these events. What do we do? Why do we do it? There are a lot of words that arise, in my answer, that are pretty easily understood. Community. Personal growth. Retreat. Vacation. Fun.

But of course a big part of what we do, when we all get together, is Ritual. And that’s a word with about as many definitions as Love.

So here’s an oldie-but-goodie about the way we use that word. About the style of ritual we learned at the Grove, the style of ritual we still do together, the what and why and how of ritual that you will step into, with us, if you come to an event. I really enjoyed re-reading this, and I’m excited about sharing it (or sharing it again, with some of you). Enjoy!

Ecstatic Ritual: Becoming Present to Connection

What We Do

Communities ritualize their values. They can’t help but do so. What a group chooses to give energy, focus and attention to—and “energized, focused attention” could certainly describe ritual behavior—those choices tell you a lot about the group’s beliefs. Its values. In ritual we strive to align our words and actions in
a way that is both inclusive and empowering. Our goal is to ensure that everyone can participate at the level that best serves each individual, while at the same time creating a strong sense of community. Inclusion, empowerment and choice make up the foundation of our community philosophy and practice, and our highest aim is to create rituals that embody those values.

For us, ritual is an opportunity to connect by stepping into the sacred. The sacred lives in our bodies, our voices and our interactions. The sacred is present when we connect to something larger than ourselves—be that community, divinity, or our own expanded sense of self. The sacred lives in honoring everyone’s right to choose their own relationship with the deeper mysteries. Our rituals are often a mixture of song, movement, rhythm and sacred play that serve to invoke individual connection, while celebrating the opportunity to share that connection within a community of fellow seekers.

We practice an ecstatic, Earth-based ritual tradition. Ecstasy means to enter into sacred space with your entire body. It is “presence in the present”—being completely attuned to the moment. Earth-based means life-based. Although there are many different Earth-based traditions, the one thing they all have in common is that they honor the elements that make up all life. You will find that our elemental invocations acknowledge that Air, Fire, Water and Earth are already present. We are already breathing, so Air doesn’t need to be summoned. Our ritual practice invites us to open to the lifeforce around us, rather than calling upon it to manifest.

The elements themselves are constantly changing, adapting, and shifting form as they come into contact with one another. In turn, our ritual style is constantly changing, adapting, and shifting form as it comes into contact with new people and new ideas. One thing that remains the same is our commitment to shared power within a community context. We believe that what people do is much more powerful than what people watch others do. Therefore, it is not uncommon to have several facilitators in one ritual, or to find every participant involved in creating some aspect of the ritual. Even if just one person is facilitating, the group is often invited and encouraged to help co-create the moment in some way. Together we acknowledge Air with our breath. Together we sing to build the energy that shapes our work.

Why We Do It

Why do ritual? Yes, communities ritualize their values. Have done so since time immemorial. Communities and individuals also ritualize their hopes and fears, their thanks, their joys, their similarities and their differences. “Ritual” is a word with some pretty diminished popular connotations. Rote, repetitive, obligatory, even sometimes pathological. Within spiritual communities, the word “ritual” can carry all the weight of frozen form—the “right” way to pray. The “right” way to celebrate.

I invite you to look at this word another way. Etymologically, one of the roots of the word “ritual” is a Sanskrit word that means both “art” and “order.” Like the other beings we share the world with, human beings are pattern-recognition machines. But we humans are compelled beyond simple recognition and response—we are compelled to make meaning. To impose order on the world and our experience of it.

The marriage of this most fundamental characteristic of humanity—the need for order— with perhaps the other most fundamental characteristic of humanity—the drive to express ourselves artistically—results in an art form that is uniquely human: Ritual.

Human beings express themselves ritualistically for many reasons. Some of the oldest and most basic are tied to strong emotions: when our fear is great, we ritualize safety. We create and enact rituals of appeasement or protection, rituals that reinforce or re-invent our histories and traditions. When our joy is great, we explode in ritualized revelry. When the harvest is safely in. When the baby is born. When the young marry and assume responsibility for the next generation.

As a part of a philosophy of individual empowerment and self-directed personal growth, we ritualize exploration. We ritualize trying on new roles we want to grow into, practicing interpersonal skills that we aspire to, or re-storying old memories or hurts that keep us from reaching for our potential.

Ecstatic ritual, with components of both structure and spontaneity, is particularly suited for this type of exploration. Inclusive ritual structures actually help build safe (even if temporary) communities that become containers in which to do some very challenging personal work.

For many of us, few things are as charged as the way we relate with others. Our relationship patterns carry all of our old stories about ourselves. In ecstatic ritual, within that safe container, we can challenge those stories. We use Cynthea Jones’ (co-founder of Diana’s Grove Mystery School) definition of ecstatic, fully-embodied ritual as a multi-sensorial prayer that allowsus to lay new patterns in our souls.

It’s really very simple. We get better at what we practice. You can go to a gym to practice physical skills, but where do you practice things like authenticity honesty, self-acceptance and tolerance for intimacy? Slowly and intentionally, as opportunities arise in daily life. And in a focused, accelerated, maximallyimpactful way in the “personal-growth gymnasium” of ritual.

Energy: Presence in the Present

If ritual is a multi-sensorial prayer, then we should aspire to pray with all of our senses. Our goal is to create a space that allows everyone participating to give themselves to the ritual experience not only on an intellectual level, but on a physical and emotional level as well. The purpose of ecstatic ritual is to get us in touch with an innate sense of life and lifeforce. One of the ways we reach that point is by building lifeforce energy, as well as increasing our capacity to hold and move it.

Energy can be difficult to define, since we all experience it differently. Perhaps the best way to describe it is as a physical sensation of expansion and heightened awareness. Think of how your body might respond when you hear a particularly beautiful piece of music. If the hairs on your arms stand on end and a shiver goes up your spine, that’s one manifestation of energy. The euphoria you might feel after exercising or dancing is another. Entering into an ecstatic ritual experience is to become intensely present to the energy around and within you. The goal is not to lose a sense of self, but rather to become absolutely present to your mind, body and spirit.

Although, technically, ecstatic ritual means the entire ritual, people generally equate ecstatic energy with the part of ritual, often near the end, when we sing a chant, usually accompanied by drums. At that point, several things happen. We sing the same words over and over—and if the chant is effective, the entire group begins to breathe in unison. The rhythm of the drums form a collective pulse which both cradles and drives the vitality of the group. Our bodies begin to move in time to the beat. Whether the movements are small and delicate or large and bold, they add to the energetic experience. Lifeforce rises, and if we open our eyes and engage with the rest of the people in the circle who are experiencing the moment in their own way, then some pretty incredible things begin to happen.

The great paradox of energy is that we build it in ritual 100% for ourselves and 100% for the group. The beauty of it all is that the more we engage with lifeforce energy, the more it returns to us. And it changes us. We sing, move, and drum together in order to shake up old, stuck patterns. That energy moves the pieces of the pattern around so that we can examine them in new ways. We can feel new possibilities. Energy opens us up. It begs us to step into a moment of what if. What if I could be more present to life unfolding? What if I could be more present to intimacy? What if I could more consistently stand in my values? To be in ecstatic space requires presence in the present moment. When we embrace it, we can make magic happen.

Trance: Presence freed from Time

Another way we make magic happen in ritual is through the use of trance techniques, specifically the dual-voice trance style developed  by Diana’s Grove founders Patricia Storm and Cynthea Jones.

Many are probably familiar with guided meditation as a component of ritual work. Just as we are all involved in raising and working with energy in ritual, we are also all involved during trancework. What distinguishes trance from guided meditation is a focus on open imagery and inclusive language, used by the facilitators to empower those participating in the trance to have their own, unique experience that is specific to who and where they are, and what healing or growing work is theirs to do, in that moment.

Dual-voice trance techniques are based, in part, on the principles of alchemical psychology—particularly the belief that we each have, within us, an innate wisdom that will offer us our own answers, if we will open up and listen. Rather than guide us through a shared experience, facilitators trained in the dual-voice technique offer the opportunity for individual experience in shared, safe space.

Why? The same principles apply. We believe that what we do is more powerful than what we watch others do. Ecstatic ritual is about becoming absolutely present to your body, mind and spirit. When we sing and chant together, we become absolutely present to the present—where we are right now, and who is with us.

In trance, we have the opportunity to become absolutely present to the past. Or the future. To lay new patterns in our souls by re-living old stories, restorying old dreams. Remembering a brighter future. Re-imagining a more supportive past.

No facilitator, no priestess, no one can responsibly tell you what you needed, in the past. Or what your future should look like. No one can shape your life but you, and in trance we provide an opportunity to do just that. Trance is like a waking dream—a lucid dream— in which we can slip easily forward and backward in time, shaping our experience and engaging with it in a very real, multi-sensorial way. Another tool for crafting new, healthy, inspiring patterns, and laying them in our souls.

Ecstatic ritual is about presence, and connection. Present to ourselves, present to each other. Connected to our own innate wisdom and the energy of all that is around us. Inclusive ritual is about empowering each of us to use this heady brew in the way that is most healing, most energizing, most needed.

There are many reasons to do ritual. To offer devotion. To celebrate abundance. To mark transitions. Even, sometimes, in some traditions and cultures, to atone and appease. One of the main reasons we do ritual is to become present to connection. Connection with ourselves. Connection with the sacred as we understand it. To take the power to shape our reality into our own hands… and to use it wisely.

Written by River Roberts & Laurie Dietrich, originally published in Between the Worlds: A Journal of Myth, Magic & Community (Diana’s Grove, Spring 2009 – Sanctuary)

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