As I’ll be teaching a number of workshops on ritual facilitation at Pantheacon, ConVocation, and Paganicon, I thought I’d offer up one of my articles on leading rituals that is included in my book, Ritual Facilitation.
I’ve also created a Facebook group with the intention of discussing and teaching techniques for leading more potent rituals. Feel free to join up if you like!
Raising the Sacred Fire: How to Build and Move Energy in Ritual
Together we are singing, moving, dancing, chanting, and drumming around the fire in the center of the circle. The energy builds and slows then rises up again. I move the drum beat, and the drum beat moves me. We draw closer; I look into the firelit eyes of people around me and we smile as we sing. We drop the chant down to a whisper, then bring it back up again. Our song is a prayer for transformation, a prayer for our individual gifts to be transformed on Brigid’s Forge into their highest potential. I am singing for my gift, and for the gifts of everyone there. Our prayer is singing, movement, rhythm, and our shared intention. The chant moves into a tone that rises and falls like a fire at the bellows until we hold the silence together.
Have you ever worked to build ecstatic energy in rituals?
Raising energy in ritual can be a difficult function to facilitate. Many ritualists get a chant going only to find the group stops singing it as soon as that ritualist pauses to take a breath. Despite the challenges, there are some skills, tools, and processes that you can use to help build potent, transformative energy in rituals.
Facilitating ecstatic energy is the ability to sense energy and the ability to understand the logical energetic flow of any event. Having talent as a singer, drummer, musician, or dancer can help; it’s perhaps more important to have a team of people that is engaged, excited, and willing to model the energy as an example. Excitement is contagious, and if you are invested in the energy, then your participants will be more willing to buy into it and commit their energy as well.
What is energy?
While some ritualists may be gifted with the ability to see auras and energy, I’m not among them. I sense energy more kinesthetically, and I also work with energy less as a metaphysical thing, and more as the life-force cycled from our bodies. Breathing in oxygen, there’s a chemical reaction and we exhale carbon dioxide; chemical reactions release energy. I can also see energy through the physical reality of body language. So sensing energy is largely becoming observant.
Think about the last meeting or class you were at. How were people sitting? Did people look interested or bored and tired? How about the teacher or facilitator, did their voice drone on, or were they excited? Now think about a concert or sports event. How did you know if people were excited? Were people standing up and cheering or dancing? When people applauded, what did you feel inside?
Notice the environment around you and how you can sense the energy level of the group. Energy comes across in our body language, movements, actions, how we are talking, and the look in our eyes. If I’m talking to someone and they’re not looking at me, I don’t feel like they’re really interested in me. But if I go to a friend with a problem and they’re looking deeply into my eyes, I feel like they are really present and connected to me.
Ways to add energy
Here are some ways to add my energy in ritual, broken down by element.
Earth—Body, movement, dancing. Whether I’m a great dancer, or just adding my energy by swaying back and forth to the rhythm of the chant, I’m adding the energy of my body. When I move, my blood moves faster. Calories are consumed, and energy results in my body radiating heat and the energy of my physical life force.
Air—Breath, speech, chanting, singing. In ritual, I add Air when I participate by speaking aloud an intention or wish, when I lend my voice to the chant. When we sing together, we are breathing together, harmonizing our breaths and our pulses. We don’t need to be good singers to still make a sound and add the energy of our voice.
Fire—Rhythm, percussion, drumming. Drummers can add some of the intense sound and rhythm to the ritual. I can also add rhythm by clapping, stamping, snapping my fingers, or through vocal percussion and making rhythmic sounds with my mouth.
Water—Connection, intention, emotion. I can connect to the intention of the ritual within the depth of my heart, and to others in the ritual through deep, sustained eye contact or through touching hands. If I’m emotionally invested in the intention, in the community, if I’m connecting to the divine and to the divine within me, then I am adding my emotional energy to the ritual. Even if I am not physically able to move, if I’m rhythmically challenged, or not comfortable singing, I can add my energy by holding the intention in my heart.
Any ritual has an energetic flow, and what happens in the first few minutes of the ritual will set the tone for later on. In the rituals I offer, which are in the ecstatic tradition taught through Reclaiming, Diana’s Grove, and other shamanic traditions, I am working to get people engaged in the ritual and inviting participation.
Here is a typical flow of a public ritual in the ecstatic, participatory style. Usually these rituals are facilitated by an ensemble team, so each piece may have more than one person leading it.
- Marketing/promotion: Emails and flyers set the tone for the ritual theme and helps build communal trust in the ritual team.
- Arrivals/Greeting: As people come to the space, the ritual team works to greet the participants. Ideally everything’s already set up so that we can welcome people to the space, since welcoming makes people feel more safe, and thusly, more willing to risk singing and moving later. Having social time of at least a half hour before the ritual helps people transition from interacting with traffic into ritual space.
- Pre-Ritual Talk: This session (15 minutes or less to hold people’s attention) addresses the theme, intention, and any ritual logistics. Give people a chance to speak, even if it’s going around the circle with names, as that sets a tone of participation and helps the group move from strangers into a tribe. It’s a good time to address basic group agreements of what’s ok to do and to teach any chants so that people aren’t stumbling to learn them later. Typically I will also use the elemental model (above) to let people know how they can add their energy.
- Gathering: Instead of beginning with smudging or similar purifications that involve a long line, Diana’s Grove uses an energetic gathering. This is somewhat a purification of sound and rhythm as well as a way to get people from individual mind into group mind. The idea is to begin at the energetic level of where the group is and take them to a more collective place. You can have the group sing a tone, or you can get people clapping and moving and singing to build up some energetic fuel for later in the ritual.
- Grounding: As much as the gathering is energetic and group mind, grounding, in this context, is about connecting more deeply to myself, becoming more present to the divine, and connecting to the theme of the work. A typical tree grounding can work just fine, or any meditation to facilitate participants going internal to get into a sacred mindset.
- Casting a Circle: For the rituals I offer, casting a circle is less about an energetic barrier keeping negative energies out, and more about an energetic boundary acknowledging that we are here together as a tribe. As grounding is internal, circle casting takes us out of ourselves to connect as a tribe. The circle is the edge of our tribe for the ritual, and it’s important to establish connection and safety. This is the cauldron that will hold the soup. In ecstatic participatory ritual, one or two people facilitate the circle casting but the intention is to have participants add their energy to the process. The challenge is to do an inclusive casting, or invocation, in around 2 minutes or less to keep people engaged.
- Invoking the Elements: The elemental invocations, similarly, are an opportunity to invite participants to lend their voice, body, movement, and intention, as well as to deepen the theme. In the rituals I work in, instead of facing the direction, the elemental invoker moves into the center and facilitates a process where the whole group invokes the element. An example: “Will you join me in welcoming Air? Will you take a breath together, will you make the sound that is the wind in the trees that blows the leaves to the ground, will you move as air moves? Air is the breath of life, can you feel how the change in the air heralds the change in the seasons? Welcome Air.”
- Center: I typically work with center as the gravity well that draws the community together. What is the reason that people came? This is another opportunity to connect the group together as a tribe, and to the center that holds us.
- Deities, ancestors, allies: We invite in whichever deities or allies we’ll be working with in as inclusive a way as possible. What each person participates in is more potent than them watching a ritualist do something. Liturgy and poetry can be powerful, but if you want the group to add their energy later on, give them some way to participate in every piece, even if it’s just closing their eyes and imagining the ancestors.
- Storytelling: Often the working part of the ritual begins with storytelling or some piece to add context to what we’re doing in the ritual. This piece can be longer than 2 minutes, provided people are given a chance to get comfortable.
- Trance Journey: Storytelling often transitions into a trance journey which takes the theme of the story and move it from a story about gods and heroes into a story that we personally can interact in. Storyelling, and trance journeys, brings people’s energy internal and will require a transition if I want them to come out of trance and be active.
- Physicalization: As much as possible, it helps to offer experiences for multiple learning styles (visual, auditory, kinesthetic, etc.). If the trance journey took us to a place where we connect with the fire of our personal magic, then the physicalization might be inviting people to choose a stone to represent their magic. Or it might be to have them stand and go to an altar and offer their personal magic to Brigid’s forge to be transformed. A physicalization helps integrate the ritual intention, as well as transitions people from internal to external so they are more ready to participate in the energy.
- Energy Building: A sustained energy piece is the fuel for the magic. Often it helps to start slow and build through layering chanting, movement, harmonies, vocal percussion, drumming, and more. The ritualist team should be fully engaged; if you aren’t willing to stand up and sing, no one else will be. The energy may rise to a peak of sound and rhythm, and after there is usually a moment of silence. A typical time length for energy is 8-10 minutes; 15 minutes may be longer than many people can chant. The energy, and the ritual, should have a defined ending. People can drum and dance more after ritual.
- Benediction: Let people know what the ritual was about, such as, “Brigid, thank you for helping us find our personal magic and transform it in your forge. May we support each other in community.” This seals the deal on the working and leads to devoking the allies and elements. Opening the circle is a last chance for the group to connect as a tribe before opening.
- Dessert/Feast Ecstatic participatory rituals tend to not use cakes and ale within the ceremony because of the energetic lag created by a long wait for food to be passed around. Post-ritual dessert or feasting is an intentional bonding time to grow community.
Layering the energy
To build up a sustained energy, it helps to layer in voice, rhythm, and movement. As each layer builds, gently bring in another layer, as that will feel more natural to the group and they will be more likely to participate. Drummers should follow the group’s energy rather than drive the group; building it too fast and the group may “check out.” If the energy spikes up too fast you can drop the chant down to a whisper and build it back up. You can invite group participation through eye contact, beckoning, or by asking, “Will you join your movement and voice to this ritual?”
Having a team of people willing to sing and dance models what behavior is “ok” to the group and creates safety. Watch a ritual where one person starts to clap; if no one else does, they’ll stop. But if a second or third person does, then others will.
If you have some strong singers, you can use a chant with 2 parts or harmonies to add another layer of energy. A basket of rhythm instruments is another opportunity for people to add a sound.
Working the energy is a balance of letting the group drive how fast the chant builds, and pushing the energy along. The energy will plateau, and rise again when you add a layer. At first it’s hard to sense if the group’s ready to be done, or if it’s just a natural plateau where another layer will build the energy back up.
Begin to take more notice of people’s body language. Are these people willing to stand up and sing? The kinds of energy you can build in ritual will depend on your team—do you have drummers and singers? How many attendees—10 or 100? What’s the chant you are using—is it cradling, or an energy-raiser?
Observe the rituals of different groups. What happens to the energy when 40 people smudge themselves or stand in line at an altar? How long do people speak? When is it boring? When are people invigorated, willing to sing or participate? When are glazed over?
While the skillset of building ecstatic energy in ritual takes time and practice, these tools should offer a way to frame ritual in terms of energy and begin to build techniques into your own rituals. With practice, you can raise the sacred fire of ecstatic energy in your rituals.
This article was first published in Circle Magazine Issue 105, Sacred Fire and also appears in Stepping Into Ourselves: An Anthology of Priestessing. It is also one of the articles collected in my book Ritual Facilitation.
Pagans and practitioners of alternative spiritual path face the challenge of learning to lead compelling rituals with little to no training in techniques of facilitation, public speaking, or event planning. Many learn the theology of their tradition and then get frustrated leading ceremonies through trial and error. If you are called to lead rituals and ceremonies, learn how to create potent, powerful rituals that will inspire your participants.
Each of us can learn to create more magical, memorable rituals. Whether you are an experienced ritualist or brand new to ritual work, this collection of articles and essays will help you learn to facilitate stronger rituals. Techniques include ritual structure, handling logistics, common pitfalls, engaging participation, and helping new leaders to step into speaking roles.
Ritual Facilitation by Shauna Aura Knight
Available as an eBook for $4.99 at Amazon & $15 for the hardcopy. If you need an eBook format other than Kindle you can buy direct from me, just comment here or email me at ShaunaAura (at) gmail (dot) com.