Ritual Lab vs “Actual Ritual”

I wanted to talk briefly about Ritual Lab, “Actual Rituals” (for lack of a better term) and how they relate.

Ritual Lab

Ritual Lab is a practice I’m refining, and that I recommend others try out: Get together with a smallish group of people, try out either a half-baked ritual or a couple “ritual-fragments”, and discuss how to do better. Ideally someone shares notes with the broader community.

Ritual lab is important because it allows us to rapidly iterate without worrying if an idea is perfect.

The goal of ritual lab (individually, and as a growing practice), is twofold:

  • To refine the overall art of Rational Ritual
  • To help ritual-enthusiasts transition into ritual practitioners, and to help ritual-practitioners become a strong community (able and willing to help each other achieve great things, while maintaining a strong intellectual integrity)
As such, the target audience for Ritual Lab(s) are:
  • People interested (or curious) about becoming ritual practitioners (i.e. people who actually help make Actual Rituals happen – this can be as a “creative director” or as a “logistics person” or “the person who helps get coffee/wine/boiling-water-representing-the-universe, etc”)
  • People who are interested in experiencing ritual and are willing to experiment (and be experimented on, in a safe/consensual way)
In Ritual Lab, the core values are, quite literally, Rationality and Ritual.

“Actual Ritual”

By contrast, “Actual Ritual” is the output of Ritual Lab that you take back to other, broader communities. You can do Actual Ritual without a Ritual Lab, but it’s helpful to have an explicit community who is willing to beta-test ideas enthusiastically.

By “Actual”, I mean there are values involved other than Ritual for its own sake. You’re celebrating something emotionally or intellectually significant.

When designing Actual Rituals, it’s important to keep in mind the goals of the community. Are you trying to foster a particular set of principles or moral code? Are you trying to just get some friends better in touch with their emotional sides?

Does the community have reputational goals? You may want to use ritual-techniques (such as singing, dancing or storytelling) but not explicitly brand them as such. (i.e. there can be something ritualistic about a TED talk, especially if there’s some audience involvement, but it feels very different than gathering around a circle of candles in the darkness or some such. Simply using (or not using) the word “ritual” can matter a lot to the emotional tone or reputational effects.

Ritual Lab is R&D, which I think is really valuable and needs to be cultivated. But it’s also important to test our work in the “real” world, outside of the tiny demographic of people-super-into-ritual.

(This represents my continuously evolving thoughts as of exactly right now. Commentary on this framework/distinction is welcome)
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Ritual Lab: Improvised Music

Tonight in NYC we had a ritual lab. I wanted to share some notes from it. (This is written as a set of instructions you can either follow, or take inspiration.)

The pattern I’ve settled into for Ritual Lab is “start with a rough idea of the kind of experience you want to explore, discuss it and refine it into something workable, and then try out the experience. (Ritual Lab is optimized for learning, rather than for executing a complete experience, but ideas can then be further refined and made more complete)

Tonight’s concept was “improvised music.” With minimal explicit instruction, starting from silence, could we create a shared group musical experience? Would it be meaningful?

Introductions (Getting to know each other, setting the tone)

We began going around, sharing our names, and saying “what brought us to ritual lab this night?” (Many of us gave fairly general answers about why they appreciated ritual. I may want to refine the wording in the future to prompt “what are you specifically looking for tonight?” so that it remains a useful introduction even if everyone knows each other.)
Someone suggested ALSO telling everyone our names again at the end, when people were more likely to actually remember. But then we forgot to do so. :P

7 Minutes of Reflection: Value and Concern

A “new tradition” I’ve been trying out lately is to begin each Ritual Lab with 7 minutes of silent reflection. During this time, people are encouraged to meditate and bring themselves to a tranquil state – and then think about 2 questions. Tonight, the questions were:

Have you had any music experiences, improv’d or otherwise, that were meaningful to you?
Do you have any concerns – either logistical or emotional,  about ways an improvised music experience might go poorly?

Afterwards, people go around the circle briefly describing their answers to one question, then again around the circle briefly describing their answers to the other.

After THAT, more freeform discussion follows as people respond to each others’ ideas. The facilitator should gradually direct the conversation towards a concrete plan of What-To-Do.

(Commentary:

The intention of the 7 minutes is multifold:

  • It helps people reach a tranquil, ritual-receptive state.
  • It gives people opportunity to practice thinking, both about how ritual can be valuable and about how it might go wrong. In some cases “wrong” means “unsafe and dangerous” but in other cases it can simply be “some people might get confused or uncomfortable because X – maybe we can fix it by doing Y?”
  • The simple act of asking both questions can be reassuring to newcomers.

Music, Round I

We set a goal of “maintain a very long improvised music jam, for 15-30 minutes.” I suggested this goal so that people would have time to fully lean into the experience, and also because it was an interesting challenge.

We did not end up going more than 5-10 minutes, but it did feel like it reached a meaningful conclusion. (We ended up deciding multiple shorter sessions were better, because we could learn from each one)

Format for the first round was:

  • Begin with one person making a repetitive sound, rhythm or movement.
  • One by one, going around a circle, each person adds another small loop of music, drumming and/or dancing to the existing sounds/rhythms.
  • Eventually, a particular designated leader would do something to change the vibe of the music, to keep it from getting stale.
  • Theme – we felt it would be more poignant to have a theme, but it ALSO would be easier to jam with non-verbal music. We decided to have a theme of “Growth”, which people could interpret on their own, find emotions that tied in with it, and let those emotions come out through non-verbal song

Results: We spent about 50% of the time grooving in the zone with each other, and 50% feeling slightly unsure of ourselves. We realized that because there were SOME instructions, but not many, people were a bit afraid to add new things without stepping on the designated-leaders toes

Music, Round II: Whatever the hell you want

So we tied it again without any instructions whatsoever (people could pick their own theme/emotion to cultivate), and it actually worked pretty well – hit a very solid groove. Some people got to a relatively deep “ritual space”, others just found it relatively fun.

(This doesn’t reliably work with arbitrary people, but this group had >50% skilled singers)

I decided to cultivate the emotions of anguish and hope during the second round, and I was surprised how easy I found it to steep myself in those.

Round III: Dance

I had a vague hope that we’d organically start dancing during the first two rounds, but it didn’t really happen. So for the third round we instead listened to music and tried to focus on moving rather than singing.

It’s fairly hard to find a song that EVERYONE likes to dance to, but the song we used – Level Up, by Vienna Teng, worked for most of the people there, and the people it DID work for found it really moving and transcendent. We ended up listening to it once again just to learn the lyrics, and then danced a second time to it, this time fully “getting” the song emotionally.

Debrief/Thoughts for the future

Between each round, we talked about what worked or didn’t work for us. We ended with some vague plans for how to continue to polish a series of improv music/dance/thematic exercises that take people on an emotional journey, and how to scale it up so more people can participate.

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Ritual and Safety

META – I’ve noticed that I’m way more comfortable posting things to facebook that posting on the bog. I’m going to try out a thing where whenever I post on facebook about ritual I mirror it here. Because so far I’ve been failing pretty hard at the “actually share knowledge gained from Ritual Lab.” (I keep feeling intimidated by the prospect of writing things up)

Rational/(trans)Humanist ritual has two main challenges:

1) How to create something meaningful
2) How to create something safe, that doesn’t end up rehashing the harmful things that atheists are trying to get away from

The problem with 1 is that we’re not very skilled at it. We need to get more skilled. The way you get more skilled is by trying things, seeing what works, iterating.

The problem with the problem with 1 is that iterative feedback loops have a long history of outputting unintended consequences (like causing humans to spend 10,000 years doing backbreaking farm work that didn’t end up actually making individual people’s lives better until after the industrial revolution).

((See also, centuries of rituals that were coercive, punished questioning, etc))

The past century is littered with attempts at humanist ritual that failed, are in decline, or are failing to attract new blood. I think there are several reasons for this, but among them is that while we had individuals and groups trying to create beautiful things, we didn’t have a collaborative system that allowed us to gain knowledge over time (standing on the shoulders of giants, et al)

So….

Creating *good* ritual requires at least some degree of recursive self improvement. Creating *safe* ritual requires a lot of upfront work to make sure that recursive self improvement doesn’t spiral out of control.

This problem seems familiar.

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Solstice for Kids

Right now, Solstice is optimized for adults, and evokes “Midnight Mass” more than anything else.

Ultimately, if Secular Solstice is successful, it needs to be fun for kids. It’s been pointed out to me that, for good or for ill, it needs to compete with Christmas on capitalism’s terms: if this weird new holiday isn’t going to get them the Hot New Toy that all the cool kids are getting, kids aren’t going to care about it.

Right now there’s a phenomenon wherein young atheists care a lot about atheism/humanism/secularism during college, but then get on with their lives and disappear off the Secular Community Grid for a decade. Their social lives are filled with fun young-adult activities. Until suddenly they have kids and they feel a need to give those kids a community that’ll help them be strong, happy and virtuous.

By default, the communities they turn to tend to be religious. Some new parents end up going to Ethical Culture or the UU. Many more end up going to something traditionally religious. Or something like Boy Scouts, which isn’t officially religiously affiliated but is heavily supported by the Mormons.*

Right now I don’t have kids, and like many other secular organizers, I’ve been creating the product that want – a social world for people my age, with more profound-ness than what I’ve found before. But in the long game a) I’ll be older, possibly with kids, b) for secularism to win the culture-war, it needs to provide a valuable service to the majority of people who don’t super-much care about atheism, but would prefer a non-religious community/culture for their kids if possible.

I was recently told by a parent that for their family to actually switch from Secular Christmas to Solstice, it’d need to actually make their kids happy. This also suggests there needs to be a clear roadmap for parents – how to use Solstice to make their kids happy.

Very vague ideas so far:

  •  Embed giftgiving into the holiday more directly, with a specific eye in mind for what kids want as opposed to what’s fun for adults.
  •  Perhaps write a Solstice children’s book, that is both a fun story for kids and a *useful* picture for adults about what family-Solstice looks like. According to wikipedia, “The Night Before Christmas” poem actually played a pretty big role in shaping Christmas towards a more secular holiday.
  • Then again, thinking in terms of traditional media is pretty limiting. Night Before Christmas was successful as a poem/book in an era where books were the way you broadcast ideas. An interactive game on the internet might be more of the way to get things done.
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Holidays, Sunday Assemblies and Rules of Three

So, what comes next after Winter Solstice? Summer Solstice? Equinoxes?

It’s a surprisingly complicated problem. There should clearly be more than one secular holiday. But four (following the Solstice/Equinox wheel of the year) feels like too many. So… three holidays? But how do you divide the year up in that case?

Sunday Assembly, the current rising-star-poster-child for non-theistic congregations, suggests an answer (originally invented by Korin Scott and some colleagues at SA-Portland).

Three Seasons

Sunday Assembly’s motto has three parts – “Live Better”, “Help Often”, and “Wonder More.” These do essentially sum up the things I think are important, and the things that I think guide most secular community-builders.

So, rather than dividing the year into seasons based on geography and climate (which are different all over the world), instead divide it into three seasons based on those three principles. And then, every four months, have a big holiday that transitions us from one season to the next.

This works out surprisingly well – “Live Better” comes on the heels of New Years, when everyone’s just made a bunch of resolutions they probably won’t actually keep. This seasons provides the focus of “help each other actually keep those resolutions”, and a general atmosphere of “let’s make our lives as awesome as possible.”

Then third-of-the-way-through-the-year, when our lives are going awesome, spring has come and we’re full of optimism and energy, we transition into helping others. Go out as a community and do projects that make the world a better place and help us feel excited and optimistic about it in the process.

Finally, as summer gives way to autumn and the world grows cold, we turn towards reflection about our wonder of the universe we live in.

There’s arguments to be made for switching that order around (“December is IRS-sponsored charity month, so why not have that be the ‘Help Often’ month?”). I think that’s a legitimate argument there, but I tentatively think it’s better to associate helping with the outdoors and good weather. (I’ll have another post at some point exploring this in more detail)

But Wait, There’s More

So we want three holidays highlighting each of these principles. Designing a holiday is not easy and I think it’s better to discuss the constraints of the problem before getting too much into specifics. But there’s one more rule of three that I think’d be relevant.

I think it’s best if each holiday is as thematically different from the others as possible. One way to divide them may be on the central conflict that the holiday represents. In literature, conflicts can be presented in three groups: “Man vs Man,” “Man vs Nature”, and “Man versus self.”

(Apologies for the sexist language – “Person vs Person” doesn’t sound quite as dramatic. I also plan to do a post about inherent problems with sexism in poetic language)

The Solstice already has a strong Humans-vs-Nature subtheme, which dovetails nicely with “Wonder of the universe” (the universe being awe-inspiring both in its beauty and in it’s cold indifference).

A “Live Better” holiday would focus on “Person vs Self”, contemplating your own shortcomings and working to change them, while also celebrating your individuality, your successes so far, and your potential for growth).

And when it comes to helping others, “People vs people” is clearly relevant. Many problems in the world exist either because humans compete for resources, or because humans cannot coordinate effectively to solve problems.

I don’t think these should be ironclad frameworks that guide the creation of new holidays, but I find they help point my brain in directions it would not have otherwise gone.

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Exploration: Quaker Meeting

As part of my exploration of existing religions, communities and sacred spaces, I visited a Friends’ Meeting last Sunday at a Quaker church. Several colleagues have suggested I go, and even noted I should go to multiple meetings – their structure is pretty free form, and there’s lot of variety. So what you see on one day may not be representative.

The basic format is this: People gather in the meeting hall, sitting in circle or arc. You come in silently, sit silently.

If you are moved to speak, you speak – usually for a couple minutes – before sitting down in silence again.

That’s it.

The particular meeting I went to, there was silence for the first 50 minutes, ending with one woman standing to speak about her brother, who had been abusing drugs, and the struggle they both had with it. A little afterwards, a few other people stood to announce events being run by the community.

I gather that different congregations – and different meeting times within congregations – vary in how much time is typically spent talking. In this congregation, the early morning Sunday meeting is usually entirely silent. The second service (the one I went to) starts at 11:00, and is typically mostly silence, but usually has more than 1 speaker.

There’s a different-version-of-me, from a different time in my life, that would have been profoundly bored by the experience. “I’m traveling all this way to sit in silence for an hour? I could do that at home. Also, why?” And there’s a different-different-version-of-me that would have found it exactly what I needed – constantly surrounded by the hustle-bustle of New York City, desperately needing a moment of tranquility in a communal setting.

Last Sunday, I found myself appreciating it for what it was, though not something I felt moved to go back to immediately.

Something I noted was that I wasn’t sure exactly what to *do* during the silence. Silence is not inherently boring – it could be a time to silently reflect on something important, or think about your possible choices for the future, or just clear your mind to experience peace and clarity. The lack of direction could be a bug or a feature. If you’re already experienced with multiple forms of meditation or reflection, having the freedom to make of it what you will could be valuable.

I haven’t quite gotten the hang of any form of meditation though, and I’d have preferred a bit more direction. (I could imagine a Quaker who’s been going a while telling me that I’m missing the point).

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The Summer Solstice Paradox

In which I call something a paradox that, like most “paradoxes”, isn’t really. But is nonetheless a confusing problem.

After every Winter Solstice I’ve run, I get people asking me “so what’s for Summer Solstice?” It seems like an obvious question – clearly the Winter Solstice is just a small piece of a much larger puzzle. One holiday does not a culture make. And on the flipside, it’s helpful to build off of something already familiar. So a Summer Solstice feels like the obvious next step… right?

Honestly, that doesn’t feel right to me.

What are holidays for again?

Holidays serve a few key purposes – they connect us to our community, they connect us to ideas. Depending on their nature, they may give us an excuse to celebrate and have fun, or they may give us an excuse to be calm and contemplative. The generalized case of this is “give us an excuse to have an experience that society doesn’t normally encourage us to have.”

Used to be, there wasn’t a giant economy churning out more novel things to entertain us than we could ever possibly consume. Used to be, you had more or less one culture per-town, and your community ran a few big holidays per year.

Then we started having melting-pot (“salad bowl?”) metropolitan centers where we had lots of different cultures clashing, along with more and more people/companies/movements churning out novel experiences.[1] Now there are huge numbers of big parades, live-action theater events, conferences about art and science, a dozen new movies each week, as well as numerous small meetups catering to random niche interests.

The positive side is we get access to all these experiences. The downside is that we may lose access to the particular experience “my entire tribe is coming together to celebrate this thing we all care deeply about.”

Humanist culture has the potential to fill that void. But to successfully do that, it needs to create something people go to instead of all the other fun, exciting experiences that already exist.

The Brighter Than Today Solstice was successful because it was doing something that literally wasn’t being done – creating a holiday experience that had a story, had good original music and good art that tied together to create a deliberate experience. It also wasn’t afraid to get dark and explore sadness.

The Summer Solstice Paradox

Winter feels like a time of huddling in the darkness, drawing people close. I want to be reminded that the light will return, that I’m not alone.

Summer… I just want to enjoy the light. June 22nd, I just want to be out in the woods with friends, having a picnic or throwing a frisbee.

You could make a Summer Solstice that deliberately echoed the Brighter-Than-Today-style Winter Solstice – have a big outdoor music festival that celebrates being alive alongside reason and human achievement. But really, I’d rather my Summer Solstice just be fun, and if we’re just doing fun, it’s not something that really *needs* to be uniquely humanist. There are already outdoor music festivals and parties.

The people running those have years of experience, they are better at it than I am, and any unique spins I’ve thought of so far to put on it feel a bit awkward and forced. (If you are good at running that sort of event, by all means run a humanist-focused version of it, but most humanist organizers I know aren’t experienced festival organizers as well).

More generally – I’m not sure that the Solstice/Equinox framework makes for the best wheel of the year, especially if we’re trying to set something in motion that’ll weather the sands of time. Most places on the globe have some form of winter – even if doesn’t have life threatening cold, it typically at least has an encroaching darkness that makes for a potent symbol. But not as many regions have as distinct an autumn or spring. And four “Big” holidays seems to be asking for a lot of limited cultural attention.

But, still. One holiday seems overly minimalist.  So, what to do?

I do have some ideas I’m still mulling over. But first, I’d like to pose the question to people here. Think for a moment about how many holidays you actually want in a given year. Think about what you’d actually want to experience, when you want to experience, how busy you’re likely to be at that time of year and what it’d likely be competing with for your attention.

What do you want out of a humanist holiday year?

[1] I’m not actually certain I’m getting the history quite right here. One bug/feature of the rationalist community is that I start (correctly) second guessing everything I think I know, which means I feel obligated to do lots of research before I make any claims, which means I feel paralyzed and don’t actually get around to writing. But meanwhile, there DO clearly seem to be states of the world that need fixing, which requires writing stuff that motivates people. 

My current strategy is “do minimal research on wikipedia to make sure I’m not grossly wrong about my claims about history, holidays and ritual, and then go ahead and write the damn blogpost.

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