The Solstice was inspired by a Catholic Christmas Eve party.
The Catholic lineage has been obvious to a lot of people. People afterwards tell me that it reminds them of a midnight mass – sometimes in a good way, sometimes in a bad way. The candles, the music that is sometimes lively but is usually sung sitting down. The stories often have a sermon-like quality to them. What’s interesting was that this was *not* because I directly copied a Catholic mass (the elements I did consciously copy came more from Baptist culture). I started with my family’s Christmas Eve party – which doesn’t have candles, doesn’t have sermons (at least, not of the kind Solstice reminds people of).
I derived those elements as helpful ingredients to weave together with the existing structure. The candles are important because they can be extinguished in a dramatic fashion. The sermon elements were not there at first, but it felt important to tell a story in the darkness that emphasized the most frightening truths we have to face as a community – and then ended with the inspiration we needed to come out of that darkness.
The fact that this tied together in a way that felt much more Catholic than my family’s annual party was… probably coincidence? I’m not sure.
But it’s become increasingly clear, if rational ritual is to grow and thrive, it needs to draw wisdom from more than one source. So I’ve been making a practice of taking field trips to other events – some ritualistic, some musical or artistic, and learning techniques that can give a greater breadth and depth to the experiences I create. I’ve been interested in paganism, yoga, authentic relating and other practices.
I used to shy away from this sort of thing, because, actually learning from these practices involves subjecting yourself to a lot of woo. In some cases, priests or instructors telling you outright falsehoods. In other cases, there’s nothing *inherently* false in the instruction, but there’s an overall tone of mysticism, and a clear sense that the people around me would disagree with me on a lot of intellectual issues.
If you’re allergic to woo and mysticism, this post may rub you the wrong way. But I think it’s worthwhile to cultivate an appreciation for mystic practices. There’s lots of good, useful material there that has no need to be tied to a particular worldview.
Last week I finally went to an ecstatic dance. More than anything I’ve done in the past year, it gave me a sense of new directions to take secular ritual and community building.
Ecstatic dafnce essentially means “free form improv dancing”. In one sense, it’s basically clubbing – you go into a big room with music playing and lots of people and you move your body however you like.
There are some concrete differences – the Ecstatic Dance event I went specifically asked people not to bring drugs or alcohol, for example. But the biggest difference is the intentionality. The goal is to to find a one-ness with your body, and to find connection with the people around you.
When I arrived, I was instructed to remove my shoes, turn off my cell phone, and leave them with my coat and and backpack. Once I entered the room, there would be no talking.
Ecstatic dancing comes in waves: 45-60 minute playlists of music that take you on a musical and bodily journey. The goal is to get out of your head and find a playful one-ness with your body. Don’t worry whether you look stupid (or whether anyone else looks stupid). Move however feels right in the moment. There was occasional guidance from the facilitator, suggesting that we focus our attention on our shoulders, or hips, or breath. The guidance was more suggestion than instruction.
The music had a mix of tribal drums, Indian instrumentation and modern electronica. It began tranquil, with the instructor suggesting we explore flowing, circular movements. Over the next 20 minutes, it ramped up in intensity, and the guidance was to explore sharp, staccato movements – moving your body freely but abruptly, angular.
By the time we hit the half hour mark, there was a pitched intensity, with wild, chaotic movements. People would stomp or clap spontaneously, sing out wordless whoops or wordless songs – and other people would echo them, adding to the music in an organic fashion.
By the end, it became tranquil again. This time, the vibe didn’t push me towards languid, circular movements – instead, it conveyed stillness. With no instruction, myself and people around me tended to be sitting down or standing still, moving gently until we came to a complete stop.
If you want a more concrete, visual sense of what this all looked and felt like, this guided ecstatic wave video, by the Gabrielle Roth (the movement’s founder) is a good starting point. It has more instruction than I think an ideal dance event would, but it does a good job of explaining the key principles.
My own takeaways
I found the experience to do more or less exactly what it was supposed to do. I got into a semi-meditative state. I had a lot of fun. I also found myself singing quietly to myself, improvising words along with the music in a way that felt very natural.
It was also the first time I had a very strong sense of wanting another humanist holiday. I’ve had other ideas since reimagining the Winter Solstice, but nothing that really felt right to me. Ecstatic dance made me feel alive in a way that I haven’t really felt before, and I felt an immediate desire to share in that with my tribe. It’s the first time I’ve felt that way since thinking about my family’s Christmas celebration and wishing it told stories that I believe in.
I’m not exactly certain what form that should take. In some sense, the existing format is already perfect. It’s elegant and simple – take off your shoes, clear your mind, don’t talk and experience an hour of connection with your body and the people around you. I’m not even sure this needs to be replicated – there are plenty of existing events that humanists could just start going to.
But humanists also tend to attract particular types of people with their own needs and considerations. In my next post I’ll explore possibilities for a humanist dance-centric event in a bit more detail.