Navigating events

Adapting : stars (bigger to smaller) on pale blue background

I got a question from a reader and fan of the site (thank you!) wondering about how to navigate finding community while dealing with PTSD and triggers that make many common Pagan event models complicated to manage.

It’s a great question – we all want to find events and activities we can enjoy, not just endure (at best.) And it’s true that some Pagan events (like events of other kinds) can be overwhelming, rowdy, include things that we don’t want to be around, or just are not to our taste. 

Many of the specifics are going to depend a lot on what the local and regional events are like near you. Some places will offer many options, and some places may only offer a handful of choices.

You may decide you want to save up and travel to events that are a better fit for you (if that’s an option.) You may decide to deal with events that are harder for you or aren’t your first choice because they’re more accessible in other ways (closer, shorter, more affordable.)

The good news is that you can decide what works for you right now. 

1: Figure out your goals and priorities

Start here because it will help you make the best choices for you. It’s hard to tell how important a specific event is (or how far you’re willing to go to give it a try) if you’re not clear about your priorities.

You may want to make different choices if you’re focusing on learning a particular topic than if you’re looking to build up a community of people who are close enough to you to get together regularly.

You may be willing to make more compromises for something that meets all of your goals rather than something that only touches on one or two. 

Timing matters

You might be more able to deal with an event you’re less sure about during a period when the rest of your life is going smoothly. When other things are chaotic, you may have fewer resources for dealing with an event that is more challenging (for whatever reason.) 

If you’re in the midst of more intensive work in therapy or internal work (like shadow work), balance that with trying new things that can be unpredictable. You may want to start with smaller more focused events (like a class or workshop) rather than a larger more complex event. Even a well-run and thoughtful event can have a lot of new things to deal with, and you may not want to add that on top of the other things you’re juggling. 

If you’re connecting to people online, consider asking if other people have similar needs to yours, and what’s worked for them. You may get some great recommendations for things to look for, or even specific events or groups. 

2: Focus on events that work for you

There are different kinds of Pagan events out there – you may find that some of them work a lot better for you than others. 

Networking gatherings

Some areas have pub moots, coffee cauldrons, or other similarly named events that are largely social or social time plus a topic for discussion.

Whether there’s alcohol or not depends on the location (a pub moot, common in the UK, is normally going to be in a pub, after all…) but the emphasis for at least the earlier part of the gathering is usually conversation and getting to know people with similar interests.

They’re usually also pretty flexible, and it’s common to be able to leave whenever you need, so long as it’s not the middle of a presentation. (And even then you’re probably okay if you leave quietly. Picking a seat that makes it easier to leave helps, too.)  

Classes and workshops

Usually the most structured. Some may last a couple of hours, some may last a full day or a weekend. Longer classes may have some shared social time (like a lunch or dinner break where people go off to find food together), but mostly you’ll be there to do the things you’re doing in the workshop. 

The challenge of workshops is that if the energy of the group isn’t working for you, or the approach goes in a way that’s not what you wanted, your choices are to leave or to cope with it. You’re either participating in the class or you’re not. 

Open rituals 

Open rituals usually have a time to gather, a time to introduce what’s going on (and the people there, sometimes), the ritual, and then some social time afterwards. Depending on the group, location, and schedule, the social time could be relatively brief (an hour or so), or could stretch late into the night. 

Often during the social time there will be multiple clusters of people, so if one isn’t to your taste, you can try talking to other people. And you can also go for the ritual, and then leave if the social time turns into something you don’t want to be around.

However, if you’re going to go to a ritual, you should take that part seriously. Don’t talk about other topics during it, participate appropriately, or at least be quietly respectful.

Usually the people leading the ritual will set things up to model what appropriate participation looks like. For example, if there’s a bit in the ritual where people are sharing hopes for the coming season, usually the first person or few people will model about how long and detailed it should be. It’s also okay to be brief and vague, or murmur “I’d rather reflect on it privately.”

Festivals and conferences

Festivals are longer events, often held at campgrounds (with camping or cabins), and conventions or conferences are longer events that take place at hotels (or sometimes something like a conference center). They can run from a weekend  to a full week. 

Both are great because they give you plenty of time to try a range of different things (workshops on different topics, varying styles of ritual, etc.)

But both can be much larger investments of time and resources, and they can be more complicated to navigate if you’ve got specific needs or concerns. On the other hand, because they’re longer events, you have more options in retreating for an hour or two to rest and recover, or pick and choose what things you’re doing. 

Other events

Other kinds of events exist. For example, there are public education events like Pagan Pride, or shared community events with more structure like the Reclaiming Witchcamps (these are multiple day gatherings with a mix of workshops, time for discussion, and rituals, and very much their own culture.) 

These events work best if you have a pretty good idea what you’re hoping to get out of them, and have a good sense of what you’re getting into. 

Online courses

Online courses are increasingly common these days, and many of them have options to connect with other people (through online discussion groups, calls, people creating accountability or core groups, etc.)

There can be a wide range of price points, and some people offer scholarships or other options. If you’re interested in these, many people who offer them also have some free resources like blogs, mailing lists, occasional open calls, or other ways to get to know them and their material. 

3: Look at event information closely

Often, the event information will give you a good idea what to expect. Some kinds of ritual focus or activities may not be a good fit for you (or a good fit right now) and the event information will help you figure that out.

If you have past experiences that can cause difficulties, avoid events that don’t tell you in advance the basics of what’s going on (or at least get to know the people running those events in other situations first.) 

Look for clearly structured activities. 

Some events like this have very little structure – you show up and eventually things maybe happen. Some Pagan events have a ritual and potluck. Eventually that potluck evolves (or devolves) into a bonfire with drinking, noise, and a lot more chaos with no one really keeping an eye on what’s going on. If you’ve got triggers related to drinking, unexpected noises, or being startled, that stage of the evening is maybe not going to be your thing. 

Others have more structure, where the event invitation may say something like “Gather at 2, introductions at 2:30, ritual at 3, potluck when we’re done around 5. You’re welcome to stay and enjoy the bonfire until the park closes at 10.”

In that case, the early part of the day may be fine for you, but you could plan to leave around 6. At that point, you’ve had enough time to enjoy the potluck and talk to people, but it’s before things get more rowdy and chaotic. 

If you’re not sure, aiming to leave around the time it gets dark is a good rule of thumb until you know the people and situation better. If it’s the middle of winter or ‘dark’ isn’t useful, aim for 30-90 minutes after the main activity ends. Usually if something is going to degenerate into a more rowdy gathering, it will take a while to get to that. 

Choose events with codes of conduct

More and more events are making their codes of conduct clear. For longer events, they should be linked with other information about attending. For shorter events like classes or rituals, there may be information from the sponsoring group or location.

Look for codes that are clear, but allow the staff of the event leeway to gather information and make choices based on the specifics, while still providing some degree of transparency about decisions.

Not all events are great about actually following their codes of conduct (that can still be a work in progress), but an event that has one has at least given it some amount of thought, and other people at that event likely also care about the event running well and being attentive to other issues. 

Event location can make a difference

If you have triggers specifically around alcohol or drug use, there are events where substance use is less likely to be in the middle of everything. 

A camping festival has a lot of open spaces connected to other participants, so if one person or group overindulges or becomes difficult, inappropriate, or abusive, it can easily spill over onto everyone nearby. The campground staff may not notice if they’re at one end of a large open space.

That can make it easy to run into a situation that’s not good for you without much warning. The nature of the space can also make it hard for you to get away from something that’s causing you problems. 

A hotel-based convention, on the other hand, has walls between rooms. Generally hotel staff will be walking around the convention spaces (resetting rooms, bringing ice and water refills to public spaces, responding to concerns) well into the evening, along with whatever staff from the conference are around. Public spaces will be well-lit (due to safety regulations.)

It’s easier to find events in public spaces (including the consuite) without going into people’s private rooms. For someone who’s concerned about running into specific triggers, the hotel space probably offers more control and options. (You may miss out out on some fun parties you’re not sure about, but in many cases, other interesting people will be hanging out in a space that works better for you.) 

Some events are substance free or have options for people who want to avoid substance use. Some events are entirely substance free. (Many of the Reclaiming Witchcamps are, for example.) Public rituals held in certain kinds of spaces (public parks during the day, progressive churches and religious communities, schools) are often substance free as well because of the requirements of the space. 

If you’re concerned about alcohol use, some events allow it, but only via a cash-only bar (maybe at an evening concert) or only in the hotel bar, not in the convention hospitality suites. Or they may allow organizations sponsoring a suite to offer alcohol, but not offer it in the convention hospitality suite.

These choices often discourage people who are just there for the drinking (or will contain them in the bar area.) If you’re concerned about people smoking consumables, look for events at non-smoking hotels.

Some events have meetings for sobriety groups (they may be listed on the program space listing), or other types of support or ways to connect with other people who have similar preferences. 

Look for additional resources

Some events have a quiet space or room where you can spend some time if you’re getting overwhelmed by all the stimulus of the event. If the event has something like this, it will usually be listed in the event information, often either by major event locations or information about accessibility. 

4: Ask questions as needed

Groups thinking about accessibility and inclusivity will make a lot of information available up front, but you may have particular concerns that aren’t covered. If you do, the event should have a way to contact them with questions.

It’s best to contact the group in advance. There’s a sweet spot for checking after the plans are made, but before people are busy with the last minute preparation. For a class or ritual (something lasting a few hours), 5-7 days before is great and earlier is fine if your questions are about something about the location, like whether there are stairs. 

For longer or more complex events like a conference or festival, it’s best to ask once the schedule has gone up, but 2-4 weeks before the event at a minimum. The last weeks before the event people will both be extra busy getting ready, and a lot of changes may not be possible. 

In some cases, groups may have a Facebook group, mailing list, or other general discussion space where you can ask things. For example, if you have specific dietary needs, you could ask people if they know of options near the convention hotel. You could ask if other people are interested in meeting up who want to avoid drinking or who are looking to connect with others there for the first time (or whatever your particular needs and interests are.)

Not everyone will check out those groups, but asking there will let the event organisers know that people are interested in that, and there may already be some options arranged that can help. 

5: Take care of yourself

Before going to a new event, do your best to sleep well, eat sensibly, and drink plenty of water.

You don’t want to start things off with extra stress on your body! It’s a good idea to pack some backup supplies – medications you use, including over the counter pain killers and allergy meds, some water, and something that can help if you need food. (Protein bars work great for this, or shelf-stable snacks.) 

Be able to retreat when you need to.

 If the event is a few hours long, that means being able to get home if you need – whether that’s having the bus schedule and fare, the app for a ride service, or your own car. If it’s a longer event (like a convention or festival), having your own space to retreat to like a hotel room or a tent can be a big help.

Either way, knowing you can get somewhere quiet and under your control when you need to is a hugely important way to help manage any concerns you have. 

Consider bringing a friend (or partner or family member).

If they don’t want to come to the event, is there something nearby they’d be happy doing, where they could come meet you if you needed a hand? Some people feel better saying “Oh, I need to leave now, I’m meeting someone for dinner”. Other people feel better knowing that if they need company getting home, someone’s there to help. 

If you do bring someone to the event, talk in advance about their goals. Are they coming with a focus on supporting you? Or are they also interested in parts of the event? If so, is there something they don’t want to miss? 

Trying new things tends to be harder on us than doing something we’re used to. 

Think about what parts of the event will be new to you, and which are things you’ve done before. If this is your first group ritual (or the first in a ritual style you’ve never been part of before) than you want to give yourself more time to recover than if you’re familiar with the group or method. That means giving yourself time afterwards to recover (not dash off to some other new activity.) 

If you find larger groups challenging, start by going to something with a more specific focus, known in advance, and think about when you’ll choose to leave.

Maybe it’s the right call to go to class but not out for dinner with people in the class afterwards. Maybe you spend one of the breaks talking to people, and the next one you go outside to be quiet and get some fresh air on your own. You know yourself best. 

Do let people leading classes or rituals know if there’s something that comes up in the midst. 

A decent teacher or ritualist will worry if it looks like you’re not doing well (or if you disappear without a comment.) You don’t need to share tons of details, but a simple “I’m not feeling great, I’m going to sit this out.” works well. 

Larger events will often have some people designated specifically to help out people who need it during or after the ritual. These are usually introduced in advance (sometimes with some visual sign like a badge or ribbon). At an event with a registration or information table, you can also check with the people there for some extra help. 

If you have questions after an event

Usually, it’s better not to dig into criticism of an event for a day or so (unless there’s an immediate health and safety need that has to be attended to.)

Putting on a ritual or event for other people is a complicated and often emotionally vulnerable experience for the ritualists, and there’s also just a lot of logistical details that can be exhausting. (Especially if things didn’t go quite according to plan.) 

There will often be time after a ritual or other event to talk, and it’s fine to ask questions then. But the people who ran the ritual may prefer to catch their breath, sit down for a bit, and recover, before they get too in depth. And of course, sometimes questions come up after you get home (or especially after you’ve slept on it.) 

A question about something in ritual

Ask about a specific thing or two in the ritual, or briefly (a paragraph or two) summarise what happened afterwards (i.e. a dream, an experience in personal meditation), and ask if they can point you at any resources to help. In other words, write something that they can probably answer in 20-30 minutes, not something that will take hours, if you can.

A model email with your question

Hello, [name they used, if you have it] 

Thank you so much for the ritual last Saturday – it was my first time at a Pagan ritual, and I had an amazing time. 

When we did the meditation to explore the realm of the purple badger, I had a very strong experience of going down into the den and digging out more spaces. That night, I had a very vivid dream, about being in a dark earthy space, and it was very hard to wake up. 

Would you be able to recommend either sources for learning about the purple badger, or for that kind of intense dream experience? I appreciate any pointers.

Thanks for your time, and I am hoping to be at [the next event that group is doing] in September. 

[name you want to be known as in this setting] 

If something was a problem

Sometimes there will be something unexpected that was a problem in the ritual.

It’s important to pay attention to any pre-ritual guidance (since this is often where people share key details about the ritual or how to handle things if you need to excuse yourself or pass on a particular activity.)

However, sometimes groups don’t realise something might be a problem (so they don’t flag it in the pre-ritual discussion), or something comes up for you that might be an issue for other people, but might be a less common need.

If this is the case, it’s best to take a couple of days after the event (so you can communicate about it as clearly and calmly as possible). Of course, if there’s an urgent need, like a medical or legal issue, deal with that promptly.

When you’re ready to communicate, send something like the following to the address for communications about the event (usually there will be an email).

Criticism should be sent privately, at least initially, giving the group a reasonable amount of time to talk about it. (A week at minimum, though they may need to hold it for a scheduled meeting in the future.)

If you get no answer, or if there’s no answer when they said there would be, you can then consider if you want to be more public. But a ritual group may be working around multiple people’s jobs, family commitments, etc. and it can take a bit for the necessary people to get a chance to talk.

A model email for problems

Hello, [name] –

I was at [event] last weekend, and something came up for me that upset me. I wanted to let you know so you could consider adjustemtns in the future.

I’m uncomfortable being asked to touch other people – especially strangers. When the ritual included a hug out of the blue, I didn’t know how to handle that, or if it was all right for me to decline without ruining the ritual. It put me in a difficult position between taking care of myself.

[optional suggestion] It would have helped me a lot if the pre-ritual information had included the fact that the hug would be taking place, and if it had included an alternative or a way to indicate that hugging wasn’t comfortable.

[indicate if you’d. be up for talking about this more or not, plus anything else.]

Thanks again for making the ritual available,

[name you want to use]

[posted March 29, 2020]

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