When you read books about Wicca or witchcraft, you see lots of them talk about doing some specific motions, or saying some words. Often, those things seem pretty silly.
And yet, lots of books talk about them. And so do lots of teachers, and lots of groups that have been doing this for a while. So there must be something in the robes and the tools and the standing there saying poetry, and chanting. What’s up with that?
My theory is that it has to do with four things:
- Getting your brain out of everyday thoughts and actions.
- Using multiple senses.
- Engaging your subconscious and other parts of your mind.
- And sometimes, the specific actions work for specific reasons.
Getting out of the everyday:
We like our everyday habits. That’s why we have them, right? We get up, we do our morning things, we go off to work or school or whatever else we’re doing. We go through our day.
This is all very good, and it can be very productive. But doing the same thing everyday isn’t very likely to lead to major change. Doing something a bit different opens up more choices. Different movements (dance, different breathing patterns, how we hold our hands and bodies) can shake out habits in our mind, just as it shakes out stiffness in our body. Different words can help us make new connections between ideas and concepts. Different smells, sights, clothes, or other things can do this too.
So, one of the things that ritual can do for us is to let us explore some of those choices in a controlled setting (and one where most people aren’t going to see us.) We can try things out, we can say things we’re not entirely sure we’re convinced of yet, and see how they fit.
The thing is, that saying them and doing them in ritual does make them more real to us (and, arguably, to the universe around us) – so we shouldn’t try out things we don’t want. But for those things that we do want, but we’re not sure if we deserve, or where we’re not quite sure how to get there, those ‘silly’ ritual actions can reinforce them as what is true, not just what might be.
This is what some groups and traditions refer to as “acting as if”. If you want to be a priestess, behave like a priestess. (Honor your Gods. Be a person of your word. Think before you act. Keep your priorities straight.) If you want to do a self-blessing, treat yourself like you’re a thing worthy of blessing. (Don’t talk down to yourself in your head. Take responsibility when you mess up, but don’t beat yourself up in ways that really aren’t productive.) If you want to be a witch, behave like one (Learn about the patterns around you. Learn how to affect them. Be practical about what you do and how you do it.).
And if you want change, try new stuff out. Even if it feels a bit weird. Of course it feels weird. It’s new.
Using multiple senses:
One other thing ritual does is that it allows us to use multiple senses. If we say inside our head “Abundance and prosperity flow toward me” or “I am capable, caring, and committed” (An affirmation), and we do it often enough, yes, our mindset will probably eventually change. Our brains are nifty and adaptable like that.
But if we do it in ritual, and we reinforce it in multiple ways, then it will be even more effective, even more quickly. We might reinforce it by using visual symbols of our goal on the altar, by writing down our goals and desires. We might say our affirmation out loud (so we hear it, as well as think it), or even find a way to sing it (which engages totally different parts of our brain). We could move our body into positions that make us feel that way, or that help us present ourselves as confident, secure beings to the world.
All of these things may feel quite silly the first time we do them. (Or the second time, or the tenth.) But the more we do them, the more they filter into our mind and consciousness. And as above, doing something a bit different from our usual makes a bigger impression on our brains.
As I talk about in the essay on ritual, we also do some things in ritual – particularly group ritual – because it helps the other people we’re working with to stay attuned with what we’re doing. It’s certainly possible for a group of people who know each other well to a ritual silently, with minimal gesture. But it’s a whole lot easier to get everyone going the same direction in the same ways if we use spoken invocations, gestures, and much more.
Even if we’re working on our own, using these things helps us anchor what we’re doing into multiple senses. It helps keep our attention from wandering off. If I’m standing there calling a quarter, and I’m lighting a candle, and I’m making an invoking pentagram with a wand, and I’m saying specific things – that’s a whole lot of reinforcement for what I’m doing. That’s going to make an impression with my subconscious (and my conscious) mind, and it’s going to make it even easier to focus and distill what I want to do as I get closer to the ritual working.
Engaging the subconscious:
We’ve already touched on how doing these different kinds of actions engages our subconscious, but this is also something that goes back to the conversation about the Younger Self that I mentioned in the essay on magic. We get further with creating change when we engage all of ourselves – and that includes speaking to the not-so-rational parts of our psyches and brains.
Again, using color, sound, scent, movement, re-enactment, theatre, song, and much much more are all ways to get at that part of ourselves in a powerful and meaningful way. They are, yes, a little silly sometimes. But they really are also fun. We’re more likely to do stuff that’s fun. We’re more likely to reinforce it in good ways. And we’re more likely to come back to it in our memories again and again.
Some things are useful tools:
The last – and most complicated – reason for some things that can seem sort of silly, is that they actually work well that.
Specific body positions affect how we breathe, how our body works, in subtle (and sometimes not so subtle) ways. We can use these to support what we’re doing.
Some practices have a very long history. When we do something like the Lesser Banishing Ritual of the Pentagram the way many other thousands of people have done it, we’re connecting with not only our own energy, but also all the energy and intention of the people who’ve done it in the past. That can make it a very potent and effective tool.
We can use repetition of the unusual to remind us. My tradition’s circle cast is 12 lines of poetry. Anyone who’s spent substantial time in the tradition (a year or more) will immediately drop into a state of openess or even light trance by the time they hear them, because they’ve heard it over and over again in settings where that’s the appropriate response.
That’s not going to happen if we just say “Okay, guys, circle now.” That’s both because four words is not a very long time – but also because we don’t want our minds to drop into that state of openness just any time, or to be triggered by a phrase that might be said in other settings (sports, community gatherings, etc.)
This is also what happens with other people’s ritual scripts or spells. (Mostly, I don’t use them, mind you). However, when you’re using someone else’s scripts, you’re using a recipe someone else has (presumably) tested. If you repeat what they did, you should get at least some of the same results. (How much depends on how well they write things up. Just repeating the words and motions won’t be as effective as following any visualisations, focus, or other energy work that they did. Some writers are a lot better about including these than others, just like some recipe writers are much better than others.)
So, what to do about it?
What to do about it depends a little on why you feel silly doing it. In general, I suggest the following:
1) Figure out why that thing is done that way. Is it speaking to multiple senses? Are you saying things out loud to reinforce what you’re doing to yourself (or to others in a group setting?) Are the gestures or movements part of what reinforces the flow of energy or movement? If you don’t know, what are your guesses?
2) Figure out why it feels silly to you. Sometimes we feel think we feel silly-uncomfortable because part of us is fighting against a concept that we actually want to work with.
For example, many people working on self-acceptance can feel really silly doing a ritual of self-blessing, but when they poke at why, they may find that there’s a part of them that’s scared of what the world will feel like if they’re accepting themselves (rather than beating themselves up) or how it might change relationships (especially those based on putting themselves down), or all sorts of other things.
Those fears can be very reasonable – but you’re going to get further with the actual goal (assuming you decide to keep going with it) if you go for the root cause, not just stop at “Oh, this feels silly.”
3) Give it a few tries. The first time we try anything new, it usually feels pretty odd to us, even if it’s a perfectly reasonable sort of thing for people to do. Think about the first time you rode a bike, or drove a car, or cooked a meal, or used a particular computer program that you now use a lot. Now, those things probably seem very normal.
Ritual acts are like that too. Many of them will feel very odd at first, but just like that long list above, they start feeling more normal and comfortable as we do them more. I usually suggest that – as long as what you feel is ‘silly’ or ‘odd’ or ‘weird’, to give whatever that is several tries (at least 3-5), several days apart. You want to make your tries close enough together that it’s not totally new each time (like it would be if they were six months apart), but not so close that you don’t have time for your mind and body to get used to the idea a bit in between.
However, if you start feeling pain, or really deep discomfort, or deep emotional upset, those are good times to stop, take a break, and figure out why. If you’re not working with a teacher or mentor somewhere, this would be a good time to find a reliable and thoughtful forum or email list to ask some questions of.
Learning the line between ‘uncomfortable, on the boundary of change’ and ‘this is dangerous’ is a really useful lesson. You just need to know when to back off (and make sure you’re in situations where it’s possible.)
You might find the following articles also of interest:
- What is magic?
- What are some good first steps in learning?
- Ways you learn
- Safety tips and notes
- Sharing with others
- This feels really silly. Should it?
[last edited January 3, 2010]