One of the topics that comes up a lot is the question of whether it’s better to do ritual inside or outside, and why. This article talks about ways I look at where to do ritual, and offers some practical advice to make sure you look at all the different safety and logistical considerations.
What are you planning to do?
There are two ways to start looking at location – one is by looking at the weather, and deciding what you can do given that weather. The other is to start by looking at what you’d like to do, and deciding where the best place to do it is. I generally prefer the second option, because it’s the one I have a bit more control over.
How flexible is your timing?
If you’re working by yourself, you may have a lot of flexibility to find a good patch of weather that’s likely to last as long as you need to do your ritual work. By using the traditional ‘the full moon can be celebrated for 3 days, the day of the full moon, and a day on either side’, for example, you might be easily able to find half an hour or an hour of good weather at a time you’re free.
However, if you’re working with other people (who need to be available at the same time and probably need to plan other things in their lives around that), or if you want to do something at a very particular day/time (a particular astrological timing, for example), planning to work inside may make more sense, unless you’ve got reliably good weather.
How long do you need to be outside?
Different ritual practices take different amounts of time. If what you want to do is quite quick (say, under 10-15 minutes), you have a lot of options for outside time. Even if the weather is not good, you can usually bundle up long enough to stay warm and dry and safe for that long.
However, if what you want to do is going to take longer, it can be more complicated to be outside. If you need to use your hands, being outside for very long in sub-freezing temperatures without gloves is not good for your health. Meditating (or anything else that involves sitting quietly) can make you get cold very quickly, too. On the other end of the weather, a physically active ritual outside in high temperatures and humidity can get you into trouble with heat stroke quite fast.
What’s your location?
Someone’s backyard is a different setting from their living room – and both are quite different than a city park or a larger state park or rural area. You’ll need to think about different aspects of privacy, safety, and weather considerations depending on which one you’re in.
How much physical stuff do you need?
Some people’s ritual practices involve a certain amount of physical stuff – candles, altar tools, images, and so on. These things can be lovely inside, but outside, the wind and weather can offer a lot of challenges. If you’re working outside, you need to make sure that altar cloths are weighted down, that candles won’t blow out, that lighter objects won’t blow over or away if the wind picks up. And of course, it takes time to set these things up and pack them away, so if a storm blows in quickly, you may have to scramble to get everything under cover (and some things may get ruined.)
If you’re using much less in the way of physical objects (or they’re all things that won’t be damaged much by being wet), you have a lot more in the way of options for working outside.
Are there any restrictions imposed by the location?
For example, public parks can be a great place for outdoor ritual (since they give you outdoor space, but some covered pavillion options if the weather turns bad, plus things like bathrooms). However, parks often have their own restrictions. Some require a permit to use the facilities and it can be complicated to schedule those permits. Others forbid alcohol, glass, or other items.
Likewise, if you’re using someone’s private property, they may have limits on what you can do, or where you can do it. Or there may be other restrictions in place (like a burn ban if the area is very dry.)
What’s the weather like?
One of the most basic questions when we look at doing ritual outside is the weather. If you live somewhere where the climate is quite moderate for much of the year, you’ll have more reasonable choices than somewhere that gets either very cold or very hot for a chunk of the year. (Or both, as some places do!)
How stable is the weather?
Some places, the weather is not very predictable. Can you figure out what the weather will be like enough in advance that you can plan accordingly? Is it possible that a rain shower or other bad weather might blow in quickly and without warning?
In some places, the weather is generally quite mild and predictable. In other places, it can vary quite a lot on the same day in different years. (For example, May 1st in Minnesota has been 65 F and sunny some years, and on others, it’s been 35F and a rain/snow mix). Many places have some seasons which vary widely, and some seasons that are more stable.
Do you have shelter nearby?
You might make different decisions about your plans depending on where you’re going to be. For example, you might plan to try and do ritual outside more often if you’re doing it somewhere with shelter (or an indoor location) that’s easily accessible, like working in the back yard, but moving into someone’s basement or family room if the weather turns nasty. If you’re going to be miles out in the country or a park with no shelter nearby, you want to be a lot more certain of the weather for the day before you haul everything out there.
Some things you especially want to think about include:
Heat: If the temperature will be over about 90F, you want to think carefully about heat illnesses (heat exhaustion, heat stroke) and sun burn. If you’re going to be outside for more than a handful of minutes, you should plan to make sure you have plenty of water, and that people can sit/rest in the shade if they need to. Young children or people taking some medications can also be especially sensitive to heat.
Cold can also be quite dangerous very quickly. While extreme cold is obviously a problem, the most common time to have problems with hypothermia is if the temperature is in the 40s to low 60s (F) and drizzly/damp. An extended ritual outdoors in this weather can be quite risky for people who don’t dress for the weather or who are sensitive to cold.
And of course, if it’s very cold (below freezing, basically), you don’t want to expose your skin to the weather for any length of time. This means that anything that involves delicate hand motions (writing, lighting candles, pouring liquid, passing food or drink around, using tools, etc.) is probably better kept for better conditions or inside.
Wind can also complicate things. Besides the problems noted above with managing altar items and tools in a strong wind, wind also makes it harder to hear what’s going on, and it can make a cooler temperature feel much colder.
Rain is both pretty miserable to be out in, and can make cold much worse, especially if people are wearing cotton (which stops insulating when it’s wet) as opposed to wool (which will continue to insulate.) And of course, it makes it hard to do anything that involves paper (reading a meditation, divination decks, etc.)
Severe weather is also important to take into consideration. Does your area get severe thunderstorms blowing in quickly? Tornadoes? Forest fires (and the related smoke?) Blizzard conditions or flash floods? If that’s the case, you’ll want to know how to handle those conditions if they come up, and have a back-up plan if they’re predicted.
How much privacy do you need?
One of the other big factors in working outside is privacy. Sometimes, this isn’t a big deal. For example, wandering outside, sitting down, closing your eyes, and meditating doesn’t look that unusual if you’re in your backyard. However, setting up several altars outside, chanting, saying ritual phrases, and using a range of tools is a lot more obvious.
What are you planning to do? How obvious is it to an outside observer that you’re doing something religious or spiritual that might be new to them? A quiet meditation or libation can be done without attracting a lot of attention. A more formal group ritual with singing, different responses, or lots of obvious tools may not be a good fit for your back yard if your neighbors can see everything.
Who can see you? Neighbors you have a good relationship with, or someone who’s been looking for an excuse to make trouble for you? If you’re working with other people, do they feel comfortable if someone notices what you are doing together?
How much noise and distraction will there be? You might be fine with the fact your neighbors can see you – but what about if they have a party that night? Would you be comfortable doing what you plan with lots of different noises coming from the party?
How will you handle questions? Groups doing outdoor ritual often designate one or two people to answer questions (from curious passerby, park police, etc.) If you’re working in a backyard, you will want to be prepared to talk to your neighbors if they have any questions. Often, the unknown is a lot scarier to people than the known, so having a brief, simple explanation like “I’m having some friends over to honor the first day of spring” can smooth things over a little. Knowing your neighbors and being a good neighbor in other ways can definitely help a lot too.
Are there any safety concerns?
All locations have some safety considerations, but working outside offers some additional things you should think about in your planning. Working in your backyard is usually pretty safe (and if it isn’t, help is nearby), but if you choose to work in a more remote location (off the track in a park, or more rural land), you’ll need to have additional plans in place.
- Do you have any health conditions that are more complicated outside? For example, someone with asthma or allergies may be more prone to problems outside than inside. Those with mobility challenges may find working outside a lot more tiring, even if the site is accessible to them (and they aren’t always.)
- What would happen if you hurt yourself and needed help? (Anyone can twist an ankle!)
- Are there any concerns from wildlife (bears, coyotes, mountain lions, snakes, etc.) Do you know how to handle these in the best way possible, and how to get help?
- Can you identify poisonous plants, as well as places wasps, biting ants, scorpions, or other insects that can cause problems live?
- Do you need to pay attention to mosquito or tick carried illnesses? How will you handle that? (These days, this is just as much an issue in suburbia…)
- If you’ll have a pet with you, do you know how to keep them safe as well?
- Are there burn bans or other seasonal considerations you should be aware of? (Air quality warnings, severe weather advisories, and other area warnings are important too.)
- Do you have appropriate training/resources to handle bathroom needs, food safety, and other related things safely as needed? Do you have a complete first aid kit that will be on site?
- If you’re going to be a fair distance away from help (like in a state park), is someone there trained in first aid, and can people give clear directions if you do need to call an ambulance or other help?
Working with others:
Working with others can be a wonderful thing – but when we do, we need to remember that they may have different needs or requirements than we do. We also (as noted above) need to remember that we’re going to have to schedule in advance, so we may not have the best weather.
Things to be especially thoughtful about:
- Are there people who are sensitive to cold?
- Or those who feel the heat or overheat easily?
- Are people all in good health, or do they have some health considerations that change based on the environment?
- Is anyone who’s going to be there at particular risk due to age? (Both older people and those under about the teen years can be especially vulnerable to heat, cold, air quality, or other climate or outdoor health issues.)
- How much energy do they have? (Working outside generally takes more energy and exertion, because it takes more effort to set things up, move things, etc.)
- Do people need a chance to sit down? If so, they’ll need to bring folding chairs outside, which takes extra energy and planning.
- Does anyone have mobility issues that limit their access to the site? Some people can’t handle hills or rough ground easily.
- Does anyone have allergies to pollen or anything else that may make them miserable to be outside? (Pollen, smoke, molds, etc. can all have a big impact.)
- Do your plans allow for enough food, drink, water, and other necessities? What about bathroom facilities? Is everyone comfortable with these options?
Even if you decide that you don’t want to do your entire ritual outside, you do have some other options.
A portion outside: One common option is to set up circle inside (and do the formal ritual bits or the ones that are sensitive to weather inside) but to have a portion of the ritual that takes place outside, such as a brief walking meditation, gathering of items for later in the ritual, etc.
Ritual inside, feast outside: This is perhaps the most common option: the formal ritual takes place inside, but if the weather’s at all reasonable, people have their post-ritual food and social time outside. This is a great way to experience the change in season and nature while not being at the mercy of the weather for your actual ritual plans.You can also include some seasonal activities (preparing a garden, a nature or herb walk, star-gazing, etc.) as part of the events.
Have a bad-weather plan: And of course, it’s possible to have an alternate plan for bad weather. For example, you may plan to do something outside, but have a fall-back if the weather looks bad. (This option works particularly well for times when you can usually expect good weather, but not always.)
There are some complications for this, especially for group work. To make it work, you need:
- A ritual plan that will work as well inside as outside (this depends a lot on what you intend to do.)
- A suitable indoor space. If you need to rent space, you’ll need to rent/pay for it whether you use it or not, which may make this less appealing as a choice than if you’d be using someone’s basement as a backup.
- A clear way to communicate changes to other people involved (remembering that they may be out doing other things before coming to ritual. In these days of cell phones, this is a bit easier than it used to be). If the two locations are in different places, and people need to coordinate rides/public transit, this can get especially complicated.
- If you’re using a space that’s not regularly used by the group as a backup, the people there need time and warning to get it ready for use (by tidying, cleaning, etc.) This means that a last-minute change of location is not a great idea.
What I do:
My basic principle is that I think it’s more important to do ritual than it is to be outside. I do most of my ritual work inside, due to a combination of weather and health concerns, and privacy considerations. (I used to live in a residential area of a city where people have very small yards, these days I just have a patio that’s mine and that is easily overseen by others.)
I do include outdoor time in my religious and spiritual practice, but I do it mostly outside of structured ritual, so I can be more flexible and adaptable to my own needs and the current weather. (If the weather’s lousy, it’s easier to find a few minutes for a quick walk and bundle up than it is to do a whole ritual, too!)
However, some of my decisions are based on the fact that it can get lethally cold in Minnesota in the winter and it’s not actually that fun in Maine sometimes (and the bugs and heat in the middle of summer are not always the most fun ever, either.) If I lived in a different place, I might well make some different choices.