The question of safety

Today, I’d like to talk about ritual safety. And there’s a particular reason I want to talk about this. Many people reading are probably already aware of the deaths of three people due to an extremely dangerous sweat lodge set up at a New Age training in Sedona run by James Ray.

One of my favorite blogs, Making Light, posted a fantastic analysis of many of the issues involved (practical, philosophical, and everything in between). One reason I was so glad to see a detailed post go up there, however, was because another of that blog’s contributors, Jim Macdonald, is (besides being a SF author) a wilderness EMT who’s been doing a long series of occasional posts about various medical calamities. One of the things both writers do a great job of is showing others what people can do that’s actually helpful in avoiding crises when possible, spotting problems early, and giving the best possible chance for the best outcome if they still happen.

The comment threads on Making Light run long (hundreds of comments are pretty common), but I encourage taking the time to read them: the community culture (and some clear moderation when needed) keep them very useful, coherent, and meaningful (even the thread-drift is handy). In this case, there are more links to supporting information and a great discussion of other ritual and spiritual safety issues throughout. (There is also a great thread on the Pagan news blog, The Wild Hunt that’s worth reading)

However, all of this got me thinking about issues of ritual safety in the Pagan community, and I thought it might be useful to put some of my thoughts into electrons.

The question of ‘what is safe’:

Many, many things we do – in all parts of our lives – have risks. We stand up, for example. We get in cars, and planes, and have dinner at restaurants, and hug people (who might have something contagious), and take public transportation. And all of those things (and pretty much everything else) have some risks attached.

In various parts of the Pagan community, we do things that have some greater risks. Burning incense? That adds a possible allergen or irritant to the air. If, like me, you’re asthmatic, that can be a problem in the wrong circumstances. Dancing? Easy for someone to twist an ankle. Outside for ritual? What happens if it turns cold and damp and people aren’t prepared? Or what happens if it’s 95 degrees and blindingly sunny out? (See Jim’s posts on hypothermia and hyperthermia for examples.)

There’s riskier stuff, too. Deep experiences of Drawing Down (having the deity speak through the body of the priestess or priest involved) can be a powerful and amazing ritual experience for everyone involved, but it has psychological and physical risks in various ways. (Deities, in my experience, don’t always get why something might be dangerous or uncomfortable or inappropriate for the body they’re inhabiting.) And many of our deeper ritual techniques are designed to poke at the areas we feel uncomfortable about, so we can better examine them and make changes we feel are necessary.

There are reasons to court these risks – just like there are reasons we choose to get in a car or plane, to eat food from a variety of sources, to do all sorts of things. But we should, ideally, do two things.

1) Have some idea of what the risks are (so we can make an informed choice)

2) Have some idea how to limit or mitigate the risks.

So, what does this mean in the Pagan community? Good question, so I’m going to look at it from two perspectives: someone attending an event (that they didn’t plan and don’t know lots of details about), and then from someone planning an event. (Since this post got long, I’ll do the planning an event as a separate post.)

Attending an event:

I even happen to have a handy example: this weekend, Thorn Coyle is doing a workshop in St. Paul on a topic near and dear my heart this year (integration of different parts of the self), and I’m going to be there all day Saturday and a chunk of Sunday. So, I’m going to use that as a part of my example.

1) Background education

The first part of safety, to my way of thinking, is ongoing personal education. When something related to safety comes up, take a little time to review it thoughtfully. This way, you build up foundation in safety issues that’s incredibly powerful over time.

The point with all of this is not to become an EMT or a doctor, or anything like that. The point isn’t even to retain all the details of different kinds of breaks, and what to do. The point is to give you a starting point so that you can evaluate possible risks, and decide what would make you feel safe enough to pursue that activity in that setting. The other part of the point is that if something does go wrong, you stand a much better chance of saying “Hey, wait… stop a minute” before it gets worse. You don’t need to be able to fix the problem – just knowing when to call for help is a *huge* win. Or, as is often the case, when to drink more water, get somewhere warm, or sit down for a bit without other stresses.

I started First Aid and CPR courses when I was 13 (as part of a babysitting course). Since then, I keep my hand in with regular renewals of the certification, and by picking up useful information as I go along. Sometimes that’s classes on issues in a particular setting (horseback riding, for example, which I did a lot as a teen). Sometimes it’s by reading (Jim Macdonald’s posts)

And when I read about other people’s ritual experiences, I often stop for a few seconds, and think about whether I’m interested in that kind of experience, and what kinds of safety issues or practical issues I’d want to pay attention. This both keeps me in the habit of thinking through possiblilities, but it also means that if something comes up suddenly (an activity in a ritual I wasn’t expecting), I don’t have to start from scratch.

The other part is building skills slowly over time. We don’t drive for the first time in a car at high speeds in bad road conditions. We learn in an open parking lot at slow speeds, and build up from there. Our ritual skills can work the same way: having a solid basic practice of common skills (centering, grounding, shielding, personal energy management, different simple/gentle ritual tools (chanting, simple dances, etc) can all build our experience so that if something more significant comes up, we have some way to fit it into what we already know without panicking.

2) Evaluate the specifics

If you have specifics about what’s going on (or when, or where), look at them. Some examples:

  • Summer ritual? Evaluate for heat exhaustion and heat stroke risks. Pack plenty of water, no matter what it says about what’ll be available at the site.  Drink it, too. (And remember that caffeine – tea, soda, coffee – reduces hydration.) If I don’t need it, someone else might. An ice pack might be nice. And appropriate clothing that breathes, and sunscreen.
  • Winter ritual? Look at concerns about mobility (slipping on ice) and cold damage (Minnesota can be lethally cold pretty fast a few times through the winter.) Also consider risks in driving (black ice, blizzard conditions, etc.) Wool and silk are my friends for clothing here, but also adequate boots, gloves, scarf, hat, etc. If I don’t know a good place to get warm (the car counts), I shouldn’t be going.
  • Physically taxing ritual? What else am I doing around that time? Will I have energy reserves going into it? Will I have recovery time afterwards without putting my ability to do my job at risk?Have I recently been sick for more than a day or two, or am I in the middle of bad-allergy-and-asthma season?
  • New ritual technique? Look at the risks and concerns that come with it, and decide what might help with any of them. Is it like other things you’ve done before, but a bit more so? Maybe spend some time with those more basic skills before the ritual.
  • Situational issues: Is there flu going around your community? How will you feel if someone passes a chalice around to drink from? (Nice to think in advance what you’re comfortable with.) Does the ritual host have pets you’re allergic to? Take your allergy meds, and bring whatever other emergency needs you have.
  • Personal limits and needs?  I’m asthmatic: I make sure that someone in any group I work in knows where my inhaler is. (Very simply, like “I always have one in an outer pocket of my bag.”). If you’re diabetic or prone to blood sugar issues, some kinds of ritual work can affect them. Trying new stuff with other people (or at least someone in the house who can come if you need a hand) is a really smart idea.
  • Things designed to take you out of yourself? Guided meditation, drawing down, etc.? Start with small and contained experiences with this, before trying far more major ones. Work with people you trust and get to know over time. Work up in complexity and length.

This also goes for specific activities that have more significant risks. If you know an event is going to include a period of fasting, or a sweat lodge, eating or drinking specific things, or anything else that has medical warnings on it for some people, you should be asking several questions.

  • What’s the point of this activity? How will you know if it’s successful?
  • Could it be done using some other (safer) technique? (Not everything can be, but risk for risk’s sake is .. a risk.)
  • Are there ways for people to participate at varying levels of risk/stress? If someone feels uncomfortable or at risk, can they do something relatively quickly that will help (get out of the immediate area freely, get water, get someone to help them?)
  • Does the person monitoring the risky experience have specific training in doing that? Can you evaluate it for yourself, rather than just taking their word for it?
  • If something goes wrong, how close is help?

The sweat lodge deaths:

The sweat lodge came after a fairly extended fast (which puts strain on the body), in a location at higher altitude (which also stresses the body if you’re not adapted). The sweat lodge was billed as not only being a way to purify the self, but to push beyond limits (see #3, below). According to various of the news reports,  people were encouraged to stay past their comfortable limits, and leaving the space was reportedly extremely difficult for both emotional and physical reasons. That’s a problem in every way.

They were also doing it in a fairly rural area with limited emergency care facilities within a short distance. That’s a big difference from being no more than 10-15 minutes from a major trauma center, and closer to several more quite competent emergency rooms. (As I happen to be most of the time, living in a major city.) And there’s no evidence that Ray had meaningful training in the safety aspects (and in fact, his method changed several traditional Native American practices that build in an additional safety buffer.) or had staff on hand who did or who knew the relevant warning signs and best practice treatments. Previous problems regarding sweat lodges Ray ran happened in 2005, and also in 2008, too.

None of this adds up to being a particularly good idea.

2b) Sometimes you won’t have specifics

That’s the case for the workshop this weekend: the actual announcement doesn’t have a whole lot of details about specific activities. However, I can do my own research. Here’s some of the things I know:

I know the basic physical set-up.

We’re meeting at our local Pagan community center, a space I’ve been in a number of times. I know what facilities they have, that I can get water and soda and other things easily. I know how long it will take me to drive home, and my best route if I’m tired or a little spacy. We’re going to be inside, so I don’t need to worry about heat, cold, or most of my allergens. I also know that breaks are planned for going out for food, so I don’t need to bring anything.

I know my own experience.

My training and group ritual experiences over the last 9 years have given me a good idea of what my healthy tolerances are, and what things I want to be cautious of.  For example, I know that I need to leave some energy and physical leeway leading up to this event to make the most of it. (10am to 9pm is a really long day for me, especially right now with my work schedule.) This event is worth it to me, so I also have made sure to schedule sufficient downtime in the days around the weekend.

I also know my own weaknesses.

For example, I have asthma, and my lungs are usually most grumpy at about this point in the fall. I’m actually having a very good fall re: asthma stuff this year, but I’m still going to need to probably be careful about some kinds of breathing work (otherwise, I can trigger a coughing fit), or substantial ongoing movement (dancing, for example.) I can do both these things, but need to be careful how. Don’t know how much they’ll come up – but do know it’s good to know where my own areas of caution might be.

I’ve done some obvious background research.

I have read Thorn’s books. While this probably won’t have everything we might do in it, it does give me a good idea what types of things might come up, and gives me a chance to prepare any questions I might have about specifics. If someone isn’t an author, looking at blogs or other web searches can often help. If I didn’t have time to read the books, I could still look at summaries or other shorter material. (And of course, if I were really not sure, emailing the organiser or Thorn directly would quite likely get me more information.)

I know people who’ve done other work with her.

(Both short-term and longer-term). I had conversations with a couple of them to get an idea of their impressions. This was a good idea anyway, as it’s a relatively large money and time investment for me, and I wanted to make sure I was likely to get enough out of the experience to make those things worthwhile.

Obviously, adjust for the setting. You don’t need to spend as much time for an evening event in a well-known location as you do for one that lasts longer, has a large outdoor component, or that involves techniques that are known to be risky in at least some cases. (fasting, sweat lodge-type structures, etc. Basically, anything that sometimes has a warning label on it that some people should not do.)

I’d guess that most of the time, my evaluation at this stage takes 20 minutes at most, and often a lot less (if it’s a group of people I know well, or a setting I know, or I’ve done similar evaluations before.) For example, my ‘ritual outside in winter’ checklist gets trotted out most winters, and is not that different from my “going outside for longer than it takes to get from work parking lot to door” checklist.

3) Look for warning signs.

Once you’ve looked at the specifics, look one more time for any warning signs. The following are things I’d have concerns about:

Language about ‘pushing through discomfort into change’

… especially if it’s got a very macho ‘no gain without pain’ thing going along with it. Yes, pushing through discomfort can be important, but only if you’re still able to function at the end of it.

One size fits all settings.

Sufficiently safe settings will have some options available (and clearly noted) that can be used if the basic practice isn’t accessible or safe for everyone. (Or, they’ll be really clear up front about what’s involved, and what people should be prepared to deal with.)

For example, a ritual with a lot of movement or dancing might arrange some spaces for people to sit or stand while drumming, clapping, or anchoring a chant. That’s participating, but gives options besides the most physically demanding option. Or a ritual may say “We’re going to be outside, standing and moving around for 3-4 hours in cold weather and probably wind on a steep slope. This is not a good ritual for people with mobility issues. Be sure to bring suitable warm clothing for several hours outside.”

Vague and general information.

Me, I trust the announcements with specifics a lot more. The more vague something is, the more wary I get. Thorn’s announcement would not have been enough for me *except* that I had other ways of checking on what kinds of activities were likely to arise.

Inadequate (or inadequately trained) staff/people running the thing.

Do the people helping know enough about what they’re doing to actually be helpful? Do they have relevant religious, professional, or other training that helps manage any risks or deal with problems? (Lots of previous experience with few problems is usually a good starting point, but it’s not the only thing to look for.)

Language about how those who are truly committed to the experience will be fine.

This is often a mask for ‘if you got hurt, it’s because you didn’t want it enough/weren’t ready for the experience’. In most settings the cost of failure should not be lasting damage, it should be that you just don’t get much out of the experience.

Isolation from people who know you well.

This can sometimes happen for good reason – a weekend festival or event that you go to by yourself, for example. However, you’re a lot more at risk of something heading out of balance here, than at a shorter event (where you go home to familiar space and resources), or if you go to something with a couple of friends who know you and your normal reactions really well. In either case, you’ll catch possible problems more quickly.

4) Be aware of the power of pressure.

It’s possible in some situations for there to be a feeling that one has to measure up, or meet certain benchmarks in order to be taken seriously. These are some of the most serious risks out there, partly because they’re very hard to avoid. They can crop up otherwise quite safe settings, or start as a game.

Knowing that it’s a possibility, however, helps. Doing some reading about how crowd psychology works does too. It doesn’t mean it’ll be easy to walk off and do your own thing when you need to – but knowing your own particular weak points means you can protect them a little more diligently.

For example, one response I have to my asthma is wanting to push through it and not let my lungs determine what I do. The problem is that’s not always good for me. Over the years, I’ve learned how to say “Sorry, can’t do that today” in situations where there was very little pressure, and little to be lost by saying it (walking with a friend, and asking to walk a bit more slowly, or avoid a particularly steep hill). That practice makes it easier for me to say it when the stakes are higher (being at a work event when a lot of outdoor walking is involved, and advocating for some different ways to approach it that also benefit students with medical limits in various ways.) And that makes it easier for me to quietly find an alternative in ritual if I’m not up for dancing, but that still lets me contribute, like at a Pagan ritual.

5) Listen to your intuition

If something feels off, ask more questions, or just plain don’t do that thing right now. Other chances will come around that will be similar. Do some more research, find people who’ve done it where you can ask any questions. Do some learning about specific components you may be concerned about. You’ll be better informed for the next time.

Done with this part – will do the part about the planning side in the near future.

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