‘right’ ways and ‘wrong’ ways

One comment that I’ve seen a lot goes like this: “I know that there aren’t right or wrong ways to do ritual: it all depends on what works for me.”

My take on this is that it’s missing a dimension – and a very important dimension, at that.

Building: tree on a deep red background

Ritual is like cooking

The way that I look at ritual is that it’s a lot like cooking – and then eating – a meal. There are lots of parallels. Just like we have different kinds of meals in our life, we might have different kinds of ritual experiences.

  • Sometimes we’re filling an immediate practical need (we’re hungry)
  • Sometimes we want to create a space for people to gather (share with loved ones)
  • Sometimes we want to honor a particular event (celebration, birthday, whatever)
  • Sometimes we’re seeking comfort, or sensory pleasure.
  • Sometimes we enjoy cooking in and of itself: seeing how to do new things, or do them better, learning techniques, trying new combinations, etc.
  • And sometimes, it’s a habit – a thing we do because the habit carries us through times when we might not be thinking as clearly as we’d like (we’re tired, stressed, distracted by other events in our lives, etc.)

All of these can also apply to ritual – ritual can bring people together, give us a framework for something new or some new goal, clarify things in our own heads and experiences, get us through hard times because the habits sustain us and reassure us, and much much more.

Right ways and wrong ways

Then there’s the other part. There are a whole bunch of ‘right’ ways to start with raw ingredients, cook, and turn it into something that will nourish and sustain you.

But there are also a bunch of wrong ways. There are the ways that just don’t make food you like – or food you really want to eat right now. But there are also ways that are actually dangerous: approaches that mean you risk food poisoning or eating dangerous mushrooms, or all sorts of other things like that.

What’s even trickier is that these methods aren’t all interchangeable. If you have your heart set on a roast chicken, knowing how to make a great loaf of bread isn’t going to help with that – they’re different cooking techniques. While some skills (turning on the oven, keeping an eye on the time) overlap, lots of them don’t. (Bread does not need the precautions in handling raw meat, for one thing!)

And even when things are sort of similar, there can be important differences. There are only a few ingredients different between some cake recipes and some savory bread recipes – or between cake and brownies. But boy, do those few ingredients (and the techniques) make a big difference! If you really want cake, bread won’t satisfy. And if you only ate cake, you’d be missing some stuff in your diet.

So, part of what I teach about ritual is knowing what you want as your outcome. Sometimes, it’s a very open-ended thing (“I want to spend time with my Gods.”)

Sometimes it’s magical work (in which case, the rest of your ritual and actions outside of ritual had better be supporting it). Sometimes it’s trying to figure out something, becoming more self-aware.

But the ritual tools you use for each of these might be quite different. Or they might be different at different times in your life. Or when you’re doing stuff by yourself versus with other people. Or all sorts of other things.

My tradition (which is Wiccan-influenced, but not Wiccan, the way I use the term) gives me a lot of tools for making all kinds of ritual ‘meals’. I choose and adapt based on other factors. (Including the fact that there are a few rituals in the tradition which need to be done in certain ways at certain times of year).

When I’m working on my own, I’m still influenced by all the things I learned with my tradition training – why toss good techniques out of my repertoire when I don’t need to. But when I’m doing trad stuff, doing it the ‘right way’ for the trad – using the recipe that everyone else uses, in other words – is important to me, too.

But when I’m doing trad stuff, doing it the ‘right way’ for the trad – using the recipe that everyone else uses, in other words – is important to me, too

How techniques connect:

The final thing to think about is how different techniques connect. Individual techniques can be very meaningful but not fit very well together when they’re next to each other. Imagine a ritual where you had a very simple circle cast, followed by a completely intricate and ceremonial magical working, and then finished with something light and social with a totally different focus. That ritual would probably feel pretty disjointed.

I have been in rituals that combined a variety of different tools and techniques successfully, but the places where it worked were always those that had an extremely clear focus – a wedding, in particular, sticks in my mind.

So, when you’re looking at how you’re going to be doing things, you want to make sure the pieces fit with each other. Think of it like creating a playlist on your computer: you might put music from very different styles next to each other, but you’d want to have a good reason to do that. Or if you’re cooking a meal, you might cook a meal that had Indian and Mexican and Thai dishes with a side of macaroni and cheese – but you’d want a good reason for that (maybe your guest of honor’s favorite foods) or it would be a little weird.

If you’re not sure, it’s usually easier and smoother to keep things in more or less the same style and focus and level of complexity, and adjust the entire ritual rather than individual pieces. As you get more experience, you’ll have more of a sense of how to make the transitions work more smoothly.

This is also important for safety reasons. When you’re working within a particular strand of practice, different parts of that practice will help support the way that practice works. So, for example, the circle casting process might include steps that will support a particular kind of work especially well. Or make it easier to return from a ritual or trance state fully and safely. If you change one part of the practice without understanding the full picture, you might leave out important steps.

Title card: Right ways and wrong.

Last edited December 23, 2016. Reformatted November 2020.

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