Attention, reaction and interaction in rituals (2021)

You can listen to this musing here, or read it below.

The tantra festival at Ängsbacka is over, and the echo of an emotional rollercoaster is all that remains. “Fest-I-Val” in Swedish is a “Party-Of-Choices”. We sing and dance, and we get high on the simple fact of being alive. So, in a way, it’s a celebration. And a place where I come to find and lose myself at the same time. It has the bubbling quality like something is cooking—hundreds of small meetings happening simultaneously. It weaves a social web of interactions, and something is born, a human machine working for one purpose. This time it is to explore tantra, but it could be anything; the structure is not dependent on the subject. On the inside, equal to the celebration, there are rituals. And I think they are essential in festivals, but also in everyday life. So in this musing, I want to dig into the relationship between a ritual and celebration. And maybe also how to be a good participant in these events.

If a celebration is about letting go into ease, a ritual is about channelling effort into something purposeful. Both benefit from being a lot of people, and that’s why they belong in the festivals. It’s like one plus one is something greater than two, so when two-hundred-and-fifty gather for my ritual, I don’t know if it is 250 in the square? Anyway, who cares? What matters is that it’s a lot of focused intention and effort gathered in one place. To contribute, the participants need to know their role in the ritual and how their behaviour can express that. The first step is attention. For example, it can be an inward silence, or amplifying a specific person or happening, or building a group experience. Through eyes, ears, and breath, it always starts with attention by consciously witnessing something brings relevance and importance to that. If I get whipped alone in the woods, it’s the two of us, but many share it when there is a circle of witnesses.

By consciously deciding to see something, one empowers that or condemns it. This dynamic is everywhere, in concerts, sports arenas, and religious centres. I believe this is so deeply ingrained in our behaviour as social beings. It is closely related to exhibitionism and voyeurism (which I wrote about in my texts about sadomasochism). The next step of participation is reacting—first witnessing, opening up emotionally to the ritual, and then allowing oneself to react. So often without prediction or preparation. Finally, when reactions are bubbling together, they may form interactions. A Japanese tea ceremony teacher once told me that phenomenon of cha is merely causation of responses. I think this is the key to participatory culture, compared to a consummative one.

Let me tell a story illustrating this from my favourite workshop, the Art of Submission. We are all gathered in a circle, about 250 of us. We are sitting in silence with our attention directed towards the centre. A lone woman walks in front of us, claiming the centre of the group; she is both graceful and strong at the same time. Her eyes are on the hunt. A man stands up and walks in front of her; their eyes meet; he is looking for her to yield and give herself to him; a wordless thunderstorm rages in the room. But she doesn’t, and eventually, he sits down back into the circles – beaten. Another man raises, and the result is the same. They stand in her gaze, seen by everyone, only to give up and walk away. She is the queen of motherfucking everything. Something changes. And the next man standing up drop to his knees in submission, waiting for her embrace.

She looks at him, and the room looks at them both, and she walks away. She is unclaimable, as neither their submission nor dominance has any effect. There is a stillness in the room as she walks alone, in the eye of the storm. Eventually, another woman stands up, catches the queens gaze, and drops to her knees. This time the queen embraces her and continues to dominate her in front of everyone. More and more people join in the centre, reacting to her display of power. Men are surrendering to women. And it’s beautiful in its authenticity. Because it reflects something that we all created together, with our attention, reaction, and interaction. And, it will be completely different next time, this I know.

I think we facilitators could be better at announcing when we are creating a ritual space. Obviously, not everyone can see the invisible strings that we are trying to weave in the room. Maybe it is also our Scandinavian culture that doesn’t contain so many rituals anymore. These ceremonies aim to move beyond the individualistic ego and instead build a group experience. I think people long for this; that is my experience. But it’s a fragile process; if just a few people fall into social chatter, playful flirting, and just pure, simple joy, then they show their surroundings that their enjoyment is more important than the communal ritual. And once it starts to crumble, then everyone will join the celebration. Because no one wants to miss a party, right?