I remember the closing ceremony of an esoteric festival as an echo of an emotional rollercoaster. We sang and danced, and we got high on the simple fact of being alive. It was a celebration. A structured doing and a place where I could find and lose myself at the same time. There was a bubbling quality that felt like the feast itself was simmering in a delicious pot – hundreds of small meetings simultaneously happening and merging, creating its own special soup. It weaves a social web of interactions, and something is born, a human-machine working for one purpose. We are here to explore Scandinavian esoterism, but it could be anything; the structure is not dependent on the subject.
Equal to the celebration, there are rituals. If a celebration is about letting go into ease, then a ritual is about channelling effort into something meaningful. It’s like cultivating a relationship with another self. Participating in these ritualistic spaces is easy to learn but takes a lifetime to master. Both benefit from the participation of a lot of people, and that’s why they fit so well into festivals – gathering places where people come together to share a common purpose.
To contribute in a ritual, the participants need to know their role and how their actions can express that. The first step is attention. This can manifest as inward silence, amplifying a specific person or event, or creating a shared group experience. It always starts with awareness through the senses – seeing, feeling, hearing – as well as through the breath. Consciously witnessing something brings relevance and importance to it. If I get whipped alone in the woods, it’s only the two of us, but when there are witnesses, it becomes something much greater.
By consciously deciding to pay attention to something, one either empowers or condemns it. This dynamic can be seen everywhere: in concerts, sports arenas, and religious centres. I believe this is so deeply ingrained into our behaviour as social beings. It is closely related to exhibitionism and voyeurism.
The next step in participating in a ritual is allowing yourself to react – first by witnessing, then by opening up emotionally, and finally by allowing yourself to respond without prediction or preparation. Finally, when reactions are bubbling together in the same pot, they may form interactions. A Japanese tea master once told me that chado (tea ceremony in Japanese) is essentially a series of unrepeatable actions and responses which always depend on the particular combination of people and elements. It’s the same concept as ichigo ichi-e – that one can never step into the same river twice. I believe this is the key to participatory culture as opposed to a consummative one.
The Participatory Nature In Reality
Let me illustrate the participatory nature of ritual with a little story from one of my favourite submission rituals. We are all gathered in a circle, about two hundred fifty of us. We are sitting in silence and our attention is directed towards the centre. One lone woman steps into the empty space inside the circle, claiming it entirely; she is at once graceful and powerful. 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 to him. A wordless thunderstorm rages in the room. Yet she does not give in, and eventually, he returns to his place in the circle – beaten. Another man rises and enters the circle. The result is the same. The men stand held by her gaze, seen by everyone, only to abandon their effort and walk away. She is the queen of motherfucking everything.
Something shifts. The next man to approach drops to his knees in submission in front of her, awaiting her embrace. She looks down at him. The entire room looks at them both. She turns and walks away. She is unclaimable. Neither submission nor dominance seems to have any effect. There is a deep stillness in the room as she paces alone in the eye of the storm. Eventually, another woman stands up, catches the queen’s gaze, and drops to her knees. This time, the queen embraces her and dominates her in front of everyone. She grabs her by the hair and leads her around the room on all fours.
At first, her crawl is nervous, so the queen teaches her grace. To be a proud, owned slave. While the circle is watching, the queen sits down on her lower back and pulls the neck back, kissing, licking and biting the throat’s softly exposed skin. Then, unexpectedly, the queen commands her slave to mount her, claiming her queen, just the way all these men around them dream of doing. Slowly, more and more people join the centre, reacting viscerally to her display of power. Men start to surrender to women. This is beautiful in its authenticity because it reflects something that we all created together; with our attention, our actions and reactions. And we instinctively know that this would be completely different the next time. Ichigo ichi-e.
The Western Mind Doesn’t Like Rituals
Ritualistic spaces can be challenging for a beginner, especially one with a Western mind. Modern culture is unused to tradition, ritual, ceremony. And yet I can see that people long for this kind of experience. As a facilitator, it is my responsibility to clearly communicate that we are entering into a ritual space. Not everyone may be able to see the invisible connections we are trying to create. The goal of these ceremonies is to move beyond individual egos and create a shared experience for the group. Even a small amount of social chatter, playful flirting, or expressions of joy can disrupt the ritual and emphasise individual pleasure over a shared communal experience. Once this starts to unravel, it can be difficult to regain focus – because no one wants to miss out on a pleasurable party, right?