Thursday, September 6, 2012

The Highs and Lows of Ecstasy

This year's Nemoralia celebration was a fun one. It was a wonderful group of women (it wasn't exclusively female on purpose, it just happened that way), and all were open to working a ritual in a way that was mostly extempore.

Most of the attendees were not used to being without a cheat sheet, so I wrote an outline and printed it. I rarely do the paper-in-ritual thing, but I was honestly inspired to write it down this time. No one brought paper into the ritual and everyone was comfortable enough at that point to roll with whatever came up next.

This is one of the few times I do trance work with an open group of people. Last year's lesson of being sucked into a vortex onto the altar gave me the impetus to better understand how to slip gracefully into that energy, rather than get sucked into it. Then again, I didn't have a reliable person standing watch last year. This year there were more safeguards in place.

Before we continue, here are a few definitions for reference and clarity. These are not the sum total of their meanings, just what we're working with in this post:

• High magic: Ceremonial. Planned, Precision, specificity.
Jumping UP from the ground to get as high into the air as you can.

• Low magic: Folk. Sympathetic. Spontaneous, From the heart/extempore.
Jumping ON the ground to make an impact and send that into the earth as deep as possible.

• Ecstasy: A religious frenzy or trance-like state, involving an experience of mystic self-transcendence.

Note: I use High and Ceremonial interchangeably; I also use Low and Folk interchangeably.

A "low magic" example of ecstasy: When dancing the pizzica tarantata, we jump down onto the ground. We stomp. We pound the ground, we wail, we kick, we scream. The dance of the spider is on the ground, flailing and vocalizing. It is messy, it is loud, it is driven by the forces around you in a prepared space and has given their implicit permission to be "taken" by virtue of their participation, including the musicians. Often the drummers, singers and fiddlers are called into the dance. I've seen those who are protected by the music they play, I've seen those who are drawn in by the music which is being played through them. I have attended conjure dances and rites of other traditions which are incredibly similar.

I've found it to be like small tornados of energy swirling in the space: They float above, they move within the space, they touchdown, and the same force can take more than one person at a time. You can either stay out of it's way, feel the winds generated, be swept up by it, or step into it on purpose. That is why spinning is such an effective way to get there. Spinning takes you out of your every day headspace- it's freeing and it's disorienting in a way that allows you to be oriented otherwise.

An example of the "high magic" path to ecstasy (just one example, your mileage may vary): Person studies the deity they intend to contain/host in advance. They cleanse, energetically align, and otherwise prepare themselves as a host. They go through a quiet, serene process, much like hypnosis, or directly using hypnosis techniques, and embrace, or are embraced by, the deity they have invoked. It is a neat, clean, and quiet process, one meant to be replicated easily, almost scientifically, and on demand.

Is one way better than another? Each has advantages and disadvantages. They are, for the most part, just different paths to the same goal. Preference doesn't equal judgment. Do I personally prefer one way more than the other? I prefer the folk way- I like it loud and messy. However, I'm open to learning all methods and have investigated the differences out of curiosity. Once I found out there was another way, I wanted to learn that way too. Created a new technique? Show me! Deciphered an ancient way from an untranslated text? I'm in! I find it sad that some people choose to cut themselves off from new learning because they think it would diminish what they already know instead of add to it.

One big difference I've noticed is that in the Folk style, one can go into, out of, and back into this state again all within the same event. A person can be taken more than once by the same or different energies. In the ceremonial style trances I've witnessed, once the person is out of trance, they're out for the duration. I have not witnessed someone who genuinely got back into a ceremonial style trance once they were out. I have, however, seen them fake it, using dungeons and dragons references. It's ok to say deity departed; It's not a reflection on the practitioner.

In the many different Folk ways I've experienced, the space is prepared and Deities, Spirits, Ancestors, beings appropriate to whatever the intention of the group/purpose of the ritual, are invited into the space. However, this invocation isn't just with chanting, or names or simple gestures, it is with fierce joy- with the modern/mundane definition of ecstasy. You open yourself physically, vocally, as well as spiritually. In this way, those who haven't been "trained" are also able to participate in the experience, from the newest practitioner to the most experienced one, while those who have training and experience help to set up and to guard the participants.

Is that the real difference? That the folk way doesn't require the same kind of training and preparation to participate? There is a level of equality amongst all who participate which is missing from the ceremonial version. There is "preparation" necessary in both styles: In the Ceremonial version, the preparation is of a single vessel (usually experienced, occasionally not and those who are experienced do the guiding/drawing down), while in the Folk version, it is a preparation of the space wherein anyone might be a vessel, despite their level of previous experience.

I have, and many others I know have, unfortunately, been witness to people who lord this skill over others, who have the temerity to demean and deny the experiences of others; Unless the person had the same kind of, or as much training as they had, the person's experience was dismissed as invalid or merely imagined or hallucinated; As if the notion that others can experience the same thing without the same kind of training diminishes how "special" the skill is and diminishes the accomplishment of those who have been taught one way to do it. These kind of people forget:

A Rising Tide Lifts ALL Boats.

Everyone can get something out of this kind of ritual wether or not they are swept up into it, or feel the winds, or the person next to them is the one to host those who have been called. The only concern participants should have is enjoying the energy of the community, the cooperative effort, the spiritual experience of ecstasy. No one should ever have to worry about being judged. Unfortunately, too many do  (judge others or worry about being judged). This only impedes the work and hurts the community- when people close themselves off with anxiety over how they will appear to others, they aren't free enough to let go and receive.

To be clear: Most of the ceremonial-oriented magicians I have encountered aren't jealous of the talents of others, and are so secure in their own skills that they don't need to be the "best" one in the room, the most experienced, the most well read. They are happy for -and happy to help- those who are experiencing things they don't yet understand but are on the path to discovering. I admire and respect those people and pity the ones who have to surround themselves with others who are not as accomplished so they can feel good about themselves. It is the rare bad apple I am speaking of which ruins it for so many.

There is nothing in the work which makes one person better than another or establishes one's spiritual dominion over another, even between student and teacher. It is a cooperative effort, when we choose to cooperate. There are those who have opened more doors, experienced more, or read more books, but it is not something to be lorded over others; It is something to share. It is a responsibility and a privilege to be such a resource. Too many people forget that. Too many are not satisfied with being called by the gods, they want to be called by man, too. Too many people want a title to puff themselves up.

I haven't had a rant in a while. It didn't start out that way, but it went there. So to bring it back around again I'll share a few key quotes from a post written by someone I admire. It's currently on the front page of Witchvox, and a reminder to us all. Even when we reach for the spiritual, for direct communion with our deities, or ancestors or other beings, it is to better understand our humanity:

Shared humanity is the most important part of this work.
I am a midwife of the Sacred...

But what is the sacred? Is it just a beautiful moonlit night, dancing with my brothers and sisters with our feet bare to the earth as we revel in the rhythms of nature?

A midwife of the Sacred. That is what I strive to be and the kind of people I seek to surround myself with.