First of all, I just want to make a brief announcement–for those of you who will be attending PantheaCon next month, I will be doing a Brown Bear healing ritual as part of the official programming on Saturday night of the con at 11pm; there’ll be an optional-but-recommended informational meeting at 9pm to give folks context.
Now for my main topic, brought on by a conversation with a friend over on Livejournal. S/he was talking about ritual tools, and mentioned the attitude (which s/he does not hold to hirself) that a lot of pagans have that advanced practitioners “don’t need” ritual tools, that one “should” be able to practice one’s magic and spirituality empty-handed, and with the subtle undercurrent that this is the superior way of doing things.
To which I say: fuck that noise.
Okay, okay, so I can accept that that attitude sprang out of reactions to the countless n00bs who tend to be more interested in the pretty shiny objects than in what to do with them. (This happens with all sorts of things, not just spiritual practice. Magpie Syndrome reigns supreme.) But it’s not necessarily true that you grow out of that liking for tools and toys. It’s just that your understanding of them should ideally deepen and develop further.
Personally, I like my collection of tools. I have my main drum, and a smaller one thats mostly become a loaner at this point. I have several skins that I dance, and I’m slowly building altars to individual totems. Plus there’s my general shamanic costumery. Add in that I enjoy making ritual tools, and its pretty clear what side of the divide I’m on.
Part of it’s my animistic tendencies. When I “work with” ritual tools, it’s not as with inanimate objects, but with other spirits embodied in other forms. That’s why I ask my drum and beater, for example, for permission to pick them up, never mind starting to pound them against one another. It’s respect, and acknowledgement of their being spirits.
Creating ritual tools, for me, is a process of working with the spirits within the materials I’m working with. As I explain in detail in Skin Spirits, my newest book that just came out, I work with the spirits in animal remains, hides and bones and other things. This has been a consistent part of my practice for over a decade, and a lot of it I do to give them a better afterlife than being a coat or a taxidermy trophy. That’s why they all get a ritual done for them to help them find the best people who will appreciate them for who and what they are. And with my own tools, I’m not just picking up inanimate objects–I’m handling these spirits’ physical forms/dwellings. They’re right there; I don’t need to go looking all over the Otherworld for them.
Just as important is the concept of suspension of disbelief, of sacred ritual play. As you may have noticed, I’m a huge fan of this concept. Rituals are a time and place apart from the everyday, though ideally they should not be completely removed from it–your journey’s no good if you can’t effectively bring back what you found to the world you spend most of your time engaging with. Suspending your disbelief allows you to temporarily set aside the mental barriers that keep you from Imagination-with-a-big-I, or the spirit world, or however you want to explain That Other Place. We don’t live there permanently for good reason, but it can be very beneficial to visit at times. And, as Joseph Campbell liked to point out, ritual performance is a form of play, something that is vital to a healthy human psyche. Not all rituals are fun, but the play, the engaging of Other Than Ordinary Reality for a time, as well as Czikszenmihalyi’s flow state, serves its own purpose above and beyond the extrinsic reasons.
To my mind, empty-handed rituals take the play out of ritual. As a culture, Americans in particular have a tendency to hyper-intellectualize just about everything. So it’s not surprising that so many American pagans would espouse a form of ritual that primarily engages the mind, leaving much less for the body and other levels of being to work with. Sure, you can do an entire ritual sitting in asana, crafting the ritual temple solely in your head while your body remains perfectly motionless save for carefully timed breathing. But you’re missing out on a lot of potential benefits of engaging more of yourself, starting with your body. The mind is not isolated from the rest of being; psychosomatic illnesses and distress from being ill are good examples. So my thought is that trying to isolate the mind away from the rest has a good chance of not being particularly healthy in a lot of instances.
Ritual tools keep us firmly grounded in the physical reality, even as we soar to other places. Additionally, when we’re back in ordinary reality, they’re a constant reminder of what we’re capable of. They’re a bridge between the worlds, and they help facilitate the transition back and forth. Like the horse spirit in the drum, they are the transportation we use, and they help keep us balanced. They are inherently marked as special, and they continuously attract and reinforce our attention in a way that mental castles never can.
The trick isn’t to transcend the use of tools. The trick is to find the tools that are most effective for flipping the internal switches in your mind–and other parts of your self, body included–that make your rituals work. Yes, it’s possible that the best tools for you may be entirely mental. But for a lot of us, we benefit from and thoroughly enjoy the use of the physical tools themselves. After all, if playing an air guitar were the epitome of play, then Rock Band and Guitar Hero wouldn’t have a market.
(Yes, I totally just compared ritual practice to video games. Blame my geekhood.)
If you do prefer open-handed ritual, don’t consider that to be automatically superior to those of us monkeys who like our tool use to be a little more blatant. The shiny surfaces are connected to much deeper things, and, unlike many of those n00bs who are just figuring things out, we know not to mistake the map for the territory.