Another British witch gave me an even more useful insight. "Think of the formal toast," she said. "It encapsulates almost every aspect of ritual." First you touch the glass and feel its solidity. Then you raise the glass to your eyes, focusing on the wine as it swirls around. Then you raise the cup to your nose to smell the bouquet; your mind is focusing now on the scent. You clink the glass of another person, and your ears hear a clear, musical, resonant sound. Then finally, you taste the drink. If you go through this process with intention--and of course most people in bars and restaurants don't--you will taste the drink fully.
Although it may seem frivolous to compare a ritual toast with a ceremony, they are similar insofar as both use the senses to deepen one's attention. That's what candles, incense, music, gestures, wine or bread, chant, dance, and trance are all about, at least in part.
Every religious tradition shapes its rituals to allow participants to enter a deepened state of awareness and return safely to the workaday world when the ritual is over. Isaac Bonewits, in his book "Real Magic," describes ceremonies from many religious traditions and shows their similarities--how they all start with a welcoming or some kind of acknowledgment of place or the creation of sacred space. Then they slowly work up to a peak and at the end have some form of grounding or reconnecting with daily life.
But the most important thing about ritual is that it gets you to the deep center of things. We have all been to that place at some point in our lives. It's where everything is alive and connected to everything else. Some of us find it in meditation, or during times of great pain, illness, or danger. Others have experienced it in childbirth or during intense artistic or intellectual work. Often it can happen in a communal gathering where there is a shared purpose, in a righteous action, or in a political demonstration.
When I was 18, my mother took me to a Zuni Corn Dance. I was vaguely interested for the first hour but became bored. Then suddenly, time stopped, and the world became a vibrant, glowing reality. In the best of these experiences, we cease, if only for moments, feeling alienated from the universe and from each other.
I confess that I have never been very good at meditation, at least not in the traditional sense of someone who sits and counts breaths or focuses on an object. I do much better contemplating in the natural world. Perhaps that is why I became a pagan. I need to dance, chant, or walk; swim, snorkel, or bird in order to enter easily that joyous, deep connected place. I don't get many chances to snorkel, living as I do in New York City, but every time I do, I enter a world so alive, so pulsing with color and light, it's as if I'm seeing the world for the very first time. My attention never wanders, my focus never shifts, random thoughts never intervene.
Birding is another pathway I have chosen to end my false but seemingly real separation from the vibrant world. During the month of May, watching a scarlet tanager in a tree in Central Park, I am filled with the intense joy of knowing that other species live successfully on this planet and move among us, even in our huge centers of concrete. Watching them for the two weeks they grace my city during their spring migration, I experience the fleetingness of beauty. When I come across a great egret, who stares out intensely over a pond as she hunts for food, I am reminded how we humans also spend much of our time in the work of sustenance. And when my gaze turns upward to catch cormorants in flight, I experience a new kind of freedom as well as the inexplicable happiness that comes from realizing that, at bottom, I too am a simple creature with simple needs, a part of a larger pattern.
I started this essay with all the props of ritual: candles, incense, music, gestures. I end it standing alone in a park looking up at a tree and the sky above. Ultimately, everything that happens in ritual takes place in your own mind and heart, and in the minds and hearts of those you do ceremony with. The props are wonderful; they can deepen an experience, and sometimes they are great fun. But at the center of things, they are totally unnecessary.
Leaving the park, I enter the subway during the morning rush. Millions of people are jostling each other. The air is close; the noise is deafening. It doesn't always happen, but on a good day I pass the test: I stay at the center of things, even here.