When Good Circles Go Bad

(or: When Bad Circles Happen to Good People)

by Paul P. and Kathryn Theatana
of Moonstone Circle

You’ve been around. You’ve read some books. You know how to pronounce “athame.”

You’re at an open ritual. Seemed like a good idea at the time. The people leading the ritual seem competent — you’ve seen them around too, and they seem pretty impressive to you. They know how to lead ritual properly, right? They wouldn’t be doing it if they didn’t know what they’re doing, right? Well... maybe.

The ritual goes O.K. You’ve seen better; you’ve seen worse; all in all, no big deal. But now that it’s over and people are hanging out or wandering away, you notice that you’re confused, nauseous, hostile; you can’t seem to maintain a train of thought. Someone comes up to you and asks if something’s wrong and you burst into tears. And even worse, you don't know why. You wonder, “What on Earth is wrong with me?!”

Hell Circle collage/drawing copyright 1993, 1998 kpt/katharsis ink

As the summer gathering/festival season starts to heat up, lots of people are going to open Circles and many of those attending are new to the NeoPagan community.

Open Circles are basically a good thing for the NeoPagan community. Many people are not members of groups which meet regularly and often gatherings and open rituals are their best chance to meet others of a like mind for connection, celebration and support. People can participate in a ritual with a group, but without necessarily taking on the commitments or responsibilities of a regular coven or working group. Some people have no desire to go any deeper into NeoPagan spiritual traditions than attending public rituals and celebrations.

Whether you think these gatherings are good or bad for the NeoPagan community, the fact is they are here; we need to adapt our culture so that untrained or unskilled people, who might want to lead public rituals before they are ready to do so, understand the responsibility that goes with this role. I’m wary of having inexperienced people leading public rituals because I’ve seen some disturbing things at open Circles, particularly those at the NeoPagan festivals and gatherings. (My experience for this article is of rituals involving 50-700 people, although similar problems can also happen in smaller rituals without proper care.)

So You Lead Open Rituals?

Great! I’m glad you’re willing to put forth the effort and provide our community with public celebrations and ritual. I know it’s neither easy nor the most esteemed job in our community. However, I have just a few things I hope you’ll take into consideration when you plan future open rituals. (Newer people: hang around, you will find this interesting too. Oh, and don’t get scared! If you do get scared, go directly to the So This is Your First Pagan Gathering... section.)

Let’s first look at what we mean by “open Circle”. I would define it as a Circle that can be attended by anyone who wishes to, no matter what their level of magical training and even if they have no magical training. Generally, at a gathering, this means almost all the Circles. Please remember this point: Some people get psychically overloaded and/or spiritually disoriented during these Circles, usually (but not exclusively) people new to the occult or paganism. Usually these people don’t notice until after the end of the ritual (they’re supposed to be in an altered state during it, right?) that their energy and/or boundaries are not in balance.

Different people have different levels of psychic sensitivity and ability to shield from outside influences or energy. My experience has taught me that people in the NeoPagan community differ quite widely in the levels of their psychic sensitivity and perception. I know Priest/esses with fifteen or twenty years experience who are, to be blunt, psychically blind; but they are great at the physical aspects of ritual construction and performance. I’ve also known people who have absolutely no formal training but are very psychic and energy sensitive. At an open ritual, those who are psychically sensitive might be overwhelmed with the energy, if it is not managed properly, but those much less psychic might not even notice the energy that has been raised.

Even though there is a relatively established etiquette for behaviour in small private groups, I don’t think all such etiquette is necessarily applicable to large public rituals. Leaving a ritual after the Circle has been cast is not considered proper in small groups; but, at public rituals, sometimes people have to leave the Circle because the energy of the ritual is causing serious disruption to them or the ritual has taken a turn that is not in harmony with their system of ethics. In some cases, physical limitations can cause someone to have to leave (not everyone can stand for 3 hours, for instance.) I think they should be allowed to leave, as quietly and respectfully as possible. If you really don’t want people to leave, say so before you cast the Circle and let those who want to leave do so. Make sure people have been given at least general idea of what will be expected of them in this ritual, how long you anticipate it lasting, etc. People may have time constraints, physical limitations, health concerns, or other reasons for being unable to participate. Also appoint someone whose sole job is to monitor the participants in case someone was mistaken about how they would react to the energies raised. If it’s a very large group, maybe several people should do the job.

If you are disturbed that anyone would want or have to leave during a Circle, are you sure you want to do this particular ritual at a public Gathering? Maybe someone should be screening those wanting to participate before the Circle. In any case, forcing someone who is having a very bad time to stay will cause much more disruption than letting them quietly leave.

It is possible that even those people who are very experienced in a particular tradition will find that their energy may not be in harmony with the ritual style and/or energies of a different tradition or even a different group from their own tradition.

The experience and skills of participants at open Circles will vary widely. I think that it is important that you do not take for granted that your ritual style/cues are universal or will work the same for everyone. Perhaps, for example, you end your private Circles by ringing a bell or clapping your hands to signal that it’s time to return fully to the “mundane” world. These signals might be meaningless to anyone outside your group. It may seem troublesome, but talk though the dismissal of the deities and energies, and talk though grounding excess energy to help people center themselves at the end.

After the Circle is over, it would be a good idea for some psychically-skilled people to hang around a little while and look out for people who might be having trouble integrating, grounding or interfacing with mundane reality. They are usually easy to spot. Sometimes they are staring into space with open mouths or are unable to follow a train of thought. (Or are vomiting in the bushes, or are passed out cold on the ground; don’t laugh, it has happened.) Offer to help. Teach them a grounding technique if they don’t know one. Please DON’T just tell them to eat something; I don’t consider that an effective enough technique. Eating will help shut down the chakras and the sensing of psychic energy, but it does not balance the energy. In my experience, it also does not work for everyone. Remember: People who are afflicted with these symptoms often have no idea what to do about what’s going on with their energy. Or sometimes they may know but, due to psychic and/or physical overload, they may need help doing something about it.

Am I over-emphasizing the importance of watching out for the well-being of the participants in your open Circle? I don’t think so. Over the years, I have had to help psychically clean up after Circles that ended without proper grounding, respectful dismissal of the Beings invoked, and/or responsible care taken of the participants afterwards. Some of the participants have been in extreme psychic distress after the end of the Circle because of the assumptions of the leaders of the ritual. My humble opinion is that many of those who perform public rituals are so used to small groups or Initiates-only rituals that they don’t take into proper consideration newer people who may need a little more guidance.

This is certainly not to blame all gathering organizers; some organizers have become very adept at skilled management of large open group rituals, and I commend them for their responsible fulfillment of the role they have taken on. But you should also be aware that there is often very little screening of the presenters at gatherings — someone with insufficient experience, and little to no training or psychic awareness, may be running a ritual just because they volunteered and their proposal sounded good. Believe it or not, the “Priest/ess” of the ritual may be someone who’s never worked in a coven, and is using this gathering as their “training” and you as their guinea pigs. Sad, but all too often, true.

So This is Your First Pagan Gathering...

Hope you haven’t been scared off by all that stuff. Many open rituals are truly wonderful experiences that touch your spirit and connect you with the Gods. However, if you have had little experience with group rituals or with rituals of different traditions than your own, let me recommend a few techniques and tactics. Excuse me if I talk in very basic terms for a moment.

Rituals are a way to connect you with particular Goddesses, Gods, spirits, energies and cycles. Ritual formats have been developed to do this process in a safe and secure space and then return to the more mundane world intact. BUT. There are many different ritual styles and often a whole series of complex actions and events have been condensed to a shorthand phrase or gesture that only those with experience or particular knowledge can interpret.

In a ritual, there are a few stages: preparation of the space and participants (purifying and casting the Circle); invoking or inviting certain deities or energies into the Circle; doing some action or event with or for those beings invited; sending energy; winding down and thanking the beings invited; dismantling the Circle; and then grounding any residual or extra energy. Different groups may have different methods and stages but this is a very general outline for most NeoPagan rituals.

I think there are four points you should be aware of before participating in open rituals at Gatherings:

1) The energies raised in the ritual may not be compatible with the energy in your body at that particular time. Recognizing this fact is not a slight to the creators of the ritual or to the ritual itself. You may feel frenetic, exceptionally disoriented or out of touch with your body if this is the case. It is OK to leave the ritual if it feels unbearable or too intense. But also be aware that leaving will disrupt the Circle and please leave only if you really feel you are having problems. Some Circles will challenge your limits concerning growth and change, and that may be hard but essentially good for you. But you must be aware of your personal limits and limitations.

2) Sometimes open Circle organizers don’t ground the energy raised in the ritual completely. And even if the leaders go through the motions of “a grounding”, it doesn’t necessarily mean the energy has been adequately dealt with (remember the earlier point about some ritual leaders not even sensing the energy). Sometimes a ritual will include a brief “grounding” but all that will happen is that the people will all touch the Earth briefly, without really moving the energy. If this happens and you don’t feel done yet, don’t feel pressured into pretending everything is o.k. You should learn to ground and center yourself, and sometimes this will mean you may have to take some time to yourself after the ritual if your friends don’t perceive the energies that you do. Deal with your needs first. If the atmosphere of the ritual space is too charged and/or unbalanced, you may have to leave the area.

Many basic books on Wicca and other NeoPagan traditions include visualizations and details on how to ground and center. I’m going to sketch out the general idea here but if this is the first you’ve heard of grounding and centering, I suggest you look for a more complete explanation. The Spiral Dance by Starhawk has a fairly complete set of training exercises but there are other books as well.

Basically the concept of grounding psychic energy is much like electrical grounding. You use the Earth to help you balance your energy. Breathing deeply and regularly, you stand, sit or lie on the ground and visualize (and try to feel) any inappropriate or excess energy in your body flowing down into the earth with each exhaled breath. With every inhaled breath, you visualize (and try to feel) balanced and harmonious energy flowing up into your body from the earth. Do this process for a few minutes or until you feel better.

3) Try and find a particular person who you trust and who can help and support you if you are having problems. Some gatherings have people who are specifically designated to help newcomers. One gathering I know called them “Listeners” and they had buttons or badges visible when they were “on duty”. Sometimes there are people at the infirmary or medical area who are able to help you with energy or emotional problems as well as physical ones. You may want to try the “buddy system” with someone who is more experienced magically or has been to several gatherings. Make sure you trust them and that they know and are clear about what the situation is with you and what you specifically want from them. Check first that they have the time, energy, and skill to take on such a role for you. If they aren’t able to do it for you but you trust their opinion, ask them for a recommendation of someone they trust to help you if you have trouble.

If, while you are needing help, the person you have chosen to help you doesn’t seem to be appropriate (or becomes inappropriate: “here baby, let me check out your heart chakra... I think your ROOT CHAKRA may need some work, let me help...”) or isn’t helping, disengage from them as quickly and politely as possible and try to find someone who can help you. (And/or press charges as necessary.) No one has a right to take advantage of you, especially when you are in a vulnerable state. Though you will meet many wonderful people at Pagan events, there are all too often predators on the loose as well, some of whom are expert at picking out vulnerable people. Not to be paranoid, only realistic.

Remember, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with needing help — people at all levels of experience sometimes need assistance and support on the path (actually, that’s what the coven / tribe / circle is for).

4) If this is your first NeoPagan gathering, remember that many of the people attending are doing magic and rituals around you all the time, whether you are actively participating or not. The ambient atmosphere is charged with fluxing energies and you are susceptible to these energies unless you learn to shield out any unwanted energy. If you allow the random energies of the gathering to enter your body, it can manifest in your body as a headache or other symptoms. It can cause massive mood swings from exhilaration to depression. Scared? Don’t be. It’s usually not as acute as all that. Some think “Psychic Self-defense” implies a negative thing, that it means defending from an active attack from someone. To me, it means that you don’t let any and all energies into your body. It means you control how energies are going to interact with your body, mind and spirit. So learn to shield yourself.

I’m going give you a simple shielding technique, but you should try and find more complete instructions for shielding. Again, The Spiral Dance has some basic exercises. So visualize (and try to sense) an energy barrier a few inches out from your body. You can augment and strengthen this shield by drawing on the energy of the Earth, the elements, and/or the deities or helper spirits you work with. No energy can get though this selectively permeable barrier unless it is transformed into positive energy that you can use. If energy that is not appropriate for you comes against the barrier, it will be transformed into energy that helps, balances and heals you through being filtered by the barrier. Or, if don’t trust your ability to filter the energy, you can visualize the energy coming against the shield and then just flowing into the ground without ever touching you.

Final Words of Possible Wisdom

I have focused mainly on psychic energy problems in this article, but let me briefly mention another possibility. Sometimes there may be a Goddess or a God or a spirit involved. If you are in reasonably good psychological and physical health, and you go through all the exercises and still feel unwell, perhaps Someone invoked in the ritual needs or wants something. Perhaps you were the only one open to them or available. You can try directing a message to them if you sense this might be the case: “What do you want? Who are you? Are you sure I’m the one you want to talk to? I’m not sure I can help you. I would like you to please leave me alone now. Thank you.” It’s best to be polite and respectful when talking with deities or spirits who tap you on the shoulder. If you get a strong sense of something in particular you should do that is not dangerous, self-destructive, or harmful to others, you might consider going ahead and doing it. Perhaps all they want is recognition or a small offering of food or something else. I know I’m being very general about this particular situation but this paragraph could easily be turned into a full article itself.

Sometimes what starts out negatively as psychic crisis can turn into a positive and transformative experience. You may gain new connections with deities, heightened psychic abilities or a deeper insight into your spiritual path. Be aware that there can be many levels to these experiences and not all of them are traumatic or harmful.

I hope no one has found my observations or suggestions offensive. I have seen a certain shortsightedness among some ritual organizers as to how to accommodate newer people who don’t have much in the way of experience. I would like to make sure allowances are made for welcoming them into the NeoPagan community in a psychically safe manner. And, no, I don’t think we have to orient public rituals to the lowest common denominator, but we do have a responsibility to make sure that all participants come through these events in a safe and balanced manner.

Bibliography for grounding and centering

Starhawk, The Spiral Dance: A Rebirth of the Ancient Religion of the Great Goddess, Harper & Row, revised edition, 1989. Best if all the exercises are done (instead of only some of them) since they build upon each other.

R. Michael Miller and Josephine M. Harper, The Psychic Energy Workbook: An Illustrated Course in Practical Psychic Skills, The Aquarian Press, 1986. Great photos showing the flow of energy. Very well done. Published in Britain but I’ve often seen it in American bookstores.

Anodea Judith, Wheels of Life: A User’s Guide to the Chakra System, Llewellyn Publications, 1987. Thorough examination of the Chakras, including exercises for balancing energy. Recommended.

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