The Environment of Ritual
Here’s a story: it’s a Wednesday night and I have friends coming for dinner, so I’m in the process of preparing. We are in a canyon, and the backyard is steep and wooded, with giant redwoods and layered mosses and winding slate stairs. Fairy lights wind around and within the tree branches, and a few old painted chandeliers hang over tucked away stone benches. For tonight, I dressed the table in vibrant indigo cloth from Jaipur. I’ve clipped hydrangeas short enough to be held tight by small jelly jars and set the table with little white candles in liqueur cups and old silver and mismatched ceramic pieces that somehow still feel curated. I choose things that, have energy, tell stories, and show care. My friends, who don’t know each other yet, won’t see the table until well after coming across the threshold. My deliberate intent is to facilitate a state change, to create an expansive mood, to have them shake off the world and feel welcomed into a sanctuary of safety and wellness. So in the house, too, I pay attention to sensory cues: soft light, squishy surfaces, aromas of savory herbs, fruit or breads overflowing a bowl or a basket because it subconsciously signals abundance. Nothing in the space is too precious, because I want people to lounge. No two seats are more than 48” apart, so it’s easy to feel a sense of intimacy when talking. But this is not magic: this is reverence through design, learned over time. It comes from paying attention to which atmospheres create a downshift in the nervous system, including the worries people have in a new place or with new people. The environment we create can bring people into the zone of belonging. I have learned that an immense joyful welcome, an affirmation, clarity on where to put your hat and shoes, where to freshen up, a greeting with a sparkle, followed by a cross-current introduction, a tidbit to get the conversation going between strangers (or, alternatively, tasks for the socially anxious…) all contribute to this feeling. This is my way of creating a space in which magic can unfold: I use physical surroundings and environmental cues to accelerate decompression, connection, synchronicity, wonder, unexpected moments of enchantment and delight. And after 35 years of hosting, it works. Miracles of friendship and collaboration and lovership have emerged from these nights. Deep healings. Long term friendships. Before we get into the how-to of specific rituals, I want to offer some inspiration on creating an environment and milieu of reverence and attention—whether it’s in a small devotional space such as a home altar, or in a whole home or in the garden or in the wild or as part of a communal ceremony or festival. The environment can set the mood.