What is a Ritual?
I am sure that every magician and ceremonialist will have a different definition, but here's mine: A ritual is an organized procedure intended to accomplish a goal. Although organized, it can be either planned or spontaneous. The key factor is intention. A well-planned ritual can be likened to a "craft."
Obviously this broadens our concept of ritual beyond the familiar association with religion and magick. In this broad sense we do rituals all the time—from the morning rituals of shaving and "putting on a face" to dressing, preparing a meal, and on to our daily tasks. All, or at least most of these activities are intentional—some minimal (such as just pulling on a pair of jeans), while others are carefully crafted to create a particular effect in association with a major event.
Aside from these personal "rituals," we have many others, from the world of diplomacy to that of business, justice, and every profession ever invented by mankind. But let's go back to those rituals of religion and magick.
Kinds of Ritual
I probably haven't defined every ritual type there is, and you can argue to the contrary that I've already come up with too many variations of the basic formula: action intended to accomplish a specific goal.
Can we learn from crafting a magical ritual to the better crafting of our mundane and everyday rituals?
Yes, of course we can. Whether it is merely showing up for work, following instructions, and getting a paycheck, or planning and executing a detailed plan to substantially increase sales or to cut costs, the concept of "action intended to accomplish a goal" is the necessary structure of a ritual. The beginning and the end.
But, what about "organized procedure?" There is where we get all the differences we see in familiar religious and magickal rituals, and in those associated with dinner speeches, graduation ceremonies, court matters, legislative actions, etc.
But, wait! Before we tackle what I mean about "organized procedure" and what goes into that, we must by now see the difference between those familiar and mundane rituals like shaving in the morning and that too often become rote and habit and those that require awareness and concentration.
Think about driving the familiar route to work. Awareness and concentration are vital in most commutes today. Without them, you probably end up in a hospital ward talking with a policeman or a lawyer.
And, aside from "just pulling on a pair of jeans," most of us give special attention to our clothing in relation to what we will be doing that day or occasion. Do we need to be formal? Or wear protective clothing? Are we thinking of romantic, or sexual, encounters? Do we need to make a particular kind of impression as when interviewing for a job? Or are we dressing for a brisk run in the park?
Yes, part of this relates to our goal in performing the ritual—which might be getting a particular job—but awareness involves perceptions about the environment surrounding the whole operation. The magician might include awareness of astrological conditions, perception of non-physical forces and entities, temperature, the place of the operation, etc.
Working with awareness is a vital part of every successful ritual.
If we want to get from one place to another, we generally have to gather and organize equipment, materials, and energies. The same is true if we want to move from one "state of consciousness" to another.
For some magicians, this means the inclusion of special robes, the assembly of materials and symbols based on magical correspondences that help focus consciousness and the evoked energies, planning the choreography of stationary postures, movement, and gestures, along with speeches, prayers, recitations, mental imagery, lots of incense and oils, perhaps recorded music, etc.
For others, simplicity and restraint work better. And the more experience you have the less dependent you become on the externals. Too much clutter, too many people, too much recitation, and sometimes too much incense and mind-altering substances—all can get in the way of an effective and efficient ritual, magical or otherwise.
Energy and Focus
What is all the clutter for?
The purpose of all the accessories is too help you focus on both the procedure and the energies either invoked (from inside) or evoked (from outside). And, of course, gathering them, or making them, can be enjoyable and ritualistic as well.
Let's drop back into the mundane world for a moment. There is really little difference in the ritual formula between the magic/religious world and the mundane/practical world applications.
What is different is found in the materials and energies. Driving to work you choose a car, give it fuel (energy), put it into motion, follow a map (usually in your mind), arrive at your destination (the established goal), park your car, and get out. All the steps of a magical or religious ritual are set forth in this simple, everyday world, example.
You can drive an inexpensive Chevrolet, an expensive Cadillac, or a jazzy Corvette—but it's still a vehicle to go from one place to the next. You can fuel your car with high octane gasoline, perhaps mixed with methanol, diesel fuel, electricity, or, soon, with hydrogen. You can map your route with a GPS system or a paper map. You can have radio on, or play music from the CD player. And so on. You can even sing, talk to yourself, go over the day's work in your mind, or plan the next "big thing." You park the car in a lot or garage, lock it, and walk to your destination. You've opened a ritual, and you've closed it.
You can make it simple and efficient or complex and perhaps less efficient. And the more complex, the greater the reliance on external factors—a Cadillac costs more than a Chevrolet, so you have spent more resources than necessary and may still be paying for the car, which is a fact that slips into your awareness and dissipates your focus.
With rare exception, I have found the same rule in the magical and religious worlds. The more people, the more the materials and accessories, the less the focus. There may be a lot of energy flying around, and people get high on that and speak of the wonder and glory of it all—but the most effective and powerful rituals I've done have been private and internal. Purely mental. The Mind organizes memories, arouses and focuses energies, visualizes a goal, and accomplishes results.
Solitary may be less fun—especially in relation to ritual celebrations and dramatizations—but it gets the job done.