Designing Ritual

by Raemon14 min read11th Jan 201276 comments


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This is the third post in my ritual mini-sequence. My first article was an emotional rallying cry around of the idea of a rational-(trans)humanist culture. My second article examined the value and potential dangers of ritual.

So far, I remain convinced that ritual is a valuable experience for most people. I don’t know if there can or should be a unified “Less Wrong” culture, but I do think individual communities should consider creating their own (“rational-humanist” or otherwise). Ritual can be a useful source of fun, comfort and inspiration for positive change. A decent heuristic for "Should my meetup try this?" is "Do the people at my meetup think this sounds cool?"

This article is both an explanation of certain design principles, and a case study of my attempt at one particular kind of community event.

Designing Timelessness

So, say your community decides to incorporate some ritual. How do you do that?

Ritual-space is large, and includes things as simple as "Pass around dark chocolate at the beginning of meetups." You probably already have some kind of ritual going on. Over time, these small traditions can accumulate into something interesting and comforting. But if you’re like me, you want something more powerful - you want the gravitas of an ancient cultural cornerstone, and you want it now.

This is... a challenge.

“Creating tradition” almost feels like an oxymoron. To be effective, it has to have a timeless quality about it. It doesn't have to actually be ancient, but it needs to feel resonant, familiar and personal. Most ritual is created through a combination of artistic skill and memetic evolution. A few central traditions begin the process (say, a particular feast, prayer and/or anthem), and then the ritual begins to spread from family to family, adapting in response to memetic selection pressure, filling specific niches, often resulting in bizarre injokes and absurdities. The absurdities can actually help bind a community together, as a badge of pride.

Powerful governments and religions can attempt to steer this. The Catholic church votes on deliberate changes to their ceremonies. But the church could not have intentionally created Modern Western Christmas - a bizarre gestalt of pagan and christian mythology, random stories, eventually infused with modern capitalism to become a monolithic culture and industry.

One of the hardest things an artist can do is create a work that appears to have already been weathered by natural forces. It’s much easier to create a clean room than a crumbling ruin. The weight of ancient cultural cornerstones is built out of a lot of subtle details, and if you get them wrong, you’ll get a ridiculous, uncanny-valley effect (especially if you were taking everything really seriously).

But I think it can be done. The Solstice celebration I put together was a solid first attempt, and I feel that much more is possible. I’m going to walk through my design process, and then discuss what areas I think needed more work. I recently finished the Extended Edition With Commentary of the evening’s songbook. You can either look it over now, or after reading this article. (Ordinarily I’d say art should stand on its own without explanation, but since the actual “art” was an interactive ceremony, I don’t think it matters much. The book is intended to be its own kind of art, but I’ll leave it up to you.)

(Pausing here a moment so that the people who wanted to look over the book first have a second chance to do so, before being carried forward by inertia.)

All right. These were among my biggest considerations, when creating the Solstice celebration:

  • Have a Goal
  • Build on the Familiar
  • Do Research, and Cultivate Diversity of Experience
  • Manage Complexity
  • Field Testing
  • Remember (And Re-Evaluate) your Goal

Have A Goal

My primary goal for the Solstice was personal, and perhaps selfish: I wanted a particular, profound, intense experience. I’d had pieces of it in the past - communal singing, tribal belonging, reading beautiful prose that resonated with me. I’ve been to religious events and felt a hint of their potency. I wanted to weave all these elements into a single experience.

A related goal, not quite so selfish, was wanting to channel this power into changing myself, to inspire myself to be the kind of person I wanted to be.

Closely intertwined with those goals was the desire to create a fun, and hopefully moving experience for my community. In some ways this was instrumental to the first goals, but the event wouldn’t have worked if I hadn’t genuinely cared about creating something that everyone could enjoy together, for their own sake.

An unrelated goal, which I had to take care not to override more important ones, is that I’ve been wanting to have a Cthulhu-caroling party since like forever.

It took several months for these to weave into a single, unified plan for the evening. I’ll return to that in a moment.

Build on the Familiar

Culture can be created, but not from nothing. You’ll need to work off existing ideas that your tribe already shares.

One of the most important functions that tradition and ritual serve is to comfort. From what I've read and experienced, humans are hardwired to feel on-edge when they're in an unfamiliar situation. Uncertainty is a heuristic for danger - both to your physical life, and ostracization from the group (ultimately making it harder to find a mate). My accompanying just-so story is that repeated social traditions make your brain feel safe - you’re surrounded by people doing familiar things you understand, so you don’t have worry about suddenly getting kicked out of the group for no reason. You’re also surrounded by friends that could probably protect you if a tiger suddenly jumped out of the woods and attacked.

So if you want to induce that warm comfort, you’ll need to be working with memes and activities that feel familiar. The NYC meetup has some diverse values, but we share a vision of the power of human achievement, and a future that is better specifically because of scientific progress. We also share an understanding of how dangerous and cruel the universe can be. Most of us have had these beliefs for a while, but it was Eliezer’s Sequences that crystalized them into a coherent, specific and moving worldview, and brought us together as a community.

So the Sequences provided the content. But I turned to existing religious rituals for the structure. I knew that my family’s Christmas Eve (where we feast, then gather and sing carols for hours, with a gradual emotion arc from silly-to-serious) was a good frame to build around. I’ve also had experience with Catholic Mass and a Seder, which incorporated stories alongside songs. These sorts of events are ubiquitous throughout our culture. Even if you don’t have personal experience with them, you’ve probably grown up with ingrained stereotypes about them and vaguely identify them as “normal.”

I think this was the single most important point - we had content that resonated with everyone, built around a structure that was familiar.

Big ideas are important, but weaving together smaller memes was also key. I looked for songs, stories or activities that I knew were already popular among our group:

  • Our group has a fondness for dark chocolate, which has become something of a tribal badge. I don’t actually even like dark chocolate that much, but it’s oddly comforting to pass it around the living room.
  • Songs like “Still Alive” and “RE Your Brains” are crowd favorites in our group. They aren’t exactly on theme, but everyone knows them, and they were woven into the evening’s narrative easily enough. Monty Python and Tom Lehrer also provided some examples, which were not only familiar but are just old enough to feel slightly “traditional”.
  • We’re not all Lovecraft enthusiasts, but most of us are at least passingly familiar with them as a facet of nerd culture. There also is an existing large body of Lovecraft-inspired songs (on a CD entitled “A Very Scary Solstice”), that some of us already knew, and which parodied existing Christmas carols which would make them easier to learn.
  • Our group is predominantly Jewish (ethnically, at least). We actually had a Rationalist Seder earlier in the year. This gave me an initial “reverse hanukkah” idea (turning out lights to represent the darkness of the universe).

These things made sense to consider for my community, and together they suggested a particular interpretation of the Sequences. They may not make sense for your community. If you want to do something like this, you’ll have to look at your own community, identify your own proto-rituals, and use them to create something that feels like it’s evolved around your group’s selection pressures.

Research, and Diversity of Experience

Not only will culture look weird if you create it from scratch, but it’s almost literally impossible to create an idea from scratch, period. Creativity is about combining different ideas together in interesting ways. It’s a lot easier to do this if you have a variety of interesting concepts to work with.

I started this endeavor with an array of background knowledge - I’ve had a lot of exposure to folk music and have written some amateur songs. I’ve trained in visual art, communications and game design (what you might more generally call “interactive media.”). I’ve looked at several religious communities and seen a few different ways that ceremonies have been put together. These were valuable disciplines to draw upon.

On top of that, I did research on traditional solstice celebrations and the origin of H.P. Lovecraft’s ideas. I shouldn’t need to sell Less Wrongers on the value of research, but a common pitfall of amateur artists is that they get one good idea and then assume that’s good enough. They don’t care about factual accuracy, they’re just making “art”, and they’re being “creative” which means inventing ideas from scratch. Which is horribly ineffective, even if all you care about is art. Doing research allows you to be more creative, since you get more ideas bouncing off each other. And if you choose to invoke poetic license, ignoring a particular fact, you can do so from a position of strength, knowing that the fact wasn’t really essential to your point, or that it allowed you to emphasize a more important fact instead.

This is all the more important when you’re creating something for rationalists, who are going to pick apart your story and identify everything you get wrong.

The most powerful elements of the evening came from reading I did in the last few weeks. I hadn’t even intended it as a solstice party when I first conceived it - it was just going to be a fun Lovecraft caroling party. The solstice, and Stonehenge in particular, turned out to be powerful symbols that supplied a concrete narrative. This was important, because vague symbols like “light” and “darkness” and “life” and “death” are so overused that you need a real, compelling story for them to feel meaningful. If I had just run with my initial idea, the result wouldn’t have been worth posting on this site.

Manage Complexity

There’s a proverb you may have heard: “A designer achieves perfection, not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.”

As you research and develop ideas, those ideas will accumulate and grow more complex. This will happen for individual pieces, and it will happen to the work as a whole. The problem is that there’s a limit to how much complexity people can handle. The consequences vary from artform to artform. In the case of a ceremony, songs can be too challenging to sing, and stories can get too wordy or long.

Sometimes, you may want twenty verses for a song to communicate a complex idea. You may want interesting harmonies or modulations that make it really beautiful. Your audience may even be able to handle it - the complexity can be worth it.

BUT. Just because your participants can handle one complex song does not mean they can handle 30 in a row. You need to make each piece as simple as it can be, so you have leftover complexity to use in more important places. This means you may need to revise some songs - even songs you really like, cutting out perfectly good lines that just weren’t quite pulling their weight, so that you could afford to make another, more important section lengthier or more interesting.

Communal songs are not like regular song. They must be easy to sing. They should have a refrain that everyone can easily join in on even if they get lost. Ideally, the lyrics should be someone “obvious” so that people naturally end up singing the right words even if they aren’t paying attention.

I ended up have 2-3 “hard” songs, another 2-3 “medium” songs, and the rest were deliberately less interesting but easier.

The Sequence readings were the most challenging part of this. I had to figure out which elements of them were most important and drastically cut them apart, while preserving the original impact of Eliezer’s work.

Field Testing

No amount of planning can replace actual empirical testing. Unfortunately, pieces of rituals can’t really be tested in isolation. By itself, a single activity can have a completely different feel compared to when you’re in the middle of a long ceremony, light sources flickering and surrounded by friends. On top of this, it’s impractical to hold a “practice” ceremony, since it’d make the “real” ceremony feel repetitive.

But at least some amount of practice can be valuable. If you’re writing new songs, or if you’re going to be giving a speech: Record yourself performing, and play it back. An iPhone’s voice memo app is a good way to do this. Not only will this give you vocal practice, but you’ll know how long a piece is, and you may be surprised at how something actually sounds compared to how it sounded in your head. (I sang some songs for weeks, carefully tuning them, until the day I actually recorded myself and realized a bunch of obvious problems I had been ignoring)

You’ll want at least some practice getting other people to participate. Getting people to try out a song by itself can feel a little awkward, but I managed a decent test at a meetup. I started by asking people to suggest songs they liked that were on-theme. We played them on youtube, and sang along karaoke style. This got everyone’s energy up, which gave me more confidence to try singing unfamiliar songs I had written, without musical backup. I learned important information about what people had an easy time singing along with and what they didn’t. People also got a lot more excited about the event. A lot of the songs people suggested made great additions to the final ceremony.

I had another important source of information from earlier in the year - the NYC had also done a Rationalist Seder in the spring. This actually had the opposite emotional arc than what I was going for - wine drinking is built into the Seder, and it becomes more jovial over time. I wanted things to start jovial, but then turn very dark before they eventually became uplifting. So I kept the dinner and singing sections separate. Those who drank during dinner were particularly jubilant at the beginning, but sober by the time we reached the parts that were intentionally grim.

One thing I did NOT test was use of light sources, which turned out to be a very complex logistical problem. More on this later.

Remember (and Re-Evaluate) your Goal

As you work on individual sections, it can be easy to forget your original goal. Remember that each piece isn’t just there to be awesome - it’s there to produce an awesome overall composition.

It’s also okay if your goal changes - mine went from “silly Lovecraft caroling” to “serious (trans)humanist ceremony” to something in between, as I gained more data. I cut out all the Lovecraft when it seemed unnecessary, and then added chunks back in when I realized there was some genuinely interesting stuff worth including. But every now and again, I made sure to step from the work, and look at the whole. Every piece there needed to contribute to a coherent vision, even if that vision was different than the one I started with. Don’t let your personal attachments to ideas blind you - anything that isn’t pulling its weight should be changed or cut.

Finally, do at least one read of the entire script, to check how long it is. Don’t rely on this for information on the emotional arc (it will be very different when you’re reading by yourself than celebrating in a group) but try and get a general sense of the flow.

My Results

So, how did my event actually go?

I’m going to recommend you take a break now, and go read the actual extended edition and form your own opinion, before you read my self-critique. And maybe just take a while in general. This article is long, and I don’t think it quite warrants two separate articles to split into. A breather may be good.

Okay. Back?

I actually answered this in a comment in the original post - I wanted to be upfront about the good and bad things, right off the bat. Here’s the original comment:

  1. The party was absolutely worth doing, even if it were just for general warmth, fun and togetherness
  2. I did not personally achieve the profound feeling I was hoping for at the event in particular. But I did achieve it several times over while I was planning it, and I think I burned out on profundity before I actually got to the night in question. It was also warped somewhat by performance anxiety. I didn't actually feel like a participant in the event - I felt like a performer, and to some extent a scientist observing a phenomenon. I think that was mostly unique to me, although it will probably apply to anyone putting the event together for the first time.
  3. So far I've spoken to a few other participants after the fact. Reactions seem to range based on how susceptible you are in general to warm fuzzies (more importantly, what I've come to call "warm shivers"). Everyone seems enthusiastic about doing it again, and most people seemed to have at least one moment that touched them, but different people reacted strongly to different parts of the evening.
  4. A fairly common reaction was "this was a great idea and a good execution, but I have a strong sense that MUCH more is possible." (This was my reaction as well)

Some new information I’ve gathered since then:

5) I set up an anonymous feedback box on our mailing list, to address conformity issues. I only got two comments there, one was a person who didn’t attend who was concerned about cult-image in general, and one was specifically concerned about the Singularity song, which I’m still reconsidering for next year.

6) There was a little too much Lovecraft. This was my fault - it was something I personally liked, which I should have been more careful not to overemphasize. In the final, extended edition of the ritual book, I removed excess Lovecraft and replaced it with other things.

7) Some mistakes were due to time constraints. The first five songs were not very good - they were pre-existing Lovecraft songs that I got off the internet. I deliberately allowed those songs to not be very good, because I knew that when the singing started, people would still be getting the hang of it. I had limited time to prepare and focused on the important parts. I’ve altered or replaced some of the early songs in the extended edition, but they are still deliberately less important.

8) A few people reported that I (successfully) made them almost cry during the dark sections, but that I didn’t have enough uplifting songs to finish it off.

9) Relatedly, the lynchpin song, “Brighter Than Today,” which I wrote for the transition from dark to light, is rather complicated to sing. I’m on the fence of whether I should make it simpler, or just allow the transitional anthem to be complex and expect people to get better at singing it over time. I think it would lose some power if I made it a more communal-friendly song. Different participants have given me different opinions on this.

10) Light sources turned out to be complicated. Partly because we just forgot to turn them off. I solved that by including instructions in the actual booklet. Partly because we didn’t bring enough. I’m going to emphasize that more and ensure we have a better variety. (I left my own Lava Lamp and Lightning Ball at my parent’s home and forgot them). But there was a harder problem that I don’t know how to solve:

Each light source should feel dramatic when it turns off. Which essentially means that each light should be among the more “powerful” remaining lights. A single candle getting snuffed out is irrelevant when all the lights are on, but powerful when it’s the last light remaining.

But there’s only so many lights you can turn off before it becomes hard to read. This *could* be solved by using “True” communal songs - songs designed so you can figure them out and sing along without any text at all. But those songs tend to be louder and more boisterous. The whole point of the enroaching darkness is to become more grim.

Having more light sources may solve this problem - giving us enough to turn off while still having illumination to read by. Yet another part of the problem was a lack of table-space: there were 20 of us, and we ended up sitting in a circle of chairs. How to resolve this problem will depend a lot on who’s participating, how well they can read in the dark, and what kind of room/table you have to work with.

11) I went back and forth on “The Gift We Give Tomorrow,” and how short I wanted to make it. It reads like a conversation, and if you have two people who are both familiar with it, it can probably be okay as a longer piece. But I didn’t find someone to read it with me early enough to practice together. So I ended up shortening it dramatically, cutting out the entire first half.

By the time I did this, I had spent three weeks wallowing in existential despair, studying a lot of grim writings about the cruelty of the universe, and I had basically lost the ability to discern emotional content. I thought I could get away with cutting away everything except the “poetic” sections of The Gift. It turns out you shouldn’t do this. It wasn’t bad, but it wasn’t as potent as it should have been.

Next year I plan on doing the “full” version (i.e the abridged version I posted here), and just make sure I get someone to practice with.

12) On a related note: make sure you give yourself enough time to work on something like this. You don’t just need time to write it, you need time to take a step back, let your brain recalibrate so you can properly evaluate sadness and beauty, and then still be able to revise it for a final draft.

Next Year

Last year, I let these ideas gestate for about 8 months before I got serious about putting this together. This year I'll be planning ahead a lot more. I'll also be setting some other things in motion, that may interact with the Solstice celebration in ways I can't predict just yet. (Among other things, possibly getting a much cooler space to conduct it in)

I aim to have found or written more and better songs, possibly replacing some of the less on-theme ones that I included this year. I hope to collaborate more with trained musicians, do more research, and improve my own design skills. I have some specific thoughts on how to address existing problems, but those may radically change as I explore new possibilities.

I also plan to have networked with other local humanist, skeptical and rational communities. I don’t know if the end result will be a larger Less Wrong NYC community (having found people who’d naturally gravitate to our memes), a stronger coalition of Less Wrong communities beyond NYC, or a less specific coalition of rational/skeptical/humanist groups. Satisfying the needs of multiple tribes may water down your values, but I think we can find plenty of things in common with related groups of people. Depending on the direction I go in, next year’s Solstice may be mostly the same or radically different. (I may even hold multiple ones for different target audiences).

I won’t be posting about this on Less Wrong - I think this website should mostly focus on quality technical posts, and I know culture-building can be a turn off to some. But I am interested in collaborating with anyone who’s interested (and if you’re NOT interested but are slightly scared of what I’m trying to do, I welcome you to keep an eye on me as a Rationalist Confessor). I’ll be starting a mailing list and possibly a design blog relating to this. Send me a PM if you’re interested.

And if you’re not really interested the large-scale culture building, but wanted some inspiration for your own community, Less Wrong or otherwise, I hope I helped.