Stories of Summer Solstice

by Raemon 5 min read8th Jul 201812 comments


[Epistemic Status: talking in the language of metaphorical soul and mysticism.]


June 23rd, the Bay community journeyed out to the edge of the world to celebrate the longest day of the year.

Photo Credit to Shaked Koplewitz

This came on the heels of EA Global, which had a strong focus on action, networking, planning projects and thinking about the future. Much of rationality is about thinking and doing. But once a year, it's nice to be.

We scoped out several possible locations, and ultimately settled on the Marin Headlands – a surreal, remote world of hidden beaches, spooky ruins and epic cliffs. Approximately 100 people came, some in 15-seat caravan vans, some individual carpools.

At solar noon, when the shadows are shortest, we opened with a speech by Malcolm Ocean. "The biggest thing you'll want to be wary of here is fear of missing out. There's going to be a lot of stuff going on today. It is not possible to see it all – just like life. Rather than trying desperately to optimize your time, I recommend just... going with the flow of the moment."

During the day, we had a few major activities:

  • Circling
  • Capture the Flag with water guns, war paint and a literal fort (although we ended up having to find a second fort because the one we meant to use got sniped by a wedding)
  • Group singing
  • Exploration in small groups of the various nooks, crannies and cliffscapes of the Headlands.

We didn't end up building a solar-temple, due to various logistical issues (and I think largely because there were lots of competing things to do). But a) I'm fairly confident about getting that done next year, and b) meanwhile... the drum circle at sunset felt deeply good.

On the event feedback survey I sent out, the overall ratio of meh/good/great/ecstatic for was 2/10/13/3, which has me pretty confident that we got the general shape of the event right.

This post is a scattershot of takeaways.

Drum Circles and Mary's Room

I've observed drum circles. I've participated in drum circles with strangers who were not really "my people." I've done circle-singing, which is sort of like a drum circle except with voices instead of drums. I have some theoretical background in music, and in ritual. I know what a drum circle is supposed to be like.

Nonetheless, I hadn't really done a drum circle until last weekend.

I was sort of like Mary, the hypothetical neuro/optic-scientist in a black-and-white room who knew everything there was to know about the color red except having ever seen it... who then finally sees a rose.

Rationalists are heavily selected for being very cerebral – and correspondingly, somewhat selected against being particularly in touch with their bodies and (for lack of a better word), souls. And drum circles are very much about the intersection of body and soul. Being present in the moment. Losing yourself in the beat. Feeling the beat in an important way. Leaning into it, moving, gyrating, maybe getting up and dancing.

Brent, Malcolm and others arranged for Bay Summer Solstice to end with a drum circle at sunset. I was worried that we wouldn't be able to pull it off – that we'd be a bit too self-conscious to lean into it and really have the magic happen.

But, it worked. Holy hell. Not everyone was able to get into it, but the majority did, and at least some of them reported it as a peak experience.

I'm not sure if this generalizes, as "the thing rationalists should do at Summer Solstice Sunset." It does require a critical mass of people who are able to lean enthusiastically into it and lead others, which not every community has.

But I think the median-quality-rationalist-drumcircle would still be at least as good as most other ways to end the day. I also think it works best if you invest in some high quality, resonant drums. Which brings us to....

Material Components

The most important element when creating a ritual or holiday, is to understand what experience you're actually trying to create. If you're planning a wedding, it's easy to end up spending thousands of dollars on things that don't actually make the day more meaningful for anyone.

Before you worry about expensive things, make sure that you understand the basics. Make sure you know what kind of emotional transformation you're going for. Make sure you've gotten basic logistic needs met so the event can happen at all. Think about what all the people involved are going to experience and why.


I gotta say, there is something about High Level Ritual Components that is, like, actually important.

I think intuitions from fantasy stories / video-game transfer pretty well here. A low level wizard has simple spellbook and wand. As they level up, they gain skill (more spells, deeper understanding of magic such that they can devise their own spells). They also seek out more powerful artifacts – gem-studded golden spellbooks, ornate staves, The Amulet of the Ancients, whathaveyou, which amplify their power.

They also seek out ancient temples and secret leylines that are latent with energy.

The highest level wizards (i.e. Dumbledore) don't need that all that flash. They can cast wordless, wandless magic, and travel in simple robes.

But, still, when serious business needs attending to, Dumbledore busts out the Elder Wand, gathers up artifacts, and positions himself at Hogwarts, a seat of magical power.

Translating all of that into real-world-speak:

Aesthetic matters.

A good artist can work with crude tools and make something beautiful. But there's still a benefit to really good ingredients.

I used to buy cheap candles or electric-tea-lights for Winter Solstice. Eventually I bought these thick candles which look beautiful and have lasted through several events.

For Summer Solstice, in addition to things like buying a literal conch shell to rally the people when the people needed rallying... this translated into something which doesn't (necessarily) cost money, but which does cost time:

Location matters. A lot.

In Visions of Summer Solstice, before I had seen the Marin Headlands, I said:

It's not enough to find a small nearby park. Ideally, you want an outdoor space vast enough to feel in your bones that the sky is the limit. There is no one and nothing to help you build a tower to the stars, or to cross the ocean, or cartwheel forever in any direction. But neither is there anyone to stop you. There is only nature, and you, and your tribe, and whatever you choose to do.

And after having seen the Marin Headlands, I have to say "holy shit guys location matters more than I thought when I wrote that paragraph."

The natural beauty of the coast is immense. And then there's century-old ruins layered on top of it – which hint at the power of civilization but still ultimately leave you on your own.

The location also leant itself well to transitions – walking through tunnels, and around corners into sweeping vistas. Ritual is about transformation, and an environment that helps mark this with literal transition adds a lot.

This all made it much easier to tap into a primal sense of "This is the here and now. This is worth protecting. These are my people."

The Sunset Pilgrimage

After a day of exploration, games, and good conversations with good people in beautiful places... we gathered at the staging site for dinner, and a final speech. As it ended, Malcolm began a simple drum beat that people joined in on.

We began walking to the coast, drumming as we went. I felt a brief flicker of tribal power, followed by apprehension – was this going to actually work or would it end up dragging? Would I feel self-conscious and awkward?

Then we took a turn, and marched through the battery tunnel.

Battery Wallace – photo credit to the Goga Park Archive. Slightly modified

The drums took on a deepened tone, and we began to sing – wordless chanting, improvised humming. Some people who didn't have drums banged on the walls. The sounds echoed through the bunker, powerful.

Meanwhile the sun glinted through the end of the tunnel, silhouetting the people ahead of me. And... I felt a piece of myself crack open slightly, a particular flavor of longing that I'd never quite satisfied. I've felt that I have a community before. I've felt the somewhat-deeper version of it that Scott Alexander describes in Concept Shaped Holes.

But this was deeper still, given material form by the resonance of the hall and our emergence into the hilltop and the setting sun.

Photo credit Philip Lin

We continued down the hill. The feeling faded in the face of logistical hiccups. We got a bit spread out. I think most of the people with drums were near the front and the people near the back had a less good experience.

But despite that, one thing that struck me was the multiple phases of transition. There were four major arcs to the sunset walk – the tunnel, the hilltop, winding our way through the woods, and finally the cliffside path.

At each stage, the sun's character shifted. In the tunnel, it glinted around our silhouettes. At the hilltop it shined over the region that had been our home for the day. As we emerged from the woods into the final stretch, it lay straight ahead.

Photo credit Sarah McManus
Photo credit Anisha Mauze

As we approached the cliff, the sun touched the horizon and began it's final descent.

This and next photo credit Sarah McManus

We clustered and regrouped at the cliff, and formed a proper drum circle. It grew in fervor. People began to dance. Some people played digeridoos. As the last quarter of the sun dipped below the horizon, people started to sing again, rising in pitch and intensity.

Eventually all but a single pixel of the sun had vanished.

And I wondered – would a hundred people with no pre-planning all realize in time that the ideal culmination would be to abruptly stop at the precise moment that last pixel disappeared?

A few moments later, the pixel was gone. And there was silence at the world's edge.