Hybrid Rituals, Part 2

Designing Rituals for Virtual and Physical Worlds

Tom Nickel
8 min readJun 16, 2023
Hybrid Ritual: Image by Dezgo

Ritual Elements

Rituals aren’t abstract. They need to be concrete and specific. But there may be a framework that cuts across many if not all rituals, a framework that gets filled in with details.

A ritual is meant to facilitate a transition, a passage out of some situation or internal state into another.

I believe that the way through conditions we see as problematic is to feel them fully and pass through them, not around them. So rituals of saying good bye or getting un-stuck begin with honoring the state we wish to leave behind.

What does this mean, to honor something we don’t feel good about and wish to be rid of? I think it means acknowledging that, despite our current feelings, that condition was and still is part of who we are. It could have played a useful role at some point, even if it no longer does. We need to see that it is an aspect of ourselves that we are moving beyond.

Honoring and Washing Away: A Personal Example

I cited a personal example of quitting cigarettes in Part One.

Once I felt that cigarettes helped me, that they were kind of an ally. To end my allegiance, which had become an unhealthy dependency, I first had to accept the valuable role the habit once played.

More recently, I decided to abstain totally from alcohol. I did not use alcohol as a social lubricant or as a creativity stimulant. I used it to help me settle down and go to sleep. Every night for over forty years.

In order to learn how to go to sleep without the help of alcohol, I first had to appreciate the assistance it provided all those years. Part of that process involved a ritual I made up.

First, I went to a liquor store, not just to purchase alcohol to use in the ritual, but to feel the liquor store environment. To smell it, to look at all the colorful bottles so seductively displayed, to gather all those liquor store visits into one last compressed and fully aware experience.

Then I bought two tiny, 50 ML bottles of the brands I thought of as my brands. These steps were part of the ritual.

The heart of the matter, when I was ready to put all other thoughts aside, was to immerse myself in what was once an essential part of my life. I did not consume it, though.

I doused myself in it.

I stood naked in the shower, without turning the water on, and poured the contents of the bottles over myself, carefully and systematically. I held one bottle in my left hand and poured it over my right side, and then I poured the other bottle with my right hand over my left side.

The smell was almost overpowering, but I inhaled it deeply. I felt it on my skin and let it drip down from the top of me to the bottom. I stayed still, feeling myself wearing the alcohol. When I no longer felt repelled by it, but instead felt totally clear about what alcohol had been for me — I turned on the shower.

I let the warm water wash the alcohol way. I washed all over with soap. I rinsed and then washed all over with soap again. When I felt fully cleansed, I turned off the shower and slowly dried myself off, feeling that I was a different person than the one who had stepped into the shower armed with two little bottles of whiskey about twenty minutes earlier.

The heavens did not part. I heard no celestial music. All I felt was the inner certainty that I was done. I knew that from now on, sleep would be an adventure, and a challenging adventure at that. And alcohol would not be part of it.

I am still relearning how to sleep without my long-time ally. Some nights it comes easily, other nights it does not. I don’t care. I will let the gift of sleep come to me on its terms and if it doesn’t happen according to what I think I want, I just rest my muscles.

I had already stopped consuming alcohol for about ten days before I enacted the ritual. The ritual made manifest what was already happening. It was a punctuation mark I finally put after a sentence that had already ended.

Moving Forward

First, we honor what has been. Then we stand freely in the middle, neither here nor in the desired new there. Finally, we let our new selves come to us in a new present moment.

In my alcohol ritual, rinsing and then drying off represented that middle place. I stood there naked. It was not bedtime, but I want to approach going to bed and to sleep as if I am naked, without my old ally.

Often we do not know what the new world will look like once we have used a ritual to help start the process of getting unstuck. I don’t want to replace my old habit with a new one. I want to be free but I don’t quite know what that means.

In this case, the final stage of my ritual was to accept this uncertainty. I had to let myself not-know, and to make it concrete, I simply did nothing.

I have now been without alcohol for long enough that I don’t miss it, but I might never fully understand my new relationship with sleep. The process might not end. That’s why it has been important not to develop a new routine, a new type of dependency — I still have a lot to learn about sleeping and I will learn it best by holding on to a beginner’s mind as long as possible, maybe forever.

I don’t go to bed and let sleep come to me the same way twice in a row. The last phase of my saying goodbye to alcohol ritual is to Not Develop a Routine. or at least that is how I feel now. I am open to letting a new routine find me at some point, but not yet.

Socially Constructed Rituals

I made up my end-of-alcohol ritual. It came to me out of nowhere. I do not suggest it for anyone else although you are welcome to use it or some variant. It just entered my brain and I knew it was what I needed to do.

Ideas do not always come to me that way. Sometimes I need to let them emerge out of talking with someone else, or a group of people.

I have hosted groups in Virtual Reality since 2019. That sentence may make no sense to readers whose idea of VR is limited to solo game playing. In fact, escape and self-indulgence may be the main image of VR in the popular culture, possibly because the giant corporations who run most VR platforms now believe that is what will sell.

But that version of virtual reality is not selling the way some had hoped. More quietly, another version of the medium is slowly growing outside of the hype cycle.

In this version, what I call Humanistic VR, people can be together in virtual spaces. They can play games — but they can also just hang out and talk. Or they can meet up in more focused events.

They can meditate together; (I am part of a VR meditation community called, Together with Tripp). Or they can discuss topics not easily discussed in day to day life — like death or personal loss.

It is in this form of VR that we will create new personal rituals together. I am an event host. The people who join us are not an audience. They are participants.

Some people will come to our event with more grief than they can handle on their own, or with issues they are stuck in, or with former allies they now need to move on from like I did with alcohol. We will listen and together we will create.

We might create ritual actions that can be carried out right then and there in VR. We might have ideas that will take some preparation and that cannot be enacted immediately.

What I will encourage most is liberating rituals that can help blend people’s VR life with their life in the physical world. Hybrid rituals. Things to do with a group of caring people in VR — and things to do alone or with others not in VR.

A Bag of Ideas

My alcohol-in-the-shower story was about as concrete as I can make something like this in writing. Everything else in Part One and in this piece has been abstract and conceptual.

I will begin to conclude, then, by listing, without further comment, some specific activities that could become the basis for socially constructed rituals:

Making something go away — burning a symbolic object and doing something with the remains, releasing balloons, repurposing things into something else

Producing something — writing words, making music, building a shrine

Doing something different — dress in a new way, go somewhere unfamiliar, remove all the mirrors at home, fasting

Celebrating — feasting, dancing, giving gifts

This is clearly not an exhaustive list nor a complete taxonomy. It’s just a set of loosely organized examples to help people think about creating rituals.

As I bring this ritual layer to the events I host in Virtual Reality, we will need to re-launch the process every time with ideas and instances.

Continuous and Discontinuous Self

Just as Heraclitus pointed out that we can never step in the same river twice, so we are never the same person from one moment to the next. The outside world and our inner responses to it make a so-called Self much more like a verb than a noun. Much more like a process than a fixed, stable entity.

Rituals combine intention with openness. They help us see that we are not the sole determinant of our Self in the next moment, but that we can be an active participant in the process.

We are caught in an unending tug between a past we are semi-familiar with and a future we might think we can forecast, but usually do no better than meteorologists, sports betters, or political prognosticators.

Our best bet for making that tug a tug of peace instead of a tug of war is to use ritual to help create our future self. Our best bet for creating rituals that serve us well is to rely on ourselves and others and to take into account all of our active selves wherever they like to hang out.

Image by David Denton

If you missed it, you can read Part One here.

Tom writes about new media technologies and other topics he has little if any standing to write about. He maintains a daily practice of meditation and serves as a Session Leader for Tripp.

He holds a Black Belt in Learning and loves writing. More here.

You can join a small but growing number of people like you who subscribe to his little gumballs of text for free on Sub-Stack.



Tom Nickel

Learning Technologist focusing on VR, Video, and Mortality … producer of Less Than One Minute and 360 degree videos