Risks and Ritual
I thought I knew what I was doing.
I thought I was prepared. I had written about it and practiced.
I wasn’t. Writing and practice did not prepare me for the reality of so much newness.
I am confident in my ability to improvise on the fly, sometimes too confident. Like, this time.
I have actively hosted a grief and loss event in virtual reality every week for over three years, so my confidence had some basis. The event is called Saying Goodbye and it began in April, 2020, when everyone had a lot to say goodbye to. High school graduations cancelled. Summer vacations postponed. Jobs lost. Relationships strained and severed.
I had a simple idea — help people say out loud what they were losing, in the company of people who would listen respectfully. Groups of 25 -30 people attended regularly, not to offer advice but to listen and to share their own stories.
It was easier to speak and be vulnerable around people we weren’t quarantined with, people whose lives were not so entangled with our own. Virtual relationships are strong and human but not as complicated as our closest relationships in the world, where we have to share household chores and wait to use the bathroom sometimes.
Time passed and pandemics became normal. But loss never stops. Grief got layered on top of grief. Bereavement became a growth industry.
Saying Goodbye didn’t change. It was offered every Tuesday evening (in North American time zones) in a beautiful Zen Garden world, for free. It represents the human side of VR. Attendance dwindled some but the event continued because it touched something universal and it helped.
Then the platform we used, AltspaceVR, was terminated because it no longer had a role in its owner’s larger ambitions. Its owner was Microsoft.
In March, 2023, we moved the event to another VR platform, named VRChat. The capabilities it offered were not the same, but we didn’t need much so we kept going in the same Zen Garden world, on a new app.
I tried to love VRChat, but I felt constrained. New things I wanted to try, changes I wanted to make, were not possible.
Saying Goodbye has always been about saying-it, and that’s it.
I wanted to add a new element — doing something to help with moving on, with getting unstuck. I wanted to add a ritual dimension to the event.
I prepared to move again, to a platform that was set up to support my new ideas. It’s called, Engage.
I was familiar enough with Engage to know what it enables — I could bring in music, pictures, and video. Engage also has an extensive object database we could draw on for symbolic items to be used in VR rituals.
I knew the transition would not be simple, even though it seemed that it would be.
We have now held the first Saying Goodbye in Engage. There was so much I did not anticipate, so many important aspects I did not take into account.
Everybody Looked Different
With a few exceptions, the avatars that represent us in VR are platform-specific. AltspaceVR avatars were not the same as the VRChat avatars, which were not the same as everyone’s Engage avatars I saw for the first time at the start-up event.
An entirely new representation is a big deal for an event host. I recognize and remember almost everyone who has ever attended an event I lead. I call on people. I need to know who is present to help orchestrate the flowing conversations we have when we are at our our best.
The fact that I would not easily recognize people and that I would have trouble reading the name labels at a distance should have been obvious. It never crossed my mind. I felt like I was hosting with one hand tied behind my back.
There were New Menus with New Features
Most people were not familiar with everything the Engage platform offers. The menu is extensive. People couldn’t help opening it up and examing the new things they could do.
I obviously should have introduced the menu and showed how to use it right from the get-go. But this was not part of my plan and it only came up because someone asked.
As a result of my screw-up, I encouraged everyone to spend a few minutes fiddling with parts of the menu, interrupting any conversational flow we were starting to get into.
The Event Didn’t Start Right
It should have started with a brief ritual of some sort. My plan was to introduce a chant we could do to help bring us together as a group. I thought that less than ten people would show up, a bit late. Instead, twenty people showed up, on time.
It was the perfect opportunity to play a video of the Namu Myoho Renge Kyo chant I had poised and ready. Instead, the unanticipated attendance and unfamiliar avatars threw me off stride and I completely forgot to use the chant when I should have.
Everyone seemed to accept how the event unfolded as an inevitable consequence of using a new platform. They were also preoccupied with each other’s new avatars.
They understood my intentions and cut me a lot of slack.
Saying Goodbye is scheduled to last one hour, plus a little more. After about twenty minutes of diddling, I got to the point and asked, as I always do, if anyone had come to an event called Saying Goodbye with something they wanted to say goodbye to.
A relative newcomer whose physical body was on the Pacific island of Saipan started us off by describing the final part of the lengthy ceremonies there following the death of her father, which she had begun to talk about a week earlier back on VRChat. It took courage to speak of such things in the somewhat discombobulated spirit of the event to that point.
Then a beloved Saying Goodbye regular talked about a very difficult new medical development. Doctors recommended immediate surgery. She was uncertain.
She was also uncertain about how and when to tell other people. A few other people had recently been in life-and-death conversations with family members and told their stories in a way that was extremely helpful.
Pretty soon I realized an hour had flown by.
It felt a little crazy and disconnected, but I decided to take a baby step into a form of ritual by bring up the chanting video I had forgotten.
I said, ‘this is all optional, just watch or if you feel like it, try to get into it. We’ll keep it brief.’
Namu Myoho Renge Kyo is aJapanese phrase from Nichiren Buddhism that means, “Glory to the Dharma of the Lotus Sutra.” It is one of the most famous and influential of all the Buddhist Sutras.
I like it because one of its main points is that all of the many different Buddhist traditions can achieve the goal of Buddhahood; or to point it in secular terms:
There are many approaches that can help us become more free
In the event, I didn’t really care what Namu Myoho Renge Kyo means. I just wanted to introduce something new and let people take from it whatever they would take.
They did, I guess.
Phew. Well, if I wanted different, I got different.
I rang the bell to signal the event was formally over. That just launches a new phase, informal milling. I milled some. Spoke to a few newcomers.
I got the sense that, even though it wasn’t smooth or graceful, people had a good time. Almost everyone who popped in stayed until the end.
Now that this is written and published, I can start planning the next Saying Goodbye, not-sadder, but definitely wiser.
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.
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