My initiation ritual was to be my first experience of participating in a ritual in a virtual space. I had participated in a great many rituals in meatspace during the course of my life and, despite my panentheistic conceptions, I was unsure that the feeling of sacred space one perceives during an effective ritual, or in a special place, could be achieved in a virtual world. I was expecting a role play. But I threw myself into it. When it came time to do the ritual I prepared myself as I would have for a meatspace ritual. I bathed and dressed myself in clean clothes, after which I meditated, which I did in the space I normally undertook my meatspace rituals in, into which I had also moved my computer. Rising from meditation I girded myself with the technology required to enter the virtual space: a quite frankly massively powerful computer before me equipped with the very latest in graphic card grunt, twin monitors and masses of RAM. As I placed my fingers on my keyboard it felt like a ritual object. There was, suddenly, now that I was inserting myself into ritual awareness, a richer significance to it than its mundane self. It was an affordance that was inserting me deeper into virtual space. I started up the Second Life client and logged in.
As the world rezzed before me I was filled with excitement and anticipation, but also reserve. I suffer from a particular form of perfectionism which serves to seriously curtail opportunities for genuine excitement. I dwelt on the limitations of the interface. There would be no touch, no smell, no voices of those around me. Lag1 would conspire against me. My control over my avatar would be limited. Gestures are extremely unrefined in Second Life and fine control over one’s extremities impossible. I had not yet obtained an animation override (AO) (a set of custom animations of walking, standing and sitting that make one’s avatar move more realistically) and the lack of which was a sure mark of a noob. So I walked with the clunky gait of a noob. I was just beginning to discover that the avatar was ‘I’. I had a clunky gait. The natural, practiced flow of bodily movement essential to an effective ritual could not happen in the same way as one makes transparent actions with one’s meatspace body. I would have to recall the actions required by the client to facilitate even the simplest movements and perform them at the appropriate times via a mouse and keyboard.
There had been no practice for this ritual. I had read the notecard describing how it would unfold, but not gone though the motions. I was only just getting to know my avatar’s character, who he was, what his motivations were, how he fit into his society. At this time my avatar was more myself than himself. I had never done a ritual with people I knew as scantly as those present. I was revealing myself to strangers. But it was at one remove, my uncertainties filtered by the pseudonymity of cyberspace. It was only a role play, only a game. An initiation is a testing of the candidate, but this ritual was also me testing Paiankh and Seti. Would they be competent ritualists and role players? Was this priesthood a role play game, an educational opportunity or the doorway to a genuine spiritual awakening?
Seti summoned me to the temple and I followed him in. Then my avatar replicated the pre-ritual preparation I had done in meatspace. He bathed, donned a robe and meditated. We did it together, he and I, his actions a powerful echo of my meatspace self’s. I hadn’t been in that temple space before and, as I was new to Second Life at that time, had a bit of difficulty in negotiating the small spiral staircase that led to the inner chamber. Once there I found Paiankh, robed in white and holding an Ankh topped staff, standing behind a black rectangular altar with a glowing, white, particle effect on it2. There was an eye of Horus on the wall behind him, but otherwise the temple was quite plain. A priestess, with whom I was not acquainted, was also present. Seti was in his long red robe and the priestess was in a long plain white robe. Seti led me in to stand in front of the altar facing Paiankh (see figure 11). The ritual began. There was more to this ritual than just reciting set lines. I would have to answer questions I had not known of ahead of time. How would I answer them? I knew it would be the meatspace me answering them. I didn’t know enough about Egyptian religion or culture to know what the appropriate response for my character would be. But I tried to imagine it.
Suddenly there was no time for thinking. I must go here, stand there, face this way, say scripted lines, smash this red pot, take my clothes off. I entered a state of flow, consideration of the meatspace world faded and the locus of my attention was firmly in the virtual space. As my avatar disrobed I felt revealed. I was naked. This was concerning for a couple of reasons. Firstly, not having been in the world for very long at all, and never having been naked among other avatars, I was totally unprepared for the dawning realisation of the strength of the connection to my avatar that I felt. Secondly, I had no penis. Despite Amon’s urgings as to the value of investing in genitals, I had felt no need or desire to obtain any. But once I was standing naked in the ritual I suddenly felt their lack. This early strong experience of connection and identification with my avatar was one of being strangely, vulnerably, emasculated. Can an avatar be emasculated if he had never had a penis to start with? Soon this passed as I came to focus on the minutiae of the ritual once more. The unknown questions arose and I answered them. I moved my avatar appropriately, had him perform those actions he could and role played those he couldn’t. And then I noticed it. I was in sacred space. That special perception generated by ritual was present. While I remained in my flow state, the perception of sacred space seemed to be there in the temple in cyberspace, my meatspace perceptions in retreat. The ritual ended and quite quickly everyone logged off. This was because there were participants from the US, the UK and Australia. Any event requiring persons from these three time zones results in it being a madly late or early hour for at least two of them. People had either just escaped the warm embrace of Morpheus or were especially keen to enter it. Suddenly I noticed the reassertion of the primacy of the meatspace reality. Thutmose was alone in the temple. I was here in meatspace watching him. I could still feel the presence of sacred space, but now it seemed to be in meatspace. The sensation was so pervasive that I felt I had to do the closing section of my normal meatspace ritual in order to have a sense of finality. I did so, and it felt as I did when I had just completed a ritual in meatspace. Despite my expectations, what had started as a role play had ended as an effective ritual.
Well might one ask where exactly this sacred space was: in the virtual space or in meatspace? As far as I know, the avatar has no perceptions. Therefore I posit that I was experiencing it where the ‘I’ was to perceive it, with the virtual as one source of input for my sensorium. But what a powerful source of input it is. The question then becomes, where is the I that is perceiving? Certainly the physical body is in meatspace, but perhaps the experience of cyberspace is akin to the experience of astral space. Where is the experience located when one encounters the divine in astral space? In such a case the body is still in meatspace but one’s perceptions are totally removed from it. One’s consciousness is entirely turned from the body and into the non corporeal astral space. This same thing happens in cyberspace: one loses perception of the self as body centered and becomes the avatar. In this case where is the sacred space?
Perhaps the sacred is attached to cyberspace in the same way it attaches to meatspace? We can’t measure it in meatspace and so we don’t know how to say by empirical means that it is present. Perhaps the same holds true of cyberspace? Perhaps the sacred is injected into cyberspace by the direction of our will. I know that sacred space exists because I perceive it. I can feel it in the same way other non measurable things are known to me, like love.
The virtual is often compared to meatspace by means of what it is lacking. But it doesn’t stand alone. We cannot abjure our physical senses. Cannot, as in Disch’s On Wings of Song3 leave our physical bodies so far behind as to be completely unaware of them. This virtual input source is in fact added to the meatspace experience, so it produces extra layers of stimulation, rather than the more commonly perceived lack thereof. We have more eyes not less, more bodies than we would have should we have our meatspace bodies alone. More opportunities to enrich our experience, not less.
- Delay caused by network congestion. ↩︎
- Particle effects are how Second Life does cloud like effects. ↩︎
- Disch, T. M., (1981), On Wings of Song, Magnum Books, London. ↩︎