Neo-Pagan ritual operates on different levels at once. Different people can have different experiences in the same ritual, depending on where they are in their spiritual development or their intent or mood at the time of the ritual. Broadly speaking, Neo-Pagan ritual has an exoteric and an esoteric aspect.
The exoteric aspect of Neo-Pagan ritual is celebratory. On this level, Neo-Pagan ritual is about celebrating the changing of the seasons and experiencing a connection with the Earth, sometimes in community with others.
On a more personal, but still exoteric level, the Neo-Pagan celebration of the changing seasons can be experienced as an outward symbol of inward personal changes. These can be the changes of the human life-cycle or the ebb and flow of enthusiasm or energy that we experience psychologically (which sometimes corresponds with the changing of the seasons). Through ritual, we recognize that change is unavoidable and that there is a season to all things, a winter and summer, both inside and out. Part of this is the awareness that we will one day die.
On the esoteric level, Neo-Pagan ritual is about spiritual transformation of the individual. Neo-Pagan ritual can be understood as facilitating the process of individuation or achieving personal wholeness. It can be a therapeutic tool for incarnating, consecrating, and integrating the shadow elements of our psyche that have been repressed by our Western guilt/shame culture. Neo-Pagan ritual is a formal way of, in Carl Jung’s words, “making the darkness conscious.” Through ritual, we express an intention to treat all of our drives and desires with respect and reverence, so they will reveal their true meaning to us.
Esoteric ritual may also be a method, not of integrating the psyche, but of controlled dis-integration. The evolution of a person’s psychic life can be thought of as a cycle consisting of two movements: The first movement is the emergence of the ego from the unconscious, which is symbolized by the Mother Goddess and her Son. This is the spiritual movement toward increasing individuation, but also increasing alienation from our Source. Friedrich Nietzsche associated this movement with the Greek god, Apollo.
Our hyper-individualized culture would have us remain always in this state. But true psychological wholeness requires us to periodically sublimate our ego and return to the Source. This is the second movement, the mystical movement, which Nietzsche associated with the Greek god, Dionysos. Reunion with the Goddess is experienced as that oceanic sense of oneness that the mystics of many different mystical traditions describe. It is the death of the ego that is the goal of true initiatory experience. Of course, we cannot remain in that place. The difference between the mystic and the mentally ill person is that the latter does not return from the Source.
Neo-Pagan ritual can focus on any one of these functions, or it can do more than one at once. All of them are important. Different people may experience the same ritual differently: an experience of connection with nature, a celebration of and acceptance of change in our own lives, an honoring and welcoming of parts of ourselves that have been neglected or rejected, and an experience of the loss of the sense of self and of union with the transcendent.