Encountering landscape

Experiencing landscape is a full on sensory activity, engaging everything you’ve got that you can work with. For me, it’s all about walking, but anything that allows you to be present and slow enough to see things should also work. Sitting, cycling, other kinds of wheels. I think car driving is too fast, and too insulated, as are trains.

The physical shape of the land impacts on you as you try and move through it. There’s a huge visual impact to landscape, which for me is important in terms of shifting and widening my perspective. However, the sounds, smells and feels of a place are also intense and significant. On the hills, the wind buffets. Down in the valley, in a sheltered lane with the rain falling yesterday, I could not hear any traffic noise at all. In these encounters, the world comes alive to us, and we to it.

I am convinced that something happens biologically when I walk for hours. I think the rhythm of walking affects how my mind works, and tends to sooth and stabilise me. I know walking has good effects on things like cartilage repair, and no doubt there are endorphins from the exercise. Beyond that, a really long walk leaves me with a feeling of peace, and cleanliness, as though something has been washed out of my body. I’ve poked around in some online science, there are some studies suggesting walking affects biochemistry, but that’s about as far as I’ve got. It’s like a reset button for my mind; if I do it for long enough, out of kilter things click back into place. If I do it through beautiful landscapes, my soul is soothed, and I am inspired, and uplifted. It’s reliable, so long as I am well enough to walk.

There is always more going on than I can pay attention to. The sky and the distance views, birdsong, skittering undergrowth, fossils and quartz in the soil… the more alert I am to one thing, the more risk I’ll miss something else. This is one reason for not walking alone – with alert and likeminded walkers, you see more, because they see differently. I like that sharing process, too. Finding out what inspires someone else, what they notice and want to direct me to. I tend to have a much richer experience walking with people who are also keen.

Then there’s what comes of moving through the land. Recollections and stories sparked by locations and things witnessed. Speculation – reasonable and fantastical as the fancy takes. The sharing of knowledge and insight (what kind of bird was it, what sort of toadstool, is that berry edible…). If you keep walking the same landscape in different ways, you see familiar things from different angles, which is enlightening, you find new paths to walk… remember when we came here last time and went left? Let’s go right today… and so the walking of the land makes a story that connects to other stories you’ve walked, and to stories you tell, and knowledge stories and mad speculative what would happen if there was a bear stories.

I’m inspired in this by Robert McFarlane’s awesome book ‘The Old Ways’ and by the epic team effort that is ‘Story Telling for a Greener World’. To me it seems intensely Druidic, this weaving together of place, knowledge, inspiration and through that making new things, in community.

The crappy meditator

Meditation has been a part of my path for a long time. I’m supposed to be good at it – I’ve run workshops and groups, I even went so far as to write a book, and recently I’ve been involved in the Contemplative Druidry project. The truth is that in recent months, I’ve been bloody useless when it comes to meditation. I’ve not made regular time for it, and when I do, mostly what happens is that either I obsess over things I should be doing, or I stare vacantly into space.

Meditation is not a goal in its own right. It is a tool to use. The important thing is not the sitting around looking all spiritual and Druidic, the important thing is what you can do with the experience. Sometimes, it isn’t the right tool for the job. There are things you cannot fix with meditating, and things better tackled by other means. For me at the moment, walking and rest are more productive in terms of fixing my life and my inner state, than meditation is. As a result, I’m mostly not meditating, and I’m also not beating myself up for this. There is more to life than contemplation.

I tend to seize up if I sit still for long. Thus any meditation requiring me not to move for more than about five minutes is out, and any space where I can’t seek relief in stretching and careful fidgeting is also out. I can sit with the Contemplative group because no one minds if I need to wriggle now and then.

I have very little focus. This is a symptom of wider issues, not a cause. I will not heal my lack of focus by trying to force my mind to focus. I need to work through what’s going on, and I need the space in which to flail about randomly. Right now, I cannot afford mental discipline, I need the benefits of unravelling. I also need my autonomy and the right to self determine, so am likely to give short shrift to anyone who thinks they know better than me what I should be doing right now.

I can’t afford to be working with high levels of awareness. My body hurts, and I need to ration my consciousness of that or I just end up crying a lot. I can’t process all the things that are issues in one go, I need to deal with them gently, and this means I need to be cautious about entering contemplative states in the first place. Overwhelming myself isn’t helpful.

I’m not doing any of the more creative meditation work either – partly because I don’t have the concentration, partly because emotional unwellness and this kind of work do not go well together. Meditation isn’t perfectly safe, and if you don’t feel safe about doing it, that’s a very clear sign to stay away.

The spiritual life is part of life. That means if life gives you things you can’t work through meditatively, there is no failure in going another way. If too much awareness is unbearable, it is ok to move gently. If you have no concentration, beating yourself up with an aim to achieving focus is not a good plan. Meditating is not the be all and end all, there are times for all things, and times not to step up.

Druidry beyond experience

As a fiction author, mostly what I do is write beyond what I know. There isn’t enough raw material in my life to sustain decent plots for long. I pay a lot of attention to other people, but even so, mostly I make stuff up and hope it seems plausible. For fiction, this is plenty good enough and ‘plausible’ will do, but with the Druid hat on, the issues of being outside personal experience are much more complex.

There is one heck of a lot I do not know. I’m very conscious that every place, country, landscape, eco system is unique, and what works for one may be a bit loopy and unhelpful in another. I’m conscious of diversity of life experience, too. There are things that, as a seeing Pagan, I write about visually, that are going to be a tad unhelpful for a Pagan who cannot see (and thank you Eilis for making me more sensitive to this). What I think I know can be a long way from the whole story

My understanding as a woman who is a parent and who knows her ancestral line became an issue during Druidry and the Ancestors. What could I usefully say to those who are by choice or fate, childless? What could I say to those who have been adopted, or have no knowledge of birth family, or are estranged from relatives? And what right did I have to speak, in my ignorance, to that experience? I started asking, and people were generous with their stories. I listened, and I came out a bit the wiser and very clear that I have no right or authority to tell someone with a totally different experience set how to go about relating to the issue of ancestry. I can offer ideas and suggestions, but my limited insight is an issue I need to be alert to.

We each walk our own path, in a unique place, and with a unique history behind us. We have common ground in our humanity, which can bring us together, but we are all individual. We can share, and learn from the sharing. Maybe sometimes what that leads to is the realisation that no, you wouldn’t do it that way – which has to be fine. Your life, your path, and therefore your authority. I can use my imagination and empathy to offer advice to people, but it would be arrogant indeed to imagine that I know best.

I’m excited by the enormity of all that I do not know. I love hearing other people’s stories and experiences. This helps me be alert to the limits of my understanding – not that I always get it right of course, but it helps to be looking! When we tell each other what to do, we are only speaking from personal experience, and that isn’t universal. This is why it’s so important to avoid getting bogged down in dogma and authority in the first place

Spirits of air

I have mixed feelings about the autumn. Crisp and colourful autumns can be delightful, but the years where storms tear the leaves off early, and the damp, grey autumns I find tough. However, there is something that becomes visible when the leaves are down, and that’s a truly magical thing…

Today I watched as a tiny whirlwind danced its way across the grass near my flat. Tiny in the scale of whirlwinds, but perhaps four foot high at its peak. I could see it, because of the fallen leaves. No doubt the wind spirits are at play throughout the year – I do sometimes see them dancing in old leaves and playing with litter. There was one in the doorway to Gloucester Cathedral, some years ago. But, when there’s a thick carpet of leaves to whip up, it is so much easier to spot them passing.

I’m sure there are logical explanations involving wind, the shape of the space and so forth. Rationally speaking, it’s just a little whirlwind. But I can’t see the world purely in those terms. I can’t watch that wild, dancing column of leaves and not feel a sense of awe and wonder. It doesn’t matter what the explanations are, or how explicable it all is – this is nature. This is energy. This is something real happening. For me, it is magic.

Druid chants

Music has always been a big part of my life, and I’m deeply attracted to the bardic threads in the Druidic weave. I’m also interested in meditation and contemplation. Unshockingly, this has led to time spent chanting. I even run the odd workshop on subverting and messing about with chants to make group singing more collaborative and playful. Let’s face it, there’s only so many times a bunch of people can sing ‘we all come from the goddess’ until it tails off in awkward silence. We are more likely to fall into tedium than reverie, if my experience in circles is anything to go by. I’ve long been interested in finding ways of changing that experience, for myself and for those around me.

I’ve been blessed with some excellent chanting experiences, too – most notably those led by JJ Middleway. His ‘enchanting the void’ sessions offer room for creative exploration around the chant, and I find what he does when chanting alone to be really powerful. However, I struggle a bit with the chants. Many of our ‘traditional’ chants come from the American goddess/feminist movement. Others are New Age or Hindu inspired. I can appreciate them as lovely and well meant things, but they do not resonate with me. They do not allow me to voice the things I want to put into the world, they do not reinforce the pledges I am making.

My general philosophy is, that if a thing I want isn’t there… that may mean it is my job to start trying to fill that gap. I began wondering what I would want from a chant, and have set myself the challenge of trying to write material that works for me. Having tested this one with the contemplative Druids recently, it appears to work for other people a bit, too.

So I’ve taken the plunge and put it on bandcamp. http://nimuebrown.bandcamp.com/releases

You can listen to it for free on the website, there is a small charge to download. If this works out well, I’ll do my best to write and upload some more of these. I’m also considering recording a few meditations and other spoken word things. It’s early days, and I’m very much testing the waters. If there’s something you’d like me to try – in terms of subject matter or approach, do let me know, I’m very much open to suggestions.

Wisdom of the barrow dog

I   went up to the barrow alone yesterday, to be with the sky, the ancestors and the wide horizon. I went to contemplate, seeking perspective and peace. I’d been sat there some time when the dog found me. She might have been a deer hound – certainly large and shaggy enough, but rather golden. And old kind of dog, the sort you could easily imagine has always roamed these hills. Her people had stopped to chat some yards away, and she ambled over. I am used to dogs checking me out. It’s a popular place for dog walking, and a stationary, meditating Druid is apparently too interesting to miss. I get sniffed a lot.

I was not in a good way yesterday, needing my space. Perhaps the barrow dog picked up on this, because not once did she attempt to make physical contact with me. She came over and asked me to throw her ball, and then she just lay down on the grass next to me, and there we remained for some time, much to the amusement of her people.

I was glad of her presence. To be acceptable to a dog is no small thing, especially if you’re in a dark place, and it is hard to imagine being acceptable to anyone. She reminded me that for dogs, there is no shame in seeking care, affection and attention. Openly social creatures, they arrive with wagging tails and hopeful eyes, and only if someone has mistreated them do they become afraid to make known their wants and feelings. It is very easy to be in the company of a dog. There was a generosity in that presence, the gift of just sitting down with me for a while. No need to talk, which helped. No need to wonder what she wanted from me, or whether I was doing a good enough job of it.

There is no second guessing with dogs. They do not infer or read between the lines. Either you play with them, or you don’t. I’ve yet to meet a dog who gets a perverse kick out of being miserable or who is competitively ill, or who is keeping score. They don’t gossip and, with delightful irony, they never bitch. Tolerant, friendly, ready to make the best of things, open hearted, generous, forgiving, loyal… the virtues of dogs are many. There is much I can learn from the wisdom of barrow dog.

The imperfect Pagan

We are all flawed and human. Of course, the ideal, full on and full time Pagan is a veritable saint of mindful, compassionate, responsible living. It doesn’t hurt to air that ideal once in a while and see what we might do to live up to it. Every choice consciously made to minimise harm. Everything organic, locally sourced, made by craftspeople, fairly paid for. No work we undertake exploits anyone, we live zero carbon lives, and harm none. Well, I’ll put my hand up and say I’m not even close. I’m a part time Pagan. I’ve yet to meet anyone who, by such standards, counts as ‘full time’.

One of the big issues is education. To make the most ethical choice, you have to know everything. That’s not easy, not always possible, and not instant. If you wake up today and dedicate yourself to trying to live in perfectly ethical ways, you will be months studying the issues before you really know where to start. Then the tricky questions start. Which is the bigger issue, food miles, or animal products? Is a piece of local organic lamp wrapped in recyclable materials better than nuts from distant lands sent on a plane in a plastic packet? There are no absolute right answers, only choices, preferences and beliefs.

As you dig into this work, it can be frustrating seeing people who aren’t mindful of CO2 and animal welfare, and aren’t working in every way to minimise their impact. For a family that has always eaten meat, the shift to meat free Monday is a level of effort and dedication that the established vegan can easily fail to spot. For the person cultured to throwing everything away, even thinking about recycling is a very big deal. It’s better to support, encourage and inspire, because people are limited by their lack of information and shaped by their backgrounds and it is so easy to convince others that they will never be good enough. Do that, and you convince them there’s no point even trying.

Cycling everywhere on a bike (made of organic muesli?) is fine if you are fit. It is all too easy as a fully healthy and able bodied person to forget that not everyone is innately mobile. Not all disability is obvious, either. I’m quick to say ‘ditch the car’ but if you can’t, you can’t and that needs respecting. Some of the solutions will have to come from elsewhere – less centralised services and proper public transport are required, and we can’t make that as individuals.

That organic muesli, the fair traded organic cotton skirt, the hand crafted mugs… these things take money. If you are an affluent Pagan, it’s easy enough to pay for the very best. Try feeding a family of three for a week on £30 and you soon realise that you don’t have many choices. Organic is not an option. “Ah,” I hear you say, “cut back on a few luxuries and you can afford it.” Thus speaks privilege, assuming there are luxuries to cut back on. For many people, there aren’t, and we should not berate anyone for being too poor to meet our ethical expectations.

Pressures of family, of low paid or high stress work, health issues, limits in local resources, not having a garden to grow food in… there are many reasons why we don’t manage to be perfect Pagans. Exhausted, soul sick, struggling, not able to pull together the concentration to make every choice mindfully, only able to get out from family commitments for the eight festivals, and struggling to get that time… I’ve been there, and I’ve seen others go through it. Mothers of small children, carers for the sick. Teachers who just get no time to themselves during the term… and no doubt there are many others who would love the luxury of time and money to lavish on being the best Pagan imaginable, but just don’t have the room to make those choices right now.

We can blame, denigrate and ridicule ‘them’ for not being good enough. To do that, I would have to play up the bits I do well (low energy use) and downplay my shortcomings (shopping choices). Or we can reach out hands to each other, share what inspiration and encouragement we have. Recognise when people are trying, and doing what they can with what they’ve got. Share the easier ways of doing more with less. We can be a competition about who is the most Pagan, or we can recognise that none of us are perfect, and try and be a community that aspires to do better.

Neither alive nor dead

It’s not another depression post, but something far stranger…

On the path, yesterday, we found a tail, still moving. One end was pink and raw where it had detached from the body. It skittered and wriggled like a thing possessed of intention. Sometimes it managed to organise its two ends so that it stood up, a loop of flesh and bone trying to go somewhere, do something.

Many lizards shed their tails as a decoy. I’ve never seen a ‘live’ and abandoned tail before. It was a peculiar experience to say the least. Even though I knew that this was an abandoned bit of a creature that could have no life of its own… seeing its desperate movement, its frantic attempts to do – I have no idea what – was really affecting. Everything about it spoke to me of a living thing in need and distress, and so I very carefully lifted it out of the path the way I would any other creature. Not being on a thoroughfare is likely to improve survival, I figure.

In my hand, the abandoned tail continued to move, and I felt the energy in it, and my sense of its aliveness continued.

Only because I moved the tail, did I spot its former owner – the biggest slow worm I have ever seen. Golden, over a foot long. The slow worm looks like a snake, but technically, it is a legless lizard. No, I’m not quite sure how that works or why it is not them but the newts who are traditionally associated with insobriety.

If you’re curious there’s more on slow worms here – http://www.herpetofauna.co.uk/slow_worm.htm

Brain function is, to some degree, distributed though the central nervous system. When the tail of a lizard is dropped, something in there is still thinking – maybe it isn’t thinking much, but it has minutes of life available to it in which to perform the final, desperate dance that will allow the greater part of itself to live and survive. If it sounds strange, I promise you that witnessing it firsthand makes for a profoundly uncanny experience.

Beyond positive thinking

In which a depressed person talks about positive thinking and why that isn’t always helpful…

I know the theories. Positive thoughts make us more open to better outcomes. We are more likely to act for our own good if we feel positive, and that most toxic of ideas ‘like attracts like’. And while it is sometimes true that if you act confident, cheerful, upbeat and positive sometimes you can ‘fake it till you make it’ and sometimes it helps get things done, it’s not always true.

This whole logic assumes you have a choice, and in this reveals why it doesn’t work. Many people who do not suffer from depression assume it is a sort of sadness or loss of enthusiasm, and if you’d only pull yourself together and get on with it, you would be fine. If you occasionally suffer from mild unhappiness, boredom, lack of enthusiasm, and get a bit down about things but find you can turn yourself around with some good old positive thinking, then you are not experiencing depression. What depressed people experience is nothing like this, which is what causes the problems.

I’m a big believer in ideas of free will and choice. I also have an understanding of limits. I would not try and run a marathon with a broken leg. I would not jump out of a tree and expect to fly by force of will. I do not expect a depressed mind to be able to harness the powers of positive thinking in order to heal itself.

A brain is an array of cells and chemical processes. The way we shape our thoughts affects the physical structures and the chemistry, and is in turn affected by these things. Trying to use your broken mind to fix your broken mind is about as easy as trying to use a broken knife to fix the broken knife. If your mind isn’t working, and you tell yourself that you *should* be able to use positive thinking to overcome it, and you *should* be able to pray and recover and you *should* be able to repeat a mantra that will set it all right and these things make no bloody odds at all, well, there’s another failure to add to the list of things you couldn’t do today and I promise, that won’t help you one bit. If you can’t think positive thoughts, this probably a facet of your depression and there is nothing to apologise for.

A broken mind is a symptom. It may be that you have wonky brain chemistry, and that an intervention would help. I like St John’s Wort. Sunlight also makes a lot of odds. You may need a re-set in the form of more rest, your diet may have let you down, you may have been ill, there may have been pain. Perhaps you have grief that you need to give time to, a problem to solve, or pressures from which you need some respite. Tackle it at this level and you get some relief. You probably won’t feel better all at once, but you’ll also be more open to the idea that time for healing is required – if you aren’t looking for magical cures, you won’t expect unfeasible things of yourself.

If you treat mental illness like physical illness, it works better. Be kind to it. Tuck it up in bed with a nice book. Ply it with soothing drinks and comfort food. Take it for gentle walks and show it nice views and adorable kittens, and wait for it to heal. Give it the same time you would a bad cold, and if that doesn’t work, give it the time you would give to a broken limb or a gaping wound.

A head is not so different from a body really.

The only positive thought you really need is to hold the idea that things can get better, and that with time and care you can recover. Maybe not today. Maybe not next week. The demand to be well can be tyrannical, and if you are depressed, actually a lot more harmful than helpful. Positive thinking has its place, but it should never be a stick to beat people with.

The hermit’s call

In ‘A Branch from the Lightning Tree’, Martin Shaw talks about initiatory journeys into wilderness, and also the importance of bringing that back an integrating it into our village. Similar things are said of contemplation, shamanic journeying, and other voyages ‘out there’. What gives the experience meaning and significance, is how we bring it back and add it to the mix. We travel together, and those who venture off the path on wilder adventures have an obligation to their tribe to come back with that. And perhaps arguably also an obligation to self, to mesh that experience into regular life. If you go off forever, into faerie, into the mists, or the wilderness, then you are lost to your own life, to your old self and to some aspects of your humanity.

Nonetheless, there are those who go, with no intention of returning. It may not be the retreat into wilderness, but into silence, absence, or stillness. A deliberate stepping out of the flow. It may be that life and people are just too difficult, or a feeling of having nothing left to offer the tribe. Even starting with that intention, it may be that time withdrawn makes it possible to see some point in going back, something worthy of offering to the wider world.

When I lived on the boat, I was very much a hermit. I spent a lot of time in silence, I interacted with very few people. Sometimes that felt lonely, but it had the merit of being easier. I’m not very good at relationships with people. I never know what to say or how to say it, I find conversations hard work at the best of times, and there are very few people with whom I am entirely relaxed. I never know what to do with my elbows. Self-conscious and over-thinking, agonising over mistakes made and anxious about the inevitable next one…

Perhaps I best serve the tribe by mostly not being in it. Perhaps I am most use when I retreat into silence and just come back, to carefully held spaces like this one where I can piece my words together slowly and I do not have to worry so much about my elbows.

In contrast though, the contemplative Druid group met this week. It’s a place where it doesn’t seem to matter much if I am clever, or not. All I have to do is show up and sit quietly with others. They do not ask much of me, and are very accepting of my not being very good sometimes. There’s a feeling of safety in that. In not having to be anything.

Part of the problem, as Martin Shaw points out in his book, is that when you come back with the light of some otherworld in your eyes, or the darkness of it… this can be scary. You have stepped outside the tribe. You really don’t belong anymore. You are not easily reintegrated. You are other. Every time I try and step back into normal human interactions, I am coming back, from long dark subterranean journeys, from imaginary voyages, from time with the hills and sky. Of course I do not fit tidily anywhere. Perhaps it is my job not to fit tidily. I do not know.


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 4,257 other followers