Author Archives: Nimue Brown

About Nimue Brown

Druid, author, dreamer, folk enthusiast, parent, wife to the most amazing artist -Tom Brown. Drinker of coffee, maker of puddings.

What are philosophers for?

It would be fair to say that Alain de Botton has been a big influence on me in recent years. I’ve read a lot of his books. He’s an atheist thinker, but happily not that interested in the tired old anti-religion arguments you can get from too many other atheists. Instead, he is much more interested in questions of how to live a fuller, richer, more satisfying, more meaningful sort of life without having to refer to deity, afterlife and so forth. With my heady mix of existential and maybeist tendencies, I’m deeply attracted to this approach.

I’ve read some ‘proper’ philosophy along the way. You know the sort of thing, that gets so bogged down in trying to define who ‘I’ is and what we mean by ‘being’ and ‘consciousness’ that your head is aching long before you’ve picked up any tips that might be meaningfully applied to life. I’ve read philosophy that seemed like a foreign language, full of unfamiliar jargon, references to things I hadn’t read… an impenetrable thicket that made the outpourings of Robert Graves look clear and easy. That kind of philosophy has taught me one thing and one thing only – that I do not have what it takes to be a reader of such work, much less a participant in the process.

What is philosophy for, if it is too difficult for some of us even to sit down with it? While I may not be the sharpest pencil in the box, I’m by no means the bluntest either, and am prepared to bet that what I couldn’t get to grips with would prove indigestible to a lot of other people as well. Which means philosophy is just for the highly educated, super clever elite and we lesser mortals should just knuckle down and do what our betters tell us. (That may in fact be the gist of Plato’s Republic).

Oddly enough, that doesn’t fill me with enthusiasm. Wilfully impenetrable writing on entirely abstract and irrelevant topics doesn’t do much for me, either. This is why the discovery of Alain du Botton has been so important to me. He’s incredibly readable, for a start, tending to assume that his audience doesn’t have a doctorate in philosophy. Plain English abounds, as do real life issues. You can read something of his and apply it to your own life. You can read it and dare to think that, given time and effort, you could put together a passable bit of philosophical insight on life yourself. You can aspire…

What really, is the point of philosophy if it does not put philosophy within the reach of everyone who has some interest? What is it for, if not to help us live this life in this world? And what are we here for, if not to reflect a bit on our experiences?

When I first added ‘philosophy’ to the topics list here, I half expected that the Philosophy Police would show up (complete with togas and long beards) to tell me I wasn’t allowed. Not having a doctorate in that subject, I had no entitlement to claim any insight at all. (For the record, I have no such problems or chips on my shoulder when poking about in other subjects for which I am equally unqualified, I think high level philosophy is inherently elitist and exclusive.) It hasn’t happened. Not least because *that* sort of philosopher may not exist, and if they do, they probably don’t get out much, or online. Philosophy is the art of thinking about stuff in a way that is useful. Being a philosopher is being a person who thinks about stuff in ways that are useful. Expressing that in ways other people might grasp is a gift to the world. So I’ll stick with Alain du Botton, and John Michael Greer, and with anyone else who turns up and makes sense, because I’ve come to the conclusion that if philosophy fails to make sense, the philosopher hasn’t done a very good job of it.

For further inspiration, can I direct you to http://www.thephilosophersmail.com


Creating my own reality

We have beliefs about the ways in which, by action and sheer will, we can change our reality, and we also all have beliefs about the ways in which there is no scope for change whatsoever. Some of these are more sensible than others, and I am picking some examples that strike me as especially nuts.

A great many adult humans spend vast amounts of money on products and interventions which promise the illusion of youth. We are all getting older, that’s a key feature of being alive. Rather than accept this process and work with it gracefully, we expend vast amounts of human time, energy and resource on fighting it. This tide will not go back no matter how we shout at it.

On the other hand, we’re willing to treat human constructs as inevitable and unassailable. We’ve built a vast and complex house on the sandy base that is cheap energy. When the oil runs out, we’re in trouble, and yet we do not consider changing the system. We’ll look anywhere for answers, no matter how short term and suicidal rather than even consider the systems we built might have to change.

All too often, we don’t believe we can change our health by changing our lifestyles but will pay for pills that claim to do it for us, and never mind the side effects. Death is inevitable but we want a magic pill to chase it away.

Too many of us no longer believe we make a difference by voting, while far, far too many are happy to trust decision making to the dubious few who put themselves forwards.

We believe that there’s no money to feed and house our poorest people, while at the same time we’re also happy to believe that spending £100billion on nuclear weapons and the capacity to kill 45 million people is a prudent investment for jobs and future security.

Look at the things we seem willing to believe as a society, and the quantity of cognitive dissonance is astounding. 97% of scientists say man made climate change exists and yet we still consent to be ruled by people do not believe in it. England, if we were a person, we’d have to be medicated to the eyeballs and put in a padded room because our delusions are vast, and our beliefs so shockingly irrational.

With our beliefs, we create our reality, and by this means we shall have a vast array of nuclear weapons and people in poverty killing themselves. We shall have miracle anti aging face creams and continue to die younger than we might have done as a consequence of obesity, air pollution and road deaths. As for what we’ll do when climate change and peak oil wash away the foundations of sand – that’s anyone’s guess, but I don’t have much confidence that at such a time, we will collectively wake up and think clever thoughts. We’re just not in the habit.

And then there’s that merry band of us, Cnut-like, shouting at the sea of humanity to go back. Try something else. Irrationally optimistic that we can get people to change their beliefs. Wet feet it is, then.


Diseased Druid

Yesterday I was too ill to make it to the desktop computer, so there was no blog. One of the plusses of being self-employed is that this very seldom happens. When I’m merely a bit ill, I can keep working. That I need to is part of the downside of being self employed – if I don’t work, there is no sick cover. I’m paid for what I do, more often than not, but if I get ill and can’t work for a long period, this is unnerving. Usually I’m not so ill that I can’t push through it.

‘Can’t’ is an interesting word though, and one we all bring into play at different times. I tend to be fairly literal about it – ‘can’t work’ tends to mean fever, inability to actually sit in an upright position, so sleep deprived that I can’t concentrate and the like. I also know from experience that if I have to, even that level of  ‘can’t’ can be pushed. I’ve done school runs on foot, feverish with tonsillitis because there wasn’t any other option that day.

‘Can’t’ is more of an option when you have a safety net. If someone else can catch the critical things that are challenging, it is easier to lie down and quit for a bit. The winter before last, when I had pneumonia, Tom did all the shopping. Long cycle rides in the rain to fetch groceries. A task that normally required us both, he took the extra load, quite literally. But then, there are some illnesses (and pneumonia is one of them) where stoically battling on can kill you.

I marvel at the array of different human responses to discomfort and disease. The people for whom a bruise or a cut is worthy of comment, through to the other extremes of people who push through chronic and even terminal illness because there are things they want to achieve. The worst thing we’ve endured is the measure of what we know we can take, so those who are relatively pain free and healthy tend, in my experience, to make a lot more fuss about minor setbacks than people for whom those small things might be less of an issue than what constitutes business as usual.

Our baseline for compassion also has a lot to do with experience. It’s easier to empathise with someone if you have some faint clue as to what their experiences may feel like. Those who have lived well and pain free, for whom a scrape and a bump is the worst of it, sometimes find it very hard to make sense of the people for whom pain is a constant. And so you can get into situations where the relatively unscathed demand a lot of attention for minor ills but do not take seriously the ongoing suffering of others.

One of the things I notice about people I know who live with pain, restricted mobility and serious ongoing health challenges, is they often learn not to make much fuss. Partly, I suspect, because the baseline for normal shifts over time and with it shifts the point at which it feels worth saying something. There is the fear of being seen as a nuisance, by those who are not suffering and who will be bored or offended by the details. There is pride, and the determination to be independent, as far as possible.

What a person says about their struggles, illness and difficulty, of any variety, is not any kind of absolute measure of what they are up against. We’re very quick to judge each other, especially if there are questions of our time and energy being required to cover for someone else’s illness. It is inconvenient. They may be making a fuss about nothing. They may also be making far too little fuss about a great deal and it’s worth remembering (having seen a few very close calls with other people) that this degree of stoicism can prove fatal.


Magic from the bottom of a hole

One of the interesting things about being at the bottom of a hole (emotionally speaking) is how hard it becomes to think anything other than the hole exists. There’s a feature of human psychology underpinning this. When we are in any given emotional state, we tend to recall most clearly the other times when we have felt that way – which in turn tends to reinforce the mood. For this reason (and others) it is as well not to do exam revision whilst drunk but sit the exam whilst perfectly sober.

Much of our thinking is associative in nature. A significant amount of what occurs betwixt the ears is not a rational development of logical and causal links, and it is worth grasping the implications of this. You may be familiar with Pavlov’s dogs, who learned to salivate when they heard a bell ring. We all do this, and there is no inherent logic. We feel associations between things that turn up together. There may be no real relationship between the bell and the food, but if they seem to correspond, our bodies will start to assume kinds of causality. Much of our ‘thinking’ has this bodily quality and it informs our choices and expectations.

If you can persuade a creature or person to do one wholly irrelevant thing in the hopes of getting the coincidental outcome they appeared to get one time… that’s generally called superstitious behaviour. Touching your lucky socks, or doing a little pigeon dance before tapping the bird feeder. Not because there’s a causal link, not because it makes any real odds but because the first time we did the pigeon dance and hit the button, some grain appeared. Maybe we aren’t sure whether it was the dance or the button that got the result. Maybe we are a bit afraid that if we test it, the universe will be cross with us, and decide not to deliver. Obsessive compulsive behaviours are one possible outcome here.

For the person interested in magic, this can go several ways. Are we practicing a superstitious action that makes no difference? Or are we tapping into the greatest bit of superstitious magic there is, and getting an entirely real placebo effect? Or is something else happening?

Any kind of superstitious behaviour has the potential to give us the self fulfilling prophecy. This is especially true for the person in a hole. If you already think that everything is shit and you are doomed, the odds of pulling a bunch of metaphorical flowers out of your equally metaphorical magician’s hat, are not good. Belief can shape our chances. The person who is in a profound state of disbelief cuts off certain options for themselves. The person who thinks they have lost already is unlikely to come up with a winning move. When you can’t win because there is just no way you can win, that circular trap can take some breaking. It’s just as true that imagining you are all powerful and invincible does not make you bullet proof in any literal sense. Overconfidence can be just as dangerous as a sense of doom.

We think with our bodies. Quite a lot of what happens in our brains has already done some of its shaping up other places, in our central nervous systems, and our conditioned physical reactions to stimuli. You can teach the body to react in ways the mind finds abhorrent, and it is worth recognising this as one of the features of our animal selves. That animal self tends to have very basic needs and wants, though. If you can, snuggle it up in a warm place with some decent food, and let it have a rest, then tomorrow it may not be quite so certain that it is standing at the bottom of a really big hole.


A Druidic personality

Coming to Druidry, one of the things a person will do (if they are serious) is explore the changes to self that bring thoughts, feelings, and behaviour in line with Druidry itself. This is not unusual – all religions offer us such approaches. If you successfully align thoughts, feelings and actions along spiritual principles, your personality will change. One of the things religion shows us is that personality itself is really quite malleable.

Who we are is a cobbled together amalgam of many things. Our genes have an influence. The family environment we grew up in gave us our baselines for what’s normal and what isn’t. Wider cultures, brought to us through school, television, what happens around us, media, what we are told happens around us, what we read. The things we imagine also help to shape us. From that vast array of input we make vast numbers of tiny unconscious choices about what to believe and reject, what to ignore and uphold. Dissect your personality and most of what you have you can trace back to influences, experiences, choices and the habits of your first household. Personality may be intrinsic to how we think of ourselves, and it tends to inform and filter our whole life experience, but much of it is an unconsidered fabrication.

To varying degrees, religions expose the illusion of self. Buddhism is really explicit about doing this, while monotheism seems much less so, but all offer ways of being that align a person with whatever the faith considers optimal. Submission/ subservience to higher powers and by extension, the priesthood of that higher power is frequently encouraged and a significant part of why atheists find the whole business so objectionable. However, if your identity, personality and relationship with the world is an improvised, unconsidered selection of random accidents, this is perhaps not helpful to you either.

For a person coming to Druidry, there’s not a lot of upfront information about who you are supposed to be. The wise old Druid archetype offers a possible endpoint, but clearly you can’t start there. Nature offers an array of models – to be natural can mean anything you want it to mean. Poisonous toadstools are natural. So is the partner-eating mantis. Human nature allows for all imaginable variations. We talk about being ‘authentic’ but when you arrive at Druidry with a tangled mess of self built up from everywhere you’ve been and your reactions to everything you’ve encountered… ‘authentic’ can be a bit of a mystery.

Simply, there is no behavioural template to magically align your personality with the principles of Druidry. Nothing we do actually works that way, which can be disorientating, demoralising, and frustrating. There are no easy measures to tell if you are doing it ‘right’ even.

“Know thyself” – which is a Greek instruction, not a Celtic one – is probably the most important piece of religious instruction out there. Find out who you are. Make sense of your reactions and feelings. Become the text that you study, and cross reference that to other texts, human; papery and nature based. Find out what makes you tick, and trace those threads of thinking and feeling. It will take years. You may well never manage the whole job, but that’s fine.

As you go through, finding out who you are and how you got to be here, you will find some of those sources please you more than others. On reflection there will be aspects of you that you like and wish to cultivate, and other bits you want to change. You will find virtues, values and vices, strengths and weaknesses, habits that help and habits that hinder. As you work out who you are, you will inevitably start to think about who you want to be, and how to get there. Slowly, over time, this self scrutiny and contemplation will lead you not to some one size fits all Druid model of how to be, but to your own, personal model of how to be the person you want to be. One of the things I have come to think from this journey, is that the person we choose to be is our most authentic self, and the only version of self not dropped on us from outside. The act of choosing makes something far more ‘me’ than the unconscious absorption that is the more usual method.


The dangers of normality

Anything we understand as normal, we tend not to question. We are more likely to pick on things we think are abnormal about us as places to seek change, than to work on the things that make us the same as everyone else. We are less likely to challenge any feature of our lives that is a dependable constant. Thus the person who has been gently subjected to escalating patterns of abuse won’t feel there’s anything odd at all about being hit. This is why victims stay, and people who have not been victims struggle to understand why anyone would hang around for such abnormal treatment.

If I challenge directly over something you consider normal, the odds are you will become defensive. ‘Normal’ is our baseline for how reality works, so having it challenged is always uncomfortable. It feels threatening, so the desire to protect it is both strong and entirely natural, but that makes certain lines of though almost unthinkable. So let’s do one, by way of an experiment.

If you want to have a happier, richer, more rewarding life, live greenly and generally be a better Pagan, get rid of your television.

I know perfectly well that for many people, the television as been a lifetime companion. The defences – that some programs are good, that it is entertaining, comforting, sometimes educational will leap to the forefront of your mind. This may well be true of any number of programs, but once it turns into a conversation about how Star Trek inspired you to live a better life, what we don’t get to do is talk about television as a wider issue. The social and psychological impact of television is considerable. It’s now normal for young people to feel that they could not live without one, or without their beloved phones.

Television is a good case in point because if you watch regularly, you also get the daily normalising of our unsustainable culture. You’re looking at other people’s houses, loaded with certain kinds of stuff. You’re hearing about products, and seeing them sparkle. You’re seeing how people dress. All of these things create and reinforce your reality. It is a reality of unsustainable consumption, but we’re carefully not telling each other that so as to be able to keep doing it. Around you, everyone else is seeing the same TV reality and manifesting bits of it in their lives, dialogue, consumer choices etc. Music goes to number one in the charts because of TV, sometimes because of adverts. TV supplies content for our conversations (as a non-TV person, I really notice these).

We have lives full of material riches beyond anything our ancestors dared to imagine, but we’re not happy. We are consuming resources at a rate this planet simply can’t support for the long term, and the odds are that in our own lifetimes, there will be radical change forced on us and we will have to learn to live very different lives. Are you ready for that? Do you know how you would cope? Do you have the skills, the emotional resources and the intellectual flexibility? Can you imagine what it would look like?

If the world without television in it seems like a threatening idea, that’s a thought to spend some time with. If the idea that in the future we might not be able to cope with the energy expense of television seems outrageous, do ask yourself if you would feel differently had you’d watched a program recently envisaging how television might be impacted by a low energy future.

It’s a lesson with implications far beyond the television. You can play the same game with your emotional responses to any piece of technology. Your phone, your car, your computer. I know perfectly well how much I would struggle without access to the knowledge base and people the internet gives me. If I had to choose one piece of technology to save for the future, I would give up every other 20th century device for the sake of computers and the internet. Which one would you pick?


Letters, hats and a video

Things I have been doing…

 

 

Some of the hats are mine, several were loaned by my son, who is also a bit of a steampunk. In some ways this is also a snapshot of what the inside of my head is like when I’m writing.


Nothing Changes in Stroud

Last night I went to a Spaniel in the Works production – Nothing Changes, part of the Stroud Theatre Festival. It’s an updated take on Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists, re-written by John Bassett and much to my surprise, there were songs in it. I’ve not read the original book, but it’s on the kindle awaiting a day or ten when I have time to do it justice. However, after poking around online for a plot synopsis, it’s evident this hundred year old tale of poverty and inequality didn’t need much re-jjgging to fit in a modern context. As the title says, Nothing Changes.

You’d think after a hundred years, we might have made some headway, but the horrendous social setbacks this country has endured under Tory leadership are in many ways enabled by the same issues that were apparently at play a century ago. Considering the ways in which we do it to ourselves, is not a comfortable business. Without the co-operation of its workers and consumers, big business would not be able to pillage so successfully. We are still far too willing to accept that the affluent somehow earn or deserve their massive bonuses, government handouts, and disproportionate share of the profits. Those of us nearer the bottom than the top will all too readily buy into the idea of a natural order of things that put us here. We know our place…

One of the things the play explores is the way in which creating a profit margin contributes to screwing the masses. Profit is the difference between what a thing costs and what you can sell it for. To achieve profit, you push down the costs as far as you can – that invariably means paying your workers as little as possible and giving them as few benefits as you can get away with. Then on the other side of the equation, you have to get your buyers to pay as far above the actual worth of the product as you can. Meanwhile the difference between cost and price delivers cash to shareholders, who did not contribute a great deal of effort to the process. The money that is invested is given a far higher value than the work, by such a system.

If you reward people for having money, you will inevitably keep the money flowing towards the people who have it. That’s what we do. As the saying goes, if it was hard work that led to wealth, African women would be the most affluent people on the planet.

Is there anything natural, inevitable or unchangeable about what we’ve got? I don’t think so. Neither, evidently, did playwright John Bassett. Change is possible. However, to make changes we have to stop buying into the existing system, and stop assuming that there are no other options. We have to imagine that money itself might not be the thing to prize most highly. The profit orientated exploitation system inherent in capitalism is not the only way. Co-operatives, crowd sourcing, small companies, local projects… there are better, fairer and happier ways of underpinning an economy.

More about Stroud Theatre Festival here – http://www.stroudtheatrefestival.co.uk/performances.html


Anger management

There are two ways of getting anger wrong that I want to ponder today. One is the explosion of unhelpful, destructive or inappropriate rage. The other is the crushing of anger in the face of injustice, cruelty and the like. The more I think about it, the more certain I become that these two problematic responses to anger have similar underpinnings.

When anger comes as a sudden and disproportionate response, we didn’t get there all in one go. No one goes from calm to blind fury in a heartbeat because the loo seat was left up, or a small mistake made. Equally, no sane person ignores manifestations of tyranny, abuse, or mistreatment. Most of us may do one or the other, many of us do both. Consider our eco-suicide, toxic politics and the obscene wealth of the 1% and I suggest most of us spend a lot of time not getting angry about the right things.

The right things to be angry about are huge, terrifying, overwhelming. Little wonder if for some of us the process we prefer is to redirect all that fear and frustration into shouting at an employee, harassing a checkout operative, yelling at our partners and using bullying strategies when driving.

Other mechanisms are also available, and I think the most important ones are to do with the meanings we ascribe. We all tend to infer meanings from the words and actions of others. Most often what we’re looking to do is translate a situation so that we understand what it means for us. What do they think of us? Are they friendly, or hostile? Do they reinforce my sense of self or challenge my fragile ego? Is their world view comfortable? We can personalise our interpretations to a degree that really makes them wrong.

For example… imagine that my partner leaves the toilet seat up, and I don’t like it up. I have said so and he still does it. This is proof that he is ignoring me, does not care about what I think, need or feel. Every time I see the raised seat I treat it like a personal attack. It’s a slap in the face, a reminder that he doesn’t really care and feels he can treat me any way he likes. He’s just taking me for granted. And so each time I see the seat raised, I’ll get myself a bit more hurt and angry until eventually I explode. It may just be that he’s absent minded, and that when I explode over something he thought was no big deal, he will think I have had enough of him and am just looking for excuses to break up with him. (This is not my life, it is just a story.)

We can build towards explosive anger by telling ourselves stories about what situations mean. We can also go the other way. Here’s another illustrative story (also not Tom), also to involve toilets.

I’m the only one who cleans the toilet, and he leaves it in a terrible state. I have to clean it most days because there’s urine down the back of it and it’s covered in crap. He never flushes. Sometimes when there are guests he does this and I have to keep checking, cleaning, worrying. If I challenge him at all he gets really upset and tells me he’s ill and it’s not his fault or that I’m picking on him. I feel guilty about saying anything, and so each time I just clean up, and I feel a bit smaller, like my own worth has been chipped away at. Eventually I stop mentioning it. I stop asking him to change. He takes to pissing in the hand basin.

In both cases, what informs whether or not we get angry is the story we create for ourselves about what this whole situation says about us. The point at which you explode, or crumble, is not really the point to try and do any work with this. The trick is spotting the stories as you are creating them. Noticing the way you rack up offences and infer slights. Or notice the way you learn to roll with the blows and not make a fuss. Time taken to think about how we respond and why can help break the cycles of habitual thinking and behaviour that can make us needlessly angry, or powerless in our inability to express needful anger.


Zero waste

There is no such place as ‘away’. Everything we throw out winds up somewhere. Landfill is not a viable solution, and making things just to bin them is not a sustainable way to run a culture. We need a zero waste economy. There’s a lot we can do as individuals, with the whole reduce-reuse-recycle mantra, but that only works when you have the right materials in the first place. A disturbing number of important foods only seem to come in non-recyclable plastic packaging.

What to do?

Companies give us this stuff because they have convinced themselves it’s what the public wants, needs, expects. So we have to have clingfilm on cucumbers and re-sealable packets, and little plastic windows so that we can see the donuts inside look like every other fried confectionary we’ve ever encountered… it becomes normal so we expect it which justifies the idea that we expect it so they have to provide it.

We have to break that circle. I think we can.

I had a chat with @sainsburys on twitter recently. I’ve also started poking Quorn. I’m looking at companies I buy from and am commenting on how disappointing their packaging is. Doing it in the public domain – twitter and facebook are good – it draws attention. I had a lot of support from other social media folk, out of the blue and with nothing organised. If enough of us tell them that recyclable packaging is what we want, they may listen.

We pay for this stuff, twice over. We pay to buy it. Then, we pay for our councils to send it to landfill. With cuts eating into essential services, it is not acceptable that we should be spending hundreds of thousands of pounds of public money on burying refuse the supermarkets and others have forced on us. Rice, pasta, seeds, dried fruit – dried, basic, storeable things, are not reliable available in recyclable packaging. This has to change.

So, consider what’s in your bin, and who helped you put it there, and then drop them a polite and friendly line in a public space. ‘I am not happy’ is a good tone to take. At this stage its worth seeing if we can get some co-operation. If there isn’t much movement, petitions can work wonders, and we may have to consider posting clean waste back to the people who created it, explaining that as we can’t recycle it and don’t want to send it to landfill, returning to source seemed like a good idea.


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