Exploring the mysteries of pain

The human body is a complex thing, affected by everything it encounters. Thus when something is a bit off, working out what, and why, is no small task. I’ve been struggling with pain and stiffness for years, and experimenting with different ways of living and being to try and alleviate it.

There are a number of factors that, without any doubt, increase how much pain I experience: Insufficient or poor quality sleep. Not enough oil in my diet. Something going awry with my gut leading to loss of electrolytes and oils. Stress, anxiety and depression. Cold. Any kind of jarring physical activity. Airbeds.

Some of those rather imply their solutions! I do what I can, but life can conspire against me. One of the major problems is gut function – an issue I’ve had for more than a decade. I became vegetarian again when I realised that meat (or, I suspect, preservatives in meat) were intolerable to my gut. In the last year or so, I’ve realised that refined carbohydrates also increase my risk of gut-fail. With a switch to mostly brown flours, rice and pasta, I’ve found that my digestive system behaves itself a good deal better, and my overall pain levels have come down as a consequence. How anyone else’s body would respond, I can’t say.

I’ve learned to be much more alert to what my body is exposed to – sound, light, air quality, motion, temperature… these are not things I always have control over. However, quieter, gentler environments help me with staying calm, and that in turn helps with pain.

I’ve been giving a lot more deliberate thought to issues of when to rest, and when to push. There are times when I need to push, and I believe in testing my limits. I want to maintain as much fitness, strength and flexibility as I can, so I have to balance pushing my body against keeping it comfortable. I think I’m doing quite well with this, and overall my energy levels are up.

This time a year ago, one late night in a week was ambitious. Now, if I’m careful about getting early nights the rest of the time, I can have two late nights. By late nights, I mean not going to bed before 10pm. I’m always in bed before midnight.

At this autumn’s Contemplative Druidry day, I was able to sit, stand, move and be still as various activities required and I was reasonably comfortable throughout. I remember how last year I needed to sit on the floor so as to be able to fidget more easily to reduce discomfort. A year on and I hurt less, and I have more stamina, which encourages me to think that I’m getting more things right than not.

I don’t have much hope that I can get myself to a state of being pain free, but if I can keep the pain at tolerable levels, and be able to keep doing the things I most want to do – that’ll do. For the first time in a good fourteen years, the idea of being pain free at least some of the time, no longer seems totally preposterous.

A Poem on World Poetry Day – from Jehanne Mehta

I’ve long been a fan of Jehanne Mehta’s songwriting and poetry, so, here’s a reblog of a piece she posted on the Awen blog. Enjoy!

Awen Publications


We went with family on a boat trip from St Justinian, near St David’s in West Wales, to circumnavigate Ramsey Island, a bird sanctuary with enormous cliffs and large settlements of seabirds, including kittiwakes and guillemots, and sheltered inlets where the seals come to pup in great numbers in the breeding season. The seals, like this one, pop up to look at the boats. I don’t speak Welsh but know how to pronounce it and I love the sound of the language and learn a few words from the traffic signs. These felt a fitting start for a poem.

Sea Riders                 




araf nawr



slow down now.

Stand … stop … before this wide

blue-green expanse of ocean.

Sefwch yma

wait here, stop

at the edge,

until you feel

the rolling rhythm of the tides,

these returning cosmic cycles

that nothing interrupts,

these rolling rhythms that…

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Walking the Invisible Labyrinth

I woke up one morning recently with the entirely mad idea of walking an invisible labyrinth. I feel less mad about this having read Halo Quin’s fantastic comment on a previous post about how she’s working with singing a labyrinth map so that she can walk it without having to have one laid out.

My latest experiment has been to draw a good sized version of my preferred labyrinth, and to try and follow it by walking the map. I had a flat-ish safe-ish sort of place outside, big enough based on previous assessments, and the map clutched in my hands, and off I went, very slowly.

I learned, at the very first turn that I would have to rotate the map in my hands constantly so that I could see the next move each time. It was a little bit fiddly, but a slow pace is a great enabler. At first, it felt weird, and a lot of my concentration was taken up by dealing with the process – so it didn’t feel especially spiritual to begin with. As I got into it, I could feel the flow of the journey, and that was quite an affecting shift. As I came into the last few turns, knowing I had very nearly walked to the centre, I felt elated.

I would guess that the route I walked was a very messy labyrinth, but none the less, it created a process in my mind. I think that with practice, I would get better at this, would need to scrutinise the map less and would feel the process more. I imagine it would be possible to ingrain the route into my body so thoroughly that I could walk it without reference to a map at all.

I have further labyrinth experiments planned, so there is definitely more to come, but it will likely be more sporadic from here.

A Labyrinth in a Jackdaw grove

It wasn’t a well-planned thing. We’d intended to go out to the jackdaw grove for the full moon, and, with my labyrinth obsession well under way, the larger space seemed like a place to try and build one. There were four of us working on it, and we’d allowed an hour. In that time, we managed to forage and lay out enough material for nine concentric circles, with enough space between them for a person to comfortably walk. We needed 12 to make it work, and then there’s the dividing of circles to make the winding path.

As the light dwindled, foraging for twigs and pine cones became more difficult. All the while, the jackdaws were coming into the trees around us, and a pipistrelle bat had come out to feed. It was a wonderful atmosphere to be working in, even though for much of the time we all knew that we weren’t going to make a labyrinth we could walk. I’d not gone in expecting success, just hoping to learn from the process – and I did. We’d found a perfect, welcoming space. We would need more people, and at least a two hour working period. We might be able to give ourselves a head start. Another labyrinth exploring session would be required.

In terms of making a walkable labyrinth, it was a total failure. In terms of being a beautiful, encouraging experience, it was nothing but win. Which strikes me as being consistent with the entire notion of a labyrinth. You don’t go anywhere when you set out to walk one. You just end up back where you started. It’s not about drama, it’s about the process.

By the time the light faded, it was obvious we’d struggle to make a labyrinth to the design I love, with less than a 12 foot radius. Or about Four meters, middle to edge, if you prefer. That rules out doing it in most indoor settings. I had been toying with the idea of doing an indoors one with scarves, but considering the circles in the fading light, I could see that just wouldn’t work.

I have an opportunity next year to get people walking a labyrinth in an indoors setting. I think that’s still possible, and I think (this may seem outrageous) that it can be done without building a physical labyrinth at all. This is something I will need to test, results will be posted here as they come in.

We retreated to the pub, and I drew the labyrinth, and talked about it, and we plotted.

Making a labyrinth

I’m on something of a labyrinth journey at the moment (you can read my first blog on the subject here). Having mastered drawing my labyrinth, the next move was clearly to try and make one. I decided to use the space outside my flat, and fallen leaves, as this was easy all round. It was a still day. I intended to make it as small as possible – a labyrinth for a mouse – but I didn’t really know what that would mean in practice and whether I could turn what was in my head into a physical form.

The first thing I realised was that concentric circles already existed on the grass, suggested by a number of small toadstools in incomplete fairy rings. I gave this a moment of serious thought, and came to the conclusion that I was going to have to work with the toadstool rings, and centred accordingly and that all got off to a good start.

I got eight circles down, by which point it was clear that to make a mouse labyrinth was bigger than I had imagined. Then the wind came to play, and just whipped up a few leaves, and suddenly I didn’t have circles anymore, I had a spiral. It was a deeply uncanny moment.

The thing is, that this little area is always full of whirlwinds. What we do here is spirals, and I felt very keenly that my concentric circles just didn’t work, and wouldn’t work and that I was in the wrong place. I can take a hint. Grateful for what I had learned, I started planning my next move…

One of the things that became clear to me in this process was that I really do want to incorporate found, natural items into labyrinth making. It becomes an act of communicating with, engaging with a place rather than just going out and imposing a structure on it. A seasonal element enters the mix – what I can work with will vary through the year.

On the whole I think there is a meditative aspect to making the labyrinth – even my barely started circles gave me reason to think that. It was a good thing to do, and left me wanting to try again. Which I duly did that evening.

The next instalment in the adventure will be out tomorrow!

Into the Labyrinth

I’ve a longstanding fascination with labyrinths. It started as a purely visual interest, and then a few years ago, I started having opportunities to walk them. Gloucester cathedral, on a number of occasions, put vast canvas labyrinths down for people to explore. I was able to walk a number of them over about a year.

The process of slowly and deliberately walking a labyrinth does something to the mind and body. I’m still not sure how to best put that into words, but as you walk yourself into the centre of it, you walk the shape of it into your mind. I rapidly discovered that any labyrinth which takes you straight out once you’ve finished it, is not as good for me as one that requires a journey in and out. I found the experience of walking it soothing, and settling, and it is one of my favourite meditative practices.

The trouble with it is, I don’t have a big garden, or a vast living room, or any means to keep the cathedral making these experiences available. They don’t do them anymore. I went so far as to research giant canvas labyrinths, but they start around the thousand pound mark, I certainly can’t afford one, and even if I did, I have nowhere to roll it out.

This summer, the yearning for a labyrinth became a call I could no longer ignore, and I started thinking in earnest about how to make it possible. As I was banner making for a local event, I wondered if we could paint one onto fabric, but the scale it takes to make a complicated one work, is clearly beyond me.

A day of being too ill to do much gave me a window of opportunity, and I sat down with the internet and looked at labyrinths, until I tracked down the one I wanted. One I had walked, and that I knew I would fine especially effective. All I had to do was make sense of it, and so I stared at it, and counted, and looked for patters than I could remember.

Apparently the one I’m obsessed with is a medieval labyrinth. This is Sebastián Asegurado’s version, taken from Wikipedia:

12 concentric circles. Patterns of negative space that define the turns. The placing of the crossroads at the entrance. By the end of that day, I could reliably draw a version of the above labyrinth from memory. I found the process of drawing it echoed the experience of walking it, but was not an entirely satisfying substitute.

I had to take it forward…

What happened next, will be tomorrow’s blog post, as I keep exploring the labyrinth, I’ll post my experiences. It’s a project I am incredibly excited about.

The Energy of Anger

Anger gets things done. It gives us the drive to rise up, making noise and change. If someone can tap into our anger, we can be persuaded to act in all kinds of unsavoury ways, feeling justified by the force of our emotions. As we live in a culture where anger itself is seen as a reason for violence, if we get angry, any physical or psychological violence we undertake as a consequence can seem justified. We may even be proud of it, our anger having told us that we have the moral high ground, and that the ends justify the means.

I think it’s always worth being wary about what we can be manipulated into doing. So much of what is nasty in politics right now comes from feeding the anger of people who feel squeezed and then telling them who to blame. And so the anger that should more rightly have been directed towards power and money is instead used to hate the poor, refugees and other powerless, vulnerable people who make easy targets.

The energy of anger feels powerful, but the trouble is that on its own, all we can use it for is to knock down. Sometimes a bit of knocking down is necessary, but it’s never a whole solution. If all we have to work with was anger then we are not prepared for dealing with the aftermath – again modern politics is littered with unfortunate examples. We go to war, we have no idea how to build peace.

In the short term, the rush of anger energy may seem productive, but it tends to emotionally exhaust people. It won’t feed or inspire you, and to stay angry you have to deliberately keep stoking the fires of hate, and this seldom does anyone much good. Groups whose unity depends on anger have to keep finding new things to hate in order to keep moving. When anger is your energy there has to be a bad guy, an enemy, and something to fight against. You can’t make anything better when your whole way of being relies on having someone to fight. You can’t smash patriarchy, you have to build an alternative.

It’s really important not to get caught up in anger, but instead to keep an eye on what we are fighting for. What’s the real goal? What are we building? How are we going to make things better? Anger used alongside this, for short term necessary bursts of action, can serve a cause well. Anger on its own can only lock us into more fighting and destruction.

Jackdaw charms

Smaller, and not as mythologized as crows and ravens, jackdaws are nonetheless charming birds. They are clever opportunists, profoundly sociable and I can’t help but feel they have something of a sense of humour.

I once lived in an old cottage where jackdaws had nested in the chimney. As I wanted to use said chimney, I had a long, filthy job of extracting their wood. They didn’t give up, and all that winter would throw odd twigs down, or just get on the top and make jackdaw noises. I moved out, and they reclaimed their space. It felt like a friendly sort of a battle.

I’ve noticed over the years that jackdaws are so sociable, they’ll attach themselves to other corvid groups. I used to moor up under a rookery sometimes, and there would always be a few jackdaws knocking around as well. Locally, they have an enormous roost in the park. At sunset you can watch them flying back from the hills and fields, in groups of half a dozen or so, to form a giant roost of hundreds of birds. I often see them heading out in the mornings as well. As the roost settles for the night, the sound of them chatting and getting comfortable is so loud, that we had to wait for them to finish before anything bardic could begin in their space.

What can jackdaws teach us? That nature doesn’t always take itself too seriously. That noise, squabbling, and messing about are not exclusively human characteristics. That we aren’t the only creatures to actively seek the company of beings from a different species.

Alternatives to forgiveness

Forgiveness is often held as a spiritual value, and doing it is supposed to make us better people. There are times when I’d cheerfully go along with that – when what I’m dealing with is just human mess, and the kind of innocent failing that comes from being alive. To learn, we have to risk messing up. To try new things, or engage with new people, we have to risk mistakes. As I commented on recently, second chances are good, and precious things, in the right context.

There are people I won’t forgive. People who crossed lines into deliberate harm, and repeat offenders. Second chances are gifts, but once it’s third, fourth, fifth chances, I stop being cooperative. Sometimes not forgiving people is essential to holding boundaries and maintaining personal safety. Sometimes, there is no excuse, no explanation and no apology that can fix what has been done.

So, what to do when forgiveness isn’t an acceptable way forward? Hanging on to anger with someone can mean hurting yourself. It can mean becoming defined by the story of what they did – and the main effect of that is to give the person you can’t forgive even more power over your life. Squashing anger is a recipe for trouble. Denying it, even if we think that anger isn’t the sort of thing we should feel, is of no great help. First, there has to be a process. If may be rage, or grief, it may be like the stages of bereavement. Whatever you have to go through, do it. Deal with what happened and how you feel about it. This will take exactly as long as it takes.

Get to a point where you can put it down. This is not the same as forgiveness, because it in no way lets the other person off the hook or creates peace. If someone has, for example, tried to destroy your life, why would you want peace with them? What I need in that context – what I think most of us need – is safety and distance. In terms of the inner self, it means processing it so that I can get them out of my head, and not be occupied or troubled by what happened. In more extreme circumstances, counselling is appropriate for this.

There are people I will never forgive. But I very seldom think about them. I don’t engage with them, in life or in my head unless something triggers it. I don’t lug the rage and resentment round with me. I do still have my scars, which I will not do anything to negate or diminish. It’s the scars that we have to make peace with – learning to see them as things done to us, and not defining features of who we are. Forgive the body that carries the scars. Forgive the heart that was broken and the too trusting nature that let this happen. Forgive the naivety, the hope, the desperation, the gullibility, the not running away fast enough. The not knowing it was wrong, or how to defend your boundaries, or whatever it was. Forgive where you need to. Forgive the honest, well meant human mistakes – yours and other people’s.

Honest mistakes, and human failing deserve forgiveness. Deliberate cruelty, does not.


Citizen of Nowhere, or, the Ranty One.

This is a great post, guaranteed to cheer up anyone who has been left feeling a bit queasy by Tory rhetoric. Which is probably anyone in the UK reading this blog, at a guess, unless you’ve already found a decent antidote …

What would William Morris say?

Wouldn’t it be great to wake up and find yourself somewhere else? To discover that the cares of the past have all dissolved into a glorious new future where, if you don’t feel at home, you can at least know that all you were fighting for back in your day finally came to pass? That’s what happened to a certain Mr Guest back in 1890 … and at the moment I can’t help wishing it would happen to me.

Yes, it’s a utopian idea. Utopia – good place? Or no place? Certainly no place like home at the moment. My jaw dropped when I saw Teresa May’s comments about those claiming to be a citizen the world – indeed, the whole Tory Party Conference has seen my jaw on the floor. But it’s that comment “if you believe you are a citizen of the world, you are a citizen of…

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