The Stroud Elms

At about this time last year I found some seeds in a stream. I thought I recognised them, but having not seen them outside of a book before, wasn’t sure. On further checking it became evident that I had found evidence of a wych elm. This year I’ve found perhaps a dozen of them, some close to where I live. This year they have all seeded, last year they didn’t, and the fine green snow of their early summer seeds, fills me with awe. Because by all accounts, this is an unlikely state of affairs.

The British elms are gone, destroyed by Dutch elm disease before I was born. The Forestry Commission reckons some 60 million trees were wiped out in two epidemics, in the 1920s (my grandmother’s childhood) and 1970s (I caught the tail end). She talked of beautiful, stately trees, destroyed forever. I wonder with hindsight if this gentle haunting by the ghosts of departed trees shaped my love of lost thing. Lost forests. Lost mammals (aurochs especially). I have a heightened sense of the fragility of life, the ease with which something precious can be lost. Perhaps that’s entirely down to my grandmother mourning the elms.

To find elm seeds in a stream in 2014 was a magical, unreal sort of moment for me. The people with me on that day did not believe what I thought I’d found because they, like me, thought the elms to be gone. There is a little part of me that just plain refuses to see ‘lost’ as ‘gone forever’ and sometimes that holds true. There’s Project Tauros, using DNA from an auroch tooth to figure out a breeding program. Aurochs are not entirely gone, their DNA remains in domesticated large hairy cattle, and something a bit like them could yet come back.

The elms are not gone forever. There are elms in Stroud.

At the moment, humans are destroying habitats and species at an obscene rate. This, simply, has to stop. There are so many precious and beautiful things hanging on at the edges. It is a wonder that they can and do hang on, and make comebacks and refuse to be driven into history, but we should not count on their tenacity alone to solve the problems we create.


Daydreaming and meditation

With thanks to Rachel Patterson, who caused me to sit down and think properly about what I’ve taken to doing over the least year or so.

Daydreaming is a very specific skill, and an essential one for any kind of creative work. To daydream well is to be able to open the mind to loose associations and possibilities, while crafting enough coherence around that to come up with something usable. It is the fine art of ‘what if’ and it can be used as much to figure out where we are emotionally, what we want to be doing and other life issues as well as being the jumping off point for art.

I’ve been meditating for a long time, such that I drop into contemplative states of mind readily. While I use very deliberate meditation practices sometimes, they have limited appeal to me because I know what I’m going to get. While deliberately calming the mind is useful, I get bored easily and am also more interested in trying to open up my options, rather than narrowing them down.

What I’ve been doing for the last year or so, is sitting out – how long depending on weather and what my body can tolerate, usually. Sometimes there’s a view, sometimes I’m just working with the shorn grass outside the flat – and both are equally workable. I take time to settling myself, to slow my breathing and be aware of my body. I focus on being aware of the place I’m in, and then I ask of the place, or of the awen, or perhaps something else, to share with me. I sit and wait, not trying to focus or control my thoughts thereafter, seeing what comes up.

Where this takes me, varies. Sometimes it results in insight into my emotional state, some making sense of my life as those loose and free flowing associations bring something up or clarify something. More often, by being very present I witness something that is happening and as my daydreaming mind has space to play with those experiences, some kind of wider insight emerges.

Over the weekend I sat with a stream, and became aware of how light and water combine in an incredibly generous and forgiving way, turning building detritus into little sparkling gems at the bottom of a stream. I saw that currents within the main flow of water are only visible when something is caught up in them, and that life is most evident when you notice it moving against the flow. Deliberateness, and self determination being important to me. I sat on the hill and saw the ancient sea bed that made the limestone and held some tenuous awareness of time, of how brief and irrelevant humans really are, and this thought consoled me. I saw that for the bird or the fox, what we build has no meaning as a human construction, it is just potential resource, habitat and challenge, while for the ant in the grass we do not exist at all. This also comforted me.

To adapt to human environments does not make a good or a bad fox. There is only the fox, doing what it can with what it has, and I take something from this about my own relationships with wild and urban spaces. There may be no inherent virtue or failure in how I relate to either.

For me, inspiration (awen) is at the heart of my Druidry, and much of what I do involves seeking it, and working with it. Using meditation to hold a space in which my daydreaming can be inspired, and can allow me insights and respite, has become really important to me over the last year. I hadn’t really thought about what I was doing, but a recent comment from Rachel Patterson about the relationship between daydreaming and meditating caused me to sit down and really think about this, and recognise that for me, there are some important relationships between daydreaming, meditating and inspiration.


Interviewed and reviewed

Recently I did an interview with Annika Garret, who has a youtube channel where she talks about all manner of things. It would be fair to say that I was less than perfectly awake, and apparently ‘Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids’ is not an easy thing to say when less than perfectly awake, but there we go.

I created a strange echo so it sounds like I did some of this interview from inside a cave. I didn’t, but feel free to picture me amongst the stalactites and bats anyway.

 

If you’d like to see her entire video list it’s https://www.youtube.com/user/AnnikaGarratt/videos and she also blogs http://annikagarratt.blogspot.co.uk/


Witchy Granny Chakras

At what point do we say something has become a tradition in its own right?

The idea of chakras as drawn from eastern traditions first entered western awareness in 1927, according to wikipedia. My Gran was 7. Other people’s grannies had yet to be born. It means your modern witch could quite legitimately have learned about chakras from their witchy granny who learned about it from a book, that they might not have read themselves, but which may have been transmitted to them by other means.

How much eastern mysticism entered western thought in the 1960s when others of our witchy grannies learned it from someone who had met someone who had once sniffed a real guru?

Wikipedia also reckons that prana and Mesmer’s animal magnetism were pretty much the same thing. Not that wikipedia is an unassailable font of wisdom, but its a place to start. The west has been borrowing exotic things from the east for a long, long time. But it goes deeper, because if these things have some kind of reality, then anyone, in theory, can figure them out. If an energy system is real, you don’t need a witchy Granny or a guru to teach it to you, you can just find it. Possibly.

I’m a second generation modern Pagan. No doubt my son is picking things up from me that I’ve absorbed along the way. Some of them, like my pronunciation of Beltane, are not as they were in their original, authentic and proper context. Does that matter? Does it matter that there’s a western chakra tradition that might have very little to do with anything anywhere else in the world? If it works for people, is that more important?

I learned what I thought were traditional folk songs from my grandmother. They turned out to be songs by singer songwriters who were there at the start of the folk revival in the UK. They are still the traditional songs I learned from my granny. But that’s not the same as being part of one of those families that handed down songs through the generations. But what if my son learns those songs from me, and his children as well? At what point do we become tradition bearers? I offer it as a parallel, because while I have a lot of folk songs, I don’t have any chakras whatsoever. The issues still interest me.


Appeasing the tyranny

For the last year or so, the allegedly neutral BBC, funded by license fee and ostensibly free from political bias, did some very odd things. It gave a great deal of airtime to rightwing party UKIP, despite that (when they started doing this) UKIP had no MPs, while at the same time steadfastly ignoring the Green Party (1 MP). Many of us protested over this. It made no odds. We weren’t the only ones protesting, and there were other issues people marched over last year, but on these other subjects of protest, the BBC was strangely silent. It also repeats government statistics without question or analysis, and some of the stats we’re being fed really need prodding.

With hindsight, it is possible to see reasons for this. The BBC is not iron clad. Take away its license fee, and you break it. Parts of it might survive in other forms, but it would cease to be the institution it currently is. I imagine there are people who think that institution is worth preserving. Perhaps even at the expense of political neutrality. Could it be the case that the BBC supported the right, stayed out of debates, avoided asking difficult questions, did not mention protests and generally stayed away from anything that might offend those in power as much as it possibly could in a desperate bid to survive?

If that’s true, then by doing so, it helped get the current government re-elected. People who are not massively involved with politics tend to rely on BBC reporting to get a sense of how things really are. Traditionally, we’ve tended to trust our unbiased British Broadcasting Corporation. But for at least a year, they’ve not questioned, they’ve not given fair representation to all parties, they’ve not, in short, been neutral.

What has it got them? A culture minister who is opposed to the license fee. The people who would have fought to defend them – the left – aren’t feeling much love for the BBC right now, because the BBC hasn’t been playing fair. Will there be a popular uprising to defend them? And what are we fighting for if we do? It’s hard to rebuild a damaged reputation.

The thing about appeasing tyranny, is that it doesn’t work. If someone threatens to hurt you if you don’t do what they want, and you do what they want, then when they no longer need you, it’s not going to go well. You will be thrown away, if you are lucky, broken if you are not. Appeasement doesn’t work, as the BBC may well now be finding out.


Accidentally Evil

One of the things going on in my gothic webcomic, www.hopelessmaine.com is a meditation on how evil functions. Most of the characters are not evil. All of them would tell you that they do the best they can with what they are up against. They have tough choices to make. There was no other way. It was for the greater good. They all have reasons. We all have reasons.

Most people are not evil, and yet evil thrives in the world, and does so because the majority let it. For a start, like the islanders of Hopeless Maine, many of us are wilfully oblivious. We don’t want to know about the nasty things, so we avoid them, tune them out, ignore in the hopes it will go away.

We believe we’re too good, hard working or lucky to have it happen to us. Like attracts like and I am good so what is in my life is good and I don’t have to wonder about its motives, or side effects.

We are afraid of change, afraid to challenge, afraid to be different, afraid to be the victim. It is safer to be silent, or to go with the flow, and so we go with the flow all the way to the killing fields and the concentration camps, telling each other we have no choice, no power. Wringing our hands as we facilitate death and suffering.

We don’t care. We’re not evil, just selfish and oblivious and easily persuaded that it’s no big deal, or the victims deserved it, or some other idea that allows us to carry on feeling comfortable. Our illusion of comfort is more important to us than truth, justice or other people’s lives. We know when they come for us there will be no one left to speak for us, but its more comfortable to imagine it will never get that bad.

We don’t want to believe the worst of people. They seem ok, they’d never set out to destroy us, or wipe out the disabled or slaughter the Jews, imprison the gypsies or torture the gays. They tell us they aren’t doing that. They tell us no one is really dying in their prisons, at the hands of their police officers, they haven’t tortured anyone. We want to believe them, and so we undertake to believe them. Anyone who tells us otherwise is scaremongering.

We walk to the shower block, telling each other it is a shower block and not a gas chamber. Because we’ve learned from history and we know that couldn’t possibly happen again. Not here. Not to us.

And anyway, it was only a small infringement of rights, and he was a criminal, and the police are on our side, and the corporations wouldn’t be so irresponsible as to poison the water and the politicians only have our best interests at heart, and no doctor would ever murder their patients and she was always polite to me in the street so I never thought about her child stealing from birdfeeders, and if they bring back the death penalty and take away the right to protest they won’t actually kill me for protesting, will they? Will they?

And so in our fear, our apathy, our disbelief, we cower, and do nothing, and trust that those we have given all the power to won’t hurt us even as we know they have hurt others. Thus there is evil unechecked. If we ask the awkward questions, if we bring our doubts and anxieties to the table, if we refuse to sit down and shut up while accepting that someone else knows best, if we take care of each other and consider kindness essential, we can change this.


Letting people go

When do we give up on someone? When is it ok to decide that the other person is not worth your time and bother? How much effort is too much effort? Who does not deserve your care, friendship, support?

These are questions we need to ask not just at a personal level, but also at a political level. There are a lot of impoverished, hungry, homeless people in the world. Refugees from war zones and tyrannies, more local victims of capitalism, the ill and disabled. A lot of our ‘leaders’ are of the opinion that we can let these people go, they do not matter. We can leave them to die. Internationally, too many ‘leaders’ seem to be viewing humans as either useful little units of production and consumption, or not worth their bother.

At a personal level, we are each of us finite beings. We have only so much time end energy to deploy. Who gets that time? Is it sucked up by a social media troll? Is it spent arguing with people who have no desire to listen? It’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking these things are good stands taken for your cause, but the energy spent to outcome ratio isn’t persuasive, all too often. What happens if we let the not-listening don’t-care people go? It frees up time and energy to connect more usefully with people who are doing something useful, certainly.

Again at the personal level how much time do we have for the ill, the disenfranchised, the fragile? Any of us could end up there, although we might prefer not to think about it. Many people who are in crisis can’t be fixed with a kind word or a good deed, often it takes a lot more than that. How do we balance that with our own energy needs? When is it ok to say ‘you are too difficult and I can’t help you anymore?’ How do we distinguish between real need, and people with leeching habits?

There are no easy answers here, because so much of this has to be worked out on a case by case basis. I am going to argue against impossible fights with wilfully deaf opponents. I can’t save everyone. You can’t save everyone. None of us has much of a shot at saving people from themselves when they are their own worst enemies. We need to be kind to ourselves alongside being kind to each other or we just end up with more broken people. As individuals, we really need to consider our responsibilities and recognise at the same time that those responsibilities have to be finite because we are finite.

At a government level, every life matters. No one should live in poverty in this world that clearly has more than enough resources for everyone. No one should live in grotesque excess while others starve, and people are more than production units. Any government that thinks some of its populous doesn’t matter and is expendable and not worth bothering with, is a government that needs to be replaced.


Misleading tales of progress

It’s common, especially in political narratives, to tell tales of progress. At the moment, increased material wealth and increased GDP are the focal points for such stories. More stuff and more cash means we are better off, and better off is by definition, a good thing. However, if we told the story of bodily fitness, mental health or happiness, the picture might look a bit more complicated. If we tell the story of our environment it becomes a tale of abuse and degradation, not gain.

The stories we tell as communities shape who we think we are, where we think we’re going and how we feel about that. This is one of the reasons politicians favour progress narratives, because these affirm them as successful leaders. It’s also a big problem for Greens because we’re looking at the environmental picture and wanting to frame ‘progress’ as sustainability and long term viability. To do that we need everyone to consume less, which according to the dominant narrative, means we want the exact opposite of progress which would be A Bad Thing because we’ve all agreed that progress is A Good Thing.

Poverty causes suffering. Our current era is not short of financial poverty, there’s a shocking amount of it internationally. People who cannot afford to eat and live, rather than the ‘ciabatta line’. In the narrative of economic progress, somehow this is acceptable collateral damage. I think there’s a kind of economic Darwinism at play that says ‘survival of the richest’ and assumes those who cannot accumulate wealth do not deserve to survive. Never mind that the accumulation of wealth is so inextricably linked to the existence of poverty. Our narrative of progress seems to be telling people that it is ok to exploit others for personal gain and then deny all responsibility for their suffering.

In practice there is no grand thrust forward, no heroic stride into the better and brighter future. Some things get better for some, and worse for others. We might think of cars as progress, but we also need to consider the numbers of people and creatures killed and injured by them every year, and the damage of air pollution. The internet may be technological progress, but socially it may be a disaster as we raise the ‘look down’ generation who do not go out much.

Progress narratives are alluring. We want to feel like we’re winning and getting better and that the future will be even better and this makes us exceedingly vulnerable to anyone who has a progress narrative to sell us. We don’t want to be anxious or uneasy or feel like we’re in trouble, and this inclines us to be collectively deaf to those who point out the problems. They’re scaremongering, we feel. It won’t be that bad. The politician who can make us believe it’s all going to be fine tends to get our votes. We want business as usual and the glorious march of progress and even when the things we can see with our own eyes don’t square with the story, we cling to the story all too often.

If we took more interest in the outcomes, we might be more willing to suffer some short term discomforts for the sake of getting things right. Ultimately, our current progress narrative is going to deliver us the exact opposite of progress – climate change and international crisis. We need some new stories.


Belief, politics and seeds for action

I believe that human rights are the foundation of a civilized society. I will not co-operate with anything that undermines them. I believe that we only have one planet and that its preservation is essential. I will not co-operate with planet destruction or environmental degradation.

I will resist tyranny, oppression and environmental damage by whatever honourable means are available to me. I will speak out, use what economic power I have, and if needs be put my body in the way of threats to my society and my land.

I will do whatever I can to uplift, support and enable all others who are resisting. I will not blame anyone who is too frightened or under-informed to fight for life and liberty, but I will seek to educate and demonstrate through my own actions to the best of my ability.

I will use what resources I have to alleviate suffering where I can, to protect life, and to protect our precious eco-systems. I will work in all ways available to me to create a better, fairer, sustainable and kinder future.

I will challenge greed, oppression, short term thinking and eco-suicide by any honourable means available to me.

I recognise that I am one finite human being with limited resources of time, energy and money, and I will resist in ways I can sustain for the longer term and I will not resist by doing the things I am opposed to. I will act in line with my beliefs in all things. I will not allow fear, short termism or personal advantage to sway me from what is just, good and needed. I will seek the greater good in all things.

If you agree with any or all of this statement, you are welcome to reuse any part or the whole in any way you see fit.


Meditation and the mind

Not all minds are the same. How your mind works, how well it is, your circumstances and your emotional state will inform what happens when you meditate. All forms of meditation are not equally good for all people in all situations. Unfortunately, meditation is usually presented as a perfectly safe, universally good for people activity, and it isn’t.

People suffering from mental illnesses may be better off not meditating, or picking very carefully and not doing too much of it. Anyone tending towards the delusional can find that meditation of any sort just creates a space for things to go wrong. Depressed people often don’t benefit from anything that stills and quiets the mind. If the base line in your mind is full of pain, what you may do is peel back your layers of defence to expose yourself to your own suffering, and frankly that doesn’t help unless you were planning on working with it. Where there is trauma, this can be really hazardous. People with mental health issues can be better off with focused meditations – moving meditations complex enough to engage the mind, or contemplating safe objects – trees, clouds, oracle cards, to steer the mind directly towards workable thoughts.

Many forms of meditation start from the assumption that simplifying the clutter of your thoughts is a good thing. The busy mind is seen as aberrant, the single track is seen as a good thing. There are philosophies that to be properly engaged with the world you should be thinking as simply and ‘in the moment’ as you can. Do all minds work like this? No. How we form thoughts and experience them varies radically from one person to the next. How much material is bubbling away in our unconscious, varies. The speed at which thoughts bubble up, varies. The number of threads we might comfortably hold, varies. For the one track mind person, juggling a vast number of thoughts is horrible. For the rainforest mind, being reduced down to a single track is a traumatic amputation of self.

Meditation is not a sloppy, one size fits all hippy garment. Meditation covers a broad array of activities and more than one philosophical tradition. If at first you don’t get on with it, you may simply have the wrong model. The better you know who you are and how your mind works, the better able you will be to see what you can do, and what you want meditation to do for you. Visualisation and pathworking have radically different implications to Tai Chi, or just observing your thoughts.

There can be an enthusiastic form of tyranny exercised by people who have found a thing they like. Evangelists always believe they have the one true way and everyone should be doing what they do, and meditation forms acquire evangelists. If a practice doesn’t work for you, if it feels uncomfortable and troubling it might not be that you’re not trying hard enough. Maybe you don’t need to work at it – maybe it does not suit you. Keep your options open, be alert to your own needs and don’t be pressured by the would-be gurus into assuming the problem is always you. Not all forms of meditation suit all people, or are good and appropriate for all people. If a practice makes you uncomfortable, then pushing may be the worst thing you can do for yourself.


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