When meditation is awkward

Meditation in all its various forms does not suit all people in all circumstances. This isn’t about being in situations that deny you the calm and time to meditate – which is an issue in itself – but about methods that really don’t deliver what’s needed.

Non-judgemental self reflection. Just sit with your thoughts and feelings, watch them arise, notice what they are and let them go. Sounds lovely. However, if what you are is in pain, this process strips away your mental defences and rapidly brings the pain to the fore. I know, because I’ve done it. Equally, if the thoughts that arise are anxious and you just sit with them in a non-judgemental way, what you can end up doing is giving those thoughts more space to develop. If you suffer from anxiety then it’s really important to challenge anxious thoughts as they arise. Letting them be is not a good move.

Some people don’t get on well with breathing exercises. For some, controlling the breath can add to panic, for others who are panicking, breath control can be a vital tool for keeping it under control. The only way to find out is to test it at a safe time and see what you get. If breath work doesn’t feel right, then it isn’t right for you.

I suspect for some people the problem with breath work is more to do with another person telling you what to do with your body. For anyone who has been physically abused, being told what to do can be triggering. For anyone with pain, or potential for pain, the allegedly ‘safe’ yoga moves can turn out to hurt. I’ve done this several times where I was told it would be safe and gentle, but it wasn’t, which in turn reduces my willingness to have someone else tell me what it’s ok for my body to do. If you’re taking physical instruction, you need to entirely trust the person you’re working with, and it needs to be ok to say no to them if something hurts.

Some meditations depend on sitting still. Some injuries and ailments of the body make sitting still for any length of time painful. Some positions favoured for meditating will hurt some people. If it hurts, it should be ok to stop, and the teacher or group that don’t support stopping when in pain are suspect. It usually means you’re dealing with inexperience, and some very narrow ideas about what is good and helpful. Anyone who thinks that what their body can tolerate is a reasonable measure of what anyone else can do, is simply not to be trusted.

Sometimes, meditation just opens the door to all the difficult stuff you’ve been trying to avoid or manage. If you don’t have the room to deal with things, meditations that take you into your own thoughts and feelings are to be avoided. Wait until you feel safe and ready.

Tiredness, illness and overload can make it really hard to concentrate. Visualisation and pathworking require concentration, but if you’re already mentally exhausted, this can just make you feel worse. The frustration of not being able to stick with the work just adds to the problem.

Any meditation method should leave you feeling better, not worse. It should be calming, not stressful, it should be inspiring, not despair inducing. If you’re getting results that aren’t good, it’s not a personal failure of any sort. What it means is that the methods you are using, and your current state, mental or physical, just don’t match up. A different method may yield better results. It’s worth having a range of meditative methods you can work with, so that if one doesn’t deliver, you can switch over to something that better suits your needs.

Forcing yourself to stick with something may sound like discipline and devotion, but that only makes sense of you think that it’s basically good to suffer. It’s very easy for people who are not suffering, and who have never suffered, to tell those who do that its good for them to keep doing the work. Whether it’s a good idea to keep pushing or to change tack, or to try again tomorrow, has to be the judgement of the individual, and should not be about trying to conform to someone else’s standards.

(You can find out about my book on meditation here.)

Pagan Dreaming – Nimue Brown (Trigger Warning: sleep paralysis)

Nimue Brown:

The review process is always a bit hair raising (because I always expect people are not going to like my work, and occasionally I do get really nasty reviews) but it can also be a bit of an adventure. My favourite reviews tell me something I didn’t know. Usually this means the book I’ve written gets placed in the wider context of someone else’s reading or personal experience. There’s always more to know, and the insights that come from finding out what other people do with my words, what’s useful, and where they go with what I’ve suggested, is always a fascinating process.

So, this is a reblog of a book review that introduced me to a topic I didn’t know much about. I’ve had a gut feeling for a long time that too much effort to get control over the contents of dreams, might be counter-productive, but this is the first time I’ve had some evidence for why that may indeed be very much the case…

Originally posted on adayinthelifeofawitch:

My dreams were in the process of returning from a long period of absence whilst I was reading this book, which was a strange but delightful coincidence.

For reference, I have a non-relationship with my dreams. I’ve suffered from sleep paralysis all of my life, but only in the last few years have I found out what exactly sleep paralysis is and that I’m not being violated by some hideous eldritch creature(s) invading my dreams.* Since every bout of my sleep paralysis is preceded by not one, but several horrible nightmares, so my instinct always is to open my eyes and be awake as soon as possible which is the worst thing to do in the situation.

For this reason I really appreciate the emphasis on healthy sleeping and dreaming over mere interpretation in Nimue’s book. I also appreciate the inclusion of scientific and medical findings on sleep and dreams.  The…

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The defining of Druids

Recently on his blog, James Nichol wrote, “I have found naming ‘contemplative druidry’ to be a useful way of classifying a sub-set of interests within druidry. But I now believe that to think of people themselves as ‘contemplative druids’, a separate species within larger druid genus, is potentially divisive and doesn’t allow individuals to have inconveniently multiple interests. “

I know this in part came about because a few weeks ago there was a question about the relationship between contemplative Druids, and other Druids, very much imagining us to be something set apart. Like James, I don’t feel this is a good way to go. I am a contemplative Druid. I’m also, depending on the occasion, need and opportunity or the moment, a walking Druid, a bardic Druid, a philosophical Druid, an activist Druid, a ritual celebrant Druid, a social Druid, a bloody antisocial Druid, often I am a student Druid, sometimes I am a Druid mentor. Or as I prefer to say, I’m a Druid. To narrow your Druidry down to just the one field of experience seems a bit daft to me, because the multifacettedness of Druidry is part of what makes it itself.

Of course we all end up focusing on some bits more than others – opportunity, need and inclination all being factors here. Some read the books of academics and some read the book of nature. For the Warriors Call folk, ritual is action, and action is ritual. For me, action seems to be standing around outside Shire Hall in Gloucester getting cold, and it’s never felt much like ritual, but that’s fine, we’re allowed to be different. It’s good that we’re different. There is strength and creativity in difference.

The trouble with titles is that it’s all too easy to get really pompous about them. “Oh, I’m a Contemplative Druid, I contributed to the book and I go to all the meetings and it’s very special, and sets me apart and this means I am important…’ and on we go, and you can dig yourself a deep and futile sort of hole to stand in this way.

Picking up a label is fantastic if it lets you find opportunities and connect with likeminded people. Bring together a bunch of Druids who like to contemplate, and the result is a quiet, soulful sort of day full of insight and good stuff. But once you have Contemplative Druids there’s every risk of also having Others, and someone holding the boundary between the two, saying who is allowed in, and who is not. As soon as we start to think the labels mean something about status and value, we’ve lost it, tumbling down into the banal world of hierarchies and narcissism. There’s nothing spiritual about self importance.

Changing the rules to stay sane

I’m not good in a fight. It doesn’t take much to send me into the adrenaline rushes of panic, and afterwards, the emotional exhaustion is a huge cost to bear. Last year when I was more heavily involved with local politics, I routinely got into fights on twitter with the then Labour candidate, who considered aggressive, bullying language as normal for politics. That often left me physically shaken. It taught me that however passionate you are about the issues, if you don’t have a certain kind of mental and emotional robustness, politics is not an option. I hate that about our current system.

Part of the trouble is that I feel responsible. If someone posts something factually wrong, laden with misinformed hate, or random stupidity, I feel obliged to wade in and try to offer an alternative view. I am all too aware that big evils depend on little ones – silent complacency above all else.

What really knocks me about are the places where I’m trying to learn how to do better. How to be a good ally. How to make sure I’m not inadvertently silencing or excluding someone else. Those exchanges wipe me out repeatedly. The only thing I’ve learned is that I probably ought to shut up and go away. Too white (an accident of birth, but hey, I’m an oppressor because of that). And sure, women are oppressed, but I’m cis-gendered, or at least look like I’m ok in my own skin, and as a bi person my not being straight is invisible so that’s privilege, and pain might be a constant in my life, but again it being invisible is a privilege, apparently. It’s funny, I’ve never felt it that way, but who gets to say what’s privilege and what’s marginalising is an interesting question. These exchanges leave me feeling miserably guilty about what I have and how I am, rather than able to come up with something better. What good does that do? So I’m not reading anything on those websites anymore.

I come out of these spaces wondering who is entitled to speak. I don’t want to shut anyone up, presence and voice are so important, but I have come to the conclusion that the right answer is indeed to shut up. If it’s a conversation about privilege, I’m out of there. If it’s a conversation about who should shut up, I’ll shut up. As my silence is clearly the best thing I can offer, I doubt anyone will be offended by this anyway. Give me a real person, in a real situation who needs something real and I’ll give it my best shot. I’m all done with hypothetical people.

Beyond that, I’m all done with hypothetical conversations. If it looks like who would win a fight between Batman and Superman, if you have to start by imagining something like a spherical horse running through a vacuum, I’m out. I am sick of how much energy is thrown at arguing over hypothetical things, where those arguments make no difference at all. I’ll still hassle my democratic representatives, because there’s a point. I’ll still show up to conversations that are about doing something, changing things in our own lives, taking action in the wider world, demanding change – I’ll be there. If I think for a moment it’s arguing for the sake of arguing, then I’m out. Share your truth, your opinion and your ideas, by all means, but I will not do any more bun fights.

I don’t handle drama well. I’m an emotionally intense person and I feel everything keenly. I will be there for the real problems, as best I can with the resources I have, but make drama and I will walk away, and if I can manage to run, I will run. I’m going to be doing zero drama tolerance from now on, because it exhausts me and I am no longer willing to be run into the ground just so that someone else can enjoy flapping about being overblown. I reserve the right to judge who I think is for real and who I think is indulging in drama, and it’s not going to be open to discussion.

I give myself permission not to be responsible for other people.

I give myself permission to walk away from things that will hurt and damage me, and have no scope to achieve anything.

I’ll save what fighting I can do for the real stuff.

Magical energy exchange, and sheep

A few days ago around the subject of social contact, someone commented here to suggest that the internet could provide much of what I need for less effort. The internet does play a very important role in my life at the moment, and I value the intellectual stimulus it provides. It’s an insight into other people’s truths and experiences, a source of information and contact. I enjoy connecting with people through thinking. But, having let this lead for some years, I know also that it isn’t enough.

There can be genuine emotional connections made online, but those are rare. It can more readily sustain existing emotionally involved relationships than create them. I did, admittedly, find and fall in love with my husband via the internet, but that’s not generally how it goes for me, and often people who try this find it doesn’t work out. It’s very hard to form enduring emotional connections with someone you’ve not met in person. Not impossible, certainly, but very hard. There are forms of connection-making that happen in person and are hard to replicate at a distance.

Over the weekend, I sat in silence with a group of Druids, and stood rather less quietly with some very friendly sheep. I can sit in silence without other Druids, but to do it in company is a different experience, and having explored it repeatedly, it’s definitely richer. Without speaking or touching, the reality of being in the same place with people does something. The reality of being in the same place with sheep also does something, something affirming and comforting and not terribly easy to put into words. The acceptance of sheep is not something to take lightly.

Creatures of a non-human persuasion are often very choosy. They come closer or they stay away, and even if they don’t know you, they make those decisions at surprising speed. If they accept you, they’ll come over and make contact, and if they don’t, they will run away from any attempt you make at contact. The message is always clear. Sometimes, over time, they will decide that you can be trusted after all. Degrees of acceptance and closeness are available, coming in for a look or letting you be around are also powerful statements of acceptance, especially when dealing with wild creatures.

To be accepted is a powerful thing. Human creatures are not terribly good at physical expressions of acceptance and non-acceptance. We move closer when we don’t mean it, touch when we want to flee, stay when we feel uneasy, run away sometimes just because we can and not because of how we feel about this particular person but because we’ve needed to run away for a while…

When the contact is real, even if it’s just same space contact, not touching, something happens. Some of that is emotional and about feelings of being accepted and affirmed. I don’t think that’s all of it. Each one of us is an energy presence, and that energy occupies more than our bodies. To bring one body into proximity with another is to bring two energy systems into proximity. I’ve done that with magnets, but otherwise my notion of the science of energy is sketchy, my understanding of electricity in the human body even more so. What I do have is the first hand experience to say ‘something is different about this’, even though I can’t explain any of it. Something happens.

There is something nurturing, healing, uplifting, transformative about good contact, about sharing space with other living things. I feel the same way about trees. There is something in the exchange, something needed and good. Which means that while I value the head-sharing of the online world, I keep looking for those places where I can be physically in the same space as someone else. I often find non-human others easier company, but perhaps I can learn from that to better understand what it is I want to find in my own species.

Time off – quality and quantity

I’m trying to get into the habit of not working at least one day a week, writing the odd blog post in advance and staying off the computer. I’ve had a lot of years where a whole day off each week has not been a reliable feature. One of the problems with being a self employed person who is not earning a vast amount, is that it never feels safe to stop. Improvements in my economic circumstances have certainly contributed to feeling like I can have a day off, as increasing issues with exhaustion and mental health made the need for it all the more pressing. No one can run flat out forever.

In the last week, a friend introduced me to the idea of time contamination, and the way in which women don’t reliably get time off. After all, when I step away from the computer there’s still meals to sort, parenting to do, cleaning, laundry, and often this is on my mind. Time contamination is the idea that even in our free time, we’re still thinking about responsibilities to others and things we should be doing, so time off isn’t wholly free. I do this, pretty much all the time.

I don’t know how to stop. I don’t know if I should stop. Would it be ok to stop? What might go wrong if I’m not paying careful attention to everything, all the time?

I don’t know.

I have read plenty enough stuff about freeing yourself from all of this to live in the moment, and I suspect that may work if you don’t have the kind of ongoing responsibilities that need ongoing attention. It’s a way of life designed for people living simply in a monastery, and that may need bearing in mind. It’s not compatible with vulnerable dependents of any variety. It’s not compatible with a job that can’t be firmly boundaried and safely ignored out of hours. It’s not compatible with living with someone who needs you to be paying attention to things – and generally people do, pets do.

There are always things to figure out, to learn, to do better next time. Things to plan, to remember, to notice. The life I have depends a lot on doing this well, day to day. For me, paying attention is a form of caring. If I don’t know what’s going on, how can I get things right?

I have questions to ask about the degree to which I hold myself responsible, and the degree to which I am not allowing myself to step down. There may well be better balances to find, that still seem honourable to me, but do not require my total attention all the time.

Contemplative Druids

Today, I am involved with a Contemplative Druid gathering, which James Nichol has organised and I, amongst others, will be helping to facilitate.

Meditation has been a part of my Paganism since I was a teen – it pre-dates my involvement with Druidry. Part of the attraction at first is that I’m an imaginative, living in my own head kind of person and meditation plays to my strengths and keeps me in my comfort zone. However, exploring Druidry has encouraged me to look at how I might be more present in the world. Over the years I’ve stopped using meditation to escape and started using it to engage.

My first non-fiction book was on the subject of meditation – more here should you want it. Since then I’ve also contributed to James Nichol’s Contemplative Druidry book, and contributed an essay on prayer and meditation to the Paganism 101 anthology.

My own current practice is haphazard to say the least. I’m not really very good at working with a fixed pattern of practice. I try, and in the short term I may manage, but a daily practice is beyond me. I’ll do *something* every day, but it works better if I’m more spontaneous about what form it takes, and when. The edges of sleep remain my most productive times, but not the only times I pause and contemplate.

Stepping up to help facilitate is a big deal for me. I used to do a lot of this sort of thing and have run meditation groups. I’ve become very wary of the desire to be important, and possessive of my own energy reserves, and the combination makes me slower to offer than I used to be. I have to be sure that it’s more about service than ego, and not about crafting a place for myself based on the work I do, because that causes me all kinds of other problems.

The necessary ingredients for a social life

I’ve been thinking about this a lot, following on from feeling sorry for myself earlier in the week. What does it take to have a viable social life?

  1. People, obviously. People you like and have things in common with and want to spend time with and who do not run away when they see you. (There are many people I like, most of whom do not run away. Many of them do not live in viable travelling distance. Most of the more local folk are very busy already.)
  2. The time and energy to go out and do things with people. (I struggle with this one, especially when the only social stuff is in the evenings.)
  3. The means to go where there are people, or the means to have people visit. (Flat is a bit small for inviting people over, no car, often too tired to walk as transport in the evenings, public transport useless after dark, taxis expensive and difficult to sort in the evenings unless you know in advance when you will be leaving).
  4. Disposable income – for transport, door costs, drinks, appropriate clothing etc. (Not currently a problem but certainly has been in the past).
  5. The concentration to engage socially. (Intermittent and unreliable especially at night).
  6. Being sufficiently not anxious and not depressed to be able to function socially. (Unpredictable, gets worse as I become more tired).
  7. Being able to access and function in the space (not an issue for me, but I know other folk who can’t do stairs, or have other practical considerations that make many venues impossible).

We evolved to be social creatures, but live increasingly isolated lives. I remember what it was like being the parent of a small child and being almost entirely dependent on people coming to me for any social contact at all. I had a much bigger living room then. Almost everything runs on the assumption that you have a car, for those of us who don’t, participation in all manner of things is really tricky. I wonder how many other people are isolated by being too tired, by not having the funds, or are not emotionally together enough to be able to face being where other people are. It’s difficult, showing up to anything when you feel like you have nothing to offer.

A tough recognition for me, this week. I don’t have the energy and the concentration to be very socially engaged. I can’t put enough into the world to be a good person to spend time with. Frequently I am no fun at all to be around. I miss having a tribe of people I’d regularly and reliably spend time with, as was the case back when I was running a folk club, and a moot, and meditation groups and rituals. I don’t have the energy to be that person any more, and there are consequences.

Being able to show up is absolutely key to having a place in a social group. No one can do that for me, and I cannot do it for myself. I need to work on accepting my circumstances and limitations, rather than trying to do things that don’t work, or waiting for some kind of magical solution to turn up. I cannot be sociable. Therefore until or unless something changes within me, I had better get my head round mostly being a hermit.

Competitive Creativity

I have mixed feelings about competitions. The affirmation of winning can have a huge positive effect on a person, but of course most of the people who compete cannot, by definition win. Some will benefit from the experience of getting their creativity in front of others, some may well be noticed in ways that help them. Others will be demoralised and set back. As a bard, my preference has long been for the eisteddfod that does not choose a winner.

Last year I entered Stroud Short Story competition and was wholly surprised to be one of the ten people picked to read on the night. It was a huge morale boost for me, and brought me into contact with an array of fabulous local writers. This led to putting together an anthology of all the winning stories from previous years, which was a project I was very proud to pull together.

This year I am a judge for the same competition, alongside the lovely John Holland, who has been running the event for a while now. I’m conscious that my subjective judgement, my personal preferences are about to impact on some people. Am I good enough to judge anyone? Do I know enough to properly shoulder that responsibility? All I have is a degree in English literature, there are plenty of people round here working on the literature side at higher academic levels than that. I have some writing experience, some experience at the publishing side, but by no means am I the best qualified person for the job. I had the time, and I offered, and so often that’s what it comes down to. Not merit, but availability and willingness.

I’ve read all the stories, and some of them are so stand-out brilliant that I think anyone picking ten would pick them. Those are easy choices to make. Other choices to make up the ten will be trickier, and more to do with personal preferences. At the end, some people will be elated, and some will feel let down, and some will feel that the entire process was rather unfair and that a better judge would have made a better judgement. Such is the nature of competition.

But of course creativity is competitive. At the very least, you are competing with all the other creative people for a space to show your work – stage time, wall space, a publisher, or whatever it may be. You’re competing for the time and attention, and probably also the money of your potential audience. There are invariably winners and losers, and it isn’t always about who’s the best. Luck, marketing, and who you know will all play a part. And at every level of the business, there are people making judgements that move some forward and hold others back. The reasons for those judgements aren’t about the best art, they’re about the most sellable art, the most commercial. Many fantastic, original and inspired creative people in all fields will never get anywhere because the gatekeepers who check them out do not think they will sell enough to be worth the bother.

However uneasy I may feel about contests, I do have the comfort of knowing that I’m involved with a process to try and decide which are the ten best stories to read out-loud to an audience this November. Which ten in combination will create the best possible night. Which are the most unusual, the most original, the most interestingly written… all of my considerations are creative, and not at all about selling the work. I wonder how different our creative industries would be, if how to sell it wasn’t most usually the first question to be asked.

Running forward with alarming enthusiasm

Not so long ago, I saw someone in the street to whom I have not spoken in a few years now. A reminder of the things I do not do well around people and relationships. None of it is easy to think about, or to look at, but I promised myself honesty this year, and that means not dodging the things that are profoundly uncomfortable.

Based on observation, I’m a good person to have as an acquaintance. I can show up and be helpful as required, I’m not too intense, passably entertaining and so forth. I do fairly well with acquaintances, and there are a lot of people in my life who I know a little bit, have small amounts of contact with and who do not seem to find me especially problematic.

Generally where it goes wrong is where there’s any move to make that more involved. The people who move closer most usually move away again – and the faster they moved in, the faster they leave. A few years ago, in the space of a few months one round of this went from ‘we should be the new Inklings*’ to ‘our lives should never cross again’ and the extremity of it, both ways, still troubles me. I did not utter either line. This year has brought other rounds of people who moved forward and then away.

Mostly I stay still. I worry about being excessive and difficult to deal with, and increasingly I don’t share any of the more awkward bits of me. I am, if anything getting worse at putting a hand up to express fragility, or need, especially if I’m depressed. I know this would trouble me if I was watching someone else do it.  But what I do best (in terms of how I impact on other people) largely, are the less involved, less emotionally intimate connections with people. The exceptions to this are few and only one of them spends significant amounts of time with me in person.

It’s not lack of care or open heartedness on my part, I realise. There are a lot of people I care for deeply, a fair few people I would go so far as to say I love. Any move forward suggests the possibility for a balancing retreat a little way into the future. It’s a dance that has badly damaged my confidence, and I just don’t have the energy for it anymore. I think if anyone else ran at me, suggesting we could be some kind of fabulous thing, I would simply run away and spare myself the inevitable consequences.

What I have always wanted, were deep, enduring, open hearted friendships that were based on honesty, and trust. What I can do well are fairly superficial, open hearted, lightly available but be careful at all times kinds of friendships. Those of you who will respond to this with warmth and encouragement are people who are only slightly involved with my life, internet people, or people I see occasionally. Lovely people who I value, but who I increasingly believe are only ever going to be in my life as distant and occasional features. What I get alongside this are odd people running at me proclaiming that they will be all the things, and then running away again, and I do not know why. Why this is what I attract, and why I can’t deal with it better.

There was a brief moment of eye contact in the street, with the person who would have been the new Inklings with me. I looked down, and I kept moving. ‘Our lives should never cross again’ except of course that they do because it’s a small town and we have people in common. A final request that I do my best to honour, and which haunts me nonetheless. I’ve spent years not knowing what to do with any of this. I think the answer is to accept where my strengths are – being a certain kind of friend at a certain kind of distance, and to let go of the idea of having really close friends who would choose to be involved in my life in more than a brief run forwards and run away kind of style.


*Literary group involving Tolkien and C.S. Lewis.


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