Zen stories

Mindfulness as a practice mostly turns up these days stripped of its context. While it is possible to make something work out of context, I can’t help but feel uneasy about this. I’ve long had a gut feeling that mindfulness, and the Zen Buddhist tradition it comes from are not for me. Some of that is underpinned by how I understand Buddhism in relation to the world. For me it’s always seems like a path of transcendence, where the idea is to overcome the world, move beyond and above to free yourself. As a Pagan, I consider myself of this world, and I have no desire to transcend it.

This summer I read The Spirit of Zen, by Solala Towler, and reviewed it for Spiral Nature. You can read the review here – http://www.spiralnature.com/reviews/spirit-of-zen-towler/

I learned more about the history of Zen in the introduction to this book that I’ve ever picked up from the casual New Age mindfulness material out there. It did not change my opinion that Zen would not be a good addition to my Pagan world view.

The Spirit of Zen is for the greater part a collection of Zen stories, or koans. These are fascinating. I think in the west we’re used to the idea that teaching stories come with their message writ large and easy to spot. Christian parables do not make you work to figure out what you should learn from the story. Koans, by contrast, are not easy to understand. The meanings are obscure, not self announcing. What they say loud and clear to the casual reader is that you need to spend years working with these tales to come to your own understanding. As many of the tales feature teacher/student scenarios, the casual reader can see that right understandings exist, and that the whole point is to work for them.

Mindfulness is part of the Zen process. So are the koans. I expect there are other things too that as a casual observer, I’ve not picked up on. This is a path towards enlightenment, one that must be worked hard for and yet at the same time cannot be attained by working hard at it. Here there are clear overlaps with Taoism, and at the points of overlap I almost felt I knew what was going on. However, there was a violence in these stories that I found unsettling, and did not understand, and do not know how to respond to. As this is not my path, I’m ok with that, but it makes me wonder about how we bandy Zen about in western thinking and whether we’d still do that if we’d all read the story about the monk who kills a cat to make a point to his students which as far as I can make out, the students don’t actually get.

The question is, what happens when you take part of a process and use it in a way it was not intended for? Clearly it isn’t going to work in the same way that being part of the true process would. How much power does an activity lose if taken out of context? How much meaning does it have? How much is the breadth and history of a tradition important to following it, in whole or in part? How much can you ignore and still say you are doing the things? Modern Christians cherry-pick all the time from their traditions and their sacred text. To some degree this is both necessary and normal, but to what degree?

I don’t have any answers here, but I think the questions are important.


Raised upon these hills

This is a song I wrote this year, very much inspired by the landscape I grew up in, and reflecting on my relationship with it. My Druidry is very much rooted in my land – the edge of the Cotswolds and the Severn vale, some of which you can see in this video.

The video itself was originally shot for a Pagan Disabilities festival.

I put the two together about a month ago as an offering to my Patreon folk. There’s a lot to learn about making videos, and its something I want to invest more time in, putting words, spoken or sung, music, images, films together in effective ways. My next Patreon goal is to get to the point where I can make at least a video per month, my theory being that if I do enough of it, I’ll be able to do a better job of it! I’m www.patreon.com/NimueB

Perfect Autumn

Thus far this September has gifted me with a few days that are, to my mind, perfect autumn. We’ve had out share and then some of rain, and grey, overcast days, and we’ve not yet had the mists or the frosts, but I expect those will be along later.

September at its best means waistcoats, jackets or jumpers but not having to bundle up in heavy coats just yet. It means scarves for fun, not a shivering necessity. As most of my clothes preferences tend towards layers, this is the kind of weather my clothes best suit and I most enjoy wearing things I like.

It’s perfect walking weather – a dry and bright day, but not so hot as to make moving arduous, and with no risk of heat stroke. These are good laundry days too, and as someone who depends a lot on wind power for drying, I really appreciate that.

I also really enjoy the way it gets dark earlier but isn’t too cold to be out at night doing something – either moving about, or with a little extra cover. I had a fantastic evening in a tent, for example. It won’t be long before that kind of evening is impossible without a fire.

Every season offers things to enjoy, and every season has its own challenges. I think the trick is to make the best of the good stuff without feeling like you ahve to pretend the difficult things don’t exist.

Celebrating the Equinox

I’ve always found equinoxes tricky, not least because I’ve never found much in the way of folk tradition to draw on. There is a lovely modern tradition that makes the 21st of September International Peace Day, and that’s something worth tapping into, certainly.

This equinox might, therefore be a good time to think about who we include in our ritual circles, and who we don’t. Superficial peace is easily achieved – distance, absence, ignoring, denying, silencing, disappearing, disempowering – all of this can make for a peaceful scenario for those who come out on top. However, for those who are silenced and vanished, the problems and the effect of being denied is the exact opposite of peace.

In the long term, the superficial peace that silences the unpeaceful will beget future conflicts. Real peace means dealing with the problems. It means looking at our conflicts and trying to work out what to do with them. It means asking what we do about people who mistreat others within our communities, and it means recognising that to do nothing is always to support the aggressor and to deny the victim.

It is ok for people to fall out, disagree, find they can’t work together and move on. Great things can come from people realising they don’t like a thing and striking out to make the thing they want on their own terms. This kind of division does not have to be ultimately unpeaceful. The separation may be messy, but if we can respect our differences, we can all move on in good ways.

Sometimes the actions, words or behaviour of one person will put another person in a situation they can’t deal with. We tend to treat this as an individual problem rather than a community one. We let the person go who feels least able to stay. Power and popularity may prove more important than justice and fairness. If there’s nothing more to it than a personality clash, then perhaps the only thing to do is weather the short term grief and start over. Some things cannot easily be fixed.

Groups in the habit of pushing people out are not good groups to be in. Groups that tacitly support bullying, because there’s someone powerful in the centre of the group, are not good spaces. So much of this echoes the playground, where there are always kids who will gravitate towards the deliberately nasty one in the hopes that by supporting them, they will never be the victim themselves.

So at this time of balance, I invite you to think about how we hold our edges. How we let people go when they need to, and how we work together when there’s conflict that needs collective solutions. What we do with people when they are out of order, what we do with people when they are hurt? If you are standing in circle today, or at the weekend, think about the peace of your circle and what maintains it, think about your community as a whole. Ask whether you have true peace, or the calm that comes from ignoring the issues, or making the problems go away.

Long term relationships

It’s easy to get excited about another person in the short term. Some of that has to do with the chemistry of sexual attraction and all the mad, glorious things that does to us, briefly. Emotional, intellectual, even spiritual attractions to people can be very intense at the exciting, beginning period, and then fade over time. We’ve heard all their stories. We’ve found out more of who they really are, and they turn out to be as flawed as everyone else. The promised magic of those early days turns out to be just another illusion.

This is something I’ve been talking about a lot with my other half, having spent most of our time together over the last seven years. We’ve both been in other relationships in the past, and this one, is definitely different.

One of the conclusions we came to is that we don’t treat our relationship as a defined, settled tidy thing. We never will. We check in with each other, and things change. We’ve both changed a great deal since we got involved, but rather than growing apart, we’ve grown together.

We make a point of being interesting, and being interested. We do things for each other and we do things together – not as some kind of special occasion activity, but as a default setting for daily life.

It is very easy for established relationships of any shape to become habit, and thus become dull and lacklustre. Once we think we know each other. Once we’ve settled into a nice routine. Once we don’t think we need to ask, or check, or discuss. When people take each other for granted, they don’t give the other person any room to change, and when the other person changes, they miss it, and it can so easily spiral out of control from there. Hold someone to the needs, beliefs, hope and desires they had when you first met them, and ten years later you will not be dealing with the reality of who they are.

Relationships that work are not boxes we make to shut ourselves into. A good relationship is made of deliberate choices – from moment to moment in every word, gesture, thought and action. A good relationship is about how we are when we wake up together in the morning. It’s what we do, and choose to do. An ongoing, deliberate process of commitment, exploration and care.

The Dandelion Farmer – a review

Mathew McCall’s The Dandelion Farmer is an extraordinary piece of steampunk writing. It’s set on Mars in the 1800s (there are reasons, but they are a fair way into the book, so, no spoilers). So we have steam trains, guns, airships, and telegrams, in what would more normally be a high tech, futuristic kind of setup if you’re used to reading sci-fi. Retro-Mars is dealing with all the issues of empire and colonialism that beset the Victorian era. Exploring those issues in such an imaginary context is brilliant because it allows the author to raise issues and express the breadth of attitudes – from the abhorrent to the enlightened – without it being too uncomfortable.

There’s a definite wild west vibe when the book opens. An unscrupulous man is trying to make a land grab, and sends thugs to terrorise a farming family – the dandelion farmer of the title. The dandelions are being farmed for biofuel. Gun fights, chases, corruption and heroism duly ensue.

From there we get into unravelling the back story of Mars, seen from various perspectives. The plot moves forward around a quest to make touch with the apparently vanished Aresian people. There’s a fine example of the kind of thinking going on in this book. People who have come from Earth to colonise Mars, are Martians. To distinguish them from original peoples, the former inhabitants are called Aresians, for Ares, the older god associated with the planet. Earth people are Tellurians. However at the outset there are a lot of names for groups of sentient beings and there’s a lot of fun to be had figuring out, who exactly, is what.

The narrative emerges from ephemera – reports, telegrams, letters, diaries, text books. It means the story is told through multiple voices, and I found those voices consistent, identifiable and engaging. The possible downside is that often you see the same events two or three times from different angles. Either you’ll love this, or you won’t. I really enjoy the way characters emerge in this process, and doubt over what, precisely happened at key moments, can develop from the differences.

The politics are really interesting. There are female characters trapped in Victorian standards and modes of behaviour. There are also female characters striking out and breaking the rules and finding varying levels of support for doing so. While most of the main characters have titles, there’s plenty of attention drawn to the poverty and exploitation that goes alongside colonialism and empire building. There’s also an underlying theme about corporate power that speaks to modern issues and pulls no punches in doing so. The author asks explicitly what happens when democracy is for sale to the capitalist with the most money, and the real-world parallels are obvious.

In terms of world building, this book is vast and epic, setting up for what I hope is going to be a series. It stands alone, but certainly left me wanting a lot more, because I was so fascinated by what happens in The Dandelion Farmer. I want to know what happens to these characters. I’m an occasional sci-fi reader, and it felt to me as though Matt has read every book imagining Mars and somehow distilled it all down into this uber-text. As though all other writers had glimpsed facets, and he’s somehow seen the whole. It’s impressive. This is a Mars unlike any I’ve seen before (I haven’t read everything, mind) yet it seems familiar. The book is full of nods to other writings, some of which I laughed over when I realised what they were. It’s clever, funny, knowing, and rewarding.

On top of that, the book explores questions about what it means to be alive, to be human, to be not-human. No answers are offered at this stage and these, I suspect, will be key issues in future books.

You can find The Dandelion Farmer here – https://www.amazon.com/Dandelion-Farmer-Mathew-McCall/dp/1549539140

Non-Patriarchal Parenting

It is my belief that traditional western parenting models are all about getting children into the system. We have taught children that the authority of the parent is based on their ability to inflict pain/punishment and their ability to withhold resources as punishment. Patriarchal parenting values obedience over all else, it teaches the child to submit to the will of the parent and not to question the will of the parent. By extension, the child learns to bow to authority and participate in systems of power-over. This causes problems around consent and exploitation.

Inevitably, when bringing up children, there is, and has to be a power imbalance. The younger a child is, the less able they are to care for themselves and the harder it is for them to make good choices because they just don’t know enough. I’ve seen a lot of media representations that suggest there are only two ways of parenting – good, responsible, disciplined parenting (patriarchy) or wet liberal ineptitude that will spoil the child entirely and leave them unable to cope with the real world. So, here are some tactics that I think help if you want to raise a child in non-patriarchal ways.

Be clear that you don’t know everything, you aren’t automatically right, you aren’t some sort of God and you don’t always know what’s best. Admit that you can make mistakes and do not ask your child to believe in the rightness and infallibility of your power.

Any chance you can, explain why you are setting rules, or boundaries, or saying no. Help them understand. Explain to them that they don’t know enough yet to make good choices and that you are helping them get to the point where they can make these choices for themselves. As they become more able to make their own choices, give them the opportunity to do that. Start them off with safe spaces where they can afford to make mistakes and learn from them.

Ask your child for their opinion, thoughts, feelings and preferences. Be clear that they won’t always get what they want, but that their opinion matters and is noted. Take their feelings and opinions seriously and make sure they can see that you do this.

Teach them to negotiate with you. Tell them that if they can make a good and reasoned case for why they want a thing, they might get it. As a bonus, this lures a child away from screaming and temper tantrums really quickly if they can see it works.

Recognise that they are capable of knowing more about something than you do (for me, it was dinosaurs very early on).

Give them opportunities to say no to you, and have that honoured. This is especially important around body contact, and establishing how consent works, and their right to say no. Create situations where it doesn’t matter if they say yes or no, and then let them decide.

I found that doing this meant I could also say ‘if I give you an order, you are to follow it without question or hesitation’ and have that be taken seriously by the child. It was understood that I would only do this in emergencies when there wasn’t time to explain or negotiate, and that I would explain afterwards if necessary.

I found that taking my child seriously and only giving orders in emergencies meant that my child trusted me, was likely to co-operate with me, and did not see what authority I needed to wield as unfair. As a consequence, he doesn’t treat power over others as something he needs as the only way of avoiding people having power over him.

Poverty, diet and mental health

Brain chemistry informs our moods and thinking processes. That chemistry depends on what comes into our bodies. The person who has an inadequate diet is much more vulnerable to mental health problems. Good food is also essential to a physically well body. A good immune system, and the means to heal and repair, all depends in part on what we eat. The energy to be active, or just to get through the day depends on what we eat. If you aren’t eating properly, the resulting poor health will have a knock on effect on your mental health.

The single biggest cause of poor diet, is poverty.

These are not radical thoughts on my part, there’s lots of information out there about all of these things. What there isn’t, is the political will to deal with any of it. Food is a luxury to be sold at the highest price you can because that’s how the market works. The mental health of the poor is just another sacrifice the rich may have to make in the pursuit of ever more wealth. Our collective priorities are badly skewed.

Food has become such an emotionally loaded thing as well. The diet and beauty industries are massive, and spend their time advertising to us the idea that we just aren’t good enough and must buy their things. Body shaming and fat shaming layer on the misery, and skinny shaming is also a thing. For some there’s the additional nightmare of full on eating disorders. Bodies are something to exploit for other people’s profit.

I know from experience that depression and anxiety are not the only possible consequences of impoverished diets. Quite some years ago, an elderly relative of mine in a state of grief, stopped eating. This was only noticed because they became dangerously delusional. They were taken into care, and once re-hydrated and nourished for a while, turned around very quickly. There are reasons some shamanic traditions use extreme fasting to open the mind – the mind does in fact open, and if you aren’t doing it in a supported way, that opening can break you.

I also know from personal experience that food mistakes leading to brain chemistry issues do not leave a person well placed to sort this stuff out. As a small scale example, if I mess up with the blood sugar, I can end up panicking and feeling unable to deal with food situations at all. I find social eating stressful in some contexts, and when the blood sugar is low, the panic sneaks in and can stop me from doing the most helpful things – namely getting food into me.

Poverty is a difficult thing to deal with, undermining a person’s life and wellbeing in a great many ways. Poor mental health is also a tough thing to deal with and a destroyer of quality of life. But what do we do collectively? What do our politicians do? Blame the poor for not trying hard enough. It’s an obscenity, and it has to stop.

Advice for heroines – fictionish

Advice for heroines

There comes a point, usually rather late in the story, where saving the man from the patriarchy may look like a job with your name on it.

At this point, the odds are he’ll be blaming a woman and not the system for what’s happened to him. It is his mother’s fault for eating forbidden fruit. It is because of the faerie queen who wants to use his body as a sacrifice. They all have stories in which it isn’t their fault, and it most certainly isn’t the system.

You are allowed to walk away. What follows is messy, may not work and will cost you dearly. It is up to you to decide is he is worth the work of trying to save him.

Some of them have grown extra skins to protect themselves. Armour. Defences. Essential. They will not feel safe about shedding the layers designed to keep you and the rest of the world from touching what is soft and delicate inside them. It may cost you skin. You might wash it all away with your tears. You will hear all the stories about Queens, Witches, Stepmothers, Unfaithful Lovers and the rest who made them like this. They never speak of Kings, Wizards, Bad Fathers, Treacherous Brothers as though this system is only half of the people in it.

Sometimes you will have to hold them as they shapeshift through all the forms forced upon them. Man as animal, devoid of self control. Man the predator, the crusher, the devourer. All the uses this system has for their bodies. The pressure to feel no tender things, to deny the gentle, generous parts. They are made for the corporate machine and you may find a red hot bar of iron in your hands before you are done.

At the end, if you endure, there will be a naked man. He may be afraid and confused. He may regret the changes. He may think himself diminished and blame you. Or, he might come to your arms as the person he always meant to be, and stand with you as a friend and ally. Whatever else you are to each other is your own business. It is an old story that if you save them, you must wed them. No need to go through all of that just to trip over the punchline.

Not so clever

As words go ‘stupid’ is a problematic one, and seldom deployed in useful ways. It is usually meant as an insult, and to place responsibility on the shoulders of the person it is aimed at.

If ‘stupid’ is used to refer to someone who lacks the mental processing power, then ‘struggling’ might be a more useful term. If there’s a hardware issue, then what people tend to need is more time. More support, and better support are also considerations. It is not the fault of the person who can’t keep up. The onus is on everyone else to make it possible to keep up.

If ‘stupid’ refers to a lack of knowledge and education, then this is something most likely beyond a person’s control. Poverty, family background, racism, sexism – these things often contribute to a lack of educational opportunity. It’s hard to learn if you’re hungry, if no one takes you seriously, if you’ve got bigger things to worry about… If the problem is a lack of information, the onus is on the people who know to make that information available and accessible.

If ‘stupid’ is used to refer to a lack of wisdom or common sense, it is worth bearing in mind that this is subjective territory. We can all be wise in hindsight, and the more experience we have the more we might be able to predict things. Education can be a factor here, as can exposure to misinformation. It’s worth remembering there was a time when wise men knew the earth was flat and only stupid people thought it was round. Wisdom is subjective.

Intelligence is not a single, all encompassing quality. I have a good head for words, but very little visual intelligence. Some people have stupendous physical intelligence. Some people have incredible mathematical intelligence. Some people have academic intelligence but not much handle on day to day life. Calling someone stupid because they aren’t clever at the thing you are clever at, or at the thing you want them to be clever at usually dismisses what it is that they are clever at. Most people do have areas of strength and ability if you have the inclination to look for them.

When people with power want to manipulate people with less power, they can do so by turning ‘stupid’ into a virtue. If experts are suspect, evidence is fake news, and opinions matter more than facts, the will of the people can become a really toxic idea. Communist China did it. Contemporary politics in the UK and America is trying it.

One of the most popular uses of ‘stupid’ is to denigrate someone who disagrees. It’s a simple enough process, trying to imply that the truth is self evident and therefore something must be wrong with anyone who doesn’t see it that way. However, if you want to seem clever, defending your position with logic, evidence and clear arguments is a good deal more convincing than putting people down. The person who calls others stupid is setting themselves up for similar treatment, which isn’t an especially clever course of action.

Then there are the people who refuse to learn, or to look at facts and evidence. The people who won’t hear and won’t know and think their opinion is worth more than the evidence. The wilfully ignorant. The people who have bought into a story so entirely that they cannot bear to have it challenged. The people who can’t face the truth and so wrap themselves in lies to be able to cope. The people who gain more from lies, and who may lose their advantages were the truth to be more visible. Sometimes, some or all of the above issues apply to them. The rest of the time, it’s not effective to call them out over their intelligence. Instead, we have to call them out over what they are doing. Keep pointing at the evidence.