Category Archives: Meditation

Meditating on sound

Over recent weeks, I’ve been working with naturally occurring sound for meditation. It’s warm enough to have the window open, so I can lie on the bed and listen to the stream or to the bird song. Both create interesting challenges.

There’s no rhythm or logic to the songs of many birds overlapping. It’s not at all like listening to human music and so my mind, trained as it is and predisposed also, doesn’t actually handle it as well as it would more predictable sounds. The stream is similar – what sounds like a constant babble turns out, on deeper contemplation, to be a stream of sound that my brain cannot quite predict or settle into. As a consequence I find my attention drifts and I have to consciously haul myself back to paying attention.

Contemplative listening of course cannot tune out the sounds of cars, dogs, people, and other perhaps less-attractive noises that make up my sound environment. All of these come unexpectedly. The sound around me does not permit a smooth state of mind, I cannot drift off with it, I have to be an active participant and maintain my attention deliberately.

It is also possible to go the other way, treating stream and song as background noise, hearing not the details but the flow, and I find if I do that, I drift away from the sound, and soon I’m not really hearing any of it and the thoughts in my head quietly take over. It can be a good way of getting to sleep, but it doesn’t give me active engagement.

So, I’m working on being present to my soundscape – not trying to empty my thoughts, but trying to be as fully aware of and interested in the ongoing sounds around me as I can be. I’m finding it a really interesting practice.


Contemplative Druidry

I first joined Contemplative Druidry as a facebook group, but by happy chance I moved to Stroud, which was the location for physical meetings, so about four years ago, I started going to those as well. It brought me into contact with many likeminded people locally. The monthly opportunity to sit in contemplation with others was a tremendously valuable experience. The habit of looking at where I am in my life and being witnessed in a held space has been good for me too.

Yesterday was the final session. It struck me how rare a privilege it is to close something with care and attention. How often the last time we do something, we only know in hindsight. Consciously and deliberately bringing something to an end, honouring its history, and letting it go is a beautiful thing to get to do, and very much in keeping with my experience of the group as a whole. I’m sad that we’re letting it go, but also in no doubt that it was the right call.

This was the last thing I did in a group that had a Druid label on it. I let go my Druid Network membership a while ago, I gave up volunteering for OBOD and I fell out of Druid Camp last year. I no longer have active membership of any Druid thing. In fact, the only thing I’m still doing that has the Druid label on it, is this blog.

For me, the group aspect of Druidry has always been key. Last time I found myself not involved in any Druid space, and asked what it meant to be a solitary Druid. A friend pointed out that what it makes me, is a hedge witch. The labels become irrelevant if you aren’t using them to connect with other people.

In the same timeframe as this last great putting down, I’ve had a lot of bardic opportunities come into my life. Last time I fell off the edge of Druidry, I was feeling really isolated as a consequence. This time, it is easier because there’s so much else going on – music, art, live performance, time with friends. The labyrinths will be my contemplative practice in coming months. I don’t feel lost or cut adrift, it’s just a shift in focus. Going back to the bard path feels like a good and right thing at the moment.

Everything has its time, it’s season. Recognising when something has run its course isn’t easy, but I think the whole process of the contemplative Druidry group has been a good one and I am proud to have been a part of it.


Meditation and pain

Pain is no aid to concentration. For the person in pain, being in the body is often the last thing you want. However, many meditation techniques start by focusing a person on their body – on breathing especially, and deep breathing at that, and on awareness of physical presence. Some meditation methods are purely about being present to yourself. If you’re in a lot of pain, it’s not an appealing prospect.

It is possible to meditate while in pain, and to benefit from doing so, but many approaches won’t work at all.

For mild pain, and pain that comes from tension, it may be possible to get some relief using meditation practices that focus on relaxation. However, for many of us, this will make little positive difference and may just serve to unhappily increase personal awareness of pain.

Make sure that everything in your meditation environment supports and enables your comfort. Ignore any other advice you have to, to achieve this. Any restful position that improves your comfort, any mild activity you can meditate around is good. Don’t do anything that adds to your pain, no matter what anyone else has to say about its value. People who are not in pain can have some funny ideas about what’s going to be useful, I have found.

Pick meditations that don’t depend on you having good concentration. Guided meditation CDs may help, listening to meditation music, cloud watching, contemplating a physical object – things where you can drift away and drift back, but which do not focus you on your pain.

Alternatively, pick a scenario that you would find it good to be in, and contemplate it. A sunny beach, an isolation tank, a sauna, a woodland in spring – whatever makes you feel good and can be easily imagined. Flight is a favourite of mine when I want to be away from my body, as is visualising myself floating in warm water. If you drift, just re-start, as there’s no narrative and no goal, it doesn’t matter if you can’t hold the thought for very long.

Meditate only for as long as works for you. Some bodies stiffen and become more painful if kept still for too long, so especially ignore the old chestnut about how if twenty minutes seems a long time you should be doing it for an hour… A lot of mainstream meditation advice comes from people who are largely well and assumes the person on the receiving end is fine, too. You know your body and you know your limits and no one is entitled to demand that you hurt yourself for a spiritual practice.


Meditation and mental health issues

It’s widely suggested that the more extreme end of mental health problems and meditation are not a good mix. For those who suffer delusions, and struggle with consensus reality, any journey into the mind is potentially fraught with danger. It’s very easy to imagine this is an issue for other people, for people somehow set aside by things that make ‘them’ separate from ‘us’. This is not so.

The way a brain functions is influenced by its environment and the way in which it is used, as well as all the hardware issues. Any brain can become dysfunctional – obsessive thinking, and narcissism are wholly available to all of us. Any of us can court delusion, and can render ourselves dysfunctional. Used the wrong way, mediation can be a very problematic thing indeed.

I’ve done whole meditation days, and as an occasional thing they are wonderful, but I also had a friend who took up meditating full time and destroyed his life and mind in the process. Whether the meditation was a cause or a symptom it’s hard to say, but either way it needed taking seriously.

We can use meditation to build and reinforce a sense of being special, spiritual, superior, and this can help lead us astray. If we are creating pathworkings and visualisations, it’s important to keep an eye on what ideas we are reinforcing, what we tell ourselves about the kind of people we are and the sort of world we inhabit. This is by no means easy, and a mind that is unwell is least equipped to see how an apparently spiritual course of action might be turning into something damaging. It is easy (I speak from experience here) to use meditation time to reinforce fears, obsessions, and to keep running round the very loops we need to avoid.

There are no easy answers to avoiding this. Checking in with other people can help, as can watching out for situations where you’re being asked to validate an experience that might not be a good thing to validate. If you think someone else is hurting themselves with meditation, an aggressive challenge is not the answer, that much is clear.

Meditation should be about calming the mind, opening to inspiration and insight, self knowledge, creativity, relaxation and delight. However, much the same can be said of cake and ice-cream, and if you go overboard with those you can ruin your bodily health. Balance is key, and knowing that the risks are available to anyone may help.


Meditation and anxiety

Meditation can be really helpful for managing anxiety, but it can also trigger it. The most important thing to bear in mind is that the individual (be that you, or someone you are working with) is always right. If it doesn’t feel good, it isn’t good, simple as that. It doesn’t matter how useful or helpful someone else thinks a practice is, if it triggers anxiety, don’t do it.

For some of us, learning to control breathing is a great aid in dealing with panic. My panic attacks tend to impact on my breath – the more dramatic the attack, the more likely I am to lose control of my breathing. The discipline of breath control learned in meditation can help me avoid hyperventilating, and it can also help me reassert normal breathing if I have been panicked into entirely losing it. However, breath control is not a magic cure all, and if controlling your breath leaves you feeling anxious, it won’t help you.

A guided meditation or visualisation can be really good for taking the disturbed mind away from itself for a bit. A pathworking can be a wonderful distraction that allows the mind some respite. However, you have to trust the person who is speaking it for you. A recording that you can check through ahead of time may be of most use. A friend who knows your issues may be safe enough, but anyone leading can make mistakes – I’ve triggered participants in meditation, in all innocence. On one occasion I blew out the candle, not knowing one of the people meditating with me was seriously afraid of the dark.

If having someone else tell you what to do pushes anxiety buttons, stay away from guided meditations.

Often, anxiety issues relate to a fundamental fear of losing control or being powerless. Meditation can help you assert a sense of being in control of your own mind, able to step in and out of practices and ideas as you choose. Pick ways of working that support your right to determine what happens inside your head, and that affirm your sense of being in control.

You can use meditation as a safe space to confront issues of not being in control. You can face specific fears by visualising situations, explore letting go of protective measures and use contemplation to work on, or work out underlying issues. This can go a long way towards dealing with the causes of anxiety, but it’s something to do in your own time and on your own terms.


Meditation for depression

Depression tends to take people into the dark places of their own minds. Consequently, any form of meditation that is basically about stilling your mind and noticing your thoughts, will not help. There are times when noticing that you are thinking in a depressive way will be useful, but it can easily reinforce the experience. Further, depression tends to undermine concentration and create feelings of apathy and pointlessness, which can make some meditations technically very difficult.

On the whole, meditation that takes you out of yourself is the most useful. Techniques with the potential to distract, and inspire can help shift a mood while anything that makes you more self aware can perpetuate it.

I recommend deliberate concentration on something other than the self. Anything you like will work. It could be a houseplant or the view from a window, an oracle card, an object – natural or created. Skies, landscapes, birdsong, the feel of grass under your hand. Whatever appeals to you.

Then simply sit with it and pay it a lot of attention. Notice the details, let those details fill your thoughts. If your mind derails you, just take a few deep breaths and go back to what you were doing, or let your attention shift to some other external thing. Do it for as long as you feel comfortable.

In this way, the benefits of slowing down are available without the hazards of introspection.

Physical meditation practices, and recorded visualisations and pathworkings are also worth a thought. I wouldn’t recommend trying to do visualisation from books as the odds are you won’t have the concentration, but a friendly voice on a CD will keep you on track if you want to do something more creative with your brain.

Don’t push yourself into anything that doesn’t feel right. Being gentle with yourself is very often essential for getting out of a depressive hole, any pressure to ‘be spiritual’ or ‘be disciplined’ about something uncomfortable can leave you feeling worse off, not better.


Meditation and Me

I’ve noticed of late a frustration and resistance when I read other people’s meditation books, and it’s taken me a while to figure out what’s going on there. It’s not like I pick up a meditation book with the intention (conscious or otherwise) of being annoyed by it. I am, and always have been, interested in learning new techniques and ideas.

Every book is based on assumptions about who the reader is, and this, I eventually realised is the essence of my problem. Meditation books teach us how to quiet our noisy minds, how to still our inner chaos.

I’ve been meditating more days than not for more than half my lifetime, but many of the key effects had kicked in long before I hit my twenties. Unless I deliberately sit to allow mind wandering and wool gathering, there is no white noise in my conscious thinking. There may be a song playing on my inner soundtrack, but other than that I have one, clear and deliberate line of thought. Things coming up from my unconscious do so in bubbles, surfacing in a noticeable way that I can then follow through on deliberately. I can have moments of inner silence at will if I’m waiting for one of those bubbles. Noise and chaos are really rare and most usually a consequence of being ill.

Meditation books (mine included) don’t really have much to say to the person whose mind is already quiet, already disciplined and free from chatter. I’m very conscious of my own emotions, I don’t need to spend time in meditation noticing them because I have a good relationship with them already. And so I get frustrated reading books that tell me how busy, noisy and out of control the inside of my head is.

What comes next? Other than the day to day practical benefits of having a calm, single line of thought with room for things bubbling up from the unconscious, what do I do with meditation? Often the answer with any spiritual practice is just to do more of the same, only to do it with more depth. Do it slower. Do it more. I think for me it’s going to mean a deliberate process of working on bits of me I know are wonky and I want to change.

It strikes me though, that if all meditation books do is talk about the issues of inner noise, it’s not entirely helpful. Yes, most books talk about developing inner calm, poise and peace, but in terms of what that’s like to live with, I’ve not seen much insight. Like most things I suspect it is what we make of it, and how it plays out will depend on our choices and preferences. Inside my head is a single, clear voice, because I’m a wordy creature and it suits me to communicate with myself in language. Other people will likely get other things, based on what works best for them. What long term meditation creates is the scope to have the inside of your head work in a way that feels good and is functional. Perhaps it is as well no one out there is issuing instructions on what that should look like because it gives us all chance to develop on our own terms.


Bardic meditation

Meditating is not a single, simple practice to cover all possible needs and people. There are many ways of meditating, and your intentions should inform your method. If you meditate to support your bardic work, then simply creating inner peace and calm isn’t going to be enough on its own. Holding inner stillness may mean that you are shutting off the flows of inspiration.

For bardic meditation, opening the self to inspiration is the likely motive for doing the work. By becoming still and quiet, we can allow two things to happen – we can become more aware of what is outside us, and we can make room for things to bubble up inside us. We can use meditation time to focus on a concept, place, object, story, or person in order to engage with it and seek insight and inspiration. Or we can just let the world in, by being still and open, and see what happens.

The best creative thinking isn’t worked for, it’s allowed. When we let our dreaming, imagining minds play freely, the awen is most likely to flow. Try to force and direct it and you are more likely to get something that feels pushed and contrived. Mediation can make a space for unconscious thinking to rise gently to the surface. By letting the mind settle, space can be made for gloriously mad connections to be made, essential what-if questions to be asked and so forth. So we may start with some standard techniques for stilling and settling, but once ‘in the zone’ the last thing we want to do is notice and let go of our thoughts. Instead, we need to notice and explore what arrives. A deliberate wool gathering, daydreaming time, where we go with what happens.

The best creative work happens when we’re engaging with both the outer and the inner worlds. Too much outer work can become drab, or at the moment, demoralising. Too much inner work and we can be too far away with the faeries for anyone else to benefit from our ideas. As ever, some elements of balance are required.

When considering any meditation, it’s important to know how the practice you are working with relates to emotions. Many people offer meditation as a way of escaping from or controlling emotion, with the goal being inner peace, and emotions viewed as something to let go of. For the bard, emotions will be the driving force in our work. Effective creativity makes the audience feel something, and to achieve that, the bard must be fluent in their own emotions, and have a good idea how other people may think and feel. Creativity is more likely to come from inner passion than from inner stillness. Rather than letting go of our feelings, we need to explore them, work with them and give them room for expression.


Along the Way: A review

 

Author Simon Cole comes from a counselling background to the subject of meditation, and the result is a small book which I can wholeheartedly recommend. I’ve never seen an approach to mediation quite like this before!

How the book works is that you get a section of philosophy, pondering the kind of broad life issues that most people will be able to relate to. Then you get a short meditation that allows you to take those ideas further on your own terms.

This is very much a contemplative approach to meditation. There’s quite a lot of the ‘just noticing’ that I’ve seen in meditations that claim a Zen-approach, but again Cole’s book is not like anything I’ve seen before. Noticing becomes a deliberate process of engaging with a series of things – perhaps in your body or your immediate environment. It’s an invitation to engage with the world in a non-judgemental way, and to see what arises from that.

It’s a beautifully non-dogmatic little book, with invitations aplenty for the reader to go their own way, come to their own conclusions and hold their own beliefs.

The sections are short, making it ideal for people who need a pointer for a brief meditation – an ideal book to keep to hand for when you need a prompt or a focus. These are great exercises for busy minds, and for the kinds of people who want to take the stillness of meditation and do something with it.

I thought it was great, I’ll definitely be reading his most recent title soon.

Along the way on amazon – https://www.amazon.co.uk/Along-Way-themed-meditations-living/dp/1539065308/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1477315631&sr=1-1&keywords=along+the+way%2Csimon+cole


12 circles and Labyrinth success

My latest Labyrinth experiment took me back to the jackdaw grove, better prepared. I’d spent a while cutting strips of fabric to use for markers, and large triangles to help me define turns in the design. I knew I didn’t have enough fabric for the whole thing, but I got the first six circles, which reduced the need for foraging and sped up the whole process. It took three of us 2 hours working flat out to create the 12 circles labyrinth. We all walked it. A toddler and parent walked a bit of it, and a nice man we didn’t know came and walked it too, which felt really validating.

By the end of the process, I had the same cleared out, free floating headspace I normally have to spend a day walking to achieve. While this was intensive on the body (2 hours full of bending and squatting has left my muscles a tad sore today!) It’s not on the scale of time or impact as a 15 mile walk, but still does wonderful restorative things to my head.

It was a lovely afternoon. A buzzard, a raven and a kestrel flew over (this was not a ‘wild’ space). There were little whirlwinds playing in the leaves, and the sun shone down up on us.

Strips of fabric have charm, but they take a lot of cutting, and they catch in the wind easily. They need weighting down with found items. Leaves tend to catch on trousers and boots as you go past, and can cause havoc with rearranging paths. Better not to forage recently cut branches with dead leaves on them. It is better to make a bigger labyrinth with a more generous width of path or some of the tight turns near the centre are a bit awkward. This, however, means using more material. Very thick string/very thin rope is good – we had some white cord left over from a different project, it stays still in the wind, shows up well and isn’t heavy to carry.

I have added ten small carbon poles from a broken tent to my kit bag – as these will help delineate the turns. I just happened to have exactly the right number lying about!

It’s been a really exciting experience, walking the labyrinth we had made was something of a high. I know I can do it, so I’m thinking about where, when and how to do it again – and how to improve the kit. More white cord, I think…

Here’s an image from the beginnings of the labyrinth…

labyrinth