Category Archives: Meditation

Making headspace for Druidry

Often, the first stage of a spiritual activity is to clear your mind. Get rid of the inner chatter before meditation, change your inner state for ritual, show up and be present in nature. Certainly none of these things work as well if your head is full of noise.

However, rather than just silencing the noise, I find it pays to discover what the noise is, first.

There are days when I can slip easily into a meditative headspace without having to make any effort at all. There are days when I get out amongst the trees and I barely know how to be present. Forcing myself to be more present often doesn’t give me a sense of the sacred any faster, it’s just effort and discipline. If there’s a lot of noise in my head, I tend to find it’s there for a reason.

So, what’s going on? It varies from day to day. There will be things I genuinely need to think about – actions to review, plans to make, important things to keep track of. If I’m trying to do a lot of things, especially if some of them are unfamiliar, I may be overthinking. If I’ve tried to do a lot of thinking, I may feel stressed and anxious. Critically, trying to just turn it off can add to the anxiousness. It really doesn’t help if I start feeling like I’m a bad Druid for being unable to easily still my mind. It isn’t Druid-fail, it’s overload.

It may also be that I’m trying to develop an idea. What happens if I sit with that is that a few grains of thought can be transformed into substantial inspiration. Making space for ideas is a vital part of the creative process. In the early stages, creative ideas don’t always stand out from other head activities. They need finding, noticing and giving permission to continue.

What works best for me, is to make time for those thoughts I’m having and give them my full attention. If there are things I need to track, a careful process of going through them in turn will help me feel more on top of things. If there are problems to solve, it’s better to solve them. If I am worried, I need to asses those worries and see if they are realistic and in need of attention, or just a reaction to overload. If my brain is full of noise, rather than doing anything structured, I’ll deal with the noise – meet it, unravel it. Then if there’s time left, I can look at meditating.

The business of everyday life is not the enemy of your spiritual path. It isn’t something to push away to get to the good stuff. The everyday life is your life, and it may well need more attention than you’ve been able to give it. Giving attention to your thoughts and feelings is key to developing self awareness and making good and conscious choices. Take it seriously. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the noise in your head – what’s wrong is that you haven’t felt able to give it the time it needs. Sit with it, listen to it, ask it questions, and find answers. Contemplate whatever’s on your mind, and the stilling and slowing comes naturally, and does something much more enduring.

The discipline to turn off your thoughts at will has its uses. The daily practice of working through your thoughts and dealing with them offers a lot more benefits.

Advertisements

Pain and meditation

Most meditation practices seem to start by centring you in your body. Breathe deeply. Be mindful of your physical presence. Gently relax your muscles. You know the routine. The trouble with pain is that being aware of it is the last thing you want. I’ve yet to experience a pain that I can’t suffer from more by paying it close attention.

Some pains I can soothe with the awesome power of my mind, but the truth is that the awesome power of my mind is fairly limited, and sometimes of no use at all. It’s especially useless if the pain is in my head or face to begin with. It’s also a lost cause if I don’t have the concentration to meditate, and there’s nothing like pain for wrecking my concentration.

(As an aside, this is not a request for pain management advice of any sort, there’s a lot of specific detail missing here, as there often is when people talk about pain. This is not a thinly veiled request for guidance about how to deal with pain. I am dealing with my pain, these are observations arising from what I’ve been doing. Onwards…)

Unfortunately, sleeping calls for a period of just being alone in my head with whatever pain I’m feeling. So, while often the solution to meditation not helping with pain is not to meditate, on the edge of sleep, I really need all the help I can get. A meditation practice that can take me away from the pain and into some other head space can really help.

I visualise the pain itself as being like a big door surrounded by flames. My challenge is to get through the door and into the headspace where I don’t feel the pain. Now, normal meditations encourage us to be calm, to feel gentle, peaceful emotions. I have found that doesn’t help me deal with pain. However, if I set up a visualisation or a pathworking that evokes really strong emotions, I can become sufficiently involved with it to take me out of my bodily awareness. This creates the weird situation that being in pain may be the best time for me to try and work on difficult emotional things. I stay away from things that cause too much fear, because panic is not conducive to sleep.

I can’t say how or if this would work for anyone else, but it might. You need to plan what you’re going to work with and pick things that you personally will find emotive in intense and powerful ways. You can’t use any of the normal settling in techniques because they’re all too body centred. I tend to picture the fiery door, gather my wits and dive headlong into the most intense meditation I can think of. Sometimes it doesn’t work, but when it does work it allows me, eventually, to go to sleep, and that’s quite some blessing.


Daydreaming

So many self-help, spiritual and magical practices tell us to focus on our intentions to get what we want. Will your desires into the world. Positive think your way into manifesting what you want. But how do you know what you want? Willpower with no real direction can’t give you much. At the same time, those sources will also encourage you to be mindful and live in the moment, not worrying about the future or regretting the past.

For me, daydreaming has been a deliberate process for most of my life. I imagine things, and I play with them, trying out the variables, looking from different angles, considering possible trajectories. Most of my fiction emerges from this deliberate daydreaming.

By revisiting the past and examining regrets, and thinking about how things might have been different, I develop a better understanding of myself. I learn lessons that I can apply in the future. I daydream a lot about the future, and this allows me to figure out what my priorities are. It helps me see how to move towards the things I want, and how to avoid old patterns I want to change. It can help me identify faulty thinking in the present. Daydreaming about how things could be helps me identify things right now that don’t suit me and need to change.

My daydreaming is unstructured. I don’t approach it with discipline or with allotted time frames. I drift there when I need to. It doesn’t separate me from where I am, either. I can daydream while walking and still see a great deal of wildlife and feel very engaged. I think this is in part because I know when I’m doing it. I don’t wander off in some kind of trance, I trance very deliberately from where and when I am.

Our fantasies and desires are a big part of us, and often have the steering wheel as we navigate life’s journey. If we hide them away so they only happen unconsciously, we don’t always know what’s driving us. If we make room for them, we learn. Some of those desires aren’t the most noble, some may be toxic to us. They may hold us to ridiculous standards or damagingly unrealistic expectations. They may undermine our joy in what we have now, if we let them.

A healthy relationship with our desires, where those desires are allowed space and can be explored, stops them from being unconscious motivators. That makes space for better choices. It is better to know and acknowledge our most unappealing inclinations. It pays to look at where those urges would take us and whether we want to go there. It can be cathartic, too, mentally playing out the jealousy, anger, resentment – it can help let it go, without letting it interfere in life in other ways. If I let myself see me wanting to be horrible, I can deal with it. Sometimes it’s best to treat your unconscious a bit like a toddler – just because it’s quiet doesn’t mean everything is fine. Leave it unsupervised and it may try to glue the cat to the inside of the washing machine…

 


Presence and process

Spiritual activities call for presence. They ask us to be fully there, in the moment, mind quiet, heart open, totally engaged. In practice, this can be difficult to achieve. My experience of running rituals, vigils, and meditation groups, as well as my own firsthand experience suggests that presence is a challenge sometimes.

When you turn up to the thing – be that public ritual or private practice, your mind may be full of stuff. Issues from the day, worries for the next day, deeper ongoing problems, things you need to remember, things you regret… the conventional wisdom is that to do the spiritual stuff, you need to switch this off. The older I get, the less convinced I am of this.

The noise in your head probably isn’t trivial. It likely pertains to the real things going on in your life. Turning the noise off changes nothing, solves nothing. It’s a neat skill to be able to do it, and it can be handy in the short term, but doesn’t help in the longer term.

Our lives can be very fast, information dense, over stimulating, problem laden and stressful. We need to deal with that. It is easy enough to do – it just requires some time when you aren’t massively stimulated or required to interact, and you can unpack your brain. Let those thoughts run. Investigate them. Find solutions where you can. Write down things that need doing. Work out what you can safely let go of.

I do my best processing either walking or sitting. I do my least helpful processing if I have to do it in bed at night. If the issues are too large and emotional to tackle directly, I process them by drawing, or dancing, or singing. I have learned that hefty positive experiences need as much processing time as apparent problems. If I don’t make deliberate space for processing, my head is a mess and I get stressed and don’t sleep well. If I make deliberate time to process things, my mind clears naturally, and it much easier to find the mental space for engagement with other things. Not just spiritual things, either. Life is easier when you clear your brain out regularly.

It doesn’t feel very spiritual to have a head full of the stuff that was on twitter, what the cat did, why the colleague said that and what to cook for tea. But this is life, and life is not separate from spirituality and not the enemy of it. The problem is not that we’re stuck in the mundane stuff, the problem is that we’re not giving ourselves enough time to deal with the mundane stuff properly. It merits having time spent on it. Lessons can be learned, plans made, answers and strategies figured out.

If you find calming your mind to meditate difficult, consider that you may need more processing time, and try doing that instead. It will confer the benefits of a calmer body and a clearer head. Developing a clearer view of our lived experiences brings all kinds of gifts, and will in time help a person slow down, cope with stress and make better choices.


Panic, breath and meditation

I’d been aware of the theory that panic and breath-orientated meditation doesn’t always go well, but until recently, I’d never encountered it. The experience of what was probably bronchitis coupled with several days of intense panic from stressful things, did things to my body. I found that so long as I wasn’t thinking about my breath, I was fine, but if I became aware of it, I couldn’t do it. Cue gasping frantically.

This was especially bad on the edge of sleep, because there aren’t many things a person can do with their brain. At that point, not being aware of my body proved very hard indeed, and the panicked bouts of fighting to breathe, and fighting to convince my body that it could breathe, were many. It made me realise how much my meditation practice is underpinned by breathwork. I had no real tools to deal with a situation where I needed to focus my mind on something other than my breath. However, necessity is a great teacher.

What I discovered is that I can go from cold, straight into a visualisation or pathworking. I have to plan it carefully in advance, and to make the leap straight into a deep meditative state, the subject matter has to be emotionally engaging. And then, it’s like making an enormous, perilous jump, but I managed it repeatedly. An arrowshot of intent and concentration, taking the mind away from the body so that the body could keep on with the breathing, untroubled.

I also learned that this kind of trick can be pulled when sharp and clever, but that an exhausted, sleep deprived mind can’t do it, and at that point, valerian is the better answer, or anything else you might use to knock yourself out of a night.

I’ve never felt so at odds with myself as I did during the week of not being able to think about breathing. Body and mind were functioning as two distinct systems, very much at odds with each other. It was an unnerving experience in all kinds of ways, and I hope never to have it again. It’s another example of how you can’t use meditation as a quick fix – this only worked for me because I have a long history of working with visualisation and had a skill set to draw on. Quite possibly this also went wrong for me because I have a long history of breathwork.


Meditation for mental health

Meditation can seem like an excellent tool for tackling mental health problems. So much so that if you go to a GP, you may find that mindfulness is suggested as the answer to your problems. Here are some of the things meditation helps with, and things it doesn’t.

Using meditation to calm panic attacks. You have to be an experienced meditator to be able to make your brain switch gear in face of panic. If you are learning to meditate to control panic, do not expect rapid results.

Using meditation to reduce anxiety. It can work if the panic is all inside your head. However, the odds are good that there are external stressors involved. You can learn to be calmer through meditation and thus cope better with stressors, if the stress isn’t too much. If you are under constant pressure, it is only by dealing with the external problem that you can sort out the anxiety. It isn’t all about what goes on in your head – not if you are bullied, forced to work in inhuman conditions, not getting enough rest or sleep and so forth. Trying to meditate your way out of it can make you feel more responsible for a problem not of your making.

Working alone and meditating in a way that makes you more aware of what your brain is doing (ie mindfulness style approaches) can work if your faulty thinking is most of the problem. For most people, anxiety has been caused by something. Sitting mindfully with your traumatic memories will do you more harm than good. Resolving trauma without the support of a counsellor is a long, hard, painful road. It can be walked, but I feel no one should have to do this alone.

When a person is depressed, the world appears in certain ways. I’ve never found meditation helpful for changing my outlook, not if all the meditation does is send me inwards into my own personal hell. Distraction is much better – pathworkings and other guided meditations, meditating on something simple and uplifting – a plant, a cloud, a nice oracle card… Getting out of your own head in this way can bring considerable relief. Sometimes, just getting the headspace is enough to help move things forward. Sometimes it isn’t.

There’s every reason to use meditation techniques for immediate relief and for coping with problems. If you find you can use it to tackle larger problems – all power to you. However, if you find meditating makes things worse, it is not a personal failing. If you find no respite, and that it sends you further down your own rabbit holes, don’t do it. If your problems are out there in the world and caused by other people, don’t make yourself solely responsible for fixing things.

Meditation is not a magic bullet, it is not a salve for every ill. Anyone who tells you otherwise is either trying to let themselves off the hook, or save themselves money, or wants to diminish your problems for their own comfort. It may be that they’ve only experienced very mild depression and anxiety – the sort meditation can definitely help with – but they don’t know what a minor brush they’ve had.


Forgiveness Meditations

Trigger Warning: Body shame and body dysmorphic disorder type issues. These are meditations designed to help with this, but I didn’t want anyone to wander in unawares.

 

I’ve never had a good relationship with my body, and have a great deal of internalised guilt, shame and hatred around how I look. I’ve been working with a meditative approach for a while now, and I’ve found it helpful. This is a broad explanation, you will likely need to fine tune it to suit personal needs and issues. Be really alert to not letting words in that reinforce the problem rather than easing it.

I find this is easiest lying down, but again, adapt as makes sense. Pick a quiet, safe environment. Do whatever you do to enter a calm and meditative state. If you can, put a hand on one area of yourself that you have a problem with. Just stay there for a while, and breathe slowly with it. Focus on being calm.

I started this process simply being repeating the words ‘I forgive’. Inevitably this can cause memories and feelings to come up, so I took to creating a longer stream of thoughts. “I forgive, I accept, I let go,” works for me. I’ve found if I try to use really strong positive words ‘love’ for example, I am more likely to panic myself. “You are ok, you are good enough, you are acceptable” is more effective for me than anything I cannot accept. I don’t do well with conventional affirmations, suggesting to myself that ‘I am beautiful’ makes me feel panicky and sick. It’s not a good idea to try and run when you can’t walk.

The nature of your relationship with your body will inform the kinds of words you need to use, and if you explore this, you may find things emerge for you that you can work through in this way. It is essential to be able to hold clear intent around self-acceptance, and not let abusive, corrosive language slip in. You don’t have to make excessively enthusiastic statements about yourself, and you may find it easier not to, certainly at first. “This is my body and I accept it and am ok with it” is a very powerful, affirmative statement if you have a lot of trouble owning and accepting your physical form.

Ideally, you need to think about what would be helpful without getting too bogged down in the problems themselves. I find that one body area in a session is plenty to be working on, and that moving around different areas of shame and discomfort over different sessions is helpful. It can bring things up so I only do it when I feel equal to dealing with what emerges. I usually work quietly, but saying things out loud is also powerful and worth exploring.


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.