Category Archives: Meditation

Twilight Meditations

Here’s a very simple approach to meditation I’ve been taking during the summer. It’s a good in-body sort of approach, good for making direct engagement with the natural world. It does however involve things that might not work for everyone, so don’t hesitate to adapt it if you need to!

I lie out on the grass at twilight. I have a fairly safe place I can do this, and people who will sit out with me. During the summer my body will tolerate some lying out on chilly evening grass, but if you need something to lie on, or to sit, go for it. This is worth doing for as long as it is comfortable. Don’t push beyond that, there is no merit in suffering.

I look at the sky and I listen to what’s around me. That includes all the human sounds in my environment as well as the rest of the world. What matters here is presence, not which senses you focus on, so, again, adapt as required. I tend to be very aware of the cool grass and the sensations of grass, breeze and more on my skin.

As I watch the sky, I see gulls going back to their roost on The Severn. I see bats coming out. Jackdaws head off to their big roost in a local park. There might be swifts, moths and other insects. I’ve finally figured out that the wingless speedy things I see at twilight must be dragonflies, and it’s just that their wings don’t show up in that light. If I’m out late enough I may hear the first owls emerging.

I make no effort to control or direct my thoughts, beyond being present to what’s around me. I don’t look for meaning. I try and keep some balance between being aware of my own body and being aware of what’s around it, not getting so drawn into either that I lose track of the other.


Building a thought form

Everything we do is rooted in an idea, one way or another. When what we do is habit, or has been absorbed from our culture as ‘normal behaviour’ we might not notice it as an idea. We might think that’s just the way it is and that nothing can be changed. Our brains work in ways that make running down the same lines of thought all the time inherently easy, while coming up with totally new ways of thinking takes more effort.

If you want to change something you have to build the idea. It is well worth doing this deliberately and making time for it every day if you can. Imagine yourself doing (or not doing) the thing you wish to change to. Building a thought form this way allows you to test it and find out more about how it might work for you. It creates the scope to fettle the plan before you try doing anything for real. This can head off a lot of problems!

Here are some examples:

If you drive all the time and think about distance and your arrangements in terms of cars, think about walking or catching the bus. What would you have to figure out to do that? Ask the questions, do the research, then imagine getting about by other means, and make a point of imagining it. At some point you’ll have a go – keep reinforcing that by imagining yourself walking places or taking the bus. What you do will change.

If you want to be more confident in ritual, imagine yourself in a ritual space. Imagine the kinds of things you might be called upon to do, and picture yourself not just doing them, but doing them really well and feeling respected for your contribution. You can also try imagining making mistakes and that everyone is kind and supportive when that happens. By building these ideas, you build the confidence to have a go, and you also have a better idea of what to do, so you’ll do a better job.

I’ve also used this strategy to tackle anxiety and to try and reduce the experience of being triggered. I’ve got some good mileage on this score. I would only recommend trying this if you feel reasonably on top of things already – if you are deep in crisis, thinking about things that trigger you will probably just trigger you and make everything worse. If you are recovering and feel safe these can be things to explore.

Everything we do, we dream up first. Even the things that seem spontaneous will come from somewhere. You don’t spontaneously murder someone with an ice pick if you’ve never thought about it before. However, if every day, you imagine taking the ice pick from the garage to murder your neighbour, the odds of doing this are much increased. When we’re not in control of this, and our daydreams are fed by sources we aren’t paying attention to, and when we don’t notice what our recurring wishes and fantasies are, something other than us has the steering wheel in our lives. Being more conscious about how you dream and what you want and what you envisage yourself doing gives you back control, and allows you to make deliberate changes.


Quietening the inner chatter

It’s one of the most reliable assumptions in meditation – that inner chat is a bad thing and we must make it shut up in order to do the good and worthwhile spiritual stuff. It’s an approach that I bought into myself, and it is there in my Druidry and Meditation book. (On the whole, I still think it’s a decent book and worth your while, but there’s so much I’ve learned since I wrote it. Perhaps one day, a sequel…)

What is that inner chatter? I’ve started listening to it when I sit or lie down to contemplate. It isn’t empty noise. It is things I’m trying to figure out, worries, things I am keeping track of, stuff I must remember to do. It’s fragments of observation and making sense of things, feelings and memories. The noise in my head is my life. Sometimes there isn’t so much noise – this is the case when I’m on top of things, and have done my processing and got to grips with everything. A long walk will often enable me to achieve such a state.

That noise does get in the way of meditation and spiritual work. However, I’m increasingly convinced that methods for shutting it up aren’t the right way to go. This isn’t irrelevant or nonsense. This is the stuff of day to day existence. Squashing it just leaves it undealt with, festering, bubbling away in the background. Some practices encourage you to notice and let go, but this also treats the thoughts as not so useful or relevant.

What I’ve been doing for some time now is sitting with my thoughts, noticing them, letting them run and finding out what they are. Often it’s just the case that I need time to work a few things through. There are feelings I need to digest, experiences I need to make sense of. Once I’ve got that, the brain noise eases naturally and I can move on to something else if I need to.

Dealing with what’s in my head improves my mental health. Ignoring and suppressing my thoughts increases my overall stress. Taking my thoughts seriously improves my self esteem and listening to my own thinking enables me to take better care of myself. Acknowledging problems and dealing with them is better for my spiritual work as well because it frees up more brain space and energy.

I do have an obsessive mind, and I can run round in anxious circles. I can become focused on worry about the future and grief about the past in all the ways meditation is supposed to free us from. However, my present moment experience is shaped by the past, and informed by where I think I’m going, and to deny either seems ill advised, to me. I have a relationship with time that is not purely linear, and where any moment of experience is held in relation to other moments, past and future. I’ve found it is more useful to recognise this and work within it. I do not calm obsessive thinking by trying to suppress it, I am more able to scale it down by entering it deliberately, making time and space for it, and finding out what I need.

Too often we’re sold the practice of meditation based on the idea that we are not good enough and need fixing or improving. This is in-line with how capitalist advertising frightens us and makes us feel insufficient so that we buy more stuff. We need to get this kind of thought-invasion out of our heads and reclaim our minds and lives. So, if how meditation is pitched to you makes you feel inadequate, the problem isn’t you. Meditation is something to enjoy and to feel relaxed about – it should feel spacious, generous, and uplifting. If you have to beat yourself up a bit to do it, you’ve been miss-sold. What you may well need is more time for self care, rather than more discipline.


Contemplative Walking

The idea of contemplative walking developed out of my time with the contemplative Druid group in Stroud. We tried some silent, meditative walking in that context, and I found it didn’t suit me – especially not when in the company of other people. I began exploring ways of walking and sharing, and came up with a broad set of principles.

If you walk as meditation, you can end up more inside your head and less engaged with what’s around you. An approach to walking that is engaged can actually be helped by the presence of and interaction with other people. Two or more people will likely see more, and the invitation to share can help increase focus rather than diminish it.

Over a longer walk, silent meditation can feel a bit inhuman. Things arise in the rhythm of movement, the experience of being in the land, and practical needs, that require voices. How to talk becomes an interesting question. It is essential not to prioritise human conversation and to be agreed that it isn’t rude to break off in favour of noting something around you.

The default state when walking should be silence. There should be no small talk, no conversation for the sake of hearing your own voice. Avoid trivia, and avoid the kinds of conversations that involve point scoring or showing off. If someone is moved to speak, hold some silence around that where you can – this is a process we used in contemplative Druidry for speaking, and it is a powerful way of being with people. It works just as well when walking.

This approach creates the space to engage with the land. It also makes room for deeper thoughts to emerge. When things arise that need saying, there is a space into which they can be said. There may be exchange or conventional conversation, and that’s fine within the above parameters.

Listening carefully is an essential part of contemplative walking. It is by listing that you may notice or even see much of the wildlife around you. Listening is key to spotting small mammals in the undergrowth. Hearing bird calls will likely lead you to seeing them. You can’t be totally focused on regular human conversation and listen in this way. However, if you speak softly to each other and leave plenty of gaps, you can listen carefully to each other while also listening to what’s in your surroundings. It’s a way of being that enables us to be human with each other while not being totally human-centric.

I’ve tested this approach. I’ve walked with people who mostly just chat and observed how much of the wildlife they don’t see. I’ve also developed it as an idea within my family, and we do this together to excellent effect. When we started, I was the one who tended to spot all the wildlife, but over a few years both my son and husband have caught up to me and are just as alert to what’s around us. It can seem like magic, but it is really a skill set that can be learned, coupled with a willingness to move away from conventional human interactions so as to open out a broader dialogue with your surroundings.

 


Meditation for self care

Meditation is generally pitched as being good for us – slowing down, calming our bodies and minds, but there are all kinds of benefits that might be less obvious.

You have to make time for meditation. If you can’t find ten minutes in a day for some quiet and solitary time, there is a major problem in your life. Everyone should have space for some quiet downtime. If there is no space for meditation, this flags up that you need to take a good look at where your time is used and reclaim some of it. You can’t do self-care if you don’t have time for yourself.

You might find that when you sit down to meditate, mostly what you have to do is work through all the noise in your head. This is not meditation-fail, this is self-care. If it turns out that what you need most is some processing time to get to grips with your thoughts and feelings, go for it. Sit quietly and just let it all work through. Focus on giving yourself as much time as you need for this – it is important stuff and will help you. If your head is full of things you need to process, actually sitting with it will do you far more good than trying to suppress it in order to meditate.

When you hold quiet space for yourself, it can give you chance to notice things. It may not be until you stop that you notice how tense your shoulders are, or how weary you feel. If attempting to meditate raises body issues, then again, this is not some kind of meditation fail. It is an opportunity to find out about your own needs and may flag up to you what your body requires. Listen to yourself.

Also, if you know about pain in your body and you don’t want to spend time with it, that’s also fine. Use guided visualisations and pathworkings to take you away from bodily pain and give you some respite – if you can. It doesn’t work for everyone. If trying to meditate only makes you feel worse, then prioritise self care and do something else with your time – draw, journal, listen to music – whatever suits you. Meditation is not for everyone, and making yourself do something that doesn’t work for you is not self care no matter who else says you should experience benefits.

Many meditation guides advise against doing meditation lying down or in bed at night because you might go to sleep and not do the meditation properly. However, if your primary need is for sleep, meditation is a tool you might be able to use to get there. You do not have to do meditations for their own sake, you can do them to help you sleep.

It’s easy to be persuaded that we’re supposed to meditate in certain ways to get specific spiritual effects. However, if your mind is in overdrive and your body in pain, trying to force a meditative state may be of little use to you. If the process of meditation shows you things about what you need, follow up on those needs. It’s what you need most. The key to self-care is to be able to make space for it in the first place – those of us who struggle with it are often struggling to get started more than anything else. Meditation may open a door for you, enabling you to better see what you need. Sometimes meditation is best used not as an end goal itself, but as a means to an end – as a way of making space for yourself, checking in with your needs and working out how to take better care of yourself.


When you can’t meditate

There’s a vile notion out there that goes ‘people who can’t meditate for half an hour every day need to meditate for an hour’. The phrasings vary, but the gist tends to be about the same. It assumes everyone should meditate, and that everyone can.

Pain, exhaustion and massive hormonal events are things I’ve been noticing recently make it impossible to meditate. I can’t do anything body centred if I hurt, it just makes the pain more apparent. While I try to manage my energy so that I have something to spare, I don’t always get a vote where that’s concerned. If I’m exhausted, trying to herd my weary mind in any direction is just a slog and I derive little or no benefit from it.

I say this as someone who has been meditating fairly regularly for more than twenty years. I say this as someone who thinks meditation is a good idea with a lot of benefits. And I also say that sometimes meditation is a bloody useless idea, counter-productive and not worth what it will cost you.

Sometimes, it’s better just to rest, or sleep.

Sometimes it’s better just to contemplate in an unfocused way and let your mind do what it will. Look at the sky, or an oracle card, or a stone or a twig and just be with it and don’t try to structure anything too much.

It’s easy to sell the idea that discipline is good. Meditation is disciplined, so doing it is good. Doing the good thing makes you a better person. Failing to do the good thing makes you a less-good person. It’s all very judgemental. None of this is actually going to grow you as a spiritual being. On the other hand, doing what you can do when you can do it is a much better way of travelling your spiritual path.

There’s not a lot of compassion inherent in telling people what they should be doing with no reference to what’s feasible for them.

If you don’t have time, or scope to meditate for half an hour every day, meditate for the amount of time that works for you, as often as that makes sense.

 


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.


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.