Tag Archives: awareness

Natural Magic

I turn my head without knowing why, and in the seconds when this happens, I see a deer moving through the undergrowth. Or a mouse running across the path. Or a buzzard swooping low through the trees, visible for a few seconds only to vanish from sight again. It happens a lot. After years of walking together, is also happens a lot for my son and husband. We’re alert to each other when walking so often when one person spots something, we all get to see it.

Some of this is about being present, paying attention and knowing where to look. There’s a knack to letting your eyes wander over your surroundings, not being too focused on anything, but being attentive enough to pick up movement and signs of life. There’s a knack to having your ears on alert for rustlings and other sounds, even when you are chatting. These are skills that anyone who has those senses available to them can develop with practice.

Some of it can be attributed to the way we are also sensitive to being watched. It’s not unusual to find the deer I notice were already watching me. But sometimes it isn’t that. A few nights ago I crept up on an owl from behind – it was some time before it became aware of my presence. Said owl was perched on a fencepost in low light conditions and I only saw them because I was checking the lane for hedgehogs.

But, there’s also the magic thing. Turning your head before there was anything to see in your peripheral vision. Stopping at just the right moment. Being in the right place at the right time. Some creatures have timetables they follow and some don’t, so being on the path at the moment when a deer takes her fawn across it is unlikely, but that sort of thing happens to me quite a lot.

Wild things tend to have an awareness of what’s around them that enables them to avoid human contact. I’ve watched deer watching people. Stay on the path and act oblivious and the deer could be motionless and yards away and will keep still and remain invisible. If you see the deer and watch them in turn, they become alert to you in a totally different way – often more wary, sometimes fearful, sometimes curious. There is an awareness in wild creatures about who and what is around that humans have the potential for, but mostly don’t bother with. To be outside and a little bit more like a wild thing is to be in a different and more aware kind of relationship with everyone else.


Celebrity fundraisers and why they suck

Before I get into the proper ranting, I should mention the things that do not annoy me. Namely, when a person with a public profile uses their platform to draw attention to an issue, or a cause. Most usually this happens because the celebrity has been touched by the problem in some way, and is thus able to speak about it meaningfully, creating empathy and increasing understanding. There are too many causes and issues in the world for anyone to keep up to date with, raising awareness is useful work.

I’ll cite as an example the steady supply of famous people willing to speak up for trees, and write articles for The Woodland Trust’s magazine.

Celebrity fundraisers on the other hand, aren’t always about awareness. They are at least as likely to focus on something we all knew about already. The fundraising may work out primarily as a PR move for the celeb who wishes to be seen as kind, helpful and all that, and who can generate a great deal of low cost publicity for themselves by latching on to some recent tragedy and raising money for it.

Which brings me to my second area of issue: People with a lot of money fundraising by helping people with considerably less money give some of it to those who have little or nothing. Why not just write a cheque? And of course some of the wealthy and famous of the world do simply get their wallets out rather than milking it for attention, but the truth is that poor people give more as a percentage of what they (we) have to begin with.

Now, it may be that fundraising is only part of what’s going on. I offer the Freddie Mercury Tribute concert and Ariana Grande’s recent benefit concert as examples of events where raising money was part of the mix, not the whole project. In both cases these were events about remembering the dead, Freddie Mercury’s tribute was about raising awareness of and de-stigmatising Aids, and in the second example, it was also a push back against what had happened. At which point, why not do some fundraising at the same time?

By contrast, doing a charity fundraising single in the wake of a disaster, can be seen as cashing in on the suffering of others to raise your own profile.

One of the great things about not having a television, is that fundraising marathons like Comic Relief and Children In Need now pass me by, but I’ve seen bits of them when younger. People with more wealth than I’ll see in my lifetime getting on the screen to encourage the audience to donate. It’s not a good thing. Surely it should fall to those who have most, to give most? Surely it should be people who have far more than they need who pick up the tab for helping those in crisis? Surely those who can easily afford it should be the ones to fund the needful things? I think we have to stop rewarding them for ‘helping’ us help each other.

Sleeping with the stream

I’ve always loved running water, always been drawn to paddle feet or hands in it, to sit near it, listen to it. Stroud is wonderful on that score, with its many small streams. There are even a few small waterfalls. I’m especially blessed in that I can hear water flowing, from my bed.

As a lot of my prayer and meditation practice happens around the edges of sleep, I’m very conscious of that space as an environment and I pay a fair bit of attention to how it impacts on me. Being able to feel a connection with the natural world, from the sacred space of bed, is powerful for me.

I’m conscious of a transition as I settle at night, as I cease to be sociable, and gradually stop thinking about whatever’s been running around in my head. I know I’m settling when I become aware of the stream, and every time this happens I also become aware of just how much I filter out with my waking perceptions. The stream has a music of its own, coming down from the hills and heading out towards the Severn River. As I listen, I have an awareness of water as life, water as cleansing, and moving water as a journey towards other worlds. Letting the stream carry me, I drift towards sleep.

Often, waking is initially a process of becoming consciously aware of the water. I often start to surface before the dawn chorus. Awareness that I am waking is often awareness that I am hearing the stream, that it is calling me back to the waking world.

Having lived on a boat, I am very aware that water is often silent. Moving water can be remarkably hard to hear, even when there’s quite a significant flow. What creates the sound is not just the movement, but the interaction between water and something else – plant matter on the bank, stones in the river bed. Mostly what I hear is water passing over a small weir. Where water passes for long enough, it smoothes a silent passage. Stand by the River Severn, and there’s surprisingly little sound. But then, nature is often busiest at the margins and the places of interaction.

The power of senses

You don’t know what you’ve got till it’s gone. So reliably true, that one. No matter how much I try to be aware of that which I take for granted, it’s hard to see what has always been there. The lesson of the last couple of weeks has been all about taste and smell. Normally I have a really good sense of smell. Colds of course will take that away, but this is the first time when I’ve been unable to taste properly. There were days when I couldn’t even get mouth tastes.

Inside the mouth, we perceive sweet, bitter, tangy, salt and hot as basic flavours, but most of the nuance comes from what we can smell of the food as aromas percolate upwards into the nasal passages. I have no idea what went wrong with the mouth tasting, but by Christmas day, everything I put in my mouth was like cardboard, taste wise. It made me highly aware of textures in a way that normally I’m not, because the only way to distinguish between foods at that point, was the feel of it. There’s a startling diversity to the feel of eating different fruits and vegetables, I realised. That was a discovery. I’ve lived thirty five years and never truly appreciated the wonder of food textures before. Hopefully I can hang on to that.

Eating good food is one of life’s pleasures. I became aware of how much is lost when the flavour goes away, how mechanical and grim a process food consumption is when I can’t taste anything. And then the miracle of occasional flashes of flavour. A moment of perceiving something, the sheer relief of chilli or pepper getting through my system to register in my brain. Taste became a source of wild excitement, in tiny, unpredictable bursts. I’m still not quite right.

I also started to realise that I could tell, putting something in my mouth, how much fat content it had. Even though I couldn’t taste anything, on some level I was picking up fat content as a source of interest. I have no idea what the mechanics are, but our bodies are wired to respond to fats. Could I have this awareness all the time and just not have been noticing it? Or is it too subtle a thing to register consciously when all that flavour information is coming in too?
Deprived of my sense of taste, the whole experience of tasting has become something of a holy grail for me. The value of it is elevated in my mind where probably I wouldn’t have thought about it before – I just took it for granted.

I’ve learned to be grateful for the awkward life lessons that allow me to rethink things and understand anew. For me this is part of my Druidry, that learning how to take a setback or a problem and turning it into something useful, or meaningful. It makes it easier to take the knocks. I spend less time saying ‘bloody hell that was not something I deserved’ and more time going ‘I wonder what I can make that into?’ so there are practical advantages, and I do sometimes learn a thing or two.

Can I have your attention?

For a while, attention deficit disorder, sometimes also called ADD or ADHD has been a fashionable sort of diagnosis, with ever more drugs for unruly children. This worries me, along with quite a lot of other things. I’m sure some of it is driven by a pharmaceutical industry that wants to sell cures. I also think we have a culture more than keen to pathologize difference. Those of us, adult and child, who do not fit neatly into someone’s boxes (whose boxes are they, I’d love to know…) will get labels. Now, where labelling leads to useful support – like giving dyslexic kids more time in exams – fair enough, but I am wary of putting anyone on long term drugs for any reason. I’m wary of labels that seem to be more about marginalising difference than helping people. We might pause here and think about the kinds of labels folks currently identified as having ‘learning difficulties’ have been given through history.

My soap box for today is about attention though. I’ve never been tested for ADD, but this may have a lot to do with my knack for self preservation around the issue. I can’t tune stuff out. Noise, movement, information – it all comes in. I choose my environments carefully, and as the issue seems to have got more pronounced over time, I’ve learned to stay out of spaces that mess with my head. More than a couple of days in a big city makes me feel like my head is going to explode. This is a spectrum ailment, and I’m functional enough to have sneaked beneath officialdom’s radar. Being a quiet sort of girl and not prone to acting out at school, no one would have considered me a candidate for an issue generally associated with disruptive behaviour.

But is there anything actually wrong with me? I think not. Millions of years of evolution designed us to survive in a reality where a rustle could be all the warning you get of a predator. Being alert to the environment used to be a survival skill. We used also to live in much smaller groupings, with far less stimulating surroundings. What we’ve manufactured, especially in our cities is an overcrowded, noise laden, information dense space that our millions of years of evolution have very precisely equipped us not to be able to handle.

The only way to survive is to turn off as much of your awareness as possible. You have to squash the inner mammal that sniffs at new smells and tilts its ears towards sounds. You have to tune out the human self that can handle about 150 people and cannot cope with thousands. To survive in the environments we have created, you have to be not animal, not human, not present or feeling too much or caring too much.

Therefore your normal, functional, twenty first century, western, urban human must cultivate apathy and obliviousness as primary survival skills. You learn not to look, and not to hear, an all the while the adverts get louder, brighter, bigger to draw you back in. It’s a psychotic arms race that we cannot win because we are doing it to ourselves.

In woodland or in fields I don’t experience overload. I don’t feel shocked and jarred by noise and excessive input because there isn’t any. I am increasingly convinced that the ADD folk are probably more like historical humans in their humanity than those who are willingly entering zombie states in order to survive. Most of us are somewhere in between. I can’t help but feel it’s the environments that need to change, not the people.

A hungry world

I heard a story yesterday about a girl collapsing in school, because it had been so long since she’d last eaten. In some parts of the world, the curious bits would be that a poor child was in school in the first place, and a girl-child at that. Hunger and deprivation are normal for so many people. But this wasn’t a developing world story, it came from a few miles down the road, from the green and pleasant heart of England, where that sort of thing isn’t supposed to happen anymore.

In this country of wealth and plenty, no child should have to go hungry to the point of collapse. Our government should hang its collective heads in shame that they have allowed such a situation to exist. Food banks are on the increase, as are the numbers of people who desperately need access to them. Where people are already in debt, living hand to mouth, one wage packet to the next, the loss of work can plunge a household into total crisis at no notice. This is happening. Where benefits are cut, support with housing harder to come by, budgets that would not make ends meet now cannot be stretched. What do you give up? The mobile phone that enables you to be contacted if a job comes in? Heating? The cost of fuel has been on the rise for some time. Maybe you give up the car that you depended on for shopping and that actually made you more employable. We have a structure that pretty much demands you have certain things, and increasing numbers of people who cannot afford them.

And yet in some households, perfectly good food is thrown away all the time.

I stood in a queue today and listened to an obscenely spoilt brat howling with dismay that he was being made to stand up, and was not allowed to sit in the car. From the fuss he was making, you’d think someone had told him he wasn’t going to have anything to eat that week.

It’s the perspectives that really gets me, the comfortably off who denigrate the poor and assume that poverty is proof of not working hard enough, for one. The line between viable, and unviable is thin, and seldom visible. There but for the grace of the gods, goes any of us. One big car bill you can’t pay that leads to debt, and never being able to quite get ahead again. Or that classic of a sudden health disaster that takes job, income, dignity and hope in one fell swoop.

Any one of us could wake up tomorrow and find that some personal disaster, beyond our control, has thrown us into a state of destitution. And it happens every day, to a frighteningly large number of people.

We’re so quick to blame those less fortunate than ourselves, and so quick to assume that some inherent quality in us is keeping us in better fortune. Not luck. Not pure, blind, irrational chance. I think luck has everything to do with it. I’m lucky. I can afford to feed my child. Another woman in Gloucester, could not. If only we had a culture in which failure to look after the weakest was a source of shame, not pride. If only we could collectively stop looking for reasons to blame, and put that bit of effort into finding ways to help. If only we cared enough to notice.

I’m in a fairly affluent area, there are no hungry children on my doorstep, as far as I know. I like to think I’d have a clue if there were, and I know that if I knew, I could not stand by and do nothing.

Druidic Arts: Sensing Truly

I started this one with the idea of listening properly. Hearing what is said, not what we think others are saying. Listening for the voices that speak softly, or do not speak in words. I realised after a while that this is because I’m more confident about the listening bits, than other versions. I work hard at listening, in part because it doesn’t always come easily to me. You may not be shocked and startled to read that I have a lot of opinions. As a younger person, I probably talked more than I would be comfortable with now, as I have learned to slow down and be open to others. I’ve learned to listen for what people don’t say, as well, and for the pauses where a bit of encouragement is needed. It’s a work in progress. Listening well means having the right body language, the right tone, the right level of eye contact, all kinds of details that can be practiced with an eye to making them as graceful as dance moves.

Seeing what is really there is also an art. Human perception defaults to seeing what it thinks is there, or what we’re looking for. We miss the unexpected, we tune out that which makes no sense, and we ignore what we thought was familiar. So many people go through so many spaces without seeing it at all. I have to admit, I’m not the world’s most visual person, I have a poor visual memory, I don’t think visually at all. Working with a visual experience of the world means that, in an artistic sense, I’m not far removed from the toddler who grips a crayon in a clenched fist and scrawls enthusiastically. I assume it works the same way as hearing, becoming more aware, more alert, more sensitive.

There is a whole language of scent, which we take in unconsciously but which tells us so much about the world. This is tasty, that is poison. This person is sexy, that person is rank… but compared to most creatures we have pitiful noses. Drawing a deep breath is the beginning of all meditation work, slowing down, breathing, being present. Each breath we draw will taste of something. Being aware of it opens us to new experiences. There are professional nose artists out there, working with perfume and food, sniffing at wine glasses and contemplating how the nasal experience will be for others. Smelling the good stuff, the coffee, the roses, the outside, adds richness to life and deepens awareness of the world.

Then there is our skin. Modern dress norms encourage us to cover up, but barefoot in any space we experience the environment totally differently. Wind in hair, sun on face. Soft grass against bare arms. Cold water running over toes. Human contact. There are so many opportunities for bodily sensation, but we tend to ignore them, and avoid them. The sharp claws of the cat in my leg, the sudden cramp after cycling, the headache… these too are telling me something, and I will experience more for working with them.

Working with the senses as art opens the way to other kinds of art. Firstly, the more we pay attention and perceive, the more we can appreciate the accidental art and natural beauty of the world. Birdsong, rustling leaves, flowing water, human noises become our soundtrack. The scent of flowers, or wet dog become present, rich, part of life. The feel of clothes on skin, the sense of what is physically good and pleasurable communicates to us the values and wonders of things beyond our own bodies. This knowledge and insight also gifts us with skills we can then use to create. Knowing what makes a good sound is essential if you want to write a tune. Understanding what is beautiful in a scene will make you a better visual artist. Alert to the sensual pleasures of food we can create wonders in the kitchen.

Even if we don’t take sensual experience forward to inform creativity, it can still be practiced as an art for its own sake. This is the craft work of appreciation and gratitude. It is the weaving of delight, enabling us to paint colour into our life experience and layer depths into the ways we live. It is an art of finding small moments of happiness and worth, an art of seeing beyond what is ordinary and familiar to spot the droplet of inspiration within it, the sunlight seeping through it, the soul shining from it. It is recognition of what is well done, and of course by contrast will show us what is impoverished or destructive. It may be that the art of sensing truly will show us where there is an absence of beauty, and nothing capable of feeding our souls. Then we have to decide whether to stay, and make something better, or leave and find something better.

Re-enchantment for Druids

In my blog on Seeking inspiration recently, I talked about how we lose that sense of wonder we had as children. We start to imagine the world as familiar and predictable, and begin a process of selectively not seeing all the ways in which this is not so. I have spent a while in that sort of conceptual space. It had a lot to do with feeling like I had to fit in with other people’s ideas of what a responsible adult might look like, and it was also a reaction against experiencing people whose reality was highly dysfunctional. It is possible to hold a sense of magical reality whilst being able to cope with the ‘normal’ reality the majority of people at least appear to inhabit.

Re-enchantment does not mean moving away from the world as is, into some fantasy in which you are a fairy princess, or a dragon. It is not escapism. Re-enchantment is about forging a deeper and more spiritual relationship with the world, as it is. Not taking anything for granted is an essential first step here.

If we deliberately narrow our experience – from bed, to car, to work, and home to television with very little else in the mix, we do not allow ourselves opportunity to experience something unfamiliar, and we reinforce a mundane impression of the world. Seeking out opportunities to be surprised isn’t that difficult. Going somewhere new, talking to a stranger, reading more widely, and most importantly, going outside and getting some direct, first-hand experience of the natural world. Life is amazing, from the miraculous fuzzy ducklings of spring, through to the intensity of summer blossom, the vivid colours of autumn and the pristine shock of snow. Each day offers us weather, sky, a precise moment in the seasonal cycle, and scope for seeing a thousand things we have never noticed before. There is wonder in the small detail. The blue flash of a kingfisher’s startling wings. The sheer beauty of a dawn chorus. The smell of the air, after rain.

It’s easy to go through life with a head full of what we just did, what we’re about to do, what we wish we were doing, what were worried about and all the mental clutter that makes it hard to live now. It is possible to be thinking about your life without being so inward looking that you entirely miss the external reality. The trick is to not treat most of external reality like some kind of wallpaper. It’s not a backdrop for the film plot of your life, it needs taking seriously. Noticing, or not noticing, is a habit of thought. It just takes practice.

The next step is to feel. For some reason, the last I don’t know how long… few hundreds of years? We’ve been collectively wary of emotion, seeing it as the opposite of good thinking, the enemy of rationality, and at odds with civilization. Emotion is intrinsic to being human. You can’t feel a sense of enchantment if you are not willing to feel. It may not seem ‘grown up’ to be cooing over lambs, or to cry over a dead swan, but the wrong there lies with our culture, not with the emotional response. Being willing to be moved to tears by beauty, or to be filled with ecstatic laughter over the pure joy of something, requires a letting go, an opening up. People may look at you funny. You may seem crazy to others. You may seem crazy to yourself. It is a process.

From here, the magic inherent in the everyday world starts to open up. Life feels more vivid, more real, and more immediate. The small things become relevant and important. A day can become a good day for hearing a bird sing, or because there was a rainbow. The previous priorities and obsessions of an entirely fabricated, human-centric awareness, change. You stop expecting to be able to buy happiness and start knowing where to find it. You pause in delight over the way in which the water is catching the light. You smile because this morning you saw a fox, and that was a beautiful moment. You notice how the air smells and how the ground feels beneath your feet. And then, because these things start to matter to you, and you are paying attention to them, you become more aware of what they do, how they interact, the individuality of them, and the connectedness. Where before there was barely regarded scenery, now there is spirit, and relationship.

It’s a process with no end point. There is always more to see, further to go, more to recognise, to understand, to engage with. I think a big part of druidry is this quest for relationship, but there’s not a vast amount of information out there about how to do it. You certainly don’t need the right robes, or necessarily even the right rituals. I’m going to finish with a quick plug for Druidry and Meditation, because I’ve explored a lot of ways of seeking this awareness shift in that book, so if you want to explore further and could use a few more tools, it may help.