Tag Archives: beliefs

An experimental life

The only thing we have much reliable control over, is ourselves. What we do, how we think and how we feel helps shape not just how we experience life, but what happens to us. However, changing our ways of seeing and reacting to the world is incredibly hard – even when I’ve known my thinking was faulty, it’s been a fight to identify, challenge and change it. Often we don’t know where the problems are, or why. Self change is something many people use magic to explore, and often it is a big part of a spiritual path. But, how to do it?

Scientific method goes… observe, theorise, test, conclude, and then you will likely take those conclusions as the observations for the next round. It works to take similar approaches in our lives.

Observe: This means paying attention to patterns of cause and effect, and looking to see if they might be correlations instead. What’s happening that doesn’t go the way you want it to? Identify the problems. So, to make this less hypothetical, let me observe that I have a lot of issues around being touched, but that one of them is fear that my body is fundamentally unacceptable to other people and that contact with me could be offensive and that rejection is therefore likely.

It’s worth noting that this observation is full of existing theories – I have a set of beliefs. I might want to unpick them and work out why I have these beliefs, or I could just accept that they may be wonky. Either way, I can safely theorise that these feelings of mine will be contributing to the problem – I avoid physical contact, and when I don’t I’m usually awkward, which could be sending out the wrong signals to people.

To test the theory I have to be more open to hugs from people I know. I have to notice where that might be available. I don’t have to say yes to everything, I don’t always want people to touch me (I may be in too much pain for a start). I theorise that if I could sort my body out to hurt less, that might help. There’s no need for this to be a wholly linear process, after all. If people can be physically kind to me and accepting of me as a physical presence, then I can question the underlying belief that I’m intrinsically repellent. I’ve been testing this for a while, with mixed results but an overall sense that people are often more ok with me than I expect them to be. I conclude that it’s worth pushing outside my comfort zone to keep exploring this.

The testing flags up other issues – that it’s not just about my acceptability, it’s about my need to feel safe, and I feel safer if I think I’m so horrible that no one would want to get anywhere near me. Even though I feel sad about feeling unacceptable, feeling acceptable might be worse. The thing that hurts me also functions to protect me. There’s a defence mechanism here that helps me keep people at a safe distance, and it helps explain the people I’ve had problems with (it’s my fault, not theirs and I find this easier to deal with). That in turn may be protecting me from facing other things I have not wanted to think about. I find it easier to internalise blame than to deal with the idea of other people being inadequate or unfair. To change, I need to identify all those things and think them through properly. Testing my reality opens up new questions, and new things I need to deal with.

The key thing here is creating the opportunity to gather evidence that what we thought, may be wrong, and to use that to construct better ideas, and from those better ideas, better ways of being in the world. It offers no quick fixes, it can be bloody uncomfortable, but it gives you something solid to work with. I’m not good at belief, or just changing my reality with a daily positive aphorism, but this experimental approach gives me information I can work with to rethink issues.

It’s important not to beat yourself up while doing this. Exposing unhelpful theories and beliefs can make a person feel a bit stupid. These are coping mechanisms that have passed their sell by date, usually – things that once made sense, or once held up. We change, everything around us changes, what worked before is hurting us now. The more lightly you can hold the idea of a rethink, the less the process will hurt you and the more good it can do.

Unpicking the double standards

Part of the work I’ve been doing in recent weeks has been to try and unpick the logic holding together my personal reality. Without understanding the mechanics, it is difficult to make conscious and deliberate changes (but not, it should be noted, impossible.) There is history here, and lots of it, and I could tell stories of how I got to be where I am – but they are long and dull, and the stories underpinning your reality will be very different anyway.

I don’t know if it’s a bottom line, but the issue of double standards is a large and serious part of why I see things as I do. Being trained to accept and uphold a double standard underpins a reality of twisted logic and inherent unfairness. Perhaps it is because of the double standard that I do not protect my boundaries well and have on a number of occasions ended up far more involved with unreasonable people than was good for me. They are allowed to get angry about things, I am not. They are right, and I am wrong (always) they are good and I am unreasonable, they are perfectly acceptable as they are, I must work very hard and make lots of changes. And so on. Endlessly. It’s impossible to be happy if I don’t spot this early and step away from it.

My acceptance of the double standard has been absolute. In my toughest patches, ingesting the double standard further has left me feeling sub-human, made of straw, not a real person. Of course they would react this way. Of course they would treat me like this. And so I don’t stand up for myself, protect my boundaries or ask for what I need all too often, and I perpetuate the double standard still further and accept it as who I am. It becomes ok to hurt me, to ignore me, blow hot and cold, get cross with me, mess me about in any number of ways, make impossible demands.

There’s very little I can do about other people’s attitudes to me, current or historical. What I can do, and have done, is to question my own beliefs and choices. It hasn’t been easy, letting go of the idea that there is something about me which makes any kind of unkindness or lack of care make perfect sense. I’ve kept this story because it has allowed me to think well of people who I otherwise cannot think well of. It allows me to function in situations where otherwise I might quit and run away. I have come to the conclusion that this is not a good thing.

Habits and beliefs of a lifetime do not fall away overnight. To change this I am going to have to pay a lot of attention to my own emotional responses, to spot what I genuinely feel before I slip into suppression and co-operation mode. I have to watch my own thinking, alert to signs that I am letting someone else get away with something that would be totally unacceptable if I did it. I have to check my actions and make sure I’m not doing things that keep me in these loops. None of this will resolve quickly, but habits of thought can be changed.

I need to draw up some new lines about what is acceptable and what isn’t. I need to work out what is intolerable to me, draw a line, and hold it. Without these things, proper boundaries and a sense of self are just not available, and to go forward, I need to relate to myself as being as much a person as anyone else.

On Being a Scruffy Urchin

Why would you take pride in being a scruffy urchin? I was asked this after the Women of the Tribe post went out. Why indeed? Pride in appearance is something we understand collectively in certain ways – we should be clean, neat, tidy, ideally dressed in new looking clothe or at least clothes in a good state of repair. Elegance and beauty are things we are to aspire to. We should be fashionable, visually appealing. To clam ‘scruffy urchin’ as a thing of pride is so at odds with that as to not make much sense to some people.

It all comes down to *why* I’m a scruffy urchin, and that’s all about the relationship between my clothes and my lifestyle choices, and my politics and beliefs. Walking is my primary mode of transport, so I wear clothes I can walk in, and most usually what I have on my feet is a pair of sturdy walking boots. When I can, I go barefoot, and nothing says ‘urchin’ like bare feet.

To enable the walking I most usually wear leggings or jogging bottoms, although often I have a skirt, dress or tunic over the top. Given the English climate and the walking, there’s often a smear of mud around the ankles. I’d have to change my clothes several times a day to avoid that, with my lifestyle. I tend to wear waterproof coats, and may need waterproof trousers. It’s not an elegant look, but it does what I need it to.

A lot of what I wear looks a little bit old and shabby – because it is! Today’s tunic is twenty years old and I’ve re-sewn it twice in that time. My lacy cardigan thing is 11 years old, bought not long after my child was born. Many of my clothes are this old, and therefore totally unfashionable. I buy second hand, as well. Much of what I own was never in fashion. I hate the way fashion drives us to throw away perfectly good clothing; that seems wasteful to me. I also have choices to make about how I spend my money, I can’t have everything. Why buy new clothes when the old clothes will do the job?

My skin and hair look a certain way because I try to minimise my use of chemicals, and I walk everywhere (you may be noticing a theme) so my hair is seldom perfectly sleek and tidy. It isn’t styled, I don’t go to a hairdresser (money and chemicals again) so I never ever look like I just stepped out of a salon. My hands are a bit rough because I hand wash clothes, hand sew all sorts of things and have callouses from stringed instruments.

Most of the time I wear very little ornamentation – occasionally when going out I’ll throw on a bit of costume jewellery, and I sometimes put pretty bits of cloth in my hair, but mostly I don’t do jewellery. This is a habit that came because I had ten years where my social life revolved around being a musician. Rings are an irritation for me when playing, and all other things can bang unhelpfully or catch on the instruments or their straps. It’s not worth the hassle. I tend to carry a rucksack, not a handbag because I often need to carry stuff, because I don’t have a car to fall back to.

How I look is part of how I live and is therefore an expression of who I am. I’m colourful, eccentric, playful in my clothing, but also intrinsically shabby, repaired, worn around the edges, windswept, mud spattered. A scruffy urchin and not ashamed of it at all.

Spiritual writing

There is a long tradition of people writing about their spiritual experiences. My first serious contact was at college, where I read some of the writing of Puritans. They had quite a formula for writing about religious experience, and it always started with explaining what terrible sinners they had been before they found the light. It’s sweet, and rather touching to read people for whom spitting in the street and taking the Lord’s name in vain constitutes terrible sin.

However, there’s an important aspect to this approach, as relevant today as it was then: Vulnerability. It’s the flawed sinner who draws the reader in, the Puritans knew. I’ve read a lot of spiritual texts, from various people of all kinds of tradition. I can divide them into two camps: Those who express confidence, and those who do not. The confident writers have a very clear sense that it all works, their beliefs are well founded, substantial, dependable. They have systems that explain reality and their place in it. Those systems vary a lot, so the person who reads widely finds no one clear solution. Some authors can come across as having it all figured out, which, if you don’t, is off-putting. How do we respond to these great, wise gurus who have unlocked the secrets of the universe? Many will share things we can be doing, but I’ve never been able to go from one of those books to the same place of certainty about how the world works.

Which is largely why I fall into the second camp. I’ve not learned much from the people who claim to have it all figured out. I’m not always sure I believe them, even. The writers who move me, present far more humble, human faces to the world. They aren’t perfect, they don’t know it all. They make mistakes. They get lost and confused, they go through crises of belief and disbelief, they change their minds about key things and the path is not smooth for them.

I empathise with this. I don’t find the spiritual life easy. I don’t find any spiritual ‘truths’ to be simple or self-evident. Things happen to me that I struggle to make sense of. Reading other spiritual travellers whose feet of clay have fallen off the path now and then, helps me. I feel less alone, and less stupid. I feel inspired by their struggles, by the triumph of determination over uncertainty, by the way in which they keep coming back to try again. Recent reads that really worked for me in this way include Tiziana Stupia’s ‘Meeting Shiva’ and Mark Townsend’s ‘Diary of a Heretic’.

I am a ‘warts and all’ author because this is what I’ve got. I’m a very long way from being enlightened. There is a lot that confuses me. I get depressed and frightened. I don’t reliably believe that the universe is full of love. I don’t reliably believe that Gods exist, much less that they give a shit. What makes sense today may not help me at all tomorrow. I seek spiritual experience and philosophical insight with very little idea what I’m doing and no idea if I’m getting it right. I see from other authors that I’m not the only messy, chaotic meanderer in the realm of spiritual questing. That comforts me.

For me, what matters most is the journey itself, the questing, pondering and reaching. I fall over. I get up again. I break my heart. I have another go. This is what life means to me. Those people who have found their certainty, are most welcome to it. I would not begrudge anyone the clarity of deep insight or the apparent wonder of knowing how it all works. I don’t know how it all works, and because I am flawed and messy, I’ve yet to find someone who had it all sussed in whom I could trust. I am too sceptical, too cynical, I wonder if the certain folk are really, in their hearts, as confident as they claim to be, or if they are in the business of selling Truth. Truth, after all, is a more attractive commodity than doubt. Maybe these are people who have not been tested beyond breaking point and are therefore not full of cracks and holes. Maybe they are genuinely enlightened. I can’t tell. All I know is that I respond best to the authors who share their pain and confusion, and that I have no certainty to offer.

Soundbite philosophy and other fish

I woke in the early hours with the absolute conviction that today’s blog post would be going in the ‘ritual’ category. The thing I can’t remember, is what it was supposed to be about. This is not unusual, my dreaming mind has a life of its own; I often wake with convictions that can’t then be pinned to anything coherent. When they can, I tend to use them. There may be a flow, something I can tap into, things my unconscious mind knows. And, when there’s an easy option, I’m not ashamed to take it. So, this is not a blog about ritual, but about thinking, and whether or not we go with the flow, and where the flow might take us.

I read somewhere (facebook perhaps) a lovely thought form that went ‘do not go with the flow. Dead things go with the flow.’ Fish tend to swim against the flow, I’ve watched them seeming to hang in the water in much the same way as kestrels fly against the wind in order to hover. If the canal is anything to go by, dead things can be depended on to go with the flow. So does rubbish. Often ‘going with the flow’ results in these floating things getting trapped by the curve at the front or back of the boat, at which point all motion ceases. And the flow varies in most watercourses, from barely shifting to torrential floods, all of which a person who goes with it, can be subject to.

Going with the flow is a surrender to the inevitable. Or at least, to what we assume is inevitable. It is the path of least resistance. The sapling that bends in the storm does not break. I spent a little while studying tai chi and Taoism, and the idea of yielding is very important in that tradition. Overcoming by yielding is a strategy worth considering, especially if you dislike violence or conflict. But can all trials be overcome through yielding? Looking at my own life, I have to say, no. I have yielded, a great deal at times, given way, acquiesced, offered no resistance. In the short term it reduced pain, but longer term it kept me trapped in a harmful, soul destroying situation. There are forms of oppression it’s very hard to tackle by yielding. Sometimes, yielding only serves to reinforce the problem.

There are lots of glib statements out there that seek to sum up a life philosophy in a few short words. The trouble is, that very few simple ideas can be safely applied to all situations for a failsafe ‘how to live well’ solution. If it were that easy, someone would have figured it out long ago. Anything that can be pinned down to a single sentence probably won’t get you very far, or won’t work all the time. Life is much more complicated. Being human is vastly complicated. The things that make sense to one person, in one place and at one time won’t necessarily have anything to give even that same person, in another time or place, much less anyone else.

Most actual philosophies and belief systems cannot be expressed simplistically. It’s tempting to want soundbites and easy catch phrases, but that’s not how a spiritual path works. It’s the commitment to complexity, to exploration and a quest for understanding that underpins all spiritual life. The difficulty is part of the point, part of what makes it meaningful to search for answers. The one liners that can readily be shared on facebook are often charming. They may raise a smile or trigger an idea, but slogan-philosophy only goes so far. The fun part is taking that nugget, be it ‘go with the flow’, or anything else, and working out what that means, right now, in your life. That’s where both the real work, and the real discovery happens.

Where is the flow going today? I don’t know. But I can go with it, or swim against it, get out altogether, and consider all manner of alternatives. The only one liner of philosophy I’m inclined to trust, is that there is never one true way to anything.

Belonging to the land

Talking about druidry on this blog recently, I suggested the idea that what defines druids as distinctly different from other pagans, is that druids belong to the land. There was a lot of affirmative feedback on that, so I wanted to come back and consider what that means.

The land is the source of all life, and the basis of most ecosystems (oceans aside). So by focusing on the land we are called to take a longer perspective over living things, ourselves included. The long term wellbeing of the land is essential for all life. You cannot mistreat the land and hope to have life continue unchanged. Mistreating the land is something humans do continually, with no eye to the long term and little sign of any enlightened self-interest even. To be a druid is to speak for the wellbeing of the land, to act with that in mind, to see the deeper connections and the longer time scales.

Belonging to the land also places us specifically in the land we inhabit, along with all of its flora, fauna, history and human activity. Wherever we are, we belong, and it doesn’t matter how often or how far we move, while we are living on the land, we have the relationship and we can hold it consciously. It gives us a starting place from which to explore all the relationships we can have with other inhabitants of the land, and with its history, and future. Belonging grounds us – literally. We have a place to stand – literally again. It is the kind of knowing that gives strength and the ability to endure.

I think the idea of belonging to the land also leads us to relationship with much more immediate manifestations of deity rather than big, distant concepts. We’re more likely to take an animist approach, seeing spirit in all things, to look for the spirits and deities of our places, and to honour deities connected to the land we know. The sacredness of our land and the spirit of it is present to us, however we choose to understand it, and this immediacy feeds into a sense of direct involvement. God is not distant and inaccessible. The gods, the spirits, the divine is here, present, now. It can speak to us with the voices of wind and stream, from the roots of trees and the soil itself. We can glimpse it in the running hare or the soaring bird. These too belong to the land and are part of the same magical relationship that builds reality from one moment to the next.

If we belong first and foremost to the land, then we do not belong to our human communities above all else. We are not the property of the state, or owned by our employers. This affects how we perceive ourselves and our human relationships. We are not owned by the job, or by the demands of human expectations. We belong instead to the land, and consciousness of that allows us not to be ruled so easily by misguided cultural norms, or social pressures. We are also less inclined to see the land itself or anything that lives upon it as property to be owned by humans. We belong to it, it does not belong to us.

You can build a whole ethical framework from the principle of belonging to the land, and have that shape everything that you do. Equally, it is a viable basis for belief. The land does not require our belief, but the idea of its sacredness does, especially when we’re surrounded by people who see only resources to exploit and potential for profit and economic growth. A man on radio 4 this morning described the creation of jobs and wealth as a moral imperative. To me, that’s an absolute nonsense. Making sure there is sufficiency and sustainability are my moral imperatives. That we should have enough, and take no more than constitutes enough, and be careful to properly understand what ‘enough’ means is an ethos far more in line with belonging to the land, than imagining we own it.

I’m barely scraping the surface here but the more I look at it, the more I feel able to define my druidry in this way.

Everything is a pagan issue

Yesterday Jayne opened the way to this line of thought by asking how television watching would possibly be a pagan issue. I’ve put my cards on the table at the outset here, because I’m going to argue that everything is a pagan issue.

For me, religion is not something we roll out for festivals and rites of passage. It’s a dedication to a way of understanding the world and moving through it. Religion is not something we do, it becomes part of who we are – this is a process we can all continually deepen, develop and explore. I’ve always considered paganism to be an active path, where those involved take personal responsibility for their own spiritual development rather than relying in the guidance of a book or a priest. Recognising that everything we do is, or can be, an expression of our beliefs, is a vital part of that process.

It’s easy to be consciously pagan when you’re at a ritual, walking in the woods, dancing around a fire or otherwise in an explicitly pagan setting. It’s much harder to be a pagan in a supermarket, or during the day job, or after the day job when you’re tired and just need to chill. But I ask the counter question, how can you be a pagan, and not still be a pagan whilst doing all of these things? Every choice we make has the potential to be an expression of our pagan selves. One of the most important choices we all make, on a daily basis, is how to use our time.

Now, that’s not just an issue about overt expression of paganism. It doesn’t mean we have to draw mystical symbols on everything we own and dance naked around the washing machine. It does mean we need to think carefully about how we use our time and resources. This is about how we treat ourselves, how we recognise the sacred within ourselves and use the time available to us to nurture our souls.

It is, pretty much by definition, easy and tempting to do what is normal. To go along with the mainstream and not think too much. As I see it, to be pagan is very precisely to reject the mainstream, the conventional and habitual. To be in relationship with the planet, the ancestors, gods, spirits, is to be adopting a way of viewing the world radically out of kilter with ‘normal’.

Are we fair weather pagans, honouring nature when it’s a nice sunny day and we feel like it, forgetting about issues of spirit and soul the rest of the time? That’s lip service. That’s religion as hobby, and it is not what it takes to make a profound commitment to a spiritual life. To be fully, truly, entirely pagan, is to be pagan full time. It’s to be pagan at work, and pagan doing the housework. It means bringing that paganism to everything we do and think, and nothing, nothing at all is outside of that.

In practice, doing that in one go is overwhelming to the point of being impossible. It’s more than most minds can handle, and daunting in the extreme. No one goes from liking the idea of paganism to living in an entirely committed way over night. It is a journey, and like all good quests, has no true end. There is always further we can take this.

So to anyone who is at the early stages along their path I would offer this. Everything is fair game, but there is no necessity to make all of your life consciously pagan in one go. Pick a small, manageable thing to change – it might be going greener with the cleaning products, recycling more, cutting down on power use. It might be taking ten minutes every day for meditation. Start manageable, and when you’ve adjusted, look around for the next thing. It’s not a race or a competition, there’s no one right way of doing this, except for ‘consciously’. By degrees, bring your pagan consciousness to all parts of your life, and let it guide you. This is not a process of self negation or denial either, this is a route to enrichment, to happier, more fulfilled and rewarding living. There is nowhere your paganism can’t go, and nothing your paganism cannot help you to do in more soulful ways.

Living with faith

Atheists often ask how anyone can base their lives on things for which there is no evidence. Things which they argue are manifestly not even true. Sometimes it seems as though belief and disbelief are the only options open to a person. If you’re even slightly philosophically minded, pure blind faith is virtually impossible. The questioning mind demands to know why, how, and what if? For some druids, personal experience offers a strong enough basis not for faith, but for a sense of certainty that the world works in certain ways. And then there’s the rest of us.

I’ve come to think that belief and disbelief are not the only two positions available to me. I’m going to play out the options by poking some issues.

I don’t think anyone knows what happens when we die. Some people have vivid past life memories, but I don’t know if that’s reincarnation, an ancestral remembering, something about the nature of time, or a brain malfunction. And even if you do remember a previous life, it is no proof there will be lives to come, just as remembering yesterday is no proof that tomorrow will happen. Near death experiences, ghosts, and other paranormal things encourage people to think they know, and yet everything we know about biology makes it hard to see how consciousness continues after death. I must add that everything we know about biology makes it hard to explain how consciousness occurs during life as well.

So my first held position around the afterlife, is one of total uncertainty. I do not know. Holding that thought, I can then go on to say that I believe there is more, and for me reincarnation makes sense. I find I can hold belief as belief, without having to believe that it is fact. It works just as well for gods. I do not know if gods exist, I choose to believe that they do, whilst recognising that this is a position of belief and not an assertion of fact.

I live guided by my beliefs, but these beliefs all hold within them the awareness that I could be wrong. So, for example, while I mostly believe in the possibility of reincarnation, I live this life as though it is the only one I have, because that’s a far more pragmatic call. My belief in gods leads me to honour and respect them, and seek insight, but at the same time my doubt requires me to take full responsibility for myself and not hold out too much hope for divine intervention. I don’t find I need any proof of anything, working this way. Not least because it makes me very aware that ‘proof’ is a flawed, subjective thing and largely isn’t available anyway.

I choose to believe in other things too. I believe that justice matters, that life should be respected, I believe that life is rich with meaning, and that everything we do, matters. These are also faith positions, with no ‘proof’ to back them up. Most values are in fact faith positions, based on beliefs we have chosen. I believe we can make those choices consciously. I would rather be the person who lives a life shaped by positive beliefs and aspirations, both about other people, and the nature of reality as a whole, than someone who chooses a perception that is gloomy and hopeless. I would rather assume the best of people. I would also rather have faith in myself, and those close to me, than choose not to, even while I still retain my capacity to doubt.

I have no idea if there’s a technical name for holding a space that encompasses both belief and disbelief in this way – if anyone knows what it’s called, please do leave a comment.