Tag Archives: change

How we make change

Go back ten years or so, and positivity ruled. All those chirpy memes, all those people ready to tell you to make the best of things and find the silver lining and quick to give you a verbal slapping if they thought you were wallowing in misery or just doing it for the attention. 

These days I see more online content deconstructing toxic positivity than I see people spouting it. I see more people talking about the realities of living with mental illness, grief, chronic physical conditions, trauma, neurodivergence and combinations of those things. I see fewer people suggesting that it would be all fine if you just tried to be more upbeat and maybe did some mindfulness. This is huge progress. At the moment we haven’t reached the level of a societal shift, but this is how that sort of thing comes to happen.

When I first started questioning the idea of relentless positivity, I didn’t even have words for what I was taking issue with. I don’t know who coined the term ‘toxic positivity’ but all power to them. It’s helpful having neat labels for things. When I was first trying to talk about things I experience as a person with a wonky body, and as a consequence of trauma and mental health impacts, I didn’t have ‘ableism’ as a word. I’ve been glad of that one, too, and of the work done by many people to identify what that means and how we deal with it.

Over the years, I’ve seen a number of issues I wanted to engage with getting picked up by increasing numbers of people. I’ve seen change beginning. When we share ideas and amplify each other, new things become possible. More people come to understand an issue. Societies are just large numbers of people, and societies can and do change in response to grass roots movement. So much can change if enough people want that to happen. And while big, heroic gestures can be attention grabbing and can advance a cause, there’s a lot to be said for people making small, everyday efforts to raise awareness, challenge convention and offer alternatives.

Taken by the tide

The prompt for this blog was ‘Openness to the winds of how and what next’. I’m starting with a little detour around how important it’s always been to me to use the language and metaphors that resonate. Wind is not what happens to me around change. I’m a water person on this issue, and for me it has to be the language of tides, flows, currents and waves. Metaphors like this are part of our soul language, so I think it’s really important to use the words that open you up to those deeper layers of meaning and possibility. 

The tides are something I primarily feel in my gut. Sometimes there’s not much to feel, which is fine. Not everything in life is a big drama or a huge shift. Sometimes I feel when change is coming, or possible, or is happening in a way that I need to be alert to. It’s never really occurred to me not to be open to this sort of thing. Change is inevitable, and fighting it can be exhausting and pointless. Learning when and how to go with the flow and when to swim fiercely against it is a thing.

Dead things go with the flow, and life often swims the other way. Then there’s the salmon, swimming upstream to spawn. Sometimes flowing with the tide isn’t the answer, but often it is. When you aren’t going with the flow it can take a lot of effort just to stay still. 

The metaphor that has become most important to me comes from surfing. This is curious because I’ve never tried to surf and never will. About as close as I’ve got has been floating towards the shore on my stomach. It’s all about catching the waves, letting the approaching swell of it lift you and knowing how to travel with it. When that happens as a life/magic issue, I feel it keenly. I get a strong sense of the rising wave and the possibility of riding something out to good effect. And like actual waves, there’s usually an element of danger in working with this energy, trusting to it, surrendering to it and seeing what happens.

It’s not always a passive choice. Often to ride this kind of wave I have to be highly alert to what I need to do and willing to trust my intuition and time my moves based on that alone. Of course there’s often no rational, external way of monitoring any of this, and I don’t talk about it when I’m doing it – except to Tom. 

Being open to change often means being open to being changed, not just having the situation alter. It means being willing to become an agent of change, an active participant in a rising tide, part of the flow, part of the wave. Sometimes it means deciding to be the water rather than being something in the water. No one gets to be static, whether they like it or not. The question is how we choose to participate in change, how we make change, and how we let change happen to us.

(With thanks to Karen for the prompt)

The spiral nature of humans

We tend to think of cause and effect as linear. A thing happens (or fails to happen) and this has consequences, which in turn can create other consequences. Unfortunately, this kind of thinking doesn’t help much when it comes to human minds and bodies.

A lot of what goes on with us has a spiral quality to it. Many of our body systems – perhaps all of them, I’m no expert – involve feedback loops. The more I read about hormones and body chemistry, the more I appreciate not only that those loops exist, but that we don’t really know enough about them. Have a look at serotonin in the body if you want to poke about in a good example of this.

It means that looking for a root cause doesn’t always make sense. We ask what causes mental health problems, or diabetes, or obesity, as though we could deal with the cause and that would sort things out. Bodies get into habits – we have habitual pathways in our brain, and habitual responses to stimuli. Hypervigilance is what happens when your body is in the habit of being afraid all the time. It may have been caused by a specific experience, but you can’t uncause it in a simple way. Being stressed because of hyper-vigilance will keep you locked into the stress that is fueling the hyper-vigilance.

When things are cyclical, that can mean that changing any point in the cycle will change the cycle as a whole. So sometimes it’s not about finding the root cause, but finding the point in the process that you can do something about. This in turn means getting to know the system, the cycle, the feedback loops because if you don’t know what’s going on, you won’t find a place you can change things.

I’m tired all the time, my body is sore and stiff. If all I do is rest – which is all I want to do, I lose further muscle strength and stamina. If I move too much I will become even more exhausted, sore and stiff which maintains the problems, not solving them. To change things I have to spot the points where I can take small actions that won’t simply create bigger problems. I’ve found that tackling problems in my thinking, trying to change my emotional landscape, and dealing with other health issues all works in roughly the same way. There aren’t any simple answers that break the cycles without potentially causing other problems. It’s a delicate process, but sometimes there are options. Those options aren’t always obvious, and are less so if you’re taking a linear cause and effect approach to looking for them.

Taking off a skin

Sometimes growing is a smooth and easy process. However, for some creatures, growing means shedding a skin. It means breaking your exterior and climbing out of it in a new, soft skin that can expand. Insects do this a lot. Snakes of course also shed in order to grow.

It can be a helpful metaphor for certain kinds of emotional experience. Growing isn’t always a sweet and comfortable process. Growth can be terrifying, and sometimes you have to shatter what’s on the outside in order to have the room to get bigger.

Sometimes the lives we make and the ways in which we present ourselves are designed to keep us safe, but really keep us small. To be authentic, to feel real, to live your truth you may need to be something less guarded, less like a fortified building. When the walls we build to protect ourselves are too constricting, breaking out is messy. 

Sometimes it becomes apparent that the outside layer isn’t a skin. It is not your skin. It’s more like having had your growth curtailed by getting wrapped up in plastic litter. Getting out of it may prove bloody and you may need help. You are not the plastic rope that got wrapped around your natural shell. You are not the things that dig painfully into your skin.

It may be the case that your real skin is in there somewhere, under a mess of ugliness that isn’t you. Like one of those films in which a rescue dog is bathed and combed and has all the crap removed from its battered outsides, you may need restoring. And like any rescued animal that needs help, you may be terrified and the process may make no sense to you. It may not be until things are fixed that you’ll be able to make sense of what happened.

There’s a certain amount of violence in breaking open an egg or a seed. Transformation means the death of something, and death is scary and full of uncertainties. Change is natural, but that doesn’t mean it is bound to be easy.

How to change everything

Our thoughts and feelings are malleable. Given  enough time and effort, anyone can change any aspect of how they think and feel. It is my considered opinion that our first responses are most likely to be what we’ve absorbed unconsciously, and that your most authentic self is the person you deliberately choose to be. So, some notes on doing that. This isn’t in depth, it’s just an attempt to lay out the territory.

Firstly you have to notice what you are thinking and feeling. This is easier said than done. Check in with yourself, ask how you feel, pay attention. Try and notice your thoughts and responses. Focus on areas of your life where you aren’t happy about how things go for you.

Secondly, interrogate those responses. Sit down with them, examine them and ask where they come from. Why do you think as you do? Whose voice is that in your head? Where do those emotions come from?

This is also the work that allows us to identify where our cultures have fed us racism, sexism and other prejudices. This is how we find what privilege is telling us, or where we carry ancestral wounds.  This is not easy work.

Changing how you think is fairly easy. We can add new ideas to the mix. We can even break out of long held patterns of thought if we try to. There are tools for this – CBT is relevant here. Changing how we feel tends to be slower, and harder. It’s best to tackle the thinking and let that shift the emotions over time. You can practice thinking differently – write yourself affirmations, or little mantras, or statements of intent. Do some spells. If your thinking isn’t helping you, it can be changed. You can go to a therapist, or a mutual support group or find resources online. You can take control of your thoughts.

When we start acting on these changes, we build feedback loops and after the first few rounds it starts to get easier. It’s a process and it takes time to change yourself.

If you do this work, beware of toxic positivity. Learning to be more loving and patient is not the answer if you are being abused. Gratitude over things that are harming you, is not a terribly good thing. There’s a lot to be said for having people to talk to about what you experience and the changes you want to make. If your circumstances are awful, there is only so much you can do by changing your thinking – really what you need to do is change your circumstances. If you can’t do that – as is often the way with illness, you are allowed to be angry about it. Hold whatever headspace really works for you.

This week, in the midst of falling apart, it became apparent to me that I have some unhealthy ideas around the reasonableness of people punishing me, and how I should respond to being punished. I’m going to need some time to unpick that. But, I’ve seen it in action, I’ve seen what it does to me, and I’ve seen how I can change. Now, I just have to do the work.

Beavers and Behaviours

It’s easy to look at the behaviour of creatures and feel that this is how the world is – that they are in a fixed state, not a process. It’s easy to think the same things about ourselves. Once upon a time, beavers were mammals who got their sustenance from trees, and that was it. They gnawed on trees to eat them. At some point that changed.

I like to imagine a grumpy beaver waking up in the morning, looking at the leftovers from yesterday’s tree, having a moment and chucking it in a stream, and it all going from there. Behaviours evolve. Somehow beavers went from eating trees to building with trees, to blocking the flow of water to make ponds and building themselves homes. It was a process, full of beaver ingenuity, beavers learning from other beavers, and no doubt some percentage of happy accident.

Humans are similar. At some point in our history we had ideas about tool use. We started making shelters. We have changed in so many ways over time. It may be tempting to look at ourselves and imagine we are now the best that people could be. Of course we aren’t. It’s easy to mistake change for progress – and it isn’t necessarily so. Circumstances change, and behaviours have to adapt in line with those changes. One state of being is not necessarily intrinsically better than another, just better for the circumstances. The ‘survival of the fittest’ notion is one people often misunderstand because it’s not about being the ultimate best, it’s about being well adapted for the current situation. Highly adapted specialists can be exceedingly vulnerable if their circumstances change.

As individuals, we have the scope to change our behaviour all the time. We can innovate. We can be the beaver who wakes up one morning and thinks, hang on a minute, why don’t I chuck this log in this stream?

Druidry and Life Stages

When asking ‘what is Druidry?’ it may be useful to ask ‘what is Druidry to me now?’ It doesn’t mean what it meant fourteen years ago when I started studying in earnest. Back then, Druidry meant learning, above and beyond all else. I was ambitious, and hungry, and determined. I was also relatively young and I think these qualities are natural enough in youth.

For a decade or so, my personal Druidry was almost entirely about the bard path. I balanced this with work for community groups, and facilitating community ritual. Celebration and communication were key themes.

Then I became a bit of a hermit for a while, and communion became more important to me. Themes of contemplation and wandering began to emerge because I couldn’t deal with people. I became interested in the ancestors, and the spirits of the land.

I changed again, for a year of being a public facing activist, and for a while my Druidry was all about politics and serving the wider community. I burned out, and stepped back.

At the moment I’m trying to find balance between hermit-hood and participation, contemplation and action, and it is walking that is the heart of my personal practice. Next year, who knows?

How I practice is influenced by what I’ve learned, by my energy levels, and mental/emotional needs. I probably looked far more like a Druid when I started out, when a daily practice meant obvious acts of ritual. I have no idea what I look like these days and I mind less – far less ambitious, and differently driven.

The Druidry of my twenties could not be the Druidry of my thirties, and no doubt my next decade will bring new shifts in direction. We have to give ourselves room and permission to change; to pick up things we’ve previously rejected, to change our minds, and to want differently. Seeking to carve a definition of our Druidry in stone, all we do is give ourselves an inconvenient stone to heft about. I’m not sure ‘What is Druidry’ is a useful question (I used to think it was, perhaps it will be again). Right now, the question of ‘what is my Druidry right now’ seems far more important. Also, what does other people’s Druidry look like? What can I learn, how can I negotiate with the differences and how can we co-operate as we co-evolve?

Creating my own reality

We have beliefs about the ways in which, by action and sheer will, we can change our reality, and we also all have beliefs about the ways in which there is no scope for change whatsoever. Some of these are more sensible than others, and I am picking some examples that strike me as especially nuts.

A great many adult humans spend vast amounts of money on products and interventions which promise the illusion of youth. We are all getting older, that’s a key feature of being alive. Rather than accept this process and work with it gracefully, we expend vast amounts of human time, energy and resource on fighting it. This tide will not go back no matter how we shout at it.

On the other hand, we’re willing to treat human constructs as inevitable and unassailable. We’ve built a vast and complex house on the sandy base that is cheap energy. When the oil runs out, we’re in trouble, and yet we do not consider changing the system. We’ll look anywhere for answers, no matter how short term and suicidal rather than even consider the systems we built might have to change.

All too often, we don’t believe we can change our health by changing our lifestyles but will pay for pills that claim to do it for us, and never mind the side effects. Death is inevitable but we want a magic pill to chase it away.

Too many of us no longer believe we make a difference by voting, while far, far too many are happy to trust decision making to the dubious few who put themselves forwards.

We believe that there’s no money to feed and house our poorest people, while at the same time we’re also happy to believe that spending £100billion on nuclear weapons and the capacity to kill 45 million people is a prudent investment for jobs and future security.

Look at the things we seem willing to believe as a society, and the quantity of cognitive dissonance is astounding. 97% of scientists say man made climate change exists and yet we still consent to be ruled by people do not believe in it. England, if we were a person, we’d have to be medicated to the eyeballs and put in a padded room because our delusions are vast, and our beliefs so shockingly irrational.

With our beliefs, we create our reality, and by this means we shall have a vast array of nuclear weapons and people in poverty killing themselves. We shall have miracle anti aging face creams and continue to die younger than we might have done as a consequence of obesity, air pollution and road deaths. As for what we’ll do when climate change and peak oil wash away the foundations of sand – that’s anyone’s guess, but I don’t have much confidence that at such a time, we will collectively wake up and think clever thoughts. We’re just not in the habit.

And then there’s that merry band of us, Cnut-like, shouting at the sea of humanity to go back. Try something else. Irrationally optimistic that we can get people to change their beliefs. Wet feet it is, then.

Contemplating sacrifice

I’ve written before about all the reasons I don’t believe in or go in for sacrifice https://druidlife.wordpress.com/2012/06/15/no-sacrifice/. I come back to the issue at the end of a week that has broken me physically and left me with a very bruised mind. The latter is to a large extent a consequence of the former, pain and exhaustion being reliable depression triggers for me.

It hurts to type, but I’m here and typing the blog post anyway, because it’s what I do, and because if I stopped every time it hurts, most days  I wouldn’t get much done. Mostly I’ve learned not to notice what hurts my body, and I’ll take a fair amount of heart-hurting as well. Getting stuff done is important to me –the need to feel useful, the need to make a difference, however small.

There is a possibility that this week’s efforts could benefit me, in some direct way. There’s also distinct possibility that it won’t. Perhaps I have done enough to make a difference, perhaps not. It will be some weeks before I have any decent measure of what I have, or haven’t achieved here. There was possible scope to make a huge, positive difference. Did I do enough? There was no doubt in my mind that I had to give this my all, that I had to pour every ounce of strength, ability, passion and determination at my disposal, into what I’m doing. So I did that, and today I can hardly move and am tearful.

In a material sense, I have no idea if this was a price worth paying. I won’t know for a while. There may be differences already made that I cannot see. It’s also possible that I’ve just broken my body and battered my mind in order to change nothing. Except that perhaps, just perhaps, simply being willing to go that far and do that much of itself changes something. In terms of magical actions, that has to be a consideration.

What is a sacrifice if not the giving of something essential; life, time, blood, sweat, tears? What is the point of sacrifice if not to go beyond the ordinary, the viable, the normal and the likely to try and beget uncanny levels of change? Apparently that’s available as an option with no recourse to Gods. Simply that I have done this, and the reasons for which I have done it, changes me, if nothing else. I hurt with every last cell in my body. I do believe it was worth it.

naming the problem

For me, the spiritual life has to be about finding a viable, sustainable, functional way of life that delivers intrinsic worth. The quest for these things has long been part of what philosophy does, while we often use the methods of religion to create a sense of peace and meaning. I often find I need to poke my life and experience to try and find better ways through things.

I’ve been through some really shitty situations, and there is a pattern. I notice how reluctant I am to name and acknowledge the problem. Part of it comes from a desire not to complain, or blame anyone else. Part of it comes from the insane belief that if I keep slogging away and working hard, I will magically get there.   When there is a problem, naming it has consequence. You have moved from denial to acceptance. That acceptance implies a need for change and may well create the momentum for it. Based on experience, owning and naming the problem is often the most frightening and painful part of the process. Once that’s done, everything gets easier.
The most recent example is a simpler one because it is not tangled up in relationships with other people. It is underpinned by my whole history, though, by how others see me and see my work, by a desire to validate myself through my work and to make a point. It’s underpinned by not wanting to admit defeat or to acknowledge what I’m not. There’s a second strand, too, which was a belief that I wasn’t really good enough for anything else and that I would not be able to get a proper job anyway. Make it as a professional author, or be thrown on the scrapheap. I’d convinced myself this was all I had.
Last week I said ‘enough’. I can’t make a living as an author. It may well be this is because I’m not good enough – not commercially minded enough to be a Dan Brown, not creative genius enough to be an Ursula Le Guinn. Going through that naming process was agony. It took days, in the midst of burnout and exhaustion. I cried a lot, and I felt like my whole life was falling to pieces around me. But rather than reassure myself that somehow it would all magically be ok, I started looking hard at how I was feeling, and why, and what was going on there.
I got to a place of saying ‘this is not ok and something needs to change’. That really helped. Deciding that it is not ok to slog away, striving and exhausted and not earning enough to live comfortably and not having time, energy or resources to do the things I want to do… that was important. Recognising that I don’t deserve to be worked to death in a state of miserable exhaustion. That helped. Maybe the failure is mine. I accept that, so be it. In that acceptance, eventually came peace and relief.
After a while I started feeling able to let go of the dreams and aspirations that had kept me on the treadmill for so long. Realising that I don’t have to achieve anything specifically, was a relief. Realising that maybe I could just spend a while going after things that would make me feel better, and that I could find work that I also find meaningful – that was liberating. Once I got past the pain of naming the problem, the pain reduced. I became able to think. I started making decisions, and choices, and being able to see a way forward.
Change is scary. Owning a problem is scary because it means facing the things, people, arrangements, aspects of self that aren’t working. It can seem easier to deny the issue, and keep going as though it was all right really. Toxic workplaces, dysfunctional relationships, destructive peer groups, depressing homes… we tell ourselves ‘better the devil you know’ and we stay. The comfort and security of staying where it hurts and doesn’t work, is a myth. Sometimes the novelly of a new and unfamiliar devil is at least a bit of respite and a change of scenery, even if ultimately you do end up with the same old shit. And sometimes, the alternative is better.
I don’t default to tearing everything down for the sake of it. Sometimes though, tearing everything down is the only way to go. Then you can see the painted scenery, the strings on the puppets, the fake moonlight, and you can get out of the carefully built illusion and find something else. Maybe a new illusion, but possibly something real and worth having.