Tag Archives: contemplation

Meditation and emotional processing

If you’re the sort of person who is willing to rethink things in response to new information, then changing your mind can be a fairly rapid process. Sometimes it’s possible to shift emotional states quickly in response to new and different input, but it isn’t so reliable. Emotions are slow, often. The bigger and more impactful something is, the more time it can take to integrate it and make peace with it.

This is just as true of happy, welcome feelings as it is of gloomier ones. A big, positive change can take a lot of getting to grips with and can also be disorientating. We can be more neglectful when it comes to happy feelings because we tend to just accept them as good without any kind of scrutiny, where pain is more likely to have us paying attention to our own inner lives. Having intense good experiences, or a lot of them can also be something that needs processing.

This is something we can approach in a meditative way, taking the time to reflect on what’s happened and exploring how we feel about it. Deliberately reflecting on experiences and feelings helps us consolidate those experiences and make sense of them. It’s also a good way of being in more control with what’s happening. If our emotional experiences are things that just happen to us, we won’t have the means to seek more of what we like, or be able to deal with what we don’t like.

For me, the idea of the life lived deliberately has become a central tenet in my understanding of what it is to be a Druid. I’m not alone in this – the practice of reflection and being deliberate is there in the OBOD course.

Meditating on your experiences can work in any way that you want it to. I’m particularly focused on needing to understand things. My brain likes to sift information for patterns. I like to reflect on what, exactly made me happy and to revisit those things in a deliberate way. Around uncomfortable experiences, I need to understand exactly what I’m uncomfortable about. Sometimes the process of examining an experience will make me realise things about how I’ve been impacted by previous experiences. Your needs may well be different.

We won’t always consciously know what’s going on. We may not always have the room – emotionally or in our lives – to deal with our feelings. Things can get backed up, previous experiences can distort how we’re seeing the present. Sometimes a recent event can unlock feelings we didn’t make space for when they happened. That can be unsettling. Emotions can just bubble up sometimes, especially unprocessed ones, and that can feel a lot like being ambushed.

Making time for it is a good choice. Holding some quiet, safe, personal space where no one will judge you or make anything of it, is a good idea. Calm and gentle reflection on life – the happy bits and the difficult bits alike – means we at least have some idea what’s going on. Without reflection, we may not understand our own responses or needs. Taking the time to contemplate how we feel about things gives us a lot of information about who we are, what we need and what’s significant. It’s good insight to have, and spending time on yourself in this way has much to recommend it.

Navel Gazing and Druidry

I talk a lot about the idea of living a deliberate life and the way in which this calls for self awareness. Can we go too far with that? At what point might it become an issue?

Navel gazing can be defined as ‘self-indulgent or excessive contemplation of oneself or a single issue, at the expense of a wider view.’

If you feel that you’re doing this, then that’s something you are entitled to judge and are free to change. However, if the judgement is from someone else, it’s not so clear cut. If you’re looking inwards rather than dealing with issues or handling duties, then it might be fair to have other people call you out on it. If other people simply don’t like how much time you’re spending on looking inwards, that’s their issue, not yours.

Spirituality and philosophy require time spent looking inwards. Creative processes call for introspection. Building self awareness takes time, and the less you’ve done of that, the more you might need to do just to get things started. Investing time in knowing yourself and understanding yourself is time well spent. If you’re so involved that you fail to meet other needs of your own, and/or those of people depending on you, that’s a sign to scale back. You can go too far with this, and I’m aware of people who have damaged their mental health by spending too much time going inwards. 

How much is too much? All day, every day certainly is. An hour or two every day devoted to inner work certainly won’t do you any harm. Occasional deep dives – as with retreats, day long workshops and the like – are also fine. Trying to live inside yourself all the time doesn’t work. Who we are is very much about how we interact with the world. Retreating from the world to examine that is a good thing, retreating from the world as an ongoing choice robs you of too much of who you are.

I think the ideal is to get into a rhythm where you spend time being active in the world, and then spend some time reflecting on those experiences. Our bodies need time to rest, and taking time for reflection also supports physical health. We learn better when we take time to consolidate knowledge and experience. Our brains are calmer if we give ourselves time to process what’s happening to us.

It is well worth being alert to the kinds of spiritual approaches that push us inwards and encourage us to reject life. We are beings with bodies, and showing up as our bodily selves is really important. As a Pagan, I do not see the flesh as something to overcome. This body is who I am in the world, and I want to honour that. Introspection helps me think about how to show up as a whole person. I think about how I want to be in the world and how I want to engage as an embodied being. I listen to my body to try and work out what I need, and what’s good for me.

One of the questions I make a point of asking myself is where I am going with my thoughts. I’ve struggled a lot with anxiety, and I know how easy it can be to get locked into very inward processes fuelled by fear. I try to avoid relentlessly chewing on things I can’t change or even predict. I make a point of focusing my thoughts on things where that thinking might take me somewhere. Depression can make it all too easy to turn inwards in order to beat myself up, but I try to avoid that by deliberately thinking about what I can do to change things.

Introspection of itself can help us or harm us. As is often the way of it, the key thing is to be deliberate in how we use this as a tool.

How do you know yourself?

Self knowledge is key to so many things. In understanding our own feelings, needs, strengths and weaknesses we are able to make better choices for ourselves. Knowing how we’ve been shaped by our families, cultures and experiences means we aren’t forever at the mercy of those influences. 

Contemplation can be a route to self-knowledge. Time spent reflecting on choices, preferences and aspirations can be informative. That can still leave us vulnerable to forming an opinion of who we want to think we are rather than an understanding of who we actually are.

One good source of information can be what other people reflect back to us about our qualities. The problem with this is that some people will reflect back harmful takes designed to hurt, limit and control other people. If you’ve grown up being told you aren’t good enough, it can be difficult to hear positive feedback from other people. Some people will try and project their own issues onto you rather than reflecting back anything about you. Some people simply won’t understand you and their feedback may not be helpful.

Criticism is not inherently more useful than praise. You can learn a lot from the good things people have to say, and the things they value about you. Those are firm building blocks and tend to be more reliable. Yes, there are people who will flatter because they think it’s going to advance them in some way, but they will likely try to be plausible. If you aren’t hurting people for giving you negative feedback you can afford to trust the people who speak well of you. Positive feedback is inherently more trustworthy than criticism because there’s a much lower chance that it is intended to manipulate you. People who want to make you feel good about yourself are a better source of feedback than people who want to hurt you.

I like to go into most situations with at least a vague plan and a clear sense of my own priorities. Every now and then I hit something that truly surprises me in that I react in a way I was not expecting. These are always rich opportunities for learning. It cheers me to find that I do not wholly know myself and am still capable of being surprised by my own responses. To feel something unexpected, or to be inspired into an unanticipated course of action is always interesting. Sometimes this is the only way to really measure growth and change.

Seeking out unfamiliar experiences can give us the opportunity to test ourselves. Who am I when I am challenged? Who am I in face of opportunity and set-back? What has the power to sweep me off my feet? 

For me, this is the essence of adventure – this opportunity to know something new and discover things about myself. I have no desire to settle or become one definite and fixed thing. I want to change, and I want to be surprised by how some of that goes.

At the red spring

We went to Glastonbury!

I hadn’t been to Glastonbury in more than ten years, even though I’m in the southwest of the UK. It’s not an easy place to reach without a car, and I really don’t travel well on buses. It was lovely to see the town. I’d never been to Chalice Well Gardens before, either. While visiting the gardens it became obvious that there was no way my beleaguered body was going up the tor, and so I stayed and contemplated and engaged with the water and wondered about the reputed healing properties of the red spring.

I was struck by the differences and similarities between tourists and pilgrims. Some people were clearly there for spiritual purposes, quietly doing their own thing. Some were clearly tourists, there to look and take photos – and in some cases allowing their children to undertake noisy and inappropriate rampages. Sometimes the people who appeared to be there as tourists were clearly moved by the place. Sometimes the people who looked like pilgrims turned out to be much more interested in taking photos.

Sitting beside the waterfall for an extended period, I had the opportunity to contemplate a lot of things, including how people engage with places and how easily spirituality becomes performance art. I compared the more elaborate and costumed actions undertaken for a camera, with the quiet reverence of people who looked like tourists but chose to bodily engage with the water. 

I’m very much in favour of sharing beauty. Taking photos for the internet is a reliable way of doing that. But at some point, the photoshoot starts to be more important than the ritual, if you aren’t careful. Trying to look good for the camera can really get in the way of doing anything substantial. There’s a huge temptation around going to special places and wanting to come back with a dramatic story, a revelation and some really attractive photos.

So I sat in the gardens for a few hours, and thought about iron and water, ideas of femininity, how people relate to places and what I might need on my own personal journey. I’m not good at big revelations, but I am good at being present to what’s happening around me.

So here’s a photo of me when I wasn’t in a deep state of contemplation and was still doing a lousy job of looking glamorous!

Meditations, Quotes and Affirmations – a review

Author R.D. Cain is someone I’ve known for a very long time, and like most of my book reviews, I don’t feel like objectivity is something I’m especially capable of. R.D. Cain’s new book of Meditations, Quotes and Affirmations is something I very much appreciated – it isn’t perfect, but it is bloody good.

The contents are offered for reflection, contemplation, inspiration, aspiration – you can use this however you want. There are accompanying photographs and pages for writing your own pithy wisdom statements, or journaling.

Philosophically it is a very good body of work. I usually find affirmations stressful, but these aren’t a difficult stretch and are much more about what a person could do rather than what they might claim to already be. It’s wonderful finding a body of wisdom statements that aren’t overloaded with privilege, either. The vast majority of what’s here is usable in crisis, and doesn’t become a mockery in disastrous circumstances. It’s also pleasingly broad to the point of being contradictory – there are Buddhist statements about letting go of dreams to live in the present, and there are much more Druid-aligned statements about the importance of dreams for enriching our lives. As the introduction makes clear, take what works for you at the time and ignore whatever doesn’t.

I read the whole thing cover to cover in a couple of sessions. I found that uplifting. I intend to keep this book around and dip into it at need – it is something I will find helpful for repeat use.

There’s one major way in which I wish this book had been different. It really should have been larger and lush, with a tactile cover and really nice paper, and high resolution full colour photographs. It should have been the sort of book you cuddle, and carry round. But, you only get to make books like that with a publisher who can afford it, and this has been put together by a cooperative of creators, so forgive it for not being the act of extravagant beauty it could have been.

Buy the book from http://www.3mpub.com/cain/meditations.html

Looking back at the year

While the calendar change from one year to another is an arbitrary thing, is creates a useful point for contemplation. It’s good to stop from time to time and take a look at your life and ask what’s working and what isn’t. As I blog about this each year I also have something I can easily look back at to see where I was last time. A lot has changed for me, it turns out.

This time last year I had no ambitions, no creative sense of direction. I wasn’t really excited about anything and my major aim for the year was to daydream more and try to find something to want to do. Over the year I’ve found new forms I want to work in, people I want to work with and an array of projects that I’m excited about. It’s put me on a totally different footing.

It’s been a challenging year. I’m not sure I get any other sort! I’m conscious of wanting things to be a bit easier, or at least to have times of respite and rest so that I can re-charge. I’m trying to make that space and to see what would help me feel better. I need to make more time for things that nourish and uplift me. I think most people do. I think we get a lot of spiritual and emotional input that’s about as good for our hearts and minds as a diet of Haribo would be for our bodies.

I’ve become better at boundaries over this last year, and a good deal more willing to say no and walk away when something doesn’t work for me. I’ve become less anxious. I’ve started asking some really big questions about the kinds of relationships I have, and have had with people, what I really want and who I can do that with. I’m finding my people. I’m finding the spaces where I don’t mute myself and second guess everything. I’m recognising the people who want me as I am, and who I can afford to trust with that.

Tai Chi has had a big impact on me over the last year. It’s changed my relationship with my body. I’m tackling the impact of hypermobility as a consequence. I’m building strength around troubled joints and learning how to move in ways that cause me less pain. For the first time in my life I’m confident that my pain issues aren’t me making a fuss, and that I need to take it seriously and am entitled to look after myself. Between the Tai Chi and some of my interactions with people, I’ve become more patient as well.

Creatively it’s been an interesting year. I started a mumming side and took that to a few events. I got a singing group going with mostly the same people, and there are plans for taking that forward. I’ve focused more on my voice because problems with hand pain have made musical instruments tricky. I’m now exploring ways to not have the hand pain and getting on top of that is a new aspiration. There have been some collaborations, and more to come, and I’ll be sharing more about that here in the coming weeks.

I feel, for the first time in years, that I am on the right track. I’m doing what I need to be doing and I know where I need to go. All kinds of things are falling into place for me. I find that happens when I’m working along the right lines. It helps that when I know what I want, I can spot what will serve that.

I’m in the odd place of being horrified and alarmed about the state of the world, and also hopeful about my own direction for the coming years. It’s strange territory, emotionally, but perhaps it will keep me honest and useful in equal measure.

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.


Contemplating privilege

Often, prompts to consider personal privilege come at awkward times. A person who feels got at and on the defensive is unlikely to want to do any serious soul searching. It is more productive to do it quietly and privately, when you aren’t in the middle of a difficult conversation.

We can’t ask people who have less privilege than us to educate us about how things work and what we need to do to improve. It’s simply not fair, or viable. Not least because one of the most reliable sources of privilege is being in the majority, whereas it is minority people who often experience prejudice and discrimination. Privilege means having some resources and opportunities at your disposal and one of the ways we can use that well is to harness it for some self-examination.

The point of doing this is not to feel guilt. The point is to understand. If those of us with privileges do not understand what we’ve got, we will keep adding to existing problems. We will uphold the idea that we are ‘normal’ and that people without the same privileges are ‘other’. We will feel entitled to what we have, rather than seeing the ways in which we are fortunate. When we really think about our own advantages and how we come to have them, we have to acknowledge the role of luck and circumstance. It opens the door to seeing that often, the more privilege you have, the less you did to earn it. It remains the case that your best shot at being a wealthy person, is to be born into an affluent family.

What advantages you? What improves your lot unfairly? Consider your class background, your race, your level of education (which probably has a lot to do with your class background and race). Consider your health, which underpins your ability to work and earn. Think about what you grew up with, which doors opened easily for you, and what it is that you take for granted. Be willing to feel uncomfortable. There is nothing wrong with feeling uncomfortable.

When you can lay out your privileges, you can move from feeling entitled, to feeling gratitude. This can be a very powerful shift. Rather than feeling you are owed, you will see the ways in which you are blessed. Most of us are blessed in some ways. If you are reading this from a screen, you have blessings in your life.

You may during this process also see where you are not privileged. It is possible to be both. Your race may give you privilege where your ill health gives you disadvantages, for example. Be realistic about how these things impact on you. Avoid seeing it as a competition.

Imagine what would happen if you lost your privileges. Do you imagine that this means being pulled down to an unhappy level? Or do you see it as elevating other people so they have the same rights and opportunities as you? If you believe in scarcity, you may see improving the lot of others as necessarily reducing your share of the good stuff. If you run into such thoughts, scrutinise them. If we are raising people up, no one is disadvantaged.

It’s important to look at any ideas we have that may underpin a desire to stay privileged. Do we think we are better and deserve more? Or do we fear we are not, and that we will be outclassed if barriers are removed for others? Do we just not want to have to change to accommodate other people’s needs? Are we invested in the idea of our own normality? Do we think people are responsible for their own problems; do we blame their choices, past lives, karma, ancestry, intelligence…? Do we think they are just making a fuss and not trying hard enough? If you feel resistance to levelling the playing field, ask what you are afraid will happen. Interrogate your beliefs.

Check your privilege. Do it quietly while no one is watching. Sit with it. Ask it questions. Imagine how life would look without it. Ask yourself how you benefit from inequality. Ask yourself what you can change. Recognise what you have, and practice gratitude, not entitlement.

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.