Tag Archives: contemplation

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.


Learning from life

Usually I find my content for blog posts by sitting down of a morning and asking ‘what do I know that I did not know before? This week, finding blog posts has been hard, and this morning I asked myself why that was, rather than asking what I have learned.

This is a week of more hours working away from home than is normal for me. As a self-employed person, I mostly work from my home computer. Up until this summer, I’d had a bunch of routines and strategies that allowed me a flexible working life. At the moment I’m getting to grips with a selection of new jobs and this week I’m spending a lot of time on one of them. I know a lot of things I didn’t know before, about where things are kept, what of the paperwork needs revising, and I’m working on some longer term strategies. None of these things make for blog posts.

When I’m on top of things, my day to day life leaves me time for reflection. I get to step back during the day and think about what I’m doing and what’s impacting on me. It’s only since I’ve stopped being able to do that, that I’ve noticed how inherently contemplative my life normally is. At the moment, all of my reflection time is being used to figure out things about the various new jobs. In all the things I’ve taken on, part of the job is to figure out what the job should be and how to do it to best effect.

What I’ve learned this week is that I learn most when I have time in a day for contemplation.  What I’ve been doing for some time doesn’t look like the structure of a conventional spiritual practice, but it has worked that way. A process of reflecting on my experiences as I go has allowed me to learn all kinds of things, and to bring depth and richness to my life. Sometimes it’s when something isn’t feasible that its true nature becomes properly visible – that’s not an ideal way to learn, but it will do!

This period of chaos has given me scope to notice things about how I’ve been living. I look forward to getting back to calmer waters with more scope to think about things. I feel like I’ve got a lot to process right now, as well as a lot to do. What do I know that I did not know before? That I need more thinking time when I don’t have to think about anything specific. Also that there are considerable personal benefits to pondering things as I go, day by day, in the informal way I’d been doing it.


Meditating on sound

Over recent weeks, I’ve been working with naturally occurring sound for meditation. It’s warm enough to have the window open, so I can lie on the bed and listen to the stream or to the bird song. Both create interesting challenges.

There’s no rhythm or logic to the songs of many birds overlapping. It’s not at all like listening to human music and so my mind, trained as it is and predisposed also, doesn’t actually handle it as well as it would more predictable sounds. The stream is similar – what sounds like a constant babble turns out, on deeper contemplation, to be a stream of sound that my brain cannot quite predict or settle into. As a consequence I find my attention drifts and I have to consciously haul myself back to paying attention.

Contemplative listening of course cannot tune out the sounds of cars, dogs, people, and other perhaps less-attractive noises that make up my sound environment. All of these come unexpectedly. The sound around me does not permit a smooth state of mind, I cannot drift off with it, I have to be an active participant and maintain my attention deliberately.

It is also possible to go the other way, treating stream and song as background noise, hearing not the details but the flow, and I find if I do that, I drift away from the sound, and soon I’m not really hearing any of it and the thoughts in my head quietly take over. It can be a good way of getting to sleep, but it doesn’t give me active engagement.

So, I’m working on being present to my soundscape – not trying to empty my thoughts, but trying to be as fully aware of and interested in the ongoing sounds around me as I can be. I’m finding it a really interesting practice.


Druidic Meditation

I’ve been interested in meditation for most of my life. The one thing I’ve known for a long time that I don’t want is an eastern-derived practice with mistletoe stuck to it. Meditation that comes out of Hindu and Buddhist traditions has certain underpinning ideas about the nature of reality and the goals of meditation, and these do not work for me.

Having done a lovely Contemplative Druid day at the weekend, I had a lot of time in situ to contemplate what Druid Meditation is. What we do in that space connects well with what I’ve been doing for years. There was a bit of a ‘eureka’ moment for me when James Nichol spoke of how this practice creates stillness on the inside, but not to take us out of the world. Here are some extensions on that line of thought.

We slow down, and in slowing down are able to go deeper, or wider. We notice more and have the time and space for really involved thinking and feeling responses to whatever we’re experiencing.

In the silence of the circle, what we tend to get is a very softly held deeper kind of connection with each other as human beings, and a deepening of experience of the space, the day, the season. Usually the centre of the circle is a small altar with a light and seasonal representations, and this encourages seasonal reflections of what happens both outside and within us at this time of year. Space to share those diverse responses and to contemplate each other’s way of being in the world increases mutual understanding and eliminates dogma. Personal truths sit side by side and are honoured.

During the day we’ll go into various contemplative activities – sound, art, and movement may all feature. These will be things we undertake together so again there’s that sense of deepening connection. We may go outside, and encounter the wilder part of the area with an open heart and more scope for seeing. We look deeply at things. Often the consequence is inspiration and there will be words, poems, images and intentions that form through these experiences.

Druid meditation is an expanding of relationship  with the self but also between participants, between participants and space. It’s a nourishing, nurturing practice that explicitly invites inspiration (Awen space is something we hold deliberately). There’s no intention to develop shared meaning, we share in order to witness, know and support each other. There’s no particular outcome that anyone is aiming for. In slowing down, paying attention, reflecting, looking back, looking forward, looking around, we will all find something and it usually turns out to be something we needed.

There are very few rules in these practices. We hold silence as the default, but there’s room to speak and share when something important comes up. Empty noise is eliminated and replaced with more soulful exchanges. We don’t do interventions for each other, although in some of the spaces, we can tackle each other’s questions if it makes sense. Not that there are any ‘right answers’.

I find it a very generous, allowing way of meditating. In some sessions I just sit with the quiet and let my mind wander where it will, enjoying the quiet companionship of everyone else as they do whatever they do. It’s a releasing process, allowing me to sort out the inside of my head in a more organic, less pre-defined sort of way. It permits whatever happens to happen, and that creates a great deal of possibility. It encourages inner stillness and calm, but I notice repeatedly that deep thinking and profound emotional responses often follow – for myself and others – because we allow ourselves to engage with anything that seems interesting in that space.


Sitting in silence

One of the reliable features of a Contemplative Druidry session is Stroud is that we sit in silence together. There are no instructions about what anyone does during that silence, no aims to achieve, and normally it raises nothing to discuss.   I find this a very powerful experience.

Normal human contact tends to revolve around activity or speech. In most contexts, silence is a sign that something has gone wrong socially, and people will try to fix it or become very uncomfortable. Equally, stillness and inactivity are not part of regular human encounters. There is a sense of acceptance in still and quiet sitting. There is a peace in shared space where nothing has to be done, or achieved. There is no hierarchy, no authority and no dogma. Whatever happens to a person, and whatever they choose to do with themselves in that time tends to remain private.

When I started on this two years ago, I came with the pressure/expectation that something important should happen while sitting. Something to share. It took me a while to learn how to be absolutely fine with there being no great insights and no revelations. This has had implications across my whole experience and practice of Druidry. I’m much more accepting of the quiet and ordinary, and not looking for the validation of something dramatic. This in turn has opened me to the small beauties of small things.

Outside of meditation spaces, I increasingly value the scope to be quiet. I like it when I don’t have to be entertaining or interactive. People I can be around who do not always require words. I like walking quietly, talking when something arises, and just being with people when there is nothing to say. While speech is a powerful form of communication, it can also be used to hide things. We use noise to cover fear, uncertainty, awkwardness. Silence can be revealing in its own ways, and it’s good to have some space for it.


Contemplative Druids

Today, I am involved with a Contemplative Druid gathering, which James Nichol has organised and I, amongst others, will be helping to facilitate.

Meditation has been a part of my Paganism since I was a teen – it pre-dates my involvement with Druidry. Part of the attraction at first is that I’m an imaginative, living in my own head kind of person and meditation plays to my strengths and keeps me in my comfort zone. However, exploring Druidry has encouraged me to look at how I might be more present in the world. Over the years I’ve stopped using meditation to escape and started using it to engage.

My first non-fiction book was on the subject of meditation – more here should you want it. Since then I’ve also contributed to James Nichol’s Contemplative Druidry book, and contributed an essay on prayer and meditation to the Paganism 101 anthology.

My own current practice is haphazard to say the least. I’m not really very good at working with a fixed pattern of practice. I try, and in the short term I may manage, but a daily practice is beyond me. I’ll do *something* every day, but it works better if I’m more spontaneous about what form it takes, and when. The edges of sleep remain my most productive times, but not the only times I pause and contemplate.

Stepping up to help facilitate is a big deal for me. I used to do a lot of this sort of thing and have run meditation groups. I’ve become very wary of the desire to be important, and possessive of my own energy reserves, and the combination makes me slower to offer than I used to be. I have to be sure that it’s more about service than ego, and not about crafting a place for myself based on the work I do, because that causes me all kinds of other problems.