Tag Archives: feeling

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.


Learning to be angry

Anger is the emotion I struggle with. Other people’s anger can drop me into a state of panic. My own anger frightens me as well. For much of my life what’s happened is that I’ve managed to feel it – anything from crossness onwards – for perhaps a minute or two, and then it crumbles away into despair, or turns around and becomes self hatred. I’ve spent too long in spaces where everything was always my fault, and getting angry would only have made things more dangerous. When you can’t safely express dislike in a calm way, you certainly can’t lose your temper.

I’ve carried the fear that if I did get angry, it would be like the crushing experience of other people being angry with me. I would become what I loathe and fear. Horror in response to my own anger has kept me from looking at those feelings.

Anger has a lot of protective qualities, and I’ve seen that in other people. Anger can be a fair response, defending boundaries and pushing back against injustice. These are aspects of anger that I need in my life. In my history, their absence made me more vulnerable.

I’ve had two powerful experiences with anger recently. One came as a response to the heady mix of entitlement and wilful ignorance – a man who wanted to talk to me about how hard it is being heterosexual. I had an intense rage response, which I did not manifest and pointed out that queer people are subject to violence and ostracism and he isn’t… and when he tried to argue with me, I walked out. Feeling like being straight makes you ‘uncool’ is not the same as fearing physical violence. I did not stay to be wound up by him, or to waste energy trying to educate him. I did not support his view of himself as a victim – I’ve seen him try to do this before.

My second round with anger was brief and more nuanced. I was decidedly angry about something, and that anger enabled me to say a clear ‘no’ where previously I might have had trouble holding my boundaries. That of itself was both useful and powerful. It took me about half an hour to stop being angry, and then a whole bunch of things became visible – that I could see the other person had acted in error, not malice, and that no great damage had been done. I could also see that by holding my boundaries I had not only protected myself, but the other person as well – if we’d played out that mistake there would have been distress all round. I avoided that.

Protective anger has the scope to protect everyone in a situation. Anger is not an inherently unreasonable emotion – it’s taken me a long time to see that. It isn’t innately destructive. It certainly isn’t always a bad thing.

I’m going to be making more space for the quieter part of the anger spectrum – for crossness, frustration, annoyance, irritation and things of that ilk. I’m going to make sure I hold them carefully when they show up and that I look at them properly. I’m going to include them in my decision-making. Anger does not make me a terrible person. So long as I’m dealing with decent people, there should be room for getting irritable, annoyed and frustrated, and dealing with it appropriately – not with tantrums and power games, but with reasonable expression of what’s felt, moving towards making whatever changes are necessary.

Emotionally speaking, I have a whole new landscape to explore, and I think it’s one that will benefit me greatly.


Attachment and the Druid

It finally dawned on me that part of what bothers me with non-attachment/mindfulness thinking is how simple a narrative it gives us about our own feelings and needs. By avoiding attachment to our own feelings we avoid creating drama, we live more peacefully and we’re able to be more compassionate. This is the description of mindfulness given by many websites, and while it might not be the only understanding out there, it’s clearly one a lot of people are working with.

There’s an assumption that our first response is ego-led, in the sense of being driven by our fragility and self importance. If our first emotional impulse was towards care, compassion, patience, generosity or motivated by deep love, there would be no need to retrain ourselves. Certainly, some people’s experience of growing up and living will have encouraged them towards less benevolent impulses, but I think most people are basically ok and well meaning, and that the first feeling is not necessarily the worst feeling.

Are we better people if we don’t get too attached to our own feelings? We may be calmer people, but is calmer actually better? Is it better for all of us? The question is, what do your emotions do in your life? If your own emotional responses lead you to act in ways you don’t like, clearly you need to make changes. If you mostly suffer as a consequence of how you feel, then again you might want to change things. But what if your emotional life feels like something rich and blessed in the first place? What if you bubble up with love and joy, what if you see your grief as a measure of your love and experience anger protectively and in productive ways? What happens if you have a good relationship with your emotions? And then what happens if you practice stepping back from those emotions and seeing them as something that passes through and not an intrinsic part of who you are? Are you better off?

If you think that life is illusion, and that self is illusion, a path that helps you see this more clearly is obviously what you want. But what if that isn’t your perspective? What if you see yourself as a distinct entity and at the same time part of the network of all existence? For an animist, this separate togetherness is a possibility for understanding your place in the world.

Are you worse off if you want to identify with your own emotions? Are you less enlightened if you want a path of involvement with your own feelings, building a sense of self out of your emotional responses to life? For me, Druidry has always been about deep immersion – identifying as a feeling and living being in a world that is alive with intelligence and feeling. My feelings are my response to life, and also part of what I give back. I do my best everything when I give a lot of space to my emotions, take them seriously and invest in what they show me about what’s happening. I’ve started to consider the idea that I may be practicing attachment.

What you need from life depends on who you are and what you want. There’s scope for great diversity here and many different ways of being. For some people, mindfulness and non-attachment makes perfect sense. I have no doubt that for many people it is a rewarding path. What bothers me is the narrative that comes with it about what it means to be human, and a very few options about how to relate to ourselves and live well. It may well be that for those who dig deeper it is more complex, but what’s floating around increasingly in mainstream awareness is painfully narrow.


Sitting with resentment

Resentment can bring together anger, envy, jealousy, self-importance, self righteousness, greed and a whole host of other unattractive feelings. So, why would you want to spend time with it? The short answer is anything felt and suppressed only causes trouble. However, resentment is a complicated response and feeling it doesn’t always make you the bad guy. Taking time to sit with the feeling, to meditate on it, explore it and understand it can be very revealing. Having done a fair bit of this kind of sitting, these are the things I have learned.

It is reasonable to resent what is unfair. Be that abuses of power, or people taking more than their fair share, or any other kind of unbalance you might encounter. If that seems to be the shape of it, dig deep, because sometimes we’re mapping a sense of unfairness on to what is really envy. When we see the success of others, we may assume it was unfair. Women who are accused of sleeping their way to the top are an obvious example of this manifesting. If you can see real evidence for unfairness, then your resentment calls for justice. It’s important at this stage to remember that justice and revenge are not the same things.

It’s more comfortable to see the situation as unfair than it is to recognise our own envy. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with envy as such. If we look at what’s going on for someone else and wish we had the same or better – that seems human and natural to me. It’s what we then do with it that is the question. Seething bitterness over what they have and we don’t is profoundly unhealthy. The desire to take what we haven’t earned is not usually a good thing – although there is also the desire to redistribute what others have not earned, Robin Hood style. If envy is a spur to action, if it shows us where we want to be and sets us on a path – why not? Recognising envy and allowing it to motivate us to positive action is no bad thing.

Resentment can be born of projection. It can mean we take the worst of what we think, the worst of our impulses and attribute it to the other. We think they are getting away with the things we want to get away with but can’t. Or think we couldn’t. The real challenge here is to grapple with your resentment until you can see your own inclinations in it. What you do from there is up to you, but denying our ‘shadow’ selves never helps. Know it, own it, deal with it.

It’s easier to put something down after you’ve looked at it properly. A feeling that has been met and explored is far more easily let go of. It is better to know ourselves, to know that we aren’t saintly, and to accept our less than angelic moments. To be human is to be flawed, and when we make more room for our own shortcomings rather than trying to deny them, we are likely to be better adapted to dealing with other people’s too. Sometimes, it’s entirely reasonable to feel those ‘negative’ emotions. Sometimes they are the only appropriate response in the circumstances. Sometimes they are a necessary spur to changing ourselves.


The logic of emotion

We tend to think of emotion as inherently irrational, and thinking as holding the scope for logic and reason. However, emotion is basically body chemistry. It is a series of chemical events in response to whatever’s going on and if we knew all the details, we could no doubt express emotion as chemical equations.

Many things impact on our emotions – our blood sugar, circadian rhythms, exposure to sunlight, our physical health, events we experience etc and of course what we think about those experiences. There’s a straightforwardness to this. A person who has gone too long without food, a person who is too cold and wet, will feel lousy.

However, rather than taking our emotions at face value, and dealing with them, we tend to get our minds involved. Often, the impulse is to blame someone else and take out negative feelings on them. The low blood sugar becomes ‘you never listen to me’ or somesuch. Good experiences can leave us with all kinds of crazy stories about worth, meaning, and entitlement.

Unlike our emotions, our minds are capable of incredible, creative irrationality. We can imagine and wonder. We look for explanations, patterns, causes, and we can be persuaded that correlation is causality. We can be persuaded of all kinds of illogical, unreasonable, unsubstantiated things. By way of evidence for this, I offer you social media, fake news, and rather a large percentage of religious activity. We think our minds are rational, but we’re persuaded by emotive fact bending, by blame and shame, hate and anger, the desire to get one back against some imagined infringement. We don’t think logically.

Emotions are like weather systems – not always good, or useful, but a physical reality caused by complex influences. There is a logic to them. We have the means to change our internal weather, and the choice of what meaning to apply to it. If we treat our emotions like weather, we can take them seriously (sun hat or wellies today?) while recognising that none of them are permanent. They are the truth of our body existing in the world, they are not inclined to lie to us, although we can develop weird feedback loops if the mind gets too involved.

Treat the mind as something with the potential for irrationality, and things change. The assumption that an apparent line of logic proves something, becomes a good deal less convincing. The interplay between mind and emotion becomes more visible. If we ignore what our emotions are trying to tell us and let our minds make up explanatory stories, we can end up in all kinds of muddles.

Sometimes, it’s just indigestion. Sometimes it’s just that there hasn’t been enough sun lately.


How’s the Water?

There’s a lovely cartoon out there of two young fish swimming past an old fish, and the old fish asks ‘how’s the water?’ and the younger fish are confused. That which seems normal is bloody difficult to spot.

There are a great many problems that are difficult to tackle if you haven’t figured out what the water is. The beliefs and assumptions we carry. Our sense of what is acceptable, the things we’ve had to become used to. If being in pain is the water, then noticing it in a way that makes it possible to do differently is essential to change things. The same is true for anxiety. If you’ve settled into a place where fear is normal, noticing how fear acts on you and what might alleviate it, is surprisingly difficult.

If our water is the belief that we are utterly good people, we may not be able to recognise when our behaviour is hurting someone else.

So, how do you figure out what you’re swimming in? You have to be prepared to discover something you might not like, and face up to it. You have to be willing to change. If you go into this looking for affirmation that you don’t need to make any changes, you can’t do this kind of work.

Clues to the nature of your water will come from the differences you have with others. Things you say that other people seem to struggle with. Things you do that don’t get the results you expect. Bits of your life that plain aren’t working. Anything that inexplicably hurts, frustrates, annoys you or makes you anxious is worth a look. If you know why you feel as you do, leave that area of your life out of it, as likely it can’t tell you much. Who winds you up for no obvious reason? Who makes you feel insecure? Who are you itching to take down? Who are you afraid of, or jealous of?

When things aren’t working for us, it is often because we have stories, no longer relevant coping mechanisms, or other wonky or outdated thought patterns that are stopping us from thinking clearly or acting in relation to what’s actually going on right now.

What’s in our water can make us complicit in situations that don’t help us at all. My own deep sense of worthlessness and my feeling that I don’t deserve to be well treated have been part of my water for so long that I’d not noticed them impacting on my actions and relationships. Ironically, it took someone pushing beyond what I consider acceptable behaviour to make me look properly at my sense of self worth, and rethink my attitude. I’ve a way to go yet, but the water is a good deal less murky for me than it used to be.

On some levels, I self sabotage. Treating myself as worthless, I’ve not been careful of resources, of physical or emotional wellbeing. I’ve allowed other people to wear me out. I’ve not held boundaries or stepped away when I needed to. I could flip this over into beating myself up and telling myself that all my problems are of my own making, but that actually keeps me in the same murky water I was in before. To change the water I swim in, I have to be genuinely willing to think about myself in different ways. I have to be willing to negotiate differently with other people, and to rethink my relationships with everything and everyone I encounter. It’s not easy. Recognising complicity does not mean making myself responsible for how others have treated me.

How’s the water? Confusing. But I do at least know that it’s there, and this is progress.


What is authentic?

When it comes to understanding myself, how do I tell what is authentic? How do I differentiate between a knee jerk reaction that comes from habit or conditioning, and something that is more truly ‘me’? I’ve talked about wanting to be real, and to feel real, but I have to know what that means or its all a bit hypothetical and little more than hot air.

There are a great many things that make a person who they are – genes, upbringing, family stories, culture, education, community, environment, diet. Everything we think and do, and everything we experience goes to inform who and how we are right now. It means that a person can absorb a lot of external influences and end up acting in ways that are at odds with who they think they are and how they feel. Clearly being authentic means not being pressured by your surroundings into being someone you are not (eg gay people forced into straight marriages). At the same time, those influences can become an important part of who we are – we seek out teachers for this very reason.

So, what’s real? To a certain extent, we can, I think choose and be active participants in creating our own authenticity. Who we want to be is also part of the mix.

I’m currently exploring a model of alignment. I lead with my head. Most of my decisions are based on logic, I operate by dint of will. If there’s a conflict between head and heart, head wins. If there’s body issues, I will use will to force my way through. I treat my body and my emotions as less important than my reason, and far less important than what other people might need from me. All too often I’ll be persuaded to put other people’s comfort ahead of things like expressing pain.

I’m trying to establish the habit of checking how my body, emotions and mind are aligned, to make sure that my head isn’t overruling everything else. I’m trying to notice and allow my emotional responses and my bodily experiences, without immediately blanking them out and overruling them. This is not a comfortable process, and is rapidly bringing up issues of suppressed anger and frustration alongside the things that make me melancholy. It suggests that being kinder to my body really ought to be a consideration more of the time. It is an uneasy process.

On the flip side I’m also starting to notice what happens when I’m properly aligned. When head, heart and body are all reacting the same way, I can bring a lot more power, intensity, and presence to a situation. Experiences are richer and deeper. I am probably just scratching the surface, but I notice a big qualitative shift in experience just for paying attention to how I feel in my body and in my emotions. I like who I am a good deal better, it turns out, when I’m not using one part of me to crush and control the other two thirds.

We have a culture that claims to be based on reason and the life of the mind. Poor body health, and poor body image, are fairly normal. Poor emotional health is on the increase, so I realise I’m not alone in courting crisis by only taking one aspect of myself seriously, and trying to run a physical, emotional being on the basis of thinking alone. I need to start making room for the rest of me.

In terms of anyone else’s authenticity, that’s simply not my place to judge, and none of my business. I welcome honesty and open heartedness in others, but whether anyone else thinks they are authentic, even whether they are authentic, is something I can never know. Nothing is achieved here by starting at each other and wondering who is doing it properly.


Questing for inspiration

I talked a few blogs back about the difference between the raw material of inspiration, and the connections and sense of flow – the awen – which turns that raw material into something new. I’m reading Darryl Reamey at the moment, who talks about how the habituations of seeing or experiencing something makes it normal, and we cease to experience wonder. When all is normal and mundane to us, we are unlikely to feel inspired by it. This is, I think, one reason a great many people see inspiration as mysterious. Real life, everyday life is not inspiring. It is normal, humdrum, familiar.

There are many things that coax us towards not thinking. Repetitive patters of living, the brain blanket of media, the material cocoons we voluntarily wrap about ourselves the better to sleepwalk through everything. We expend a lot of energy, collectively, making the world safe and predictable. Then we settle down into the assumption that we know what we’ve got, and can stop bothering with that nasty business of thinking about things.

Every morning, the sun rises, bringing light back after the hours of darkness. And every morning the birds sing their response – levels of enthusiasm depending a lot on the weather conditions. Every day features small miracles and wonders. If you are going through life assuming it to be banal and predictable, you won’t even see them. We learn not to look, not to think, not to wonder and not to feel. We take each other for granted, along with the sunrise.

Predictability and freedom from thinking creates a kind of comfort. It’s an easy sort of life, but ultimately not all that satisfying. Rather than tackle the underlying issues, it’s easier to drown that discomfort in alcohol, or bury it under hours of television, or computer games, or whatever your current poison happens to be. We’ve spent millions of years evolving to be thinking, feeling, creative creatures. Our ancestors depended a great deal on their brains and ingenuity. We are squishy things with lousy teeth, no claws, no natural armour, no camouflage, and barely the capacity to remain warm. We’ve evolved to think, but somewhere in our more recent history, we got into the habit of not thinking. It doesn’t suit us.

Not thinking helps to keep us docile and biddable. Therefore encouraging people not to think is in the interests of anyone who wishes to control others. Thinking, if you make a habit of it, will turn you into a radical and a revolutionary with very little help from anyone else. All it takes is casting of the habit of banality, and the assumption of familiarity. We hear a tragedy on the news. The news is full of tragedies. We shrug. Someone points out that our postal voting system would shame a banana republic. We think corruption is normal and inevitable, so we do nothing. The government takes away a few more rights and essential resources, but we’ve been told we are powerless, so we lie down and take it. Umm….

Inspiration is not just about recognising all that is wrong in the world and finding the courage to do something about it. Inspiration is the experience of opening your eyes all over again, like a child, a puppy, any new creature that still knows how to be surprised. Finding inspiration is easy as soon as you throw off the shackles of taking things for granted. All around you, there is life. Right in front of you, there is something beautiful. It may be small. It may be a dust mote caught in a sunbeam. But it is there, and as soon as you start looking, you will see it. Casting off assumption about relationship and seeing what is good, and what needs more care and attention, brings inspiration into how we live.

I look at the patterns of cloud across the sky. I listen to the birds. Today, the rain was wild, and that was intoxicating. Now I revel in experiencing warmth and comfort, safely out of the rain. I have no idea what this afternoon will bring. Inspiration is part of my everyday life in no small part because I know how to be surprised. There is far less mystery in inspiration than people imagine, and far more mystery in all of life than many people would dream of.