Tag Archives: growth

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.

What if we ditched GDP?

Gross Domestic Product is used to measure wealth and growth. It focuses us on what we produce in terms of goods and services, while ignoring the impact of those things. It is massively problematic as a thing for governments to focus on because it goes with the idea of perpetual growth. We have economies built on the idea of perpetual growth and yet with finite resources this clearly isn’t going to work. Taking GDP as a measure of success also assumes that anything creating money is inherently a good thing.  This clearly doesn’t work either. What we measure and focus on informs policy and decision making. The speed of movement of money isn’t that useful a thing to obsess over.

What might we measure instead to establish how well a country is doing? Carbon emissions would be an obvious one, as we urgently need to reduce those, the more attention paid to them, the better. We can easily measure health, and this is a much better way to think about how well a country is delivering for its people.  Wellness is a meaningful measure of quality of life, especially when you include mental health in that. Happiness is a difficult thing to measure because it’s so subjective, but when you put people self-reporting on happiness alongside health considerations, you might have a meaningful sense of how people are doing.

Biodiversity would be an excellent thing to measure and monitor and put at the centre of decision making.  In the UK, tree cover would also be a thing to consider. Green spaces – and being able to access them – goes with good mental and physical health.

All of these things would shift us away from imagining that money/production for its own sake is a reasonable measurement of something.  By focusing on GDP, we priorities a notion of wealth creation over the actual wealth that is health and happiness. Money and product is of limited value when it costs your wellbeing. As the gap widens between the very rich and all the rest of us, money as a measurement of a country’s wellbeing becomes ever more suspect. Although it is worth noting that billionaires are the enemy of GDP – GDP is in many ways a measure of money moving around. Money hoarded by billionaires has been removed from the economy and is of no use to anyone else.

Ditching GDP would take us into the difficult territory of re-imagining our economies. We are either going to have to let go of eternal growth as a theory, or societal collapse will force that onto us anyway. We have to let go of the idea of always having more of everything, and replace that with ideas of sustainability, and staying at a level. If we focus on wellbeing rather than on making stuff and the movement of money, we might be able to see ourselves progressing in other ways, and that might make it easier to let go of this rather toxic narrative about what a successful country looks like.

The right to make mistakes

For me, there is a world of difference between carelessness and needful mistakes. To get something wrong because you weren’t paying attention, is negligent and people should be held to account for that kind of thing. However, an honest mistake is a different consideration. An honest mistake comes from acting on insufficient information, most usually, or as a consequence of not having fully developed some relevant skill.

Without the freedom to make mistakes, it is difficult to learn anything. Only when we can make mistakes do we have room to explore and experiment. It’s not always obvious what will work, or what will suit us. Maybe you don’t know what kind of job you should have, or whether you should live in a yurt, or if you’ve found the perfect person to spend your life with. When we judge people harshly for making life choices and then regretting them, what we’re telling each other is that we shouldn’t take risks, move outside our comfort zones or do anything unfamiliar.

If you are drawn to the most obvious way of life and want the kind of job a five year old can understand, then it’s ok to go through life never making mistakes.  If your soul’s calling is a branch of the sciences that you didn’t even hear of until your thirties, how are you to know? If your yearnings are for something unusual, you may not have words for your desires, or any idea of what you crave until you encounter it in person. It is hard to make good life choices when you’ve never seen the thing that you will turn out to most want.

The narrower your life and experiences are, the less chance you will have at making good choices. The more diversely you experience, the more scope you will have for knowing what you want before you have to make firm decisions about it. If you live surrounded by people who are free to make mistakes and explore possibilities, you’ll know a lot more about your own options. If the people around you don’t feel allowed to make mistakes, you’ll see far fewer options playing out and you won’t know what might be available to you.

Too often, we frame integrity as consistency over time. We don’t allow ourselves to change in light of new information and experience. You can think you are one thing, or want one thing, and only find out that was a mediocre choice for you when you run into a real alternative. We also need the space to go off things. No one should be tied to their early choices. Consistency might make us more predictable and less work for each other, but freedom to change allows us to grow.  The choices we make when we are young may not be right for older versions of ourselves, and being able to let those go as mistakes and move on, is really helpful.

A mistake is not a failure. It’s a point a change, an insight and an opportunity. Mistakes can be where we learn most about who we are and what we want. Freedom  to admit when things didn’t work and to go on and make new and different mistakes, is truly liberating. I do not think our integrity lies in our consistency, but in our commitment to finding what we most need to be and how we should live. It shouldn’t come down to a handful of early choices. Life should be more of an adventure than that.

Uneconomic Growth

We seem to have collectively bought into the idea that growth is inherently good. In nature, growth is finite and exists as part of cycles that also include dying back, and predation. In summer, bird numbers grow radically, but they don’t keep growing – the approach of winter and the activities of hunters rebalance that each year. Trees do not grow forever, they reach a natural limit, and they die. Things that grow unchecked tend to be plagues, or cancers.

There are costs we do not measure. We do not look at the cost to the environment and to our own health that human activity causes. We don’t look at extinction. We don’t look at exploitation and the destruction of human lives and minds in pursuit of profit. We don’t factor in what we might later need to pay to offset the hidden costs of what we’re doing now. Rising air pollution costs us in terms of health, life expectancy, and demands on our health service.

Of course if we did measure the cost of these things, they’d go into our GDP and we would see that we are making even more profit! It’s not much of a measure of anything.

If we are to survive as a species, and not kill off most of life on this planet, we need to tackle the issue of growth. We have to stop believing the ludicrous idea that we can have infinite ‘growth’ based on finite resources. We have to challenge the idea that constant growth is good.

As Pagans, we’re well placed to take this on. We’ve already embraced the cycle of the seasons, the tidal and changing nature of existence. The Holly King cannot keep ruling all year, building himself ever bigger forces. John Barleycorn dies each summer. In winter, the Cailleach rules and nothing grows. Persephone returns to the underworld. Demeter mourns. We watch the moon wax to absolute fullness and then shrink away again every month. A moon that never stopped growing would basically be moving towards the Earth on an impact trajectory. We have a lot of stories to work with.

If we are to survive, we need to embrace the idea of sufficiency. We need to live within our means and not compromise the future for the sake of present greed. We need to tell stories about the finite nature of healthy growth, and the needfulness of dying back and reducing. We have grown too far, and we need the winter cutback that naturally follows the excess of summer.

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?

To be a better Druid

We all develop in different ways and our paths take us each in different directions. No two of us will have quite the same definition of what it means to grow, improve, or whether ‘better’ is even a relevant word to apply. Nothing in nature stays still unless it is dead, and even the dead change. Growth, change, and movement are inevitable then, and choosing the ways in which we do this can be an important part of how we approach our Druidry.

At the moment I find understanding is critical for me in a lot of ways. I need to understand my own journey, and to see how experience has shaped me. There are aspects of self and behaviour that are not what I want, but to change them smoothly rather than hacking at them, I need to make sense of how they formed in the first place.

Understanding other people is of great importance to me, too. When things go wrong, I find I need to know why. I need to understand what created that situation. If I’ve messed up, I need to know so that I can fix it. If someone has messed me about because they were acting out of their own history, fear, pain or similar I want to understand that. I have a better chance at responding with compassion if I know what lies beneath anger, or negativity. I also have a better chance of responding usefully. Some people can only usefully be walked away from, but if I can say with confidence ‘that happened because…’ I don’t have to carry much away with me as I go.

Wider things in life come to be, as a consequence of all kinds of tiny connections, threads, histories and intentions. The more I can see of that, the more able I am to work with the possibilities rather than getting at cross-purposes with others.

I think about everything, a lot. When it comes to the issue of understanding, what I have to do a lot is guess. Analysing someone else’s words or actions is not unlike analysing a poem. You can come out at the end with a really impressive theory but it might be miles away from the poet’s take on things. Speculating about whys and wherefores is an inexact science and I’ve seen people get into trouble because they believed they were better at that than was the case. And of course people change, and they can wait until you thought you had it all figured, and come up with something you did not anticipate. Like the poem, the poet/person might tell you what they thought it meant and that be so far from how you experience it as to be irrelevant.

Relationships with hills and horizons tend to be a lot easier than relating to people. It is enough just to be there. But, people are a big part of my life, and trying to make sense of what happens and why remains key to getting the Druid stuff done, for me.

Walking the borderlands

Edges and margins are always productive places. In a field, it’s the hedge and strip to either side of it that hold the most life and diversity. In a woodland, the edges, and the margins of glades are where life thrives. In terms of humans, being out at the edges is often where we have most scope to grow and learn, but edges are also scary places.

We have our boundaries for reasons. Inside them, we feel safe and we know what we’re doing. There’s a lot to be said for being comfortable, and the more time you spend uncomfortable and out of your depth, the more you come to value the calm, safer waters. Or at least, that has been my experience. Growth happens when we push our boundaries, but we don’t always want to grow. Indeed, sometimes we find that we can’t. We are finite creatures, and when we get excited about pushing the limits and growing, we easily forget that.

A casual acquaintance from a few years back told me that no matter what she did, she could not run more than ten miles without making herself really ill. We speculated that her body just wouldn’t store enough glycogen to carry her beyond that point. We are limited beings, and as John Michael Greer points out in his Mystery Teachings book, this is a good thing. Without limits and boundaries, we would be little piles of squidge! It is our physical limitations that allow us to be who and what we are.

There are limits in all things. Earlier this week I hit a brain burn-out. In the space of a couple of weeks I had written four stories, each about 5k, each with different settings and setups. I’d studied changing thinking on airport emissions and Staverton airport, and put together a piece (It’ll be on http://www.ruscombegreen.blogspot.com in a week or so) and I studied Green policies on housing and land use with a view to writing a report. I also read most of Glennie Kindred’s Earth Alchemy book for review, and read and reviewed some of Jay Ramsay’s lovely poetry. All of that whilst trying to juggle family demands over the festive period, put up a daily blog, manage my online teaching work and deal with the rest of life. There is only so much you can do with a brain before it hurts, and I hit it. I could have pushed beyond those edges, I have before. What it gets me is tired, ill, depressed and ever less able to think clearly, process new information or make good judgements. As this is entirely counter-productive, I took a break.

I can run my mind harder and faster than I could ten or twenty years ago. This whole slowing down as you age thing is bollocks. It’s a matter of use and intent. I’ve had exactly the same experience with my awkward body – I am in better shape than I was ten or twenty years ago, even. Regularly pushing the edges with both things has allowed me to keep growing. However, pushing continually beyond my boundaries just makes me ill. There are balances to strike.

For me the hardest area in which to deal with the boundaries has always been around the darker emotions. Pain and shame, guilt, loss, grief, fear, anger… these are not things I like feeling, and when I get beyond what I can cope with, I tend to switch off, plunging into the safe, numb waters of depression until I don’t feel so overwhelmed. It leaves me with a lot of things I have not entirely faced, and edges I have not explored. Push too hard into those and my whole body shuts down defensively, so it’s got to be baby steps, taken when everything else is calm, and when I know I can retreat safely at need.

Boundaries are good things. They hold us together. Edges are places of vitality and possibility. I get very tired of New Age books that invite us to explore boundless, limitless freedom because that way lies the pile of squidge, the formless, incapable amoeba self. There may be people for whom being limitless squidge would feel like joyful liberation. On the whole, I find learning to manage the limits of my body and mind a good deal more interesting than that kind of amorphous freedom.

Warning: contains naval gazing

I lost most of yesterday afternoon and evening to a welling up of pain. It’s left me feeling sore and disorientated today. I’m in a place of unpretty introspection. It isn’t what other people do that haunts me, it is the fear of having got it wrong, of not having given enough when it was needed, not being able to offer a sufficiently tolerant and open heart, not being able to take the knocks. I’m a creature of finite resource, no kind of saint, and alert to the ways in which I could have done a better job. Yesterday I was caught in a web of ghosts and mistakes, trying to figure out where I could have done better, in the hopes of not repeating any of it.

I’m fascinated by people who shrug of mistakes and failures, of any magnitude, and move on. I’ve encountered a few folk down the years who were remarkably untroubled by their errors of judgement and acts of unintended cruelty. I’ve met people who genuinely didn’t seem to care when they caused pain. I have noticed an interesting discrepancy though, because the people who feel they should be able to shrug off their mistakes and move on seldom take the same attitude when they feel hurt. If they are suffering, it matters and needs taking seriously. It has also been my experience that people who make less fuss about their own discomfort are often more compassionate when other people are hurting.

I’ve learned the painful way that guilt and regret are the things I am least able to bear. Being hurt by someone else is as nothing compared to what I carry over mistakes I cannot fix, things I cannot undo, or unsay. I have made a lot of mistakes along the way. Poor judgement calls, misplaced expectation, dodgy interpretation… Nothing a person would wind up in court for, just regular human failure born of not seeing clearly, not knowing myself well enough, not getting it right. I pick over these like a scavenger picking bones. If there is a means to put right, I’ll try and do it. At least I can learn, with a view to making new and different mistakes next time.

My most problematic reoccurring mistake goes like this: I accept people as they present themselves, so I fall foul of miss-selling. There are qualities I’m drawn to, and if someone fakes those, I can be suckered in. The bitterness that comes from realising it was all pretend, is horrible. I find it hard to forgive in those circumstances, but I realise it may often be the case that people do not realise they are faking it. They have learned the language of passion and intensity. They’ve learned what sounds dramatic, poetic, inspired and wild. They like the image. Perhaps they do not realise that all they have is a shiny surface. The shock of realising they do not know how to live what they are voicing cannot be comfortable for some of them. The ease with which the shrugging and walking away often follows though, suggests to me that they mostly do not care. They only ever wanted to look the part.

How I let myself get into one of these again? How was I bewitched by the surface appearance, by an illusion of authenticity? Is there some magical way of discerning between people who truly speak from the heart, and people who know how to sound that way? I haven’t found it yet. Do I become cynical and mistrustful, and keep at a distance those who do come into my life open hearted, honest and full of integrity, so as to also keep away the players of games? I oscillate. There are days (yesterday was one such) when I feel no confidence in my ability to relate to people at all, and the call of hermitude is strong. But there are those few souls who were not faking, who have brought depth and wonder into my life, and I would not have that if I’d carefully insisted on keeping everyone at arm’s length.

I’ve been told that I expect too much of people. I have unreasonably high standards, am demanding and unfair. I expect so much that I set people up to fail; they can never be enough to meet my outrageous demands. I’ve looked long and hard at those accusations over a lot of years. There is some truth in it. I can be decidedly all or nothing. I do ask a lot, but I ask no more of others than I ask of myself. Just occasionally, I find someone who isn’t affronted by how I am, someone who does not disappoint, or turn out to be more hot air than substance. In the meantime, what I get is the guilt of feeling that my being let down is a measure of my unreasonableness. The uncomfortable sense that I ask too much and judge too harshly, and that if only I could seek for less, I could enjoy the easy, non-committal, shrug off the mistakes approach of others. I would have to be someone else. Still, there are losses that I grieve, and mistakes that haunt me.

Being Broken

Life gives us many opportunities to break. In pain and fear, in loss, grief and failure we are torn open. Or we learn to close ourselves off from that. We learn not to care. Why choose to suffer when you can protect yourself by the simple method of not giving a shit? Why let the opinions and feelings of others affect you? Why love anything enough to risk being wounded by losing it?

I’ve spent a fair bit of time now watching the people who protect themselves from pain. I’ve had some pretty close contact with that approach. The people who cannot hear that they are wrong because they will not subject themselves to the pain of shame. The people who protect themselves by not caring, and who fear love. None of them were actually all that happy.

There is always a balance, always a trade-off. The person who protects themselves from humiliation struggles to learn anything. You can’t progress if you have to believe that you are already perfect. The person who does not care lives a life that is short of warmth. If you do not love then you miss out on a lot. Perhaps you feel less pain, but you feel less joy as well. The people who avoid risk in the hopes of minimising suffering also avoid opportunities to live.

Out there in the normal world, people will ridicule you for feeling too much, for caring, for weeping over that which is awful, for grieving over loss. We’re supposed to get over it and move on. Bereavement should be tidied up in a matter of weeks. The loss of friends, homes, jobs, security, health and prospects… we’re supposed to shrug it off and not inconvenience other people with our pain. What this means in practice is that we are taught to hide what we feel, and to lie about it. I’ve been there and I have the t-shirts. For a huge, personal catastrophe, you might get a couple of weeks of grace, if you are lucky.

People who do not grieve their losses (and not just the dead) do not get to heal. People who are not allowed to break, take far more damage on the inside and far longer to recover. Rates of depression and anxiety are soaring, but we don’t ask why, and we certainly don’t look hard enough at the bat-shit crazy culture and assumptions that might be underpinning that. It is a terrible thing to lose your health, or your job. It is awful when relationships break down. It is gutting when the goalposts are moved unfairly, when the system itself turns on you, when there is cruelty without justice, when there is sheer bad luck. And then you’re supposed to pretend all is fine.

If you are allowed to break, you are also allowed to heal. If you are allowed to own your distress, you are also allowed to ask for help. If you are able to feel all the shitty, humiliating things, you are able to learn how to rise above them. If you are able to feel the pain, you are also able to feel the joy and love. Yet it remains socially unacceptable to break, even when your life is in ruins.

Being challenged

On the whole, I like a good challenge. Those things that fall on me, requiring that I do something I had not previously imagined, stretching myself to find new shapes and capabilities. Those challenges are really exciting. Sometimes they also scare me, but that’s fine, I’ll take it.

The new job, by way of an example, has been full of challenges. I started working as a press officer in the midst of badger culling, fracking and the danger of war in Syria. Starting a week earlier than I was supposed to, because the work needed doing, not as prepared as I wanted to be, not having enough time… still, there were things that needed doing and I stepped up as best I could. I shuffled forward, and I tried.

More than a decade ago, I took on running a folk club because no one else would, and I learned on the job. I took the challenge of going to America to meet Tom in person – that one worked out very well for me. Before that, I took on his challenge and tried to learn how to write for comics. I’m willing to step out of my comfort zone, more often than not. Willing to strive, and to fall flat on my face while reaching for something.

Those are the easy challenges, because the emotional side of them is so simple. In the work, the good causes, the extra efforts required, I tend to have some idea what I am doing, and what I need to become in order to respond. What floors me, repeatedly, are the challenges where I cannot work out what I am being asked to do, where I am emotionally tangled and have no sense of what a right response would even look like.

The Green Knight enters Arthur’s court and calls out his challenge: “There is something you must do, something scary and taboo, which I’m not going to spell out because you have to guess, and then another thing is going to happen as a consequence, but we won’t be talking about that until later.”

This is not what the knights are expecting, so they sit there, looking puzzled, which is a reasonable sort of response. And because I am very precisely that sort of idiot, I stand up, and walk forward. Do I kiss him? Do I kill him? Do I howl like a wolf? What does he want from me, this Green Knight who declines to say? If I knew I had to behead him and go back next winter to receive a like blow, it would be easy. I know how to do that. I’ve read the story, I know how it goes. I do something, a little dance. It was not the right answer. The Green Knight cuts off my head, and suggests that, once I’ve figured out how to attach it, I can go back and try some other thing and we’ll see if he likes that any better.

I’ve been having this conversation for years, and all manner of people have shouldered the strange responsibility for performing the role of Green Knight. I wonder if the right answer is to sit down, keep still, and say nothing. (Other knights do this, what do they know that I do not?) I wonder if one of these days, in one of his incarnations he will get round to mentioning what it is that he wants. Or maybe the answer is to not let him into Arthur’s hall in the first place. I do not know. I’m getting pretty adept at putting my head back on, though.

(I blame Clive Barker, and those many books that taught me not to simply destroy that which is monstrous or frightening, nor to turn away from it, but to find some other response. This is why I stand up when the Green Knight comes a calling, because I believe, despite all evidence to the contrary that there is another way.)