Tag Archives: learning

Jack of all trades

Yesterday’s post featured a rag rug, with a design drawn by my other half. I know three ways to make rag rugs. There are a great many other crafts I can do a bit, numerous musical instruments I can play passably, and a vast array of other things in which I have dabbled over the years. I like to dabble, I get excited learning new things, and I get bored if I spend too long doing all the same things. However, while I’m pro dabbling and experimenting, it’s not without hazards.

If all you end up doing is learning new stuff, you can find you don’t develop anything properly, never get beyond beginner stage, never learning to push and never doing anything for long enough to have it bear fruit. It can be a way of avoiding dealing with happens when you commit. As a dabbler, you may never finish anything, never really achieve anything but there’s always a new exciting project to wave at people. All the attention, none of the exposure of making something people can experience for themselves, and maybe judge.

Without a doubt, the best creative work comes from a mix of inspiration and dedication. It means building a skill set so that when you have a fire in your head, you can make best use of it. It takes a long time to become truly good at something – the general estimate seems to be about ten thousand hours. The more time a person spends dabbling, the less scope there is to get to that point with any given skill. But on the up side, you can become an expert in learning how to quickly learn things, and there are plenty of times in life when being a Jack of all trades is more useful than being the master of one.

I find that when I dabble, I deepen my appreciation for people who do the things well. When I know more, I am better equipped to enjoy and appreciate. I think this is because I’m pretty good at staying realistic about my own skills and insights. If you do a single course, or a brief session and you think you are then an expert, that can have some seriously distorting effects on how you see other people’s work.

Dabbling enriches my understanding of the world, and anything that teaches me feeds back into my writing. It keeps me fresh, and interested, and hauls me out of ruts and gloom. If something isn’t working for me I will eventually stop banging my head against it and pick up something else for a while. Dabbling is play, and fun and often what I do with my leisure time. I like making things, I like exploring.

As a creator I’m increasingly interested in what happens when disciplines collide. Not just putting words and images together, as with the graphic novel work, but putting music and images together, exploring stories through craft, how I can use my body more in spoken word performance… I love stories made out of fragments and ephemera, and that means I need to learn how to make more of the pieces.

So, I advocate dabbling, exploring, and playing. Know that’s what you’re doing, don’t mistake it for having the same depth and breadth of knowledge as someone has when they’ve worked on a skill for many years. Don’t use it as a substitute for seeing a project to conclusion. Don’t require yourself to achieve at the same standard as an expert when you’re only playing with something. Don’t lose sight of your personal goals, vision etc in the muddle of trying to learn to do ten thousand things. Sometimes a new skill is just a shiny distraction from the things you need to be doing. Pausing regularly to take stock helps make it all work.

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Eternal Student

Is there a point where we can rest on our laurels and feel that we know it all? Obviously not, because there’s far more to learn than any one person can know. Is there a point when we know enough that we can consider ourselves an authority and not study further? Then it gets interesting.

Of course the most obvious risk if you stop studying is that what you know becomes out of date. Other younger, sharper, hungrier creatures will outlearn you and pass you by. You’ll become irrelevant. The applications for this in any aspect of work are pretty obvious, but it’s easy to think that in spiritual matters, the person who has it figured out doesn’t need to keep on sitting in the student seats.

The person who knows it all, who is wise and enlightened and really spiritual, doesn’t need to keep studying. Or so it may seem. There’s a point of achievement imaginable that says now you are the authority, the guru, others should learn from you now. For me, that’s a bit of a warning sign. I don’t think any of us humans ever get to be so clever and wise that we have nothing more to learn. I do think there’s something distinctly off when people aren’t excited enough to want to learn.

To learn is to admit that you didn’t already know. Or that you weren’t the best you could be. It requires a healthy ego, able to aspire, rather than fragile and unable to admit there’s more to do. To my mind, being human means there’s always more scope. There’s something very healthy about taking off the authority, the teaching role, the status, and rocking up somewhere as a student. It’s releasing. It allows us all to be imperfect works in progress. Also, learning new stuff is great fun.

I read other authors to learn from them. I’m going to some writing workshops this summer because I know I’ll learn things by doing that. I’m doing a free online course in eco-linguistics. I like picking up new craft skills when I can. I like the challenge of learning a new job.

I also really like what happens when, within a community, people pass the ‘teacher’ hat round and take it in turns to hold temporary authority. I like it when everyone is able to sit down and listen to someone else’s teaching. I like how it reduces feelings of hierarchy, superiority and power over, and increases feelings of mutual respect and recognition.


Choosing to Learn

I was very taken recently with Imelda Almqvist’s blog about Trump as a teacher (read it here). Imelda’s underlying philosophy is that we are all here to teach each other. I have a similar line of thought – that everything has the potential to teach us, but it’s up to us to decide what we want to learn.

Any situation can offer multiple outcomes in terms of what we might choose to learn. We could choose to learn from Trump that we can’t have nice things, the world is full of hate and there’s no point trying. It’s not the only possible teaching available, as Imelda points out.

Choosing what to learn is about consciously choosing who we want to be and the direction we want to move in. The trouble is that the vast majority of learning we do through life is done unconsciously. We absorb information from what’s around us and from the experiences we’ve had. Often we don’t dig into it, so we get knocked down by the people who attack us, and demoralised by the shit peddlers and we learn to compete and control and scrap over resources as though they were finite when they aren’t while wasting other resources as though they were infinite… which they aren’t…

Imelda’s blog post is not just interesting in its own right, it’s a map for taking a journey. If we want to choose what to learn, we’ve got to step back and contemplate things, put them in a wider context, delve about in them. A deliberate, contemplative engagement with the choices we have opens things up for us and gives us all the opportunity to take what we need from our experience, not what’s being pushed at us.


The teaching of Druidry

I’ve done quite a lot of teaching, in various shapes over the years. At the same time I’ve become increasingly uneasy about the most conventional teaching model, where the teacher offloads wisdom to the student. I don’t like the authority, the power imbalance and the risk of creating dogma. I don’t like the way all of this can set people up as gurus – which does them and their students very little good in my opinion. I don’t want to be responsible for someone else’s path.

Recently I read Solala Towler’s ‘Practicing the Tao Te Ching’ (proper review going to Spiral Nature). The Tao Te Ching (depending a bit on the translation) talks about what the sage does – the sage does by not doing, primarily. Being neither sage nor Taoist, I’ve previously found this interesting, but of no great use. However, this book talks about how we teach each other, and takes the ‘do by not doing’ to be about avoiding formal teaching in favour of just doing the things you were doing and letting other people learn from that if they want to.

I like it as a line of thought, and I think this blog may be a case in point. You rock up here when you feel like it, read as much or as little as you like, agree and disagree with me as you like. Many of your regularly respond to posts by adding breadth, depth, examples and alternatives to whatever I’ve said – which is awesome. I just float out whatever I’m doing or thinking about, and you do with it as you see fit, on your own terms. There’s no real authority in it – it’s just a blog. Much of my writing is about me groping around in the dark trying to make sense of life. But every now and then I say something that sparks something for someone else. I’m not a sage, I’m just doing what I’m doing and people can encounter it and make what use of it they will.

I like it because it’s a more collaborative approach to learning. I have no problem with experts, and there are things for which formal qualifications seem like a very good idea – any activity where you could kill or maim if you get it wrong, or where you have to make life choices for other people. But most of the time, the things we want to learn aren’t like that. We can afford to be responsible for our own learning, and we don’t need to be taught to do things someone else’s way. We need tools, resources, ideas and places to start – this is true of anything spiritual, creative, subjective, and where developing our own imagination and critical thinking is of value. The default setting of hierarchy of teacher over student isn’t an unassailable truth, it’s a habit, and we can do differently.


Teaching Druidry, Learning Druidry

I have, at various times and by assorted means, tried teaching Druidry. It’s an odd business for me – not least because I dislike dogma and authority, and firmly believe that modern Druidry is something we have to make for ourselves as individuals. Of course teaching doesn’t have to express authority or dogma, but it’s so easy to accidentally fall into either, or both.

I’ve learned a lot when I’ve been teaching people. It’s allowed me to find out a great deal about other ways to see the world. One of the things it taught me is that I enjoy being a student, and always feel a bit out of my depth if asked to taking a teaching role, but that at the same time I find teaching exciting, and watching people find their own way even more so.

This has led me to the conclusion that most of the time, creating space is more productive than any attempts at formal teaching. It’s also less demanding in terms of time and effort. Give people a space, an opportunity, and let them do it on their own terms, and what they find will be their own, and will have its own shape. It removes all temptation for the teaching to be about how clever and important the teacher is, and it frees the student from any dogma the teacher might have been hauling around.

Too often, teaching can mean imagining the student as the blank page onto which the teacher must write their great wisdom. But, if you start from the idea that what the student needs to do is discover their own wisdom, everything changes. If you aim to have the student find their own inspiration, their own insight, their own magic… then giving them yours is of limited use.

There are a great many ways of creating opportunities, and this is something we can all do for each other without needing a hierarchy of teachers over students. Anyone can make a space, and anyone can work within a space to experience and develop. All that is required of a space is that it gives people room to have experiences. That could be a moot set up to talk philosophically. It could be a ritual or a bardic circle that doesn’t overly direct participants. It might just be a walk, a few pointers for a drawing exercise, a meditation space or room to dance.

I think the best scope for learning occurs when we are least invested in controlling each other’s experiences. One person cannot teach another person to have a spiritual experience – it’s just not possible. All we can do is show each other the things that might lead to spiritual experience.


Exercises for learner Druids

(Or, why I mostly don’t do that thing). I’m generally not a fan of little exercises for anyone, especially not delivered through this sort of medium. It’s one thing when you’re working directly with a student and helping them find things to explore, but with something like this, fired off randomly into the ether, it’s not a good idea.

Firstly we’re all different. What works for a young, bouncy, fully able person won’t necessarily work for someone with mobility issues or agoraphobia. What makes emotional sense to a westerner living in the town their family has always lived in, won’t work in the same way for someone who is a second generation immigrant in a very different climate. Each of us stands on a unique part of the world, with a unique mix of genetic and cultural heritage and little exercises tend to generalise and assume total similarity.

Then there’s the authority issue. If I tell someone to do a little exercise, I am at serious risk of asserting myself as great and wise Druid leader and teacher, and reinforcing the sense that here is an ignorant newbie who has to be spoon fed.  This is the dynamic of guru and follower, and it’s not how I want to work. I am always going to see myself as a student, and do not want to be in a place of authority over others. Many people come to Druidry when they are no longer children. They come to Druidry having lived, experienced, explored, contemplated and made choices about their beliefs and how they want to practice. I tend to assume that a person coming to Druidry already knows a fair bit, whilst I have no idea what it is they might know from the journey. None of that needs to be, or should be discarded; it is all part of who we are and what brought us to this point. None of us is a beginner.

I’ve been hit by little exercises that made no sense and sat awkwardly with me as emotional experiences. They were a hindrance to learning, not a help. A good tool offers a door, a path, an opening, rather than closing down our options.

So, how do we teach each other Druidry if not by giving the new folk little exercises to do? There are so many options. We can share ideas and experiences. We can talk about our own practice, and let people do with that as they will. Druidry is not doing little pious exercises every day for the sake of doing the little exercises, it’s about living, thinking, exploring and being. It’s about being real, not about issuing homework. It’s about figuring out what to do on your own terms rather than being told what to do by someone else. It is one breath to the next.

The more precise the little exercise is, the less useful it is. If it tells you what to feel, it is especially suspect. It is my belief that if we want to teach each other about Druidry, we have to let go of the desire to shape and control each other’s experiences, and the desire to have someone else tell us what to do. We have to let go of the idea that what works must work universally – this is not science, we aren’t looking for repeatable results and ultimate truths and we could afford more space for diversity and difference.

Do what makes sense to you. Do what inspires you. Do what calls to your heart. Do what seems important or necessary. Pause, reflect, wonder, imagine. Stopping to think about things is the only exercise any Druid, beginner or otherwise, ever really needs. Anything else it might be useful or appropriate for you to be doing, flows from that, from your specific circumstances and the direction you wish to move in. We should be looking to pass around flexible, adaptable tools, not little boxes to hide in.


Seasons don’t fear the postman

Conditioning is a process by which one thing becomes so associated with another that it informs our reactions. Pavlov’s famous dogs, drooling when they heard the lunch bell ring are of course the classic example, but we all do it. Conditioning is one of the means by which we learn, and you can get all kinds of problems by teaching a small child that they’ll be paid attention if they act out.  We don’t just consciously look for patterns, we learn them with our bodies.

So, postmen then, and where they all fit. There were years when anything dreadful started with a letter and anything terrifyingly important would be in the post, too. Things from solicitors. Bills (not always but frequently also from solicitors). Paperwork for Tom getting to stay in the UK. It all came thick and fast for a long time such that the sound of post became associated with a rush of adrenaline. It wasn’t long before I’d get the rush without even knowing what had come through the door. By extension, seeing our postman or his van started to make me nervous, too. Then we moved to the boat and had to collect our post from the post office. Cycling past the post office soon became unsettling. And then gradually all post offices, post vans, post persons, post boxes and reference to post started to be infected by a sense of creeping dread.

It probably sounds mad. It is, and it isn’t. There’s a perfectly reasonable connection with things that were genuinely terrifying and I had every reason to dread and fear, but the way in which trained fear responses can spread makes it rather a lot like a disease. It is mechanisms like this that result in people feeling like they can’t leave the house.

The post hasn’t been scary for about five months now – it was scary again during the house buying period. I still feel anxious when I hear mail falling through the door, and have to consciously remind myself that most of it will be junk, the rest will probably be ok and some of it could be good. “The postman can bring nice things” has become an important personal mantra for dealing with fear.

The best way to deal with conditioning is to put a new layer of something different on top. I’m being helped by people sending me lovely things. The postman can bring good stuff. I make a point of talking to postpeople and being friendly, I make myself go into post offices, and slowly, slowly I replace the conditioning with better associations. It is an attrition job.

If you do something, or respond to something in a way that seems irrational, it is always worth tracing it back and finding out where it came from. The odds are there was a time in your life, or there is a place where that reaction makes perfect sense. Knowing what it is, you can start trying to build a different set of associations and beliefs to replace the ones that aren’t serving you. Our minds and emotions are surprisingly malleable. We can learn startling emotional responses without knowing how it happened, but we are not then, any of us, stuck with them. It is always possible to change.

The postman is nice.

Other postpeople do not have things for me and will not run at me in the street with unpayable bills.

The postman is nice.

There may be mushroom spores in the post today.

Seasons don’t fear the postman…


It is good to be uncomfortable

The edges are always places of fertility and possibility, and it is often when at the edge of the comfort zone that we do the most important things. Discomfort itself is a very good indicator of something important happening, and whatever else you do, is worth paying some heed to rather than trying to just ignore it or make it go away unquestioned. Yesterday, noticing a highly critical 1 star review for Spirituality without Structure  gave me a very good opportunity to be uncomfortable.

I read the review, and my first response was to wonder if it was a fair criticism. I went back and spent much of the evening re-reading my own book – I wrote it a couple of years ago and my memory isn’t perfect. I attempted to re-read it with an eye to how it could cause so much hurt and offence. Do I berate people? Do I call readers blind, ignorant, arrogant and belittle at every turn? Well, I am terse, I realise, and when dealing with difficult subjects that may make my words more pointy than is intended. There are some style issues to consider for the future, so that’s useful to know.

I came away from my book with some ideas about who it would offend, because there are indeed people I go for with no punches pulled. I am pretty damning about those individuals who use religion as a way of controlling other people and getting power over them. I am really intolerant about the way genuine spiritual endeavour is so often subverted for political ends, for war, abuse of others, violence, empire building and the egos of the few. Religion is human, and some humans just want power over everyone and everything else. I don’t know if my reviewer feels that way, or had some other issue and I’m not going to give them a hard time based on imagining what was happening in their head. As they labelled me an atheist and I spend as much time picking holes in atheism as I do in anything else, I wonder if the reviewer simply misunderstood me.

As I worked through this process, I became ever more interested in the idea of how my reviewer was handling feeling uncomfortable – it’s the second time this week that I’ve had very hostile feedback from someone who took as an attack, words that were not meant to be attacking. But, I’ve been told before that I make people uncomfortable and that I shouldn’t be surprised if they lash back sometimes. Previously, I’d not been able to make sense of that as an idea, but a bit of a light came on yesterday.

Of course I could have read that review and got angry with the reviewer for being ‘mean’ to me, and saying things that weren’t (in my subjective opinion) fair or accurate. That anger would have been protective; its function to protect me from feeling uncomfortable. If we feel uncomfortable and can project that as meaning the other person is attacking us, we don’t have to look at anything on the inside. We don’t have to question whether we were right, or look at how we might seem from another angle. We don’t have to ask if we misread, or misrepresented, or anything else that demonstrates we were less than perfect.

The desire to be always comfortable is natural enough – comfort is nice. However, if you try and stay there all the time, you can only have stagnation, and you can’t allow yourself to know about anything you might be getting wrong. I take on big issues and my writing is terse, and I need to look at the relationship between those two things because I have no desire to bruise people who might, if given something just a bit warmer to work with, be more able to do something useful with it. I learn a thing. I also learn that I feel threatened by people not liking me, and it doesn’t matter how distant and unknown to me they are, my hackles still go up. There are reasons, human and historical, and I should look at that another time. I learn how easy it is, how comfort restoring to simply blame something on the outside for causing uncomfortableness, when really we’ve felt it on the inside and something must be going on there, too. On the whole, I would choose to know rather than push the opportunity away.


Doing things naturally (sex and paganism)

There’s a great deal we do fairly naturally – walking, talking, singing, swimming, making love, and a whole array of other things. So long as your body is equal to the task, there are many things humans do that come reasonably naturally. Most of us get at least some of them. However, having been through the learning process with these, and helped others learn, there’s a lot of distance between ‘natural to us’ and ‘automatic’. There is a lot of learning to do, even when the scope for that learning is pretty much hard wired.

I struggled with walking – born with my feet crushed against my shins, it was hard for me, and my ankles remain a tad wonky and unreliable. Afraid of water, I had a tough time learning to swim and the less said about bicycles the better. Skipping did not come naturally to me, nor did throwing and catching balls. Everyone’s list will be different, but all of us struggle with something.

I’ve taught people to sing, and I’ve written erotica, which is a genre in part for exchanging knowledge and insight about sex. I learned a great deal from reading erotica, too. Things I might never have figured out by exploration. Perhaps most usefully, I learned about the sheer diversity of human feeling and experience, the breadth of desire, the commonality. I learned it is best not to assume too much about what anyone else wants, and a damn sight more productive to ask well ahead of time. From erotica, I learned to talk about sex as a way of finding out whether I wanted to get someone into bed in the first place. I suspect this spared me a lot of heartache and disappointment.

Much the same can be said of Paganism. A big part of what makes Paganism itself is that it is about our natural responses to our natural experiences. You shouldn’t need books, or a priesthood or a set of instructions, you should be able to just get out there and do it. Except, very little works that way for humans. Most of us have to learn how to even breathe well.

I’m not keen on situations where people tell me what to do, how to think and what to feel – sex and Paganism are much alike in that regard, for me. However, with both, I gain a great deal from hearing other people’s insights. I get ideas, find things I want to try, recognise things I need to stay the hell away from, and generally save myself a lot of time. I get to make new and different mistakes rather than the ones other people have already tried and tested. I also get the reassurance of something to help me place my wider experience in a useful context.

I’ve mentored Pagans and Druids for many years, and the most commonly occurring theme is the need to know whether what your doing would make any sense to anyone else. Is this Paganism? Am I a Druid? The desire to do it right, do it well, and in a way other people would recognise and respect, also seems to come naturally to us, and without the sharing of experiences, it’s hard to tell. Am I any good in bed? Are my desires normal? Am I any good in ritual? Is my poetry a bit shit? (Rhetorical questions, I’m not looking for answers!)

So, when I hear that Paganism should come naturally and that we should not need books, courses, teachers, experts… I remember that walking did not come naturally to me. I remember all the people I’ve worked with who were sure they could not sing. Just because we can work it all out from scratch doesn’t mean we should be obliged to, and for me, the essence of community comes in


Getting it wrong

Mistakes are an essential part of learning, but only if we use them that way. I have a story to tell, there will be some sort of moral at the end.

A bit back, I messed up, hugely. I knew that I’d messed up because I got an email that made this very clear to me, and it wasn’t stuff I could easily fix or undo. I went through a fair amount of angst. The simplest response to the email was just to stay away – admit I was of no use and leave it at that, doing nothing else that could cause further discomfort to me, or to the person I’d offended. That might have been the end of the story, a small chapter unhappily closed, while I tried to learn how not to make the same mistakes again.

I could have gone back and checked, or asked or clarification that I was understanding it right, but I was afraid of taking more damage, and afraid of making a further nuisance of myself. Plus, I thought I knew what I’d got. Fear, and an odd sort of over-confidence a work there.

I was very lucky, in that some pretty random events conspired a couple of weeks later to make me go back for another conversation, about something else entirely. Around doing that, it became evident that yes, I really had cocked up. What I’d got wrong, above and beyond all else, was how I’d understood the key email. I’d come to it with all my baggage and history. I’m used to being told I’m too much and too difficult; people genuinely have said things like “our lives should never cross again” to me. So I expect to find that, I expect to be a problem.

I hadn’t been told to go away. I’d been given an option on doing something that might be protective of me, that might make my life easier. What I’d done in response made it look like I’d accepted that offer. I created an impression I did not mean to make. It all took a bit of unpicking, and that unpicking required some abandoning of pride, and that was well worth doing. What it cost in feeling exposed, it more than made up for in getting through to a better place.

Language is a very imprecise thing. We don’t all use words in the same way. Not all of us are word people, and many have to interpret into words from however they actually think. I’m very wordy, but that’s no guarantee that what I mean will come across as intended. We all bring our own stories, baggage, beliefs, assumptions, fears and hopes to every conversation. Taking that into account it may be some cause for wonder that any of us manage any deeper communications at all.

I went through a lot of grief for the sake of some misunderstood words. I probably also caused a fair amount of discomfort at the same time. The only way to do differently required courting a potential humiliation, and I nearly didn’t risk it. That kind of self-protection isn’t worth much. It only lets us imagine we haven’t been humiliated because we didn’t go back for seconds, rather than facing the real cost. There is so much scope for getting it wrong. Next time, I will just go back and ask.