Tag Archives: mindfulness

Druidry and time

Mindfulness as the idea of a state of living in the moment has become popular in Druidry as in most places. The idea that we should live in the present appeals to many people, but is one I remain uneasy about. It also seems to me to be at odds with much that is in the Druid tradition. We know the ancient Druids were keepers of history. Bards are tellers of stories. Ovates practice divination and look to the future. So while there are times when we might want to be focused on the present, Druidry exists in relationship with past, present and future.

It doesn’t help that the ‘mindfulness’ we get in the west is increasingly a practice stripped from its origins and packaged for us to consume. It is an increasingly unrooted concept and treated as a cure-all and there are a lot of reasons to be wary about embracing it with no context in this way. I don’t think that what passes for ‘mindfulness’ out of context has much to do with the original practice or anyone involved with it as part of their path.

Looking ahead is essential if you intend to lead or teach – and leadership, and teaching are both part of the Druid tradition.

Looking ahead is vital if you mean to create anything. Creativity that happens only in the moment tends to be self indulgent. If we want to use inspiration to meaningfully engage with someone else we need our roots in the past and an eye to the future.

It’s good to be present and alert to what’s going on. Life doesn’t give you much if you pay it no attention. But at the same time, the context for the present moment is held by where we have come from and where we might be going. Our brains have a capacity for holding a lot within the present moment, we’ve evolved to understand things in context, and if we want to relate to our natural selves, I see no point in trying to strip that away. Nature doesn’t live in the moment either. The cat poised to pounce is in some degree living in the future, so is the bird building a nest and the insects laying up a store for the winter. Trees begin making their leaf buds in winter and carry inside them the growth ring memory of previous years.

To properly understand the present moment, we need the context for it. To live responsibly, we most certainly need to be aware of the future and the implications of our actions. To be a Druid is to be in relationship with time. Choosing to step out of time for specific purposes may make sense, but overall Druidry calls us to be in relationship with time.

Just relax

Try to relax. I’ve heard it a lot of course. Maybe meditation would help. Try mindfulness. If you could relax, you wouldn’t hurt as much. This has come round fairly regularly over the last twenty years or so. As though I haven’t tried. As though I am so stupid that I let my body run away from me into a state of pain and misery that would disappear if only I made a bit of effort to relax. Sometimes, I’ve internalised this and added feelings of intense uselessness alongside the body pain. Oddly, that’s never helped me.

I’ve been meditating as best I can for the last twenty years. Pain makes it difficult to concentrate. Pain means that any body-focused meditation can turn into a very special sort of hell and mostly I don’t go there because it doesn’t actually help. The soreness and stiffness in my body is more complicated than can be fixed by just thoughtfully relaxing all those muscles. Also, when it’s pretty much all of the muscles, deliberately relaxing them isn’t that easy anyway. I know, because I’ve tried…  Repeatedly.

Yes, I have been told about the thing where you clench a muscle hard and then relax it. I have tried this. The odds are decent that the result of the deliberate tensing will be a rush of pain, maybe with a side-order of cramp. I am seldom persuaded that it’s worth the risk.

So here’s a radical notion. What if I, and people like me aren’t hurting because we’re doing it wrong. What if we have bodies that hurt, and cannot magically be fixed with that really easy thing you think we should be trying. What if that really easy thing, when tried, inflicts more pain? What if, living in our bodies as we do, we might be considered to have some tiny notion about what helps and what doesn’t? What if we are allowed to say no to quick fixes that don’t fix anything?

That would have scary implications, wouldn’t it? Because it might mean that your wellness is not entirely because of your reiki mindfulness yoga paleo-diet. It might be that you have been lucky so far. You might not always be lucky. Things might go wrong in your body that you can’t deal with by relaxing and being positive. Pain might be real after all and not all in my mind. Aging is out there as a possibility for all of us, with all the complicated gifts it brings. Bodies go wrong.

If the last twenty years have taught me anything, it’s that kindness is a good deal more helpful than ‘cures’. Accepting me as I am does far more to help me than yet another round of being told the one simple thing I should do to sort it all out. Being patient with my limitations helps me more than telling me why this is all my fault.

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.

Not so mindfulness

Over the years I have explored, repeatedly, ideas of mindfulness and being fully present in the moment. It’s a popular strand in meditation. I also have an interest in psychology, and a work life where seeking inspiration and making creative jumps is an essential part of what I do. Here are a few thoughts on how these things collide.

The human mind tunes out for more than it pays conscious attention to. If you sit still in a room, you have sensory information from all your nerve endings. You have visual input – which you can reduce by shutting your eyes. There are sounds. Your own heart and breathing, sounds in the building, sounds from outside. The more fully present and aware you are, the more sound you will notice, but the more invested you are in that, the less you may be able to also process about how the air smells and the exact temperature of your skin.

There’s a practical limit on how many things we can be aware of in one go. In practice, being mindful is a selective process – more or less conscious – about which bits of ‘the moment’ you are paying attention to. This is more viable when you are motionless in a quiet and controlled space, but as soon as you start moving through the world, you will miss more than you notice.

The more I focus my conscious attention on one thing (eg my breathing) the less able I am to notice other things. It’s exactly the same as the famous psychology experiment (you can google for it) where participants asked to count ball passes in a game fail to notice the person dressed as an ape. This is us. This is the human mind. It focuses really well, but at the expense of wider experience. So if we are too focused on one thing, we can miss a lot of what is actually happening ‘in the moment’.

Inspiration does not come with focus. It is not achieved by pushing. Again this is about how our brain functions. The conscious mind is just a bit of what we’ve got, and that’s not the bit doing the ‘Eureka!’ thinking. The experience often called ‘the light-bulb moment’ when everything clicks into place, does not come when we push for it. The light bulb moment is Archimedes in the bath and Newton sat innocently under a tree. It’s also me in my kitchen just pottering about and not thinking very much at all, and suddenly finding that the greater part of a chant and its tune have just happened to me. Bang. No conscious thought, no warning.

I know, because I spend a lot of time working with both the necessity for mental focus, and the need for inspiration, that it’s usually one or the other. Focus is needed to get things done but does not invite creative thinking. I have my best ideas when I’m not trying to push for them, and not dwelling much on anything else, but pondering, imagining, daydreaming, wool gathering. At my best, I am the point where past and future make their exchanges. I am all that might be, rubbing against all that is. I am transforming regret and nostalgia into what we are doing better tomorrow. I am observation, speculation and playfulness fermenting together. Pay too much attention to any one thing, and it all falls apart.

It’s important to work out what you want and need from your life and your meditations. You may need stillness and inner discipline. You may need space for your chaos. You may need to be present but not too focused so that you can notice all the things you did not know to look for. There is no one true way, only what we choose, and whether that does what we want it to do.

Be mindful of your thoughts

Mindfulness comes up a lot in Buddhism. Druids who take inspiration from Buddhism seem to mention this one a lot. It’s also absolutely central in Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. The more I contemplate it, the more convinced I am that mindfulness is a thing we should all be striving to achieve, regardless of path.

Self awareness means knowing what you are doing and why. Knowing what you want, how you feel about things – no repressed ideas and desires, no being driven by motives you won’t consciously acknowledge. CBT mindfulness goes further, and as part of a therapeutic process, requires us to minutely examine our thoughts. We all have habits of thought, and they influence our emotions and actions, but how conscious of those thoughts are we?

For example, I just had some really disappointing and frustrating news. My immediate thoughts are that other people will assume what happened is all my fault, that I will seem less credible, that no one will believe it was just bad luck and not some failure on my part. It takes me seconds to think this, and all the optimism of the last few days is wiped away. Seconds I could easily fail to notice. But I’ve caught it, and am trying to fight it.

Now, CBT, being  a therapy, is something people pick up after the event. It’s something you do when depression has already taken you down, when anxiety is sitting on your chest like a lead weight or low self esteem has you thinking the world might be a better place without you. Aided and abetted by circumstances, we think our way into holes. The person who has some belief in themselves and some capacity for hope, and the energy to keep going can and will prevail. The person who has taken inside every setback and criticism, who has bought into the bully’s story, or a family myth about their own uselessness, won’t fight what’s happening externally, but will instead use it as a stick to beat themselves with. I do it. Partly I do it because I sort of believe that if I can show I’m repentant and recognising my failures, I will not be beaten up quite so much by external reality. And no, I wasn’t brought up Catholic. As defensive measures go, it’s not even slightly clever or helpful. But I know it’s there. I don’t have to be the mediaeval mystic who starts hitting myself with a flail as soon as the plague comes to town.

What we think about life experience shapes how we understand what happens to us. It’s very easy to let those thoughts occur and not to think about what we are thinking. All those people who act and speak in the spur of the moment. I didn’t mean it. It just came out. I don’t know why I said that. I don’t know why I did that. Without self awareness, we cannot hope to be in control of our actions and choices. Someone else, something else, can pull our strings. We’re easy to manipulate, or running on habit, not properly engaged with what is really happening and not making rational decisions about our lives from one moment to the next.

What are you thinking?

Whose voice is inside your head? (See the blog post on hearing voices).

What are you telling yourself about the meaning of experiences?

What are you telling yourself you are entitled to do, justified in doing? Are you working up a rage, a reason to hit out, an indignant response, a ‘justified’ attack on someone else?

Are you saying ‘well done me’ at all? Or are you just bombarding yourself with criticism?

A lack of self consciousness and self awareness may seem like the easy way to drift through life. Cheerful obliviousness. Ignorance is bliss. I think this is deluded, at best. It might protect us from having to look at the aspects of self and behaviour that we don’t really like, but those who do not look, cannot change.

I’m not aware of any particularly Druid tradition of mindfulness. There are lots ways. I’m not sure that we need one. I would recommend paying some attention to what you think, step back now and then if you can, contemplate your own responses and the implications of what happens between your ears. It is entirely possible to change how you think, but to do so, you need to be aware of what you think. If you’re in a spiritual tradition looking for some kind of personal growth, I would ask what kind of growth there can ever be without proper self awareness?  Knowing how you think, and what that thinking means, is key to this. Thinking about thinking is inevitably self referential and all about the navel gazing, but ultimately, it is liberating.

Nature, Mindfulness and Emotion

Here’s a thing I keep banging my head against. I want to be mindful in all things, conscious of my actions and words and in control of them. I consider this essential for living in ethical and honourable ways. What this means in practice is that I spend most of my time trying very hard to maintain suitable levels of self control.

Now, here’s the rub. Most of my emotions are so intense, so all consuming, that the idea of them passing through gently is hard to imagine. I live in fairly intense emotional spectrums, and repressing any emotion so that it does not result in a physical expression is unspeakably hard. Experience to date suggests that the physical expression of my emotions does cause distress to others, and I am not comfortable with causing that distress, so mostly I try not to. Frequently I fail.

The quandary: Do my emotions, in their raw, chaotic and powerful state, constitute my nature, or are they something that I need to learn to tame and control? If they are my nature, are they allowable, is there some place for them, somewhere in the world? If I tame them, I might be able to become the more placid, docile, biddable person I feel certain the people around me would find it more comfortable to deal with. Would I be a better person if I could tame the extremities of my feelings?

Or is there anything in here that might have an intrinsic value, somewhere, somehow? (I’m unconvinced, but I have to ask for the sake of balance.)

I’ve spent most of my adult life trying for control, trying to be what those around me want me to be – of which one of the key elements has always been expressing a gentle, co-operative persona, which is just a construct, is not in any way ‘real’ in terms of how I understand myself. And there are days when holding that together and keeping it smiling is so hard that I just want to curl up and weep.

I will confess that I have spent my whole life yearning for some kind of space where I could feel safe about letting some of the other stuff out. There have been times, sharing music, when I’ve been able to express and feel fully alive, in the moment, whole… but music is abstract, and it’s easy for people not to have to look too hard at what’s really going on there, which makes it inherently safer. There are times when the sheer loneliness inherent in feeling unable to share my emotional self, is crippling. I say it, in case there is someone out there who feels this too, and who can find some catharsis, or companionship in these words.

I’m not sure it is mindfulness. It’s a good cover. It may in fact be fear. I know perfectly well that what lives on the inside is a fairytale monster full of teeth and excess. If it gets out, if anyone sees it, I will become an exile. Hiding is survival. Mindfulness keeps the fear of what I am under control.

I know I am blessed with some brilliant, insightful and forthright commentators on this blog. This is without a doubt the most personal thing I have ever put in a public place. It will be interesting to see what anyone does with this.

Entitlement and Honour

What I want to talk about today is a habit of thought that I think is both dangerous and damaging. It’s also far too easy to slip into, and I suspect it is something we all do to some degree.

The thought form goes something like this. “Because of this thing, I am entitled to act in a certain way.” To develop that, we might say “Because I am in pain it is totally reasonable for me to be short tempered.” That’s a line it’s easy to accept. “Because I earn the most money, I should be the one who makes all the decisions.” “Because I did not like what you said, I am entitled to hit you.” No doubt you can come up with plenty of alternative versions.

It’s a slippery slope to get onto. Now, everything we do is undertaken in a context. Our own feelings are part of that. If we are hurt, we become angry. If we are frustrated we may want to lash out. Feeling a thing is always fine. There can be no wrong feelings, they are simply how we respond. The difficulty arises when that feeling is then used as a justification for subsequent behaviour. Not only is this an issue in abuse situations, but it is something to consider in terms of personal honour and how we treat those around us day to day.

If we rely on justifications, do we accept the same justifications from others? Is it fine for someone else to be snappy with us because they were tired? Is it fine for someone else not to have done a job because they just didn’t feel like it? Wherever we draw our lines, integrity demands that we are consistent. If it is truly justified for us to behave in a certain way given the right circumstances, we have to make the same allowances for everyone else.

Closer scrutiny of the attitude that ‘I am justified because’ can lead us towards the uncomfortable conclusion that really our belief is ‘I am justified because this is what I want.’ When it comes to behaving badly, taking, using, not bothering and not taking care, this is at heart an act of laziness. It’s painfully easy to do, and becoming aware of doing it is very uncomfortable.

There are ways of handling it better. For example, I am frequently difficult around menstruation, I become impatient, short tempered and the pain makes me crabby. I do not always manage that well. If I snap at someone and follow through with “Well tough, I don’t feel good, I can’t help it,” I reinforce having knocked my victim back. If I instead apologise, recognise that I am spiky because of pain and make clear the problem lies with me, not the other person, they at least know not to take it personally and I have at least managed not to compound the initial slip by trying to justify it. If I think pain, illness or some other issue is going to affect me – moodwise, workwise, concentration etc then I try and warn people in advance. I’ve found that helps where circumstances make it genuinely difficult to maintain perfect self control. Explanations tend to work better than justifications.

No one manages to behave with perfect care and mindfulness at all times. We are human, flawed and fallible, and when life throws us challenges, we are not always going to field them with perfect grace. What matters, is being honest about that. Acknowledge the mistakes, recognise the reasons and they do not become entrenched as assumptions and justifications. Alternatively, if we get in the habit of justifying, it’s so easy to keep sliding down that route, towards an understanding where something as small as irritation justifies causing pain to another, or the suggestion that we are somehow less than perfect makes us feel entitled to verbally attack our ‘accuser’. I’ve seen that done, and it isn’t pretty, but I doubt anyone starts there.