Tag Archives: spiritual

Penance and the disembodied

There are a number of concepts that I picked up early in life that make it hard to be embodied. As they were part of the environment of my youth, I expect it wasn’t just me.

Rather than thinking of food as being necessary fuel for the body, or a means to health and vitality, or a pleasure, eating seemed like a bad thing. Hunger – a perfectly natural bodily process – was something to rise above. Food should be eaten slowly, with care and tidiness, not gobbled up with enthusiasm. Second helpings should not be sought. Physical exercise was a penance you could do for having eaten food.

The notion that a person could enjoy their body, their food, their physical activity came to me rather later in life than was ideal. For too long, it seemed like the life of the mind, and perhaps the spirit were the only things worth worrying about and that all bodily things were there to be ignored, transcended or beaten into submission. A desire to be disembodied, not present.

It’s difficult to get into any kind of physical activity when you see it as punishment. You do it to atone for transgression, but not with joy, or for its own sake. If food is a vice, and burning off the calories is a necessary toll to pay, there’s no life of the body in this.

Over the last year or so, I’ve been working on thinking differently – learning to see food as necessary fuel. As a consequence, my fat and protein consumption have gone up. Increasing the oil in my diet has been hard, going against everything I’ve been taught, but ironically it seems to help with the weight loss. I’ve started using physical activity rather than sugar to keep my brain working through the day. My sugar craving has reduced dramatically, my focus has increased dramatically. By paying attention to my body and working with it, I’ve changed.

The key thing in all of this has been starting to treat my body, with its various feelings, cravings, urges and needs, as fundamentally acceptable. Not as something bad that needs controlling and punishing. Not as something that must do penance for feeling good. Meeting my body on its own terms and finding what it can do, and what helps it, rather than the simple obsession with being thin at any cost. Thin at any cost is something that will disembody you, although many of us have metabolisms that decline to be thin even under considerable pressure.

My animal self is not something I need to control or transcend. The life of my mind does not require it – in fact I think better when I treat my body with greater kindness. My spiritual life does not require me to transcend my body, either. I can have a spiritual life in which it’s ok to show up, skin, hunger and all.

Alternatives to forgiveness

Forgiveness is often held as a spiritual value, and doing it is supposed to make us better people. There are times when I’d cheerfully go along with that – when what I’m dealing with is just human mess, and the kind of innocent failing that comes from being alive. To learn, we have to risk messing up. To try new things, or engage with new people, we have to risk mistakes. As I commented on recently, second chances are good, and precious things, in the right context.

There are people I won’t forgive. People who crossed lines into deliberate harm, and repeat offenders. Second chances are gifts, but once it’s third, fourth, fifth chances, I stop being cooperative. Sometimes not forgiving people is essential to holding boundaries and maintaining personal safety. Sometimes, there is no excuse, no explanation and no apology that can fix what has been done.

So, what to do when forgiveness isn’t an acceptable way forward? Hanging on to anger with someone can mean hurting yourself. It can mean becoming defined by the story of what they did – and the main effect of that is to give the person you can’t forgive even more power over your life. Squashing anger is a recipe for trouble. Denying it, even if we think that anger isn’t the sort of thing we should feel, is of no great help. First, there has to be a process. If may be rage, or grief, it may be like the stages of bereavement. Whatever you have to go through, do it. Deal with what happened and how you feel about it. This will take exactly as long as it takes.

Get to a point where you can put it down. This is not the same as forgiveness, because it in no way lets the other person off the hook or creates peace. If someone has, for example, tried to destroy your life, why would you want peace with them? What I need in that context – what I think most of us need – is safety and distance. In terms of the inner self, it means processing it so that I can get them out of my head, and not be occupied or troubled by what happened. In more extreme circumstances, counselling is appropriate for this.

There are people I will never forgive. But I very seldom think about them. I don’t engage with them, in life or in my head unless something triggers it. I don’t lug the rage and resentment round with me. I do still have my scars, which I will not do anything to negate or diminish. It’s the scars that we have to make peace with – learning to see them as things done to us, and not defining features of who we are. Forgive the body that carries the scars. Forgive the heart that was broken and the too trusting nature that let this happen. Forgive the naivety, the hope, the desperation, the gullibility, the not running away fast enough. The not knowing it was wrong, or how to defend your boundaries, or whatever it was. Forgive where you need to. Forgive the honest, well meant human mistakes – yours and other people’s.

Honest mistakes, and human failing deserve forgiveness. Deliberate cruelty, does not.


Deep or shallow spirituality?

This was inspired by Tommy Elf’s recent post – https://tommyelf22.wordpress.com/2016/10/10/going-deep-or-swimming-shallow/

What makes a spiritual practice deep or shallow? It’s no doubt easier to judge others from the outside than it is to make a fair assessment of our own spiritual paths. On reflection, what I have is odd, to say the least…

When I was trying hardest to be ‘deep’ I was at my most obsessed with surface and appearance.

When I tried to be important, I was at my least spiritual.

When I tried to teach others, I did a great deal of learning.

When I stopped striving and started seeing what happened, more happened.

When I was kinder to myself, I found more reasons to practice gratitude.

When I went to the woods for the sake of the woods, and not in search of anything sacred, I found something sacred.

When I let myself enjoy the surfaces of things, it stopped feeling like something shallow.

When I stopped trying so hard to seem deep, I learned how sacred mirth can be.

I suspect I could go on with this almost indefinitely. Spirituality is paradox. It’s the learning that teaches you how little you know.  It’s the wisdom to realise you are an idiot, and the devotion to be able to handle things with a light touch. But beyond that, it’s whatever makes sense to us, regardless of what sense, if any, that makes to anyone else.

Spiritual life and the working week

For the first time in a good 15 years, I’ve had a month of working five day weeks and taking the weekends off. The consequences have been numerous. When I started out as a self-employed person, I guarded my weekends. However, the person I was living with became ever less interested in doing anything with time off, and so out of boredom I started doing more work at the weekends. Increasing financial pressure kept me there. Then I married a man who was entirely settled into seven day working weeks. It’s not easy taking time off when the person you most want to take time off with is working. What started as a bad call became a habit, and something that seemed necessary – and in fairness, actually was at some points.

There’s a macho culture in comics that is all about working yourself to death. In Japanese manga it’s even worse, with creators not being able to expect enough downtime for proper sleep, even. Our wider culture is keen to link wealth with hard work, and poverty with indolence, so if you aren’t raking it in, there’s a pressure to try and make sure everyone at least knows that you’re trying very hard all the time. It’s worth noting that exhaustion does not increase productivity or creativity. Rather the opposite.

The five day working week means I can have time to rest and relax, and the energy and time to socialise and get inspired. I’ve felt much less isolated this month, and there have been a lot of joyful things. Working almost all the time and being exhausted the rest of the time is a recipe for depression, and it certainly increases anxiety. I’ve got to a point where I can afford not to be flat out all the time, and for this I am deeply grateful.

I’m perfectly happy to think of anything I do as a potential expression of my Druidry. However, this is a thing to be cautious about, because it can mean just not really doing any Druidry. The more run-ragged I am, the less room I have for gratitude – and to be honest, the less reason as well. To practice gratitude you need the time to stop and appreciate things. A person running flat out all the time can’t do this. It’s difficult to meditate when you’re fretting about deadlines. It’s difficult to celebrate when you’re anxious about money and work.

To bring your spiritual practice to all things calls for time. It’s not compatible with a never-ending workload. It’s also, I eventually came to realise, deeply inhuman and dehumanising to just be something that works until it can’t and then falls over, and then does it again.

Some of it, is about whether you have the luxury of choice. With a low paid job, the ‘choice’ is to work long hours, or struggle to pay the bills for the most basic things. When the only job you can ‘choose’ requires a long commute, when you’re expected to work unpaid overtime, when you’ve got to work multiple part time jobs to make ends meet, genuine choice is in short supply. Those of us who can choose, can do our bit not to support a culture of working to death. We can reject the idea that hard work is what brings money – it isn’t. Money is what brings money, and the traps that keep the poor in poverty are numerous.

Rest is a virtue, not a vice. It is something we should all have the right to, it should not be a privilege for the few.

How far should I go?

How far do you have to go for it to be a pilgrimage?

As far as I am concerned, pilgrimage is not a matter of time or distance, but a matter of communion. The single biggest factor in how far you go, how often and for how long, is your own body. We’re all different. The more involved a person is with walking, or other forms of movement, the more attention they have to pay to their limits, and those limits change. Some of us can expect to see increased strength, stamina and mobility over time. Others of us will be dealing with deterioration. Some of us will experience shifts back and forth between the two.

For the person interested in embodied spirituality, knowing your limits is a good thing. There’s an intensity of feeling that comes from pushing to the edges of what you can do – regardless of where those edges are. Start modestly, with things you know you can do. There is no race here. Build confidence over time, build strength and stamina if you can, or strategies. If you have to choose between distance and time, choose time. It’s the being outside that really matters. Better to spend an afternoon pottering about that a frantic half hour that leaves you exhausted.

Perhaps the most important thing here is that time spent walking is time away from the rest of life. This is equally true for time spent sitting out. There’s a chance to change our inner pace, to slow down and notice what’s around us. Humans are increasingly prone to rushing, stress and overstimulation. The more time you can spend away from that, the better.

In most aspects of life, the really fertile places are the edges. In this case, it’s the edge of your ability to keep walking. I find that when I’ve gone long enough, and far enough, peace enters me. My thoughts become uncluttered. About this time I notice the way the deeper breathing of cleaner air is impacting on my sense of self. I’ll tend to feel cleaner on the inside. More so if I’ve walked amongst trees. A kind of euphoria kicks in. This takes longer to achieve than it used to, and lasts longer than it used to. On the far side of the euphoria is exhaustion, and pain.

I have no problem with pain being part of my spiritual experience. I may be slightly masochistic because I feel better about my body when I can barely put one foot in front of another. If, for whatever reason, you need an element of martyrdom and pain as part of your pilgrimage, that’s your business. It’s not necessary to bleed and hurt to be a pilgrim. It’s also not the case that you need to settle on one way of doing this. Some pilgrimages may be gentle, some may break you, and you have to find the balance that answers bodily, emotional and spiritual needs.

Transport isn’t spiritual?

“Oh no, if you’re walking as transport, that isn’t spiritual.”

I was in a conversation with someone who had expressed an enthusiasm for embodied spirituality, and was told this. My idea of spiritual walking – namely that all walking is, or can be spiritual – was apparently wrong.  I don’t know how many other people believe this – that to be spiritual, an activity has to be redundant in practical terms – but it makes no sense to me. How can we talk about embodied spirituality, but only have it apply when we aren’t occupied with the physical realities of living? What it means is that Tai Chi and Yoga and standing meditations and walking that is deliberately constructed to be a spiritual exercise can be spiritual, but getting somewhere is excluded.

To do something that has no use to you may seem like a good act of dedication to the divine. Time and energy poured into an act that has no purpose other than to express adoration for the divine. If that’s your path, by all means, follow it, but it isn’t mine and never will be. Central to this is that I do not want this neat divide of sacred and profane. I don’t want to see some things as special and other bits as not special – for me this is intrinsic to embodied, experienced spirituality. All of the earth is sacred. Any act of engaging with the earth can therefore be sacred if we want it to be.

As a Pagan I want to engage spiritually with the physical realities of my existence. I want to live in my breath and my movement – something I don’t always do well. I want to live as greenly as I can – walking for me is part of being sustainable, and being sustainable to the best of my abilities is for me, a key act of Pagan dedication. I need to get places – to work the soil, to share bardic expressions, to buy food and clothes, to meet people. None of these things strike me as being intrinsically unspiritual aims. I seek relationship and survival.

There’s another aspect to this in that green living takes time. I cook from raw materials most days. I hand wash my clothes. I don’t have a car. Things that are the work of minutes for some people take me hours. This does not leave me with a vast amount of time and bodily energy to devote to doing spiritual things that serve no practical purpose. My choice to live lightly is in no small part a spiritual choice.

It doesn’t matter where I am or why I am walking or who I am with – I always pay a lot of attention to my surroundings, to the elements and the wildlife around me. Anyone who is walking can. I am more conscious of the exact shape of the land when I walk than when inside any mode of transport. I feel and acknowledge the wind, the sun, the night time – there’s conscious connection and presence for me. It doesn’t matter if I’ve popped out for a loaf of bread, or am coming back from a party – I could still see a fox, or hear an owl, and I’m alert to all of that.

To walk (or cycle) for transport is to make a big commitment to living lightly. Cars cause all sorts of problems – emissions, contribution to global climate change, wars fought over oil, noise pollution, air pollution, the need for roads and parking spaces requiring land to be covered in tarmac, the death toll of wildlife on the roads, the interruption and destruction of habitats for roads, the deaths of people on the roads… I think anything any of us can do to reduce this has to be good. It is not easy or convenient to do without a car in a culture that assumes car use as normal. It can be socially alienating and makes jobs and key infrastructure – like healthcare – much harder to access. It is, by any measure, a sacrifice.

But of course no one is selling expensive courses in getting from A to B on your own two feet. No exotic walking to work retreats, no walking to the supermarket gurus, and so on. It is ‘pedestrian’ with all that suggests to us. No one gets to be important by walking to where they need to be, and no one will be impressed by how special and spiritual you are if they see you doing it.

We evolved to get around by walking. We have this unusual body configuration precisely so that we can put one foot in front of the other to get where we need to be. Walking is ancestral, it is fundamental, it is intrinsic to being human. Walking to get stuff done is a major part of the history of our species. How can this not be spiritual?

A sense of self

Who am I? This physical presence in the world, more awkward than I would like. A soft animal body that blesses me with perception and the scope for action. A story of physical ugliness and unacceptability I’ve been told too many times. Uneasily feminine, mother of a child who stands on the brink of adulthood. A body that works, and weeps, and does what it can and wants to do more. A body that used to dance, and hasn’t in a long time. A voice that seldom finds reason to sing anymore. Even so, I’m probably less alienated from my body at the moment than I have ever been.

Who am I? An obsessive mind full of uncertainties. Questioning all things, trying to make sense of an increasingly incomprehensible world. An anxious, uneasy mind, desperate to be doing more, but limited by the realities of a body that cannot give indefinitely without rest. A mind fighting to stay sane in face of the madness of ecocide, the needless greed and cruelty shaping this age.

A feeling being, intense in those feelings but not defined by any of those feelings. Always either too much (too intense, too needy) or not enough (not compassionate, patient, generous enough). Feeling, but never seeming to feel the right things at the right times to fit neatly in with everyone else. Feeling, but hiding those feelings, inherently dishonest in matters of the heart in the hopes of not causing offence or inconvenience.

There was a time when I would have defined myself in terms of my aspirations. That was some decades ago. I no longer have much sense of direction, more a suspicion that I’m not really going anywhere, that there isn’t much else I am going to achieve.

There was a long time when I would have defined myself in terms of what I was doing – writer, folky, activist, parent. These days I do what I can and I do what seems necessary but feel little sense of identification with any of it. There were times when I defined myself by the communities I belonged to, and the people I felt most closely associated with. I’ve come to think of myself as someone who isn’t very good at community or at friendship.

I’m aware that for many spiritual people, the loss of the ‘little me’ and the ego is a spiritual goal. Get rid of the clutter of identification and ideas about self to be a more authentic spiritual being. Clearly what I’m experiencing isn’t some kind of enlightenment or improvement. It feels like disorientation, loss of purpose, and increasing despair in all aspects of my life.

But then, is the loss of ego for spiritual purposes really a loss of identity? Or does the person simply import spiritual values, spiritual community, a sense of being respected as a spiritual person and a sense of being good, worthy and enlightened, in replacement for all the things they were previously hanging their sense of identity from? I expect it feels great to have an identity that is so firmly rooted in a spiritual path.

It’s not easy to function when you don’t know who you are. How do you make choices when you don’t really know what you want? How do you find the motivation to do anything? It’s not, let me be clear, the peace of slipping into simplicity either, because the not knowing, is not simple. It’s confusion, and unsettling, and never knowing what call to make.

About the only bit of me I can be sure of, is this awkward flesh self, but I can only be sure about it in a feeling way. The stories I have are also uncertain. This body I understood to be funny looking, unattractive, unfeminine, badly proportioned, unloveable, and which a few people insist on seeing very differently.

Who am I?

Honestly, I’ve no idea.

Pagan Dreaming – out today

Pagan Dreaming is officially unleashed upon the world today. Advanced reviews have been really encouraging. Rachel Patterson called it “the only book you will ever need to read to understand dreaming as a whole” (entire review here). James Nichol described it as “an informed and thought provoking introduction to dreams and dream work” (whole review here). Mike Stygal, president of The Pagan Federation said “Stunningly good!”

Mixing the pragmatic and the spiritual, Pagan Dreaming goes far beyond the standard dream dictionary to offer instead a range of ways for making dreaming a meaningful part of your spiritual life. Exploring symbolism, the physical implications of dreaming, dreaming as learning and problem solving it then places the spiritual dimension of dreams in a context that will help readers go beyond x=y interpretations towards something that will enrich and re-wild their lives. The book includes an array of techniques for working consciously with dreams and developing a Pagan spiritual practice around dreaming.

You can get it any of the places you normally get books, it’s out as a paperback and as an ebook, here’s the AMAZON US AMAZON UK links as I know a lot of people default to those. If you pick up a copy, i would really appreciate getting to hear what you think of it.

Encountering truth

Truth can seem like a very abstract subject – the kind of thing you can only explore with language and thinking. Take away language, and what you have is experience, and what you learn from the experience. Whether that’s right or not can be tested by whether you survive future experiences.

We go all too easily from the idea of truth, to the idea of some sort of fixed and ultimate truth. Then we argue with each other about what this might be, and it all gets messy. How we make sense of things depends on who we are and where we were standing when it all happened. The truth for a fox is very different from the rabbit’s truth when they find themselves in the same situation. My truth is not your truth.

Of course if truth is in the moment, in the perspective and the individual, then we aren’t going to be able to agree on it. If there is such a thing as ultimate truth, then persuading people of it becomes a thing. Ultimate truth has implications of power and control. The person who has the ultimate truth has the right to dictate and control, and so there’s a lot of people out there claiming that they have the one true way, the only truth, the rightyist bit of rightness.

The idea of ultimate truth – be that philosophical, spiritual, lifestyle, political, economic – offers the tantalising possibility of right answers. The scope to take the one true way and apply it – maybe only once – and then have everything be absolutely excellent and reliable and all the things.

What if the truth is that life does not work this way? What if everything is specific, and what works this week may not work the same way next week? What if most of existence cannot be tidied into predictable numbers in the style of the sort of physics they teach you in your teens? What if there is no magic solution to tell us exactly how to get everything right?

What if the people peddling ultimate truths, definite salvation and foolproof solutions are, for the greater part, wrong? What if the truth is that we have to make it up as we go along, based on the best information we’ve got right now? What if the truth is that there are no ultimate answers whatsoever?

Becoming the Very Important Druid, and other quests

What first brings a person to Druidry? There are of course, many answers. A desire for knowledge and experiences, a hunger for mystery, wonder and the numinous. Wanting a place to belong, feeling a kinship, needing or longing for something. We all have our own reasons and all of those reasons have their own validity.

Once you get onto the path and start learning, those initial desires can rapidly stop being relevant, or can evolve. In the first year of Druidry, working on the wheel of year can seem massively important, but that very work will show you what the wheel doesn’t do, where it fails to connect with your experiences, and so one quest can lead to another, very different sort of quest, as an example.

Sometimes the way a path grows and changes is very smooth and makes total sense. Sometimes the things we start with, and the things we come to want are quite at odds with each other. The very idea of spiritual growth can create interesting tensions. I came to Druidry in no small part because I wanted to learn, grow and change, to acquire spiritual depth. The steps from here to thinking yourself better than other people, succumbing to ego, to hubris, to self importance, are not many. It’s a potential pitfall for anyone who organises, writes or leads – that you start to think of yourself as an important Druid. Being A Very Important Druid doesn’t sit well alongside a deeply lived spiritual life. The more invested we get in our own importance, the harder it is to show up to the spiritual life.

At the same time, there is a real need for people who can organise, lead, teach, write and generally share the wisdom they have gained. There’s a need for celebrants and ritualists that isn’t just about the hungry ego of the individual. What little we know of the history of Druidry suggests that ancient Druids were very much in those places of leadership and wisdom for their tribes.

How much do we quest for the role of the important Druid? How much tension is there between role and personal spirituality? How do we treat those who take on such roles?

For me, the key to all this is service. If you show up to do the job – as writer, teacher, celebrant etc – and your focus is the job, it works a lot better. If you show up to be adored and looked up to, then it’s not about the job, it’s about the self importance. However, these are hard things to admit to. We’re all fragile and human, wanting to be loved and admired is natural. So is wanting to be valued and respected for what we do. The risk is that if our Druidry is all about seeming fabulous to other people, it may well not be giving us anything we need. It’s a shallow pool to paddle in at the best of times. I’ve certainly put my feet in it more than once.

Turning up to serve, the only questions are ‘is this working?’ ‘is this useful?’. If someone finds it useful, then you’re doing the work. If the focus is on doing the useful work, then any larger profile gained is recycled into the means to do the work and to reach and help more people, landscapes, causes. A Very Important Druid who uses their prominence to inform, enlighten and uplift others, is a person to support. If all the fame does is serve to bring adulation to the famous one then they aren’t doing themselves or anyone else any favours. Any attempt to knock that kind of activity down only feeds it though, because someone invested in their own superiority will see only trolling in the behaviour of people who do not like them. If a person is on an ego trip, then any attention paid to them, will feed it.

What to do then, if you wake up one morning and suspect that the desire to be seen a certain way has somehow taken over from the work of being a Druid? Go back to the trees. Back to the soil and the mud. Find a hilltop and be really, really small under the sky. Seek out the ancient dead and consider how long ago they lived, and step back into a more reasonable perspective on your life. I find it helps, at any rate.