Tag Archives: spiritual

Having a physical daily practice

The general wisdom with any spiritual path is that you should have a daily practice. It’s how you make your path part of your life. Most things improve if you keep doing them, and what we do a bit of every day is what defines us – far more than any occasional, dramatic things will.

One of the things that has happened for me with the Druidry is that I’ve embedded it in my life to a degree where I can’t always see it. I live my path. I live it in the everyday green choices I make, in my relationship with my landscape, in how I deploy language, in my relationships with people… It colours everything I do, but at the same time there’s not much I can easily point at and say ‘this is my Druidry’. I’ve had patches of wondering where my Druidry had got to and whether I had slipped out of it. It’s an odd state to be in.

One of the most direct benefits of having a regular spiritual practice is that you get to feel like a spiritual person with a regular practice. The more you embed your beliefs in your life, the less visible they become and in some ways that’s a good thing, but it can also take something away. If your work really is your prayer, if you take a meditative mindset into everything, if there is no hard line any more between what is sacred and what isn’t… you may lose that sense of your own spirituality. 100% Pagan may make it impossible to see the wood for the trees.

In the last few months, I’ve taken up Tai Chi – in no small part because I wanted to add something to my life that I can do every day. Being a specific physical practice, I can’t embed it in my life by any other means. I have to do Tai Chi to do Tai Chi. I spend time moving and standing most days, and I like how this has changed things for me. It’s a good physical discipline and I’m benefiting from that – which is also a way of honouring nature in my body, so, more stealth Druidry! I’ve a long standing interest in Taoism and the Tao Te Ching so this is a body meditation that connects with it. Tai Chi also functions as a martial art, but I’m not especially exploring that side at the moment. I’m studying balance and how I load my joints, slowing myself and seeking a soft, flowing motion.

The more successfully you do the work, the less visible it becomes to you – this is the way of it for most aspects of a spiritual path. Most of us find affirmation in the more self-announcing parts of what we do, and this is one of the great benefits of community ritual. One of the good things about doing something physical in this way is that it remains self announcing. You have to practice it and in doing it every day you get to remind yourself that you are indeed the sort of person who does such things.

I’m aware that such an ‘ego-led’ approach to what we do and why might sound wholly unspiritual. But at the same time, I think being in denial about why we may be motivated to take up spiritual things in the first place just leads to a different kind of self importance. A secretive and dishonest kind of self importance that does no good to anyone. Best to be honest about these things. We take up spiritual work because we want to be spiritual people and we want to feel that way about ourselves. When we do it well, what we do becomes less visible to us, and we may well need things that help us feel the same excitement of a novice.

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What is compassion?

Compassion, as a spiritual virtue, is something I’ve only ever aspired to, and not with much hope of being able to achieve it. As a spiritual concept, it comes up in many religions – Hindu, Jain and Buddhist thinking explores compassion as something to practice, while Judaism, Christianity and Islam tend to see it as the territory of God. Either way, it’s not easy work.

Compassion comes from the person feeling it. There are no transactions here, no earning the right to be treated compassionately. To be truly compassionate is not to judge. I tend to judge. It means what I do is better framed as kindness, or sympathy because it is partial and I know I cannot extend it to everyone. How you manifest your compassion may well depend on judgement, but the initial recognition of a fellow suffering human does not.

I would like to be able to see everyone as containing a sacred spark, as equally worthy, as all deserving love and compassion. I’ve thought about what kinds of qualities I would need to develop to move towards this state of being. It calls for a vast capacity to love and accept and to recognise our shared condition even in people who do the worst things. I feel very strongly that as soon as we’re talking about the limits of compassion, we aren’t actually talking about compassion any more.

As someone who isn’t compassionate, I am able and inclined to get angry about how I see this term used in some quarters. It is a popular word with people who wish to be seen as spiritual. Too easily, it becomes a demand for other people to appease them. Why are you not treating me with more compassion? It’s an easy knockback if, for example, you’ve just been called out for something. It tends to be people with privilege in the first place who feel entitled to demand compassion from others. It also tends to be people with privilege who practice compassion towards themselves – especially when someone has asked them to do something difficult, uncomfortable or otherwise unappealing to them. I can’t help you right now, I am practicing compassion towards myself.

Compassion towards self is such an attractive mask to slide over the face of total selfishness. It’s the mask that proclaims virtue while hiding the least attractive and least spiritual motives. These are people I usually fail to find compassion for.

I think compassion is something to aspire to. In the meantime, empathy is a good thing to try and develop. Sympathy can run too close to pity, but when we empathise we start to see how we could have ended up in the same place. How easy it is to fall through the gaps, or be led astray, or let the least helpful part of yourself grab the steering wheel. When we can see that we all have the scope to do both wonderful and terrible things, it is easier, I suspect, to cultivate compassion. Those times when we can’t do it will be able to teach us a lot about who and how we are, and what we fear in ourselves. It’s not people who have evolved beyond their worst impulses who may be best able to practice compassion. It may well be the people who have faced their own darkness so that they do not have to fear it in others. I’m not at all sure, but I think it’s worth pondering.


Daydreaming

So many self-help, spiritual and magical practices tell us to focus on our intentions to get what we want. Will your desires into the world. Positive think your way into manifesting what you want. But how do you know what you want? Willpower with no real direction can’t give you much. At the same time, those sources will also encourage you to be mindful and live in the moment, not worrying about the future or regretting the past.

For me, daydreaming has been a deliberate process for most of my life. I imagine things, and I play with them, trying out the variables, looking from different angles, considering possible trajectories. Most of my fiction emerges from this deliberate daydreaming.

By revisiting the past and examining regrets, and thinking about how things might have been different, I develop a better understanding of myself. I learn lessons that I can apply in the future. I daydream a lot about the future, and this allows me to figure out what my priorities are. It helps me see how to move towards the things I want, and how to avoid old patterns I want to change. It can help me identify faulty thinking in the present. Daydreaming about how things could be helps me identify things right now that don’t suit me and need to change.

My daydreaming is unstructured. I don’t approach it with discipline or with allotted time frames. I drift there when I need to. It doesn’t separate me from where I am, either. I can daydream while walking and still see a great deal of wildlife and feel very engaged. I think this is in part because I know when I’m doing it. I don’t wander off in some kind of trance, I trance very deliberately from where and when I am.

Our fantasies and desires are a big part of us, and often have the steering wheel as we navigate life’s journey. If we hide them away so they only happen unconsciously, we don’t always know what’s driving us. If we make room for them, we learn. Some of those desires aren’t the most noble, some may be toxic to us. They may hold us to ridiculous standards or damagingly unrealistic expectations. They may undermine our joy in what we have now, if we let them.

A healthy relationship with our desires, where those desires are allowed space and can be explored, stops them from being unconscious motivators. That makes space for better choices. It is better to know and acknowledge our most unappealing inclinations. It pays to look at where those urges would take us and whether we want to go there. It can be cathartic, too, mentally playing out the jealousy, anger, resentment – it can help let it go, without letting it interfere in life in other ways. If I let myself see me wanting to be horrible, I can deal with it. Sometimes it’s best to treat your unconscious a bit like a toddler – just because it’s quiet doesn’t mean everything is fine. Leave it unsupervised and it may try to glue the cat to the inside of the washing machine…

 


Presence and process

Spiritual activities call for presence. They ask us to be fully there, in the moment, mind quiet, heart open, totally engaged. In practice, this can be difficult to achieve. My experience of running rituals, vigils, and meditation groups, as well as my own firsthand experience suggests that presence is a challenge sometimes.

When you turn up to the thing – be that public ritual or private practice, your mind may be full of stuff. Issues from the day, worries for the next day, deeper ongoing problems, things you need to remember, things you regret… the conventional wisdom is that to do the spiritual stuff, you need to switch this off. The older I get, the less convinced I am of this.

The noise in your head probably isn’t trivial. It likely pertains to the real things going on in your life. Turning the noise off changes nothing, solves nothing. It’s a neat skill to be able to do it, and it can be handy in the short term, but doesn’t help in the longer term.

Our lives can be very fast, information dense, over stimulating, problem laden and stressful. We need to deal with that. It is easy enough to do – it just requires some time when you aren’t massively stimulated or required to interact, and you can unpack your brain. Let those thoughts run. Investigate them. Find solutions where you can. Write down things that need doing. Work out what you can safely let go of.

I do my best processing either walking or sitting. I do my least helpful processing if I have to do it in bed at night. If the issues are too large and emotional to tackle directly, I process them by drawing, or dancing, or singing. I have learned that hefty positive experiences need as much processing time as apparent problems. If I don’t make deliberate space for processing, my head is a mess and I get stressed and don’t sleep well. If I make deliberate time to process things, my mind clears naturally, and it much easier to find the mental space for engagement with other things. Not just spiritual things, either. Life is easier when you clear your brain out regularly.

It doesn’t feel very spiritual to have a head full of the stuff that was on twitter, what the cat did, why the colleague said that and what to cook for tea. But this is life, and life is not separate from spirituality and not the enemy of it. The problem is not that we’re stuck in the mundane stuff, the problem is that we’re not giving ourselves enough time to deal with the mundane stuff properly. It merits having time spent on it. Lessons can be learned, plans made, answers and strategies figured out.

If you find calming your mind to meditate difficult, consider that you may need more processing time, and try doing that instead. It will confer the benefits of a calmer body and a clearer head. Developing a clearer view of our lived experiences brings all kinds of gifts, and will in time help a person slow down, cope with stress and make better choices.


Humble, or humbled

When people announce themselves as being humble, I’m always put in mind of Uriah Heap (the Dickens character, not the band). Uriah Heap claims humbleness, he plays at humbleness as a way to mask his ambition. It’s a lot like claiming to be funny, or spiritual, or clever – when you have to tell people what your innate qualities are, the odds are you’re ascribing qualities to yourself that you do not possess.

Humble is a Christian virtue that goes with being meek and modest. It’s a virtue that the wealthy particularly appreciate in the poor – we should know our place, accept it and shut up about it. We should not imagine we deserve any better. Humbleness is about having no great sense of self worth, or self importance.

Being humbled can mean being taken down a peg or two. To humble someone else is to crush their pride, put them in their place (or the place you think they merit). This is how dictionaries tend to define being humbled, and it’s not an attractive proposition.

However, I’ve also seen and experienced it working in another way, and it’s this other possibility that I find particularly interesting. To be humbled by an experience that might have functioned as an ego boost for others. Being awarded, celebrated or picked out in some other way. Having the value of your work highlighted and put into context. Some people respond to this by feeling honoured, but also feeling humbled. There can be all kinds of reasons for this – not feeling you deserve it, or having done a small thing with big consequences. It can be deeply moving having someone tell you how what you did impacted on them.

It happens fairly frequently with the blog, that someone contacts me to say why a specific post really helped them. Usually I have not written the post for anyone. I don’t write them imagining they should all have the power to change someone’s life – I’d be too frightened to start, most mornings. I write about what I’ve got and I try to make it useful. If that turns out to be disproportionally useful, I feel like something has gone through me to the other person that was not wholly of my making. I feel like a delivery method for something bigger. I can’t own the effect. It’s the same when a song or a poem deeply affects someone else in an unexpected way, and it’s there as a possibility with all forms of creativity.

You make stuff and you hope it will have some kind of impact, but a part of how that impact happens is down to the person encountering what you made. When the work proves to have significant worth, it can be impossible for the creator to feel that as their own, and you end up with this strange emotional response where you are delighted by what’s happened, maybe surprised or even unnerved by it, and also humbled. Having an unexpected impact on someone else can be a little scary – you have an effect you didn’t really plan and don’t quite feel responsible for. It’s an experience that can give you power with one hand while taking it away with the other.

In spirituality, we find all kinds of opportunities to be humbled. To be awed by what’s bigger than us. To see the enormities of life and death, the vastness of everything else and the smallness of us. The bigger we are in our own minds, the less room we have for the sacred, the numinous, the world. Sometimes we need to recognise our smallness so that we can better appreciate how much bigger things outside us are. Anyone who can face the powerful forces of nature and not feel small, and humbled and put in perspective by that, is probably missing something. There’s nothing wrong with feeling small in the face of the wider world. It’s when it is required as a class status that there are problems.


Judging well

Being judgemental is something that tends to be discouraged on spiritual paths. We often hear that we shouldn’t judge each other, and should be more accepting of each other. In many contexts, this has merit, but judgement, like all things, is complicated. If we reduce it to a handful of simple instructions, many good things can be lost to us.

Judgement is a concept that is often framed as a way of putting someone else down. To judge is to criticise, to find fault or insufficiency or to apportion blame. However, this is just one set of options.

What happens when we go out into the world determined to seek out the very best? When we look around us to judge what is most beautiful, most valuable, most worthy? When we do that so that we can follow through by supporting it?

We make judgements all the time about how to use our time, energy and resources. Those decisions may not be especially conscious or deliberate, and may be driven by habit or cultural pressures. When we judge deliberately, we become able to invest deliberately.

If we pause to scrutinise what we do in our spare time – to take a not too contentious example – then all kinds of things may emerge. It is quite normal to relax by flopping down in front of the telly. It is quite normal to spend a lot of time scrolling through social media. It’s when you start judging your down time for what it gives you that you learn who you are and what you most benefit from. I find a little social media time can be highly beneficial to me, but if I keep doing it through lack of any better ideas, I suffer. I benefit greatly from time spent crafting. I do better watching a single film in an evening than whatever a television had on it. When I judge, I can pick the best of what’s on offer, and act on that. Other people’s judgments will naturally yield different results.

I have only so much time in a day, only so much energy. When I make deliberate judgements about what’s good and what’s best, I can invest that time and energy more carefully. I can decide what and who to support to best effect, rather than having my energy dissipate in dribs and drabs. I can judge what does me most good, and what does me no good at all. I can judge where I am most effective, and where I don’t make much odds and can act accordingly. By being really judgemental, I make myself more effective.

If I love something, then I’ll throw myself into supporting it. That might be about a specific book, or an author, a musician, a cause, a community… Judging opens the way to action. At the same time, I don’t waste my time and energy on things that I judge unfavourably. I move away, I quietly let go, I invest no energy. That something isn’t for me doesn’t render it valueless. It just means there’s nothing I can usefully do or gain from contact. There’s no point squandering resources over drama around that.

‘Don’t judge’ can sometimes be a kind option, but it can also be a recipe for being bland and non-descript, and having no direction or values. It can be a means of encouraging us simply to hide from ourselves the judgements we make. If you are going to judge, better to do so consciously. Harness your judgement as a means to focus on what is good, and it becomes a powerful tool for your journey rather than a problem you have to overcome.


Do not ask what the universe can do for you…

Ask what you can do for the bits of the universe you encounter. This is a line of thought inspired by a recent comment on the blog (thank you). Rather than looking at how magic answers can be persuaded to come to us, why not look at how to be magic answers, for other people and for the planet?

Of course this depends on being sufficiently resourced, but many of the things I’m poised to advocate don’t require a person to be silly amounts of privileged. When we spend all our time asking the universe/the gods/angels/crystal dolphins to help us out, we may feel that we are loved by the universe etc. But we may also be teaching ourselves to feel powerless.

Give praise. It’s an easy way of uplifting people who are doing good things. Self esteem courses recommend praise giving because it empowers the giver, too.

Give away things you don’t need. Nothing creates a feeling of abundance like giving stuff away – so long as you can afford it. Even if it’s very occasional, passing something along gives a real sense of power, and solves a problem for someone else.

Listen. There’s a lot of distress that can be eased just by hearing, acknowledging and witnessing people. It costs time and emotional labour, but if we all spared a little of that, the world would be a kinder place.

Every charity out there could do with more volunteer support than it gets. The same is true for pretty much every volunteer organisation out there. The scope to be someone else’s miracle is vast.

A kind word, a small deed of assistance, a gesture of respect and friendship – these things can and do save lives. A little bit of taking care of each other goes a long way towards producing miraculous results.

Make things of beauty.

Speak up for that which has no voice – for creatures, landscapes and ecosystems. Help amplify people who are not heard. Education is essential for solving most problems.

Don’t be afraid to stand out, to go against the flow, or dispute the consensus.

It’s just a small flavour, not an exhaustive list. If you believe in magic – well, magic works better when you give it something tangible it can latch onto. If you believe that like attracts like, then what you do has to be in that equation. If you believe in karma, then your actions in the world have got to matter. If you think the universe loves everyone, be the vector by which some of that love gets out into the world. Be the change. Be the magic you want to see happening.

Personal privilege is not a measure of how spiritual we are. It’s not the advantages you have that count, it’s what you choose to do with them. And I promise, if you want to feel magical and powerful, then doing some discernible good will give you that far more than any ego massage ever could.


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.


Forest Rain – A review

Michael Forester, the author of Forest Rain is a facebook friend, and offered me his book to review. It’s an unusual piece of spiritual writing, mixing poetry, short story and autobiography.

I’ll admit that in the introduction I had a brief panic as Michael talked about life plans. I’m very much a maybeist, but I have problems with the life plan idea because it makes everything feel so predetermined. Why bother playing it out if you’ve already worked out the plot? I worry that it can be used for victim blaming and avoiding responsibility for others. But, it turns out that the book goes many places and barely touches on this again, so I was very glad that I kept reading.

The author has evidently spent a lot of time exploring different religions, and has no qualms about using terms from many paths. I enjoyed the eclecticism, which seems to come from a place of appreciation, not simple cherry-picking. I suspect Michael of having maybeist leanings himself, happy to explore what any path has to offer, willing to learn from anything and to say maybe to any substantial idea that comes his way.

Poetry is often the best way of getting metaphysical without getting bogged down in it, and I enjoyed the poems in the book.

The autobiographical content is fascinating if you enjoy seeing the world through someone else’s eyes – which I do! The author is one of the wealthy, privileged few who has come to see how empty that kind of materialism is, and has largely turned his back on it. Fascinating to see that process from the other side, having always been a pauper myself. Much of the writing explores the kind of life experience many of us will encounter from middle age onwards – the death of parents, the loss of physical capabilities, the changing nature of relationships. The author simply presents his experiences and reflections much of the time. Some sections are written to someone – and as the reader it’s interesting to see how you position yourself in response to this.

I enjoyed the book. I think the intended reader is someone in the second half of their life who may be questioning the choices they made in the first half of their life and looking for something with more depth and substance. It’s the ideal gift for someone showing signs of spiritual crisis, especially people with no strong religious affiliations. Being a broadly spiritual book, it is pretty accessible regardless of what the reader may believe.

More about the book here – http://michaelforester.co.uk/books/forest-rain


Looking hard at compassion

‘Compassion’ is one of those words easily chucked about that does a good line in making you sound spiritual and enlightened. I think it’s always worth poking anything that can be wafted about easily to make sure we’re doing what we think we’re doing.

Is the compassion something that lives in our heads, or is it translating into action? We can feel compassion for the hungry, the homeless, etc, but if it’s just about our feels, it does nothing to alleviate suffering. Telling ourselves we are feeling compassion may be a way of letting ourselves off the hook, assuaging guilt without actually doing anything useful.

The ‘I’m feeling so compassionate towards you right now’ stance can also be a way of disempowering the other. Here I am, all big, spiritual, shiny and wise feeling compassion for you because clearly you need it. Smug compassion can be more about making ourselves feel bigger than the one who needs our compassion. If it takes that shape, it does no good at all. Compassion can be a re-framing of pity, and pity only drags people down, it never lifts them.

‘I’m being compassionate towards myself’ can be a fantastically effective way of re-branding selfishness. It can be used to justify self interest and to protect us from having to look at the things which might otherwise make us feel uncomfortable. Ironically the people who most need to practice self care are the ones most likely to be hauling themselves over the coals, and the ones who can easily announce their compassion for themselves are, from what I’ve seen, the ones who have least need for it. And if you’re the kind of overthinker who perpetually tries to second guess their own motives, sorry about this paragraph. There’s nothing wrong with being kind to ourselves, unless we do that as a way of not being responsible or honourable.

I admit that if I encounter someone who talks a lot about how compassionate they are, I become rapidly sceptical. I’m interested in people talking about how to practice compassion effectively, how to do it more and better, but that’s got a very different swing to it. I’m also much more interested in people talking about what they do that helps, in whatever way, at whatever level. How do we make things better? How can we be kinder to each other and take better care of each other? Not by poncing about announcing how very, very compassionate we are, that’s for sure.

(And yes, if I was a better sort of person I might know how to feel compassion for the people who have to wave the idea of their own compassion about in this attention seeking way, but I don’t. )