Tag Archives: study

Ancestry and learning

I don’t know all of what was going on in my family, but I do know that my parents were both the unexpectedly clever children of families who didn’t expect much on that score.

Things are better now than they used to be. It used to be the case that if you were a working class kid and showed no great signs of learning potential, you’d be off to the factory, or down the mine or whatever the local default was, and no one would much bother about whether you could have done more with a bit of extra support.

To become educated, a working class kid had to be stand-out clever. They will have needed to learn quickly without being shown. I think this creates a legacy where the assumption is that if you aren’t fast and able to learn with almost no input, you aren’t clever. If you come from a family that has been told, and has been telling itself for generations that no one in it is clever, it’s really hard to get past that and you may have to be astoundingly clever to get taken seriously.

One of the many problems with this is that you don’t get to learn how to learn. When you hit the limits of your innate cleverness, there’s a high risk that you, and the people around you, will think that’s all you had. You won’t have the tools necessarily to get in and graft, either. Not knowing how to learn will confirm the sense of not being so clever after all. There’s not much scope for a way out from there.

We all learn in different ways and at different speeds, and while some of that can look more impressive upfront, it is no measure of potential, really. The stories passed down in our families will do a lot to shape how clever we think we are, and what our apparent ability to learn might mean. Getting beyond those stories to find out what you might truly be capable isn’t always easy, but it is worth the effort.

Learning to learn

I’ve recently dedicated myself to a fairly ambitious learning project, and it’s made me aware of a number of things I have going on around learning and intelligence. When it comes to other people learning I have a clear understanding that room to make mistakes is necessary to the process. However, when it comes to me I have this feeling that I should be able to see something once and then know it, or be able to do it perfectly thereafter. In reality, learning is a process, and it takes a while to get things to stick in your head. What I’ve learned about learning – as it applies to me – is clearly rubbish.

Cleverness is often measured in terms of speed – that’s inherent in taking exams. To get something quickly may be seen as evidence of being a good and clever learner, and it may seem to reflect well on the teacher. In practice, learning is just showing up and doing the work. It’s just time and effort – it helps if you have good resources and guidance, but even if you don’t, time and effort can get a lot done. Cleverness and speed, without determination and application, doesn’t lead to much.

To go from seeing to doing is a leap. It takes time to build body knowledge – that might mean your hands developing the muscle memory for the shape of a tune. It takes time to learn exactly how a specific sort of pen, or paint works. The odds are that on the first go, you won’t perform a dance move in the best possible way. It takes repetition to build insight, familiarity, understanding and to find out how best to do it as yourself. But apparently I think I’m supposed to be able to do everything perfectly at once.

This is a story I have been told. The consequence of this story is not that I feel clever when I get something immediately – because that almost never happens for me. It means I feel stupid when it takes me a few goes. I feel useless when I forget things I’ve been trying to learn. I feel inadequate. I’ve spent the last three weeks fighting these feelings, telling myself the things I would say to anyone who was my student: it’s ok to make mistakes, it’s part of the learning process. It takes time to really consolidate learning and properly embed it. You are doing ok, just keep going over this and you will get it. And, after three weeks, I have learned how to draw and read the characters of the Japanese Hiragana writing system. It’s not exactly an alphabet, it’s phonetic. It was all graft – there’s no innate skill here, no natural gift and that’s fine because learning is mostly about graft.

Intelligence isn’t about effortlessness, it is about being able to effectively apply what you know. Intelligence isn’t about magically knowing things no one has taught you. That’s simply not how anything works. It’s nice when something makes sense quickly, but that’s all it is. It isn’t a measure of anything. How fast you can take something and apply it effectively may be a measure of something, but it’s not the only measure.

Becoming a Druid by doing other things

I think it’s good to have a framework, and the time I’ve spent studying Druidry itself has given me some useful points of reference. However, I have a growing feeling that what makes a person a Druid is not the study of Druidry, but doing a whole host of other things. Increasingly, I see Druidry as an emergent property from approaching a whole array of subjects and practices with an open heart and mind, willing to be changed by them.

Living as close to nature as you can, will change you. Working with the seasons as you experience them will change you. Forming a relationship with your landscape, learning about what lives on it and making connections, will change you.

We can practice disciplines of the mind – philosophy, meditation, contemplation, gratitude, activism, prayer, and these experiences will impact on us. I think any study, any learning has a place here. By doing them, letting them permeate us, we become more than we were.

You can work with embodiment, in whatever way that makes sense for the body you have. Walking, wild swimming, sitting out, running, dancing, drumming. Any thoughtful interaction between body and world can be an incredible teacher. We can learn what to safely eat, how to grow plants, how to work with trees.

We can practice creativity in all its forms, and expose ourselves to the creativity of others, and to the creativity and history of our ancestors.

There’s more here to explore than any one person could do justice to in a single lifetime. And so each of us is free to follow the paths that appeal to us, to dig deep when we feel so moved. So long as we all have elements of wildness and civilization, embodiment and mind in our practices I think we’ll always find Druidry as an emergent property. It happens to us because we do the things. It lives in the doing, and in the way that acting in these various ways shapes our minds and bodies. It is not something to try and control, but something to open into and to allow to happen.

Druidry in a crisis

While I’m mostly going to take the Druid angle for this blog, it could equally be about parenting, or being an author, an artist, or learning to cook. The same broad things apply (I think) to all areas of human endeavour.

There are always setbacks. If you care about what you’re doing and how well you are doing it those setbacks can be brutal. The point of finding out how little we know about ancient Druids is a classic crisis moment for many. The ritual that is a depressing failure. The first time someone calls you out over what you believe and how you express it, the second time… Life experience at odds with spiritual expectation can give us crushing blows. There are a number of ways to go at this point.

You might put belief, including belief in your own rightness before everything else. That can leave people disturbingly at odds with reality. You might be so overwhelmed and distressed that you quit. As possible for parents as for Druids. Neither of these are good outcomes. All that exists on the other side, is getting in there and wrestling with the problem.

When we start anything, we tend to see the bits we’re naturally good at. I have a lot of bard skills, which gave me a mistaken degree of confidence in my ritual skills. It took me a while to learn how to take care of a circle; there were people skills I only later realised I needed. I think this is often the way of it. Only when things go awry do we start to see what we always needed to know but weren’t aware of. That can be a huge confidence blow. There is always more to learn and more to know, and a consciousness of that creates a good degree of insulation from the pain of hitting one of those setbacks. If you know there will be some, you can at least recognise it when it happens, and get on with coping rather than flailing about. It is often only when we start doing things that we get to see where our weaknesses are, and what we need to swot up on. There is no one way of being a Druid, a parent, an artist, so no one can tell you upfront what you ought to try and learn before you start.

That said, trying to learn something, anything, before you start confers significant advantages. Not least, when you hit a crisis, you’ll have some idea where to go to find what you need for moving on. You’ll be more aware of the myriad ways in which other people are doing things, so you won’t expect one right answer, either. That helps. A knowledge base isn’t the same as wisdom, but it is useful!

Sometimes, natural talent is the most destructive thing to live with. If all the evidence says that you are naturally brilliant at a thing, it won’t occur to you to study and craft, to consciously try and develop that. It’s so easy to coast when you think you have natural genius. As far as I can tell, there is only so far anyone can get with that coasting. For some it’s a long way, but always finite. The further you go, riding the wave of innate brilliance, the harder it is when you hit the wall that is your natural limit. The person who expects to have to work, study and practice will get plenty of small bumps along the way, but they tend to be more survivable, and less traumatic.

For aspiring writers, the first crash is usually the first novel. Either unfinished, or eventually loathed, the first novel teaches a person exactly how much they do not know about writing a book. Usually it’s too short, there weren’t enough ideas, its clichéd and overtly a fantasy-autobiography. Doing it can make apparent that you haven’t found a voice yet, don’t have a style, don’t know about pace, or how to handle perspectives or a hundred other things. Hours of work, for something you want to burn. I’ve done it, and seen people do it, and convince themselves that it means they can’t be an author. The awful first book is actually a rite of passage. If you’ve already written a lot of short fics, or poetry, or worked in another form, or have the nightmare of a natural gift, you might skip this, but there’s much to be said for going through it.

This is one of the reasons focusing on superficial measurements of success doesn’t seem like a good idea to me. What you learn about how you need to develop is more important than word counts, or nice robes. There is much to be said for feeling uneasy about what you’ve done and having to go back and find out about all the things you didn’t know. Sometimes, it is good and helpful to fail. The first rejections, the first gaffs and humiliations, the rituals that go wrong because you didn’t know and hadn’t thought, the people who get angry, the mistakes made… these things teach us. They remind us that failure is always an option and that there is always more to strive for. They remind us to try and be patient with other people who fail, and never to get comfortable imagining that we have it all sussed. We never will.

The joys of ignorance

I’m not talking about the comfort value of wilful ignorance here, but something else entirely. Partly inspired by Red’s recent post – http://theanimistscraft.wordpress.com/2012/09/20/liminal-places-and-studentship/and partly by the John Michael Greer book I’m reading. I’ve found that every time I learn something, if I’m paying attention then it tends to flag up more possibilities, things I don’t know, questions to ask and so forth. My belief is that the potential for knowledge is therefore infinite. One of the surest signs that I’ve not been paying attention, is if I start to feel like I really know and understand a thing, or a person, situation etc. There are often more questions to ask.

In many ways, feeling like I know something is not a happy place to be. Where do you go next? It was always my problem with games, for example, that once I understand how to play and what it takes to win, my interest in playing or even winning pretty much dries up. I find the same thing with people – once I’ve heard all of someone’s stories for the third time, I start to look around and wander off. Some of this is probably laziness on my part, but as my friend Bill says, there are people who turn out to have hidden shallows. Sometimes, there isn’t any more to know, as with really drab board games. I’ve also been caught in situations where failure to understand has held my interest, when the more sensible option would have been to recognise that a person was just bat shit crazy and therefore not making any sense and that there was no discovery to make.

The experience of learning and discovering is one that I love, but the best thing is this: When a great vista of the unknown opens up before me. It’s like getting to the top of a mountain and finding there’s a whole new country on the far side. These are wild moments. Of course then follows the climbing down and slogging through the details, which tends to be more like work and not as numinous, but it’s good too.

There are always moments in any journey when it feels like you’re not going anywhere. I’ve had a couple of years now of resettling in this landscape, shifting from leading rituals to being solitary in my practice. I’ve learned new way of working with and relating to the land and I’ve spent a lot of time working on the space inside my head, but there’s been a growing feeling of lost direction. What is my Druidry, these days? Where am I going? What am I doing? And then, the John Michael Greer book showed me the view from a mountain top. It’s just been a glimpse, and I know if I want to get a proper look at that country, I’m going to need to do some work. But I know it’s there. The rush of ignorance, the realisation that there’s so much I don’t know, so much to be done, this is a very happy thing for me.

Nature as teacher

Having no core texts, practitioners of the Pagan religions will often talk about nature being our book, our teacher, our source. The trouble is that like any other book, how we let ourselves be taught and what we choose to understand, is very much down to us. I believe in nature as teacher, but to learn it’s important to understand the limitations, and know where the pitfalls are. If all we want to see is our own belief, prejudice or assumption reflected back at us, we can very easily find it, just like the people who can find a biblical quote to justify anything.

For a start ‘nature’ is very diverse. It covers not only all the living things, but the seas, sky and land as well. What makes perfect sense for one is a nonsense for another. We can take inspiration from the solid, steadfast nature of rock, or from the shifting, unpredictable nature of water. We can learn from both, they are equally valid and real, and they will tell us totally different things.

For many urban pagans, coming out to a natural space is a relatively unusual experience and may well only happen for the festivals. Standing in a beautiful bit of landscape with a bunch of other pagans, enjoying the beauty of the day, may feel like communing with nature. And this is a good thing, it is soul nourishing and of great benefit. People should get out more, not just pagan folk. But at the same time there’s a danger in taking that happy, pretty space as being ‘nature’. The ritual is peaceful, the trees are lovely. You stay long enough to see something, and you go. You miss the details, the drama, the bad weather. You don’t see the teenagers tearing down saplings for fun, or the hunting of one creature by another. You don’t see anything freeze to death in winter or a badger starve because the summer was too dry and there were no worms. Taking snapshots of the pretty bits, we can miss the complexity.

Landscapes, seas, trees, plants and sky can seem peaceful. Maggots in a dead bird less so. Which lessons are we choosing to learn? Are we watching the mice who eat their own young, or the cute lambs in the field? Are we seeing the moment, or the lifespan? Are we seeing a solitary thing, or its place in a wider pattern?

On the flip side if all you perceive of nature is the roadside slaughter of innocents, the hunting, the sudden death and short, brutal lives then you can learn that the world is a harsh, bitter and unjust place. You can learn fear, grief, and the pointlessness of everything.

To take ‘nature’ as your teacher means the whole thing, in as many different ways as you can find. It calls for actively seeking out and exploring many different aspects of the natural world. Not by imagining them, or watching them on the telly, but through active and conscious engagement. If you fixate on one thing, you lose that precious balance and any scope for seeing a bigger picture. Balance, systems, context and relationship are all important druid concepts, not to be overlooked in favour of too much specialisation, or too much skimming of surfaces.

To learn from nature is to learn to judge things on their own terms. What was disaster for my coot family was a happy snack for the passing gull. Neither creature has more or less right than the other to exist. What gives advantage to one species may undermine the viability of another. Cinnabar moths are very pretty, the ragwort they entirely depend on is poisonous to horses. Do we keep or destroy the ragwort? We have the power to choose. What is nature teaching us to do here?

I think the only easy conclusion to draw is that there are no easy conclusions. Nature is complex, full of subtle interdependencies, unlikely bedfellows. What you see on the surface is never the whole story. Two miles downstream the implications could be totally different. What might seem pretty today could be the makings of tomorrow’s disaster. Nature teaches us to look deeper and wider, to think, to question, and to accept a huge variety of ways of being, doing, living and dying. And more. But we can’t learn it hypothetically. Only in experiencing and contemplating for ourselves can we be taught anything by the natural world.