Tag Archives: thinking

How to change everything

Our thoughts and feelings are malleable. Given  enough time and effort, anyone can change any aspect of how they think and feel. It is my considered opinion that our first responses are most likely to be what we’ve absorbed unconsciously, and that your most authentic self is the person you deliberately choose to be. So, some notes on doing that. This isn’t in depth, it’s just an attempt to lay out the territory.

Firstly you have to notice what you are thinking and feeling. This is easier said than done. Check in with yourself, ask how you feel, pay attention. Try and notice your thoughts and responses. Focus on areas of your life where you aren’t happy about how things go for you.

Secondly, interrogate those responses. Sit down with them, examine them and ask where they come from. Why do you think as you do? Whose voice is that in your head? Where do those emotions come from?

This is also the work that allows us to identify where our cultures have fed us racism, sexism and other prejudices. This is how we find what privilege is telling us, or where we carry ancestral wounds.  This is not easy work.

Changing how you think is fairly easy. We can add new ideas to the mix. We can even break out of long held patterns of thought if we try to. There are tools for this – CBT is relevant here. Changing how we feel tends to be slower, and harder. It’s best to tackle the thinking and let that shift the emotions over time. You can practice thinking differently – write yourself affirmations, or little mantras, or statements of intent. Do some spells. If your thinking isn’t helping you, it can be changed. You can go to a therapist, or a mutual support group or find resources online. You can take control of your thoughts.

When we start acting on these changes, we build feedback loops and after the first few rounds it starts to get easier. It’s a process and it takes time to change yourself.

If you do this work, beware of toxic positivity. Learning to be more loving and patient is not the answer if you are being abused. Gratitude over things that are harming you, is not a terribly good thing. There’s a lot to be said for having people to talk to about what you experience and the changes you want to make. If your circumstances are awful, there is only so much you can do by changing your thinking – really what you need to do is change your circumstances. If you can’t do that – as is often the way with illness, you are allowed to be angry about it. Hold whatever headspace really works for you.

This week, in the midst of falling apart, it became apparent to me that I have some unhealthy ideas around the reasonableness of people punishing me, and how I should respond to being punished. I’m going to need some time to unpick that. But, I’ve seen it in action, I’ve seen what it does to me, and I’ve seen how I can change. Now, I just have to do the work.


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.


Challenging anxious thoughts

When anxiety rolls in, it announces that everything will be awful. I have a powerful imagination, and my anxiety hijacks this and gets me to imagine multiple terrible outcomes for everything. This is exhausting, and I am really good at frightening myself. For some time now, I’ve been trying to find ways of dealing with this.

I have done some CBT work, and the problem there is that it assumes your anxiety is irrational. My anxiety is not irrational, it is absolutely rooted in my life experiences. The things that come up for me when anxiety kicks in are based firmly on stuff that has happened. Treating it as irrational reduces my self-confidence and has me second guessing myself and that’s not useful. Consequently, stage one of anxiety management for me, is to listen to that anxiety and to acknowledge that it is a perfectly reasonable thing to feel. When I do that it becomes easier to then ask ‘but is it relevant right now?’

I do risk assessments. I try and look as carefully as I can at the situation to decide how applicable my anxious feelings are. Often this helps me at least consider that it may not be terrible. Sometimes I decide that my anxiety is right and that I should get out. At times, my anxious thinking does have a protective aspect to it, and this is something I have no desire to lose.

Sometimes, I can’t tell on reflection whether the anxiety is well-founded or not. Often when dealing with other people, I just don’t have enough information. When dealing with people, I’ve decided that one key question to ask is ‘do I think they will treat me kindly?’ I don’t need everyone to get everything absolutely right for me, but in anxious situations, the care of another person can be a game changer. The person who can say no gently, and with respect isn’t going to do me serious harm. Can I trust a person’s kindness? When I’ve concluded that the answer is ‘yes’ and been proved right, it’s been powerful and transformative stuff. The only thing I need to trust in another human being is their kindness.

I now also challenge myself to try and think about best outcomes as well as worst ones. It helps me not get into obsessive over-thinking about terrible things. It can provide useful information as I risk assess a situation. It helps me see when things really are moving in the right direction. A good outcome can be hard to spot if all you’ve got is disaster thinking. Imagining what the best someone might do would look like helps me open up possibilities that anxiety would have shut down.

I want to keep some aspects of my anxious thinking as part of my tool set. I know it helps me stay safe. I don’t want to give my anxiety the steering wheel, or have it dominate how I think about people and situations. I want to hold room for new and different things to happen, and where I’ve been able to do that, there have been powerful responses from other people that really change things for me.


Contaminated headspace

How many things need thinking about in a day? Meals and family time tables, the laundry, social commitments, other people’s needs and timetables… It’s an issue I first became aware of a while ago through a feminist blog. Like emotional labour, this kind of holding all the things in your head is work that falls disproportionately to women. I raised it at the time with the chaps of my household, and we changed some things.

However, headspace contamination is also a work issue for me. It means trying to plot social media strategies in my time off. It is writing blog posts in my head when I wake up in the morning, and things of that ilk. Sorting out the way in which my own poor boundaries leave me with an over busy head has been an issue. The over busy head does not rest well, stresses a lot, and doesn’t have space for wonder or imagination all too often.

I replaced my never ending to-do list with a diary. I noticed (thank you other bloggers who helped me see this) that a to-do list easily becomes a thing to beat yourself up with. With a diary, I have to think carefully about what I’m going to do when, and it is easier to budget in time for non-workish things too. I don’t overload my days, and at the end of the day I’ve usually worked through the list, so it helps my morale. When I get an idea, rather than obsessing over it, I write it down for the day I’m going to tackle it. It’s very rare now that I try and write blog posts in my head.

I’ve put down work that doesn’t suit me. The things I do well, I seldom have to sweat over. I need small patches of time here and there to reflect, ponder and speculate about my work, but I don’t need to do it every day, mostly I can crack on. Jobs where the remit wasn’t clear enough or where I wasn’t a natural match at all have had me trying really hard to overcome that. I hate doing a job badly. It took me a long time to recognise that if all I do is bang my head against a thing, it is better to put that thing down and move on. There’s no shortage of things I could be doing, I need not do things that tie my brain in knots and leave me feeling low and exhausted.

Clear communication is a good antidote to contaminated headspace as well. No second guessing, no dances of imply and infer, just straight, clear, expression and open negotiation. Increasingly, I’m not willing to invest in people who need to make every social exchange into a complicated set of manoeuvres. Intellectual hide and seek is not my idea of fun. Emotional snakes and ladders I can cheerfully miss. If I know where I am with people, I don’t get into wearying speculation.

Taking control of my headspace has been a process, but as I get better at it, more time and energy becomes available to me. It also becomes apparent as to who and what is a good use of my time, and what just sucks the life out of me to very little effect. Yes, I can use meditation in short bursts to quieten my mind, but it is a good deal more effective to tackle the busy issues at a life level, and save my meditation time for more creative and soul nurturing things.


The logic of emotion

We tend to think of emotion as inherently irrational, and thinking as holding the scope for logic and reason. However, emotion is basically body chemistry. It is a series of chemical events in response to whatever’s going on and if we knew all the details, we could no doubt express emotion as chemical equations.

Many things impact on our emotions – our blood sugar, circadian rhythms, exposure to sunlight, our physical health, events we experience etc and of course what we think about those experiences. There’s a straightforwardness to this. A person who has gone too long without food, a person who is too cold and wet, will feel lousy.

However, rather than taking our emotions at face value, and dealing with them, we tend to get our minds involved. Often, the impulse is to blame someone else and take out negative feelings on them. The low blood sugar becomes ‘you never listen to me’ or somesuch. Good experiences can leave us with all kinds of crazy stories about worth, meaning, and entitlement.

Unlike our emotions, our minds are capable of incredible, creative irrationality. We can imagine and wonder. We look for explanations, patterns, causes, and we can be persuaded that correlation is causality. We can be persuaded of all kinds of illogical, unreasonable, unsubstantiated things. By way of evidence for this, I offer you social media, fake news, and rather a large percentage of religious activity. We think our minds are rational, but we’re persuaded by emotive fact bending, by blame and shame, hate and anger, the desire to get one back against some imagined infringement. We don’t think logically.

Emotions are like weather systems – not always good, or useful, but a physical reality caused by complex influences. There is a logic to them. We have the means to change our internal weather, and the choice of what meaning to apply to it. If we treat our emotions like weather, we can take them seriously (sun hat or wellies today?) while recognising that none of them are permanent. They are the truth of our body existing in the world, they are not inclined to lie to us, although we can develop weird feedback loops if the mind gets too involved.

Treat the mind as something with the potential for irrationality, and things change. The assumption that an apparent line of logic proves something, becomes a good deal less convincing. The interplay between mind and emotion becomes more visible. If we ignore what our emotions are trying to tell us and let our minds make up explanatory stories, we can end up in all kinds of muddles.

Sometimes, it’s just indigestion. Sometimes it’s just that there hasn’t been enough sun lately.


How’s the Water?

There’s a lovely cartoon out there of two young fish swimming past an old fish, and the old fish asks ‘how’s the water?’ and the younger fish are confused. That which seems normal is bloody difficult to spot.

There are a great many problems that are difficult to tackle if you haven’t figured out what the water is. The beliefs and assumptions we carry. Our sense of what is acceptable, the things we’ve had to become used to. If being in pain is the water, then noticing it in a way that makes it possible to do differently is essential to change things. The same is true for anxiety. If you’ve settled into a place where fear is normal, noticing how fear acts on you and what might alleviate it, is surprisingly difficult.

If our water is the belief that we are utterly good people, we may not be able to recognise when our behaviour is hurting someone else.

So, how do you figure out what you’re swimming in? You have to be prepared to discover something you might not like, and face up to it. You have to be willing to change. If you go into this looking for affirmation that you don’t need to make any changes, you can’t do this kind of work.

Clues to the nature of your water will come from the differences you have with others. Things you say that other people seem to struggle with. Things you do that don’t get the results you expect. Bits of your life that plain aren’t working. Anything that inexplicably hurts, frustrates, annoys you or makes you anxious is worth a look. If you know why you feel as you do, leave that area of your life out of it, as likely it can’t tell you much. Who winds you up for no obvious reason? Who makes you feel insecure? Who are you itching to take down? Who are you afraid of, or jealous of?

When things aren’t working for us, it is often because we have stories, no longer relevant coping mechanisms, or other wonky or outdated thought patterns that are stopping us from thinking clearly or acting in relation to what’s actually going on right now.

What’s in our water can make us complicit in situations that don’t help us at all. My own deep sense of worthlessness and my feeling that I don’t deserve to be well treated have been part of my water for so long that I’d not noticed them impacting on my actions and relationships. Ironically, it took someone pushing beyond what I consider acceptable behaviour to make me look properly at my sense of self worth, and rethink my attitude. I’ve a way to go yet, but the water is a good deal less murky for me than it used to be.

On some levels, I self sabotage. Treating myself as worthless, I’ve not been careful of resources, of physical or emotional wellbeing. I’ve allowed other people to wear me out. I’ve not held boundaries or stepped away when I needed to. I could flip this over into beating myself up and telling myself that all my problems are of my own making, but that actually keeps me in the same murky water I was in before. To change the water I swim in, I have to be genuinely willing to think about myself in different ways. I have to be willing to negotiate differently with other people, and to rethink my relationships with everything and everyone I encounter. It’s not easy. Recognising complicity does not mean making myself responsible for how others have treated me.

How’s the water? Confusing. But I do at least know that it’s there, and this is progress.


Coping With Fear

In the aftermath of Brexit, I see a lot of people frightened for the future. The feelings of uncertainty, the not knowing what could be lost or how they might be affected. Then there’s the grief compounding it – grief for the loss of the idea of Europe. I admit that what happened with Greece had already left me questioning my idea of Europe. The loss of a dream is always a painful thing.
I’ve been coping with anxiety for years, and I’m finding all the things I have to do in other aspects of my life are just as relevant here, and so perhaps worth sharing.

You have to manage your thoughts. This means noticing what you are thinking in the first place and not letting thoughts run wild and cause distress. It is important to make time for whatever emotions are coming up – fear, anger, resentment, disillusionment – whatever you’ve got. But the trick is to give those feelings time without letting them take over. Perhaps the best way to do this is to watch out for and avoid the idea that how you feel justifies certain actions. I am afraid so I can run away. I am angry so I can lash out etc. Not only does this cause trouble out there in the rest of the world, but it gives power to your feelings. Run away because you were scared, and you’ll stay scared.

There are physical situations that need running away from to stay safe, but that’s about changing your relationship with the rest of the world. If the problem is your own emotions, running away doesn’t work.

Denial doesn’t work, either. Complex mental loops that allow everything to be for your higher good can leave you unable to process, or handle, your actual life experiences and their actual emotional impact on you. Self honesty is best, but self honesty doesn’t have to get so involved with itself that it becomes dysfunctional.

While looking at how you are feeling, it is important not to escalate things. Those of us with more darkly creative minds can see a thousand and one ways to go to hell in a handcart. There’s a technical term for this in mental health, it’s called ‘catastrophising’. If you take how you were feeling and imagine the worst possible ways it could play out, you will feel much, much worse about things. The emotions you were feeling will grow to unmanageable proportions and you’ll make yourself ill. It is possible to control your own thoughts, and if you’re feeling overwhelmed, it is very necessary indeed.
If you can stay in control of your own thoughts, it’s a lot easy to work out what you need to be thinking about. What, realistically can you do? What might be a useful investment against more likely troubles? When your head isn’t full of imagined disaster, it’s easy to get on with reducing the scope for actual disaster.

There’s a fairy tale about a bird who is so afraid the sky will fall on their head, that they aren’t paying attention to other things and end up eaten by a fox. Hold that thought. The sky probably isn’t going to fall, but there are plenty of hungry predators to avoid.


Underthinking and why you have to stop it

Not overthinking is one of the ever present internet memes. I’m going to have a little bit of a rant about this. Step back now if you aren’t in soap-box mood, because this drives me nuts. I see precious little evidence of overthinking, and a lot of evidence that a lot of people amble carelessly through life doing far less thinking than is a good idea.

We need to think. We need to consider the consequences of our actions and the way our behaviour impacts on others and shapes our own future options. We need to consider our lifestyles, and the choices available to us rather than living in a reactionary way from moment to moment.

Spontaneity can be good, but the person who has no idea of their inclinations, feelings and intentions and no awareness of their unconscious and its impulses, can end up doing some bloody awful things spontaneously.

No past, no future, only the perfect now is probably fine if you’re sitting in a monastery surrounded by other people who are dedicating their lives to peace and enlightenment. If you are living in the world, this whole logic cuts you off from the consequences of your own actions. And sure, that can save us from awkward feelings like guilt, shame, and responsibility, but that’s a really questionable outcome.

Any tool can be used badly. If we use our rational minds to imagine every possible thing that could go wrong, or to over-interpret every tiny thing said to us, then yes, we will drive ourselves and the people around us crazy. Thinking deeply is a tool to deploy with care, and to develop the wisdom to know what to really dig into and what to let go comes from… wait for it… actually thinking about things.

In the meantime, how about we think a bit more about the ways our culture functions. Let’s think about the economic structures and who they are killing, let’s think about how the drive for profit destroys the planet, let’s think about human suffering, and non-human suffering around the world and how we might change that. Let’s think about the consequences of our lifestyle choices.

You’ll be happier if you don’t do this. You’ll be happier if you refuse to look, to know and to consider. You’ll be happier if you can pretend nothing is ever your fault or ever your responsibility. Underthinking is all about the ease of not dealing with the consequences, and the happiness that comes from being oblivious. It’s a happiness that kills. Underthinking is how we get to be the zombie apocalypse. It’s long past time to wake up.


What is authentic?

When it comes to understanding myself, how do I tell what is authentic? How do I differentiate between a knee jerk reaction that comes from habit or conditioning, and something that is more truly ‘me’? I’ve talked about wanting to be real, and to feel real, but I have to know what that means or its all a bit hypothetical and little more than hot air.

There are a great many things that make a person who they are – genes, upbringing, family stories, culture, education, community, environment, diet. Everything we think and do, and everything we experience goes to inform who and how we are right now. It means that a person can absorb a lot of external influences and end up acting in ways that are at odds with who they think they are and how they feel. Clearly being authentic means not being pressured by your surroundings into being someone you are not (eg gay people forced into straight marriages). At the same time, those influences can become an important part of who we are – we seek out teachers for this very reason.

So, what’s real? To a certain extent, we can, I think choose and be active participants in creating our own authenticity. Who we want to be is also part of the mix.

I’m currently exploring a model of alignment. I lead with my head. Most of my decisions are based on logic, I operate by dint of will. If there’s a conflict between head and heart, head wins. If there’s body issues, I will use will to force my way through. I treat my body and my emotions as less important than my reason, and far less important than what other people might need from me. All too often I’ll be persuaded to put other people’s comfort ahead of things like expressing pain.

I’m trying to establish the habit of checking how my body, emotions and mind are aligned, to make sure that my head isn’t overruling everything else. I’m trying to notice and allow my emotional responses and my bodily experiences, without immediately blanking them out and overruling them. This is not a comfortable process, and is rapidly bringing up issues of suppressed anger and frustration alongside the things that make me melancholy. It suggests that being kinder to my body really ought to be a consideration more of the time. It is an uneasy process.

On the flip side I’m also starting to notice what happens when I’m properly aligned. When head, heart and body are all reacting the same way, I can bring a lot more power, intensity, and presence to a situation. Experiences are richer and deeper. I am probably just scratching the surface, but I notice a big qualitative shift in experience just for paying attention to how I feel in my body and in my emotions. I like who I am a good deal better, it turns out, when I’m not using one part of me to crush and control the other two thirds.

We have a culture that claims to be based on reason and the life of the mind. Poor body health, and poor body image, are fairly normal. Poor emotional health is on the increase, so I realise I’m not alone in courting crisis by only taking one aspect of myself seriously, and trying to run a physical, emotional being on the basis of thinking alone. I need to start making room for the rest of me.

In terms of anyone else’s authenticity, that’s simply not my place to judge, and none of my business. I welcome honesty and open heartedness in others, but whether anyone else thinks they are authentic, even whether they are authentic, is something I can never know. Nothing is achieved here by starting at each other and wondering who is doing it properly.


Meditation and the mind

Not all minds are the same. How your mind works, how well it is, your circumstances and your emotional state will inform what happens when you meditate. All forms of meditation are not equally good for all people in all situations. Unfortunately, meditation is usually presented as a perfectly safe, universally good for people activity, and it isn’t.

People suffering from mental illnesses may be better off not meditating, or picking very carefully and not doing too much of it. Anyone tending towards the delusional can find that meditation of any sort just creates a space for things to go wrong. Depressed people often don’t benefit from anything that stills and quiets the mind. If the base line in your mind is full of pain, what you may do is peel back your layers of defence to expose yourself to your own suffering, and frankly that doesn’t help unless you were planning on working with it. Where there is trauma, this can be really hazardous. People with mental health issues can be better off with focused meditations – moving meditations complex enough to engage the mind, or contemplating safe objects – trees, clouds, oracle cards, to steer the mind directly towards workable thoughts.

Many forms of meditation start from the assumption that simplifying the clutter of your thoughts is a good thing. The busy mind is seen as aberrant, the single track is seen as a good thing. There are philosophies that to be properly engaged with the world you should be thinking as simply and ‘in the moment’ as you can. Do all minds work like this? No. How we form thoughts and experience them varies radically from one person to the next. How much material is bubbling away in our unconscious, varies. The speed at which thoughts bubble up, varies. The number of threads we might comfortably hold, varies. For the one track mind person, juggling a vast number of thoughts is horrible. For the rainforest mind, being reduced down to a single track is a traumatic amputation of self.

Meditation is not a sloppy, one size fits all hippy garment. Meditation covers a broad array of activities and more than one philosophical tradition. If at first you don’t get on with it, you may simply have the wrong model. The better you know who you are and how your mind works, the better able you will be to see what you can do, and what you want meditation to do for you. Visualisation and pathworking have radically different implications to Tai Chi, or just observing your thoughts.

There can be an enthusiastic form of tyranny exercised by people who have found a thing they like. Evangelists always believe they have the one true way and everyone should be doing what they do, and meditation forms acquire evangelists. If a practice doesn’t work for you, if it feels uncomfortable and troubling it might not be that you’re not trying hard enough. Maybe you don’t need to work at it – maybe it does not suit you. Keep your options open, be alert to your own needs and don’t be pressured by the would-be gurus into assuming the problem is always you. Not all forms of meditation suit all people, or are good and appropriate for all people. If a practice makes you uncomfortable, then pushing may be the worst thing you can do for yourself.