A new perspective

P1070241 (2)What gets you through the hardest times in life?

The last two weeks have not been easy. The death of a beloved member of the family, combined with a breast cancer scare has led me to a new perspective on life, one that is filled with content and gratitude, even in the deepest moments of grief and fear.

I’ve always been grateful for my many blessings. But it’s really only upon reviewing each and every one, in a quiet and dark space, that you realise just how much you have, and how wonderful life is, even if you should die tomorrow. As I sat before my altar, the candles flickering and the incense curling around flames, I spent over twenty minutes going over all the amazing things that had happened in my life, all the experiences and people, the wonderful moments that make life worthwhile. Not knowing what the hospital appointment in two days’ time would bring, and stricken with grief over the death of a loved one the day before, still all these beautiful revelations filled my soul as the rain pattered against the windows in the darkness outside.

Some of these were:

I have walked with the reindeer herds in the Scottish Cairngorms.

I have watched the sun rise over the North Sea in ritual with friends.

I have watched the sun set over the Pacific Ocean while the wind sighed amongst the pines.

I have skied in -29 degree weather, with icicles on my eyelashes.

I have been canoeing in Sweden with my husband, with only our provisions for the week, a tent, the canoe and an arranged rendezvous point and time a week in advance.  I have seen the burial mounds and carved stones and watched Freya’s falcon soar over the water and mountains.

I have felt the burning fire of Brighid in my heart, in my head and in my belly.

I have faced a blizzard in Trollheim, Norway, and been forced by the wights and jotun to turn back to safety.

I have known the comfort of a safe home, loving parents, patient husband and a good family.

I have loved and been loved by many cats, and given them good homes.

I have climbed the mountains of the Lake District, and watched the crows dive and dance on the thermals as the water glimmered below.

I have walked back in time in the stone circle of Avebury.

I have walked the woods of my childhood home, and know the paths and where they go, the eyes of the seen and unseen upon me.

I have swum in lakes that are filled-up volcanoes, and in rivers that tumble between the ancient granite mountains of the Laurentians.

For all these things and more, I am utterly grateful, amazed, filled with awe and wonder. If I should die tomorrow, at least I have done and known these things, and I am content.

My perspective has not changed, even with the all-clear from my hospital appointment on Monday (it was a cyst). In this time of deepest darkness, I can review what I have experienced, what I have known, and be glad for it. It makes all the small things pale in comparison, all the niggles and troubles that I may have had, with people and life in general. All these things really don’t matter at all. What matters are the things that bring on the contentment, the sense of fulfilment.  All else is just the dross which can cloud judgement and perspective. No longer will I sweat the small stuff.

As we head into the darkest depths of the Winter Solstice, I wish you all very many blessings. Thank you so much for your support over the years, and I look forward to sharing, discussing and reviewing more of life’s wonderful moments with you. Please feel free to comment below, on what helps you get through the darkest times, and peace be with you all.

Today, I am a Flamekeeper of Brighid

candle-2The longest night is upon us. For three short days, we have watched the watery sun rise and set in the same place on the horizon, barely skimming the treetops at its highest point, filmed over by hazy clouds. This morning, it was impossible to tell just when the sun had risen, and indeed even though it has been up for half an hour, it’s just as dark as before, with heavy overcast skies letting in only a small amount of light. I lit a candle in my lantern dedicated to Brighid just as the sun rose somewhere behind the clouds, and in Her name I lit my solstice flame. The candle’s flame burns very low, just barely alight as it struggles amidst a pool of wax and an insufficient wick. There is the tiniest amount of light at the tip, with a small blue aura beneath. I look at it even as I type these words, and its struggle portends much to come.

It has been a difficult year for many. Across the Western world, we have been rocked by unprecedented political change. There is not much hope for the future. Political leaders do not have the common good in mind, and greed runs riot. Things have not changed for the better. Across the globe, war, strife and unrest rage, with millions of innocent beings suffering. And there is still more darkness to come.

But even so, we can still take hope that the seasons change, the sun’s light will return. My candle is guttering now, in a valiant effort to stay alight. I have tried to help it, tipping out excess wax, but the wick and wax balance is not favourable. Just as in today’s political, economical and social climate, things do not look in our favour. But still we struggle on. We are a light in the darkness, no matter how small.

Somewhere, behind the clouds, the low sun is rising. We are the sun, we are the earth. We are the wind and the rain. We are the wild beasts and the tame. We are our neighbours and our enemies. We are our deeds. We are our poetry. We are our ancestors. The flame might go out in the physical, but it still shines in our hearts and minds. Where does a flame go when it dies? A flame is always there, simply needing the right conditions to manifest. So too with all of life. We all depend on conditions, yet we all have the flame within, waiting to manifest. The spark of awen, the spark of inspiration. To share this inspiration is at the heart of all that I do, in the hopes that my words inspire others not to give up hope, to remember their connection to each other, to all of nature. The flame that burns within our hearts and minds can never be extinguished. Instead, it kindles a new flame in the hearts and minds of others, and we tend that flame with all that we have, for our future ancestors.

The wick is barely glowing now in my lantern on the windowsill. But the flame of Brighid burns brightly in my heart. Though there is a long darkness ahead of me tonight, and a long darkness for many to come, there is still a light that shines. Even the smallest light shines in the deepest darkness.

And so, I will tend to my flame today. Today, I am a flamekeeper of Brighid. And should that flame go out, I will simply light another, and another, and I shall persist.

Blessings of the winter solstice to you all.

 

(Originally published today on my blog, Druid Heart, on SageWoman’s channel at Witches and Pagans.)

 

The Wisdom of Gandalf

A lovely reader, Donal commented on my Make Tea post about how the US feels like they’re living in a Tolkein epic right now. It may indeed seem that all the forces of evil are set against us, overshadowing all. I was instantly reminded of my all-time favourite Druid, one of my greatest inspirations and heroes since I was a young lass: Gandalf. Tolkein was writing during some very dark times in his own day and age, and through Gandalf presented wonderful wisdom and awen.  This got me through some pretty dark days in my own life, and still continues to inspire me each and every day. I hope that they can also inspire others. x

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Make Tea

She lit the candles and incense, and sat down upon the cushions. Breathing deeply, she inhaled the fragrant scent, and allowed her gaze to wander over the items on the altar. She tried to focus, her gaze finally resting upon the image of Brighid, and the flame that the goddess held in her hands. As the darkness fell, both within and without, both figuratively and literally, she focused on the flame being offered. She took it within her heart, and for a brief moment it flickered, then died out as the darkness consumed it in a deep blanket of despair.

Breathe.

She focused once again on the image, this time on the watery vesica pisces symbol. Yet her mind would not focus, her thoughts filled with grief and anger, darkness and despair. She breathed through them, trying to remain in the present moment. But the darkness was overwhelming, and as she floundered, she cried out: “Help!”

The voice of the goddess spoke softly in her mind. “Make tea.”

She sat for a moment longer, determined to spend at least ten minutes at her altar. At last, she gave up and blew out the candles, allowing the incense to burn itself out. Make tea, the goddess had said. Alright. Let’s make some tea.

She went downstairs and put the kettle on. Let’s make tea, she said to herself. Mindfully. She prepared the small teapot with herbs known to lift the darkness and soothe the nerves: St John’s wort and skullcap. She also added some lemon balm, to ease tension and also for flavour. She inhaled the scent of the dried herbs, and mixed them together before placing them in the teapot. She looked out the window in the light of the setting sun, a small muntjac deer feeding alongside a magpie underneath the bird feeder.

She placed on a tray the teapot, strainer and saucer, as well as a small handmade earthenware cup. She brought these to the table, and laid them down with her full attention. The kettle had boiled, and she carefully filled her small iron kettle with the water, feeling the steam against her skin. She brought the iron kettle to the table, and placed it on a heat-proof mat. She sat down, her mind still battling the darkness around the edges, her thoughts seemingly not her own. She knew her hormones were swirling in a dance similar to that which she had experienced at adolescence, though now she was at the other end of the brilliant spectrum. She had to take care of herself, of her body as well as her mind.

She opened up the teapot and breathed. Mindfully, she took the iron kettle and filled the teapot with water, replacing the kettle with equal attention. She inhaled the scent of the herbs, and replaced the teapot lid. No other thoughts entered her mind, just these simple, small actions. Working with mindfulness, working with full attention to her actions, there was only the present moment.

She sat back and waited for the tea to brew. Slowly, she felt the darkness returning, crowding at her mind. Despair at the state of the world, at the constant struggle she faced with work, with others who could not do the simplest of tasks, with expectations from both strangers and friends, knowing that if she didn’t do something, no one would – stop. Breathe. Focus. Three minutes stretched to an eternity as the brew steeped in the teapot.

She took a deep breath, and the darkness receded an inch. She picked up the teapot, and concentrated on pouring the tea through the strainer into the small bowl. She kept up her concentration on her breath and on the pouring, and it filled her entire being. Nothing else mattered in that moment. Just pouring tea.

She put down the teapot and picked up the cup. The scent of the herbs brought back memories of a wonderful little shop called StarChild in Glastonbury. She allowed the brief memory to flicker, and then she refocused her attention on the cup in her hands. The heat radiated through the bowl, and she had to pick it up carefully, her fingers near the cooler end of the rim. Quietly, she took the first slurp, allowing the air to cool the hot water before it reached her tongue. She concentrated on nothing but drinking the tea, sitting alone in the dining room, with night falling outside.

She drank the first cup, and then brewed another in the teapot. She kept her mind focused on the present, acknowledging past wounds but not allowing them to flavour the present moment. She had worked hard to name them and transform them, and was working on it still. Three minutes again slipped past, and outside her dining room window she saw the Christmas lights from the house across the street go on.

She poured herself another cup, and drank it mindfully. A third cup was brewed and drunk, and when she finished she sat back and bowed to her tea set. She felt a little better, the darkness within relenting, though not wholly gone. She acknowledged and allowed the herbs to do their work on her body and her mind. With equally careful attention, she rinsed the kettle and washed the teapot, bowl and strainer, and then went upstairs with a lighter heart, to Skype with her mother and find even more comfort and peace, there in the moment, utterly in the moment.

Dark Moon Wisdom

Dark Moon Wisdom

You don’t have to shine to be powerful.

Release.

Release into the darkness, allow the night to fill your soul.

Find your sovereignty in the darkness.

Face the shadows, name the fears.

Then allow the dark moon to guide you further, deeper within, towards utter integration.

Feel the deep magnetic pull.

You don’t have to shine to be powerful.

 

© Joanna van der Hoeven

All About Ego

Ego is a funny thing. We can get so wrapped up in it without even noticing it. Differing from our functional self, which helps to get things done on a day to day basis, ego is a large part of the representational self, the story that we tell ourselves and the world around us.  Is it true? Probably, for the most part. It is from a biased perspective? Absolutely – everything that we perceive is.  Is it something that is worth having? I’m not so sure…

Our society fuels the ego like no other.  Social media is a great place where one can either be puffed up or dragged down by people they have never met. (Yes, the irony/hypocrisy of writing this on an online blog is not lost on me.)  People can use social media to help fuel the ego, and not in altogether productive ways. Sure, expressing your creativity is great: put up that piece of artwork that you’ve worked so hard on.  Give us an excerpt from your latest book. Tell us of the charity work that you are doing in India. This is an expression of your self that is not separated from your functional self. It’s not all representational – unless you are totally attached to it.

I am a conduit. I am an interpreter. I am not the thing itself.

When it becomes all about the representational self, that’s where the problem comes in.  We begin to live inside our heads, inside our stories and do not seek alternative points of view. We can become deluded by our story, confirmed by people we may have never even met. We can react viciously to things that upset us, through online comments, blog posts, etc.  Why would we want to do this? Why would we want to hurt another? Why should this be? Is it because the ego is such a fragile thing?

The ego seeks to reaffirm itself in everything that it does. It’s based on its own self-preservation, fuelled by an erroneous concept that one would lose their identity with the loss of ego. This couldn’t be further from the truth. There are plenty of people out there with a very strong sense of identity and purpose, yet who are not fuelled by their ego. These people are inspiring, for they know that the work they do and how they live their life is more important that who they are.

No one is perfect. Everyone succumbs to their ego every now and then. But when we live entirely through the ego’s whimsy, then we are in big trouble. We may see other people’s success as our failure. We may take slight at something because we haven’t been included in it. We might want to make someone look bad and undermine everything that they do because they have hurt us in some shape or form. We cease to see with the eyes of compassion, instead only seeing through the eyes of “ME”.

Where does this all lead?

Is it worth it? What will be the outcome of living in your ego?

I don’t think it will be happiness. We will rage against those who argue against us. We will delude ourselves with notions of grandeur, or delusions of all shapes and forms. We will spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about things that don’t really matter.  We spend all our time reinforcing the ego. What really matters in life? Your ego, or living well?

These are questions that I have asked myself, as I quest inspiration to live an integrated life. For me, integration cannot happen without the falling away of the ego’s hold on our reality. It’s about realising that I am not important, that no one is important; what is important is the work we do, not so much the words we say (though speaking honourably is a good thing). Our actions are important. Our walk, rather than our talk is important. It’s all about getting the work done, through the functional representation of the “I”, without the representational “Me” getting in the way.

Is this all semantics? Quite possibly.

The Song of Amergin is not an ego-boost. It’s about integration, realising that one is not separate from nature. It is about seeing the universe in yourself. It is about knowing that you would not exist were it not for everything else. It is about relationship.

At this time of year, when darkness fills my life, fills my soul, when the songs of winter flood through this land I see the little spark of ego, clinging desperately onto its belief systems and self-affirmations. And I smile to it as I watch it go out, letting the darkness and silence of integration fill my mind and my world. I am reminded of the Zen saying “hold lightly to your opinions”, because they will change. Impermanence is the nature of the world, the nature of nature.

This blog post was inspired by a Guardian article I read today about the backlash from the pagan community on Alex Mar’s latest book, as well as our government’s reaction and bombing in Syria. It’s not entirely about these things, but about these things and more.