Hygge in Dangerous Times

Hygge – the Danish art of chilling out and feeling relaxed, comfortable, cosy and safe, has had a real run for its money in 2020. With so much media and so much fear (rightfully so) due to so many deaths, especially here in the UK and also in the US, feeling safe and secure has been out of our reach for many, many months. Those of us who have had to shield for various reasons, and who are still doing so, feel our anxiety rise every time we have to engage with the public – for my husband and I, that’s food shopping and pretty much it. We haven’t had any other face to face contact with others for over six months because of my husband’s medical conditions, and my surgery and recovery this summer. We will still be extra careful, up until there is a vaccine.

P1020204 (2)While you can hygge by yourself, and this is my favourite hygge, there is a lot to be said for social hygge. Indeed, for many who do not have solitary, feline souls, the social aspect of hygge is hygge. Getting together with friends around the dining table, having coffee and cake, talking and reminiscing is what it’s all about. But in these strange times, getting together with friends is a real challenge, and for some, not an option.

CthulhuI thought I was doing okay without the social interaction. I have my husband and my cats, and Skype my family once a week, and talk to my mother on the phone as well. We’ve re-started our Saturday roleplaying sessions online (Cthulhu on the Roll 20 platform) and I call my friends weekly just to have a chat. While I was recovering from surgery, a couple of friends came by to drop off care packages and we had a small chat (me at the door, they in the driveway). I thought it wasn’t too bad, as I’m such a solitary creature anyway. But something last week made me realise just how much social interaction is an important part of my life and hygge.

It was my friend Lisa’s birthday at the end of July, and Michelle’s last week, with mine this week. We decided to get together for a socially distanced cuppa and some cake in my back garden. I unlocked the side gate so they could come over without entering the house, and we sat in the shade and talked, watching the hawks circle overhead and the house martins doing their aerial acrobatics. We caught up on each other’s lives, talked about the huge changes and how we are coping. We drank some lovely tea (Chakra Balance from Woodbridge Emporium) and ate some cake. We also exchanged presents and just enjoyed each other’s company for an hour and a half.

Afterwards, when I got back in the house (and washed my hands) I stood in the kitchen and looked out the window to where we had been sitting. I felt a release in my chest, where a tightness had been that I had not noticed until that moment. A long, shuddery breath ensued, the kind that you get after a good, long cry, when the diaphragm spasms and your chest calms down. And that’s when I realised it, that I needed the physical, social interaction too, more than I ever knew.

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That feeling of release, after spending time with friends who I had not socialised with in person for over six months, really hit home. It was a physical sensation, as well as a mental one. It pointed out that while video chats, phone calls and social media are great for keeping people together on a regular basis during a pandemic, there is no real substitute for that face to face interaction.

xmas 2015 2Who knows how much longer it will be before we are able to have that easy interaction again? I haven’t seen my family in Canada for over a year, and I don’t know when I’ll be able to return. That really hurts deep down. My parents’ 50th wedding anniversary had to be cancelled, and who knows if I’ll be able to make it in 2021 when they’ve rescheduled. It’s not until a vaccine has been tried and tested that I can travel safely and visit my friends and family, and that is a hard thing to bear when you haven’t had a hug from your mom for a long, long time.

But we do the best we can. We need to find the hygge still, in a safe and responsible way. We need to feel safe and secure, with family and friends, for our own well-being. We have to abstain where it is dangerous, and take extra precaution in any face to face encounter. It’s hard to hygge in that way, but maybe there is a new form of hygge that will develop out of this: one that can see us through until we can meet each other safely and securely without the threat of illness or death hanging over our heads.

P1030412 (2)So I’m practicing careful hygge right now, socially-distanced hygge in the garden with a select few folk. Small steps while we navigate our way through this pandemic, and keep everyone safe. And while there is still anxiety about any social interaction, I can counter-balance that with some solitary hygge: time spent in silence and stillness, watching the sunset, or having a cup of tea and listening to some piano music. Cooking a birthday cake to celebrate 46 turns around the sun, and eating it with great pleasure with my husband and a glass of champagne. Holding hope in my heart that I will be able to see my family soon, and know that their love and the hygge that awaits at my mother’s kitchen table can exist in my mind and in my heart until I can experience the real thing.

So hygge carefully, my friends, and I hope that you manage to find some safety, security and well-being in this difficult times. May you find that little space of sanctuary each and every day, to help you through until we can meet again.

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Pagan Hygge

Hygge is a wonderful word. But it’s more than a word; it’s a feeling.

candle 2Hygge (pronounced hue-gah or hoo-gah) was originally a Norwegian word, meaning “wellbeing” that was adopted by the Danes in the early 1800’s. Nowadays, it’s a very important word to describe a feeling of comfort, security, warmth, friendship, cosiness and more. In today’s world, we need that more than ever.

The Danes are experts at creating hygge. Much like the Druid searches for inspiration, the Danes quest for hygge. I too work to create feelings of hygge, to nourish the hygge in my home and with my friends and family, even as I quest for the awen, for inspiration from the natural world as to how to live my life with honour and integrity, as a fully functioning part of an ecosystem. For me, the two can work hand in hand.

Hygge is the simple things in life. Things that make you have that warm, fuzzy hyggelig feeling. Things that bring you joy. Small things. “Unimportant” things. It’s paying attention to the moment, right now, and appreciating it for all its worth. So, what things am I talking about here?

knitted socksFireplaces. Candles. A cup of tea. Warm knitted socks. Petting a cat. Sitting outdoors watching the sunset. Walking quietly in a woodland. Picnics on the beach. Barbeques in the garden. Gathering with friends in a cosy pub. A family birthday party with lots of cake and laughter.

Hygge is nourishing the soul. We very much need this nourishment, for in our Western lives we run ourselves ragged. It’s not hard to see why the Danes are the happiest  people in the world. They cultivate hygge regularly. They know the importance of being with family, of leaving work at 5pm to cook dinner and eat together at the dining table. Of working 40 hours a week or less. Of a welfare system that makes everyone feel secure, paid for with higher taxes. A free university education that benefits from these higher taxes as well. A sense of security, of well-being. Given that they live in a very challenging place, where the winter months have precious few hours of sunlight, they have strived to create that sense of security and safety in their homes, in bars, even at work. They’re doing it right.

I practice hygge. I sit in my conservatory after work, or outside in the sunshine with a cup of tea, smelling the air with a cat by my side. My morning cup of coffee is a silent ritual, sitting at the dining table with incense and candles lit in the autumn and winter months. I cook as often as I can, with local produce that nourishes not only the body but P1070068 (1024x768)the soul. I welcome my friends over, have a spare pair of warm socks should they need them, cookies and teas or coffees at the ready. I light a candle and say prayers to my lady Brighid every morning at her shrine next to my fireplace, and give thanks for my many blessings. In my home, I want people to feel welcome, to feel safe in my little sanctuary. My work with the goddess Nemetona greatly helped me to appreciate all that sanctuary includes, and the importance it plays in all our lives. Gratitude and sanctuary are what we so desperately need.

With the threat of nuclear war, with the instability of Brexit, with floods and landslides and earthquakes and other natural disasters around the world, with capitalistic consumption and greed running rampant, it’s not hard to see why we are so unhappy. But we can change our own little space, creating space as well for others to appreciate the little things, in the spirit of hygge.

These little things become the most important things, and hopefully our actions will ripple out across the web of existence, with more and more people coming to understand the joys and wonders of hygge.

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mudraFar too often we allow our emotions to control us, dictating how we react and respond to situations and perhaps not in the best way. Some would argue that our emotions are what gets things done, however, something done with anger, for instance, may not always be the best way forward.

Discipline has become a bad word in our society. What we need to do is to reclaim this word, along with duty (which I will elaborate more on in another blog). We need to sit down with ourselves and take a good, long, hard look at our emotions and the roots of these emotions, finding out why we react to situations the way we do, discover underlying patterns and unravel the threads that are loose, or about to snap, reworking them into something more harmonious.

If we work on a situation based on an emotion of anger, hate or jealousy, then the outcome will most likely not be conducive to creating compassion and harmony with the world. Exploring the roots of these “negative” emotions, we will realise that the underlying thread is one of fear. Anger is another expression of fear. We become angry at our partner for not behaving in a manner that we think he should. In reality, we may be fearful of losing our partner, or of changing feelings for him, of not having enough control in our own lives, etc. Hate is based in fear, as we fear that which is the Other, separate from ourselves, the unknown. Jealousy is based on fear of change, our own insecurities and fears created out of past experiences.

What we need to do it to sit down with our feelings, to better understand them and in doing so, better understand our selves. In creating a safe space to sit with our feelings, we can engage with them openly and honestly. Creating a haven, a sanctuary in which to perform this task, we can explore the deepest corners of our minds. For me, the goddess Nemetona helps in this exercise.

She is a goddess of sanctuary and sacred space. She is present in my home and in my heart. Human beings have such a craving for safety and security, and within this goddess we can find that wherever we are. Not only does it help with emotional discipline and self-governance, but the two are intricately woven together, with self-governance creating that safety. Let me explain.

If we are ruled by the tides of our emotions, we will never settle, never find a place that we can call a sanctuary. We are subject to the peaks and valleys of an emotional long hard slog, and never really find a good breathing space in which to find some respite. If we do not have that sanctuary, we have no place to breathe and to truly connect with our emotions. And so an endless cycle of repetition is created.

Finding time every day to simply sit and breathe is a great way to begin. In a safe, comfortable place, whether indoors or out, we focus on our breath, in and out, breathing in the air that our ancestors breathed, that all living things breathe. We breathe out into the world, exhaling even as the trees exhale in the deepening twilight. Sharing this beautiful moment, this sacred breath, we come to an awareness of ourselves, of our self and how we currently feel in the world at this particular moment. We can call upon Nemetona to hold this space while we simply sit and breathe, honouring Her for all that She is with a return to the stillness at our core.

It’s not easy, taking the time to simply breathe, to meditate on our breath. Our minds will try every trick in the book to distract us from this present moment and this one little act. It is with discipline that we return to our breath again and again, each time we find ourselves wandering off mentally, or shifting our bums restlessly. You have to really want to find stillness – it doesn’t just happen. You have to be disciplined enough to achieve it. It won’t simply suddenly appear out of nowhere, nor can it be spoon-fed. Discipline will not allow any passivity. We must take full responsibility for our selves and for our world.

After breathing, we can take some time looking at our feelings and emotions without attaching to them. Again, we can ask Nemetona to help us, to hold the space and to guide us to explore our feelings without getting too involved, wrapped up once again the in the emotion. She won’t do it for us, however. We can look at our fear, at our anger, our impatience, our joy and our happiness. We can find the roots of these if we don’t let them take control over our minds, and therefore live in better awareness.

For not only do we have to be careful of the negative emotions ruling our behaviour, but we must also become aware of the more pleasant emotions. Far too often we experience a beautiful emotion, and crave that emotion for the rest of our lives. We will never be able to recreate that experience, for it has happened and exists only in the past. All we have is this present moment, which is always changing, moving forwards. If we try to regain the feeling of joy that we had on our wedding day every time we look at our loved one, we disregard other emotions and feelings that will eventually come and bite us on our backside. We may not notice the present moment. Focusing only on positive emotions doesn’t work – we are human and we have negative emotions too. Those who deny them, who suppress them, will face some pretty hard demons at some point in their life.

So we sit, and we meditate day after day, breathing and coming to an awareness of the present moment. We are able to take the time to look at our feelings and get to know them better, thereby allowing ourselves the opportunity to break from negative patterns of behaviour into more purposefully led lives. Discipline and self-governance are not things to be afraid of, nor are they something to shun as not in keeping with our freedom of expression. We are better able to express ourselves when we are not ruled by our emotions, allowing us to see what lies at the root of our souls, and thereby what lies in others’ souls as well.

This is the heart of compassion. When we understand ourselves we can better understand others, and see their fears, their patterns being created. We can work with them to help create new patterns, or we can simply walk away with respect and not have their patterns reflected in our own. We can only help those who want to be helped, and this includes our own self.

So please do take the time to sit, every day, and be in the present moment. Become aware of your breathing. Call upon Nemetona or any other god to help you find that peace, that space to explore your feelings, should you so desire. Look at your feelings and better understand them for what they are. In doing so, you will no longer be ruled by them, but instead be able to respond in the world with an awareness and mindfulness that can only create harmony. We come to understand each other in a very deep and meaningful way when we take what we learn of ourselves and relate that to others. In this, we can see that we are all related.

We are not restricting ourselves with self-governance, but allowing ourselves to open to the world with the eyes of compassion and hearts that are true.


For more about the goddess, Nemetona, please see my book, Dancing With Nemetona: A Druid’s Exploration of Sanctuary and Sacred Space

Sanctuary, Compassion and Freedom

We all need a little sanctuary in our lives. A place where we can let down our walls, let the barriers fall and simply be ourselves, wrapped in the security and safety of knowing that we are held.  My patron goddess, Nemetona, provides me with many opportunities to savour this precious moment, and to help create it for others.  She is the Lady of Holding, of Sacred Space, of Sanctuary.

Often when we meet others, especially human beings, our walls shoot up if they haven’t already been erected, and we are on the defensive.  We regard others warily, perhaps even as enemies; guilty until proven innocent.  A certain wariness around strangers makes sense – it’s an innate human instinct that we also see reflected elsewhere in the animal kingdom.  It is a form of self-preservation.  However, what I would posit is that we become so used to keeping those walls up, that we barricade ourselves inside our selves, unable to see the bigger picture, unable to truly experience compassion.

I am not saying that we should allow others to do as they will to us – wilfully harming another person in any way is completely wrong.  So often when I speak of compassion, people think it is an open invitation to be trod upon, to be used and abused by those who would seek to take advantage of us.  Instead, I try to explain the ideas of compassion, and also of engaged Buddhism – simply put, compassion is about trying to understand, to see around our own sense of self into the bigger picture. Engaged Buddhism is being active in a world to stop suffering, to speak up against violence and injustice and work to spread love and compassion.

My Lady Nemetona helps me with this.  By coming into her sacred embrace, I find that I remember what it is like to be open, to be held, to be free in utter sanctuary.  Thus inspired, I try to find ways to bring that inspiration out into the wider world, making it a better place.  When we are held, when we are free to be our true selves, we also provide the opportunity for awen, for inspiration, to fill our souls with joy and wonder at the simplicity of simply being.  We can then become a conduit for this energy, bringing about positive change in the world, even in the midst of suffering.

Working with Nemetona, we become aware of our boundaries, when we erect them and when we let them dissolve. We also see how we involuntarily create barriers, whether it is in our energetic fields, our communication, or our perception.  Through meditation and work with this particular goddess, I have found a way of both strengthening my inner sanctuary, thereby being able to let down those walls and openly experience situations with complete awareness.  In this, intention is key.

By being open, I am also being receptive to input that might otherwise pass me by through my own ego-centric mindlessness.  By working with sanctuary, I can see where I have lapsed and allowed others to abuse my trust, and where I will never allow that to happen again.  By being aware of how, why and who we engage with, and with what intention, we can change how we react to situation, acting with intention instead of a more reactionary type of living.  By becoming engaged with my boundaries, I am aware of when I need to strengthen or release them as appropriate.

It’s been a tough ride, sometimes, working with this goddess and with compassion.  It has shown me where I have failed so many times in the past.  Understanding and awareness of those failures, however, is not there to deter me; they are there to remind me, lessons learned and opportunities for further growth.  The key to working with boundaries and compassion, and indeed Nemetona Herself, lies in awareness – of the self, of others and of the world at large.  It’s not an easy path, but one well worth walking. It can lead us down the shadowy paths in the long dark night of the soul, but we can emerge into the light of the sacred forest grove, whether it be dappled sunlight, pale moonlight or starshine.  In that emergence lies our true nature, inspired by nature and surrounded by our natural sanctuary.

In that emergence lies our freedom.


These past two months, and these last two weeks in particular, I have noticed an increase in disrespectful behaviour on several Facebook groups that I am a part of.  Some of these groups have absolutely nothing to do with each other, so there is no correlating theme that might suggest crossover between them. So what is causing people to behave so badly in a public forum?

Trolling and dishonourable behaviour has always plagued online discussions, due to the lack of face to face contact and the deterioration of basic social skills as a result of an increased virtual presence and virtual world.  One can very easily be rude to a faceless person, or a faceless mass – there is no real-time, real-life repercussions in most cases (barring those individuals who have been prosecuted for various internet related crimes and misdemeanours, such as bullying or trolling on gross levels, often involving minors).  It’s a sad state of affairs, and I fear for the future of social interaction in a world where people are addicted to their phones and other social media (yes, I spot the irony in an online blog, but bear with me) and are increasingly isolating themselves whilst under the illusion of always being connected.

People being rude for apparently no reason, people are trying to publicly shame another person or group, people for whom basic manners is all but lost, people with low self-esteem or any other number of issues that lead too poor behaviour.  But why this sudden increase lately?

I wonder whether it has something to do with the weather.  Here in Britain, in a climate that for the most part does not suffer the extremes that other countries deal with on a regular basis, when it is very hot or very cold there can be a rise in poor behaviour.  These past few weeks Britain has experienced a heat wave, which may have something to do with what is happening in these groups.  In Psychology Today, Amie Gordon states “in the summer, hotter weather was associated with being in a more negative mood. Heat is also associated with increased aggression. So when you find yourself feeling sad, grouchy, or wanting to punch someone in the middle of summer, try taking a weekend trip to somewhere cool.”  (For the full article, see http://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/between-you-and-me/201301/sour-in-the-sun-3-unexpected-ways-weather-affects-your-mood).  Dr Joh Grohol wrote a in his online blog “Heat waves are related to more violent behavior and aggression,  may be associated with higher drug and alcohol abuse,  anxiety tends to decrease with a rise in temperatures,  depression and lowered mood tends to increase with a rise in temperatures, high levels of humidity — which often accompany a heat wave — lower concentration,  high humidity also increases sleepiness (probably related to poor sleep) and  high humidity also appears related to a lack of vigor and energy”  (http://psychcentral.com/blog/archives/2011/07/20/the-psychology-of-a-heat-wave).

Though we are not, and can never be, separate from external forces such as the weather, we are also highly equipped to deal with our emotions and behaviour through cultural and social standards, upbringing and self-discipline.  We are not slaves to these either, but can use them to help reinforce a positive world-view and to make this world a better place for all beings. It is entirely in our hands.

When we are engaging with the world, whether it is using an online presence or a physical face to face engagement, we have to remember that we are dealing with another soul.  This is a person who has thoughts and feelings, a history and a future, a journey in life that they are trying to complete perhaps as best they can.  It’s all too easy to forget this.  I am often reminded by the simple Hindu word/phrase, Namaste – my spirit honours your spirit.  (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Namaste). Keeping this in mind has helped me a great deal.

This is not to say that simple acceptance of bad behaviour should take place, that we cannot change the world, that you shouldn’t stand up for what you believe in – if you need to speak out on an issue, then you should, with honour and respect.  I have done so in the past, and indeed am currently doing so in this very blog.  Note that I have not named names, groups, or anything that would personally implicate another soul.  Instead, I am trying in my own little way to work through this issue, have my say and try to make the world a better place.

So, if you are ever tempted to belittle, degrade, shame another person, either in person or in an online forum, perhaps in the hopes of getting people to “your side” of the issue, remember that there are no sides, that there is no real need for this behaviour, no positive effect on the world at large.  Talk about it, talk it through with respect.  Love and compassion are key, and where two souls meet but cannot agree, then, with respect, bow and walk away.

Being kind is not difficult.

And if all else fails, find somewhere cool to think it through first. Namaste

Exploring the nature of criticism…

I don’t put much store in astrology, but when people say Virgos are very critical, I can’t really deny it. All the Virgos that I know are – then again, I also know a lot of people who aren’t Virgos who are…

Ever since my post on the death of Margaret Thatcher and my criticism on the subsequent behaviour of those who downloaded Ding Dong I have been thinking about the criticisms that I hold on to in everyday life, and those that I feel I need to share with others.

In order to criticise something, there must be a sense of self, someone who is standing back and commenting.  Yet in Zen, the goalless goal is to integrate completely, so that the sense of self falls away and we are completely immersed in the here and now, in the environment, in life itself.  As a Druid this is so very appealing, for I long to release into nature to become a part of it; to stop distancing myself from it with ideas and notions of who I am, which are constantly changing anyway.  Pondering on the idea of self, Zen would offer that the sense of self is but an illusion that we create and cling to, for various reasons – out of security, fear and ego-driven desires.  Therefore, holding on to an illusion is a little bit of a waste of time. Criticising someone else’s is a total waste.  If it’s not real, there’s no point.

We have this idea about our selves, that we have created throughout our lives.  What if this sense of self was just those ideas that we repeat the most, the ones that we like the best (or hate the most), the ones that shout the most loudly in our heads? Ideas are not real things – they are abstracts.  Experience is the key here, for experience is not an abstract.

So, back to criticism – in a Zen Druid worldview, is it ever right or worth the effort to criticise something?  There’s that old adage – if you’ve got nothing good to say, don’t say anything at all. For me, this is not enough, for when something needs changing, when those who can’t speak for themselves need a voice, I will speak out against it.  The key here is to do so with respect, honour and integrity. I’m still learning.

Also, offering criticism when it is not asked for is an easy trap to fall into.  Our lives are filled with it – we are inundated with television shows like Big Brother, or more importantly other reality shows such as The X Factor, Dancing on Ice, Strictly Come Dancing, etc. where we are expected to criticise, where we are voting for who we wish to win.  The judges on these shows often criticise dishonourably, mocking and offering nothing helpful. Sometimes they are offering good criticism and are right (at least, we agree with them).  (Spot the paradox – I just criticised judges on reality shows J).  At any rate, what these shows may do is to make us feel better about ourselves, with an underlying fear that we could be that person being criticised.   What I am suggesting is that maybe we need to detatch from the world of dishonourable relationship, where criticisms are just plain mean, or mis-informed.  I know I’m still working on it personally, as per my Maggie post earlier.

In Zen Buddhism Right Speech is part of the Eightfold Path.  I remind myself of this every time that I can before I now offer criticism.  Yet Right Speech does not say “do not to criticise”, but rather to reflect on whether this criticism is beneficial to anyone.  Talking about people behind their backs, offering criticism when it is not asked for, or condemning people when you have absolutely no idea what their motivations are is not altogether “right”.  Yet Zen states that we will never fully know the motivations of others, and that reflecting on this is also a waste of time.  So before you say something about someone, ask yourself – “Is this beneficial to anyone? Is this making the world a better place?” If so, then go ahead – with love and compassion we certainly need to do this in our world.  If the answer is no, then keep it to yourself, or even better, let it go, seeing it for what it is – an illusion, in most cases.  We are not omniscient – therefore our opinions on most things are subjective, and indeed flawed in that regard.

In Zen there is a saying – “Do not seek the truth, only cease to cherish opinions”.  This really strikes a chord with me. It is not saying that we shouldn’t have opinions, but that we should hold to them lightly, for how often has your opinion on something changed?  My Thatcher post and subsequent discussion changed my opinion, certainly.  If we cherished opinions so highly, we could never learn new things, progress and really be in the here and now, in a state of true experience. We would be holding so tightly to things that shift and change, that are never constant. It’s like trying to hold water in your hands – no matter how tightly you squeeze, a little water always dribbles out.

So, next time I am about to criticise something, I will consider Right Speech. I will also question what or who it is that I am criticising, as well as just who I think is doing the criticising. Most likely, I will have no idea on either score, and therefore either keep my mouth shut or investigate further, delving deep into experience before coming to any conclusions.

Having a critical mind is a wonderful thing.  It can really help us to see what can be done in the world to make it a better place. How we use it is entirely up to us.  Also losing your critical mind can be a wonderful thing, being utterly absorbed into the natural world, at one with everything.  The paradox is delicious.

Back to Reality

Reality is a slippery little devil.  Our minds are so adept at creating our own version of reality that the boundaries between what is real and what is not can become so blurred as to be indistinguishable.

Our thoughts can control us so much that they can keep us running around in circles, spinning off into the depths of our minds and in doing so, missing out on all the wonders and also the reality of the present moment.  Most people don’t enjoy being in the present moment – they avoid it at all costs. However, this is because they have probably, for the most part, never ever truly experienced being in the present moment. (See my previous blog post on mindtraps for more on this subject – https://downtheforestpath.wordpress.com/?s=mindtraps.)

But I digress.  Problems arise when our perceptions of reality become twisted with the imaginative and creative thought processes that our human brains are so capable of.  This was made clear when my husband received a phone call last night from someone he hadn’t heard from in a long time.  When he queried why the person hadn’t been in touch (he didn’t have their number) they stated that he had become upset at their last conversation, and that he had put the  phone down on them.

This was not true – I don’t believe he has ever put the phone down on anyone, and especially would never do so to this person.  This person had left the real conversation months ago, and was not satisfied with the outcome.  And so, this person developed in their minds ways that it would appear that they had been wronged, so that they could continue to avoid reality and live in their preferred state of being the victim.  They may have told and retold the story of the conversation in their minds over and over again, changing the details until, after a period of days, weeks or months, reality had changed. Stories change with the telling, we know this.  But we are fooling ourselves when we keep changing reality to suit our own egos and emotions.

I remember times when I’ve done this myself in the past – sometimes it is to justify certain behaviour, or to explain events.  The key is to become aware of when you are doing it, to stop and say “Right.  I know what the facts are, and I’m going to stick to them, and not change them to suit my own desires”.  I still get surprised when I see this in other people – I’ve had people accuse me of certain things, of promising others and of creating a totally separate reality to that which actually occurred.  It can be hurtful, at times, until you understand the thought process that creates this – you then realise that you had no part in it, that it became an entity totally foreign to your own being.

This doesn’t mean that you are not responsible for your actions – we all must be the best human beings we can at this present moment. Actions have consequences. However, we must also be aware and have some compassion for those who are caught up in their own realities, to a certain extent. We don’t have to live in them, or even partake of that reality, but we can understand the reasons why.

We have to learn how to live in the here and now.  Being alive and present in the here and now allows no time for emotional attachment to our thoughts and feelings – we still respond emotionally to situations, but we don’t become attached to the emotion itself.  As I left work yesterday, after a long staff meeting, my colleague was upset at what was said about our department, which was, unwittingly or not, derogatory.  Not only does this emphasise that we need to think very clearly before we speak, but also that we also cannot attach to the emotions that follow after a certain event.  I too was very displeased with the outcome of the meeting and the insinuation, and driving home could feel anger welling inside, threatening to ruin the whole drive home and run well into the evening. However, I caught myself, and brought myself back to reality and the present moment.  What was the present moment? Driving home, in the late afternoon sun, putting miles between myself and the event, figuratively and literally.  It was no longer happening now, except in my head.  I could either let it continue to live in my head, or simply enjoy the evening. I chose the latter.

This doesn’t mean that the issue will not be dealt with. It will, in a calm, rational and compassionate way.  But it won’t dictate reality for me – reality is what it is, and nothing more.  When the time is appropriate, the issue will be raised without undo emotional attachment to the residual event that still exists in our minds, which may have altered slightly or even greatly since the actual event occurred – reality is a slippery devil indeed.  I will not go over the event again and again in my mind, perhaps changing reality in doing so.  I will deal with the facts.

Let us continue to tell stories, but not make up the story of our own life.  Our own lives are brilliant and fascinating enough – we don’t need to add more drama to them.  By doing so, we will miss our own lives, living instead in our minds and foregoing some of the wondrous nature that is constantly unfolding right before our very eyes.  We can hurt other people by making up stories to suit our egos and our needs, and the person whom we hurt most is ourselves.

Reality is not such a bad place.  Really.


Defeating the Goblin King

I’m a big David Bowie fan, after having fallen in love with him as a young teenager, watching Jim Henson’s film, Labyrinth. He played the Goblin King, a creature who was used to getting things his own way – he was all powerful, and the Labyrinth was his to control. Or so he thought.

It’s a wonderful tale, of a young girl coming into adolescence, of learning that life is not always what it seems, and that life is unfair. It’s also about making friendships along the way, about being kind and also familial obligations. There are so many ways to interpret the film, and I thought to look at it from a Zen point of view. It was interesting.

Our thoughts often control us, without our even realising it. These thoughts, these intangible things, have so much power over our lives. We believe in our thoughts so much, and hold to them so much. We hold on so tightly to our thoughts, and to ourselves. Who would we be without our thoughts?

Yet in Zen we try to realise the control that our thoughts have over us, by acknowledging them, by becoming the observer. Bit by bit, as we sit in meditation and go through our daily lives, we begin to see patterns emerging. We may have a thought about ourselves – I’m artistic. We tell everyone that, reinforcing that thought. Yet that is not all that we are – we may be good with animals, gardening, maths, etc. The repetitive thoughts, the ones that we say over and over again to ourselves, become a reality for us. Yet they are still thoughts, not reality. There is no substance to them.

Of course, not all thoughts are bad. We need to think, to work out problems, to get out of bed in the morning even. It is in the attachment to the thoughts that gives them a false substance, a false reality. It also can give us great pleasure, living in this fantasy land of our thoughts – it means the hardships of real life cannot affect us there. We are safe, in the bubble of our thoughts.

Most of us spend a lot of time being controlled by our thoughts – we never even realise it. Much like Sarah, the protagonist in the film, was being controlled by the Jareth, the Goblin King without her knowledge, we aren’t even aware of the power that they hold over us. They make us run around in circles, not getting anywhere, simply thinking, thinking, thinking – where is the doing? Where is the experience? We get angry at someone, and have a thought about that. Then we attach to that thought, and it can affect us for the rest of the day, week, year, or our entire lives. We all have emotional responses to situations, and thoughts about everything – but the attachment to them is where stumble and fall on each and every step. There is no progress – we’ve fallen down the oubliette of our thoughts until we are completely trapped in a small, dark and confined space.

Instead of simply experiencing the anger and then letting it go, we’ve become a prisoner of our thoughts about the situation. And all the while, the Goblin King laughs to himself, safe in his tower, loving to watch us run around in circles as the sands of time run out.

When we sit in zazen, however, we begin to notice our thoughts, our patterns of behaviour. By being the observer, we can take a step back from our thoughts and look at them without attaching to them. We can see the physical manifestations of them in our body as well – a contraction in our jaw, the hunching of our shoulders, our heart beating faster. By becoming aware, of thoughts, and indeed, of all our surroundings, we are better able to respond to situations than before. Sarah didn’t see through the illusion for a long time in the film – even though she was reminded by other characters, time and again, that nothing is what it seems. Slowly though, the illusion wavered, and the cracks in the false reality began to show. The bubble was broken, and Sarah was somewhat freed, for a time. When she finally saw through the illusion fully, and took the great leap into the unknown, literally and figuratively, that’s when she was able to come face to face with the Goblin King himself, to bring him out of hiding and face him in a final battle.

So, after much practice in zazen, after much meditation and time spent being the observer to all the thoughts that run around in our head, without getting caught up in them, we face them down. We say “enough” – we are not going to be controlled by them any longer. We see the thoughts for what they are. The thoughts fight back, with everything that they’ve got – Jareth holds out the most potent, alluring thing that we all hold so dear – our dreams. He offers them to Sarah, but Sarah now sees through the false reality. She then recites the final lines from her book back to the Goblin King, saying the powerful, magical words that will defeat him.

“Through dangers untold and hardships unnumbered, I have fought my way here to the castle beyond the Goblin City, to take back the child that you have stolen. For my will is as strong as yours, and my kingdom is as great. You have no power over me.”

Those six words – “you have no power over me” is what can release us from the labyrinth of our minds, from the traps that our thoughts can create when we attach to them. We suddenly become free, to experience, to return to our pure self, to break loose of the chains and to truly live life to the fullest.

So, the next time we fall into despair, wishing our lives were different, we can simply say those six words – you have no power over me. When our minds are rushing around as we try to meditate, we simply observe them without getting caught up in them, and repeat you have no power over me. When someone says something nasty to us, we feel the emotion, we react (hopefully with compassion) and then we let the experience go, without attaching to it, simply by saying you have no power over me.

Then and only then can the Goblin King be defeated, and we freed from the labyrinth of our minds.

Though, I must admit, I’m sure some of us would prefer to stay in there with David Bowie 😉

Face to Face or Phone to Phone?

phoneSocial media today has led, as many are probably aware, to a serious decline in face to face interaction.  We are a social species, and everyone needs a little social interaction.  What I am discovering more and more is that people are forgetting, or never even learning, the niceties of a social situation – standing in line at the fairtrade coffee house and actually making eye contact with the person in front/behind you, maybe even smiling and talking to them.  I think we all, to a certain degree, need a little social interaction – face to face, even if we are self-proclaimed “not a ‘people person’”.  We are in dire peril of losing all our social graces. And yes, I do realise the slight hypocrisy of making my views aware on an online blog. 🙂

Last month when I went out to dinner with my husband and father in law, I noticed a couple at the table next to us.  They barely said two words to each other – either one or both spent most of the time on their mobile phones – not talking to other people on the phone, but presumably doing something with an app, or most likely checking social network sites.  I was truly saddened by this.  How many people spend their lives, head down, looking at a small screen to catch up with the latest? What about the world going on around them?

A few months before, in a crowded bar my friend and I asked to join a couple of lads at their table, as there were none free and my back was hurting – I needed to sit down.  They kindly agreed, and spent most of the time talking to themselves – fine, I wasn’t looking for conversation with them at any rate.  However, when one went to the bar to get drinks for the both of them, and my friend was also at the bar, I was left alone with one of the lads.  As soon as he was left alone, he went head down to his phone, completely ignoring everything and everyone around him.  Same thing happened at my local pub, sitting at the bar and chatting with the bartender and the bloke next to me – as soon as she left to get an order the bloke next to me put his head down and went straight for the phone.  Why go the pub at all?

What I worry about is the ability to interact with people in real life situations seriously declining.  Mere politeness is on the decrease, as any walk down a busy London street can testify.  I’m not expecting an ethical debate on animal testing, or politics, or whatever from someone standing in line with you, but what I would like to suggest is to put down the phone and at least acknowledge the person near you. Or at the very least, put the device away when you are walking down the street – a friend of mine nearly got run over last year because he was checking his phone.  How many phone related accidents do we need to hear about? Be aware of your surroundings.

One of my work colleagues told me of his New Year’s resolution last year, which I thought was brilliant.  He resolved to never pretend to not “see” somebody – to always acknowledge.  He thought it was really empowering  and I could see why – even when someone has pretended not to see you, you still go up and say “hi!”.  This most basic acknowledgement is such a small, yet significant thing.

Life is happening all around these people who are addicted to their phones, or tablets – using them to block out the world, or to avoid a social situation in which they are not comfortable. But really – it’s not that hard.  Someone isn’t going to bite your head off for smiling at you as you pass them in the street, or waiting in line at the shops.  Even if you are terribly shy – just try it.

I do wonder if there is a serious mobile phone addiction – a couple of days ago I saw a young couple walking out the door of a local recreational pool, both with phones in hands in case anyone should ring them – ready to answer at a moment’s notice.  Are they really that important? Are the callers? What about each other? Is this not a statement that whoever might ring them is more important than the person they are currently with, in person?

I’m sure I have some sympathisers – people who hate it when they go out to the pub or for coffee with a friend, and the friend puts the phone down on the table, right in front of them, face up, in case they receive a Facebook notification, an email or a call.  When I am with someone, I am with them. Fully. I think that anything less is rude, and a little saddening – judgement call, I know.  I really am attempting to understand rather than judge, but I realise I am failing in understanding – unless it truly is an addiction.  What do you think? Are people addicted to their phones? If so, isn’t there something we should do about it?

Lives are being wasted away.  If you are a person who always has their phone on, may I suggest you turn it off for a day, then two, then a week.  See if you have truly missed anything.  Don’t check Facebook for a day, then two, then a week, and again – did you really miss anything?  Be with the person you are with.  Acknowledge others around you.  Take that damned phone off the table and look the person in the eye.  Be there. Awake. Aware.

Dreaming it all up again

The winter solstice is coming up – a time for many across the world to celebrate, whatever their spirituality, if they are religious or not.  For many pagans, and many Druids, the winter solstice is an especially important time of the year, marked in the public eye by the historic landmarks such as Newgrange or Stonehenge.

But it’s the more private celebrations that call to me at this time of year.  Tired after a long year of hard work (with over 30 performances from our dance company, as well as workshops, classes, and filming dvds, on top of writing the next book, Zen Druidry, and oh – yes, my marketing job for a music company…) I am really, really, really looking forward to a couple of week’s rest at the end of December.

This is a time of year when I really connect with my European ancestors and gods – Frigge, the lady of the hearth and home, stands by my shoulder as I spend the evenings baking for my friends and my husband.  I think of my mother’s beautiful hands, remembering them when she was cooking, or stroking the cat – how graceful they are, how unhurried and loving no matter what it was she was doing.  I think of my grandmothers, with their laughter and love, as I drink a toast to them with a little snort of advocaat.  Freya smiles as I snuggle into the warmth of the bed with my husband and cats.

The house is often bathed in the glow of candlelight, with pine scented loveliness drifting through, or the smell of woodsmoke as the fire crackles in the hearth.  Though it is often dark and cold out, the home takes on special importance at this time of year.  A big cleaning is undertaken in readiness for the months where more time is spent indoors, and everything is made just so, for comfort, ease and security.  That feeling of preparedness still hits me late November, early December – make sure everything is good for the next couple of months, for when we will be spiritually, if not physically, snowed in.

For at this time of year, it is the best time to look inwards, to discover your self once again.  Taking the time during the long dark months is perfect – a little meditation instead of the television, for instance, in front of that altar glowing with candles and the smoke of incense drifting through the room.  The nights are so long – what will you do with them? Please, please please – do not watch more television.  Go out with friends. Meditate. Bake. Make love. Walk in the frosty night. But whatever you do, make sure that you take time for yourself.

For me this is the dreaming period, an incubation of sorts.  Time to dream it all up again.  Think on the coming year, and make some plans – holding to them lightly.  Protecting the seeds of your dreams in the darkness of winter, to slowly unfurl when the light returns in the spring.  I absolutely adore it.  There is nothing better than sitting indoors with a cup of hot chocolate, watching the snow fall, if you are so lucky, and simply being in the moment – or walking out with the snow and evening falling silently all around, the smell of winter thick in the cold, swirling air.  Taking inspiration from it all and dreaming, dreaming deep – so deep that when you awaken you are refreshed, and ready for anything.

Take a step back from the manic lights and piped music in restaurants, pubs and shops, and step into your home, touching the frame of the doorway with a soft prayer to the household spirits for their sanctuary.  Let yourself slip into the darkness, lit only by soft candlelight, and let the mind and soul rest for a while.  And may you truly enjoy the holiday season.