Depression sucks

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A few weeks ago, Nimue Brown over at Druid Life wrote about depression and the loss of meaning, saying:

One of the things I find hardest about depression is the way it strips the meaning out of everything…Loss of meaning brings a loss of direction. It takes all the energy out of anything you might have been doing. It makes it impossible to see what any action might achieve or how it could be useful.

I’ve lived with depression for as long as I can remember. Some of it is biochemical, to do with the way my brain processes serotonin; some of it is environmental, rooted in a dysfunctional upbringing. It’s got better with time – the most frightening aspects of it have faded – but it’s still there.

Depression comes for me in waves and cycles. I know how to spot the early warning signs sometimes: if I’ve been very active for a long period of time with work, social life, writing, whatever, then there is likely to be a corresponding crash into inactivity and isolation. Loss of sleep, appetite or interest in things I normally enjoy are all red flags that a depressive wave is building on the horizon.

And then sometimes I don’t notice. Sometimes it’s easy to go through life without realising that every day is starting to feel like the last, that I’m becoming more numb, waking without being rested, going to work like a zombie doing the minimum I can to get by, coming home exhausted, not exercising, not caring what I eat or drink, and collapsing in bed at the end of it all, knowing I won’t sleep despite how tired I feel.

I can do that for a few weeks at most before it really hits, and knocks me off my feet and means I have to take time off work, especially when the mental awfulness is accompanied by physical symptoms: headaches, migraine, nausea, fatigue, confusion.

It’s at times like this that my spiritual life suffers most of all: and ironically it’s at times like this that I need the benefits of a spiritual practice most of all. Meditation has been shown to have positive effects on depression (Goyal, Singh, Sibinga, et al, 2014). Yet when in the midst of depression’s fog of lethargy, finding the motivation to meditate is next to impossible. And I can’t form ideas at these times well enough to write, reading gives me headaches, and fatigue prevents me from going walking in the woods. So Druidry kind of dries up.

All of this is to offer some explanation for my erratic to non-existent posting on here lately. But as my body has made me ill again, I see this as its way of telling me to rest, so I have been. Hopefully this will help, because I have lots I want to do.

I had a lovely comment on one of my old 30 Weeks of Druidry posts the other day that really made my day, knowing that someone was reading my thoughts and finding them interesting. I hope to pick up the 30 Weeks again, and actually commit to weekly postings, as well as the Explorations in Ogham series that has fallen by the wayside a bit too.

I read a few health and fitness websites from time to time, and one message I remember seeing quite often is that motivation alone won’t get anything done. If you only exercise, or write, or practice on days when you feel motivated, then those practices will fail at the first demotivated day. But if you build up discipline and do those things whether you feel like it or not, then the momentum of just doing it should help to carry you through the slump and out the other side. And I have no doubt there will be an other side; I’ve been through enough depressive cycles to know that if I ride it out, I’ll have another period of stability and normality again (for a week, a month, a year – how long I don’t know).

But riding it out sucks. Depression sucks. Literally: it sucks your energy, optimism, hope, and joy. I don’t know if it can be beaten, but it can (it must) be lived with.

So, I lifted some very light dumbbells this morning before I had to give up and lie down on the floor; then I sat at my shrine and meditated for a whole three minutes (wow, right?), and drew a divination reading that felt very hopeful. I’ve been out in the garden for a bit. And I’ve written this rambling nonsense, so hey…blog win? They’re tiny steps, embarrassingly small, but they’re not nothing. And the fog is starting to shift.

See you on Sunday for another 30 Weeks of Druidry post, on Wednesday for another Explorations in Ogham post, and then again on Friday for a review of a great new Druidry book I’ve just finished reading. See, I’m doing stuff!

Until then, take care, and if you feel any of this sounds familiar, here are some resources to help:

Mind.org.uk

MoodJuice self-help guide

The Samaritans

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Druidry in the doing

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It feels like I haven’t written about Druidry in ages. I certainly haven’t been keeping to my self-imposed schedule of twice weekly posts on the 30 Weeks of Druidry and Explorations in Ogham challenges, which I feel guilty and anxious about until I remember that I set the schedule, nobody’s checking in on me, and that means I can change it!

But my blog-silence doesn’t mean that Druidry has fallen by the wayside. Far from it: the main reason I’ve been unable to find the time to sit at a computer and write about Druidry is that I’ve been spending more time doing Druidry, at least doing things that I feel are Druidic anyway.

A quote I saw online (ironically) once said that “internet Paganism is not Paganism” and that’s something worth remembering. Especially as a solitary practicioner away from a local Pagan community, my path can easily become “internet Paganism”, more blogposts than blackbirds, more Facebook than forests.

When all your Druidry is digital, what is there of real, physical, nature? How much can you connect to the gods of land, sea and sky sat on your sofa?

I had another study weekend with Druid College at the end of April, just before Beltane. It was a weekend of personal challenges, facing some fears, and also a weekend of sitting barefoot in a wooded grove of oak and beech, meditating, chanting and singing. Without going into too much detail, something happened. Some small, subtle thing shifted in my subconscious, a tiny brain-hedgehog waking up from hibernation, twitching its whiskers in the warm spring air, sniffing at the scent of blossom and new life.

And so, as softly as a summer breeze, my Druidry (or what I thought of as my Druidry) was blown off course, and all I could do was ride the thermal current, a leaf on the wind. It led me away from the screen and away from books and essays (*cough – sobehindonmyhomeworkandstartingtopanic – cough*) and outdoors. Not to wild rugged romantic places, but to my own back garden, my local paths, the intriguing beauty of the fens.

I’ve been working in the garden more, putting in a pond for frogs and toads, planting wildlife-friendly shrubs, leaving a patch of lawn to become a grass-and-wildflower meadow. As I do so, I notice nature more. The species of trees that make up my mixed hedgerow, the movement of the great old willow, the play of squirrels, the territorial scraps of robins and blackbirds, the rooks who leave their roosts as I leave for work and return home as I’m having dinner in the evening.

I celebrated Beltane (which is, as all Pagan festivals are, a season not just a day), with a small ritual but also by going to a local folk festival and seeing Green Man costumed morris dancers, drinking local beer and cider, and later by cooking over an open fire in the garden. To me, all this is Druidry.

Waking, I greet the sun and the new day. Retiring, I greet the moon and the night. Cooking, I honor the plants I eat. Walking, I try to notice the land and hear its song, not be wrapped up in my own thoughts. Exercising, I strive to honour my own body as part of nature, as a sacred creature to love not to hate. Relaxing with my partner and our pet gerbil, I experience the bliss of connection to another living being.

None of this is particularly mystical, or intellectual, or specifically Pagan. But all of this is Druid. As my Druid teacher, Joanna van der Hoeven put it, “Druidry is loving nature and allowing that love to inspire you to live your life accordingly.”

And you know what? Stepping away from the screen and finding Druidry in the small daily moments has deepened my practice. Knowing about Druidry and actually being Druid are not the same thing, and it’s important sometimes to leave the books and websites and study, and get your hands dirty.

Druid’s block

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Like writer’s block, Druid’s block can sneak up on you unannounced.

Maybe it’s the weather, which turned from burgeoning spring to winter overnight, with the “Beast from the East” blanketing the ground with deep snow and Storm Emma biting people’s faces with icy winds.

Maybe it’s tiredness, maybe it’s my recurring cycles of depression. But I just haven’t been feeling “Druid” this past week at all.

Back in my Catholic days, an old Jesuit priest gave me a bit of advice that has stayed with me, despite my shift in theology. He said that it isn’t about how you feel – what’s important is just doing the work. Even if it feels like you’re faking it or going through the motions. The block will shift over time, and at least you’ll have built a consistent habit.

Like all good advice, I’m good at remembering it, but bad at acting on it. It’s easy to meditate, do ritual, take time to walk in nature, and be Druid when you feel like it; when the sun is shining and you have a spring in your step. It’s harder to keep doing those things when it’s dark and cold, within and without. But in darkness there is transformation.

Ancient structures like Newgrange, or the stone lodges found on some Scottish islands, seemed to have been used for initiations. You would go deep into the darkness of the mound, a place that is both womb and tomb, and in that darkness and silence something would grow. Then as the sun’s light passed through the entrance and illuminated the walls, you would emerge, reborn, with new knowledge. The Bardic tradition tells us that Bards would lie in darkness with a stone on their chests to wait for inspiration, Awen, to descend. Then they would emerge into the light and speak poetry.

Maybe in the long dark teatime of the soul (apologies to both Douglas Adams and John of the Cross), there is a similar process, an initiation of sorts.

I lit my candles on my shrine this morning, said the words that have grown over time to be my personal liturgy, and sat there. I think it helped – but that isn’t the point. The point, as that old priest said, is just doing it.

There won’t be a 30 Weeks of Druidry post this week, and there probably won’t be an Explorations in Ogham on Wednesday either. Normal service will resume shortly, and I thank you for your patience. Until then, I’ll keep doing the work.

Thoughts from the North

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I recently went for a weekend to Tromso, in Northern Norway, some 200 miles North of the Arctic Circle.

It was, as can be expected, dark and cold. But in that darkness and cold, there was beauty. The city itself glittered with lights, each cozy cafe and home lit with lamps, lanterns and candles throughout the long nights, when the sun rose late morning and then set again before lunchtime.

Beyond the city, the fjords and mountains gleamed white with snow, shining in the weak winter sun for the short days, reflecting the moon’s silver glow at night.

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Whenever I find myself a little too hemmed in by the world, a little too uncomfortable in my own skin, a little too regimented by routine-becoming-rut, I go North. There is something in the true wilderness of snow, water, forest and mountain, that re-enchants the spirit, that makes you feel at once so very small yet also connected to it all. The landscape becomes more than scenery. With the chill air and biting wind, the outside enters in, the mountains, forests, snow and water become part of you. The air in which the white-tailed sea eagles soar is the same air you breathe. The boundaries of land, water, sky and self become ethereal, thin, permeable.

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On a boat trip across the fjords, aboard a 19th century schooner, I felt that permeability. The landscape, white snow, grey rock, grey-blue water, grey sky, changing yet constant. Visible markers of the distance we travelled were few and far between, and with the sound of the engine and the water splashing against the hull as a constant travelling companion, time itself seemed to slow, or to become strange and artificial. Were we sailing for an hour or a day?

Then warm soup in the crowded galley below decks, hot coffee and the strange late-evening sleepiness as the sun set over lunch. A return to harbour, a bus ride through the mountains, a journey back to the human world.

Now, back home, the comparatively long days and mild winter (unreasonably, unseasonably mild – the consequence of a changing climate making itself known in the language of vague unease), still take some getting used to. But it is good to know that, beyond the world of work, beyond the poisoned stream of news, some 2,000 miles away, the white-tailed sea eagles still soar, and the cold waves still lap on stony shores.

 

Tending the soil

green-2551467_960_720I came back from Druid College in October wanting to “do all the things”: all the meditation, nature awareness exercises, essays, explorations and more and be a kick-ass awesome Druid. Then Michaelmas Term hit.

I work in a university, and Michaelmas Term, when all our new students arrive and are suddenly burdened with work to do, is one of the busiest times of the year. To top it off, it was my first Michaelmas in a new job and I had no idea what I was doing. As well as this, chance had ordained it so that I was busy pretty much every weekend in October and November, often travelling as well, sometimes close to home, or as far away as Northern Norway (something for another post there). All of which meant that I was pretty constantly busy, stressed and tired for the past two months, which meant that my Druid practice fell completely by the wayside. It also meant I got ill. A lot.

Now, as the frantic pace is beginning to settle, and the holiday time is approaching with its much needed respite, I find myself turning inward, evaluating the year past and dreaming of the year to come. In the dark time of the year, I see reflected my own darkness, that inner place of silence and stillness that yet is also the place of shadow, of uncertainty and of fear.

What do I fear? Judgement from others I suppose. Like most of us, I have an urge to keep busy, to be productive, to work hard, to prove my worth. This is natural to an extent, but is also indoctrinated in us by the capitalist growth economy we live in. But winter, and sometimes the illness caused by doing too much all the time, says otherwise. Rest and recovery are important too.

2017 has been a big year, and not always for good reasons. Both globally and personally it has been a year of dramatic change and upheaval and while some of those personal changes (getting a new job, starting Druid College) have been good things, they still bring with them the disruption of the new, the different. 2018, I am determined, will be a year of recovery and of growth, not necessarily fighting back, though that is sometimes needed in the face of social and political evil, but of putting down roots and slowly, consistently, growing.

I was out in the garden this morning tending to some December tasks, and I realised that to grow tasty new veggies in the spring, one of the tasks now is to tend the soil and make it ready. Without good soil, nothing will grow, no matter how much you work or worry about it.

So, what if the same is true for life? While I try to take a holistic view of what it is to be human, if we pragmatically use the traditional division of body, mind and spirit (a good Druidic triad), we can see that each of these only grows in its own good soil.

The soil of the body is health, which means eating real food, getting plenty of movement (ideally outdoors even in winter), and the right amount of sleep.

The soil of the mind is learning, reading good books, watching documentaries, listening to educational podcasts, writing and thinking.

The soil of the spirit is silence. There’s a reason religions of all cultures and traditions have a place for silence in their devotions.

So this December, and going into the new year, I want to begin to tend the soil, to prepare for the coming seasons in a way that enables growth. But I want to do so without making it a chore. When exercise, meditation, or writing feel like something I have to do, then I immediately don’t want to do it. If I can try to see them not as more tasks to take on but as a break from tasks, as a way of taking care of myself rather than “being productive”, maybe then I can appreciate their gifts.

Rather than focusing on “getting in  shape”, what if I just moved more? Rather than worrying about reading lists, what if I just read the books I want to read? Rather than beating myself up over missing a daily meditation, what if I just spent time at my home shrine each day?

Easier said than done, I’m sure.

Tonight is a full moon, the Cold Moon as the December full moon is known, and is also a “supermoon” making it appear large and bright in the sky. In Druid tradition, the full moon is a time for meditating on peace, in our lives and in the world. In witchcraft, it is often seen as a time for gaining an extra “boost” of energy to create change in our lives.

May it bring both peace and vitality. /|\

 

Man, I feel like a…what now?

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The other day, on Facebook, I saw a meme about men. Specifically, it was (rightly) making fun of the idea that a man “wants to feel like a man”, and that women should somehow facilitate this for them. Nonsense, obviously, and justly pilloried.

What stuck with me, though, was this idea of “feeling like a man”. I replied with a jokey comment about cutting down trees and fighting bears, but when I think about it, I have absolutely no idea what this actually even means. What is it to “feel like a man”? For that matter, (with apologies to Shania) what is it to “feel like a woman”?

In some Pagan traditions, biological sex and sociological gender roles play a central part in the mythopoesis, theology and praxis of that tradition. Think of the concepts of god/goddess “polarity” or duality, the idea of the alchemical marriage of male and female, the gendering of the earth as “mother” and the sun as “father”.

A sacred-masculine-and-sacred-feminine ideal enshrines a binary view of gender as sacred. The myths of the god and the goddess making love and giving birth enshrine a heteronormative sexuality as divine. The archetypal goddess in her aspects of maiden, mother and crone enshrines a particular view of femininity as involving reproduction and motherhood. The archetypal god perhaps seen as hunter, warrior, father can do the same for men.

I’ve written about this before, of course. And to be fair, much of modern Paganism does have a more progressive, open and nuanced understanding of gender than mainstream society does.

But I keep coming back to this idea of “feeling like a man”. And how I literally don’t understand it. Because I don’t feel like a man.  I just feel like me. I have no strong association to the concept of gender, and even less so to the roles society tells me “as a man” I should follow.

Gender, and individual identity, are more complicated than that, and I often don’t feel like I fit on the “masculine” end of the spectrum. But I don’t feel like I fit on the “feminine” end either. But that’s the point – it’s a spectrum, and I am gradually learning to come to an acceptance of my body being the way it is (i.e. not the one I would have chosen if life was like a choose-your-character video game).

While I find binary views of gender in some forms of Paganism unsettling, there is within Druidry a way of resolving binaries. The central symbol of Druidry, the Awen, has three lines, three rays of light:  /|\

John Michael Greer, in The Druidry Handbook, writes about finding balance through what he calls “ternary thinking”.

Every ternary, according to this teaching, consists of two things opposed to each other, and a third that connects them. Thinking in ternaries considers both differences and similarities.

Greer points out that ternary thinking is prevalent throughout Celtic myth and Druid practice, and that societies habituated to thinking this way “offer glimpses of a more balanced way of life”.

Perhaps ternary thinking can be applied to questions of gender dynamics in Paganism, and in wider society as well. Then it could be seen that everyone is not either male or female, but that people can contain both and neither. They can feel strongly aligned to one or other end of the spectrum (including the “opposite” end to the gender they were assigned at birth), or fit somewhere along the middle, or not feel part of the whole thing at all.

The increasing use of the singular “they” and “them” as a gender-neutral pronoun signals a shift to this way of thinking, and is one I welcome whole-heartedly.

In my own Druid practice, I tend not to gender natural forces or the divine. The earth as mother can be a useful symbol, but it’s an intriguing thought experiment to consider what changes if we thought of the earth as father? What about neither?

Of course, the earth isn’t female, just as the sun isn’t male. The earth is the earth. The sun is the sun. The thunder, the sea, the sky, the moon, the stones; they just are.

Nature isn’t confined to a gender binary: there are asexual trees, self-replicating slime moulds, parthenogenetic aphids, fish that switch from male to female and back several times in their lives. And, well, we all know what happened with female frog DNA in Jurassic Park. The world is far too diverse to fit into neat human-constructed boxes. As Druids, as Pagans, when we honour nature, I feel we should honour it as it is, not as an anthropomorphised facsimile of mid-twentieth century western ideas of gender and sexuality.

When we learn to see things as they are, not as we are, we can truly connect to each other, to nature, and to ourselves. And perhaps then we can be less concerned about “feeling like a man” or otherwise, and just allow ourselves to feel.

 

Running as connection

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I went for a run today.

Not exactly earth-shatteringly important news to share on here, but it was significant for me. I’ve been getting out of shape lately, working a pretty sedentary job and having various mental health crises that led to me not looking after myself very well, so lacing up my shoes and getting out the door was a big deal.

There are some wooded trails around my neighbourhood, which I am very lucky to have, so I went down one of those, and I noticed that running can be more than just pavement-pounding for the sake of losing a few pounds.

I noticed the fruit on the elder tree, ready to be picked to make elderberry wine, and the ripening blackberries on the hedgerows (I even nibbled a couple, the sweetness giving me that extra bit of energy to keep going). I noticed the birds calling, and flying overhead, the squirrels bouncing from branch to branch. I heard the wind whispering through the willow leaves, and felt it on my face, cooling me down as I started to overheat with the exertion of running for the first time in ages.

I felt the earth beneath my feet, felt the change in texture and pressure as I moved from hard pavement to gravel trail to grassy field.

I saw the sun break through the clouds, three rays of light softly cascading down like an Awen symbol, inspiring me to keep going.

And as I ran, I noticed that I had no room in my head for other thoughts, for work or the news or TV or Twitter. Just my body, the earth beneath me and the air around me.

It was a sensation of simply “being”, one part of nature surrounded by other parts of nature, in this moment, sharing a physical connection.

I had never thought of exercise as being in any way spiritual, just seeing it as another tiring chore. But being out in nature, appreciating the air and the sun and the land, felt like meditation (only better as I actually had something to do rather than just sit there). No words, no ritual, no symbols, just the physicality of movement, the inhalation and exhalation of air, and the rhythm of feet on earth.

On a Sunday, while other people may be going to church to connect with their vision of the sacred, I’ll be out in the woods, running along the trails, connecting with mine.

*Note: I don’t intend this to come off as in any way ableist: I am aware that many people who practice Druidry/Paganism have health and/or mobility issues that make running impossible. This in no way limits their ability to connect with the sacred, and in no way suggests that physical activity is “better”. I am simply sharing my experience today.