Entirely by accident, I conducted a little experiment on myself in the last month or so.
In the lead up to Christmas, I finished up teaching Chakradance and holding shamanic circles for the year. Things were super busy at work and at home, and my yoga and meditation practice waned.
Then we went on a family holiday, which was more family than holiday, it has to be said. And suddenly I found myself in perhaps the worst head space I have been in the longest time.
I was irritable, anxious, unsettled and restless. I didn’t know what I wanted to do or where I wanted to be, but it definitely wasn’t where I was and what I was doing.
I knew I should be meditating and exercising and doing yoga, but I just didn’t feel like it. I didn’t feel like doing anything.
Knowing I was a stone’s throw away from a serious depressive episode, I knew I needed to do something about this funk I was in.
When I got back home, I wrote myself a plan for the remaining days of my holidays. I wanted to paint my studio, and prepare for the classes I would be running in the new year. I wanted to complete the online chakra course I was undertaking, that I hadn’t been able to devote enough time to. I also had enrolled in a meditation course on the centering prayer practice. And the garden looked like a jungle so I had to whip that into shape before I had my students come over.
I wanted to write too…
So I planned out my days, beginning with yoga and meditation, alternating with periods of physical labour, exercise, chores, study and writing. Of course leaving time for my reward activities reading, having a cuppa, catching up with friends and watching the entire seven series of The Gilmore Girls on DVD.
As a result I have been doing several sessions of meditation, yoga, and chakra exercises a day. I have been in the garden, in the sun, reading and writing prolifically.
It took about four to five days for me to realise I felt calm, I could sit still without my mind racing, I didn’t constantly feel like I should be somewhere else doing something else. I felt present, grounded, content.
More than just an internal shift, I was aware the this presence positively impacted my connection with others, where I had felt irritated with my son, and fallen into near constant nagging, I now found myself able to sit and talk with him – and more importantly, listen – about his latest computer game obsession.
‘Holy crap!’ I thought to myself ‘This stuff actually works.’
Which may seem like a duh! moment to many of you. I mean this is what I practice, what I write about. I suppose I just hadn’t had a chance to compare myself with and without these practices for a while. It really took me by surprise for a number of reasons.
First, I think it was a great reminder why these techniques are called practices or disciplines, that’s because you have to actually do them, consistently, regularly, with discipline, to get the results.
Second, I have a short memory. And I don’t think I’m alone here. How many of you have either been sick or injured and thought ‘I will never take my health for granted again!’ That may last for weeks or months, depending on how sick or injured you were, but pretty soon the mind is back to complaining about the traffic and being on hold, and why is my coffee not hot enough?
Being in a state of grace is a little like that. When I’m practising my disciplines, I still feel life with all its slings and arrows, I still get heartbroken and yelled at, and upset. The difference is that I get to empty out regularly. So that stuff doesn’t accumulate. What happened to me in the last month is that all the little shitty bits of life had their way with me, and I hung on to the residue, I wasn’t emptying out my bucket. And pretty soon I was overwhelmed and drowning in my bucket of crappola.
Three, having experienced a more balanced and calm state of mind, pretty consistently for a few years now, I find I now have way less tolerance for being out of sorts.
Now, I’d like to say that I am never going to get slack again, but we all know that’s not true. It’s just a really great opportunity for me to take stock and observe the tangible effects of what I do on my state of mind, body and spirit.
I said it before, I’ll say it again, holy crap, this stuff actually works!
It’s interesting to unpack the components of the daily ‘to do’ list, because I think I intuitively stumbled onto something quite insightful. Without intentionally doing so, I realised my list incorporated aspects of clearing myself physically and mentally – of stresses, concerns, and tension – allowing me to empty out and surrender more fully as I sat in meditation. As I wrote in my last post, it is helpful to smooth and soothe the body and nervous system before we can ‘just be’ in spirit.
From experience I know a day’s plan must balance activities I NEED to do with activities I LOVE to do. My personality disposition lends itself to a ‘work then reward’ system. So I tend to start with something like going to the gym (work) with a period of reading in the sun (reward).
Interestingly I discovered some of the ‘work’ aspects actually made me feel fantastic. After the gym, I had a endorphin high, after half an hour of weeding I felt the soothing effects of having my hands in the soil (more on that in a minute), the invigorating effects of sunshine as well as the sense of satisfaction at seeing the very apparent results of my labours.
Seeing the positive results of these aspects of my day certainly made it more appealing to do the work. I think too, I was reminded that procrastinating over uninspiring or difficult tasks is really draining and even depressing. It feels like the elephant in the room, that thing I’m avoiding, a large inert mass sucking up all my mental and physical energy.
When I talked with a friend recently about my procrastination she told me of a system that worked for her. Basically you set a timer for 25 minutes and you do the activity with the agreement that at the end of that time you can switch to something else.
Faced with a week of time off and a massive to do list, I decided to test this practice out, with great results.
Starting a task when you have only a small allotted time is psychologically motivating. I found I didn’t procrastinate because I had a sense that I didn’t have ‘enough time’ to complete the task. Strangely I found quite a few tasks were more than adequately achieved in that time. Even larger tasks were obviously impacted upon in the time. It seems that by launching into action, and seeing results, the effect was very motivating.
After a few days, as my mood improved, my list was getting smaller and my sense of achievement grew, I found myself looking forward to the very tasks I had been putting off.
One of these tasks was the garden. I have a large garden at the back of my place, which surrounds the studio where I teach Chakradance. As last year intensified, I really let go of maintaining the garden. As such it is now overrun with weeds.
Every time I saw the state of it, I felt a range of negative emotions, shame, dread, self-disgust. It was as if the garden was an outward sign of my inner deterioration.
To be honest, 25 minutes a day seemed like a drop in the ocean of my weedy wilderness, but I knew I had to do something. Once I got past the mental barrier of the overwhelming scale of the task, I really enjoyed the activity. I sat on the earth, I stuck my hands in the soil, the sun was shining, I played music and sang.
During this time I was writing my last post on the base chakra, and I realised this sitting on the earth, alongside my energetic chakra practices was really grounding me.
As I listened to Anodea Judith talk about the earth, she said that one handful of soil contains more diverse microbes than there are people on the planet. Even though we can’t see it, the earth is teeming with life.
Gardening makes me happy, I thought. And then I stumbled upon this article which put some science into my experience. Antidepressant Microbes in Soil: How dirt makes you happy. Apparently the microbes in soil actually contribute to serotonin levels in the brain, and thus may have similar function to antidepressant medication. Not to mention the uplifting effect of sunshine and fresh air – it’s win, win, win! So get your gloves off, and dig those hands in the dirt.
From feeling completely paralysed with a sense of indecision and loss of faith, I have found myself reconnecting with the simple wisdom of daily disciplines. I picked up the book that inspired this blog, The Wishing Year, by Noelle Oxenhandler, and reread it.
What I always loved about this book was the author’s deep scepticism about much New Age thinking – or its lack of critical thinking. And yet, she practises wishing, setting intentions and following them up with the practical hard work it takes to allow them to happen. Noelle writes that magic starts where the practical leaves off – providing the conditions, the synchronicities that allow our practical actions to take root and flourish.
There’s no point wishing for my garden to be weeded, but somehow by creating a beautiful space for my classes, by gardening and painting the studio, it seems to create a shift in my attitude and an energy around my creative space, and suddenly I was receiving calls and bookings for my classes.
Noelle had three wishes – a house, a man and her soul. Whenever I read her intentions they strike a chord so deep inside me. Yes! That’s what I want too!
Inspired and spurred into action, I set my seven intentions for 2016. They may look familiar to some of you…
1. A home
4. Vibrant health
Ah, see they are lovely intentions? Aren’t they? These are the original seven intentions for this blog. And as I write them out and reflect on where I was when I wrote them and what’s happened since, well, I feel a bit teary. Because there’s been massive growth in all those areas.
Last year I got so excited by going to Bali and studying shamanism. It was such a pivotal experience, it showed me I really could do just about anything if I set my mind to it. It seemed so unlikely as a single, working mum that I could disappear off to Bali for three weeks to study shamanism. Bali, the land of the gods, that mysterious paradise that always seemed open to others but not to me.
Intoxicated from my foray into this cocktail of travel and esoteric study, I thirsted for more. I got myself really confused, there were so many appealing possibilities. Should I study shamanism or druidry, should I do this course, or that workshop? Should I travel back to Bali, to Ireland, to India, to Uluru? Should I quit my day job and put all my energy into Chakradance? Should I quit Chakaradance and take a big promotion at a work?
This kind of thinking becomes so all-or-nothing, black-and-white, and yet life takes place in the spaces in between the extremes.
In the end I wound myself up into a tight little ball. A couple of people who know what they’re talking about suggested that if I was serious about commiting to a spiritual path, it didn’t really matter which one I chose, the important thing was discipline and practice. In particular a daily meditation practice. I desperately needed emptying out from this mental maelstrom.
Getting so wound up in future plans that you can’t be in the present moment is the great trap of the modern lifestyle. Life begins in the now, in this present moment, every moment, surrender to this moment and you find your flow. Otherwise you have abandoned your body in the now, whilst your spirit is tripping off into the future, and there’s no wholeness in that.
I’m not saying don’t make plans, but a plan is just a rudder to plot your direction, then you live the journey out in the succession of now moments.
Hence the daily to do list. Bring it back, keep it simple, do what’s in front of you. The basic Spiritual 101 I learned in my early days of 12 step programs.
Since then, the storm has passed, some degree of sanity and clarity has descended. I decide to finish what I have started, namely my Druidic studies and my studies and practice of the chakra system, and shamanic dance. I have settled on a meditation practice, with regular times to engage in shamanic dance and journeying. I’m doing regular exercise. I’m making time to socialise and have some fun.
Oh I know this all sounds paradoxical, making plans and writing lists, setting timers and intentions, yet being in the now and in the flow. And there’s no exact science to it. Some days I’m anxious and out-of-sorts trying to do my list and meditate with a million thoughts raging – a million opportunities to return to God as Cynthia Bourgeault would say. Yet I have found it’s just not possible for my monkey mind to ‘just be’ outside of a certain degree of disciplined practice. ‘Just being’ ends up just lounging around procrastinating and feeling bad about myself for doing so. Or the paralysis of indecision, where to start?
So it is a paradox, but I have also found that sweet spot where it all just works. I’m in my day, I’m following a plan and yet somehow I’m in the flow, things become effortless and enjoyable, my mind becomes quiet. When unexpected things crop up, I allow them space in my day.
Honestly though, I just don’t believe spiritual practice is meant to feel good all the time, I don’t think that’s the end in itself. Feeling calm may be a pleasant by-product at times, but the end itself is that constant intention to return to God, or source, or whatever you call that deep presence, the rest is icing on the cake.
I am rather fond of the icing though…
I have set the intention to go to India at the end of the year, it seems financially prohibitive, but if the last two years have taught me anything, it is that when I set a clear intention, act is if that’s what’s happening, and work towards that reality, it usually happens.
Well, I’ve put it in writing now, so let’s just wait and see…