Reflections on why we might resist doing the things that are good for us
At the start of this year, I published a blog: Finding Time For A Spiritual Practice. It turned out to be a popular one, which suggests to me that finding time for a spiritual practice is something that plenty of people are grappling with.
I promised to follow it up with a series of blogs that include ‘time-efficient’ spiritual connection activities. So, here we go…
This morning I came out to write this blog.
At the beginning of this month, I planned it into my monthly goals. At the start of this week, I set aside a specific time and day in my diary to write and complete it. I chose the morning because I write best in the morning: it’s when I’m more alert and ideas come to me more easily.
I chose Thursday because I had some other more time-sensitive things that I needed to complete earlier in the week. I thought about the best place I could write. I needed somewhere I wasn’t likely to get disturbed and, importantly, most unlikely to find other things to distract myself from the task.
I am now parked up in my little red van in a layby right next to Anglezarke Moor. I won’t get disturbed here, and I have a view out across to the Lancashire coast. I know here I will find my inspiration as I have done before, many times.
The only thing I slipped up with is that I have brought my phone with me, and I have a good signal. That's put me back about an hour as I have played around on social media and sorted through my emails. It's a delaying tactic!
You see, I know my patterns around resisting something that I need to do that I find difficult. I know what my stalling strategies are. I know what blocks I put up in my way. I know myself.
The Ancient Greeks were onto the need to know oneself.
The Temple of Apollo in Delphi was the centre of their world. Inscribed above the entrance to the temple forecourt were these words: ‘know thyself’, according to the Greek writer Pausanias. These two words have inspired philosophers through the ages and informed Socrates throughout his entire career. I rather like these two words too.
Awareness means choice. I am aware of my patterns and can consciously choose to overcome these blocks I put up in my way. This makes the difference between intending to write a blog and getting around to writing and completing one.
So, you might be wondering why I have described my morning in such detail?
It’s because knowing my blocks and how to overcome them also applies to my spiritual practice. And it’s just the same when it comes to allowing myself downtime to play. And when it comes to doing things that are good for my health, such as exercise and having a good diet.
Finding the time for a spiritual practice
When it comes to receiving spiritual guidance, I get information from my spirit guides when I’m out and about on walks, or having conversations with friends, or just generally going about my daily life.
However, I also need to set aside time to carry out specific activities to help me connect more deeply with the spiritual realm. Just as with writing this blog, I have learnt that I need to schedule these activities in. I need to plan what it is that I am going to do and when I am going to do it.
For example, I might schedule a time I’m going to go on a shamanic journey to ask a specific question. Or write into my diary when I am going to go to the woods for some nature time. Or I might leave a whole afternoon free now and then to do… wait for it… nothing. I call this ‘Empty Bowl Time’, and I will come on to why in a moment. First, though, I would like to dip into a little theory and begin to answer this question:
Why don’t I always make time for the things that are good for me?
A friend raised this question in her response to my previous blog and I rather like the wording she has used. I have been working on this for quite some time as this was one of the things that I started to address when I first started therapy sessions in my late twenties. I often reflect on the reasons and have uncovered a number of them throughout the years. I will describe the key ones in this series of time-related blogs over the coming months.
Today, the first I would like to share is the simple fact that the reason I don’t always make time for the things that are good for me is because I am prioritising something else that I deem more important. I am prioritising my need to feel productive. I am prioritising my need to work.
I talked in my previous blog about how I have grown up with the conditioning that I need to work above all else. It began with the regime of school, punctuated every thirty-five minutes by the sound of a bell. It then continued through my career as an environmental consultant and then sustainability manager.
When I set up my own business, after removing the external boss, I discovered that I had grown my own very strict and most imposing ‘internal boss’. It was this awareness that made me explore why this had all come about. I ended up looking back quite a long way, several hundred years in fact, right back to the Industrial Revolution.
Something happened back then that turned a culture of ‘idlers’ into what Tom Hodgkinson calls ‘Servants of Capitalism’.
Tom Hodgkinson is a British writer. Educated at Cambridge University, he started work as a journalist, brought ‘to tears’ by the age of 23 he set up a magazine with his friend Gavin Pretor-Pinney called The Idler.
In his book ‘How to Be Idle’, Hodgkinson sets out how the people of Britain became ‘Servants of Capitalism’, or as Bertrand Russell puts it in his 1982 essay ‘In Praise of Idleness, a ‘Slave State’’.
I will give a potted version of history here, but I thoroughly recommend putting How to Be Idle on your reading list if this interests you, a book that in Hodgkinson’s own words ‘celebrates laziness and attacks the work culture of the western world, which has enslaved, demoralised and depressed so many of us’.
I initially found it hard to believe the fact that people haven’t always had to work so hard. I was taught that the Industrial Revolution was a good thing and that it brought prosperity and higher standards of living. That is, we are better off being alive today than our ancestors were three hundred years ago. Yet, the more I look into this, I find myself being convinced otherwise.
The English historian E. P. Thompson, in his classic book The Making of the English Working Class (1963), argues that the creation of the job is a relatively recent phenomenon and the average man enjoyed a much greater degree of independence than today.
For example, before the Spinning Jenny was invented, weavers were self-employed and worked when they chose to. They had control over their time and weaved when they pleased, with enough money to rent a small piece of land to grow their food. Freidrich Engels wrote in his 1845 study The Condition of the Working Class in England that ‘weavers did not need to overwork; they did no more than they chose to do, and yet earned what they needed.’
Thompson goes on to write how bouts of intensive labour were followed by idleness, much like the ebb and flow of a river. He reflects on how:
‘in 1820, the middle-class observer John Foster noted with horror that agricultural labourers, having finished their work, were left with ‘several hours in the day to be spent nearly as they please … They will … for hours together … sit on a bench, or lie down on a bank or hillock … yielded up to utter vacancy and torpor.’
This posed a problem to capitalists in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries as they needed a ready workforce in order to work their mills and mine the coal to power the machinery. The capitalists needed to transform a population of independently-minded and strong-willed idlers into a disciplined and grateful, hardworking workforce.
A solution was found through the imposition of the new Protestant work ethic as the capitalists used religion as one way to create this message. God was ruthlessly brought in by the capitalists to manipulate the masses. It was God’s will that you worked hard. Thompson wrote that ‘not only the “sack”; but the flames of Hell might be the consequence of indiscipline at work’.
The other way of converting the rural idlers into industrious workers was hunger. Keeping people hungry ensured they would work to earn more money. Then to make them work even harder, they were paid less.
All these factors led to the delusion of a love and intense desire to work, well beyond the point at which an individual is exhausted. Fast-forward to the 21st century, and although the type of work is very different, as well as the pay scale, I can relate to this in respect to how I view work.
Back when I was working in a career within the corporations, I certainly had ‘a love and intense desire to work, well beyond the point at which I was exhausted’. Now I work for myself I still have a ‘desire to work beyond the point that is good for me’.
My life is very different now, and I have a handle on this, but I am still working on it. I am still putting work before my health, wellbeing, time out doing restorative things. I am still turning on my computer in the morning before I have done a sequence of stretches that I know will help my backache. I am still writing out a list of jobs I need to carry out on Saturday morning before I allow myself the rest of the weekend off. I am still working five days in return for two days of downtime.
And I know I am not alone in this.
As Oscar Wilde pointed out, ‘doing nothing is hard work’.
I have used my spiritual practice to help me ‘idle’. Connecting with the spiritual realm means disconnecting from this modern world that’s focused on work and being productive. Spiritual connection is about losing that internet connection for a short while, longer if possible, to plug into another kind of connection: one that is far more ancient.
I decided yesterday evening that the first thing I would do to start my blog was journey to Kestrel. If you have read my blog from last month, you will know that Kestrel has come to me as an animal spirit guide to help me with ‘insight’.
This morning, I was both fascinated and delighted by the synchronicity as I turned out of our lane and headed up towards the moors. As I drove down the road a kestrel swooped in front of my van and led the way for several seconds. I was literally being guided by Kestrel!
Once I had arrived in my layby spot, I settled down in my van, pressed play on my drumming track that is on my phone and journeyed to Kestrel. I began at my Axis Mundi, which is an oak tree. I walked down to my tribe in the Lowerworld, and there was Kestrel, hovering high in the sky above the centre of the camp.
When I asked Kestrel what I should write about today, I heard the words ‘we need to get back to our indigenous ways, to how our ancestors lived. Write about the ancestral lifestyle’. The whole journey took less than ten minutes. That’s just ten minutes to receive the spiritual guidance I was looking for, but I had to schedule it in my diary to get around to going on the journey to receive it
Kestrels guidance led me to think of writing about the work ethic that came about through the Industrial Revolution and why this was, touching in on what life was like before the ‘creation of the job’.
If not kept in check, my life can be full of schedules. It wasn’t always this way, and there is a reason why our lives are so full, and why it is hard to make time to do the things that will most nurture us, the fun things. Play isn’t seen as productive time in the capitalist model. Play is not earning money for someone, somewhere.
Yet, when I have downtime, out in nature, hanging out with my friends and family and generally idling about, ideas pop into my head. My life would be a lot richer if I did more lounging about, but it is a tough one to nail.
Doing nothing is hard
The idea of doing nothing came to me several years ago through an unusual encounter. You may well know that Jason and I have a cat called Blue as he joins from time to time in our online gatherings.
Blue sleeps in the kitchen at night. One morning I came downstairs to find his drinking water bowl had moved about six feet and was now positioned in the centre of the kitchen. The water had vanished and the bowl was empty.
Naturally, Jason and I were puzzled. I went on a shamanic journey to my spirit guides to ask what the meaning was. I was told, ‘the bowl is empty, Nicola’. After coming back from the journey, I googled the symbology and was led to a Taoist philosophy called The Empty Bowl.
The idea behind The Empty Bowl philosophy is the importance of creating space in your life for nothing. If the bowl is full of cereal, it is a cereal bowl. If it is full of nuts, it is a nut bowl. But if the bowl is empty, there is an infinite potential for what it can be. It is the same with our lives. If we fill our lives with things to do, then we don’t allow space for the infinite possibilities to come through.
We need to unplug and create space for nothing.
I find it hard to do nothing. But I make a point of scheduling in time in my diary to do just that: nothing. This looks like Saturdays with no plans and nothing to do, or random afternoons during the week when I shut my laptop down and head off in my little red van to see where I end up. It looks like time out sitting in a woodland with my drum to see what happens. Once I did this at the height of Spring, and a hare walked right past me. She was close enough to touch. She stared me in the eye, then turned her head to sniff a bluebell, and then walked on. Just magical.
The book I am currently reading is called How to Do Nothing: Resisting the Attention Economy by Jenny Odell. Here is what she says in her opening paragraph about doing nothing:
“Nothing is harder to do than nothing. In a world where our value is determined by our productivity, many of us find our every last minute captured, optimised, or appropriated as a financial resource by the technologies we use daily. We submit our free time to numerical evaluation, interact with algorithmic versions of each other, and build and maintain personal brands.”
She goes on to say:
“We still recognise that much of what gives one’s life meaning stems from accidents, interruptions, and serendipitous encounters: the “off time” that a mechanistic view of experience seeks to eliminate.”
It is really hard to unplug. I noticed that it wasn’t just hard for me when we were running a day workshop one weekend. During the afternoon, we set the task for people to going out and choose a stone from the river and then sit in the valley for an hour. Jason and I explained that we would be waiting by the bridge for the duration of the hour, and then when the time was up, we would meet everyone here and walk back together.
What surprised us was that once some people had chosen their stone, they came straight back to us. Others spent five or ten minutes sitting down somewhere but then they returned. Only a few people lasted the whole hour out there, sitting in nature with nothing to do. In this instance, there was nothing to get back for. We weren’t going anywhere, and we were all driving back together. Yet, people chose to congregate by the bridge together rather than sit quietly in nature by themselves.
It struck me how hard it is just to go outside and sit in nature and do nothing. I find it hard to allow myself to do it, and others did too, even when we gave them permission and instruction to do so. And yet nature time is one of the main ways for us to receive our spiritual guidance.
This brings me on to the final piece in this article.
Spiritual connection activities
In my previous blog I said I would set some time-efficient activities to help create time and space for a spiritual practice. So, here is the first one:
Activity 1: 1-hour doing nothing
This task is simple: go and sit in nature, without distraction, for 1-hour.
Now I have set this activity with the awareness that here in the UK, as we are in lockdown, we aren’t allowed to do this beyond our homes. For the time being, modify this activity and if you have a garden, back yard or balcony, sit here instead for the hour rather than out in the countryside.
If you live in a flat and do not have access to space outside then watch a video of nature instead. For premium members of our Mystery School, we have a perfect video for this: Mere Sands Wood Meditation. For non-members you will find something suitable via google, but make sure you choose something without music that has just nature-based sounds and is long.
If you are reading this on the other side of lockdown, or in a country where the lockdown restrictions aren’t in place, then go and find a place in nature. It doesn’t matter where. It could be a park where there are people or a place in the countryside where you aren’t going to come across anyone. If you feel you need to take your phone for safety reasons, do so, but keep it turned off, so you are not disturbed.
Now, here is the trick. Do nothing.
Just sit there and observe.
Observe the environment you are in. Observe your thoughts. And most of all, observe your resistance to this activity.
Once you have completed the hour, journal your experience. Whatever came up for you around resistance is information for you on your spiritual path. Whatever pattern was realised through this process is something for you to work on.
Some examples I can share in my own process are that I say to myself beforehand, ‘I haven’t got time for this, it’s not productive enough', and when I am carrying it out, I notice the impulse I have to check my phone. These are ongoing things I am working on! Yours may be the same or different, but I find it a very insightful process.
I have another couple of activities to suggest to build on this. It doesn’t matter what order you do these three activities.
Activity 2: Journeying to Kestrel
The second activity is to go on a shamanic journey to seek insights from Kestrel.
The intention for your journey is to ask for insights on your resistance. It might be your resistance to your spiritual practice, or resistance to spending time by yourself, or resistance to something else.
If you are a member of The Mystery School, then you can tick this activity off with us this coming Monday, 22nd February, as it’s our monthly shamanic journey circle night. We will be journeying to Kestrel to get insights into our resistance. If you can’t make it on the night there will be the replay to watch.
If you are new to shamanic journeying and don’t know how to go about doing this, we have our free shamanic journeying foundation course that you can access via this link.
I have been exploring resistance within me for some time, well over a decade: my resistance to say no, my resistance to play, and so on. It’s interesting stuff to explore on the spiritual path.
Activity 3: Leaving your bowl empty
The third activity is to give The Empty Bowl a try. Look in your diary and set aside some time to do nothing. This could be anything from a couple of hours to a whole day. Leave the bowl empty and see what fills it.
I did this for the first time several years ago. I ended up driving to the Forest of Bowland in Lancashire and had the best day just pottering about. Since then, Bowland has become a very special place for me now and the place I go to unplug as I can’t get a phone reception there. I still create Empty Bowl sessions, just leaving space empty to see what I end up doing.
A few final words
To wrap up, I would like to revisit that question I posed earlier: why don’t I always make time for the things that are good for me?’
Today I have looked at one of the reasons why: how growing up in a capitalist society has led me to place work above ‘none productive pursuits’ - that is things that are good for me but that aren’t valued in our economy.
There are other reasons as well, and in the next article in my ‘Finding Time’ blog series, I am going to talk about self-worth as a barrier to making time for myself.
In the meantime, you have one month to go on a shamanic journey, go and sit outside for an hour, and experience ‘Empty Bowl Time’. That is a maximum total of between ½ a day and 1 ½ days’ time, depending on how much time you can give to your Empty Bowl session.
Just as a heads up, at the time of writing this blog it is worth noticing that we are approaching the Spring Equinox, which is a time for balance. The Spring Equinox is an opportunity to draw a marker in the sand and move forward with a commitment to approach things differently.
On the day of the Spring Equinox, we are holding a free online celebration and ceremony. It will be on Saturday 20th March, starting at 7 pm and it will be recorded so if you aren’t able to come along on the night you can catch up with the replay afterwards.
This gathering will be a great opportunity to set intentions for moving forward and addressing your patterns of resistance that you identify through these activities I have suggested today. So, if you like the sounds of this, pop the date and time in your diary and watch out for the registration email that we will send out the week before.
I hope you have enjoyed my article and would love to hear your thoughts in the comment box below.
If you have enjoyed this blog, you might also find these other two blogs interesting:
If you aren’t already on our mailing list and would like to be you can sign up using the box on our home page. We hold regular free online events to help you dip into the spiritual practice that we teach and make announcements about these in our mailing list.
And finally, if you wanted to explore going deeper with us, check out The Mystery School as a time-efficient and affordable way to learn about Shamanism and nature connection. We would love to share this adventure with you.