Spirituality

What does it mean to be ‘spiritual’?

For years, I resisted this word, connecting it to religion, man-made (as opposed to woman-made) structures, strictures, boxes, rules and shame. ‘The spiritual man’ is a concept discussed in the bible and many born-again Christians talk about ‘being in the spirit’, or being ‘spirit-led’ and they may be talking about being moved to pray, or heal, or speak in tongues. I was not raised to believe in these modern Pentecostal practices and indeed the brethren church in which I was raised preached that they were actually devilish. So any mention of ‘spirituality’ has previously made me deeply suspicious, deeply sceptical or deeply bored.

Photo by James Wheeler on Pexels.com

In the brethren, ‘spirituality’ meant MEN praying in deep, monotonous voices: ‘Our Heavenly Father we thank thee today for thy great mercy in giving thine only begotten son for our heinous sins and crimes against thee’, by which time my inner child is screaming to run away and dive into the sea and swim for the nearest ship to take me as far away as possible. And the Pentecostal tongues, happy clapping, dancing, Toronto blessing style of spirituality I find simply baffling. If anything, I put it down to the charismatic nature of a large crowd egging one another on to greater displays of abandonment.

Despite these negative views of spirituality, I have known forever that there is something in me and in others that constitutes a beautiful knowing and wisdom that is beyond logic or explanation. It’s what I felt when I sat in church listening to a compelling preacher and tears came into my eyes when they preached about God’s love and mercy. It was in the power of the words and the power of the love in their hearts, that thrummed in their voices and thrilled even the air. It’s what I felt when I first heard the second movement of Beethoven’s ‘Moonlight Sonata’ and lay on the floor, unable to move, physically trapped by the mighty power of each unspeakably sad outpouring of Beethoven’s grief-stricken heart. It’s what my brother felt when he was at an abbey on holiday, standing in front of a set of stone steps that were worn by the bare feet of monks, many thousands of monks through the ages who trod those steps in prayer and contemplation and Jon felt that inner knowing and awe that I have come to call spirituality.

I don’t believe in mediums and fraudsters who claim to be in touch with the dead. Having born witness to the great Derren Brown’s ability to ‘read minds’ using trickery, memory and neuro-linguistic programming, I think these people are using the same skill set and conning people ruthlessly and callously. But I was once hosting a German student who had become depressed and increasingly lonely, sitting in her room reading every day and even avoiding her friends. For her 18th birthday, I decided to make her favourite cake and invite some of her college friends over. As I was whisking up the ingredients for a black forest gateau, in my kitchen, alone, thinking of her and her inexplicable sadness, I found myself rooted to the spot, unable to move. A tingling feeling took hold of every atom of my body, tears came into my eyes and I was filled from top to toe with the deepest, most profound love that I have ever experienced. In that moment I knew that her father loved her and was thinking of her and that I should tell her so. I didn’t hear a voice but I experienced a knowing and, when the tingling stopped and I returned to normality, albeit very shaken and confused, I considered how to share this information with her.

The next morning, she emerged from her room for a coffee and some breakfast, and I said I’d like to talk to her about something that she might find confusing and odd, and that my intention was not to upset her. I shared my experience and the feeling that her father wanted her to know how much he loved her and was thinking of her, at which point she broke down in tears and explained that her father had died in a car accident when she was seven. She had been thinking of him for the past few weeks and wishing that he could see her at 18, becoming an adult. I held her as she cried, and witnessed her return to her bubbly self later that night when her friends came for her little party, and I knew that this was a spiritual experience that had nothing to do with church, or religion, or anything man-made of any type. It had never happened before nor since and I do not think of myself as psychic. I believe that something greater than me occurred, that could well be explained by psychology, buried memory or intuition, but the explanation does not matter when the outcome was nothing but pure love and healing.

I used to want to have a set of beliefs that would be unchanging, wise and ever-helpful. I looked to books, programmes, philosophies and theories to try to find them. When I left the brethren there was a gaping empty hole in my way of being because up until then there had been certainty, security, community and structure. Anyone who has left a fundamentalist church will know the aching emptiness that happens when it is gone. It goes far beyond the loss of friends and the community. We were shaped by that religion. It is in our DNA. Without it, we are lost, like de-programmed computers that don’t function properly. But we aren’t computers. We can think outside of the conditioning and brainwashing. We left the fundamentalism because, despite the loving community that it provided, it hurt us and harmed us. I was offended by the shunning of a friend, the demands that my six year old child cover her head and the rigid and often contradictory, cherry-picking interpretation of the Bible. As I completed a literature degree as a mature student, I began to see the Bible as a collection of texts, with fascinating historical contexts, and I began to see the brethren’s insistence on seeing it as one cohesive message from God as an addiction.

Because we aren’t computers, we can re-programme ourselves by learning who we are outside of our conditioning. It’s hard, because it seems like everything. But since I left, over fifteen years ago, I have realised that my deepest self is wise and good. Somebody told me to ‘head for the light’ when I was lost in a bad situation and wildly grabbing for external guidance. When I thought about it, I knew what he meant. The light of intuition, the lodestar of MY truth. These are my truths: life is not fair, we cannot control people and love is the only thing that matters. Love for others and love for ourselves.

My truth actually resonates with what Jesus said, and every other religious leader that ever existed. It’s not the religious leaders that are at fault in this world: it’s the humans that grab it and twist it and make it a tool to control or manipulate. Inside and outside of churches, there are beautiful, wise, loving souls who live in light and love.

When I am digging the allotment and Mr Robin comes and waits for a worm, I feel an inner peace wrought in silence, physical exercise and the energy of nature. When I write, I am lost in the quest to speak truth and bring value to myself and others. When I walk in the mountains or look at the stars, I experience that inner knowing that I have come to call spirituality. I’m not sure what it is that I know. God? Possibly. But I have so many issues with the name ‘God’, infused as it is with patriarchal bollocks.

I know that there is more, so much more, than what we can understand or explain. I know that there is an energy, a lifeforce, a mighty power in every leaf, beetle, cloud and rainbow that we can’t explain or understand. I know that we’re connected to the stars and the cosmos and that a newborn baby carries in its tiny, helpless body and searching, grasping fingers the very essence of the divine love from whence it came. And I know that, when I die, I will return to that divine energy. While we live, we can be spiritual, when we are still for long enough to notice. The fact that it escapes definition and can’t be captured in words matters not; if it could, it would become something else, trapped and limited within the confines of human communication. And it’s so much more than that.

How not to do the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge

How not to do the Yorkshire Three Peaks Challenge

In order to raise sponsorship money for my sixteen year old son’s school trip to Peru with Camps International, we decided to attempt the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge.   Our initial idea, to complete the National Three Peaks attempt, was a logistical headache for a full-time teacher and single mum with limited date options, no time to organise a group effort, and a summer house move.  The Yorkshire option takes less time, is straightforward in terms of driving and accommodation and is allegedly manageable for anyone with a decent level of fitness.  I duly looked up the official challenge website, ordered a pack of information and maps, booked a date, told Billy to keep it free and got round to thinking about planning the finer details a few days before going.

(First: don’t leave planning until the last minute)

Planning the trip so late in the day was risky but luckily I managed to find accommodation at The Station Inn for £12.50 per person per night.  The Inn is only eight miles away from the start at Horton-in-Ribblesdale and is a friendly, traditional country pub with hearty food and a bunkhouse for walkers or bed and breakfast in the inn.  We wanted to spend as little as possible as the trip was a fundraiser.  It was a last minute panic, though, as several places were fully booked and I had underestimated the enormous popularity of the Yorkshire Dales as late as October.  The day before leaving, we hurriedly checked the map, thinking it would be easy to map out the suggested route.  The pack from the Yorkshire Three Peaks challenge website includes three Ordnance Survey maps, one for each peak and surrounding areas, as well as a little plastic card per peak.  The cards are helpful as little pocket-sized reminders but aren’t detailed enough for use as standalone directions.  No doubt the maps are accurate and up to date but we have no experience of reading them and the symbols and lines left me befuddled.  However, we weren’t too concerned as some friends had assured us that the paths are really easy to find and that the route is well signed.

(Second:  Don’t believe people who say the route is obvious)

If you don’t know how to map read with a compass, learn.  Or take somebody who knows how.  Just don’t try starting in the half-darkness at 6.50am in October, armed with a map that you can’t read very well and no idea which direction to take.  We arrived at Horton-in-Ribblesdale at 6am in the pitch black and waited in the car until it was light enough to start.  The night before, in the pub, we’d chatted to the group at the next table, who had paid for a guide and were starting at 6.30am.  With no idea how long we’d take to walk round, we got up at 5 next morning, grabbed a roll and a cereal bar each, glugged some water and left for the Horton car park, which took about 20 minutes.  A guy who had arrived even earlier, and was parked near us, was walking about with his head torch on (oh yes, taking a head torch would have helped at this point) and, when we met at the ticket machine, I discovered that he was the other group’s paid guide, had driven up from his home in the Peak District, and was just waiting for his clients. 

(Third:  Research the hours of daylight in advance)

It would have made more sense for us to check the time of sunrise and sleep a bit longer at the inn, as we ended up dozing with our seats tipped back until we began to see the light seeping through the trees and decided to make a start.  We knew, from various websites, that walkers can officially check in at the Pen-y-ghent café, which is next to the village car park, in order to receive an official time, but figured that the café would be closed at that time in the morning, so we made a note of the time and left.  Later, we discovered from other walkers that we could have signed a slip of paper with our names and start times and put it through the door, doing the same on our return.   

We left before the other group arrived, full of confidence that there would be a clear sign, hopefully with ‘Yorkshire Three Peaks’ written in large letters for all to see.  Our little card told us to start at Horton train station and take the footpath to Brackenbottom and then on up to Pen-y-ghent.  There was no sign for Brackenbottom anywhere and no sign of a footpath.  It was so cold that thinking was difficult and so foggy that seeing further than a few metres was impossible.  We felt ill-equipped and scared of going the wrong way and wasting time, so decided to wait for the group and see where they went.  When they saw us loitering with our teeth chattering it was obvious that we had no idea what we were doing and we accompanied them over the railway crossing, onto a footpath, and into the surrounding fields in the swirling mist.  I confessed to the oldest man in the party that we were struggling to make sense of our map and offered to pay something towards the cost of their guide if we continued to tag along with them.  He was very gracious about it and said not to worry, the guide had already been paid, but agreed that I would buy them all a drink later in the pub and maybe give the guide a tip.  All very good, but clearly we shouldn’t have been so blasé about finding the way.

Filled with determination and anticipation, we strode along for a few miles.  After around an hour, we started to climb.  Periodically, I was checking the OS map for Pen-y-ghent, trying to figure out where to go if we ended up going ahead or falling behind.  It made absolutely no sense.  We didn’t appear to be heading towards Pen-y-ghent, according to my reckoning, but I trusted their guide and we stayed with them until we reached the craggy ascent.  The pleasant, wide field path became paved, narrow, slippy and steep, winding its way around the mountainside.  Billy and I walked ahead and resolutely ploughed on until we reached a plateau near the top.  As I headed around the last sharp bend, Billy was standing on the ridge with the sun almost breaking through the white, opaque mist and the ethereal light lent a mystical quality to the scene.  We stopped and played around with our phones, taking pictures for a while, both entranced. 

Early morning wonder

Approaching a looming, stone-built monument, we figured we must be at or near the summit, and managed, with freezing fingers, to hook out our first rolls and cereal bars from our rucksacks, painstakingly and clumsily unwrapping them and rewarding our efforts with some high-energy snacks.  We did get the food right!  We had made up five rolls and five bagels, filled with peanut butter, wrapped them in cling film and packed them into plastic bags the day before.  We had also packed about ten cereal bars and ten bananas, as well as six or seven 330ml bottles of water each.  Towards the end, a couple more water bottles would have been welcome, but what we took felt ok.  Replenished, we looked at the direction card and the map again and found it of no help whatsoever.  There didn’t appear to be any path apart from the one on which we had ascended, yet according to the OS map, there should be another that would begin our long haul to Whernside via the Ribblehead viaduct.  We wandered the ridge for a while, found nothing, got a little concerned about falling over the edge, circled back to the monument, heard voices and reunited with the other group.  When one of them asked if we had a compass, and we replied in the negative, he looked pityingly at us and I admitted that we evidently didn’t have a brain between us.  This didn’t appear to impress him.  We followed them back down the way we had come, which completely baffled me, forking off to the left and down a very steep, slippery and treacherous route all the way down to flatter ground, where we took a paved, well-maintained path through very boggy land for an hour or so, eventually reaching a road.  Assuming that we’d want to go ahead again, the guide pointed towards a distant zigzagging trail up the side of a ridge and said that this was the way up to Whernside.

‘Whernside?’ I queried.  According to my route, that should have been a ten mile hike, and we must have only done a couple.   I was still utterly confused and asked the guide to show me our current location on the map.  He looked at it and pointed out that it was the map of Pen-y-ghent. 

‘Yes’, I replied.

‘We’ve just done Ingleborough.  Your route is taking you anti-clockwise.  I’m taking them clockwise’, he informed me.

It took a few seconds for this stunning piece of information to sink in.  It was slightly weird to realise that we had climbed a different mountain to the one we thought we had climbed, but at least the map now made sense.  Not wishing to go on about it, as our ineptitude was becoming a glaringly apparent embarrassment, Billy and I walked steadily ahead all the way to the top of Whernside, determined to manage independently now we knew which direction we were going in.  The climb up this way was tough.  Really steep and intense and near the top my asthma kicked in and I wheezed like a steam train for about three minutes, wishing I’d brought my inhaler.

(Fourth: don’t tell yourself you won’t need your meds)

After feeling faint and almost vomiting, I thankfully recovered my breathing and carried on.  Following the ridge up to the peak was less challenging – a nice, steady climb – and the midday sun infused the shades of auburn, brown and green with a vibrant, iridescent quality.  The undulating moors swept away epically towards the surrounding horizon where distant peaks formed a dramatic frame for this massive panorama.    It was warm now and we walked comfortably, stopping briefly at the peak and chatting to a seventy year old lady who had been climbing these dales since she was a lass and looked as solid and indestructible as any of them. 

Billy wasn’t keen on stopping for too long.  He isn’t competitive, he reminded me, along with his opinion that I was the one who would be gutted to fail the twelve hour time limit.  The path down to the Ribblehead Viaduct and beyond, to the foothills of Pen-y-ghent, was easy to follow, clearly signed and for me the most enjoyable section of our walk.  The viaduct was impressive at 3pm, its geometric shapes in sharp relief against the pure, blue sky and its light grey stonework stark in the afternoon light. Billy was intrigued by caterpillars, stopping a couple of times to watch hairy specimens inching across the path, and later finding a newly emerged butterfly with dark, folded wings that opened into a burst of kaleidoscope patterns.  Otherwise, he found this part tedious as it really was a trek and, at sixteen, he is built for short bursts of energy and challenge, not ten mile hikes on flat ground.  

trekking between Whernside and Pen-y-ghent

We were caught up just before the viaduct by a young walker, flying along at a speed just short of a run.  We walked together for a while, which picked our pace up considerably.  After telling us about his and his wife’s adoption plans and having a deep, philosophical discussion of the type that can only happen between strangers on trains, walks or holidays, he pointed us in the direction of the best route towards Pen-y-ghent (which wasn’t even on our OS map) and headed back to his car.  He was training to run the entire three peaks route next summer and was just cooling down when we met him.  Crazy but brilliant; I have to admire the fitness and training commitment of anyone who can do that. 

(Fourth:  don’t forget to chat to other walkers)

Our day was enriched by our brief encounters with others.  We asked some for directions, with helpful outcomes, and were asked for tips by others, which was generally pretty pointless for them, but were consistently met with friendliness, humour and genuine kindness.  There is something about the scenery and the exercise that brings out the best in people (or walkers are just great people).  The path to Pen-y-ghent was a bit confusing.  We evidently followed the Pennine Way for a bit too long, observing  the many surprising similarities between the Yorkshire Dales and Tolkien’s middle earth, then sort of doubled back on ourselves in the end, only a couple of miles from Horton-in-Ribblesdale.  It was mildly tempting to give up.  By this time, our legs were leaden, our shoulders ached from our rucksacks and we had little left to give.  But a fleeting glimpse of a little red squirrel daintily skimming a garden gate and streaking up into the trees made us smile again. 

We braced ourselves for the final push, ate another roll, banana and cereal bar each and took a left turn that took us, flagging now, over two or three little hills and then steadily and relentlessly up and around the shoulder of the mountain, higher and higher along the ridge and finally straight up a shale path to the peak.  That final two or three hundred metres was the killer for both of us.  Billy found it demoralising to walk at my pace so ploughed straight up and waited for almost half an hour at the top.  I had to stop a couple of times for extra layers.  My hands had swollen to a ridiculous size and looked and felt weird.  The sun was cooling, the wind chill was biting, I had a runny nose and chapped lips and an inner voice that persisted in querying my judgment in undertaking this enterprise.

(Fifth:  don’t leave your gloves in the cupboard)

No need to dwell on that one.  Just take some.  As I grimly shuffled up this last steep climb, I experienced the kind of jelly legs and heavy exhaustion only previously felt during the last leg of the London Marathon.  Granted, I’m not as fit as I was, but can still run ten miles with relative ease and this was crazy hard.  At the top, I was emotional with relief and enormous pride.  Billy was equally knackered but summoned up his last ounce of strength and managed to climb up onto the tor to pose for a photo.  He took a picture of me in return that went straight into the recycle bin.  I looked slumped and haggard and beyond the effort of expressing any emotion.  Within minutes, the original group arrived.  Clearly, we had taken a longer route than was necessary, given that we had been at least an hour ahead of them all the way from Whernside.  Three of their seven had dropped out with injury or exhaustion and the remaining four looked exactly how we felt.  Billy and I started our descent, waving goodbye, only to see the guide pointing in the opposite direction and shouting through the wind that his way was quicker.

(Ref the second point about route planning skills)

We descended to Horton-in-Ribbesdale with the sun treating us by anointing our surroundings and ourselves with a fantastical tangerine-tinted transcendence.  Inspired by the imminent finish, we were renewed with a sense of wonder, so I took some photographs and sent them to my boyfriend, while Billy informed me that I’d done this too many times already and exhorted me to hurry up because the group were catching us up and that couldn’t happen because it would be stupid (along with a reminder of my competitive streak and his own disinterest in our time).  So we shuffled faster with strange, distorted movements, comparing notes about sore toes, tight calves, dodgy kneecaps and shortened hip flexors, all the way back to the picturesque country lane that meandered back to the little car park where we started.  We offered the guide a tip but he opted for a beer in the nearby pub instead.  Once in there, warmed and refreshed, in a perfectly fitting finale to our epic day, he congratulated us both on our mother-son team effort and tactfully suggested that we meet up with him in the Peaks for a course that he teaches in navigation skills. 

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