w/e 19th March 2023
A cautionary tale – sometimes ‘West is best’.
For decades I have made my living from practising so-called ‘alternative medicine’, but I regularly refer people to western medicine for tests and treatment because all healing modalities have both strengths and limitations.
Tragically, the NHS is in crisis. Accident & Emergency waiting times are at record levels and patients are asked to call NHS 111 first before going to A&E. It is often difficult to get an appointment with a doctor, or a referral to a specialist. All of which discourages individuals from seeking medical help. But, if in any doubt, I would strongly encourage people to seek medical advice and tests, because it may prevent conditions from becoming really serious.
Frequently, unless it’s an obvious medical emergency like a suspected heart attack, we hesitate to seek medical attention because we are worried about wasting the doctor’s time, or taking up precious resources. Here is an example of a time when it was important to get medical help:
Kate, who comes to see me for acupuncture, emailed, “ I am hoping to be able to get an appointment with you soon. I have a bursitis on the top of my left knee. It has swollen up badly, and is I think infected because it’s making me feel quite unwell. Underlying headache, off food, extreme tiredness, lack of motivation. The knee itself doesn’t hurt that much other than slight dull ache, but it feels tight with the liquid inside, almost like it wants to burst out and is warm to the touch. It would be good to fit in an acupuncture treatment to get your thoughts on this and some treatment.”
I was very alarmed and wrote back immediately, “My first thought is you need to get to a doctor ASAP! Please get someone to take you to A and E today. Given the symptoms you describe I would take it very seriously. Please let me know how you get on.”
She replied, “Thanks for your email. I’ve called 111 and they have arranged a doctor call-back which will apparently be within 6 hours. The NHS website said to call 111 before going to A&E. I guess they’re trying to keep people away.”
Having heard people’s experiences of the call-back not coming till the next day, if at all, and fearing that meanwhile the infection was spreading – which in a worse case scenario can even be life-threatening, I responded, “I still think, given the symptoms you are experiencing, that it is important to go straight to A and E and get yourself checked out rather than wait for a call back. If it is as serious as it sounds you need immediate medical attention. If it isn’t, well, better safe than sorry.” I was so concerned that I followed up with a phone call and was very relieved to hear she was en route to the hospital.
Later that day, she wrote, “I am back from A&E, and you were right to have suggested I go sooner rather than later. I have a 7 day course of antibiotics. The doctor said it is an infected bursitis and that if it had got any worse, the consequences could have been devastating because infected fluid can leak into adjoining joints causing rheumatoid arthritis.”
At the time I did wonder if I was over-reacting, but I am so glad I pressured her to go to A and E.
Many of us, and I am one of them, prefer to treat our ailments with natural methods and avoid pharmaceutical medications. There are lots of instances where I would definitely recommend alternatives over western medicine, but there are times when conventional medicine is our best option. Antibiotics can save lives. They often have side effects, including wreaking havoc on our digestive systems, but that can then be remedied with natural medicine, like probiotics.
w/e 4th September 2022
Recently, in a yoga class, I was asked what ‘vinyasa’ means. Nowadays it is usually associated with the linking movements, including upward and downward facing dogs, within the astanga yoga series. However, as is so often the case, to do justice to the wider meaning of a Sanskrit word we need lots and lots of words to explore and explain the concept.
My student’s question prompted me to revisit the deeper meaning of vinyasa. I really enjoyed this article by Shiva Rea. I love the holistic-ness and simplicity of her writing, the way she links yoga practice to our lives as a whole. I believe yoga doesn’t need to be restricted to our time on the mat, but can inform and guide us on our quest for a more balanced and contented life.https://www.yogajournal.com/yoga-101/types-of-yoga/vinyasa-yoga/consciousness-in-motion/
w/e 7th August 2022
I haven’t updated this blog in a while because I’ve got long covid. I first tested positive on 12th April, so it’s been almost 17 weeks – I’m keeping count! My main symptom is overwhelming fatigue, and I have spent many, many days over the last 4 months lying down because I lacked sufficient energy to even sit in a chair.
It was a surprise to be hit so hard as I was feeling abundantly well and energetic when I caught the virus. But it wasn’t a shock. As a healthcare worker I have taken a professional interest in Covid 19 from the start and was well aware that it’s a bit of a lottery as to who gets long covid and who doesn’t.
I’ve seen and heard of people with serious underlying health conditions, including COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease), breeze through a covid infection and return to their previous baseline of health, and others like me who have hitherto been blessed with a strong constitution being absolutely felled by this unusual virus. I have only had flu twice, both times I bounced back rapidly, and it’s also rare for me to get a cold.
So here I am now, alternating between phases where I’m relatively fine as long as I pace myself, and relapses when I can’t get out of bed for days. Annoyingly, if there is a pattern to it, I haven’t yet cracked the code. When the fatigue hits me hard, there’s no obvious explanation for it. It doesn’t relate to increased activity levels and it remains a mystery to me as to what triggers the recurrences, which makes it difficult to try and ‘manage’ the syndrome. It’s really frustrating! I feel like I’m in the wilderness with no map or compass.
I thought living through the twists and turns of the pandemic, and particularly the lockdowns, was a master class in applying ‘being present and living in the moment’ and all that spiritual stuff that I’m so fond of. Well, living with long covid takes it to a whole other level!
to be continued
w/e 3rd April 2022
I’ve been fortunate to manage to avoid ever getting a mobile. It can be a bit tricky, increasingly so as the world pretty much runs on the assumption that everyone has a smartphone. But, to me, it’s worth the occasional inconvenience in order to protect myself from feeling overwhelmed and harassed. That’s what I think I would experience were I to succumb to the pressure to conform.
I do have a landline and a desktop computer, so I am easily contactable. No way am I trying to avoid people, I’m a very sociable being, I’m just trying to maintain some balance in my life.
It’s already challenging enough to preserve peace of mind, and be truly present, but at least when I leave the house I am blissfully undistracted by new messages. They can await my return, and be given my full attention.
Meanwhile, I can simply focus on where I am, who I am with, and what I am doing. Or, if I’m alone, I can daydream, let my mind wander randomly, be playful and receptive. That sense of peace and space feels utterly vital to my sense of well-being. By disconnecting from electronic means of communication I can better connect to myself, others, and my surroundings.
I am all too aware of the advantages of owning a mobile, and of how annoying it can be for others that I don’t have one, but it seems to me it’s a matter of personal choice and it’s a shame that choice no longer exists for many people even if they want it.
I was very interested to read this article about some people who have chosen to give up their smart phones and go back to using the old-style ‘dumbphones’.
w/e 20th March 2022
I’ve been doing lots of reading up on the vagus nerve, as that’s the theme of my next yoga workshop.
It’s been fun and fascinating doing the research, as the terms ‘vagus nerve’ and polyvagal theory’ have been increasingly popping up in recent years and I only had a vague idea of what it all meant.
It turns out it’s both a very big deal and simultaneously no big deal. That is to say, the effects of the practices and therapies that influence the vagus nerve can have a massive impact on recovering and healing from trauma, helping us to regulate stress and anxiety and generally have an improved quality of life. But, without necessarily being aware of the existence or physiology of the vagus, since millennia humans have managed to have a deep understanding of what works, and how to obtain results. As Bessel Van Der Kolk writes, in his deservedly bestselling book, ‘The Body Keeps The Score’:
“Some 80 per cent of the fibers of the vagus nerve run from the body into the brain. This means that we can directly train our arousal system by the way we breathe, chant, and move, a principle that has been utilized since time immemorial in places like China and India, and in every religious practice that I know of, but that is suspiciously eyed as ‘alternative’ in mainstream culture.”
As you can see from the image above, the vagus nerve really does connect to many parts of the body. It is responsible for a wide variety of functions, which include controlling mood, heart rate, immune response, digestion, sweating. And also, very importantly, it registers feelings. When we feel threatened we go into ‘fight or flight mode’. That’s appropriate if we are confronted by a wild beast and helps us take evasive action. All being well, when the danger has passed our heart rate and cortisol levels calm down. But if we are continuously stressed, or have PTSD, we remain on high alert, which has massive implications for our health and our relationships.
Fortunately, there are effective therapies and practices which influence the activity of the vagus nerve, mitigating anxiety and restoring calm and resilience. Yoga is one of them. To quote Bessel Van Der Kolk again:
“In research supported by the National Institutes of Health, my colleagues and I have shown that ten weeks of yoga practice markedly reduced the PTSD symptoms of patients who had failed to respond to any medication or to any other treatment.”
I feel incredibly grateful for the practices of yoga and meditation. They have been a tool for my survival through life’s many challenges and it is a huge, huge honour to be able to share them with others, and a joy to witness other people also being transformed by them.
w/e 13th March 2022
Hurray, it’s nettle season. Nettles are abundant, delicious (well, I think they are), nutritious and free! They make a lovely cup of tea (I enjoy mine with a bit of honey), a tasty nutritious vegetable, and a healing tincture for a variety of ailments.
Obviously they need careful handling, although the sting is rapidly de-activated by cooking or wilting. I use household rubber gloves to pick them. Latex gloves may be fine, but I really don’t want to risk getting stung.
I have nettles growing at the end of the garden, which is handy when I want to make tea, but for cooking I need to venture further afield and have plenty of time on my hands because, like spinach, you need industrial quantities in order to end up with a decent-sized portion. Picking is slow because you only want the tips, so you can’t just rip out big handfuls and fill your bag quickly.
Gathering is a pleasant, companionable activity to do with a friend, but it’s also great to go alone if you want some quiet time. Nettles are found just about anywhere in the UK, including urban wastelands. I find the repetitive action of picking is quite soothing, and it frees me up to enjoy the sounds, smells, and sights of my surroundings.
I dry some out to keep me supplied in tea after the season is over, and if I manage to pick a lot (as was the case in 2020 during lockdown) I freeze the surplus.
My go-to recipes for nettles include nettle bhaji (substituting nettles for spinach), nettle pesto and, of course, nettle soup. But I have also used them in other dishes, including a layer in a lasagne.
At this time of soaring prices, foraging is one way to reduce expenditure.
Here is a link to an article with further info on nettles, which also contains a link to a monthly foraging guide for the UK.
w/e 27th February 2022
Here is the second part of the introduction to ‘Helping Ourselves’, A Guide to Traditional Chinese Food Energetics. (First part is in last week’s post.)
“We have looked at the physiological expression of Spleen as the digestive process. Anatomically the Spleen is expressed through the fascia and soft tissue. The fascia are a continuous network of moist membranous wrappings that connect the whole body and hold everything comfortably in place. Without the fascia our bodies would have no tone and we would collapse in a saggy heap. The fascia express the Spleen’s function of support and containment.
When our fascia are relaxed and without constriction, all the subtle and larger movements of the body are smooth and easy. Our limbs have a full range of supple movement and our organs are supported in their functions. Our fascia contort and tense, or relax and spread, in direct response to our deepest held emotions. When the fascia are free we feel toned and comfortable in our bodies, supported from inside. We are ‘at home’ in our bodies, comfortable with who we are in the flesh. Being at home in our bodies is an expression of strong Spleen energy.
The stronger our Spleen is, the better we are able to absorb and put to use the food that we eat. So how can we strengthen and maintain our Spleen? This question can be answered at several levels.
Physically the Spleen likes to stretch. Stretching eases out constrictions in the soft tissue and brings relaxed tone to our limbs and organs. All exercise will help the Spleen provided it is balanced by stretching and relaxation. Massage will also help, releasing toxic build-up from our muscles and encouraging us to soften deep inside ourselves. The Spleen likes nourishing physical contact.
Mentally it is helpful to train the mind just as it is helpful to stretch and exercise our bodies. On the other hand, overuse of our mental powers (i.e. in prolonged periods of study, or in tasks that involve hours of sitting and processing information, or even habitual brooding on our problems) can weaken our Spleen. It is important to balance mental work with physical exercise and fresh air.
Emotionally we can explore and honour our needs. For some this may simply mean being kinder to ourselves, treating ourselves well; for some it may mean joining a supportive group; for some it may mean finding ways to deeper fulfilment in our relationships.
Finally, within oriental medicine each Organ belongs to a particular element. The Spleen belongs to the Earth element, the earth being our provider of nourishment and support, our true mother. It is through our connectedness to the Earth and to the Divine Mother that the Spleen finds its spiritual expression. We can do a great deal to support our Spleen by attending to our relationship with the Earth.
Attending to our relationship with the Earth may mean becoming more grounded, simply giving more attention to the ground beneath our feet both physically and metaphorically. When done with awareness, all activity which connects us more deeply with the Earth, whether it be gardening, working with clay or simply being outdoors with the soil, the plants, the seasons. All these can help ground us in our bodies and in the natural environment. In these ways too we can support and strengthen our Spleen.
It is important to keep this wide perspective on the Spleen when considering dietary issues. We can strengthen our Spleen by working at any of the above levels and change at one level will resonate through the Spleen’s whole sphere of influence. With this wide perspective in mind, we can go on to look at the dietary approach to supporting our Spleen.
w/e 20th February 2022
Returning to the theme of digestion, as I prepare for my next yoga workshop on that topic, I dug out my very dog-eared copy of ‘Helping Ourselves’ A Guide to Traditional Chinese Food Energetics by Daverick Leggett.
Over the years, as well as recommending people buy the book, I have often photocopied some of its A4 pages for clients to take home and use as reference and support for their individual circumstances. It’s a very simple and straightforward manual, condensing a lot of ancient and practical information into a slender volume. As he says in the introduction, “It does not offer a quick-fix or a guilt trip or encourage sudden dietary revolution. It is offered as an opportunity to explore, to play, to learn. It is a tool for us to use to engage more consciously and skilfully with life.”
I love the way Chinese medicine explains how things work. To me, it makes sense and is borne out both through my lived experience and what I have witnessed over many years of treating people with acupuncture and offering simple dietary advice.
Here’s an excerpt from the book, from the chapter entitled, ‘Introducing the Spleen’.
“We begin our journey by looking at the central Organ of digestion in Chinese medicine: the Spleen.
As infants we learn to adapt to whatever environment we are born into. This remarkable and beautiful skill, the ability to adapt to our environment and get our needs met, is one of the functions of the Spleen in Traditional Chinese Medicine. We can think of the Spleen as the Organ of adaptation.
This may seem a strange definition to a Westerner, for whom an organ is a specific location in the body where certain tasks are performed but in the language of Traditional Chinese Medicine an Organ is a set of functions which are expressed in various ways throughout the bodymind. The functions of the Spleen are adaptation, nourishment and support (the set of skills through which we get our needs met). As we shall see, these functions are expressed at a physiological, anatomical, mental, emotional and spiritual level.
At the physiological level the Spleen is expressed as the digestive system, the means by which we meet our nutritional needs. Digestion is the process of converting food into usable substances within our bodies and sending them to where they are needed. The Spleen adapts food to nourish and support our system. This process is called ‘transformation and transportation’. The stronger our Spleen function is, the better we are able to extract nourishment from any food to support our body’s needs.
When we eat the question is not so much whether a particular food is good for us but rather how strong and skilled our Spleen is at extracting the nourishment from it. The first step towards eating well may not involve changing our diet at all but rather strengthening and maintaining our Spleen. We shall see how to do this later.
The Spleen’s physical manifestation as the digestive process is expressed at the mental level as the thinking process. The Spleen governs our ability to study and concentrate, to process information. Although it may not seem so at first glance, the thinking and digestive processes are very similar. When we read a book (this one for example) we have to adapt words (food) into sense (nutritional substances) and then store them or put them to use.
We recognise this connection when we say, “This book is hard to digest” or “I need time to chew this over” or “There’s food for thought”. The Spleen’s function is to adapt both food and information into something we can use.
There are other ways we can observe the connection between eating and thinking. Overeating, for example, may make the mind sluggish; too much studying often produces cravings for sweet foods; too much worrying (a knotted form of thinking) can easily knot the digestive system. Our powers of concentration and digestion are related and each will influence the other.
At the emotional level the Spleen is expressed through our ability to meet our needs, to obtain and give emotional nourishment and support. When our needs are met we feel nourished and supported, comfortable and secure in our lives. Often we confuse emotional and nutritional needs, eating when in fact we need comfort or perhaps using foods to suppress feelings such as frustration or desire. From the moment we first suck on our mother’s breast the link between food and comfort is established.
So our ability to find and receive emotional nourishment is intimately linked with our digestive system. As we wean ourselves from mother and, later, from our parental home, we develop an internal mother and an internal home which we carry around inside ourselves as a constant source of nourishment and support. The internal mother and home is another description of the role of the Spleen.
It is easy to see how the quality of our early nurturing, both physical and emotional, deeply influences our ability to develop this internal sense of self-support. Our belief that we completely deserve nourishment and our trust that there will always be enough nourishment available are thus key elements in developing a strong Spleen.”
To be continued…..
w/e 13th February 2022
I often speak about how important, grounding, and nourishing my daily meditation practice is for me. However, I think it’s also really important to mention that meditation, or certain forms of meditation, and especially too much meditation, can be destabilising for some people. An added factor is that some teachers, groups, or organisations may be unaware of potential risks, or may even be exploitative.
Much as I wouldn’t want to deter people from meditating, which benefits millions around the world everyday, including myself, neither would I want to deny the potential harms for some individuals. Here is a link to some useful resources. https://www.cheetahhouse.org/about-us
w/e 6th February 2022
This post continues the theme of the previous two posts. Whilst eating, and during the digestive process, posture is also an important factor. The stomach needs space to expand in order to receive the well-masticated food and perform its own role in digestion before passing the by-now soupy mush down the line. The other organs in turn need to be unconstricted as the food passes through them. Very tight belts or sitting hunched forwards will impede digestion.
Years ago, someone who was suffering from stomach aches came to me for acupuncture treatment. On questioning them, I learnt that they usually experienced the pains after lunch. It turned out that immediately after eating they would return to their work, which involved bending forwards to do close work for an extended period, thereby squashing their stomach and intestines. Luckily, once the cause of the problem was identified it was possible to slightly rearrange their day and schedule in some admin time straight after lunch and avoid further discomfort.
It’s also important not to do vigorous exercise too soon after eating. The amount of time we need to leave between eating and exercising depends on what and how much was consumed and what kind of exercise we are undertaking, but also varies according to metabolism. Some of us are speedy digesters, others are slower. As a general rule it’s best to leave a gap of at least an hour or two. Like many things in life the key is to observe what works and what doesn’t, and apply our common sense.
w/e 30th January 2022
Still on the topic of digestion, there are a couple of yoga practices which I have found invaluable. Years ago, my digestion system was in a pretty bad way after living in the tropics and being exposed to all kinds of intestinal bugs. For a while I had so many food intolerances that it was almost impossible to eat out, even at friends’ houses. Back then people in general were much less aware of food intolerances and how even a tiny amount of a food that needed to be avoided could cause a fairly severe reaction. I’m sure also that a lot of people thought it was a bit of a fuss about nothing. But I remember plenty of times when I became ill after being at someone’s house and on questioning them discovered that they’d forgotten that I couldn’t eat a certain food, or hadn’t read the label on something they’d added to a meal. It was horrible and very restrictive. I was lucky, unlike people who have lifelong allergies or illness, by excluding those foods I was eventually able to recover to full health and reintroduce all those foods (although it was twenty years before I was able to tolerate wheat!). An important part of my recovery was yoga, and specifically the practices of uddhiyana kriya and nauli kriya. I really swear by those exercises to maintain the strength and efficiency of my digestive system. The state of our digestion is directly related to our vitality and mental functioning. When the digestion is sluggish, so is the mind, and when the digestive system is working smoothly we feel clear headed and have more physical energy.
Here is a video, which I think is suitable for those who are not already familiar with these practices. I do not personally know this teacher, and I practice uddhiyana bandha kriya a bit differently from him, but I chose this video because I think it’s nice and clear and easy to follow.
A word of caution, these practices are amazingly beneficial, but they are also powerful and there are some contraindications and cautions, as listed below. E.g. if you are pregnant they are definitely contraindicated because it is not a good idea to do anything which will squash your baby. With high blood pressure you need to exercise caution, but it isn’t necessarily contraindicated, if well managed and stable. I don’t recommend doing these practices during a heavy period, but you may feel fine on the last day or so, if you are barely bleeding at all. If anything on the list applies to you and you are in doubt check with a doctor or other suitably qualified person.
- Stomach or intestinal ulcers
- High blood pressure
- Heart disease
w/e 23rd January 2022
I was thinking of a theme for my next yoga workshop, and for some reason digestion popped into my mind. So many people have problems with it, ranging from serious pathologies to minor discomfort and from issues of sluggishness to not being able to hold onto anything, or in many cases oscillating between the two.
Stress and lack of physical activity can have a huge impact on digestion, not to mention what, how, and when we eat. There’s a confusing amount of advice out there, where do you even start?
One thing to consider is that each person has a unique digestive system, so what agrees with me won’t necessarily agree with you, and vice-versa. We may be born with a robust or delicate digestion and also, our digestive systems change with circumstances and with age. It’s worth paying attention and noticing when you feel comfortable and have a good level of energy after a meal and making a note of what you ate, and equally being aware of what doesn’t work so well.
There are some very simple and basic things we can all do to improve our digestion. Eating slowly and chewing thoroughly is key. However nutritious the food is, if you bolt it down it will be difficult to process. Think about how much electricity or gas it takes to blend or cook food into a mush. If food goes into your stomach in hard lumpy pieces, your body has to supply that energy to break it down. When babies start eating we give them pureed food because they don’t have teeth to mash it up with. While we are chewing our food and converting it into a nice homogeneous paste that will be gentle on our stomachs, the enzymes in our saliva are starting to break it down, further reducing the workload of our stomachs.
Our lifestyles are horrible for our digestion! Whatever our individual constitution, it’s pretty safe to say that e.g. regularly skipping breakfast, eating ‘on the go’, having very short lunch breaks or working through lunch, eating whilst looking at a screen, ‘grazing’, eating late in the evening, are all things we need to try and minimise and which impact negatively on our digestive systems, whilst eating slowly and chewing well is beneficial for everyone.
w/e 16th January 2022
One of the first things I learnt when I began to practise and study yoga was the importance of breathing through the nose rather than the mouth. Pranayama, the practice of breath regulation, is an essential part of yoga. As we move through a range of poses, the asanas, we focus on coordinating breath and movement, enabling us to breathe more deeply and slowly and quieten our busy minds. That helps us prepare for the breathing exercises, the pranayama, usually done sitting or lying down.
In a yoga class earlier this week a student mentioned a radio programme she’d heard recently where the importance of certain yogic breathing techniques was mentioned.
It sounded interesting so I listened to it online. James Nestor, who has written a book called Breath: The New Art of a Lost Science, was being interviewed. He spoke about an experiment he participated in to look at the different effects of mouth-breathing and nasal-breathing. He and another participant spent 10 days with plugs up their noses, so they could only breathe through their mouths, followed by 10 days only breathing through their noses, then the data sets were compared. He says of the mouth-breathing 10 days, “We knew it wasn’t going to be fun, but we didn’t know it was going to be so bad and we didn’t know it was going to come on so suddenly.” His blood pressure went up considerably, sleep quality “went down precipitously in the first day”. Within a few days both of them went from zero snoring to severe snoring and sleep apnoea. James describes the subjective mental effects of mouth breathing as, “focus issues, memory issues, extreme fatigue and so much more”.
He was asked, “The mouth is a hole in the front of the face, and the nostrils are two smaller holes in the front of the face. The air comes in and it goes down into the lungs. What’s the real difference?” to which he replied, “When we breathe air in through our noses we’re forcing it through this labyrinth of different structures where it’s heated, it’s pressurised, it’s moistened, and so many different pathogens and pollutants are extracted in our nasal cavities. This is a first line of defence.”
In his book he makes the point that an understanding of breathing and its importance goes back not only to the first yogis but also to the early periods in Chinese culture and many middle eastern cultures, amongst others. Our ancestors were aware how harmful mouth breathing is, and of the benefits of nasal breathing. Now we have access to machines that can objectively measure what happens when we change our breathing and which confirm what the ancients already knew.
When asked whether mask-wearing deprives us of oxygen he suggested that anyone who is concerned takes a pulse oximeter and measures their levels with and without a mask on because they will find there is no difference.
Here is the link if you would like to listen to the interview. He is the first guest, but if you want to miss the show’s intro just skip the first minute. https://www.bbc.co.uk/sounds/play/m0012scb
Or if you want to read the back story of why he became so interested in breathing, – basically due to poor health which improved dramatically when he learnt to breathe properly: https://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/2020/jul/26/every-breath-you-take-the-lost-art-of-breathing
w/e 9th January 2022
After the New Year began I had a slump for a couple of days, where I just felt a bit weary about the pandemic and craved certain simple pleasures, like going round a friend’s house for a cup of tea, or having people to stay. I’ve been avoiding indoor social contact because I don’t want to add to the number of Covid infections. I have a thing about being part of the solution, rather than contributing to the problem. I stayed focused on the fact that my glass is more than half full, had helpful conversations with a couple of friends, and managed not to get despondent.
I really like the New Year’s message sent out by Jan Engels-Smith, a shamanic colleague in Portland, Oregon. We met a few times when we were both teaching at an annual Shamanic Conference in Canada. Here’s an excerpt:
“In my recent journeys about the state of the world today, there has been a continual theme about staying positive during this continued pandemic. We learn from the trees, from nature, about how to be adaptive—how to sway and move—in other words, let go of rigidity and resistance. Strong opinions create internal distress and discord. “
I cannot wish the pandemic away, or any of the other things which cause me discomfort. It’s much more constructive to put that energy into adapting, trying to become more resourceful, and finding ways to make the circumstances work for me. Staying positive can be hard work, but gets easier with practice. It certainly doesn’t mean denying any of our feelings. Acceptance is key; accepting that we are where we are and our feelings are what they are. Suppressing feelings doesn’t make them go away, it just pushes them out of sight where they can fester. Then you don’t know when they are going to surface, maybe at an inappropriate moment. But accepting them with compassion and understanding, recognising their right to exist, can make it possible to let go and move beyond, into a more easeful state. Jan mentions the trees, if they don’t sway in the strong winds, they are toppled, uprooted by an ‘invisible force’. Water teaches us too. When it meets an obstacle, it flows round it.
During this era of polarisation I like Jan’s use of the phrase, “Strong opinions create internal distress and discord.” Anyone who’s tried arguing with family members who hold opposing political views can attest to that! Usually it is possible to find even a tiny patch of common ground if we listen, ask questions from a place of curiosity, don’t try to change the other person’s mind, and remain open to adapting our own views as circumstances change and new information comes to light. Believe me, I hold some strong opinions and know it can be very challenging indeed! But I’ve discovered it’s definitely much better for my well-being to maintain cordial relations and not fan the flames of conflict. There have been times, not often, when I have totally distanced myself from someone who expressed views I found abhorrent and who I didn’t need to encounter again. And, for my own well-being, I avoid people who have abused me. But there are always going to be people with vastly different opinions that I do need to encounter at certain times because we are both going to be present at some important occasions and I don’t want to contaminate the atmosphere for others.
Here’s another quote from a New Year’s message, this time from a yoga teacher colleague, Heather Mason, who I haven’t met: “Whatever we hold to be true and sacred at this extremely challenging time, we need to consider that other people have opposite beliefs that they hold with equal passion and importance. We must remember that beliefs arise from individual and group experience. There is a story behind each thought we hold dear. By inquiring with rather than judging each other we generate understanding instead of discord. This is how we forge union even in the absence of agreement.”
I’m really hoping, as we approach the third year of this pandemic, to stay positive and resourceful and not become too entrenched in my outlook!
w/e 2nd January 2022
Gratitude. Sometimes it arises unbidden, spontaneously, like first thing this morning in the simple act of handwashing. The refreshing cold water on my skin made me feel tinglingly alive. I became aware of the dexterity of my hands, the grace of the ritual, the rose scent of the soap. And then drying my hands on a fresh, clean towel. Simple pleasures not everyone has access to. I felt flooded with gratitude, for my peaceful night’s sleep, running water, the time to sit and meditate in preparation for the day ahead.
Other mornings I have to summon gratitude, but my efforts are always rewarded by this reality check. We all experience tough times; internally generated, due to external circumstances beyond our control, or a combination of the two, but most often, even when things are bad they could be a whole lot worse.
During the pandemic my daily practice of gratitude has been particularly worthwhile. Instead of focussing on limitations and the many people and things that I miss, I have reminded myself every day of all that I have to be grateful for. Thankfully, that appreciation has helped me to enjoy my great good fortune and to make the most of what I have, rather than waste too much energy lamenting what I don’t have.
On the one hand, I am extremely grateful I don’t live in a war zone, like so many in the world. Just the fact that I have a clean, comfy bed to sleep in at night and no fear of bombs falling on me seems a huge thing to be thankful for. Clean running water, plenty of food in the cupboard and fridge, heat and light at the touch of a switch, weekly rubbish collections, all things that we often take for granted in developed countries but that much of the world cannot. Even in this country many people are living in poverty, caught up in modern slavery, or in other dangerous circumstances.
I am so grateful for my personal safety and for all my basic needs being amply met. But there’s more, there is so much to rejoice in, like birdsong, green shoots poking out of the earth and reminding us that spring will soon follow winter and there will be flowers! There are sunrises and sunsets, rainbows, trees, smiles from friends and random strangers, gorgeous smells, delicious flavours, music, poetry, curiosity, radio plays, books, films, political satire, laughter, the air on my skin, the wind in my hair, the earth beneath my feet, the moon and stars overhead, and a sense of life as an unfolding adventure, because you just never know quite what is going to happen on any given day.
w/e 26th December 2021
At this time of year my heart goes out to all those who, for whatever reason, dread Xmas because it amplifies something they are struggling with.
For example, I had a conversation this week which reminded me of how tough a time it can be for those who struggle to regulate their eating. The person I was speaking with had attended a Xmas lunch and eaten well, including dessert. As they were leaving the host offered them a spare box of mince pies to take home. At first they refused, but after the host insisted, they felt obliged to accept the gift to avoid giving offence.
What the generous host didn’t know is that their guest can’t have food lying around without immediately consuming it, and has a well-worked out system to minimise binge-eating opportunities.
In the scenario I’ve described, both people were well-intentioned but one of them ended up feeling really quite bad, physically and mentally. This is something to bear in mind when we ply our guests with yet more food and drink. Of course there are all sorts of cultural scripts overlaid onto these situations too, and a little bit of over-indulgence is not a problem for everyone. But maybe when someone turns down an extra drink or mince pie, we can just follow up with, ‘Are you sure?’ and leave it at that. Of course, it would be a whole lot easier if it was perfectly acceptable and natural to simply tell the truth.
Footnote: Coincidentally, shortly after adding this post I saw an article in the Guardian by Richard Osman, who I’d never heard of before, speaking of his food addiction. He noted that, “while quitting alcohol and drugs was “unbelievably difficult”, you often can cut them out of your lifestyle. Food, however, is essential, which makes tackling the addition “tricky”. https://www.theguardian.com/culture/2021/dec/26/richard-osman-reveals-difficult-journey-with-food-addiction
w/e 19th December 2021
I believe that it is vital for our overall well-being to have a sense of agency, to feel that we have a say in things and can influence outcomes. After all, isn’t that supposed to be the point of democracy? It’s already bad enough that we have a First Past The Post voting system in this country, rendering many people’s votes useless and leaving them unrepresented. Now we also have the threat of the Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill, sponsored by the Home Office and Priti Patel, which, if passed, will seriously restrict our right to protest.
I don’t want to lose my right to express my opinion, including the right to demonstrate about issues that I care about. I don’t want to just stand by helplessly while the planet burns and children drown in the Channel and powerful companies and corrupt politicians do whatever they like. Here are some excerpts from an article in The Big Issue, which sets out the effects the bill would have:
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts Bill has been condemned as “draconian” by experts across the political spectrum. It will effectively hand powers to police – and Home Secretary Priti Patel – to shut down protests in England and Wales at will, while forcing social workers to betray the trust of vulnerable young people. Lawyers warned the Government the proposals in the bill “clearly violate international human rights standards”.
You just know it’s seriously bad news when even ex-Tory PM Theresa May expresses concern over this bill!
Patel is facing a revolt from her own benches over the bill. A number of Conservative MPs voiced concerns about the bill’s far-reaching powers when it passed through the Commons earlier this year, including former prime minister Theresa May, who urged the home secretary to consider the “fine line between popular and being populist” because “our freedoms depend on it”.
Here is Liberty’s summary of the bill:
The Police, Crime, Sentencing and Courts (PCSC) Bill – with its tremendously broad scope – represents one of the most serious threats to human rights and civil liberties in recent history. It hands the police and the Home Secretary sweeping new powers to restrict protest rights, undermines Gypsy and Travellers’ nomadic way of life, establishes new stop and search powers, provides a basis for expansive, police-led data gathering, retention and sharing which circumvents existing safeguards, and paves the way for a rise in predictive policing practices.
If you want to read the whole briefing: https://www.libertyhumanrights.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2020/04/Libertys-briefing-on-the-Police-Crime-Sentencing-and-Courts-Bill-Report-Stage-HoC-July-2021.pdf
And here’s a shorter read, exploring the potential impact of the bill on the art world: https://www.theartnewspaper.com/2021/09/07/uks-controversial-new-police-bill-poses-major-threat-to-the-art-world
w/e 12th December 2021
One of the things I love about winter is the food, hearty roasts and bakes and stews and soups. We are fortunate in our area to have access to farmers’ markets, where I can buy fresh, local, seasonal veg. True, there’s more work involved scrubbing off the mud especially if, like me, you prefer not to peel your potatoes and root veg. Their supermarket counterparts are usually pre-cleaned and require little more than a rinse. But the extra effort generally rewards us with more flavour. This is especially true, I find, with leeks. Pale, trimmed, shop-bought leeks, in my opinion, don’t have much flavour, whereas the ones sold at farmers’ markets are very tasty, especially the dark green leafy part that usually gets chucked out. Why does it get thrown away? But then, why do cauliflower leaves and broccoli stalks and many other perfectly edible and nutritious food items get discarded? Maybe because they are tougher than the rest of the plant and need to be cooked for slightly longer, or perhaps people just don’t know what to do with them?
Many people believe that it is healthier for us to eat mostly local and seasonal produce, a view that I agree with for various reasons, including but not limited to my own physical well-being. It obviously makes sense to minimise food miles, maintain crop diversity and support local businesses. It also gives me great pleasure to eat food grown by people I know by name who are happy to explain, whilst weighing my carrots, why one crop has done particularly well this year and another not so well. Food keeps me alive and I am interested to know where it comes from and be reminded that a crop’s success is not a given. It’s as precarious as the whole of the rest of life. Until recently, it was easy for supermarket shoppers to be oblivious to food’s provenance and seasonality, and the role of supply chains, because they stock pretty much the same uniform stuff all year round. Now though, shortages and disruptions caused by Brexit and Covid have taught us not to take for granted that everything will always be available.
One of my favourite go-to winter recipes is loosely based on an Anna Jones ‘pick and mix’ traybake roast. Over the years I have made innumerable variations on this theme. I like to have it as the main component of a meal, with plenty of starchy, filling roots and tubers, often some squash and/or brassicas, a bit of imagination, and whatever else is to hand. It also works well with frozen veg, as I discovered when someone moved out and left a mixed pack in the freezer. I always use plenty of garlic and lemon and usually chuck in a handful of walnuts. It goes well with a chunk of sourdough bread to mop up the juices, or any cooked grain, like rice or buckwheat groats.
Here’s one I made earlier, containing celeriac and broccoflower (which i think of as the fractal vegetable), amongst other ingredients.
And here is Anna Jones’ original recipe:
Six steps to making roasting tray dinners
1 Main vegetable
4 courgettes, cut into thick coins
1 roughly chopped butternut squash
800g winter roots, chopped into about 1cm pieces
2 Soft vegetable
1⁄2 a jar of roasted red peppers, roughly chopped
2 leeks, shredded
3 Hearty add-on
400g tin of butterbeans, drained
400g tin of chickpeas,drained
2 slices of good bread, torn
100ml veg stock
100ml white wine
A small bunch of basil
A small bunch of thyme
A bunch of sage, thyme or rosemary
6 Flavour boost
The zest of one lemon
A teaspoon of hot smoked paprika
The zest of one orange
* * * * *
w/e 5th December 2021
It’s winter. Sorry winter, but you’re not my favourite season! I love the summer, the heat, the light, dancing barefoot on the grass at outdoor parties and festivals. But winter is more of a challenge to my ease of being. And therefore, of all the seasons, winter is my greatest teacher. Just as the people who most trigger me are my greatest teachers!
I guess I’m not alone in having seasonal preferences. Whereas I slip into summer like donning a favourite comfy garment, every year I have to consciously practice and relearn the lessons of winter.
When I first began studying five element acupuncture, which emphasises the importance, for maintaining health, of adapting to the cycle of the seasons and living in harmony with our environment, it seemed like plain common sense! Nonetheless, back then, it was the first time that message had been clearly spelled out to me. But of course I’m as much a part of the environment as the plants and other animals. Why on earth would I fight against and try and impose my will on those natural seasonal rhythms, which here in northern Europe follow very distinctive patterns, even now in these times of climate disruption.
I find rituals very helpful for effecting transitions. This is not surprising, given that humans have always performed ceremonies to mark rites of passage. There’s power in focussing our intention and dedicating time and thought to honour the ending of one phase and the beginning of another.
This year, when winter arrived and I could no longer pretend it was still late autumn I went with a soul friend to a particular place, a branch off the river Thames, to perform a little private ceremony to symbolise letting go of the autumn and welcoming winter into our hearts. We set off on a dry, bright, freezing cold day. Even at midday there was thick ice on some of the puddles.
Our ceremony was quite simple, but held deep meaning for us both. We stood on a bridge over a small stream and each lit a tealight, which we placed in tall glass holders so they wouldn’t be extinguished by the chill wind. This represented light and warmth, the yang within the yin. We placed these at either end of the bridge. Next we smudged (‘cleansed’) each other with white sage. We faced each of the four directions in turn as I rattled and spoke aloud, acknowledging what each represents, beginning with the east: dawn, birth, new beginnings, then turning to the south, west and north. I also rattled and spoke to the earth and sky, and lastly to the centre, the spirit within.
We faced west to say our farewells to autumn and express our gratitude. I thanked her for the teachings of letting go and paring down and said I’d experienced her as especially beautiful and colourful this year and how I prayed to be alive to enjoy her once again next year.
Then we turned to the north and spoke to the winter. I declared that I welcomed her and her teachings with open arms. And I’d try and be a better student this time round! And I read her my favourite winter poem:
The work of winter starts fermenting in my head
how with the hands of a lover or a midwife
to hold back until the time is right
force nothing, be unforced
accept no giant miracles of growth
by counterfeit light
trust roots, allow the days to shrink
give credence to these slender means
wait without sadness and with grave impatience
here in the north where winter has a meaning
where the heaped colours suddenly go ashen
where nothing is promised
learn what an underground journey
has been, might have to be; speak in a winter code
let fog, sleet, translate; wind, carry them.
Adrienne Rich, from “The Spirit of Place”, in A Wild Patience Has Taken Me This Far
* * * * *
Recently I was very moved by an interview I heard on the radio with a most impressive and inspiring human being. He is Eddie Jaku, a 100 year old man who has written a book called ‘The Happiest Man on Earth: The Beautiful Life of an Auschwitz Survivor’. In the prologue he writes:
“I have lived for a century and I know what it is to stare evil in the face. I have seen the very worst in mankind, the horrors of the death camps, the Nazi efforts to exterminate my life and the lives of all my people.
But I now consider myself the happiest man on Earth. Through all of my years I have learned this: life can be beautiful if you make it beautiful.”
I believe that happiness, or contentment, is a skill we can learn and the more we practise, the better we get at it and it becomes a habit. People like Eddie show us that it is possible, it’s not an unattainable goal, but it requires sustained effort. I agree with Eddie about the importance of kindness:
“Kindness is the greatest wealth of all. Small acts of kindness last longer than a lifetime. This lesson, that kindness and generosity and faith in your fellow man are more important than money, is the first and greatest lesson my father ever taught me. And in this way he will always be with us, and always live forever.”
Practising kindness, I am convinced, is good for us and everyone else. Most of us would like to live in a world where there is harmony and life is easier because people aren’t rude to us and don’t take advantage. We humans are very sensitive beings and it is so easy to get offended and blame others, or the weather. Even the smallest things can set us off. Sometimes I am taken aback at how much a random, unwarranted, scowl or rude comment from a stranger can hurt. The person is gone in a moment, but the feeling I am left with can last a long time if I let it. I have a choice over whether I let it fester and bring that negativity into my encounters with others, or whether I pay attention and bring some kindness to the situation. I can choose to recognise that the person is gone now and in this actual moment I am not being insulted or accused, so I don’t need to replay the scenario and remind myself of my own innocence and how horrible a person they are. I can check in with my own feelings, which maybe are not entirely proportionate to the situation, and be kind to myself, acknowledging that I am sensitive and there is nothing at all wrong with that. Maybe on this day I am feeling even more sensitive than usual, because I am worried about something or someone. Perhaps it is the anniversary of the death of a loved one, or someone I care about is in hospital. If I recognise that it is the same for everyone, we are all to a greater or lesser extent walking wounded, easily triggered, and we all need kindness and healing, then my need for victimhood diminishes. That rude stranger probably forgot about me the moment I was out of their sight, they have probably been rude to a couple of other people by now. What a grim day they must be having, what pain they must be in to lash out like that. I find it can take a while for the effect of the shock to wear off, but if I just let it be, accept it as part of the range of feelings that I will inevitably pass through during the day it will gently change into something else, like the way the colours of the rainbow change mistily, there is no sharp dividing line and yet the colours themselves are distinct.
* * * * *
There’s a thread you follow. It goes among
things that change. But it doesn’t change.
People wonder about what you are pursuing.
You have to explain about the thread.
But it is hard for others to see.
While you hold it you can’t get lost.
Tragedies happen; people get hurt
or die; and you suffer and get old.
Nothing you do can stop time’s unfolding.
You don’t ever let go of the thread.
I first heard that poem a few years ago when a colleague, Jonathan Horwitz, recited it at a shamanic gathering we were both teaching at. It continues to resonate with me, because it expresses, simply and elegantly, a core belief of mine. For me, the ‘thread’ represents ‘living’ rather than merely ‘being alive’. In order to follow it I believe it helps to have a regular practice to give a rhythm to our life, something which both grounds us in the physical world and connects us to the spiritual realms, and helps us maintain our equilibrium between the two. Personally, I get that from my daily meditation. Others may find it in the ritual of walking their dog every morning, or playing guitar for half an hour after work, or wild swimming, or sitting with a cup of tea and watching the sunrise or sunset.
* * * * *
Harvest time is well past.
The fruits are gathered in.
That was a golden time of abundant splendour.
Now something else is in the air,
a different quality of light,
a thinning of the air.
Nature has given us her riches,
and now she prepares to rest,
and so must we.
The trees are shedding their leaves,
just letting go.
They trust that
at the right time
more leaves will come
and the cycle will repeat itself.
If we wish to achieve harmony with our environment,
then we need to do as the rest of nature,
let go and quieten down.
If trees didn’t let go of their leaves, they’d rot on the branches,
instead of falling to earth and providing rich humus to nourish new growth.
Think about it.
Are you holding on to things in your life which are no longer appropriate?
Maybe habits, beliefs, relationships?
Are you slowing down in preparation for the quiet time – that is, Winter?
In order to breathe in, you must first breathe out.
If you pour water into a full glass, it will simply run down the sides and be wasted.
If we don’t let go, we’re not making space for new and fresh ideas, practices, relationships, etc—, and we stop growing.
And if we don’t slow down and quieten down then we use up all our reserves.
See how Nature shows us her example, slowing down, resting, conserving and gathering her energies so that come the Spring her reserves have built up again and the Earth can burst into life , green and vibrant.