Tuesday, 24 January 2012

Compassionate Listening

Compassionate listening is one of the most profound gifts that we can give to someone.

Compassionate listening means looking at someone as they talk to you; concentrating on their words; listening to the things that they are saying and noticing the undercurrent of things unsaid that flows underneath.  Compassionate listening is paying attention to someone absolutely and thereby placing infinite value on what they have to say; it is letting them know that what they have to say is important and that they deserve to be heard. 

Compassionate listening is when you stay silent in order to allow another person's words to emerge; it is resisting the urge to butt in, or to speak, or to comment, or to relate what they have to say to something in your own life... all of these things might come up later in the conversation, but while your friend is speaking, all you are doing is listening wholeheartedly to them.

Compassionate listening is staying open-minded and freeing yourself from the instinct to judge; compassionate listening is giving the gift of unconditional attention and a benevolent, kind open ear.

Compassionate listening does not mean that you have to listen to someone speaking abusively about another, or about themselves, or that you have to sit for hours while someone bemoans their lot in life.  With strength and kindness you are free to set your own boundaries; you are allowed to decide when you need to leave; you can trust yourself to know what attitudes you find acceptable.

The flipside of giving compassionate listening, is receiving it. Your voice is important too and your stories are as deserving of being heard as everyone else's; if someone is prepared to bestow upon you their compassionate attention, then don't be afraid to speak; let them hear your questions, your vulnerabilities and the stories of your life. Feel yourself worthy of being heard.

Compassionate listening is very rare indeed.  Catch yourself the next time you are out with a friend and your phone beeps and you go to read a message while they are talking.  Know when your attention is wandering, or if you are someone who likes to interrupt with your own stories or advice.  We are human, after all, and there is so much around us to distract us from one another.  You can only try your best to give the gift of compassionate listening whenever life presents you with the opportunity.  By being mindful of what others have to say, you can let them know that they are worthy and that you have time for them, you can help to lighten their load.

Friday, 20 January 2012

Everything is to prove that we belong

Everything you do, everything you are, everything that happens to you and because of you; 
The people who are around you, the air you breathe, what you see, the things you love;
Your life in your body, your place in the world, the lives you touch in known and unknown ways; 
The friends you love, the troubles you have, the times that test you, the days when everything is just right;
The rows you have, the people you hold, the ones who drive you crazy, the things that make you cry;
The times you bask in love, the times you feel alone, the days that you are brave and the days that you are not;
The birds you feed, the nature that you love, the animals that you keep, the world around you.  

Everything is to prove that we belong.

There is nowhere else.
There is no other body, no other life, no better way.
We make choices, we live, we love, we learn and we move on through.
It's hard to believe sometimes, but it's all as it should be.
Difficult to trust in the unfolding of our one life, but
Everything is to prove that we belong.

Thank you, Vanessa, for asking me to think about this x

Tuesday, 17 January 2012

Why Meditate? Part 1

Life - even life in a safe, democratic country with good access to health-care, education and freedom of choice - can be very stressful.

The unexpected occurs; our family relationships are sometimes troubling; getting to and from work can be difficult and being at work can be challenging and stressful (according to research by the Mental Health Foundation, more than 50% of workers believe that stress from work is making them ill*)  We might be going through divorce, coping with bereavement, or dealing with similarly difficult life-change, or we might just be getting stressed out from living our ordinary day to day lives.

Symptoms of stress include anger, sleeplessness, loss of appetite, lack of energy, anxiety, depression, worry, brooding, breathlessness, chest pains, physical discomfort from tense muscles and back pain.  Stress makes us more susceptible to illness and less effective at focusing on tasks that need to be done.

And these are stressful times: researchers have found that levels of 'ordinary' stress experienced in the 80s and 90s are equivalent to what would have been considered clinical stress in the 1950s.**

So we are living with higher levels of stress, more of the time.  Our nervous systems are designed to supply us with certain hormones to enable us to deal with threatening or stressful situations in the moment, but these chemicals are not designed to stay in our systems long-term and there are negative health implications from being permanently stressed, including high blood pressure and heart attack.

Meditation can help with all of these problems and more.  Meditation helps us to find a still point within ourselves from which to stay rooted in the midst of a busy life.  It helps us to maintain clarity in any situation, so that we do not lose our temper so often, but are more able to communicate our feelings effectively without resorting to violent language or action.  Meditation helps us to maintain calm, even when life gets difficult.  It helps us to be able to respond to each situation in that moment as skillfully as possible and to move away from habitual ways of being (passive, aggressive, short-tempered, shy, fearful) to ways that are more productive and positive.  Meditation helps us to be more effective in all that we do.

These skills help us to live in a more positive way, enable us to have a more positive impact on the people around us, and help us to live a more positive, constructive, fulfilling life.

Meditation is no more than the skill of mindfulness.  Mindfulness is simply knowing what you are doing, when you are doing it; being able to be present in each moment, rather than allowing your mind to run away with you.  There is nowhere far away enough; no way of running fast enough to escape your own worries.  Meditation helps you to see things clearly, to accept the things you can't change and change the things you can; it helps you to understand more about WHO you are and WHY you did something, rather than mindlessly moving from one situation to another, seemingly with no end to your stress levels and sense of inner discomfort.

The great thing is that EVERYONE can meditate.  There is comfortable seated position for everyone.  There is a technique that works for everyone.  Yes, even for those people who are convinced that their brain is so busy that they could never successfully meditate.  Even for those people who are impatient.  Even for those people whose 'to do' lists never end.  Even for those who are often lost in the richness of their own imagination.

There is one proviso: you have to do it.  Like all the paths of yoga, you can't just read about it / think about it / talk about it and hope for some benefit.  You must do it.  That is all.  Every day for five minutes / fifteen minutes / sixty minutes... whatever time you have, whenever you have it and in whatever way that works for you.

If you have a yoga practice, you know that you can build strength, resilience and flexibility to your muscles.  In meditation, you simply bring those same qualities to your mind.

"Meditation brings wisdom, lack of meditation leaves ignorance.  Know well what leads you forward and what holds you back, and choose the path that leads to wisdom."

Click below for other articles on this blog about meditation
How to Meditate 1
How to Meditate 2
How to Meditate 3

**Professor Mark Williams, University of Oxford

Saturday, 14 January 2012

Powerful Kindness

That the world needs more kindness in it is self-evident.  That we take responsibility for increasing the amount of kindness in it ourselves is essential.

Tolstoy wrote "everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself."  But yogis do focus on changing ourselves first; of opening ourselves to the unbounded resource of love and compassion (maitri) within and allowing it to shine out on the world.  I long to be kind; the only thing I really want to teach my children is to be kind; I believe that being kind is the most important thing a human can do.

I have been thinking about the different flavours of kindness...  There is the gentle, quiet, accepting sort of kindness, of course, but there are other types of kindness too and I have been thinking in particular about powerful kindness; kindness that has strength and authority behind it; kindness which transforms; brave kindness which is not afraid to speak out. 

There was nothing soft, meek or compliant about the angry kindness of Mohandas Gandhi as he stood up for people, first in South African and then India. There was nothing accepting or quiet about the kindness of Nelson Mandela as he fought for people's freedom from apartheid.  Someone who inspires me greatly, is a woman called Jo Manuel, who teaches yoga to handicapped children; she has taken it upon herself to set up a studio and a charity dedicated to bringing the benefits of yoga to these children.  She is amazingly strong and powerfully kind; she's not the kind of woman who takes no for an answer.

We don't all have such enormous battles to fight, but we are often confronted by scenes of unkindness in every day life and concomitant opportunities to be kind.  It's the kindness that we direct towards others when we stand up for something (an old lady being unfairly treated at the Post Office/a shop assistant being bullied by a customer); where we speak out against that, instead of simply smiling our sympathy and staying silent.  It's the kindness that we direct towards ourselves when we stick up for our point of view or give ourselves something that we need (time, space, the freedom to choose differently).  We don't need to be aggressive, but we can opt to be bold and to stand up alongside someone who is experiencing vulnerability.

This is the powerful kindness that takes it upon itself to effect change for the better, whether it's setting up a charity; changing the attitudes within a large corporation; or working positively with people on the borders of conventional society.

This is the bold kindness that engages with the mad, the sad, the bad, the lonely, the old, the vulnerable, the weak, the weird and the unusual and not from a position of benevolent superiority, but from a standpoint of equality: we are human, you and I, we are the same.

I have two aunts who are mentally handicapped. I know how rare it is to be out and about with them and for someone to engage with them wholeheartedly; to direct friendship and warmth towards them. They are different; they look unusual; they respond to your questions in unpredictable ways. The truth is that there aren't many people around who have the strength of kindness necessary to approach my aunts and to be open and kind to them.

And I'll give you an example from my own life.  It's easy to wander up to someone collecting money for charity and give them some money.  I might take a moment to chat to the collector; give them a smile; make a connection with them.  That's kind.  But when a girl in my local town approached me, explained that she was homeless and asked for some money for a cup of tea, I had to reflect that my response was not quite the same.  I did give her some money.  I didn't judge her, or wonder if she really wanted a cup of tea; it was clear that she needed money more than I did and I didn't need to know what it was for.  That's kind too.  But I could have been kinder: I didn't stop to have a chat with her; I didn't ask how her day was, or comment on the weather, as I might have done with someone collecting for a charity.  And that wasn't good enough really, was it?  Something about the fact that I didn't suggests a divide between myself and the homeless girl, when of course, we are exactly the same species of being, just experiencing life in different ways at the moment. 

I figure that I need to get even braver and more confident with my kindness, so that I can share it not just with the people who essentially look like me and have chosen/are living a similar life to me.  I don't want to give kindness from a position of difference, but from a position of sameness, a position that says: I am very lucky in my life now; you are having a hard time, please let me help you.

So often it is fear that holds us back.  I think I was intimidated by that girl; I was unsure how to respond.  Other times you don't know whether to speak up or not and while you are wondering if it's your place, the moment has passed.  There are times when you are not sure if you will be met with hostility, or if you will say the wrong thing.  But all of these are things that you can and will get over.  I guess I'd like to be strong enough to be kind first and ask questions later.

And I recall the times when I have spoken up; when I have engaged wholeheartedly with people and how rewarding it has been; how those people have taught me something interesting and different about life and how to live it and how I have ended up being grateful to them for showing me life from a different perspective.

The curious thing is, that in the midst of my ponderings about how I can get braver with my attempts to be kind, I came across Kunzang, the Buddhist nun I met on retreat.  She is the embodiment of strong kindness - her Mahakala practice, which had such a strong effect on me, is all about wrathful kindness - and we talked a little about how sometimes kindness needs to be very, very strong indeed.  She went so far as to say, it sometimes needs to be cruel.  The fact that I instinctively recoiled at that idea suggests to me that it is important that I spend some time thinking about it.  One day I'll tell you the story of her 50th birthday and how she drove a 30 ton truck across the border from South Africa to Zimbabwe to give food that she had collected to people who were hungry and in need - powerful kindness.

My work is to keep on cracking open my heart and building my strength, so that I can be brave enough to be more kind to more people, more of the time. That I might see the sameness between us all more than the differences.  That I might let my instinct for kindness override my shyness, my reluctance to speak out of turn, or my fear.

Wednesday, 4 January 2012

Holy Isle 6

Tonight is our last night.  Although the storm still rages outside, the forecast is for sunshine and low winds tomorrow afternoon.  I am happy to be leaving, but also sad, as it is unlikely that my path will cross again with any of the people here.

It's also unnerving to be moving back into the real world.  It has been so wonderful to have the time to meditate three times a day; to contemplate and reflect quietly and to be around a disparate group of people who nonetheless share my interest in a spiritual path.  It is so quiet here and I am wondering how I can bring some of that silence back with me into my everyday life.  Of course, there is silence in meditation and in yoga practice and I have access to the silence within myself, but I worry about just how busy the world is now and how many ways there are, in any moment, of taking our attention out of our bodies and hearts and away from each other.


Turn off the phone; unplug it at the wall.  Designate a couple of days a week as screen-free days at home (no, t.v., no computer, no wii, no DS).  Pick up a book.  Regain the habit of being able to sit quietly and do nothing but silently reflect.  Teach your children that there is a value to silence and that taking time for contemplation is crucial if we are to stay healthy; that we are not built to be constantly bombarded with information, messages and images.

Pay attention to yourself.  Are you ill?  Are you tired?  Do you need to rest?  Do you need to walk?  Do you need to eat?  Your body is the home of your spirit in this lifetime, so take good care of it, so that you can be well.

Pay attention to other people.  Look at them and really listen to them when they talk to you.  Take a moment to chat to people as you come across them.  Remember our common humanity and that whatever and however we project ourselves to the world, we are all of us looking for understanding and for love.

Pay attention to the words you speak; choose words carefully and speak with kindness to yourself and to others.

Express yourself.  Create something, just for the fun of doing it.  Knit, draw, bake, write poetry, sing songs. 

Meditate!  Every. Single. Day.  For five minutes or five hours; the time you give to it is not so important as the commitment you bring.  It will help you; it will change you; it will make you stronger, braver and more true.  You will learn how to rely on the strong, warm heart of yourself.  I know this to be true and I have been blessed this week to spend time with other people who either understand this, or who are just beginning to see the truth of it.

These are some of the gifts and commitments that I will take away with me when I leave tomorrow.


Holy Isle is a very small island off the west coast of Scotland.  To get here I took a car, a plane, two buses and two boats.  It is a retreat centre run by Buddhists for the good of anyone and everyone, of any faith or none, who has the good fortune to end up here.

If you come here, you will be accepted; you will be treated with kindness; you will be served delicious food.  You can hike; you can swim (if you are brave enough!); you can volunteer to help in the kitchen, or in the garden; you will be left in peace or you can enjoy company by the fire, just as you wish at any point during your stay.

If you do come here, you will be very lucky indeed.

If you do come here, remember to pack a waterproof coat.


Tuesday, 3 January 2012

Holy Isle 5

There was an amazing storm this morning and some people wouldn't go out in it, but I loved it.  The sea was high, the waves crashing onto the rocks and white-horses and gusts of sea-spray for as far as you could see.  I went across to the little house to meditate as usual at 7.30 this morning in the pitch dark and the wind nearly knocked me off my feet; by the time I had reached the little house my face (the only bit of me that was exposed) was soaking wet, I thought from rain water, but my lips were salty and it was sea-spray that had soaked me - the air was full of the sea.

It was lovely to sit in a warm, quiet room and meditate while the storm blew outside, we emerged to angry, lowering skies and more icy rain and to the sight of a little sheep trundling along, nibbling the grass as usual, as if this were no more than a breeze. I guess they are built for this weather.

The boat that ferries us across to Arran can't come over in a storm this strong, so we are all stuck on the island for at least two more days (we were due to leave tomorrow).  There is nothing to do about this but accept it and be glad, because there are worse places to be stranded!  Although we had no electricity today, there has been the comfort of the wood-burning stove in the dining room and, as the kitchen is connected to the generator, a hearty lunch and dinner; when it got dark at about 4.30pm someone lit hundreds of tea-lights and they made everything look so beautiful that when the electricity came back on halfway through dinner, we turned the lights off again.  And the friendly Dutch man has a guitar and a girl from Brighton has a mandolin and so there will be music this evening, and the electricity is back on, so there is light and warmth and everyone has everything they need.

So I've had to change my flight and I miss my children and I'll have to cancel the yoga class I was due to teach on Thursday, but I am lucky that everyone at home is safe and happy and that I have the support of family and friends, so that this is an inconvenience and not an emergency.  I feel very grateful for that.

Monday, 2 January 2012

Holy Isle 4

Day four of the new year retreat at Holy Isle...

OK, so sometimes, it is very, very difficult to be on retreat.  The feelings and thoughts that plague you in your weakest moments at home may rise here and there really is no escape from them.  There is no friend to call for encouragement; your partner is not here; there is no tv or cinema to distract you; there is no cake shop; there is no wine; there are no cigarettes; whatever your method of numbing your difficult emotions is, you probably won't find it here.

But, there is the comfort of strangers.  There is the comfort of sitting with someone you met only days ago and will part from in several days, most likely to never meet again, and there is telling them your story and hearing theirs.  There is the gift of compassionate listening - so rarely found, when life is so busy out there and everyone in such a rush - the gift of paying attention to someone else as they speak.  And in having that depth of attention reciprocated entirely, and without judgement.  And then there is the gratitude that rises within for the gift of their having spoken and listened with love and honesty.

And of course, none of our stories are new or original, for none of us gets to escape the simple fact of being human and being human sometimes hurts.  I sat with a friendly Dutch man last night and we told each other our stories over several cups of tea, and as I walked up the stairs to bed, I realised that I felt lighter; that my troubles seemed less weighty.  And I have his kindness to thank for that.


And I wonder if we shouldn't really call this a retreat, as to retreat implies to be defeated somehow, to withdraw in the face of something we cannot overcome, to recede.  I think that it is more accurate to call this a refuge: somewhere safe and sheltered, where you can take time to give yourself whatever it is that you need: time to heal, time to grow, time to think, time to lick your wounds, time to reassess, time to be quiet, time to be free of other people's needs, time to focus on your spiritual path without interruption, time to explore yourself honestly, time to reflect.  I think that there are people here this week who are doing one of more of all those things and probably more besides.  But these people have not in any way been defeated by life, on the contrary, they are brave enough to confront themselves and their motivations and actions honestly.  This requires courage.  These people have not retreated from life, but they have sought refuge: somewhere safe and quiet to stay for a time while they work patiently and compassionately through whatever it is they are dealing with.

And there is a storm coming tomorrow, which will have the power to knock us off our feet (which happened to one of the residents here during the last storm).  Seventy-five mile an hour winds will batter the island.  And we'll all be safe within our refuge.


Meditation at 7.30am as always and I feel myself full of love and peace and I emerge again from the little house to a bright, clear and blustery day.  And today I am going to walk as far around the island as I am able to go, which means going all the way to the top.  It feels like a good day for climbing a mountain.

And I did climb the mountain and it didn't rain once and the sun came out and made everything more beautiful than it already was.  The wind was so strong that I sometimes felt that it would blow me off the mountainside, but I kept low and balanced and calm and, of course, I arrived back in one piece; and the cup of tea that I had when I returned home was delicious. 


I took myself off to meditate in the little house after lunch and had been there for almost an hour when a Buddhist nun came in with a couple of other people and started doing her practice.  It was amazing!  Lots of reciting prayers in Tibetan and every once in a while she would bash some cymbals together; it was the most incredible thing!  Perhaps it was because I was already deeply into my meditation, but the sound of the cymbals crashing seemed to go right through me, taking all the dark with it and leaving only light.  It's called Mahakala practice and you are only allowed to practise it if you have been initiated, but anyone may listen (this lovely nun, Kunzang, is South African and is staying here this week to acclimatise herself to being back in the world before going home to South Africa - she has been in a closed retreat on the south of the island for fourteen months).  She's a joy to be around - very happy and bright and funny and irreverent.  She's a poster girl for Buddhist nuns!  It is a joy to be around people who have chosen a spiritual path and are full of sunshine; it's not always the case that people with a strong commitment to a spiritual path embody peace, love and joy, but this lovely lady does.

Sunday, 1 January 2012

Holy Isle 3

Over new year I went on retreat to Holy Isle, this is day 3 of the blog I wrote while I was there...

I had such a beautiful meditation this morning.  All my worries and doubts about myself evaporated and I was filled with light and love and beauty.  I emerged into clear skies and a sunny day and vowed to make the most of the sunshine today, so went on two invigorating (it is sunny, but still VERY windy) walks.

For my second walk I took the opportunity to climb up towards the top of the island - it felt like a day for tackling mountains - and I made it about halfway, which feels about right for where I am just now, before turning back.  Tomorrow I intend to walk the whole thing - it will take me about four hours and I'll head off straight after breakfast.

The previous days of yoga, meditation, bracing seaside walks and early nights made this a very positive day, but as can happen on retreat, this evening all of my troubles seemed to return with a vengeance and my evening meditation left me feeling unsettled.  It's hard sometimes, when there are no distractions and you spend so much time quietly with yourself, because there is no escape from yourself.  This is true of all life, of course, but we are so good at finding ways of hiding from ourselves in everyday life.  There are no such escape routes here on the island and this can make it difficult.  Taking a long, hard look at oneself isn't always the easiest thing, and doing it with compassion (rather than beating yourself up over all your stupid mistakes) is harder still.

Nevertheless, I have the comfort of a warm kitchen with an open fire; my books; my journal and later my bed.  And I am sure, quite sure, that when I wake up tomorrow I will feel better again.