Archives for the month of: November, 2012

Today I want to write about singing. After avoiding such bold use of my vocal chords for pushing 20 years – except in karaoke where it’s never really taken very seriously – it has now become a major feature of my life. Now I spend 20 minutes, twice a week, chanting what are called ‘cosmic sounds’ in the centre I attend for Qi classes and treatments. The words don’t make any sense in any language, but they’re meant to be the sounds that are closest to the universe’s natural vibration. We sing the words to calm any fluttering within us and tune in to a more natural state of clarity and peacefulness.

When I first attended one of these chanting sessions, which form part of a one hour class dedicated to sound, gentle movement and stretches and meditation, it was pretty daunting – especially since as a beginner I’m expected to continue chanting for an extra 10 minutes or so after the more advanced trainees have stopped. It also seems harder to be chanting words that I don’t even recognise, each requiring a specific pronunciation, pitch, and length of time for holding the note.

But now, several sessions in, I quite enjoy this part of the class. By the end of the chanting, I feel noticeably calmer, and my mind is clearer. I’ve even started going to the classes which are solely dedicated to 45 minutes of chanting. Again, the words coming out of my mouth make no sense, but somehow they manage to have a balancing effect; dissipating all the background noise we carry around with us in our day to day lives and replacing it with a stillness and inner tranquility.

An image of the goddess Gayatri, whose mantra is sung to encourage wisdom and enlightenment

It is the same when I come out of my monthy rehearsal with the Shakti Choir I’ve joined. The fact I’ve even joined a  choir has come as a surprise to my friends, most of whom have never seen me sing, let alone one that is dedicated to the world’s sacred goddesses. In the three hour rehearsal we take time to breathe deeply, to be present and to listen, tuning ourselves into our own group frequency. And then we sing our hearts out – men and women, of all ages and talents – in a capella harmonies. The sound is quite magical. At the end I come out feeling alive and alert. And amazed – I’ve just sung in harmony, and in tune (most of the time), and yet I haven’t sung for years.

I used to sing quite a lot – didn’t we all when we were children? From the age of seven or eight I was singing the numbers from musicals such as

Singin’ in the Rain, West Side Story or the Sound of Music. And I had an obsession with Judy Garland – I would record each and every film of hers when it was broadcast on television, and I had particular favourites which I would play over and over again, losing myself in the hope and glory depicted in Meet Me in St. Louis or A Star is Born.To this day, I cannot help but be totally entranced and captivated when I watch Judy belting out ‘The Man that Got Away’ or ‘Over the Rainbow’, particularly in her later years when her passion and her pain can be seen and felt with every word.

I wanted to be like Judy when I was a child – to sing, and dance, and act. And then what happened? As children, we so often get put off by our peers, or our parents, or our teachers. We might also be just plain shy and lack the confidence to step up onto that stage. I tried for a while, attending drama groups where we would put on shows that our parents and the locals in the area would come and see. Yet by the age of 18 other interests had taken over, and I’d decided I didn’t really want to be an actress after all…I wanted to save the world instead!I had equated my artistic talents with my chosen career, and so when my career interests changed, the singing, dancing and acting died.

Yet in the last few months the singing has been unexpectedly resurrected. When I’m not at the Qi classes or at choir practice, I find myself singing – even the ‘cosmic sounds’ which make no sense. The sounds from those sessions spent in the Qi centre or in the rehearsals stay with me for the rest of the day, or week, like soothing and reassuring mantras. The experience of singing again has become more than just some new hobby to fill the time; it is a healing exercise – one that nurtures me, connects me with my inner core and lights up each part of my body.

I don’t pretend I’m particularly good at it. We forget that we don’t sing purely to show our talent; we sing for joy, because a song is in our hearts or minds and it needs to be expressed. We all have singing voices – as our choir leader likes to remind us – we just need the inner strength to let our voices fly and flow over each note and chord. And as we listen, to ourselves and to those singing around us, we learn how to connect with the peace and clarity we always wish for.


Dear Gaza

It is with great sorrow that I hear the latest news about another massacre, another bombing, another retaliation. I feel sorrow for the rising death toll, the pictures of weeping mothers and wives, the murder of children too young to even understand the struggles of their parents, families and neighbours. And I also feel sorrow becuase I know that each death, whether it’s in Gaza or in Israel, will only fuel further hatred, and further violence. I watch as the vicious pattern unfolds once again – attack and counter-attack, claims and counter-claims, threats and counter-threats. A new generation growing up with nothing but anger in their hearts.

In fact anger is everywhere; from the Government ministers to the international solidarity activists holding demonstrations outside Israeli embassies throughout the world, from one Facebook wall post to another, anger is pervasive. It is behind every political statement on Palestine, and every military action on either side.

I know this anger, and I’m by no means immune to it. It is anger that has spurred me on in Palestine, that strengthened my resolve to work there after witnessing the Wall, the settlements, the aggression of the Israeli soldiers in the West Bank. I am only now just processing that anger, releasing it in waves of sorrow and distress after holding it in the pit of my stomach for so many years as a Palestine activist. I am familiar with the anger I hear in the voices of commentators, and even my own father – so incensed is he by what is happening in Gaza right now.

But this time round, dear Gaza, dear Palestine, I am not one of those angry voices. I will not be attending any demonstrations, and I will not be writing press releases or political statements. And I will not be engaging in any of the aggressive political point-scoring, some of it between friends on separate sides of the fence (both politically and physically). I don’t say this with pride, and I do say it with more than a little guilt. My decision doesn’t come from a place of pure wisdom or higher authority, but from a place of accepting one thing: I don’t see the purpose of my anger anymore, and if anything I’m fearful of it – of what this negative emotion does to me, and to anyone engaged in the Palestinian situation. Does Gaza need my inner conflicts, confusion and frustration leaking out into any action I take for the so-called good of Palestine? Because anger often comes from this deeper, more obscure place of inner turmoil. It is not always constructive, or effective – I question now whether my anger over Palestine has really achieved anything over the years except perhaps alienating a few people and breeding further hatred. And what can hatred ever achieve? With anger, and hatred, we lose all sense of balance or compassion. It is easy for our emotions to take over when visiting Palestine, but how often do we stop to question their source and their purpose? It is only once I find the  meaning behind my own emotions and actions that I can understand the emotions and actions of others.

And so, dear Gaza, this time I stand back. I read what I can, and I’m screaming inside. But I will not be expressing my grief on the podium, or in the newsletter or conference room.  Please don’t mistake my non-action for apathy. My non-action comes from a place of understanding that clinging on to anger will serve no purpose except greater suffering. There are many positive actions that can be fuelled by people’s anger over injustice. All respect, and my most sincere wishes, go to those who transform their anger into something beautiful and empowering for the human race. I would one day love to join those who are mindful of every action and reaction, and who have a clear vision of what peace can and should look like, regardless of race, ethnicity or political positioning. But for now, my silence is the strongest thing I can offer as a  sign of love and compassion in this mixed up world.

For more reflections on Palestine activism, anger and mindfulness please read this blog piece from Mindfulness for NGOs: blog « Mindfulness for NGOs.

Lesson 1,256 of my transition: take pleasure in the natural beauty which surrounds you! In the last few months I have really been paying attention to the sights and sounds I experience in my daily life. This isn’t always a good thing; nowadays I seem super-sensitive to ‘white noise’ – to the endless commentary and bad pop music coming from the radio in our house, or the screaming voices of characters from my Mum’s favourite soap opera on TV. Our society seems to rely too heavily on background noise, like it’s a necessity to distract us from our inner thoughts and reflections.

But then I step outside, walk up the road and within a few minutes I’m enveloped in nature – in an oasis of calm within the natural reservoir. Today I admired the shades of green, yellow and red among the trees, the cormorants and mallards going about their daily business on the water, the squawking parakeets flying overhead (yes – we do actually, most bizarrely, have parakeets in London! They escaped from a zoo several years ago and quickly adapted and multiplied).

And today as I walked, I felt I was breathing in the twilight of Autumn. You’ve got to hand it to this country – we really do autumn very well. The UK’s summer was a washout, winter will be long, cold and dark and spring usually has some surprises in store – either a short-lived heatwave or daily downpours, or both. This autumn at least seems to have made up for a very disappointing summer; one which just about held out for the sake of the Olympics but which rarely gave us a full day of radiant and warm sunshine.

My Dad made a comment the other day that going for a walk to the reservoir was like going on an acid trip, and I saw this today and went mad with the camera – hence this little photographic piece. It is only for two months in the year, maybe three if we’re lucky, that we can really take pleasure in the colours and shades of autumn. So today I embraced it, possibly for the last time as winter begins to set in. No doubt the next season in the reservoir will provide a contrasting sparse and delicate beauty.



It’s been over a year since I returned from Palestine, and almost a year of official unemployment. My parents look at me with deep concern in their eyes; I feel that some of my friends are intentionally avoiding the thorny issue of my continuing joblessness. Sure, from the outside the situation looks pretty dire: in my thirties, living with my parents, no money saved for a rainy day, seemingly unable to get a job that I actually want or that I would find rewarding. Single with no sign of romance on the horizon.

And yet this transition is turning into a long journey of self-discovery. I haven’t been working in a job, but I’ve been working on myself – getting to the bottom of what makes me happy, what makes me sad or insecure. Once the journey starts, you have no idea where it will take you; all you can do is give in to the uncertainty. It has in fact only been in the last few weeks that I’ve seen the value in this time, when before I was always thinking I should be doing something else. It turns out that I shouldn’t – I needed to be right here, with myself. This is my year of growth, and the gestation period is not yet over.

Transitions take time – we can’t expect to put one chapter of our lives behind us and move on to a new one straight away. Just learning to accept that certain aspects of my life, certain habits, need to change or stop altogether has been a process in itself. Each time I’ve thought I’d reached some acceptance about moving on from my previous career there’d be a new job advertised to try and suck me back in. It is really only in the last month or so that I’ve truly learned to say no to these temptations. I know my boundaries – what I’m willing to do, and what I know I shouldn’t do because it will hurt me or set me on a backward path. But it has taken time to reach this point. And so the transition is by no means over – actually it has only just begun, and the next chapter of my life is yet to unfold.

This is a transitioner’s biggest challenge – having the patience to let the journey and strength not to force our future but to go with the flow. People use this term all the time, but how often do we really put it into practice? We like to think that we are spontaneous and relaxed about what comes our way, but I’ve realised that actually I’ve spent much of my life trying to control what happens. We do this as a defensive measure, to avoid disappointments or having to face an unpleasant truth about ourselves. It is only when we truly stop what we’re doing to be still and present, that we can begin to understand what is meant by ‘the flow’ – the wave of different emotions and feelings that arise from slowing down and focusing on ourselves instead of what surrounds us. To go with the flow means letting go, surrendering, and understanding that we cannot force the answers. Transitions by their very nature imply an element of uncertainty, and all we can really do is embrace that and wonder at the surprises that reveal themselves once we stop trying to control our trajectory. This can mean that some days there appear to be an abundance of opportunities, but other days nothing seems quite right. Progress can be shoddy; two steps forward, one step back. I have to remind myself each time I feel dissatisfied and full of self-doubt – and these occasions do certainly still occur though not as often, thankfully – that I also have moments of great excitement and anticipation, where I feel like Tony in West Side Story singing ‘Something’s coming’.

Could be!
Who knows?
There’s something due any day;
I will know right away,
Soon as it shows.
It may come cannonballing down through the sky,
Gleam in its eye,
Bright as a rose!

Who knows?
It’s only just out of reach,
Down the block, on a beach,
Under a tree.
I got a feeling there’s a miracle due,
Gonna come true,
Coming to me!

Could it be? Yes, it could.
Something’s coming, something good,
If I can wait!
Something’s coming, I don’t know what it is,
But it is
Gonna be great!

I can’t expect to experience growth and expansion every day. But I’m learning to regard each difficult experience or emotion as something to learn from, rather than something to avoid or be afraid of. And so when I had some acupressure treatment which left me crying every day for four weeks, I ultimately chose to embrace that experience – confront it head on, rather than run away from it, and understand that the hurt I felt from it was a form of healing, of letting go. Now I go to the centre every week for meditation and Qi Gong classes, and it’s a profound experience each and every time. I’ve become more aware of my fragilities, that I’m not the tough person I thought I was. I’m more like a precious object (we all are) that needs to be handled gently, by myself and by others. This discovery has inevitably resulted in me having to avoid certain social situations; there is no longer any payoff for placing myself in environments which are destructive for my sense of wellbeing.  Of course, recognising what those situations are is not always easy, and on several occasions I’ve misjudged it, resulting in a sad and lonely end to the day. But soon after that I’ve picked myself up again, brushed myself off and said to myself, ‘OK, so today’s lesson is…’ Every lesson is a blessing, good or bad – they help us find our inner truth. It is only once we go through some kind of shedding process that our true selves can really emerge.

Now I find myself hunting out those things I know will nurture me and give me confidence, which in my case is increasingly linked to creative interests. A year ago I certainly wouldn’t have guessed that I would be blogging, or singing in a choir (which I recently joined after not having sung for at least 15 years), or going to meditation classes where I do 20 minutes of chanting followed by 20 minutes of ‘Heaven and Earth’ movements. I doubt I would have done any of these things if I was back in a 9 to 5 job.

What I realise now is that this time is an opportunity to try new things, but also to pursue any interests that have for some time been lying dormant. I’m reminded of what one of the Qi Masters said to me last week. She was referring to a true story by George Ritchie, who died for nine minutes and was then brought back to life. In those nine minutes, he literally saw his life flashing before his eyes. The biggest lesson he learned from the experience is that if there is something in your life you want to do, then you must go and do it; you don’t know what tomorrow will bring, and your last breath should be one of fulfilment, not of disappointment. I haven’t yet read the book but it’s next on my reading list. I’ve become a junky for anything that inspires me right now, including true stories and self-help books. They’ve replaced my obsession with reading the newspapers and Human Rights Watch reports – no bad thing for me right now, if you read my previous blog post on burnout.

So a final word on my transition so far? I’m still in the gestation period. Maybe one day in the next month, or the next year, I’ll be ready to emerge from my cocoon of self-inquiry and healing – radiant, confident and ready to fly.

The Thesis Whisperer

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An Irish Mindfulness Meditation Blog: Finding calm, wellness, meaning and a happier life.