Category Archives: Emotional health and well-being

On art and creativity, the Royal Academy Why & How Conference & magnetic moments

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Stellar Adler

“Life beats down and crushes the soul and art reminds you that you have one.”

Stellar Adler, American actress and acting teacher, (1901 – 1992).

There are moments in my working life when I feel truly blessed and thrilled beyond words at the invitations that find their way to my inbox. There are times also, when I wonder what path I have set out on, that is so challenging, lonely at times, devoid of recognition or appreciation. But that is another matter.

An invitation from Molly Bretton, Access Manager at the Royal Academy, London, to deliver the opening keynote presentation for their second annual Why and How Conference – engaging children with SEN in creating art and cultural experiences, has been one of the greatest delights of my professional life. I have loved this event, Saturday 19th March 2016, truly, madly, deeply.
Royal Academy
Here is the Reynolds Room, the venue for my opening Reith-style lecture, and closing panel discussions. The logistics of hosting a conference taking multiple gallery rooms on a busy working Saturday seemed vast, but all was handled with ease and efficiency.

I have been impressed with every aspect of the event – the venue, unfamiliar to me (guilty confession, keen to make amends), the programme, the workshops, the food, the people. Perhaps I should say ‘the good people’, echoing Susan Potter’s closing comments. It has been a journey of discovery, with so many magnetic moments. Of which, more…

This conference invitation has also held challenges for me in several weeks of deliberations: what shall I say, what form will my presentation take, am I using visuals, can I really expect an audience to listen to me, alone, for the duration of my allotted 50 minutes delivery time? I am of a mind to think, how shall I occupy my time now the writing of this great beast of an 8,000 word lecture, is complete. Or at least, the significant part of my task is over. My bibliography is still a work in progress.

I will not revisit my lecture here, but instead, the thoughts that flood my mind are the abundance of good, joyous, uplifting conversations with strangers who have been as dear to me as the most familiar of friends. There have been so many remarkable, inspiring, ridiculously funny and moving moments, borne out of the passion, insight and hard work of so many individuals and teams, setting out to inspire and bring creativity to an audience that includes some of our most vulnerable young people in society.

In my lecture I referenced a phrase I heard once on the radio, some years ago, but never did discover its origins. So I have seized upon it, eager to popularise its use. It is ‘magnetic moments in time.’ They are the moments that create a lasting imprint on the mind, so that, long after the details and minutiae are forgotten, there is an impression there, that lingers and attaches itself, like a magnet to our heart.

There have been so many magnetic moments this day.

In the workshop, Illustrating a journey of engagement with children with SEMH, the presenters, Jhinuk Sarkar, Robin Johnson of Keddleston Schools and Matthew Johnson, Outreach Officer at Nuneaton Museum and Art Gallery, shared some of the museum’s Inuit artefacts. Aside the very serious matter of how best to engage with young people with SEND, the workshop allowed us to explore the artefacts and create our own block prints. It was the most unexpected delight! I have to confess, though, finding the artefacts in much demand, my attention was caught by some fine bust of a gentleman on display in the Saloon.
November 2015  - February 2016 314

I suspect I shall not be in great demand for my print-making, but I am so keen to find further opportunities to explore this beautiful craft.

In the past I had some fanciful notion I would attempt to recreate the William Morris prints of animal and nature, scenes that I so love on post-cards and wrapping paper. And then, and then, create for myself prints of my own design on wrapping paper. How simple it all looks, but how complex the design and detail…

William Morris prints

 

 

Little way to go, huh?

 
The second workshop I attended, Understanding Creative Empowerment for Children and Young People with Learning Disabilities, with Corali and Greenside School, was also breathtakingly fantastic, unexpected, slightly surreal and almost spiritual in its beauty. Coralis use a partnership, performance-led, mixed-media methodology to provoke and discuss inventive and original ways that children and young people with LDD can be artistically and creatively empowered to engage with the arts.

Corali are the heroes of my heart. Whatever your audience, children, young people with LDD, adults, the corporate world, emotional and mental health and well-being, the potential is huge. I feel bereft already that I am missing my dancing partners, as we swirled and swooped and caressed and tip-toed on our precious object, inspired by the environment, a stretch of red velvet fabric.

What a privilege also, in a one hour workshop, to be gently encouraged to move and dance and create, and to conjure up such inventive scenes, around flowers, a bowl of fruit and a piece of red velvet. My words cannot do justice, but I was, and am, captivated. I loved the gathering around to watch the instant video playback of our shared movements, and performing as a group before a video backdrop of our earlier work.

In all the excited chatter with my fellow dancers, we decided that we each took on different persona, as we played and indulged our inner creative selves. One lady in the group was constantly tuned to practical uses of our precious red velvet; another erupting into bull-fighting drama and peek-a-boo scenarios, with another using the red velvet to soothe and caress. (I was told I was majestic, with my red velvet, so I will stay with that, thank you).

Sadly, I did not have time to attend all the workshops on offer, but with such a richness of choice, and in such a beautiful setting, how could delegates fail to be impressed?

Bringing together events like The Royal Academy’s Why and How Conference, is a challenging task. It takes great insight, courage, tenacity and flair to bring such diverse elements of a complex and ever expanding field of expertise together, in one venue. My hat goes off to Molly Bretton for a truly inspirational event.

I must also mention the precious joy of meeting colleagues I have only conversed with by phone, or have met too little – Noel Hayden, SEN Programme Manager from the Museum of London and Dermot Dolan, Training and Partnerships Manager of Whizz-Kidz. Dermot’s cheery greeting was the sweetest moment.

And then, there were the post-event discussions and far ranging chatter with Molly Bretton, Rachael Christophides, who so expertly chaired the close of day panel discussion, and Paul Anderson Morrow, artist, teacher and workshop presenter. Well, that was a world in itself. A brilliant end to a perfect day! Slight matter of my missing my last train home, aside.

chinua achebe

Art is man’s constant effort to create for himself a different order of reality from that which is given to him. Chinua Achebe (1930 – 2013) Nigerian novelist, poet, professor and critic.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

On fear, finding new oceans and fortitude

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Fear (1)

Choice, or otherwise, fear lives in us all. When once encountered, fear is a remarkably persistent character, slipping around our shoulders, yapping at our ankles, lingering in the quiet still hours, keeping us wakeful when we’re desperate to sleep.

It may be fear of serious illness, of facing an uncertain future, of the end of a long term relationship, or fear in some insidious guise, free-floating,  drifting to suit a mood and context. Life is uncertain and fragile. We do not have to look far to find suffering, anguish, unhappiness, or witness troubled lives racing fast to perilous outcomes.

Fear is defined as ‘an unpleasant emotion, caused by the threat of danger, pain or harm.’ In old Saxon forms of the verb, fear becomes ‘faron’ and translates as ‘to lie in wait.’ Old Norse terminology echoes this definition, with ‘faera’, ‘to taunt’. It does seem that fear taunts us, goads us into behaviour we would prefer not to display

Walking to a hospital appointment on a sharp, frost-laden day, watching the morning sun rise and beat out the blue, I was lost in a reverie, contemplating fear. I have known fear intimately since my breast cancer diagnosis, some three years ago. The fear of dying from my cancer lingers. Two years on, and cancer free, I confront those fears each time I revisit the hospital for check ups, scans and general health reviews. I recognize that, and wish it were not so, but I seem powerless to rid myself of the burden of fear.

Once in my life I have been close to death, a very real close encounter when infection caught hold during chemotherapy and spread like a wildfire through my body. By the time I had appreciated the seriousness of the situation, my mind was compromised, responding poorly to the need for help. Sleep seemed the answer. The desperate desire to sleep, to ease the pain through oblivion.

It was 3am when I was eventually admitted to hospital, after a series of administrative blunders, and poor advice. My temperature had soared to 41 degrees, my blood pressure had dropped, my pulse racing. I had no comprehension of what was happening to me, but somewhere inside I knew, if I fell asleep alone in my home, I might not wake up again.

I was diagnosed with neutropenic sepsis shortly after admittance, and remained in a negative pressure isolation room for six days. For much of that time, those early days, it was hard to have an interest in living, when my body seemed so incapable of sustaining my life independently. It was then that fear retreated.  I was unafraid.

That feeling of slipping away from the world is so poignant in the Bruce Springsteen song, Streets of Philadelphia, about a man confronting his own imminent death after contracting AIDS.

The night has fallen, I’m lyin’ awake,
I can feel myself fading away,
So receive me brother with your faithless kiss,
Or will we leave each other alone like this
On the Streets of Philadelphia

Fear has taken up residence in my heart. Just when I think it is safely out of sight, tucked in some recess in my mind, it leaps to the fore with a vengeance when I revisit the place of my darkest hour: the hospital cancer wards. Memories of my year long treatment, the anguish, heartache and physical dread of chemotherapy, comes flooding back with an urgency that takes me by surprise as I walk familiar corridors.

If I have lost confidence in myself, I have the universe against me. Ralph Waldo Emerson.

Fear is the very absence of confidence in our ability to protect or preserve our own or others safety. It is the emotion that betrays us, when we think we have put on a brave face, or kept our true feelings in check. Fear is the tears that fall, unexpected and uncontrolled, when confronting our dread. It is the anxiety in our heart when we feel out of our depth. It is the nightmare that torments us with alarming regularity.

Finding some way to build our resilience, to have fortitude in the face of adversity, must be our goal, yet it is not easy. I have been fascinated by fortitude  since my teenage years. It is not an attribute hugely in fashion. It is largely an unused, rather archaic term. As an inveterate re-reader, I have cherished and long adored the horse-lovers’ trilogy and multi-dimensional novels, My Friend Flicka, Thunderhead and Green Grass of Wyoming, set in the ranch lands of Wyoming in the 1930s.

In these novels, the all-seeing, all-knowing mother, Nell, sees the challenges her two sons face and has conversations with them on important themes. In one, she talks of the need for fortitude.  Reading that as an eleven year old, it brought wonder to my heart. This was something teachers never talked about at school, the idea that we might develop fortitude, to find our own inner strength when our external environment sadly failed to protect as we might wish. These books, and Nell’s little sermons, opened up a whole new world of insight and knowledge. How do we manage, not what is happening around us, but what is happening inside of us, at our very core?

The Sky Atlantic drama, Fortitude, is set in the fictional Arctic town of Fortitude. Aside from having a remarkable and intriguing plot, and quite mesmerising theme music, it fascinates because each character is tested to the limits of their fortitude. The environment is an immediate and obvious challenge, but so too, are a myriad obstacles, internal, external, metaphorical and literal. There is not one person free from challenge, from inner turmoil, from anguish, yet still lives must carry on, children fed, work tended to, relationships managed, against this threatening backdrop.

There are many ways in which we can sustain ourselves, but finding what works for us, what reduces or alleviates fear is a personal matter. It is trial and error too, and it is having the courage to reject what others may feel is ‘good for us’ in favour of our own personal responses. The need to work constantly to restore poor mental health, or build better frameworks to sustain good mental health are imperative, yet they are skills too infrequently taught in schools and in the workplace.

I used to describe the local National Trust property, Baddesley Clinton, as my private sanctuary, a place I visited often during treatment. Walking alone around the lake, observing the great changing beauty of nature, I felt a great sense of peace, a freedom from fear or anxiety or anguish. It kept me safe, restored me for the journey home and that great rushing in of the world once more.

New oceans quote

Fear may live in us all, or reside in our hearts during times of duress and challenge, but it need not always be that way. There is a need to find a balance too in our understanding of the self, our mental health concerns and our environment. It is the ability to recognize that which helps, and that which hinders our journey away from fear.

How much do we work on our inner dialogue, striving to understand our emotions and motivations, and how much do we consider our environment, the very real living space we inhabit, the people we surround ourselves with who may be unwitting accessories to fear?

I like the idea of new oceans to explore. Taken from a vantage point of vulnerability or of strength, out there, new oceans await us. We must first, have the courage to lose sight of the shore.

 

 

 

 

 

On looking back, anniversaries, hospitals and Robert Falcon Scott

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RFScottMy adoration knows no bounds, and so I begin my post, unashamedly, with an image of Captain Robert Falcon Scott. It is relevant,and fitting but, as is the nature of these rambling posts, you must read on to find the connection.

I have been struck recently by the power of association. By how we merge events, feelings and strong emotional experiences in our mind’s eye on the strength of past actions. So, over the past few weeks as my birthday approached, I felt a strange sense of dread and unease, that only really came to light when I spent some time pondering the source of my discomfort.

You may recall an earlier post of mine – in fact, almost a year to the day since I posted – On neutropenic sepsis, nightstand central, laughter, family and good friends – 10th May 2013.

In that post I was extolling the merits and wonder of the app Nightstand Central, which I discovered during a five day hospitalisation for severe infection, or neutropenic state, during chemotherapy treatment for breast cancer. I was as poorly as I have ever been, if not more so, and so very jaded and tired. and spent the days leading up to my birthday and beyond, in an isolation unit at Warwick Hospital. When I knew I was being admitted, I gathered up Scott’s Last Expedition as my treasured possession – although sadly for the most part, I felt too poorly to read or pay attention to anything much at all.

The anniversary of that hospital stay has been very much on my mind of late, quite unbidden. I would rather the mind dwelt on happier times, but it seems there is little choice in the matter – the mind strays, where the mind strays.

It is hard sometimes, not to look back, whether with delight and great pleasure, or whether in a state of some anxiety and discomfort, as I have been. What has compounded the feeling, somewhat, has been a spate of hospital and GP visits, for check ups, medication reviews and various tests. At one, meeting my oncologist again, sitting in the same chair betwixt the meeting rooms and chemotherapy treatment room, I was as agitated as if I was waiting on the call that sent me filled with horror, for my next chemotherapy session.

Logically, of course, I knew that I was there for quite different reasons, but the mind plays such tricks.

Recently, in conversation with a young lady who had experienced eating disorders, and severe anorexia, she commented that, despite a full recovery now, she knew that she had not really recovered, but that the eating disorder was waiting in the wings for her, hanging over her life for ever. Her weekly therapy sessions are held in the centre where she was once admitted for treatment, and she described the dread she felt each week, turning up for her meeting.

There are so many issues here, it will make at some point, for a separate post altogether. It staggers me to think that anyone could conceive it a good idea to deliver therapy at a place where associations with illness, fear and treatment have taken place. If I found the experience of re-visiting the scenes of my past cancer treatment traumatic, on a six monthly basis, what must it be like for a young person to face that same intense emotional experience on a weekly basis?

The past has a power and a hold like no other. We are so dependent on a healthy, fertile, creative imagination to visualize the best for ourselves in our future, and oh – how that ability takes a battering, in times of ill health.

During the latter days of my hospital stay last year, knowing that my most precious book, Scott’s Last Expedition, was at my bedside, was enough to make me feel tethered to this world, enough to make me smile and look to the future.

Much as we might wish to be always marching forward, the past has a hold and sometimes, it seems wise to linger and contemplate former times. Understanding why our mind takes us back to difficult moments in our past can help us acknowledge the challenges we have faced, and prepare us, so that we may race full steam ahead into tomorrow.

Capt Robert Scott

The events of the day’s march are now becoming so dreary and dispiriting that one longs to forget them when we camp; it is an effort even to record them in a diary

 

 

 

 

 

On SEND reforms, Personal Budgets and choice and control

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Kind mit fußballThis past year has been a boon time for the education conference sector, with the SEND Reforms driving a seemingly endless yet necessary round of symposiums, national conferences and regional events.

I have been fortunate to be asked to speak at several regional SEN Leader conferences on the theme of Personal Budgets. It is not a favourite topic within the SEND Reforms, appearing more like the least favourite cousin who has come to stay the duration, with no end date in sight. I can quite see why it has been less favoured by the SEND pathfinders than other areas of the reforms – Education, Health and Care Plans, or Transition to Adulthood. Yet as I’ve absorbed myself in the work of the pathfinders and small scale studies, I have become more enamoured of the process and the potential it brings for many parents, carers, children and young people.

A personal budget is an amount of money identified by the local authority to deliver all or some of the provision set out in an Education, Health and Care Plan. By having a say in the way this budget is used, a parent or young person can control elements of their support.” (Draft SEN Code of Practice: Section 7.2)

Yet there are tensions within this new found freedom. It seems that in order for one group – parents and young people – to have more control, another must relinquish that control – schools, SENCos, early years settings and a host of education professionals. Already that tension presents itself in the many grumbles of discontent I’ve heard from practitioners, who see parents demanding x, y and z, as the immediate source of their problem. In a few cases, I’ve had requests for advice where parents and schools are at tribunal level over personal budgets and how money should be allocated. Ironic, when one considers that the a key argument for the SEND reforms was to avoid the adversarial nature of SEND practice and provision.

Here is a link to the full presentation for the SEN Leader Update conferences recently in London, Manchester and Birmingham (February and March 2014)-

SEND Reforms – Personal Budgets – Heather Stack March 2014

Here are some key themes from my presentation –

Key Challenges ahead

  1. Implementing the lessons (rather conservative and modest though they may be) of the SEND pathfinders
  2. Understanding local perceptions and strength of feeling towards the reforms and personal budgets
  3. Strengthening the role of key workers, advocates and independent supporters
  4. Gaining the involvement of children and young people in their EHC plans
  5. Understanding and knowing the diversity and breadth of provision from all sectors within a locality
  6. SEND providers having a realistic costing of service and provision that is shared with stakeholders

Key Opportunities ahead –

  1. An opportunity for schools, parents and young people to explore a greater breadth of provision and services than previously
  2. Incorporating the knowledge gained from One Page Profiles can give a new perspective on needs, support and provision
  3. Giving parents and young people a real say in the choices they can make about support is enpowering for all and far more likely to elicit partnership working between home and school
  4. Considering the needs of the child 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, rather than between the hours of 9am and 3pm, should ensure that social, leisure, sporting and creative activities become a part of the picture of a holistic support programme
  5. Enabling parents and young people to take an active part in determing support choices will take away the pressure from school SEN staff who may otherwise be imposing support interventions that are actively resisted by the child and the family
  6. An opportunity for local authorities to consider all the provision within their locality, whether from the private, public or third sector, as an asset, and not a threat
  7. A chance for specialist providers to collaborate to create flexible and timely services that are delivered at the point of need, and not when services become available.

Riding for the disabled

I will continue my theme in my next post, on the need to consider support needs 24/7 and not just 9am – 3pm. Once we liberate ourselves from the constraints of the school day, and think about what short and long term outcomes we are trying to achieve, the world really is our oyster.

For some reason, it is hard to fathom, the glorious words of Lewis Carroll’s The Lobster Quadrille come to mind.

Will you walk a little faster?” said a whiting to a snail,
There’s a porpoise close behind us, and he’s treading on my tail.
See how eagerly the lobsters and the turtles all advance!
They are waiting on the shingle — will you come and join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, will you join the dance?
Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

Will you, won’t you, will you, won’t you, won’t you join the dance?

 

 

 

 

 

On The Local Offer, optimism and building a road-map for the future

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Isabel - portrait0001I have been truly blessed to meet some remarkable young people in my work as an independent education consultant. Sadly, not just some, but all of the young people I have been fortunate to become acquainted with experience special educational needs, to varying degrees.

For some, their difficulties may be transitory, context specific, single-issue areas of need, but for many, their difficulties are legion, they are not easily dispelled, and the discontent, anxiety and unease spills over into family life, into the day to day life of school, intofriendships and relationships.

Bridge to TerabithiaThe young artist whose portrait is displayed above, Imogen (not her real name), has suffered long term the debilitating effects of so many interwoven, complex needs – obsessive compulsive disorder, trichotilomania, friendship difficulties and delays in acquiring reading and literacy skills.

Her rich and inventive fantasy life could rival that of the characters in The Bridge to Terabithia. Her drawings, I have felt, are in some way a compensation for the paucity of friendship and beauty in her life.

My role as a consultant is necessarily that of one dispensing advice, in good faith that SEND Services and professionals are available and have capacity to respond to the needs identified. It is always a challenge considering recommendations against the reality of the context – being fully aware that the service needed to deliver the intervention, assessment or support, are running to capacity, or have a waiting list that would make you weep, or no longer offer that provision for that age range.

On many occasions, I have spent time sourcing the relevant support, before commiting to a course of action in pupil advice. It is a courtesy to client schools to make recommendations that are immediately ‘do-able’ and at the least, it offers encourgement to parents that certain steps can be taken in a timely manner, to address the special needs that present.

My next big venture, which will be an on-going project over several years, is to build up a Road Map of SEND Provision (England) showcasing and detailing all the service provision that exists within a locality.

I will be seeking the active engagement of providers across the public, private and third sector in Education, Health and Social Care, across all the Local Authority regions in England.

The service will operate as a web platform and social enterprise. The site is currently under construction – exciting times!

http://www.thelocaloffer.co.uk/

I say exciting times, but it is a long and challenging road, not least that the ideas contained in my head, the vision and ideal, must translate also to reality, to what can be achieved over a reasonable period of time. I am impatient to have more than just a holding page to my site, as at present, but all takes time. Several months of hard work and concerted effort have taken me so far and the journey has only just begun.

I am striving to build a Road Map for the future – and I need your support.

I’ve created a brief survey, courtesy of the genius that is Survey Monkey, to gather thoughts on the pragmatics of The Local Offer. I would be thrilled for a moment of your time and response –

https://www.surveymonkey.com/s/5MR2PMP

I will keep you posted on progress as I move towards the launch of The Local Offer for the start of the new financial year, April 2014.

TLO-logo (2)

If you or children in your care have been affected by the difficulties Imogen has faced, here are some useful links –

http://www.mind.org.uk/information-support/types-of-mental-health-problems/obsessive-compulsive-disorder-(ocd)/

hhttp://www.ocdaction.org.uk/

http://www.ocduk.org/ocd

hthttp://www.dailymail.co.uk/health/article-2514880/Student-rare-hair-pulling-condition-trichotillomania-online-sensation.htmltp://www.trich.org/

http://www.youngminds.org.uk/for_parents/worried_about_your_child/friendship_problems/about_friendship_problems

http://www.kidshelp.com.au/grownups/news-research/hot-topics/making-friends.php

With regards to you all, always, and in fond memory of some remarkable young people who have blessed my life by their presence.

On ways of giving, responding to need and personal commitments

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“No one has ever become poor by giving.” 
―    Anne Frank,    diary of Anne Frank

Anne Frank (2)

Searching for inspiration for my post, the wisdom of the young Anne Frank shines far beyond the words of many, more mature, statesmen and women. ‘No one has ever become poor by giving.’ How true, and how very profound.

It is the simplest of things that has pleased me most these past few weeks and months. I have made a personal commitment to giving small amounts of money, words or deeds, to those in need, on a regular basis. Goodness, how satisfying the feeling, with really, so little effort.

In case it seems that I have been rather selfish with my purse or attentions prior to recent times, I wish to set out my commitment.

I have decided upon a very simple course of action, and that is to commit a certain amount of money each month, held separate to general every day spending in my purse, to be given where needed.

Too often I have met with disadvantage, with people in need whilst out shopping or meeting friends, or dashing from pillar to post in a relentless hurry. At times I have change with me, but there are many times too when my purse lets me down, when I have no change and little time, and I walk by. I always feel the worse for my actions.

This past month, I have allocated some of my small social fund to the following causes –

  • Buying extra items on top of my shopping trip to add to an organization collecting for a local food bank – http://www.trusselltrust.org/foodbank-projects
  • Giving money to a homeless man in my home town
  • Giving to a busker near South Kensington in the long subway walk towards the V & A
  • Giving the bus fare home to a young man who said he was stranded and had no money for a fare
  • Buying a small amount of cat and dog food for the charity, Friends of the Animals – http://www.friendsoftheanimals.co.uk/

My goal is that part of my household budget each month is allocated to my social fund (it is not a great amount, but it is a beginning) and is ready and available to give as needs present. There is a selfish drive also, as I would prefer to direct my own giving, and have a great dislike of well-meaning t-shirted and lively young people bombarding me in the streets with clip-boards and a request for me to sign up for some or other cause. I have a similar objection to door-to-door collections, or people calling by phone during the working day with some dashed-off spiel, that most iritates.

To whom or what cause we give is very much a personal choice, based on our own lives and experiences, thoughts and inclinations. It was a great pleasure wandering along the pet food aisle of Tesco’s and choosing items for the trolley for Friends of the Animals. It is a joy I do not have, living in a house with no pets. It seemed to me also, that the simple act of adding a few items, encourages others also to give, and to pay attention.

Homeless people

So, lest it seems I have become all Mother-Theresa on the matter, I will say that I am commiting what I can, when and how I see best, during my daily life. The act of setting aside money in my purse has freed me substantially from that feeling that, this money is allocated for this purchase, or that travel need. It is a blessing, and I am pleased with my commitment. It is only a small thing, but it brings me joy, and I hope, some respite and relief somewhere out there to people in need of hope, comfort and care.

“No one is useless in this world who lightens the burdens of another.” 
―    Charles Dickens

 

 

On the art of meditation, mindfulness and well-being

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Meditation image (2)I have a romanticised idea of meditation, and so this image matches perfectly some vision I have long held, without question, about what it might be like to meditate. Aside the health benefits of meditation, there is a pleasure absorbed simply by the surroundings, by the absence of people, society, haste and bother.

Surroundings, those who have read any of my other posts may recall, matter greatly to me. Hence, my fondness for the countryside, for the heritage sector, for museums and galleries and the great glory of architecture that is common to our finest cathedral cities.

But I digress. I have attended An Introduction to Meditation day, courtesy of Tracy Webb, a therapist specializing in meditation, the bowen technique, energy healing, yoga and counselling, amongst other areas of health and well-being. Here is a link to her site – http://www.bowen-nst.co.uk/About.html I had the privilege of attending a one day meditation course, with the promise to write about the experience and consider its impact and benefit.

Tracy is based in Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, UK, and practices from The Warwickshire Wellbeing Clinic in Leek Wootton and also uses treatment rooms in Leamington Spa.

The benefits of meditation:

It is always reassuring to meet a therapist who knows her subject matter, and Tracy has attended some rather brutal-sounding, highly disciplined meditation retreats and training, over a number of years. I am not sure that I could become that committed, but her knowledge base is sure and secure, and that inspires confidence.

Tracy comments throughout the day on the various benefits of meditation, and in her handbook also she references the key benefits –

  • Increased immunity
  • Emotional balance
  • Increased fertility
  • Relieves irritable bowel syndrome
  • Lowers blood pressure
  • Aids anti-inflamatory
  • Increased calmness

At times I have explored, tentatively, meditation and other holistic approaches to well-being, but must confess, I have not committed myself to any particular journey of discovery. Action, sport, the great outdoors, all feature highly in my world and my greatest desire, post the conclusion of all treatment for breast cancer, has been to be more active, to play tennis again in comfort and without fatigue, to go on great rambling walks and explore the countryside. Hence, I have had a slight reservation over the gains to be had by simply sitting, and being, in a small room, with a handful of strangers.

I found this quotation which addresses my concerns rather well!

Some people think that meditation takes time away from physical accomplishment. Taken to extremes, of course, that’s true. Most people, however, find that meditation creates more time than it takes. (Peter McWillians)

Perhaps it is that fear of the extremes, that has led me to a very conservative and cautious approach to meditation.

Elements of An Introduction to Meditation Day

I thought it might be useful to recap and consider what range of meditation practices are being taught, aided by the very helpful handbook to Meditation that Tracy offers on her courses. In brief, these are: –

  1. Mindfulness of breathing technique
  2. Anapana
  3. Mindfulness meditation
  4. Insight meditation
  5. Japa/Mantra meditation
  6. Guided meditation

Meditation image (1)

What pleased me about the day is the Tracy plans the practice meditations to be of varying length, so that some seemed only a few minutes, others 10 minutes, to a gradual progression towards meditating for a longer period of around 30 minutes.

I can see that is very much a personal choice, but my preference has been for the mindfulness of breathing technique, and for insight meditation and the guided meditation, which I did most unexpectedly, enjoy greatly – a very fitting and lovely end to the day!

Mindfulness of breathing technique:

The technique is simple and I will repeat here in full Tracy’s guidance –

  • Go through each area of the body and relax each muscle and let it go
  • When finished, bring all your awareness to your breathing
  • Notice the breath as it rises and falls be aware if it is shallow, long, deep, laboured. Just observe your breathing
  • When you are ready, start to count at the end of each ‘out’ breath
  • Breathe in, breathe out, count one
  • Breathe in, breathe out, count two
  • Continue in this way until you reach 10, then start again at 1
  • Do this for anything between 3 and 30 minutes. You can do this longer if you wish
  • When finished, let go of the counting and bring your awareness back to the room.

Insight meditation:

The technique –

  • While observing the breath, take your attention to the top of your head
  • Notice any sensations there. Bring all your awareness to this point. It might feel itchy, hot, tingly… Notice any sensations
  • Stay there for a few minutes
  • Move your awareness to the whole head and notice any sensations there
  • Move piece by piece through the whole body, observing what sensations you can feel in each area
  • If there is a pain somehwere you are not observing, notice it and remember the law of impermanance – it will change
  • Try to be the observer, detach your mind as much as you can from everything else that is going on either around you or in your body
  • The trick is to observe and not react
  • Aim to practice for at least 15 minutes to begin with and build up to one hour when you feel ready
  • When you have finished, take your attention away from your body and bring your awarenes back to the room.

I would like to add to that, as your move your attention from the top of your scalp right down to your toes, you then begin the process backwards, moving your awareness up again through your body.  I was initially impatient to move on (and get back again) but despite that niggling desire, I did feel remarkably calm and relaxed after this practice.

I have one minor concern and it is that, in describing this technique, Tracy likened it most to a scan moving through the body. What a strange thing the mind is, but at the word ‘scan’ I was taken back instantly to recent hospital scans, pre-surgery and pre-radiotherapy, and so, a disquiet crept in. It is trivial, but it shows how the language used to create associations is so crucial to success. (And apologies Tracy, but I did not mention that at the time.)

In this time-starved life, where it seems every moment is to be measured and accounted for, I can more easily imagine myself meditating for periods of 15 – 30 minute duration, than committing several hours of each day to meditation.

Meditation image (3)Finding a space and place to meditate may require a little thought. I like the idea of a simple, shrine-like space that is clear, devoid of clutter, light and airy, where nature merges in harmony with our material world. So, I have plans to re-arrange some of my bedroom space to find a visual, focal point for my meditations, that is pleasing and conducive to relaxation.

Although I cannot say I am yet a convert, the appeal of meditation has grown, and discussing the day’s events with friends over the weekend, has caused me to think again about how much that need to find our own inner peace, is common to us all.

Meditation quotes (1)

Tracy plans to run, around the Leamington Spa, Warwickshire, area, a series of monthly meditation gatherings, to offer support and a space to meditate. She is currently planning a 2-day meditation retreat. Please do look at her website for more details, or contact her via email – tracy@bowen-nst.co.uk or contact her directly on 07570 981 789

Several days after my meditation experience, I can say that I have felt a calmness and serenity that I have not felt for some time. In truth, there may be many factors that have influenced that – good friends making time for coffee and mince-pies at the weekend, an unexpected visit from my son, pleasing business news and all manner of things that conspire to bring happiness into one’s life.

But I revert back to my meditation day and feel that it has taught me a lot, and reminded me that it is always important to be alert to one’s well-being and to bring mindfulness back into everyday living. Those lessons really are invaluable. I am most grateful to Tracy and her Introduction to Meditation Day.