What I learnt at 50

This past week marked the end of my fiftieth year on this earth.  A journey that has taken me from a small village in Germany to South Africa, Namibia, South Korea, Indonesia, the US, South Africa again, Australia and back to South Africa.  The last few years I find myself in London with an ever growing diverse career, more work travel than I could have imagined, a dissolved marriage, deep joy in watching my children grow into wonderful young adults, and the safe harbour and passion of an all enveloping love.  It has been a life long journey back to myself and my own heart.

A warning though – If you are averse to strangely introspective posts, expect rationality in life at all times, and are deeply mistrustful of the gift of intuition or of the mysterious, I suggest you stop reading now.


There have been many surprises and curiosities along this journey.  My greatest re-discovery recently has been the gift of friendships, and specifically of female friendships, and of being able to shift my perspective toward gratitude for the positive values and gifts that have been present throughout my life, but I have not been able to see or label as such.  Somehow growing up I felt an internal survival sense that I needed to be strong, forceful, assertive and anything less was not valued. Perhaps it had something to do with having two older brothers and growing up surrounded by boys.  I could climb trees and cliffs with the best of them, often better and I could run fast, it was not so easy to catch me.  I did not easily succeed at being a boy though – all my brothers had to do was dunk me in the pool and I gave up.  I also loved playing with all the girlie things at my friend’s house – trying on the dresses of her older sisters and playing with barbie dolls, something that was not approved of at home.  The feminine at my home had more to do with being of service to patriarchy – even if it was not understood as such – cooking magnificently, keeping a well kept house, being well mannered and looking presentable at all times.  Much to my mother’s dismay I did not always succeed very well in the looking feminine department. She had fabulous taste. I rebelled internally against the perceived weakness and tears of my mother, but was not sure how to always be resilient against the labile forcefulness of my father and brother.


A few years ago I visited my son at school in New Mexico along the southern tip of the Sangre de Cristo mountains.  It was a precious few days seeing where he was, meeting his friends, and exploring with him a little of the area. On the last morning I spent some time in the small meditation sanctuary on campus and found myself part of a group of women who met early every Sunday for a Divine Mother Earth session.  Something I had never experienced but was not about to miss being a part of once invited. Each one of the group took turns at leading and this morning it was the turn of a woman who had brought angel cards to share.  After some meditation, singing, chanting, and chocolate eating – which all women’s meetings should include – a pack of cards was handed around the circle and everyone chose one.  There were seven of us.  The cards drawn were body care, intuition and integrity, enchantment, power, divine guidance, support and serenity – in that order.  My own card was that of divine guidance.  The whole circle was anchored by a woman who reminded me strongly of another woman at that time in my life that I was fearful of, but sitting in the circle I was able to work with my understanding of this relationship and my own impact on this other woman, and realised how we both were reacting from positions of deep vulnerability.  By inviting her vulnerability, as well as my own, into the circle, I was able to transform my understanding of the relationship and ground my capacity to be fully present in the circle with these women that day.  The angel reader shared with me that the angel card of divine guidance was about trusting one’s own intuition and inner knowing whilst also strongly paying attention to the other cards that had been drawn in the circle, especially those to the left and right of me – power and support. The power card invites trust in one’s own capacities of strength and presence, and to stand firm and powerful in that knowing.  The support card invited accepting support from family and community, both past and present, in order to be able to receive fully that which is already here. The other cards invoked playfulness and childlike wonder with the enchantment card, care of self with the body care card, letting go of what does not support one’s positive strengths and personal integrity with the integrity card, and an offering of opening to stillness and peace into one’s life and those close to us with the serenity card. Intuition, inner knowing, trusting myself, standing firm in what I know and who I am, giving and receiving support from those close to me, being playful and light hearted, taking care of myself, being positive with integrity, and allowing greater stillness to permeate my being – all themes I was working with at that very moment of my life. How synchronous and timeous this circle.

Now I am not sure I believe in angels, or even in any particular god for that matter.  I have lived in too many diverse places, with diverse cultures, met too many good caring people who adhere to many different religions, as well as known unkind hateful harmful people associated with that of my own childhood religion, to be certain about one true knowing. But I believe in mystery and virtues and a divinity that guides all of us from the inside out. I believe that there may be more to this world than we understand and that some things are worth paying attention to, even as we may feel they are less worthy of our attention or care; that being open and curious and having a kindly receptivity to all that unfolds for us is a passionate positive way of engaging with what comes our way.

What I felt very strongly sitting in that circle that morning was that here were some very beautiful, intuitive and grounded women who were willing to allow themselves be their own guides.  And that they were supporting each other in this journey, and had invited me a complete stranger to join them.  For too many years I have felt I had been fighting the male establishment of patriarchy in my personal, home, work, family, political, social, cultural, and economic life.  Perhaps it was time to let go of the fight.  Perhaps there was not even fight.  Perhaps it was just my own perception and perspective, and it was keeping me stuck in a very old loop.  Perhaps this circle and these women and their angels were inviting me to recognise my own oppressive patriarchy and allow the divine feminine in me to show up and be known.

In some small way that circle marked a turning point for me.  Beyond that moment I chose to show up and be present, to respond to what my heart attaches meaning to, to tell my truth as best I could, and let go of any perception I may have of how the outcome should be.  Indeed let go of the fear of hurting others by following my own heart.  What I have learnt is that there is no easy way around hurting others at times through simple being oneself when they are attached to a view that is different, but that one can continue to show up and be kind and be present and speak from the heart.  Somehow that journey has allowed me to connect now with more sisters and girlfriends, and even mothers and daughters, past and present that I could ever have imagined. Even re-connect with my own mother though she is long gone.  Almost as if all our angels are in community too. I find myself fully embedded in and grateful for a community of women, connected strongly to my own being, and feel completely at home within my intuitive feminine heart.  It it like I have finally come home at fifty.

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You do not have to be good

You do not have to be good!


Today I was reminded vividly and physically about the value of deeply believing the sentiments of Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese. One I have shared many times in teaching and training programs, one that I find guides my life these days. It reminds me when I have the presence to remember: “You do not have to be good. You do not have to walk on your knees for a hundred miles through the desert, repenting. You only have to let the soft animal of your body love what it loves.”

Standing in the queue this morning at the post office I overheard a woman, a little younger than me, I think, talking on the phone:

“Do you think she’ll be let out this weekend?

I understand…, it depends on her weight tomorrow?

We’ll come by to see her this evening?


That she sees that we mean business.

Got to be harsh sometimes…”

It seemed from the conversation, and this is all conjecture on my part of course, that this woman’s daughter was in a ward, lock up unit, for anorexia.

Listening to the conversation and thinking about this young woman/girl locked away from her family for her own good left me feeling bereft and overwhelmed. I found myself emotionally activated with feelings of distress and sadness, feeling tearful, unable to breath, taking gulps of air as my chest constricted and heart pounded away.

I am not sure what has happened to the thick walls of my emotional protection that I had spent years erecting and keeping up and in the recent past seem to have tumbled down, leaving me with paper thin porous barriers against the insults of this world, especially it’s seemingly ever present insidious violent nature. I often feel buffeted by suggestions of violence and images of aggression, seeing it on screen, in the news, experiencing it in the daily interplay of human beings, or as in this case the realm of institutional care that for the benefit of treatment treats people inhumanely, that resorts to locking a young person away from her family to force feed as a way of dealing with the internal distress of eating disorders, that we find ourselves with few other viable options or solutions. Being intimately aware that this is so much more complex than I can even begin to discuss here.

I found myself wondering if anorexia is the new nervous madness that features its own silent destructive revolution against the hidden power dynamics of our cultural norms, pointing toward the malaise and discontent of modern society, taking over from the hysteria so prevalent in the time of Freud? Have we not progressed beyond the solution of separation and institutionalisation for this position of obstinance? Somewhere in this madness seems an element of revolt against the stereotypes of our times, against the suppression of the feminine voice, the drive to masculinity, metaphors and realities of war, and of violence, a revolt against the shift that keeps us away from vulnerability, intimacy and peace. Perhaps all of recent human history, from before Aristotle and onward through the Christian denial of the feminine Divine, has been to suppress cooperation and compromise, nurturing and nourishment, a sacrifice of horticultural Earth time in the face of the ever more driven needs of self betterment and attainment watched over by clock time. Perhaps this is what distresses me physically, that I find my body inhabits a world that no longer makes sense to me. A world where our need for love and compassion and human connection is seen as a weakness to be fixed.

I realised too today is Earth Day, and here is my pledge of intention:

My intention is to no longer be fixed or rushed or made to feel less than or more than as I attend intimately to being patient and vulnerable and kind, accepting the intuitive wholeness of all beings and things, committing anew to allowing the soft animal of this body to love what it loves.

As I finished writing these thoughts, scrawling them frantically onto a piece of paper as they tumbled out of me into my coffee, having left the post office to find a space to pause awhile, I found I was filled with self compassion for my own traumatic vulnerability, tender compassion for the suffering of this mother who was doing her utmost to help her child be safe and cared for as best she could, and deep compassion for the health care staff who are caring with the best means they have in very difficult situations. Most of all I felt a well of love and compassion for a young person, and many others like her, who perhaps finds herself lost in a maze of darkness and is struggling to find her way through to some sliver of light. As a family we too have faced this darkness and I remain forever grateful for the strength to choose the path of turning toward the difficult together and finding our way out of the maze into the light.

Wild Geese by Mary Oliver

You do not have to be good.
You do not have to walk on your knees
For a hundred miles through the desert, repenting.
You only have to let the soft animal of your body
love what it loves.
Tell me about your despair, yours, and I will tell you mine.
Meanwhile the world goes on.
Meanwhile the sun and the clear pebbles of the rain
are moving across the landscapes,
over the prairies and the deep trees,
the mountains and the rivers.
Meanwhile the wild geese, high in the clean blue air,
are heading home again.
Whoever you are, no matter how lonely,
the world offers itself to your imagination,
calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting —
over and over announcing your place
in the family of things.

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Why are you not a feminist?

“Feminism has fought no wars. It has killed no opponents. It has set up no concentration camps, starved no enemies, practiced no cruelties. Its battles have been for education, for the vote, for better working conditions, for safety in the streets, for child care, for social welfare, for rape crisis centres, women’s refuges, reforms in the law. If someone says, ‘Oh, I’m not a feminist’, I ask, ‘Why? What’s your problem?”

Dale Spender, Man Made Language


“Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”

Martin Luther King

 On this day I am often think of my mother, an intelligent generous vivacious women who never got the chance to finish high school and was pushed out by the patriarchal system of her family to be a domestic worker. She may not have agreed with this perspective but this is her story too. In the years after the end of the war, with Alsace having reverted back to France from being subjugated under Germany during the war, my mother found herself faltering at being the best in her class at school. Before war broke out she was easily the best at her neighboring village high school and loved the challenge of education. During the war schooling in Alsace was forced back to being taught in German and then reverted back to French after the War. Alsace has been a region historically disputed over for centuries, influenced by the Celts, Romans, Franks, annexed by Germany after the Franco-Prussian war, ceded back to France after WW1 with the Treaty of Versailles, and then invaded again by Germany during WW2. With this war time schooling disruption my mother, also convinced to jump classes, found that she was no longer the best and this difficult to tolerate. With much discord at home and post war turmoil abounding education seemed less of a necessity at the time so she stayed home to help in vineyards and re-establishing the family business. Simply did not go back to school one day. No one at home seemed to notice or encourage her to return. Her parents were divorcing, the first in the village, that would see her mother shunned from the only church in the village, her older brother was getting married, her uncle’s young wife also busy in the family business, her younger sister still too young to contribute, her grandmother still an active family member. Suddenly there were too many women in the family home and without an education or any further plans her presence seemed a burden. A position was found for her to be housekeeper for an elderly couple in Zürich. There she spent a few happy years, learnt how to drive and was generally treated with respect by her employers. But in essence she felt herself a glorified servant, was not happy for her future to unfold in this way and missed Alsace. Eventually she found a position as assistant to a psychiatrist in Colmar and returned closer to home where she worked until she met my dad finally to leave Alsace forever with him to far-flung shores she had never even dreamed of. And would recount years later to her own young daughter incredible tales of working for that psychiatrist, a woman, one of the few role models of my childhood of a working professional woman.

International Women’s Day, the 9th March, has been celebrated every year on this day since 1914. Its first iteration was in 1909 in New York in remembrance of the 1908 strike by the International Ladies Garment Worker’s Union but was subsequently associated with women led strikes and riots in March1914, and in Russia in 1917 women led marches initiated the February Revolution as women demanded an end to war, food shortages and czarism. Yet women’s rights are not just something of the past, even though this past week one of my young fellow classmate’s blithely commented to me that she has never felt any discrimination as a woman in her life and couldn’t relate to the life of Tsitsi Dangarembga whom we had read that week and who wrote a ground breaking narrative on post-colonial patriarchal Zimbabwe in Nervous Conditions. I was amazed at the world she lives in or does not notice. That indeed is still a rarity, as my own teenage daughter would not say the same thing. She has felt many a time that being a girl impacts many aspects of her life, from dress and looks, to being harassed on the streets of London, to food and body politics, to acceptable passes given to boys over girls – the sexes are not equally valued or supported within the greater societal perspective. For female teenagers growing up into this world there is still a significant wage gap, slut shaming, feeling lessor than, pressure to perform according to gender norms, and still experience ‘housewife’ jokes and teasing.

In their online Time blog an article today identifies four areas where great strides in the wellbeing of women and girl children worldwide have been made – education, maternal mortality, water access,  and leadership.  http://time.com/3734862/international-womens-day-progress-action/. One may think these are just issues for the so called lessor industrialized countries but as an example a country like the US, with about 28 pregnancy related deaths per 100,000 woman, has a maternal mortality rates worse than Iran, China and Russia, significantly worse than a recently war torn country like Serbia, and three times worse than Germany. Comparable developed countries like UK and Europe have numbers below 10 per 100,000 women. This is a shocking indictment for an advanced nation and its commitment to developing rights and care for its women. Perhaps a complex issue to solve but much to do with access to health care for everyone, as well as pre-natal care and post-natal visits for reasons that seem to very narrowly linked provision of care only to a model of profit making within health care. New leadership models that seek to care for its workers rather than put profit first are paradoxically finding it may be good for business, may be of interest to the health industry of the future in tackling access to health not just with a profit motive in mind. [http://mobile.nytimes.com/2015/03/01/business/at-aetna-a-ceos-management-by-mantra.html?_r=1&referrer] I find it difficult to accept such a narrow economic view of care and success and happiness which defines it only according to our own success. We need to advocate that all women can have similar advantages and access to education, to good maternal and child health, to water, low risk of death, ability to be leaders in their field.

And for my son who continues to challenge my own narrow understanding of gender, violence, trauma, priviledge and social constraints with his thoughtful investigations I would like to share the story of Sojourner Truth, a women born into slavery around 1797 of parents from Ghana and Guinea  in New York and when escaping her own slavery was not able to take all her children with her.  When she found out that her young son of 5 had been illegally sold to a slave owner in the South she became the first black woman to successfully challenge a white man and win in a US court, understanding how to challenge the constraints of society from within itself.  She went on to become a well known abolitionist and women rights activist speaking at the Women’s Rights Convention of 1851.  But even in her lifetime she was considered a radical as she advocated civil rights for black women as well as for men and openly expressed concern that these would be paused when rights for men were realised.  As she feared women’s rights would lag behind that of others and the vote for women in the US would only be realised in 1920, nearly forty years after her death.

This International Women’s Day remember those close to us, our mothers, our sisters, our daughters, our sons, and our friends, the lives they may have sacrificed for our privilege today, and continue to raise our voices in support of women everywhere. Let us do our part within our own lives every day. And in so doing this not only benefit women but all people, men and women alike. It may be as relatively small a daily intention as being respectful to women of difference around us, refraining from shaming, belittling, and blaming others for a life they may have little control over. Let us be compassionate for their journey. It may be our journey too.

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2014 The Engaging with a Wholeheart Project: December

The longest night of the year in the northern hemisphere has come and gone and even though winter still deepens into the end of the year, the light is slowly creeping in.  For this wholeheart writing project- engaging life with a wholeheart and exploring vulnerability – the year is also coming to a close even as it will start anew again.  This has been a year of encountering vulnerability deeply, feeling adrift so many times and turning toward my own sense of it and what vulnerability feels and looks like.  Looking back over the year of posts and the recognition of how we all hide behind barriers to protect our vulnerable soft beings and in that process subvert our inner voice, this has indeed be a year of journeying into the discovery of my own voice and expressing that more openly and with comfort, even if at times tainted with some hubris.

David Whyte in his new book Consolations writes an essay about vulnerability

“Vulnerability is not a weakness, a passing indisposition, or something we can arrange to do without, vulnerability is not a choice, vulnerability is the underlying, every present and abiding undercurrent of our natural state.  To run from vulnerability is to run from the essence of our nature, the attempt to be invulnerable is the vain attempt to become something we are not and most especially, to close off our understanding of the grief of others.  More seriously, in refusing our vulnerability we refuse the help needed at every turn of our existence and immobilize the essential, tidal and conversational foundations of our identity.”

“The only choice we have as we mature is how we inhabit our vulnerability, how we become larger and more courageous and more compassionate through our intimacy with disappearance, our choice is to inhabit vulnerability as generous citizens of loss, robustly and fully, or conversely, as misers and complainers, reluctant and fearful, always at the gates of existence, but never bravely and completely attempting to enter, never wanting to risk ourselves, never walking fully through the door.”

So having come to the end of this open exploration on vulnerability I have delved deeply this year into cultivating authenticity; self-compassion; resilient spirit; gratitude and joy; intuition and trusting faith; creativity; play and rest; calm and stillness; meaningful work; laughter, song, and dance, letting go of having to present myself in a particular way and in so doing showing up just as I am.  Perhaps the journey is only beginning.

This holiday season time of the year is not always an easy ask as many of us struggle with being alone, having family configurations change anew for the holidays, not having our holiday celebrations look like they did before, and feeling vulnerable in the process.  Vulnerability asks of us to just be, as best we can, with courage and compassion and draw this vulnerability closer in with wholehearted engagement, understanding that as we befriend our vulnerability we befriend the core of our belonging.

Thank you for reading these wholehearted 2014 posts.  Let’s see what 2015 brings.

2014-12-20 11.41.39

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2014 The Engaging with a Wholeheart Project: November

Cultivating Laughter, Song, and Dance: Letting go of ‘being cool’ and ‘always in control’.

2014-08-23 13.57.55

Eleven months ago I launched into this Wholeheart writing project having been deeply touched by watching the TED talks on vulnerability given by Brené Brown.  Her talks spoke to my very real experience of doing life this past year that has been very human and messy, intimate and personal.  So now I find myself already at month eleven of this messy and wonderful year and the last of the posts  based on her book Daring Greatly – cultivating laughter, song and dance.

This year has evolved into one of turning toward the vulnerable and difficult and touching deeply the being not cool and listening to the longing of my heart.  Letting go of being cool and always in control has been the journey of the year, but also brought some of the funniest moments.  Some of my funnest memories this past year have been about letting go of control with my children, family, friends and loved one.  Being absolutely mad and crazy and loopy and rolling around with silly laughter, or doing crazy dance routines at home.  And during one evening earlier in the year the precious experience of letting go into an evening class of five rhythms dancing in New York City and a surrender into vulnerability of being without the judging of the external being.

Letting go into laughter and dance requires a certain letting go of how one looks, of ignoring the judging from the outside, and allowing the inside knowing to guide one’s actions.  Because when one is dancing and laughing and singing just for the joy of it there is a certain element of being out of control, of surrendering into the feeling of it all.  And at times that definitely does not look cool.

One of my favorite poems is one that many of us may relate to as we move toward the letting go of worry of how we look, how cool we are, and how impressive we may look.  We concern ourselves more with relationships and connecting, and being there for the small moments of our lives with what we care about and who we care about.

May this end of year season of being grateful, thankful, and cultivating joy, be filled with the capacity to laugh, sing, and dance, and letting go of the worry of how that may look.

When I am an old woman I shall wear purple
With a red hat which doesn’t go, and doesn’t suit me.
And I shall spend my pension on brandy and summer gloves
And satin sandals, and say we’ve no money for butter.
I shall sit down on the pavement when I’m tired
And gobble up samples in shops and press alarm bells
And run my stick along the public railings
And make up for the sobriety of my youth.
I shall go out in my slippers in the rain
And pick flowers in other people’s gardens
And learn to spit.

You can wear terrible shirts and grow more fat
And eat three pounds of sausages at a go
Or only bread and pickle for a week
And hoard pens and pencils and beermats and things in boxes.

But now we must have clothes that keep us dry
And pay our rent and not swear in the street
And set a good example for the children.
We must have friends to dinner and read the papers.

But maybe I ought to practice a little now?
So people who know me are not too shocked and surprised
When suddenly I am old, and start to wear purple.

[by Jenny Joseph]

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2014 The Engaging with a Whole Heart Project: October

Cultivating Meaningful Work: Letting go of Self-Doubt and “Supposed To”.

So you may not have noticed, but this past month of October went past without my Engaging the Whole Heart Project post materialising.  For some reason it has been difficult writing post, even though I am fully submersed at the moment in cultivating meaningful work, continuing my mindfulness in palliative care work, and working toward a Masters in Medical Humanities.  Lots of cultivating going on and pursuing of my passions fully.  Letting go of the self doubt and the supposed to’s, listening deeply to my inner voice.

So to honour the October post I am circulating an article that was published to day on ehospice.com on a meeting I attended this past week in parliament to give a very brief submission on mindfulness in palliative medicine.

Hopefully the next post for November will follow shortly.  The last of the ten points from Brené Brown’s Daring Greatly.

UK: All Party Parliamentary Group on Mindfulness

Author: Dr Trish Lück
11 November 2014

Members of Parliament from all three main UK political parties have initiated and co-chaired an All Party Parliamentary Group (APPG) on Mindfulness to investigate mindfulness-based interventions in all aspects of UK society.

On Wednesday 5 November, the APPG on Mindfulness met to hear various submissions on mindfulness in physical health. Dr Trish Lück attended to represent palliative care and has reported about the event for ehospice.

The aim of the APPG is: “To review research evidence, current best practice and potential developments in the application of mindfulness to a range of policy areas and to develop policy recommendations for government, based on these findings.”

The UK parliament has been holding mindfulness classes for its parliamentary members since 2013. These have been held by the Mindfulness Initiative, a group of mindfulness teachers supported by a coalition of the Oxford, Exeter, Bangor and Sussex University Mindfulness Centres. The Mindfulness Initiative advocacy project aims to increase awareness of how mindfulness can benefit society as a whole.

With the help of the Mindfulness Initiative, the APPG on Mindfulness is conducting an inquiry into how mindfulness could be incorporated in UK services and institutions and to advocate for a better understanding of mindfulness as a low cost intervention and its potential in a range of public services.

At one of the group’s previous meetings, Rebecca Crane, Director of the Centre for Mindfulness Research and Practice at Bangor University, commented: “There is an expanding interest in the societal applications of mindfulness training in a range of settings, including the health service, education, the military and the justice system.

“The APPG offers an exciting opportunity to bring policy makers together in conversation with academics and practitioners to consider how the evidence for mindfulness can inform policy.”

Palliative Medicine and the Physical Health and NHS Staff Roundtable

At the APPG, the founder of Breathworks gave a presentation which was followed by an overview given of the evidence base by the Oxford Mindfulness Centre. The group discussed mindfulness and practical implementations within health settings, including chronic pain, palliative care, oncology and paediatric services.

NHS Staff reported on their experience of mindfulness training courses within two NHS Trusts, The King’s Fund, and the Bristol and Exeter University Mindfulness Network.

As the palliative care representative invited to present my personal experience of mindfulness within palliative care, perhaps a brief summary may capture some thoughts on why mindfulness might be an essential skill for all involved in the arena of caring for persons with life limiting and life threatening illness, and end of life care.

I have worked in palliative medicine in Johannesburg, South Africa, first in adult palliative care and these past years, before moving to London, in paediatric palliative care. I have had ample opportunity to incorporate my mindfulness training, which has developed at the same time, into my work.

This happened for no other reason than that my patients, to whom I was teaching some simple breath awareness mindfulness tools I had been exposed to on a short course, urged me to learn more.

Mindfulness interested me from a clinical perspective, wondering what it had to offer my practice of medicine as a clinician, to my patients in alleviating their suffering, and to healthcare workers, especially my co-workers in palliative care, to deal with their own levels of stress, burnout and compassion fatigue.

This symbiotic journey I have embarked on, of mindfulness and palliative care, these past thirteen years, has convinced me that mindfulness practice supports the experience of delivering palliative care in very practical ways.

This is especially so at a time of facing significant loss, death and dying – times perhaps of greatest distress for patients, families, and the professionals involved.

Mindfulness training offers palliative care workers a strengthening of the capacity of stable presence in the face of great suffering, deeply patient and self aware listening skills, open curiosity with less tendency to seek the least complex answers, unconditional regard, kindness and compassion for patients, families, and fellow clinicians.

It also fosters the capacity to allow curiosity, complexity and ambivalence to exist at times when answers are being sought, while being open and unattached to any pre-determined outcome. This ability to hold conflicting tensions of denial, anger, hope and hopelessness is crucial to compassionate care.

My journey has been informed by a small pilot research project I did with terminally ill cancer patients who reported increased quality of life scores, improved role function, and social and physical functioning through being part of an eight week mindfulness based stress reduction programme.

Since then, I have been offering the programme for palliative care teams and encouraging staff in engaging with a self care program which recognises that developing the capacity of self care with awareness, compassion, and greater presence can offer our patients a growing capacity that is less prone to turn away from their distress and difficulties due to our own unrecognised distress patterns.

Children respond readily to this approach and in my anecdotal experience, they show less anxiety, increased desire to engage with the experience they are facing, greater capacity to engage with ambivalence and denial that may be present, and even teach their own families the breath exercises and brief body scan practices they have learned.


The APPG on Mindfulness will wrap up its inquiry next month and all presentations, findings, and recommendations will be collated into a report: ‘The Mindful Nation’, due out in March 2015.

You can find further information on the Mindfulness Initiative website.

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2014 The Engaging with a Whole heart Project: September

Cultivating Calm and Stillness – Letting go of anxiety as a lifestyle

In 1962 my mother embarked on a one thousand kilometer journey on her own in a little VW beetle with a ten month old child through the heart of East Africa around Lake Victoria. Her husband, my father, had been sent to the mission station in Fort Portal, Uganda, in the shadow of the Ruwenzori Mountains to see if this would aid his recover, and she wanted to join him.  The Ruwenzori are a glacial mountain range that connect Lake Albert with Lake Edward, of which the highest peak, Mount Stanley, now called Mount Ngaliema, rises more than 5000 meters above the plains before dropping off on the western side into the Greater Rift Valley. At the time they lived in Mwanza, Tanganyika (yet to become independent Tanzania) on the southern shores of Lake Victoria, while my father, an engineer, worked as part of the mission civil outreach programs developing and building roads, schools, and even buildings for the first university in Mwanza. Unfortunately he contracted bilharzia from swimming in the lake and became very ill which prompted the local parish community to recommend his retreat to the mountain air in the hope that this would aid his body recover from an illness for which no cure was yet available. A very simple cure was later developed by the US Military during the Vietnam war when many of it’s own troops were infected with Bilharzia while fighting in the watery trenches of that brutal conflict.

Initially when traveling to Fort Portal my dad left my mother and oldest brother, still a baby at the time, behind.   Probably due to the fact that travel was expected to be long and arduous, along poorly developed roads, and he wanted to first assess how everything went. But after a few weeks, as the child grew, my mother packed the two of them up, loaded the VW beetle and set off on her journey north. These were not the days of disposable diapers, ready powdered milk, easy access to petrol or the consumables we now take for granted while traveling on the road. From Mwanza they would have to travel close to 1000 km around the lake, on yet to be tarred roads, along the developing landscape of the lake coastline, through the Serengeti plains where animals roamed freely, to a town on the western edge of the lake in Uganda. There they boarded a ferry with the car that took them the next distance across the northern reaches of the lake to Entebbe, and from there my mother drove the remaining distance west toward the Mountains of the Moon, as some call the Ruwenzori Mountain range.

On arrival my mother’s status became well known as the young French mother who traveled alone the full length of the lake with a young child in tow. She was guest of honor at the dinner table at the mission, seated next to the bishop, then still relatively new to Uganda, so that she could regale him with her stories. In company my mother was a vivacious woman who smiled and laughed a lot, told stories, and loved to be part of the group. A remarkable journey and story it was. What makes this story remarkable, however, is not that my mother made this journey alone through the Serengeti grasslands and across the largest lake in Africa, during the early years of the 1960’s, alone with a ten month old child; what makes this journey remarkable is that we imagine this woman to be strong willed, determined, perhaps a little naïve, but courageous to the core, and she certainly was all of these things and more; but what makes this journey truly remarkable, however, is that my mother embarked on this journey despite her constant encounter with significant levels of anxiety, at times to the point of panic. And in the story of this journey is cradled the realisation that one does not automatically cancel out the other. That they can co-exist as a non-dual dynamic in a way that allows the emergence of engaging with a life that builds greater resilience in the encountering and continuing to show up every day.

Only in the last few years have I begun to appreciate the significance of this story and have engaged with it at a deeper level within myself. As a child my default mantra, perhaps like many children, was that I did not want to grow up to be like my mother. The mother of my early childhood was governed by anxiety and fear, by boundaries and rules, by restricting my nascent stepping unfettered into a girl-power world through a lens of worry filtering “what will people thing?”.  She was often in tears and at a loss at how to control my exuberant brothers and my own tentative disregard at times for the “what will people think?”. I grew up aloof from her suffering and thus from my own, unable to drill deeply into the turmoil of my own vulnerable unknowing. But as the peeling back process of these recent years has sunk itself ever deeper into the longing of my soul I have found myself almost drowning within a tsunami of anxiety, feeling anxious sensations arising at every turn of this unfolding blossoming life. To say I have been caught unawares and surprised might be an understatement. I have always expected and experienced myself to be calm and collected. Perhaps my family may attest otherwise. Anger – yes. Irritation – yes. Turmoil and discord- yes. But anxiety? That was reserved for my mother. And in the stepping into the meeting of this anxiety I have had to find a way to befriend the rising tides, to turn toward that which I never wanted but now know has always been here. Waiting for me to finally show up. And in the process I have paradoxically grown closer to my own mother, even though she passed away more than three years ago. I have been able to answer her plea for a greater intimate connection between us by learning to love my own shadows and the parts that she held unknowingly for me. There are still many long dusty roads to travel but I may be reaching the shoreline and the awaiting boat, and the distant promise of a place at the dinner table draws me ever on.

Perhaps returning metaphorically to the stillness and calm of the mission station at the base of Mountains of the Moon may finally allow me and the memory of my mother to let go of anxiety as a lifestyle, as a boundaried way of living, and allow the gentle falling into the heart’s longing for being home.


for belonging

May you listen to your longing to be free.

May the frames of your belonging be generous enough for your dreams.

May you arise each day with a voice of blessing whispering in your heart.

May you find a harmony between your soul and your life.

May the sanctuary of your soul never become haunted.

May you know the eternal longing that lives at the heart of time

May there be kindness in your gaze when you look within.

May you never place walls between the light and yourself.

May you allow the wild beauty of the invisible world to gather you, mind you and embrace you in belonging.

From Benedictus, A Book of Blessings, by John O’Dohonhue

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2014 The Engaging with a Whole heart Project: August

Cultivating Play and Rest – letting go of exhaustion as a status symbol and productivity as self-worth.

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For this past month of July I have gifted myself rest and play in a way that I have not felt or even noticed to be necessary before. I have had a slow, deep, growing sense that my body, mind, and soul have been longing for the letting go of needing to do anything, even meditate or read or write, letting go of needing to be any particular way. Having often felt somewhat “less than” in my productivity, having not brought in the “money,” this is a permission to reconnect to myself in a new way. A letting go of needing to produce anything. And in that I have been met with a mind chatter that has attempted to continue to drive an incessant need for doing and being and showing up in ways that are externally driven, strangling any young shoots of creative flourishing. Even as these voices are mine alone.

Discussing life’s goals and purposes with one of my children, we explored how the choices seem to be presented as succeeding either at “life”, the external orientation of success, or at “love”, the internal orientation of success, and that it can be challenging and difficult to reconcile the two. That many of us who are parents perhaps wish our children to experience the internal orientation of success and love what they do and who they are, but then become anxious when the external manifestations of success are not obvious. Even my own journey this past year has attracted some discomfort for daring to step off the external success orientation road, choosing instead to listen deeply to my own internal longing and not succumb to the panic that that orientation may not provide adequately. This fear contributes to external success becoming the focus, with exhaustion the necessary byproduct and consequent status symbol, and productivity the currency of self-worth. In this manner we continue on an ever increasing trajectory of busyness that may feed neither our longing for love nor satisfy our desire for success.

This past month of rest and letting go of the need to do anything at all other than be with my family and have a summer holiday in preparation for the year ahead has shown me how necessary play and rest are. How I have craved the permission to do nothing and be nobody in particular other than myself. It returns me daily to the simple practice of gratitude. It is the practice of not needing to have anything more for this moment to be perfect. It is knowing that this moment is all there really is.

So in the month ahead make some space to rest and to play, and examine the role of exhaustion and productivity as self-worth in your own lives. David Whyte describes being taught by a dear friend that the antidote to exhaustion is wholeheartedness. I am beginning to consider that the antidote to exhaustion may also be gratitude. As I find myself practicing gratitude in the tiniest slivers of time, the hidden moments of my life, I find my exhaustion lifting and lightening.

In ending I offer some simple musings from one of my journals earlier this year. Musings on the question: Why is it healing to ‘be’, to ‘rest here’? Perhaps it may evoke some musings for you?

Resting is breathing,

Stopping, being here.

Breathing is being alive in its most fundamental and natural rhythm.

Breathing washes through the whole body and via the Vagus nerve plugging into the diaphragm, lungs, heart, nervous system, brain.  Slowing everything down.

Breathing brings oxygen into every smallest imagined and unimagined part of the body.

Resting in breathing

            Breathing is being

                        Being is acknowledging life at its most mystical

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2014 The Engaging with a Wholeheart Project: July

Cultivating Creativity: Letting go of Comparison

So here I am on a relaxing summer holiday in my birth country, Germany, but as I am committed to continuing my monthly posts for the Wholeheart Project, have this to share. It has been a year so far of discovering joy and meaning, of letting go and letting be, of allowing my own vulnerabilities to show more and learning to be okay with them, of engaging in various projects and themes, and uncovering creativity in all its varieties of form.

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How wonderful too that this is the theme for the month: Cultivating creativity and letting go of comparison. Much has been happening for me on the cultivating creativity front. These past two months I have been working my way through Julia Cameron’s book The Artist’s Way with a friend of mine in the US, discussing the weekly topics with each other and uncovering our own creative ways together, and for this month of July I have been engaged in a walking challenge set out by a South African friend of mine now living in Australia, who is into her twelve month of walking for 30 minutes a day and through this started a world wide support network of fellow walkers and discoverers. She also added her own brand of creativity to this challenge, instructions for the month to notice contrasts while out walking and to add in ten minutes at least of task completion. Let me know if you wish to join us.

In all of this creative flourishing I have noticed a few things help me with being creative and the letting go of comparison on this daily journey: intention, practice, patience, kindness, unconditional support, humour, starting over again every day, and connection. Not so different from the practice of mindfulness, from the principles that guide MBSR. Patience, Beginner’s Mind, Non-Judging, Trust, Non-Striving, Acceptance, Letting Go. The cultivating of creativity, just like that of mindfulness, asks of us to just practice, to let go of the need to be perfect and creative in any particular way, to have our being or creativity look like that of another. We often block our own being and creativity for fear of not being judged good enough, by our own fear of not being accepted for who we are and the fear of showing ourselves, of showing up just as we are. What I am learning on this journey of discovering my own creativity and rising to the challenge of doing something creative every day is that I love to play and laugh and have fun and be silly and that being serious and rational and comparing what and who I am to that of others in their lives and careers can be held, nourished, and nurtured with a lighter touch. For me being and cultivating creativity has been about cultivating the capacity to be vulnerable in my own joy and silliness of choices, and in that allow creativity and fun and laughter to permeate my being.

Frida Kahlo who was born and died in this creative month of July sixty years ago was one such creative, who refused to conform to anyone’s idea of what was normal and acceptable, was purported to have said this about feeling like an outsider “ I used to think I was the strangest person in the world, but then I thought there are so many people in the world, there must be someone just like me who feels bizarre and flawed in the same ways I do. I would imagine her, and imagine that she must be out there thinking of me too. Well, I hope that if you are out there and read this and know that yes, it’s true I’m here, and I’m just as strange as you.”

You may not think of you are an “artist” or that you have talent or are creative. My own experience is that we are all creative and that we all have talent. We just need to allow our very own unique expression to be brought forth into this world. And more often than not we already know what that is but we are closed off from it by fear and judgement. Ultimately we long to show ourselves in our very own particular manner. Perhaps for this next month treat your creative self with gentleness and kindness and allow her to flourish and breathe and grow without constraint or judgement. You may be surprised at how much silly fun you can have that can be good for you and how your heart will grow and smile in recognition.

Until August.

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Belonging and the vagaries of feeling at home

“In contrast to how a child belongs in the world, adult belonging is never as natural, innocent, or playful. Adult belonging has to be chosen, received, and renewed. It is a lifetime’s work.” – John O’Donohue

“As you grow, you develop the ideal of where your true belonging could be – the place, the home, the partner, and the work. You seldom achieve all the elements of the ideal, but it travels with you as the criterion and standard of what true belonging could be.” – John O’Donohue


Where do I belong (?), Where is home (?), is a deep and ongoing search for many of us, and an ongoing discussion in our house these days. Who, What, and Where do I belong?   For those of us who have been uprooted and moved multiple times from our places of birth, and of childhood belonging, it becomes harder at times to define what home means. Where we feel most comfortable. Where we belong. Do we belong where our family is from? Is there even a place? Or is a feeling? Is it people? Is it where the heart is, as the cliché goes? Or are there many places and spaces that we can and do belong to, and call home?

I have vicariously traveled along with these past two weeks as my brother has taken his adopted young children back to visit their country of birth. Having not yet had the chance to speak with him about this I can only imagine from my own perspective what this may be like, the many differing emotions and thoughts that have arisen. Even in ones so young. And for the parents, how we all wish to provide stability and safety for our children. Have them feel completely at home within themselves, and within the home we hope to make for them.

My own children have recently moved continents and countries away from their own country of birth. A place they’ve called home. They all three have differing perspectives on what being at ‘home’ is. There is attachment to place, to people, to land, to friends, to family, to house. Sometimes home truly is where the heart is, where family is. But at other times the heart also needs a physical space, a physical space that says “this, this is where I belong”.

As a child growing up with a somewhat ‘gypsy’ life far from where I was born and where I had extended family, and having never really lived close until recently to my own historical family, I know this feeling all to well: the constant journey and search for belonging and being home. The paradoxical longing for the open road, for the adventure and excitement of new discoveries set against the yearning for a place to rest, to belong, to be known and unconditionally accepted.

The recent sale by my cousin of my grandparent’s house in the small village where I was born has unexpectedly thrown this sense of searching for belonging, for home, and unconditional space of being, into stark relief again.

I have no memory of my grandfather who died when I was just 21 months but he lives very prominently through the stories my father has told. My grandmother I remember well, often found seated at her kitchen table, and whom I loved to greet first whenever we visited. I vividly recall the sensation and smells of rushing up the winding stone marble staircase, once the door had been buzzed open, entering at the ground level, past the basement where as a small child I remember the potato harvest was stored and the pig was housed through the year until slaughter time at year end, past the first floor with living rooms with coal furnace, kitchen, and my aunt’s and uncle’s bedroom to the top floor and the small apartment my grandmother inhabited. Somehow to see her smile and fold me in her arms felt like being home again. I loved nothing better than sharing her bedroom at night in the twin bed alongside hers snuggled under the overstuffed feather duvet while I watched her brush out her long grey hair; retie it in a plait for the night and which she wore in a bun through the day. The first thing I asked always on arriving was what task I could do for her and very soon without fail would be happily racing off to the store across the road to buy some buttermilk, content that I was ‘once again at home’. With her I always felt I was enough, no matter how I showed up, I suppose that is the essence of belonging, of feeling at home, and an unconditionality of being that is accepted with love and kindness. My grandmother, despite her complex nature, was for me the epitome of kindness and compassion. Now that the house is sold, and 600 years of family history in that house and village is let go of, it is harder to hold onto this innocent childhood “place of belonging, of home”, I wonder if it even is a place anymore, or only held as a childhood memory? Perhaps as John O’Donohue implies it is time to examine with new eyes the adult sense of belonging that continues as a lifelong journey and a lifetime’s work, and a story for another day.

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my ‘home’ village in the 1950’s

What does belonging and being home mean for you?

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