Get skilled up for climate crisis!

Conversations about Living Consciously for a Better World provide practical skills, resilience and supportive information in this time of uncertainty, challenge and change.

Sue Brayne in conversation with Pam Candea, CEO, climate activist and group work facilitator.

Pam Candea is CEO of The Surefoot Effect, a community interest company which equips people, communities and organisations with skills for sustainability and resilience. Its main focus is working with businesses and communities to support them to take action to lessen the impacts of the climate crisis and to promote social justice.  

Sue: Pam, what got you interested in climate issues?

Pam: ‘Even as a teenager I was an environmental activist. I was horrified by how our rivers and lakes in Michigan state where I grew up had become so polluted. They had literally turned into fire hazards.

During the 1980s I ended up working in the IT industry, and this took me to the UK in the early 80’s. Yet, all the time, I was increasingly alarmed by the warnings that James Hansen, Director of NASA Goddard  Institute for Space Studies, and other scientists like him, were giving us about the impacts of climate change. I couldn’t understand why no-one was listening to him.

In 2007 I decided to retrain in environmental architecture because I wanted to build an eco-house. I thought eco-housing could be the answer to climate change. But I soon realised it wasn’t nearly enough. This realisation turned my attention to climate activism. I wanted to get as many people as possible engaged with climate change. So, I began working with community groups who were focused on climate change.

Sue: Can you explain what The Surefoot Effect offers.

Pam:  We established The Surefoot Effect in 2007 to work in value-based ways with organisations to understand what was right for them, but equally to draw attention to the fact we were fast approaching a climate emergency.

Sue: How do you deliver this work?

Pam: We focus on group work but have also recently created some online materials through European Union Erasmus + programmes. I think it’s important to understand and identify how insular and individual we have become, certainly in Western cultures. There are very few opportunities for people to come together as an effective group. Yes, there’s loads of community groups out there, but most are dominated by one or two strong characters. This may be okay for the rest of the group when things are running smoothly. But it’s not okay when things become difficult. How we work together as a group becomes incredibility important. So, my job is about helping groups to understand the importance of coming together cohesively to tackle the issues important to them.

Group Work

The Surefoot Effect runs various workshops and trainings for people to work together effectively.  One of our programmes is carbon conversations, a series of 6 workshops, which give people the time and space to look at what changes they can make in their own lives, and what changes they may be able to instigate in their communities. We also provide facilitator training for people to run these groups, our climate justice workshop, and to do other work with groups.  For me, the most essential thing is that people learn to work well together and learn how to talk about difficult issues with others. Following these workshops, I am always encouraged when participants feed back to me how they had previously found it almost impossible to talk to their family about climate change, or how to tell them that they no longer wanted to eat meat or fly anymore. But now they had the skills to do this in a non-confrontational way. It makes a huge difference.


Through recent Erasmus + programmes we created a platform showcasing projects around the world helping to address the climate crisis:  A Tale of Two Futures; And Illustrated Climate which created a graphic novel and an e-learning programme to help people learn about the climate emergency and potential actions to ameliorate the risks.

Sue: Can you outline what these skills are?

Pam: I believe we have evolved somehow into a society that is lacking in emotional intelligence. It’s as if we don’t even have a language to express ourselves anymore. So, I am a fierce believer in helping people develop honest communication skills, through active listening, becoming aware of how we are feeling in the moment, and recognising the power of working collectively, collaboratively, supported by a group

Active listening

Active listening is about getting used to listening to others. This means being fully present with the other person – rather than composing in your mind what you are going to say next while the person is still talking, or breaking in when, for example, they mention they have a dog, and you want to tell them about the dog you had as a child.

Active listening is also about giving the other person the time to say what they want to say and creating space to pause and be silent with each other, while you mindfully consider what you might say next. So, it’s really connecting with each other and being present.

Becoming aware of and expressing what you are feeling

Good communication skills are also about the ability to identify and voice how you are feeling emotionally. This means learning how to share your feelings with others and being able to receive it when others share how they are feeling with you. Then to sit with what’s been said without brushing it aside or trying to fix it, and acknowledging what you feel and what others feel is valid.

 Recognising the power of the group

The third skill is learning to work together as a group and recognise how working in a supportive group toward a goal is more rewarding than individual striving – and competing. I think we really struggle with this; it’s another thing that’s been lost. We have become so individually focused that we fail seeing the power of group cohesion.  Working together means creatively building on each other’s views and ideas without feeling threatened.

Sue: The work you do is really on the front line because you are helping people to confront what climate crisis may do to their communities. But, do you even think you are trying to help people when we’ve reached a time when we may be almost beyond help?

Pam: Working in this area certainly can take its toll.  A few years ago I was guiding a group in a future visioning exercise of what the world will be like in 2050 if we have implemented all the sustainability measures we speak about. People drew beautiful pictures and we presented them back to each other. Someone asked me, ’Do you really believe we will get to this?’ I really struggled to answer their question. Knowing what I know about climate crisis, I couldn’t say yes. So, I said, ‘I want to be able to say I have done everything I can to get to this vision.’ Taking personal responsibility, for me, is a vital part of coping with what is happening to our planet.

I had to take a break for six months after this particular workshop. I needed to deeply question my motives of asking people to make small changes such as doing more recycling or establishing community gardens when I realise that the action needed was, and still is, enormous and infrastructure related. In my heart of hearts, it all felt too late and useless without taking big actions such as taxing jet fuel.

Sue: How did taking this break inform the work you do now?

 Pam: It helped me to focus on working with resilience. I don’t for one minute believe we are going to be able to continue our relatively idyllic existence, but I hope that by using good communication skills and developing resilience we can come out of whatever happens better than when we went into it. Developing resilience is confronting the fact that when we experience on-going stress or a huge shock, we can either break down or break even by clawing our way back to where we were, or we can breakthrough using the adversity to springboard to something better. So, there is always the option of hope – that’s the breakthrough. We have to keep engaged. It’s not okay to accept the status quo. All of us need to participate in finding ways of making things work for us in the best way possible.

Sue:  How do you keep moving forward in the face of what is happening to our world right now?

Pam: I am really struck by the images of people dragging an Extinction Rebellion protestor off the top of tube train in London. Some people started to attack the protestor, while others tried to protect him. Someone posted the footage onto the internet, asking the question, ‘What will happen when there are food shortages?’  If we don’t know how to work together as a group, how to share and think about what’s best for the whole group, we are just going to see more and more of those scenes.

For me, the question of how to deal with potential conflict is about building skills for connection, active listening, being able to express and receive emotions and working as an effective group.

I find I am now much more aware of what really important to me. I question how much time I need to spend on certain areas of my life. Is this something that is going to bring joy to me or those close to me?  It is going to help bring about change in the world or is it just another noisy distraction on the side? I am astonished at how many noisy distractions on the side there can be.

I also question how much time I need to spend worrying about things that at the end of the day aren’t that important. If it doesn’t contribute to joy or contribute to ameliorating large global issues, it really isn’t important at all.

When I started working in this area, I used to think ‘maybe I will figure out a way to change what’s happening on my own.’ Then I began to think, ‘maybe someone I am working with will change what’s happening, and I will be a tiny help towards this.’ Now it’s ‘maybe I will do something that helps some people to suffer less.’

Sue: Yes, that’s a really big reality check. What else sustains you personally?

Pam: I am Buddhist, so for me, I find comfort in knowing that there’s a is kind of cosmic view that we are all trying to reach enlightening. We are part of a very grand cycle – the turning of the wheel, if you like – which gives us the opportunity to practice or work towards ending the suffering of all beings. We are certainly getting the practice now. If humanity is wiped out or severely decimated by climate change, I see it as another opportunity for us to practice towards reaching the state of nirvana (a transcendent state devoid of suffering or desire, and the release of karma and cycle of death and rebirth).  And I meditate to keep a focus on the present.

Sue: Do you have any other advice for us?

Pam: Yes, keep yourself informed! I believe awareness is key. I was speaking to a friend the other day who is concerned about climate change but was clearly not well informed. I asked her if she watched the news. ‘No,’ she said.

Of course, I can understand why people don’t watch the news. It can be depressing and debilitating. However, if you are not keeping tabs with what’s going on, I don’t know how you can be fully conscious of what is happening in the world, or how much many things have deteriorated.

Another thing is to look after yourself. Personally, I meditate a lot, and I like to meditate with other people, too. I do yoga as well, which helps me to feel more embodied, and I spend as much time as I can in nature. Next weekend I am spending three days with Natural Change, an organisation which provides a structured immersion in nature to restore people through connection with others, in natural surroundings, and to encourage to them towards environmentally friendly behaviours.

I believe developing skills for learning how to deeply connect with each other is the most important thing to pursue right now. Whether this happens in the form of carbon conversations or singing groups or even a Death Cafe – it doesn’t matter as long as it happens. These skills will enable us to be prepared for whatever comes our way.

The realities of life and death in our modern world

Yesterday I spent an inspiring day at the Festival for Death and Dying at the Connect Centre, Wells. It was wonderful to meet with so many people dedicated to helping others to talk more honestly and openly about death and dying, and how to do funerals differently.

To conclude, a group of us came together to talk about the day and what we got out of it. Relatively quickly the conversation turn to deep adaptation and how to hold the creative tension between talking about the reality of what is happening to our precious planet and at the same time being present for the individual needs of the dying. As we agreed, death is one thing, but the possibility of extinction is quite another.

It became clear that this is a path which requires careful and respectful navigation. A few people in the group did not want to engage with deep adaptation or the word ‘extinction.’ One person pointed out that she had been living with the fear of uncertainty all her life, quoting as an example her memory of the 1962 Cuban missile crisis. She considered deep adaptation to be fuelling anxiety and distress in an already overly fear-driven world. This overwhelm, she believed, negated her intimate and very personal experience of grieving someone close who had recently died.

Others felt it was essential to hold the awareness that our planet is undergoing profound change, and everything that happens to us individually and collectively is now set against this backdrop. We acknowledged that many people are beginning to consciously or unconsciously grieve for what is happening to our natural world, and this is creating pain and suffering that many are struggling to understand or come to terms with. This led us into a conversation about the difference between pain and suffering.

Pain, we considered, was more immediate than suffering. For example, we feel pain when we experience the intensity of being emotionally hurt or we hurt ourselves physically. Our pain turns into suffering when we can’t let go. Yet, we agreed that our suffering can be the driver to take us beyond who we believe we are capable of becoming. One woman spoke about the death of her baby, and how the intense experience of loss and love sent her on a long, difficult journey of self-discovery that she never knew existed. She now has profound compassion for the human condition and a deep understanding of how she wants to contribute to her community.

Another participant spoke about chronic existential suffering she has been living with for as long as she can remember. She explained that, to her, it feels as if it is caused by the experience of life itself. There’s a sense of being achingly separated from something so much greater, which she described as universal love. She added that although she believes many of us experience this existential suffering every day, people rarely speak about it. Yet, this suffering again, leads us forwards. She said that without her existential suffering, she would not be working in the area of death and dying.

We all agreed that as our external world continues to chaotically unfold, people will need to come together in groups to talk about what is going on for them as they attempt to make sense of things they may no longer understand.

Therefore, I see the evolving role of death and dying festivals, such as this one yesterday, is not just to normalise the fact we are all going to die, but also to become the bedrock for where people can come and explore what really matters without the fear of feeling weird or being shut down by those unwilling to engage with the realities of life and death in our modern world. I, for one, treasure these opportunities.



Deep Adaptation: a time to come together

Beautiful grounds of Haybergill Retreat Centre

Recently I was a participant in Professor Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation retreat at the Haybergill Centre, Yorkshire. I was a little apprehensive before embarking on the six-hour drive from Wiltshire because I had read Jem’s deep adaptation paper, which doesn’t pull any punches predicting social unrest and financial collapse as climate crisis continues to unfold.

Yet I was deeply heartened by the experience. Not because everything is ‘going to okay’ – it isn’t in the context of climate crisis – but because of the amazing international group of people who had gathered for the retreat, each one of us committed to facing the truth about the future of our planet. Within moments of meeting, we had bonded at a profound level – all of us signed up, of course, to share our fears and anxieties of what we may be faced with, but more importantly, to collectively share our creativity and inspiration on how to find positive and productive ways to work with this uncertainty. I experienced our group as a living expression of the whole being far great than the sum of its parts.

This whole-togetherness is being expressed right this moment in the streets of capital cities  across the globe through Extinction Rebellion. Yesterday in London, for an example, someone dressed as broccoli spear was arrested alongside a rabbi who had led his congregation into Trafalgar Square to join thousands of protestors from all walks of life. The day before, an eighty-two- year-old woman was arrested alongside the young and the middle aged, parents and grandparents. But more impressive is how protestors have peacefully materialised (against much police opposition)  a mini street city with food stations, washing stations, camp sites, lost property stations and media stations to support each other, inform each other and galvanise each other to show their children and the rest of the UK how life can be lived and shared in a different way. London is buzzing with people co-operation. It’s as if the Earth put out a poster as Lord Kitchener did to recruit World War I soldiers, saying ‘Your Planet Needs YOU’

I understand that some people accuse climate crisis activists of fear-mongering and terrifying children. Yes, it is terrifying to think what may happen if we don’t turn things around. But I see all climate activists as collectively using the fury of fear to wake humanity up globally to do something about saving the planet for future generations, not to mention animal species. This not an expression of unhealthy fury, which is about controlling, terrorising, manipulating and humiliating others. This is an expression of healthy fury which enables us to stand up for ourselves, fight our corner, set boundaries and create change for the better.

Adopt a togetherness strategy

It’s about time we broke out of our repressed colonial conditioning to find far better ways to support each other as our tenuous future unfolds. We are all in this together. So, let’s stop fighting, bickering, criticising and blaming each other. Let’s start working together instead and learning from others who traditionally embrace a deeply respectful way of life. For a start, wouldn’t it be great if we all began to think in terms of how the Native American Indian Iroquois make decisions. Any decision they make takes the next sevengenerations into consideration. Now, that would be world changing.

As I point out in my book, Living fully, Dying Consciously, we need to move away from our ego-driven lives and look at things from a higher perspective. I believe we only start to do this when we begin to accept our mortality. When we know our life is finite, it makes us truly value what we have, and to do the best we possibly can while we still have breath left in our body.

Earth: a minute blue speck hanging in space

I recognise that facing death is a completely different matter to facing extinction. This takes the concept of mortality to entirely new level. But when we connect with the bigger picture of who we are, we see ourselves for what we truly are – a blink in the eye of the Universe. Look what happened when the dinosaurs and most of life on earth were wiped out. It took a while, but the planet replenished, life recalibrated and human beings thrived. In whatever way the planet transmutes through this present crisis, life will continue. It may not be in the form of life we experience at the moment, and certainly not in the vast numbers we have currently reached, which is no bad thing. But, it’s impossible to destroy consciousness. If you really want a reality check about our self-importance, spend a moment reflecting on the extraordinary and beautiful photograph taken by Voyager 1 as it passed out of our solar system on February 14th, 1990, 3.7 billion miles from earth. Our planet is a minute pale blue speck of dust almost invisible in the vast expanse of space.

Find your tribe 

My counsel to anyone struggling to make sense of the changes that are knocking at the door is to form or join a group of people who you regularly meet with; people who  are willing to be honest and open about what’s going on in the world, yet are not prepared to indulge in doomsaying (this really doesn’t help) or have the unrealistic expectation that everything will suddenly be fine. It’s about accepting the reality of what’s going on and agreeing to focus on what is inspiring for you all.

Joanna Macy and Chris Johnstone write about how much we now need to form groups in their book, Active Hope: how to face the mess we’re in without going crazy. Belonging to a group provides a foundation for courage and resilience to come to the fore so we can adapt as circumstance change, see setbacks for what they are, and find strength when times look bleak. They say, ‘When conditions are difficult having a trusted gang around us both to draw from and give to can make all the difference.’  I have experienced the same resilience and generosity of spirit when running the Death Cafes. We need to come together to connect and care for each other when we engage with unnerving and frightening situations.

Most of all, more than at any other period in human history, we need to collectively pay homage to our beautiful Mother Nature and treasure the gifts she presents to us, knowing she is part of us as we are part of her. Mother Nature lives in our bones, and what we do to her, to do to ourselves.



An Apocalyptic sign yesterday? May be so …

The Sun Bristol, Monday midday,16th October 2017

‘There are no references to the Sun turning red during the middle of the day,’ said folklorist Twm Elias this morning on Radio 4’s Today Programme. He was referring to the strangeness of what happened to our Sun yesterday. Chris French, professor of psychology at Goldsmiths and fellow guest, was in full agreement that this was an extremely rare, if not unique phenomenon.

Of course, there is a perfectly rational scientific explanation: the tail end of Hurricane Ophelia had dragged in tropical air and dust from the Sahara, and picked up ash and debris from forest fires in Portugal and Spain so thick it had masked the rays of the Sun.

Continue reading “An Apocalyptic sign yesterday? May be so …”

Growing up into Growing Older

This article first appeared in the spring 2017 issue of Thresholds, published by the British Association for Counselling & Psychotherapy©’.

I wrote this article on the ageing process for the BACP’s spring edition of their Thresholds magazine. They have kindly agreed for me to post it on my blog.

Growing up into Growing Older

I was brought up in a family and educated at a school where religious belief was obligatory and spirituality was an anathema. Consequently, I went through my childhood without any idea that I had an inner life that could help me to understand myself or provide solace.

I mourn that loss even now because growing up often felt hollow and confusing. Nevertheless, it did not make sense to me that life was a one-stop shop and then we died. It made more sense that life was some kind of ongoing school where lessons had to be learnt, and a feeling of contentment emerged when I was absorbed in something creative. Even though I was unaware of it, I was instinctively expressing myself creatively to give my life meaning.

Making meaning of life is a very personal thing. Some people find it, for example, through the arts or teaching, or taking part in sport. Others find it by entering the healing professions or by doing charitable work, or bringing up a family, or mending and building things.

Some people are fortunate to connect with meaning early on in their lives (Elton John was playing the piano by the time he was four). For others, such as myself, who did not have that early inner connection, it felt as if something was missing.

As I entered adolescence, this translated into a deep yearning for something that I interpreted as being ‘out there’. By the time I was in my 30s I had become increasingly frustrated, disappointed and depressed, and I lost sight of how my thoughtless actions were destroying everything in my life.

However, we are constantly presented with opportunities to confront our immature patterns of behaviour so we can grow up. This can be experienced as an intuitive feeling that some kind of life change needs to happen, or it can become a profound life crisis.

‘The world always makes sure that you cannot fool yourself for long about who you think you are by showing what truly matters to you,’ writes Eckhart Tolle in his book, A New Earth (1).

My own search for meaning kick-started when I was involved in a light aircraft crash some 28 years ago. We were flying at 1,500 feet when the propeller stopped and we fell out of the sky. Most light aircraft crashes are fatal, or certainly involve a fatality. For whatever reason, the pilot and I both scrambled from the wreckage physically unscathed. But the mental shock I experienced was another matter.

Looking back, I realise now that I had developed severe post-traumatic stress. This manifested for a time in night sweats, inability to concentrate, and a suicidal depression. It was only when I began to train in trauma work as an EMDR (eye movement desensitisation and reprocessing) practitioner in my early 50s that I fully understood how a crisis such as this strips away carefully constructed defence mechanisms and leaves us exposed and raw to the core (2).

In his book, Out of the Darkness, transpersonal psychologist Steve Taylor interprets these crisis moments as ‘spiritual alchemy’. He explains, ‘Terrible though these consequences are, for many people, they are balanced by – and even transcended by – longer term positive effects’(3).

The crash was certainly a moment of spiritual alchemy for me. It forced me to accept that I needed help and healing. So I now look back on this experience as life saving. I had to reassess everything, and this has led, albeit sometimes precariously, to the work I am involved in today.


Spiritual calling intensifies as we age
Even so, life continued – and still continues – to challenge and raise questions, and I am aware that my desire to make meaning of it all has increased as I have entered my later years.

I refer to this desire as my ‘call to God’. I am not a religious person, but I am comfortable with what ‘God’ signifies to me. (Some refer to God as The Light, or The Source, or The Universal Energy, or Higher Wisdom.)

Father Richard Rohr, an American Franciscan monk and founder of the Centre for Action and Contemplation in New Mexico, writes beautifully about the ageing process in his book, Falling Upwards. He regards the second half of our life as a profound quest: ‘The first half of life is discovering the script, and the second half is actually writing it and owning it. So get ready for a great adventure, the one you were really born for’(4).

The response to God or a higher calling as we age seems to me to be a natural part of the human condition. During the Middle Ages many affluent women were benefactors to nunneries, and would often choose to retire to convents to spend the rest of their lives immersed in quiet contemplation. This helped them to make peace with God as they readied themselves for death (5).

Today Eastern religions and traditions accept that older people often choose to spend the latter years devoted to spiritual evolution. It is their way of preparing for the inevitability of death and to confront and release karma they have accrued so they can reincarnate into a better lifetime next time round.

I saw this for myself when I visited Varanasi, revered as the holiest city in India. Hundreds of older Hindus were – and are right at this very moment – living in small dingy rooms, sometimes for years, close to their beloved Mother Ganges as they wait for the moment of Salvation when their ashes are scattered on her sacred waters (6).

I imagine that they welcome their release from this world with peace, joy and relief.

Western society’s attitude towards ageing
But our secular, ego-driven Western society, addicted to youth and beauty, medical innovation and life-extending treatments, does not encourage or support spiritual exploration in later life. As I point out in my book, Sex, Meaning and the Menopause, most people are so immersed in the frenzied pace of modern life that they are completely caught out in their 50s by the menopause (7).

The menopause is biology’s signal that our youth is over and the second half of our life as an older person is starting. However, if we are not ready for what these penetrating hormonal changes can bring, it can throw up powerful feelings of loss, confusion, even despair. So we try and hide any sign of ageing. According to Imogen Matthews, author of The Premium Market Report, women over 45 spend £2 billion annually on cosmetics, anti-ageing skincare and toiletries, a figure that is growing faster than premium beauty (8).

We also try and medicalise ageing: the global market for erectile dysfunction remedies is worth roughly $5bn,(9) hormone replacement therapy (HRT) is still being prescribed to combat the menopause, despite health risks(10) while $20 billion is spent globally on plastic surgery, and is set to rise to £27 billion by 2019 (11).

The silver tsunami years
Of course we can do a lot naturally to maintain our health and wellbeing as we grow older. A good diet, regular exercise, and companionship are essential to keep fit and engaged with life. But the spiritual and emotional fall-out from our desire to deny the ageing process is creating serious psychological issues.

Novelists Martin Amis and Christopher Buckley coined the phrase ‘The Silver Tsunami Years’ to describe the wave of baby boomers who are currently entering later years, and the effect this will have on our ill-prepared British society.12 Over 15 million of us are now aged over 60, and this is forecast to pass 20 million by 2030 (13).

I regard the silver tsunami years in a more personal way. A recent research study by psychologist Dr Oliver Robinson states that one in three people over the age
of 60 experiences some kind of major life crisis (14). This can involve a combination of health issues, bereavement, financial hardship, and/or marital breakdown.

Marital breakdown in the over 60s, or ‘silver separations’ as they are referred to, has hit epidemic proportions, and the over-60s are now registered as the largest group to divorce (15). Reasons for this are many, but perhaps the most prevalent is how many baby boomers are refusing to put up with imperfect relationships as their parents may have done. It is not unusual for a baby boomer to have been divorced at least twice, and I know of people who have divorced into their 70s.

The fall-out from this speaks for itself: 3.5 million people over the age of 65 live alone. Forty-one per cent of people aged 65 and over in the UK feel out of touch with the pace of modern life, and 2.04 per cent, or 1.2 million, older people (aged over 65) in England report being persistently and chronically lonely (13).

This is extremely sad to report, and I jump up and down when I hear people talking about the 60s as being the new 40s. In my opinion, it is not. Having personally experienced a profound midlife crisis after the plane crash and another life-changing crisis aged 60 when my husband left me, I have found it is completely different. At 40, there was a sense of time stretching ahead to put things right. At 60, time felt much shorter. I had a much more heightened sense of my mortality, and an extreme fear of being thrown into ageing alone. Therefore, for me, the effect of this later life crisis was far more distressing.

Addressing what the ageing process brings
Still, the experience presented me with yet another opportunity to make meaning in my life, and I began to run workshops, retreats and death cafés that provide a space for older people to explore how they are coping with ageing and mortality.

While some participants seem to be embracing their ageing process and making the best of it, others speak about feeling invisible or ignored, or angry about ageing at all. Some are learning to cope with very distressing family or financial situations. Some feel trapped between caring for elderly parents and supporting children and grandchildren. Others are being drawn to do life differently through spiritual practices such as meditation, going on retreats, or travelling.

But all the participants express gratitude and relief for the opportunity to spend time together to talk about it. And I think that’s it: it is about being open and honest with how we feel about becoming the older generation and being willing to stand shoulder-to-shoulder with each other. It is about making the best of it too, even though we are ageing in a world that has drastically changed from how it was when we were young. But that happens with every generation – I can still see my mother’s face when I played The Beatles’ music for the first time.

I am at the stage in life when I want time to reflect on the past 64 years. I want to deepen my understanding of who I am, and I want to clear away the mental and emotional dross that holds me back from finding peace of mind.

In his book, Dark Nights of the Soul, Thomas Moore speaks of the continual need to emotionally process the commotion and chaos of life: ‘Life has its ebb and flow. It builds up, and then it clears out. You need this rhythm, just as you need to breathe in and breathe out. Like your body your soul gets filled with pollutants. Dark moments are part of the rhythm by which you fill up and empty out’(16).

For me, this clearing is about being willing to salute the spiritual alchemy that forces me to become conscious of my mortality and to hug it close as another day passes by. It is about looking into the mirror and being OK seeing an ageing woman gazing back. It is about finding time to reflect on my life, which happens on the silent retreats I commit to twice a year. It is about being aware that my life has been filled, and will continue to be filled with both successes and failures and these, in their own very different ways, teach me about who I am.

It is also about preparing myself to grow up from being an older woman into being old. So the spiritual alchemy of life never stops, for which I am grateful. It keeps me on my toes, and presses me onwards to strengthen how I continue to make meaning of my life as I age, and to fully engage in my call to God; so, just like those who I saw in Varanasi, when my time comes, I can release myself from this earthly life with peace, joy, and relief.

I want to leave you with these words from Carl Jung, which for me sum up what it is like to grow older:

‘One cannot live the afternoon of life according to the program of life’s morning, for what was great in the morning will be of little importance in the evening, and what in the morning was true will at evening have become a lie’ (17).


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15. https// freedomofinformationfoi/divorcefigures (accessed 11 February 2017).

16. Moore T. Dark nights of the soul. London: Piatkus Books; 2012.

17. Jung C. The structure and dynamics of the psyche. New York: Pantheon Books; 1960.

Continue reading “Growing up into Growing Older”

Cirencester March Death Cafe: Clear out your stuff!

Eleven of us met up in Cirencester in Jane’s lovely garden lodge, surrounded by nodding daffodils and clusters of primroses.

Right from the start a distinct theme emerged, which focused on preparing for death.

“I would like to know the day and hour of my death,’ said one participant. ‘I like being in control, and knowing this would mean that I could prepare myself.’

‘Yes,’ said someone else, ‘I realise I have a lot of clearing to do. I have far too much stuff. I don’t want to leave a mess behind for my family to cope with. It’s not fair on them. I really need to get on with it.’

We were all in agreement about the importance of clearing out what we no longer need. One participant, who had cared for her terminal ill sister in the last weeks of her life, told us of how her sister prepared for death. ‘She wanted to deal with anything that she felt was stopping her from being at peace. Having terminal cancer really focused her mind, and it was if she ticked things off as she planned how she was going to die. She knew her husband and daughter were trying to ignore what was going on, so she was determined to do it herself.’

Continue reading “Cirencester March Death Cafe: Clear out your stuff!”

 What Would Buddha Make of it All?

A couple of days ago I spent an overnight at the wonderful Elephant Village, about 20 kilometres from Luang Prabang, laid-back northern capital of Laos.  Fourteen very fortunate females elephants, and two of their babies, live in harmony together – all saved from a miserable existence in logging camps. The Village was set up by a German in 2005, but according to Mr Mack my delightful Laos guide, it is now owned by local Laos people.

Most of the elephants, 40 year old Meaouk (who bore me with such lumbering grace upon her back) included, have been bought from the loggers at the vast cost of $60,000 each. When the Village is unable to come up with a one off payment they actually rent the elephant off the loggers. An ingenious if not highly expensive solution. Thank goodness for the tourist visitors, which makes the work of the Village possible.

It was such a joy to see each elephant and her adoring Mahout (carer) working together in perfect union. The Village excels in its belief that these particular elephant should enjoy 5 star treatment. So the Howdah (heavy wooden riding seat) is banned, and the elephants only work 4 hours a day which consists of ferrying a tourist perched precariously free-style on her neck down a steep dusty track to plod, with much cajoling from the Mahoud, into the River Nam Khan.

Continue reading ” What Would Buddha Make of it All?”

Be My Valentine: what envy and jealousy does to love

images-15Envy consists in seeing things never in themselves, but only in their relations. If you desire glory, you may envy Napoleon, but Napoleon envied Caesar, Caesar envied Alexander, and Alexander, I daresay, envied Hercules, who never existed.

Bertrand Russell

I was really touched by the number of people who signed up to my blog after I posted Loneliness: A spiritual odyssey. It confirmed to me that, set against the backdrop of an increasingly chaotic and fractious world, many of us are struggling to make sense of life and wanting to deepen our spiritual understanding of who we are as human beings.

It sparked off an idea. I realised that I want to set aside time as 2017 unfolds to explore and write about those darker aspects of the human condition which rob us of peace of mind.

This is because once we are aware of our darker aspects we can begin to transform them into spiritual alchemy. This is where ‘the raw materials for waking up reside,’ says Buddhist teacher Pema Chrodon, ‘That’s where you connect with what it is to be human, and that’s where the joy and well-being come from – from the sense of being real and seeing realness in others.’

Continue reading “Be My Valentine: what envy and jealousy does to love”

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