Resilience and the breath of life. 

I am thoroughly fed up with the negative news and social media agendas that are bombarding us from all directions twenty-four hours a day.  I realise that we are facing massive global and climatic challenges and changes but it is well recognised by psychologists that continual pessimism kills a person’s creativity. This has serious repercussions. Without the creativity to see beyond our limitations, it’s hard to access resilience – which, to me, should be as much a part of life as breathing in and out.

It’s true that the human narrative is changing, and we can no longer rely on happy ever after endings. But it is time for us all to call on our resilience to reshape the legacy of what we want to leave behind so humanity and other species may continue to experience life on Earth. But how can we do this when those in positions of power have created a paradigm that solely focuses on breathing out into endless growth, expansion and progress to the point that humanity is imploding?  As I see it, we have arrived at the time when we have completely emptied our human lung capacity – there is literally no more breath left to breathe out anymore.

For anyone who practices yogic breathing, the space between the out breath and the in breath is where we consciously hold the exquisite moment of experiencing empty lungs before mindfully taking another breath and enjoying the process of what it feels like for our lungs to fill again with sweet life-giving air. This cycle of conscious breathing follows a natural flow which helps us to profoundly connect to the cycles of our own life, to our resilience and to the cycles of the natural world.

However, humanity is not practicing yogic breathing.  It is currently trapped in the interval between the out breath and the in breath, and our lungs have gone into spasm. We are hard-wired to survive so when we can’t take a breath, we panic and begin to fight for air.  I see this is where humanity is right now: caught in spasm, panic and fight.

But there is a way to break through. It’s about simply reconnecting to the natural cycle of our breath so we can ground ourselves and draw on our resilience to stare hardship and challenge square in the eye and refuse to give up until we find a resolution. Sometimes life can be so unforgiving that resilience is all we have left.  It drags us out of bed when we are pulverised by loss and grief. It makes us hold on tight to our dreams when everything is falling around our ears; it encourages us to reach out when we believe we are abandoned. It forces us take that one step at a time as we blindly seek a way through the darkest hours of our life; it teaches us to be flexible in the face of challenge and change, and it helps us to see a much bigger picture of what it means to be a human being entering the flow of life rather than someone manically ‘doing’ to run away from themselves.

So how do we consciously reconnect with our resilience? I believe there are nine keys to this:


We have to develop the skills to listen to what is going on inside us. Our body holds all the information we need to make our life work for us, what is true for us, and what is false. So, the first key to connecting to resilience is to wake up to the feelings that we are experiencing in the moment and allowing them to guide us forward.


Life is finite. All of us are going to die. Admitting to our mortality allows us to see ourselves for who we really are – someone who is just passing through this physical existence.  Thousands have experienced life on Earth before we were born, and thousands will come after we die. Knowing and accepting that we are part of the larva of humanity helps us to put life back into perspective, and to find ways to live the best life we possibly can irrespective of what may be happening out in the larger world.


I was staggered to learn that 85% of workers worldwide say that they hate their jobs (Gallup, 2017).  This is no way to live this one precious life that we are experiencing right now. So, it’s essential to take time to explore what fires up our creativity and to discover what makes us feel alive and spontaneous. We need to ask ourselves, ‘What unique gifts do I have to offer?’ And refuse to take none for an answer.


Just as resilience is part of the human condition, so is pain and suffering. Suffering strips away ill-placed pride and introduces us to the humility of seeing life for what it is: a series of experiences that begin at birth and end with death. It’s how we respond to these experiences that matters. As Kahlil Gibran says, ‘Out of suffering have emerged the strongest souls; the most massive characters are seared with scars.’


It doesn’t matter if we believe in past lives – it’s this life that matters and the only real mission for all of us is to own the life we have come here to experience. Yes, this can be very scary especially when we have set high expectations for ourselves or when life turns in on itself. But the only way to step out of being a victim is to understand that we are creators of our own reality and to focus on something that nurtures and supports who we are.


Life is not just about our immediate family or ancestral line. Taking care of the planet is essential for the survival for all species. For humanity to survive and thrive we need to go beyond our immediate constraints of what we believe life to be and become far more conscious of the flow of all life following behind us. Caring for the Earth is the true meaning of legacy. 


When we look outside ourselves for something or someone to make us feel good about ourselves, we end up filled with anxiety because we are terrified of it coming to an end. Giving up what makes us unhappy is about finding ways to deeply connect to our resilience so we can begin to make informed choices about what supports our vision of making this world a better place.


Our beautiful planet has sustained life for billions of years and made possible the evolution of humankind. But what we term as progress has insidiously eroded away our profound connection to the natural cycles and rhythms of nature. For future generations to survive, we need to learn, once again, to synchronise our own resilient cycle of breath with the Earth’s cycle of breath.


To put our self-importance into perspective, we just need to look into deep space. One of the most extraordinary photographs I have ever seen is from Voyager 1 as it passed out of our solar system on February 14th 1990, 3.7 billions miles from Earth. Our planet is a minute pale blue dot hanging in a vast expanse of space. It makes me believe there is a far greater plan at work than I can possibly imagine.

When you find yourself overwhelmed by the fear and anxiety that is being spoon fed to us day after day, take a moment to calm yourself by focusing on your breath. Feel your feet firmly on the floor, and, as you breathe out, consciously call on your resilience to make itself known to you. It may appear as a feeling or as a vision or perhaps even a sound.  Spend a little time reflecting on the 9 keys to resilience, and perhaps identify certain keys that you may have overlooked or not considered to be part of what makes resilience such an indelible part of who you are.

Resilience makes us feel safe inside ourselves, and I believe this is the human quality which will help to stem the surge of negativity that assails us because it gives us the courage and the determination to stand up and say, ‘Enough! NO MORE! There are far better ways to experience life.’




Interview about Living Fully, Dying Consciously with Spiritual Media Blog



Stepping Beyond Inequities to Address Systemic Collapse

Sue in conversation with Dr Christine Gibson. Christine is 46 and works in three health centres on the east side of Deerfoot in Calgary, Canada, which support individuals and indigenous communities experiencing health and wellbeing inequities. Christine is also increasingly involved with the possibility of global systemic collapse and the impact that this will have on communities and cultures around the world. She has a Masters’ degree from the University of Dundee and supplementary training in trauma therapy and social innovation (systems change). In 2015 she gave a Ted Talk: Journey from Hero to Humility on the importance of listening to the needs of distressed or traumatised communities rather than pitching in with ‘medical expertise.’

Sue: Christine, can you tell me what called you to work with communities that experience inequities?

Christine: Since I was small, I have been aware of the inequities of life. This stems from my own roots. My dad grew up in a Scottish coal mining town and was working in a paper mill by the time he was sixteen.  He realised he didn’t have a chance of prosperity if he stayed there, so he emigrated to Canada where he met my mother. She came from a Ukrainian lineage. My mother’s great-great-great Ukrainian grandmother settled in Canada during 1903. But the family (on both sides) had an incredibly difficult life because of extreme racism. In the local newspapers, my ancestors were referred to as Bohunks and people used blanket statements stating they were all illiterate, smelly thieves. Really horrifying.

I think this has certainly influenced my choice of medical career and my desire to focus on working with people who are facing inequitable health issues. I started travelling when I was nineteen. I wanted to know what other communities and cultures looked like and how they lived. I’ve been to over 70 countries now, which doesn’t say much for my carbon footprint. But, for a while, I spent several weeks a year in rural Laos addressing health inequities and helping to set up better health care systems.

Sue: That must have a been a fascinating experience. How did it affect your career?

Christine: Yes, it was. The experience forged the basis for my own non-profit charity called Global Familymed Foundation, set up in 2011.  We work mainly with universities in Nepal, Ethiopia, Uganda, Tanzania, Rwanda, Kenya and Myanmar to train GPs in rural areas. 80% of people in most of these countries live outside urban areas, but 80-90% of doctors live in urban areas. So, there is a great mismatch.

My non-profit works closely with partners to see what is really needed. Mostly it’s about providing financial assistance to enable local trainee GPs to learn how to work in these rural areas. Once they spend time there and become more confident, they often get quite committed to the community. I also formed a residency programme (now called Health Equity, but formerly Global Health), which focuses on inner city health, indigenous health, and immigrant and refugee health. This developed into overseas projects supporting people who wanted to work with international organisations such as Doctors Without Borders or take part in international research. We always strive to listen to needs of the community and use our expertise appropriately.

Sue: What were the main issues that you worked with?

Christine:  The impact that trauma has on individuals and on their communities. I now work in health centres in Calgary that are constructed to provide help for people experiencing complex medical and social issues. We work in interdisciplinary teams to address housing and food insecurities and psychiatric illnesses.

Personally, I focus on the area of trauma. Trauma has a lot to do with childhood experiences and inequitable levels of health care. Unless this is addressed, it creates a circular destructive pattern which just continues. I see that mental illness and structural violence are so deeply intertwined that they can’t be separated. If you don’t manage the social spectrum of what is affecting a patient, they are just going to keep presenting back with the same medical issues.

Sue: That’s so true. I believe trauma is endemic in our society, but we don’t understand the ramifications of what it does to us.

Christine: I recognise that everyone walking through the door has had a lot of adverse childhood experiences and subsequent trauma as well as the trauma of dealing with health systems and systems in general. The indigenous community, in particular, has faced a great deal of oppression. So, I do a lot of trauma work to help people to learn tools for themselves, which can also support their communities to address the traumas they have faced historically. I think historic trauma is deeply embedded in psychiatric conditions, and I don’t think that medicine has a lot of answers for this. But the roots of trauma need to be addressed. It’s amazing to see the strides my patients have made in cocreating what healing looks like when a more holistic approach is taken.

I believe unaddressed trauma and inequity is driving planetary systemic collapse. We need to learn to pull back and look at the bigger picture. Whatever happens at the individual level is happening at the community level, and this feeds into the greater global metabolism. We need to explore ways we can intervene so we can mitigate or shift what is happening on all levels.

Sue:  When you speak of systemic collapse, what are the drivers that you are specifically talking about? 

Christine: I think poverty is the biggest issue. However, I also think racism and the legacy of white supremacy play a leading part in this. To enhance my understanding of the people I work with, this year, I completed two on-line courses which I would recommend to anyone. The first was White Awake, which tackles particularities of white racial socialisation. The second course was Me and White Supremacy. I realised that even though I had all these letters after my name, I only have expertise in one very small piece of the puzzle. I may have a Masters, and supplementary training in trauma therapy and social innovation, which means I am seen as an ‘expert.’ But what I need to do is to listen to the community to find out how I can be of real help.

Sue: What do you think listening to these communities can teach those of us who live in western societies? 

Christine: I believe our understanding of indigenous practices can help us in our own suffering. Many of us are used to living at a point of privilege and experience great discomfort when this is threatened.  But unless we examine what this means and get to a deeper level of understanding, I think we are going to remain stuck in old colonial patterns and feedback loops where we continue to believe we deserve our privilege. I believe this meritocracy drags the whole planet down. But this is so traumatic to think about that we either settleup or reject what’s happening. This makes it difficult for people to move forward into the compassion and resilience that’s needed to create functional communities.

Sue: Can you explain more about what resilience means in this context.

Christine: I think we need to build resilient communities to cope with any system collapse. The more we are able to live in social engagement and compassion, the more as we as individuals can create positive responses in our community and for the whole planet.

I was drawn to Jem Bendell’s Deep Adaptation work because I believe there are multiple systems in the stage of collapse right around the world. I see the evidence through the global work I do. For example, South America and North America are really struggling to create and sustain agriculture. However, we who live in wealthy countries like Canada haven’t faced the fall-out yet – but that doesn’t mean it’s not happening.  I was caught up in the 2015 Nepal earthquake. Right afterwards India and Nepal started to scrap over water resources from the Himalayas; and India imposed an embargo on food, fuel, and medicine that lasted for months. Is there going to come a time when the US will want Canada’s water resources? Yes! But these issues are not reported in the media, so people aren’t paying attention to it.

My social innovation lens helps me to understand what’s really happening. I see it as an image of a tree being on fire, but when you pull back from this tree, then you realise that the whole forest is on fire. Everything, from our personal health to the macro level of all our planetary systems are totally intertwined. You can’t separate the tree from the forest. If we don’t understand this, we are going to be facing system collapses completely unprepared on any level on how to deal with it.

Our response to this needs to be much more than permaculture or transition towns. We need to learn how to emotionally regulate so we go beyond traumatic reactions.

Sue: I completely agree with you on this. But how do we learn to go beyond traumatic reactions when we are terrified of what we are potentially facing?

Christine. I don’t think every single community can be ready for this. But I admire Margaret Wheatley’straining because she taken on the work of Joanna Macey, and designed a programme for Warriors of the Human Spirit to create leaders who can build communities, which she calls Islands of Sanity. To her way of thinking, if there are more islands of sanity cropping up throughout the world, there might be an alternative response to a destructive traumatic reaction.

Sue: This feeds into what living consciously for a better world is all about. But, do you think this is possible during massive systemic collapse?   

Christine: Absolutely. As much as humanity is deeply capable of patterns of structural violence, we are also deeply capable of compassionate responses. And, if we view scarcity as an opportunity to double down on inequitable issues, I think there’s less chance of mitigating the suffering that has already begun. I believe that if we can work towards these islands of sanity, we can become much more deliberate and conscious around how we chose to be.

For example, I think we, as individuals and as communities, can choose to be a certain way, even as systems begin to fail. Perpetual growth and perpetual inequity are not patterns that should sustain themselves. We need to ask, ‘Is there an alternative system that is possible?’ I don’t actually know if there is. But I was in rural Kyrgyzstan not so long ago and I saw how lots of nomadic people are living as they have done for millennia. They live in complete concert with the natural world and with their animals. It’s a totally interwoven existence. It’s not oppressive either, between species at least. It’s about holding deep respect for other species and for the land. We might call Kyrgyzstan a developing country, but, in order for us to continue –  if we are to – the world may need to look to people like this to remember what it means to have this interconnectedness. This is certainly a version of how humanity could be less affected by climate chaos.

We come from a culture that is utterly self-absorbed. The western mind is so linear in the way it thinks and approaches things. We have to step beyond this to explore how we approach the increasingly pressing question of systemic collapse.

Sue: How do you see your work developing from now on?

Christine: I have no idea of what the second half of my life is going to look like. I see myself as having experienced the peak of comfort – and being fortunate enough to hold a social position to be able to experience it the way I have. I believe part of my work is now recognising how our own human existence is complicit within the entire planetary systems.

To me, this means re-examining our entire social position and personal participation. I don’t necessarily hold specific hope for myself or for my community, but I do recognise that life will continue in some form. Humanity has had a great run at it, and even if there is to be human extinction, I believe we are moving the greater metabolism to a different level of understanding. Maybe the next evolution of sentient beings will be able create a greater civilization than we have presently, but I have no idea what this might look like.  All I know is that I feel privileged to have been along for the ride. So, personally, I am experiencing these changes with great joy, curiosity and humility. And, professionally, I believe we physicians need to the same,

We have been deeply complicit with the pharmaceutical industry and allowed them to provide medical evidence for us which has driven the curriculum of what we learn as doctors. We have forgotten other ways of healing, which, for centuries, have been part of indigenous communities and ourancestral knowing. As a profession, we have forgotten far too much about what healing means. It’s time to address this.


Living Fully, Dying Consciously out now!

Living Fully, Dying Consciously steps into the heart of the human condition to explore why our entire life is a psychological and spiritual preparation for death. Life is not easy, but when we accept that we are just passing through this physical existence it puts things into perspective. Confronting our fear of death and accepting our physical mortality helps us to create a much more conscious way of living. This is essential for our own spiritual wellbeing, for the wellbeing of the planet and for future generations.

 ‘This book is a Tour de Force of the science and philosophy surrounding death and dying, as well as the emerging science of consciousness survival, all of which I have both researched myself and also experienced personally, so I can verify the scientific accuracy of what Sue is reporting on – and teaching in this wonderful book.’  Dr. Alan Ross Hugenot, author of The New Science of Consciousness Survival and the Metaparadigm Shift to a Conscious Universe.

Publisher contact details and review copies



Unhooking From Hopeful Hooks

Recently I’ve been reflecting on the concept of hope because of the maelstrom of change and uncertainty that is spinning around the globe. I have noticed that many people are refusing to engage with how these challenges may manifest and choosing instead, to be filled with the hope that with a hop, skip and a jump humanity will move into a far more conscious way of being. Some speak of us standing on the threshold of a brand-new Golden Era, where ‘awakened’ people will live in complete harmony with the natural world. Unquestionably, this does sound appealing.

Then a thought dropped into my mind, which said, ‘Unhook for hopeful hooks.’

To begin with, I was baffled. Surely, hope is about the optimistic belief that there is a better outcome to what’s happening in the moment. As Desmond Tutu says, ‘Hope is being able to see that there is light despite all of the darkness.’

Personally, I couldn’t have survived thus far without hope. During several bleak times in my life hope has pushed, shoved and hauled me forwards. It’s given me a blind faith not to give up even when I felt so battered by life that I couldn’t see the point of it anymore. Therefore, over the years I have come to understand that hope is part of the human condition, which acts as the counterbalance to despair. This has helped me to develop a strong affinity with hope and what it means to have hope walking beside me when my skies turn grey.

So, why should I unhook from hopeful hooks? Surely this is a time in human history when we all need to grasp onto hope for dear life. I sat down in my meditation chair to ask for clarity. And, this is what came to me: there are two levels to hope; a higher vibration of hope and a lower vibration of hope. The higher vibration of hope gives us strength and resilience when we really need it. The lower vibration of hope is when we turn it into hopeful hooks to feed our illusions.

We humans have an extraordinary instinctive desire to survive, no matter what the world is throwing at us. So, our hopeful hooks are what we cast towards any passing flotsam and jetsam, which can help us to keep our noses above the water level. However, whatever our hopeful hooks have attached to can be precarious in nature. For example, ‘I know he loves me, he’s just doesn’t realise yet.’ ‘This time next year everything will be fine.’ ‘Once this deal is on the table, I will be a millionaire.’ ‘When I find my soul-mate, I will never feel lonely again.’

In other words, hopeful hooks take us out of the rigours of the present into an imaginary golden future.

There’s nothing wrong in imaging a great future (the New Age multi-billion-dollar industry is built on it), but as I have discovered myself, we can’t just jump into it. We need to work towards it with care, focus and integrity, making the inner changes that we need to do to in order to create a far more positive outcome. Otherwise our hope-filled dreams either fall apart or disappear as quickly as they appear.

Therefore, it’s important to understand that hope has its own dark side, which is illusion. Illusion is a cunning phenomenon because it can seem very real in our imagination. In fact, it can feel so real that it tricks us into believing that it is real, and everything becomes dependent on this illusion coughing up what we desire. However, by their very nature, illusions are incapable of doing this, so we throw out yet more hopeful hooks in desperation to make our lives better. This ends up as an exhausting game of chance until we realise the truth of what’s happening.

I now understand that when we unhook from the illusions of our hopeful hooks, the higher vibration of hope can step forward to help us to align with our higher self to create the best possible scenarios for who we are and how we chose to live our life. Things flow because this higher vibration of hope means we become unattached to the outcome. We understand that whatever manifests is often a stepping-stone to something else to help us fulfil what we are called to do in this lifetime. And, irrespective of what storms are brewing around us, we become aware that the world continues to work in mysterious ways. Sometimes not getting what we ‘want’ may turn into the greatest gift we can image.

Gaining this clarity between the higher and lower vibrations of hope has helped me to understand that I do not want to engage in throwing out hopeful hooks to deal with the changes and challenges we are all confronting at the present time. There is a process of transmutation going on here that I personally don’t understand. I have no idea if this means that a Golden Time lies ahead. It would be great if it did. But I want to focus on drawing on the higher vibration of hope to help me to build the resilience, courage and stamina that I need right now to confront what these changes may mean for our planet, and the uncomfortable impact this may have on the whole of humanity. Speaking for myself, I am greatly comforted by the steady companionship of the higher vibration of hope as I walk blindly into our unknown future, one step at a time.

The world would change if everyone one of us attended a Death Cafe

Sue in conversation with Jools Barsky, co-founder of the Death Cafe movement about how Death Cafes help us to live consciously for a better world.  

Jools is 32 and the sister of Jon Underwood whose inspiration and vision created the global Death Cafe movement. Jon died suddenly in 2017 of an undiagnosed cancer. Jools works in the health care industry and volunteers her time free to Death Cafe alongside her and Jon’s Mum, Susan Barsky Reid, to ensure Jon’s legacy continues to benefit us all. 

Sue: Jools, how did the Death Cafe movement come about?

Jools: We were on a bus when Jon told me he wanted to give up his job with Tower Hamlets Council to focus on projects around death and dying. I thought, ‘Yes, do it!’ Obviously, neither of us had any idea of the impact that his vision would have. Shortly after this, my Dad gave him a newspaper article about cafe mortels, started in 2004 by Swizz sociologist Bernard Crettaz, which encouraged people to come together to talk about death and dying. Jon thought this was the perfect starting point. So, together with our mum Susan Barsky Reid, who is a psychotherapist, he set up the first UK Death Cafe on 25th September 2011 at his home in Hackney. 

I have a degree in marketing, so in the early days I advised Jon on an initial business and marketing strategy for his vision for the Death Cafe movement. I also designed the first Death Cafe logo and then Jon and I worked together with a designer on the later logo. However, at the time, I was very much in the background offering marketing and PR support when needed. 

Sue:  How did you step into the role you now have? 

Jon Underwood

Jools:  In 2015 Jon and I were working together on his vision of setting up the ‘Real Death Cafe’ [a permanent Death Cafe venue in London]. Understandably it made him think about what might happen to his vision  should he die. So, he asked me to take over Death Cafe in the event that he were to die before a proper organisational structure was in place. Of course, I agreed, but I read his email thinking, ‘Well, this is never going to happen. Jon will be in his 80s by the time he dies. We’ll have plenty of time to work on this together.’ 

He proceeded to send me an A4 page of operating instructions for the entire global Death Cafe movement. It made me laugh because an A4 page is really not sufficient for the enormity of his vision. When I was sitting in the hospital after his emergency admittance, I found his email again. In a strange way, it soothed me and made me determined to make sure his legacy of the Death Cafe movement would continue as he wanted. 

Sue: I have heard quite a few stories of people putting their affairs in order or asking family members to take care of things if anything should happen to them. Then out of the blue they suddenly die. It sounds as if this happened for Jon, too.

 Jools: Yes, it was a very strange because none of us had any idea there was anything wrong with him. One day he just collapsed, so it was a huge shock for us all. 

But I also found it odd that even though he was so involved in helping people to talk about death and dying, he hadn’t put a plan together for his own funeral. I think he intended to – but like many people – he just never got around to it. He also had a partially completed Advance Directive. It’s a lesson for us all because Jon was only 44 when he died, leaving behind his wife and two young children. 

Sue: Yes, many people tend to think they will get around to making a Will and an Advance Directive, then don’t do anything about it.  What would you say about this now? 

Jools: It’s important to take into account how the person feels about death and dying. Some people are really reticent to discuss it for their own reasons, and I don’t believe it’s right to force death and dying down anyone’s throat. But, in my own experience with Jon’s sudden death, I believe it’s really important for us all to write down our end of life wishes to help those left behind. Otherwise they are left with the trauma of guessing what you may have wanted. This can create considerable friction within families.   

Sue: Why do you think we find it so hard to face the fact we are going to die?

Jools: I think it’s the terror of the unknown. The thought of the cold foreverness of death can be terrifying. I completely understand why people don’t want to think about it. It’s certainly an unknown entity for me. I don’t know how my death is going to happen or what it will be like. But I know I need to face it in order to make the most of my life while I still have the opportunity to do so.  If more of us accepted that we aren’t going to be around forever, the more we would develop compassion for each other, and realise how fragile we are emotionally and physically from the moment we are born.

Sue: I agree with you about this. When we accept our mortality, it changes things. We begin to realise that we all in this life together. 

Jools: Yes. It’s also about understanding that underneath everything, we all have  similar underlying emotions. People aren’t objects. For example, when we behave badly towards someone else, we need to remember that this person may be alive right now but one day – just like us – they are not going to be here anymore. I believe this gives us the humanity that can sometimes be lacking. It’s about compassion and empathy. That’s what changes us. 

This is why I am so proud of Jon’s contribution in this area. I believe the Death Cafe movement will continue to spread its message that it’s okay to talk about death and dying. I feel passionate about this. Yet, many people are still shocked to hear about someone’s death, even if they have reached the age of 95. I am very grateful that my conversations with Jon and my involvement in Death Cafe have helped me to speak to my Nan about the topic. She is 92 and really engaged with talking about her own death and what her legacy might be. She also loves talking about her childhood experiences, and how our perception of death has changed over the decades. 

Sue: What does she say about this?

Jools: She believes people were much more accepting due to the Second World War. Very young people were dying and being killed on a daily basis, so death was right there in everyone’s face. I get the feeling today that many people want to live in this lovely rose-coloured bubble where they imagine they are going to live forever. They find it really hard to accept that their life is finite, or simply that they will age. 

Sue: I agree with you about ageing. Our Western society seems to be addicted to youth, and ageing and death are regarded as something that needs to be conquered. This really doesn’t help people to face up to their mortality. 

Jools: No, it doesn’t. I am so grateful that I had Jon to talk to as a young person. He was 15 years older than me, and a Buddhist. So, he helped me to understand how Buddhism healthily engages with death and dying. When I was about five years old, I remember imagining that after you died, you floated around the universe in a dark hole. I found that terrifying. But when I told Jon about it, he offered me a Buddhist perspective of what death might be like. This calmed me and changed my whole view of death. 

Sue: How has this Buddhist perspective influenced your relationship with death?

Jools: Death is utterly inevitable. So, I regard every second of the day as a gift and I am lucky to be alive. It can be difficult to engage with people who seem to give up or talk about getting old or are constantly deny themselves those little pleasures in life. I would rather be fat and happy and have that extra piece of cake than make myself miserable, and die the next moment. Of course, we have to take care of ourselves but let’s learn to enjoy what we have. For example, let’s enjoy the privilege of having bodies that work. Being involved with Death Cafe makes me much more mindful of things like this. 

Sue: Do you feel life in some form continues after death?

Jools: Personally, I believe in reincarnation – but I am still very much a beginner in terms of understanding Buddhism. However, I like how Buddhism takes scientific discoveries into account, and I like the idea of consciousness being tangible to the extent that it could transfer into another living being. I don’t believe things just disappear.

Sue: What’s your vision for Death Cafe now?

Jools: Jon was working on this full time. I have another job as well, so my time with Death Cafe is limited in what I can do. Right now, I am focusing on looking at what isn’t working so well and finding ways to improve it. But my main goal is to translate the guidelines into a number of different languages. I want to make them much more accessible right across the world so more and more people can have these important conversations. 

It’s been very comforting to see Jon’s plan for Death Cafe being fulfilled and I love connecting with people from different countries through the Death Cafe website. People often get in touch when they have technical issues or they are looking for advice on how they can encourage more people to come to Death Cafes, or they want to talk through a problem they encountered with a participant during a Death Cafe.  When I connect with them, it reminds me of how Jon’s vision has helped to change so many people’s relationships with death and dying, and how this is continuing to influence whole communities. Jon was so influential to the growing death positivity movement both in the UK and the States. 

Sue: Do you believe the Death Cafe movement has helped with end of life care in our National Health System? 

Jools: Death Cafe has enabled many more people to consider that they aren’t going to be around forever, nor, indeed, are those they love. I believe this has influenced how the NHS is providing a much stronger emphasis on end of life care. However, I also believe there’s still a lot more work to be done in this area because medical school training continues to focus on how to treat dying patients clinically rather than how to support their spiritual and emotional needs at the end of life. 

Sue: Yes, I agree that the NHS has still got a long way to go with this. I have heard horror stories of how people are told about a terminal illness or how the dying, and their families, experience a lack of end of life care. What’s your own vision of how this could improve?

Jools: I would like to think that one day we could create the Real Death Cafe that Jon wanted to set up. I know what a massive investment is needed to do this, and how difficult it was for Jon to raise the finance. So, I am reluctant to pin that down right now. But I know for sure that if every single person in the UK were to go to one Death Cafe in their lifetime, it would completely change the way we think about death – and about life. 

Sue: I couldn’t agree with you more about this. Personally, I am heartened by the age range of participants coming to the Death Cafes I have run over the years.  The youngest so far is 18, and the oldest 87. What I find fascinating is that there’s no discrepancy in how they talk about death. People of any age come to the Death Cafe because they want to be there. Young people may not have the life experience behind them, but they are just as keen to have the opportunity to talk about it. 

Jools: Yes, it doesn’t matter how old you are. Death profoundly affects us all. 

Sue: I understand your Mum works closely with you on Death Cafe. Has this close involvement  helped you both to come to terms with Jon’s death? 

Jools: My Mum and I were incredibly close to Jon – the three of us were so similar. Jon was intrinsic to our daily life. When something like this happens, life is never going to be same again; it’s that moment when you pick up the phone on the way back from work to have chat and you’re showered with a waterfall of grief when you realise you can’t do these normal things that were part of your normal routine. 

People assume that because of the work we do, we might easily come to terms with death and dying – even, that it doesn’t matter. But everything we do is a reminder that life is finite. Yet, when I read Jon’s emails and see the things that have been written about him, and speak to people he has spoken to, it almost feels as if I am channelling him through his work that I am continuing to do. I feel incredibly privileged to do this. 

For more information about local Death Cafes to you, please go to















Hiraeth: the call of Home

On this Brexit fuelled Election Day taking place on the mid winter Full Cold Moon, I notice a familiar deep-seated feeling intensify in my body, which the English language does not have a word to describe. Melancholia touches on it, but this is different to a brooding gloominess.

Nostalgia may be a better description. Nostalgia comes from the Greek, nóstos meaning homecoming, and álgos, meaning pain or ache. We feel this pain or ache when we are away from home, or when we become caught up in yearning for a treasured time that has long passed. But again, this doesn’t quite touch it.

Some might call this feeling existential angst. ‘To live is to suffer,’ said the German philosopher, Fredrick Nietzsche. ‘To survive is to find some kind of meaning in the suffering.’  Finding meaning lies at the heart of existentialism. It is the belief that life has no purpose other than what we bring to it. Each one of us has the freedom to choose what actions we need to take to give our existence meaning and purpose, but at the same time we must learn to accept responsibility for the consequences of these choices.

But trying to attribute meaning and purpose to this feeling doesn’t soothe it either. Perhaps the nearest concept is the Welsh word, Hiraeth. Hiraeth is difficult to interpret because it goes beyond melancholia, nostalgia and even existential angst. It is about profoundly missing Home. Home, in this context, is not about a beloved person, bricks and mortar, a country, or even a continent. Rather, for me, this is the feeling which arises when I become acutely aware that I am just passing through this physical existence. My body is merely – although miraculously – a physiological vehicle which enables the transpersonal or spiritual side of who I am to experience life on Earth, while at the same time reminding me that my true Home is where I come from and where I will return to.

Personally, I believe this transpersonal part of who I am is formed by the existence of the spirit and soul. Spirit and soul are often referred to as the same thing, but many religions view them differently. Some traditions, such as Buddhism, do not believe in the existence of soul (for Buddhists there is no permanent self or soul) although along with most religions, it recognises the transcendent nature of spirit.  For me, both spirit and soul exist, and each possesses different although profoundly interconnected qualities.

Spirit and soul

Spirit comes from Latin spiritus, meaning breath [of life]. Some people refer to the spirit as our internal flame, our higher being, our True Self. Others describe it as our guiding light, our source of Love and joy, our divine goodness, our Divinity. Although I am not religious, I call it my God within, and I experience this God within as constantly calling me to transcend the trivia and dramas of life so I can strengthen my connection to something so much greater than me.

‘Soul’, one the other hand, comes from Old English sáwol, originally meaning ‘coming from or belonging to the sea or lake’ (perhaps symbolic of our psyche or unconscious). Our soul, says Thomas Moore, theologian and author of Dark Nights of the Soul, needs a sense of home and loves to attach to life. I take this to mean that our soul is driven to experience life in any way it can, even if this means living under extreme duress or suffering the worst that humanity can imagine.

Our compulsion to stay alive is formidable

Certainly, our compulsion to be alive and stay alive is formidable. However, for me, this tension between the longing of my spirit for transcendence and my soul’s overwhelming desire to attach to life creates an inner friction that needs constant attention. When my spirit and soul are working in harmony, I feel engaged with life and able to take on whatever comes my way. When there is an imbalance – for me, this often happens during the darkest hours of winter – I can easily slip into the depth of hiraeth.

Rather than trying to fix it or run away from it, over the years I have learnt to sit with this longing for Home until it settles, because I now realise that during these moments I am being reminded of my mortality, and this comforts me. Accepting my mortality helps me to deeply respect and own the life I have come here to experience and to find ways to be of help to others. When my time comes, I want to know that no matter what trials I have faced, and whatever brokenness I may carry, I have done everything I can to contribute to making the world a better place, especially as we head into an increasingly turbulent unknown.

So, as I wait patiently for the return of the light this Winter Solstice, I give thanks to this inner friction between my spirit and soul that has been my constant companion since the day I was born. It has made me dig deep inside who I am to question the very purpose of life, to confront those moments of feeling utterly lost and alone, and to understand that life is full of profoundly existential lessons that we can choose to take on board or not. I am glad I have paid attention to this because it has given my life shape and meaning. It has also helped me to understand the disquieting feeling of hiraeth. In fact, these days when I feel hiraeth rising, a somewhat comic image appears in my mind of what may happen when my time comes. This image consists of my soul (now brimming with life learning) linking arms with my spirit (so eager to transcend) like two old comrades, ready to lead me across the threshold of Home and to whatever comes next.

And this is the simple truth – that to live is to feel oneself lost. He who accepts it has    already begun to find himself, to be on firm ground. Instinctively, as do the shipwrecked, he will look around for something to which to cling, and that tragic, ruthless glance, absolutely sincere, because it is a question of his salvation, will cause him to bring order into the chaos of his life. These are the only genuine ideas; the ideas of the shipwrecked. All the rest is rhetoric, posturing, farce.

Soren Kierkegaard






I knew something was wrong, and I was right

Sue in conversation with Fiona (Fi) Elwell about living consciously for a better world. 

Two years ago Fi was diagnosed with secondary cancer. She is in her early fifties and a single mum of her son who is now eight. Fi talks about her extraordinary journey into remission and how having cancer has influenced her desire to live consciously for a better world. Recently Fi started a Psychology MSc. 

Sue: How did you find out that you had cancer, Fi?

Fi: On one level it was a massive shock. But somehow, I knew things weren’t right. I was becoming increasing unwell and for a while I kept on being admitted into Ambulatory Emergency Care at my local hospital [usually referred to as AEC, which provides same day emergency care to patients]. One day I realised something was seriously wrong when everyone else in the waiting room was being seen in a cubical with a curtain pulled round. The doctor, on the other hand, took me into his actual office. He told me I had a cancerous growth between my liver and gall bladder, and also secondary cancer. I remember staring at him in blind terror and saying, ‘But, I am a single parent with a six-year-old son.’  ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘I know.’ Then he got up from his chair and walked out. And, that was it. A nurse came in and said to me cheerily, ’Come on, it’s not that bad.’ A colleague then whispered something into her ear. After that she gave me a cup of tea because she realised it was very serious. Shortly afterwards I met another nurse who was shocked about what had happened.

Sue: Fi, I am speechless about this. What a dreadful way to be treated.  

Fi: Yes, it was. But I don’t think the doctor knew what to say. Or he was really uncomfortable with how to break news like this.

Sue: That’s putting it mildly. It’s very concerning how many people persistently complain about the way difficult or bad news is delivered by NHS doctors. I think it’s down to lack of training.

Fi: Perhaps it is, but something needs to be done about it. I had difficulties with my GP as well. She failed to take me seriously for 18 months prior to my eventual diagnosis despite numerous blood tests and self-referrals from me. I also self-referred to have a mammogram. But the doctor told me that I had an inverted nipple and said I could sort it out myself in the shower.  After my diagnosis, I changed to another GP. I  lost all faith in the one I had been seeing.

Sue: Placing this extremely distressing treatment by the GP and hospital doctor aside, I am very interested in what you say about somehow knowing something was wrong with you.

Fi: Yes, on a deep level, I did know. However, I think that we have such a strong survival instinct, we may not allow this knowing in. I believe that happened to me. As I said, I was having a lot of blood tests before I became really ill. I could see that the results of some of them were strange. However, because my GP didn’t pick up on them, I pushed the dread I was feeling back under the carpet.

Sue: How long did you have this feeling that things weren’t right.

Fi: It’s funny, some time before all of this, I was sitting in a pub having a glass of wine and the thought came to me that if there was something really wrong with me, I will never drink again. This is exactly what’s happened. So, this sense of knowing something was wrong had been in my head way before I was diagnosed.

Sue: Do you think this thought came from you or from a higher consciousness?

Fi: I think it came from a higher consciousness. It is a higher consciousness? Or is it the sub-consciousness? I don’t know, but it felt like something else gave me these messages. But maybe it’s kind of interchangeable. Yes, when I think of it, it felt as if came from both the external and internal.

Sue: How has your diagnosis affected the way you now experience life? 

Fi:  A diagnoses such as mine makes you realise that you are one tiny leaf on a really, really big tree. By this I mean that you very quickly realise what’s important and what’s not. All the stupid stuff that normally stresses you out, like getting to work on time, don’t mean anything. All that matters are love, compassion, your friends, and hope.

Sue: What happened to the dread amongst all of this?

Fi: That hit me when I was at home on my own. My son was six when I was diagnosed. The dread was feeling sick about what was going to happen to him.  It wasn’t about me. It was about him. It’s always been about him even when I ended up in hospital as an emergency a couple of times. Whatever happens to me is about what will happen to him. I can’t get beyond the fact it’s not alright for him not to have a mum.

Sue: When you were really ill in hospital did you feel you were going to die?  

Fi: During one emergency admission while I was on holiday with my son in Dorset, I was in so much pain, it certainly felt possible. I ended up in an insolation ward for five days because my body went into a massive purge. When you’re in this much pain you don’t think of anything. You can’t. You and your body go through a process. The turning point came when the ward cleaner told me how a patient who had been diagnosed with lung cancer had lain down on the bed and given up. ‘Well,’ I thought, ‘I’m not going to do that. That’s not why I am here. I am here because I am in a lot of pain, which needs managing.’

My parents also arrived to take my son back home, leaving me alone. It made me even more determined to get out of there. I told myself, ‘I’m going to get better.’ And, I did. It was as if I became filled with determination and that’s what my brain focused on. I wasn’t prepared to let go. It was as simple as that.’

Sue: How did this experience of pain affect you? For example, did it make you want to leave your body or come more into your body?

Fi: It made me come into my body. I didn’t want to escape because of my son –   although I realise that things may have been different without him. He’s nearly nine now and has become much more independent. Of course, he still needs me, but I can see how this will lessen as he grows older. Even so, I am continually finding ways to connect to my strength and thinking of ways to maintain it for the future.

Sue: How else is life changing for you?

Fi: I am trying to understand what I feel right now. For a long time, life was like wearing big boots and just stomping through it. I try not to think about that these days.

But, over the past two years I have become increasingly fascinated in how the brain is such an incredible tool. If you focus on positive affirmations it can make you really strong and well and this has an amazing affect on your body. But there’s also the subconscious – how it’s plugged into the matrix. I don’t know if it determines your fate or future, but these questions inspired me to do my MSc in Psychology.

Sue: Yes, there’s a lot of fascinating research being done on the power of the mind, especially how it affects our wellbeing. You seem to be the living embodiment of what happens when you engage with it.  

Fi: The body is an incredible machine, and all we can do is hope that it keeps going. But when it breaks down, I can see how people don’t want to be here anymore. I had a great-grandmother who lived well into her hundreds. Yet, for the final fifteen years of her life she really didn’t want to be here. It seems crazy that she didn’t have the support to die. Then again, I think of how unfair it is for children to have cancer. Life is such a strange phenomenon.

Sue:  Has your experience of having a cancer diagnosis given you a more spiritual understanding of life?

Fi: I find I am much happier and more relaxed these days. I do get frustrated sometimes because I am not always well. But I have grown to appreciate every moment of wellness and every moment of friendship and love –  and what it feels like to live more in the now.

For a long time, I had quite a strong connection with spirituality, which got lost when I was diagnosed. I wanted to be master of my own destiny. I couldn’t bear to think about all those things that could happen to me and to my son that were no longer under my control.

Now things have settled down, I feel I am coming back to a more spiritual way of life. I have started to read books and watch programmes again about how we are all part of universal energy. It’s made me realise that whether I have this body or a body of a cat, or even someone else’s body, it doesn’t actually matter. Life is life. So, when I think about dying, personally it doesn’t frighten me. But it frightens me when I think of my son.  

Sue: When you think about living consciously for a better world what happens for you?

Fi:  The illness has stripped me back to bare nakedness and shown me what really matters. It also conjured up questions for me. For example, will there ever be enough time to teach my child how to be in this world, or to grow his own vegetables? How do I pass on my feelings of connectedness? How can we love each other in community? How do I pass all that I know onto my son and to everyone around me? I think that’s all you can do about living consciously. It’s about being loving and connected to people that matter to you.

If you want to live consciously, you have to start with yourself. You can’t do anything about politicians or all those other people out there. All you can do is spread love. I know that sounds a bit cheesy, but I wish everyone was like this. Sadly, that’s not how the world is. Years ago, when I trained as a kundalini yoga teacher, I realised the world was going nuts and will keep going nuts, and, in fact, it’s been going nuts for millennia. As far as I can see, there’s not that much difference in the nuttiness that we are experiencing right now.

All I know is this: life is all that we have. There isn’t anything else. These days we are bombarded with all this technological stuff, but if you are going to be plugged into it, you need to know how to unplug from it. You have got to know how to be a loving, beautiful human being because nothing else is as important. At the end of the day, all this technology  could be suddenly switched off and then everything would fall apart. I guess that’s what conscious living is really about. Shedding dependence on the material world.

Sue: What’s the situation with your health at the moment?

Fi: The last time I saw my consultant, he told me I was in remission, which is amazing. I don’t always feel completely well. Sometimes I feel poorly and sometimes I feel better. The big thing is not having much energy. I joke with my son about him having an old woman for a mum.

Sue: Yet you have the energy for a Psychology MSc!

Fi: Yes, I am doing my MSc at the University of Gloucestershire. I am doing it because I really want to.I used to be a cook, but I can’t be on my feet these days. Coupled with the cancer, I have chronic arthritis in my lower back and sacral joints. This causes me the most pain, and I have to take strong pain killers. But I wanted to go back to using my brain again and become much more conscious of what is going on in the world.

I lived on a narrowboat for a while, so I am also acutely aware of the environment and what we are doing to it. I imagine the world as one big house. But I can’t get my head around why someone would  drill great big holes into the floorboards to extract big sticky oil and make a horrible mess everywhere when everyone else has got to live in this house as well. It doesn’t make sense.

Sue: I don’t think I have come across another person in your situation who is so positively engaged in life as you are.

Fi: To keep going, we all need hope. Hope means that we can keep progressing in our thought and in our minds – and hopefully in our bodies too. It about propelling forwards. I haven’t had a passport for years, but I had to get one for my student loan. It was such a good moment when it arrived. To me it means a future.

Sue: Since giving up work, how do you cope financially?

Fi:  I have my student loan and I am received PIP – luckily or unluckily, depending on how you look at it – and ESA [PIP: Personal Independent Payments are given to those with chronic or terminal illnesses. ESA: Employment Support Allowance]. So, everything is as okay as it can be. I’m not used to having a fortune.  I’m used to scraping by on old muddy vegetables! Sometimes I lament about not having a car, but I am not sure I can afford a car anyway. As long as we have clothes on our back, shoes on our feet and food in the fridge we’re doing fine.

Sue: Is there any advice you would like to pass on to us?

Fi: I think it’s really important to look at the positive, not the negative. So, for me when I was ill, instead of reading about people who got cancer and died in a month, I read stories about people who got cancer and survived.  And I think we need to look at the world like this as well. If there’s someone on television droning on negatively – turn it off! Instead, think about what you can do to help create a better future for all of us.

Solitude Equals Home

Every six weeks I run a consciousness meeting for a group of women who want to talk about what really matters. The theme of solitude was chosen by a group member who is planning to run a retreat early in the new year. She wanted to explore how the rest of us experience solitude.

Those in a relationship or living with family spoke about solitude as a gift because spending time alone often has to be fought for. One participant said, ‘I have only recently started to live with my partner, and I am noticing that although I love sharing my life with him, I miss the quiet of having my own space. So, when I get those moments, it is like pure gold.’

Others who live alone said that even though family and good friends may be nearby, they often find themselves walking a fine line between solitude and loneliness. One said that when she spends too much time on her own, she notices she ‘goes a little mad.’ ‘I notice that I start to withdraw into myself and find it hard to reach out. So, I have learnt to make sure I always make contact with someone every day.’

This led into a discussion about how shame and failure is attached to loneliness. ‘We have to be seen to be ‘doing’ all the time. A busy life is seen as a successful life,’ said one participant. ‘But,’ she continued, ‘I find this exhausting and also frightening. I don’t want to feel lonely, yet I realise loneliness is part of who we are as human beings.’  ‘Yes,’ said another, ‘if you’re seen as busy it means that you have a life filled with friends and family or you are achieving something that other people aren’t.  But I think a lot of busy-ness is really hiding loneliness.’

‘Most people run away from loneliness,’ yet another said. ‘It’s so painful. No-one wants to feel it and certainly not admit to it, because if you admit to being lonely, it means you’re a failure on some level.’

Someone who lives alone spoke about being aware that she slips from solitude into loneliness when she loses connection with herself. ‘Throughout my life I have spent a lot of time on my own, so I have really explored the difference between solitude, aloneness, and loneliness. Solitude feels like I am deeply connected with the Universe and this gives me meaning and purpose. I am conscious that I need aloneness to feel the full of effect of solitude, which enables things to flow creatively through me. So, for me, aloneness and solitude are essential for the creative work I do. It quietens my mind. But I fall into the dark hole of loneliness when for some reason, this connect is knocked sideways. That’s when I start questioning the point of life and point of me. Sometimes I find it really hard to climb back out of the hole – the loneliness is so overwhelming I don’t want to be here anymore. But I am so used to this happening that, these days, I tell it to shut up. It seems to sort of work!’

‘I spent five months in virtual seclusion a few years ago because I wanted to meet my loneliness head on,’ said another participant. ‘I knew that if I was going to make a success out of my life following the breakdown of a relationship, I had to do it. So, I invited loneliness to be my companion. At times it was an incredibly painful, crushing experience, but I learnt that I could either allow loneliness to kill me or turn it into something that serves me. I still struggle with it at times, but I don’t allow it to steal my life force from me anymore’.

When someone asked what had changed after she returning from this seclusion, the participant replied, ‘Anger.’  She continued, ‘I realised that my life is connected to something so much greater than me, and that although my life matters, at the same time it doesn’t matter at all. But the experience has made me want to spend the rest of my life finding ways is strengthen this connection because, to me, it’s all about coming home to myself.’

One participant described her relationship with solitude as a sacred internal space. ‘When I experience solitude, it’s the only time I feel really at home with who I am. I may live in a bricks and mortar home and I may live in the UK, but everything changed for me when I realised my body is my home. I can’t exist in physical form without it. I found that an incredibly powerful realisation, and that’s when I started to take care of my body. The trouble is that we forget this. A lot of people seem to be living half out of their body, or forget they even have one, so they have no sense of real belonging. This makes them feel lonely no matter how many friends and family they have around them.’

We started to explore what a sense of belonging means to us. One well-travelled participant, who was born in Africa, told us that as soon as she steps onto African soil, she feels deeply connected with herself again. Although she has lived in the UK for years, she has never felt this depth of belonging. ‘Africa is home. Simple as that.’ Another participant spoke about finding a powerful sense of belonging when she visited New Zealand. ‘Maybe it’s past life thing,’ she said.

Another said that belonging for her was about family. ‘I have moved a lot but the sense of belonging to my family remains constant.’ Two participants told us that they had never felt any real sense of belonging. They only experienced it through their connection with the Universe. ‘I feel I am just passing through this life, and I will return to my real home when I die,’ said one.  ‘Me too,’ agreed the other. ‘I have never felt that this planet is my home. I don’t belong here. I know this is a crazy thing to say, but it’s true for me.’

‘I have never equated solitude with home before,’ said a participant. ‘But I now see they fit together perfectly. Solitude is about feeling at home with who you are. Loneliness is when you feel disconnected and separated from your real home.’

‘I have been to many retreats over the years, and I often experience the full spectrum of solitude, aloneness and loneliness during them,’ said another participant to conclude our meeting. ‘In my experience, retreats create sacred boundaries where I can safely explore what solitude, aloneness and loneliness mean to me. I believe this is an essential process for our spiritual evolution. Loneliness is here to remind us that we have disconnected from ourselves, but the impact lessens when we invite in loneliness. That’s when we have the chance to turn it into the serenity of solitude.’


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