The Problem with Discussing Compassion in Healthcare

June 2014

Last Thursday I had the pleasure of presenting at the Heart of Healthcare Conference at Dillington House.

It was a 1-day conference for healthcare professionals hosted by doctors Andrew Tressider and Patricia Saintey of Heartfelt Consulting.

My session was entitled ‘Incorporating the Spiritual Element’.

At the conference it was lovely finally to meet Dr Rosy Daniel who was medical director at the Bristol Cancer Help Centre and now of the Health Creation educational consultancy. Our paths have almost crossed over decades.

I enjoyed my morning there and it was great to be in the company of so many good hearted carers.

I was concerned though about the intellectualisation of compassion. The discussion around compassion and mindfulness always seemed to lift people out of their hearts and bodies and up into their intelligent heads.

I wonder if this is happening all around the country. Intelligent and good hearted people, who are instinctively compassionate and caring, lose their warmth once they start to discuss how to teach compassion and integrate it into good practice.  IE They can practise compassion but they don’t have the faintest notion how to teach it.

I think the problem here is that in the first place they have not been taught to recognise the embodied and kinaesthetic sensations of compassion. A physical state that is at ease and earthed. They do it of course but without self-awareness of the feelings.

My own solution to this challenge is to teach a very accessible version of the Inner Smile, compassion to the self. The basic form of this exercise is in the handout I gave out at the conference:

— Sink into yourself as if having a contented rest

— Guide yourself into an attitude of kindness like the one you might give a small hurt child or injured bird

— Give that same kindness to yourself, to your own body

— Then share that kindness with the world

The Global Brain – A Web of Hope

February 2014

Have you ever heard of the Global Brain? It is a hopeful and inspiring idea. At its heart is the intriguing suggestion that humanity is birthing a global consciousness –  and that the internet with all its digital connections is making it happen.

The actual phrase Global Brain was first coined by  Peter Russell in 1982 and his ideas built on those of the French mystic Teilhard de Chardin who wrote:

A world network of economic and psychic affiliations is being woven at ever increasing speed – a harmonized collectivity of consciousness, the equivalent of a sort of super-consciousness. The idea is that of the earth becoming enclosed in a single thinking envelope, so as to form, functionally, no more than a single vast grain of thought on the cosmic scale…

We can see this vision as part of a long historical process. Several thousand years ago individuals and tribes were confined to small geographical areas, hardly aware of the existence of other peoples. Fast forward to today: a planetary village with mass media events shared by the global population. How many people watch the soccer World Cup? From palaces to shanty-town sheds.

Humanity has developed a global network of communications. From another perspective this can be interpreted as humanity developing into a single organism.

One nicely weird suggestion is that when the world’s population reaches 10 billion people it will then equal the 10 billion synapses in the human brain. This numerical correspondence will be the trigger for a quantum leap in consciousness and evolution.

Another intriguing supernatural idea is that the Internet is a mirror of the telepathic, etheric and psychic web that envelopes humanity and Earth. Sometimes, at least to me, it seems as if Google is behaving telepathically! It knows where I want to go and what I want to find out. Spooky.

Whatever you believe about all this, you cannot deny that the transformation in communications is spectacular.


We also need some good news.

Perhaps I should be more honest. I need some good news.

I am dismayed by the rise in social inequality and the unjust distribution of wealth. Celebrity culture, greed and environmental pollution also disturb me. Equally I am not happy about the way in which Google and Facebook, let alone the security services, are able to monitor and influence our digital behaviour.

But I am a glass half-full person.

And I trust Gaia, the spirit of our planet. You might find my attitude naive.

So while some people may moan about the stupidity, worthlessness and greed of humanity as a whole, I prefer to see humanity as an expression of Gaia. From this perspective, Gaia may know exactly what she is doing in producing such a huge human population on her surface.

The quadrupling of the planet’s population, and the explosions of the industrial and then technological revolutions – these were bound to create a crisis. All of this happened in only 200 years on a planet that is four and half billion years old.

This is information that deserves repeating. 200 years of sudden growth within a history of 4,500,000,000,000 years.

It was bound to be problematic. But look at humanity’s awareness.  Yes there is greed and stupidity. There is also a high awareness of all the critical issues. In general, amongst policy-makers and educationists, there is no denial.

The last century has also seen miracles that can give us hope. The profound lowering of infant mortality. The ability to feed everyone. Universal literacy. The extension of life expectancy.


And then we have the digital world. The worldwide web. The global brain.

In rural India children and farmers sit under trees and use solar-powered computers connected to a world of education, information and support. Harvard professors talk to villagers, bypassing the industrial revolution and going straight into digital relationship.

If one of us moves to a great city like London, with all the possibilities for loneliness and alienation, through online social networks we can connect with our tribe and common interests and then meet in real life.

Twenty years ago in Glastonbury (population 9000) I helped set up a local internet messaging board. Today it has over 3200 members and there is a daily circulation of notices offering and asking for help. Community is supported. Strangers are connected.

Across the planet for minimal cost families communicate freely with loved ones.

All the world’s sacred texts are also freely available online.

All of this is a liberating information revolution that benefits everyone. In France access to the web is considered to be a basic human right and across the world societies are intent on bringing Web access to everyone.


Yes the web is filled with rubbish. Yes people’s privacy can be abused. But in my opinion it is good to look at and celebrate the miracle of global communications.

Right now if I were to recommend just one short book on how to understand and use the Internet it would be Social Media Explained  by Mark Schaefer. It is short, clear and highly readable. It is written for working people who know they have to come to grips with social media.  At its core is the often-asserted idea that the greatest benefit of the Internet is that it helps bring us back into personal relationships.

Schaefer points out that only two hundred years ago the major place for meeting, gossip, news and trade was the market place. It had the relationships and familiarity of a village. The processes of global industrialization however created a new social order in which the local market was lost. Everything became mediated through shops, marketing and advertising. We lost contact with each other.

But in our new digital world we once again trade and connect directly with each other. On Facebook and Twitter we can wave at people as if they were across the room. We can find other folk who share our interests and attitudes. On eBay we buy and sell, human to human.

The key to success in this world, says Mark Schaefer, is to be helpful and entertaining. In the old marketplaces and villages it was easy to discern if someone was a greedy or suspicious trader or neighbour because we watched and listened to them. The same rules apply in the twittersphere and social networks. The communications are personal and we take notice.

Another book that I recommend is The New Digital Age  by Eric Schmidt the founder of Google and Jared Cohen. They also take a creative and positive view. ‘Connectivity encourages and enables altruistic behaviour,’ they write. ‘The best thing anyone can do to improve the quality of life around the world is to drive connectivity and technological opportunity.’

This is all very important for us – and for the future.

We are living through a global revolution and it is of course necessary to be cautious.

But it is also necessary to build hope.

At my most hopeful the Global Brain is developing into a Global Heart.

So let us use this new global medium compassionately and mindfully for the benefit of all.


If you would like to read a more in-depth academic article on the Global Brain concept  see this PDF:  Francis Heylighen “Global Brain as a New Utopia” –

Breakthrough in Mainstream Thinking About Spirituality

December 2015
Many of you may have seen in today’s newspapers responses to the publication of the report from the Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life:  Living With Difference: community, diversity and the common good

Initiated by the Woolf Institute in Cambridge, the Commission involved senior figures from a variety of traditions. Like so much of the interfaith work of recent decades, the commission’s report could have been just an open-hearted model of good listening.

The report is open-hearted but more than that the authors demonstrate courageous vision and leadership. They face reality. They recognise the changing zeitgeist and the wide new diversity of contemporary society. They openly challenge and demand that the establishment catch up with social reality.

As many of you know, I have a vested interest in all this. A few years ago I put a lot of energy into a project to get ‘holistic’ written into the religion box on the last Census. We failed at getting high numbers. But this report shows how right we were in our direction.

If you do not read the whole report, it will I hope be helpful for you if I copy and paste the major recommendations of the report, which you can read below.

The whole report is to be found click here


From the Executive Summary of
The Commission on Religion and Belief in British Public Life

community, diversity and the common good

A national conversation should be launched across the UK by leaders of faith communities and ethical traditions to create a shared understanding of the fundamental values underlying public life. It would take place at all levels and in all regions.The outcome might be a statement of the principles and values which foster the common good, and which should underpin and guide public life.


Much greater religion and belief literacy is needed in every section of society, and at all levels. The potential for misunderstanding, stereotyping and oversimplification based on ignorance is huge.The commission therefore calls on educational and professional bodies to draw up religion and belief literacy programmes and projects, including an annual awards scheme to recognise and celebrate best practice in the media.


The pluralist character of modern society should be reflected in national and civic events so that they are more reflective of the UK’s increasing diversity, and in national forums such as the House of Lords, so that they include a wider range of worldviews and religious traditions, and of Christian denominations other than the Church of England.


All pupils in state-funded schools should have a statutory entitlement to a curriculum about religion, philosophy and ethics that is relevant to today’s society, and the broad framework of such a curriculum should be nationally agreed.The legal requirement for schools to hold acts of collective worship should be repealed, and replaced by a requirement to hold inclusive times for reflection.


Bodies responsible for admissions and employment policies in schools with a religious character (faith schools) should take measures to reduce selection of pupils and staff on grounds of religion.


The BBC Charter renewal should mandate the Corporation to reflect the range of religion and belief of modern society, for example by extending contributions to Radio 4’s daily religious  flagship Thought for the Day to include speakers from non-religious perspectives such as humanists.


A panel of experts on religion and belief should be established to advise the Independent Press Standards Organisation (IPSO) when there are complaints about the media coverage in this  field.


Relevant public bodies and voluntary organisations should promote opportunities for inter-religious and inter-worldview encounter and dialogue. Such dialogue should involve Dharmic as well as Abrahamic traditions, young people as well as older, women as well as men, and local groups as well as national and regional ones. Clergy and other opinion leaders should have a sound understanding of the traditions of religion and belief in modern society.


Where a religious organisation is best placed to deliver a social good, it should not be disadvantaged when applying for funding to do so, so long as its services are not aimed at seeking converts.


The Ministry of Justice should issue guidance on compliance with UK standards of gender equality and judicial independence by religious and cultural tribunals such as ecclesiastical courts, Beit Din and Sharia councils.


The Ministry of Justice should instruct the Law Commission to review the anomalies in how the legal definitions of race, ethnicity and religion interact in practice and make recommendations to ensure all religious traditions are treated equally.


In framing counter-terrorism legislation, the Government should seek to promote, not limit, freedom of enquiry, speech and expression, and should engage with a wide range of affected groups, including those with which it disagrees, and also with academic research. It should lead public opinion by challenging negative stereotyping and by speaking out in support of groups that may otherwise feel vulnerable and excluded.

The Delusion of Life Purpose

I met a bewildered woman. She was a successful civil servant in her forties who was waking up to her spirituality and had begun to attend some psychic development classes.

‘I just don’t know what I’m supposed to be doing with my life,’ she said. ‘I don’t seem to have a purpose.’
We started to have a conversation and it turned out that she had a family and was a senior manager in social services. She was a good person and she was doing good. But she now thought that being psychic and having clairvoyant experiences was the only meaningful way of living. She had stopped valuing her role as a carer, manager and parent. She was temporarily enchanted by the illusion that psychic experiences were more meaningful than being of service.
This reminded me of an old friend who once confessed that he was envious of my being a spiritual teacher and workshop leader. He himself was a financier with a sumptuous life style and I asked what it was about my life that he envied, expecting him to say that it was because my work was congruent with my soul or that it helped me to be centered. Instead, he started to describe how he saw my life as being a bit like a pop or movie star, with status and glamour. That, he felt, would bring him real satisfaction.
I winced with embarrassment. My model of a good spiritual teacher is not someone who is successful or well known, but someone who is quiet and hidden. I love the stories of the great Muslim mystics, the Sufi Masters, who work as cobblers and bakers. To find them, you have to look for the most invisible person in the crowd.
People are always trying to work out what they should be doing with their lives. But the more I look at this idea of having a life’s purpose, the more I think and feel that it is an illusion. Let me risk a wide-sweeping generalisation.
Everyone’s life purpose is the same.
Our purpose is to develop our compassion and consciousness until finally, in every single cell, we are completely and totally loving, awake and of benefit to all living beings.
Full stop.
One hundred per cent compassionate and conscious in every fibre of our being.
No buts or ifs. No waiting until we have found the right career. Being awake and compassionate is The Career!
Everybody knows this. It is at the core of all spiritual traditions.
So why is it that we so often get lost and confused and think we do not know our life’s purpose – when, in fact, we do know it?
So here are six thoughts that help me and may be of use to you too.
One – When something gives us pleasure, our basic survival instinct for self-gratification drives us to wanting more of it. So if we enjoy imagining a different type of life, we will start to desire the actual thing. Imagination and desire are normal parts of being human. Unfortunately, as the Buddha so helpfully reminded us, desire is the source of all suffering and a destructive emotion. So enjoy daydreaming about other possibilities, but don’t get hooked in by actually desiring them.
Two – Spiritual growth is not easy because we have to meet our wounded psychological selves in order to heal and integrate them — and this can be painful. Not surprisingly we have an instinct to avoid this pain, but this avoidance can then lead us away from true spiritual development. We look for easy solutions and finding our life’??s purpose is an easy sounding solution, like the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. The way forward here is courage and realism about the spiritual journey.
Three – Our brains are genetically hardwired to understand life through stories that have a plot and a conclusion. The basic story is hunt, gather, eat and survive. Ambiguous stories cause us anxiety. (How do you feel when you only know three quarters of a story?) We are therefore impatient to understand the plot and the ending of our own life stories. Again, we may look for simple solutions and reject the ambiguities of paradox, unknowing and mystery. The trick is to learn how to be and accept all of life’s conundrums.
Four – We all carry personal and collective karma, which can create almost unbearable feelings of negativity. Like infants we want the comfort and gratification that might come with success and material fulfilment. But no amount of success or riches from the right career will deliver satisfaction. Only through building a strong centre and learning the skills of self-healing will these internal hungry ghosts be integrated.
Five – Then there is a sense of being stifled and having creative talents that need to be fulfilled. Dealing with these feelings is a life art. There are no easy answers. Sometimes we need to explode and release ourselves into something new. Other times, we need patience and careful experimentation. And often we just need to accept that we are perfectly fine the way that we are.
Six – And then there is the great illusion that once we have achieved our life’s purpose and are in the right career we will feel fulfilled and content. But we are not islands. Is it possible to feel fulfilled when fellow creatures are still suffering? Are personal purpose and personal fulfilment inherently self-centred? It is probably more realistic to stay with the core message of Christ and with the Vow of the Bodhissatva Buddhas. This Vow states: We shall not rest until every being is liberated from suffering.
So here then is the possible life purpose for all of us — to become fully awake and compassionate; and to strive until all beings are free of suffering. Each in our own unique way, each in our own everyday lives.

Are Our Minds Useful or Useless?


This is one of the great debates in spirituality: are our minds useful or useless? The destroyer or the creator of illusion?

A few weeks ago my mind was definitely a problem. It was racing and I was having trouble slowing it down. Its speed had been triggered by some books and CDs I had received in the post that week, asking for my endorsement. They were all on the same subject, how to achieve material success; and they all claimed that they were spiritual.
As I looked at the books and CDs I reflected on why people still sent me stuff like this. Anyone who knows me, especially those looking for an endorsement, would know that I do not usually support this kind of material. It may give people temporary hope but it also, I believe, sets people up for disappointments and confuses material success with spiritual development.
Why were people still sending me this stuff? What kind of lesson was there here for me? Maybe, I thought, I was too critical and missing something. My mind started chewing on all this.
I was also preparing for a weekend workshop and I needed to plan some of the sessions, so I knew I needed to calm a bit. I settled down with Eckhart Tolle’s ‘A New Earth’ because I really like Eckhart’s balance and loving vibration.
However after about fifteen minutes, my thoughts were still speeding. I was now mentally arguing with Eckhart about his eastern approach to the mind, in which the mind is perceived as a creator of distress. This assessment of the human mind, I feel, does not appreciate how beautiful and creative the human mind can be. Shakespeare, for example, cannot be dismissed as lost in illusion. Nor Plato. Nor many others. This ignores their genius. (To be fair, Eckhart changes his tack on the mind later in his book.)
So there I was, now wrestling with Eckhart and the success-and-happiness authors — I’m a double Aquarian so enjoy a good tussle — when the telephone rang.
It was a journalist from The Independent and — hail the great goddess of synchronicity — they were doing a long piece on Eckhart for the Saturday colour supplement and wanted my opinion on him!
I centred and switched on my best mental attention. I then asked whether the paper was doing a serious or a sarcastic piece, and the journalist assured me it was serious. My mind did a quick acrobatic flip. I put the wrestling to the side.
I like Eckhart so much that I made an instant decision to say only supportive things. I particularly spoke up for how he encourages people to witness their actions and also to be aware of their bodies, and how he makes obscure eastern teachings accessible. And I managed to drop in that Eckhart asserts that happiness is not based on getting what you want, but comes from a state of consciousness and from being present to the wonder of life.
(A week later The Independent indeed carried a long and appreciative feature article, which was then lifted by the Daily Express who accused Eckhart of being in it for the money. Groan.)
After the telephone call I was buoyed up, amused by the ‘coincidence’ and feeling how lucky I was to be having such an enjoyable life. I was also thinking that I enjoyed thinking.
Human beings have this wonderful ability not just to imagine and to create, but also to rationally think about things. We can pause and ponder possibilities — and then make choices and take decisions. We can realise that we do not understand something and then go looking for information that will help us understand. (Why else do we continue to read books?)
‘Good’ thinking is one of the ways that we connect with and express the intelligence of the universe. In fact, Plato observed that the rational mind is proof that the soul exists.
Many eastern spiritual teachers accuse the human mind of being illusory and harmful, but they paradoxically use their own minds to create and present that very argument. Logically, if the mind is so harmful, how come all these spiritual teachers are using it too?
In my opinion, the mind, like all human attributes, is one of the great paradoxes of our existence, capable of both nobility and debasement — and a major tool, when used correctly, in spiritual development.
I finally achieved some mental calm later that day reading Karen Armstrong’s wonderful book ‘The Great Transformation’ in which she describes the historical changes in religion that took place around 600 years BC, when a general savagery was replaced by a spiritual philosophy that was more compassionate, thoughtful and benevolent. She hopes that something similar can happen now.
I do not often quote at length from someone else’s work in my column, but I feel her words are well worth the space and legitimate the spiritual genius of the human mind.
If the Buddha or Confucius had been asked whether he believed in God, he would probably have winced slightly and explained  with great courtesy  that this was not an appropriate question.
What mattered most was not what you believed but how you behaved. Religion was about doing things that changed you at a profound level.
The only way you could encounter what they called ‘God’, ‘Nirvana’, ‘Brahman’ or the ‘Way’was to live a compassionate life. Indeed religion was compassion.
First you must commit yourself to the ethical life. Then disciplined and habitual benevolence, not metaphysical conviction, would give you intimations of the transcendence you sought. This meant that you had to be ready to change. These sages were not interested in providing their disciples with a little edifying uplift, after which they could return with renewed vigour to their ordinary self-centred lives. Their objective was to create an entirely different kind of human being.
Those conclusions reached through careful thought and a compassionate heart.

Why We Do Good Things


My dad was sometimes very cynical. He claimed that people only do good because it makes them feel good. Any act of generosity according to him always has a self-centered motive. I remember when I was fourteen and a friend telephoned to say that she needed help looking after her mother who was ill. I immediately replied that I would go over and have never forgotten the look in my father’s eyes or the cool tone in his voice.
‘Don’t fool yourself that you’re doing it for her,’ he said. ‘There’s always self-gratification.’
Doing good and self-sacrificing for our families, for our clans and for our species, say some biologists, is a genetic and evolutionary imperative. They suggest that this is the instinctive drive of the ‘selfish gene’ ensuring that its gene pool survives, even to the cost of its host carrier. This is why, they say, that parents are prepared to sacrifice themselves for their children.
Similar to this, one of the most startling of all religious symbols is the sacrificial symbol of the Rosicrucians, a sixteenth century European mystical society. This symbol is of a pelican, pecking at the flesh on her chest in order to feed her young. This spiritual imperative to self-sacrifice, for many, is the core meaning of Christ on the cross, dying in order to redeem all God’s children. In fact, there are many traditions in which deities sacrifice themselves for the benefit of their communities.
So why do we do good? I don’t like the three answers that I have just described above.
  • Self-gratification
  • Genetic imperative
  • A religious impulse to self-sacrifice
They may all be part of the equation, but I prefer to think and to feel that something else is at work — something more direct and inspiring.
When Copernicus and Galileo said that the Earth was a spinning globe and that the sun was the centre of our system, their colleagues did not believe them. I can easily understand this because my actual second-by-second experience is that I am standing on something flat and stable. It is flat. It is not moving. Surely if the Earth were really spinning and orbiting through space at thousands of miles an hour, I would fall over or fall off. The reality is of course that, because of gravity, we do not experience or feel the movement.
But there are more profound and powerful dynamics in the cosmos than just spinning and orbiting. The universe exploded and emerged from some single incomprehensible event. In fact, everything in the cosmos is perpetually emerging, expanding, growing, developing, changing, flowering, contracting, recycling and re-birthing. We ourselves emerge from single cells to grow and expand. Plants emerge from seeds. These are universal dynamics.
But unlike the motions of the Earth, planets and Sun, which we do not feel, we can and do feel the dynamics of emergence, change and growth.
Within ourselves, if there is no flow, no flexibility and change, we experience physical or psychological stiffness and a loss of good health. When we are open, flexible and developing, we experience physical and emotional wellbeing.
It is the same with how we behave and feel towards those around us. If our feelings and behaviour are frozen, then it does not feel good. When our feelings and behaviour are flexible, supportive and creative, it feels good.
Generosity and service, helping things to grow — these activities put us in harmony with the fundamental dynamics of nature and the universe. It feels good to do good because we are then on the same frequency as spirit. We are cooperating with it, congruent with it, dancing it, enjoying it. This is so very different from behaviour that is frigid, greedy and obstructive.
When we live and behave with generosity, something happens within our chemistry and our consciousness. To be creative and in harmony with the thrust of existence feels good.
We do not do good because it brings self-gratification. We do good because that is part of the natural order of things. It is a way of being fully alive.
Of course, to cooperate with this creative cosmic dynamic is difficult when we are lost in illusion, frightened, hungry or insecure. But in times of crisis, heroes emerge who demonstrate poignant courage. Barack Obama’s life is one such inspiring story and I recommend both of his books. At the same time, I pray that the more negative forces of politics and history do not corrupt his instinct for service.
Doing good and being of service do not, however, have to be dramatic or visible. Just having a good attitude is of benefit. Moods and attitudes ripple through social networks “like pebbles thrown into a pond”, wrote Nicholas Christakis, a professor of sociology at Harvard Medical School, in a recent British Medical Journal. ‘A friend who lives within a mile (about 1.6 km) and who becomes happy increases the probability that a person is happy by 25%.’ His research over a twenty-year period with over four thousand people concluded ‘People’s happiness depends on the happiness of others with whom they are connected. This provides further justification for seeing happiness, like health, as a collective phenomenon.’
Being of service to our communities, being congruent with the fundamental dynamics of emergence and change, then is not just about overt and recognised acts of benevolence. Doing good is crucially about the type of people we are and the ripples that we send out into the pond.