New UK Register of Spiritual Caregivers

 

An unusual blog from me.

Below you will see the full text of a Press Release that has just been sent out to UK media by Will Gethin of Conscious Frontiers. 

I am hoping, as you read it, you will understand its significance. There will be follow-up eLetters from me about the UK Register of Spiritual Caregivers and the Compassion Dialogues. 

The biggest and most useful support you can give is through sharing the news with friends and colleagues 🙏

PRESS RELEASE – FOR PUBLICATION

UK’s first Register of Spiritual Caregivers is now available

A focussed resource for the ‘Spiritual Not Religious’ community, the new Register denotes a quiet revolution in the UK’s religious-spiritual landscape

Launch of monthly ‘Compassion Dialogue’ webinars begins 9 November, featuring Dr Robert Holden

 

The growing community of people who identify as spiritual-not-religious now has its own register of spiritual caregivers.

Initiated by the Spiritual Companions Trust, the new UK Register of Spiritual Caregivers – launched today on Tuesday 26 October – represents a formal step to achieve parity with traditional faith communities, whose carers can work voluntarily or professionally in healthcare, education, prisons and other relevant sectors.

Dr William Bloom, CEO of the Spiritual Companions Trust, says: ‘Our intention is for our new Register of Spiritual Caregivers to provide a complementary service to the compassionate care already given by the carers and chaplains belonging to traditional religious communities. We admire and respect the provision of traditional religious carers and will work cooperatively with them in all situations where people are in distress, suffering or seeking spiritual support.’

 Just how many people in Britain are in the spiritual-not-religious community is difficult to estimate. The most recent research conducted by the Pew Foundation in the United States indicates that 27% of the US population aligns with that identity.* The World Values Survey indicates similar numbers for all societies where there is a high degree of education and political freedom.** Research in 2013 indicated that about a fifth of people in the UK fitted into this category and, according to Professor Michael King of University College London, were more prone to mental health challenges.*** Indications from the recent UK Census indicate that increasing numbers are leaving traditional religions but are not identifying as agnostic or atheist.****

There will of course be people who dispute the research, but it is certainly clear that “spiritual but not religious” represents a major strand of belief across the West. 

The UKRSC will give this community access to spiritual carers who are aligned with their beliefs. At the same time, it gives providers of care and education, such as hospitals and universities, a reliable register of skilled people who can step into voluntary and professional roles associated with pastoral care and chaplaincy.

The UKRSC already has 70 members on its register, who can be found here: https://spiritualcompanions.org/find-an-sc/

According to the UKRSC the core skill needed by a spiritual carer is to be an impeccable and compassionate listener.

“The heart of spiritual care,” says Dr Bloom, “is to be a quiet and benevolent presence, always engaged and listening.” The first requirement therefore for members of the Register is that they have received a full training and achieved a qualification that includes rigorous and compassionate listening skills. This will include qualified counsellors, psychotherapists, medics, nurses and social workers. The second crucial requirement of the UKRSC is that their members have an open-hearted and open-minded approach to spirituality and are always willing to support any client in exploring their own person-centred approach to spirituality.

The UKRSC is a project of the Spiritual Companions Trust, an educational charity that pioneered the first mainstream vocational qualification in spirituality and health (Crossfields Institute Level 3 Diploma in Practical Spirituality & Wellness – Ofqual Register Qual No: 601/8673/2 Sector Subject Area: Health and Social Care).

Applications to be registered on the UKRSC are open now and can be submitted here: https://spiritualcompanions.org/join-ukrsc/

 

The Compassion Dialogues

To complement the launch of the register and provide relevant support, the UKRSC is hosting a monthly webinar, The Compassion Dialogues. Each webinar will feature a guest specialising in a particular field of care, who will be interviewed by Spiritual Companions Trust CEO, Dr William Bloom. Each conversation will explore how the guest first became interested in spiritual care, and their best insights and practices for delivering it.

Dr Robert Holden — Compassion & Forgiveness in Everyday Life — 9 November

Lisa Anthony — Caring for Students, Teachers, Patients and Clients — 14 December

Simon Stedman — Mainstream Business, Utopian Communities & Suicide Help Lines — 11 January

Kate Spohrer — End of Life and Green Funerals — 8 February

Prof Paul Gilbert — The Compassionate Mind — 8 March

 

These webinars are open to the public and are being held by donation.

 

More information about this series and the speakers can be found here: https://spiritualcompanions.org/compassiondialogues

 

William Bloom is available for interview. Contact: william@spiritualcompanions.org

For other media enquiries and to request press images, please contact Diana Brown, the Spiritual Companions Trust administrator: diana@spiritualcompanions.org

 

Resources for Editors

This press release and relevant photographs can be found in a Dropbox folder here:

https://www.dropbox.com/sh/qkjc8vc2h6at6af/AAB0iBzY60LqCCDNVXVvHXTya?dl=0

 

Notes to Editors

Asterisked are the links to evidence for the size of the spiritual not religious community. 

*     https://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2017/09/06/more-americans-now-say-theyre-spiritual-but-not-religious/

**   https://www.worldvaluessurvey.org/WVSContents.jsp

*** https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/magazine-20888141

**** https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2021/mar/28/the-guardian-view-on-post-christian-britain-a-spiritual-enigma

 

More information: spiritualcompanions.org

 

Vaccines Culture Wars – Creative or Suffering – How We Think Really Matters

Am just back from my motorbike journey to Wales and Scotland. I had a good time.

I walked up and down Snowdon. (My legs! Arghh.) The landscape of Snowdonia has a brilliantly happy vibe, full of joy. 

Scotland too was beautiful and the stay at the Findhorn Foundation inspirational.  The over-lighting spirit of the place is as strong and loving as ever, but the community members are understandably still orienting themselves following the effects of lockdown and the fires. I was intrigued by how they decide their next steps and make their policy decisions. This is always a challenge in utopian communities. Talking with Findhorn members set me thinking. . .

So here is one of my longer pieces – with a few diagrams to help illustrate my thoughts. It is all about thinking. Some thinking creates suffering.  And some thinking creates enjoyable flow. 

The Survival Dynamic

Here is an obvious idea. Our thoughts often have an emotional investment. This means that we want them to be respected, welcomed and appreciated.  And we feel threatened and aroused if our thoughts are disrespected or challenged.  

This is a good illustration of the Buddhist teaching that ‘desire is the source of suffering.’

We desire that our thoughts be respected. If our desire is not met, we experience suffering.

Thoughts + Feelings  = Emotional Investment  =  Arousal if disrespected or challenged.

The current arguments around covid vaccinations are uncomfortable examples of how unpleasant emotionally invested thinking can be. The power of the emotional charge can be intense. 

In a different world there could be a relaxed conversation between vaccine sceptics and vaccine advocates. This could be similar to how cooks might debate the best recipe for chocolate cake. The discussion could be passionate and noisy, but filled with creativity, flow and friendship.  

The crucial triggering difference between emotional thinking and friendly creative thinking is the instinctive biological dynamic of threat and survival.

In emotional thinking there is always an unconscious dynamic at work.  When our opinions are challenged, the vagal nerve is aroused. The gut becomes uncomfortable and acidic. Heart rate loses its integrity and breath loses its natural rhythm. The  brain goes into the electrochemistry of fight/flight. The endocrine system ditches its cocktail of wellbeing hormones and releases a flood of anxiety neuropeptides. 

As a result clear thinking is impossible. Feelings overwhelm the ability to be rational. Conversation becomes conflict.

Unconscious Triggers

 When people with an emotional investment in their thinking are challenged or disrespected, there is an instinctive arousal as they unconsciously perceive a threat to their survival. But why do people feel such a primal emotion when there is no actual attempt to kill them? 

My doctoral research was in identity politics and how we become glued to our sense of self.  This sense of identity can be so powerful that we may be prepared to die for it.  We can see this throughout history where people volunteer for death to maintain their ideology, religion and nationality.

The power of this sense of identity comes from the social and psychological safety it provides.  Think of any cultural clan — lads, ladettes, greens, tories, bikers, Trump-ists, Obama-ists, bankers, goths, billionaires, vegans  — and notice the psychological glue that binds them to that identity. It is not superficial. Through the processes of identification, internalisation and socialisation, it develops into a deep biological and neural groove.  Our identity provides a primal sense of security,  a compensatory  safety in a world where most infants, children, teenagers and adults experience endless micro-aggressions and mini-traumas, as well as full blown abuse.

Enmeshed in this sense of self are our ideas and our opinions.  Any challenge to our thinking can therefore be experienced as a threat to our identity and to our survival. Disrespect my clan and you disrespect me. 

In my home town of Glastonbury I know people who were once friends, but now avoid each other because of their disagreements over vaccines. On both sides they are so emotionally invested in their thinking that the biological imperatives of survival are triggered the moment they start discussing the topic. We can clearly see this too in politics, community processes, religion, identity and culture wars. These types of argument are deeply confrontational and uncomfortable.

Education, Mindfulness and Emotional Intelligence

One solution of course is good education. Education not knowledge. 

At its best education teaches us how to enjoy thinking, how to explore and develop knowledge. Opinions based in beginner’s knowledge mature into thoughtful explorations, knowing that there is always new knowledge. New thoughts and perspectives are harvested through conversation, research, contemplation and being open to new insights. The further we go in education the more we appreciate the elasticity and infinite scope of knowledge and ideas.  

Mindfulness and meditation are useful too. They provide strategies that help us work with the feelings that may be triggered by challenging thoughts. Sitting in the calm of meditation we can bring into our awareness those thoughts that usually provoke and trigger us. Vaccines. Governments. Global warming. Difficult family members. Identity politics. Trump. The meditation strategy is straightforward:

We bring the provocative thought into our awareness.

We notice the uncomfortable arousal.

We compassionately welcome the feeling.  We breathe into it.  We calm and integrate it.

In this way we train our body and neural grooves to stay calm when experiencing challenge.

Noticing these feelings and managing them wisely is the heart of emotional intelligence.

*

The first year groundhog day problem

Psychotherapy of course can be very helpful too in disengaging our thoughts from the unconscious, instinctive arousals of threat and survival. 

Imagine if politicians — for example the Labour Party extreme left or the Conservatives extreme right — enjoyed the benefits of psychotherapy. They would learn to have some distance from their feelings, opinions and glued-in identities. Emotional devotion to ideologies would be a thing of the past.

This approach would also be relevant to religious gatherings, conclaves and synods, so that fundamentalists would temper their passions.

But there can also be a negative side to psychotherapy when it comes to conflict and disagreements. 

I have experienced this in psychotherapy training centres, in intentional communities and in many couples. When discussing hot topics, we can get caught up in endlessly recycling our emotions. We can justify this by asserting that the release of our emotions is not only therapeutically beneficial, but also a vital and ‘authentic’ part of group process. 

This is what I call the ‘first year groundhog day problem.’

In psychotherapy and counselling trainings, the first year is usually about helping students recognise that emotions and feelings are driven by unconscious dynamics. In the first year we learn to identify and express these feelings, rather than deny and repress them.  Feel it – Express it – Release it.

In the second, third and fourth years, we then become skilled in recognising, managing and maturing these unconscious dynamics.  

But some folk stay stuck in the first year, endlessly recycling their emotions, justifying their behaviour as necessary and healthy, when in fact it is immature.  In this scenario groups, organisations and couples get stuck in emotional process. There is little clear thinking and painfully slow progress. 

This does not mean that there is no space for creative passion, especially in the face of abuse and injustice. But this passion needs to be conscious and guided by clear, reflective thinking. 

There is a place for emotional process. 

And there is a place for intelligent discussion. 

It can be difficult and exhausting to do them together.

The Spiritual Perspective 

In spiritual development, clean thinking without emotional attachment is a crucial stage on the journey towards more love, more compassion and more connection with the great mystery and beauty of life. It is about the expansion of consciousness and wisdom. 

In inadequate language, we might describe this as moving from lower to higher mind, from small to big mind. This means an expanding awareness of what our minds and hearts can access, perceive and cognise.

As a first step in consciousness expansion, it is absolutely necessary that we are able to step back, and observe ourselves with love and compassion. We watch our feelings and thoughts.  We witness.  We empty.  We expand. We reflect. The rational, higher mind, Plato suggested, is proof of the human soul.

Talking with my colleagues and students over the years, and from personal experience, I know that this is tough spiritual practice — being awake, being observant and compassionate, being embodied and aware, being comfortable with unknowing, being mindful and fully in the heart. 

This aspect of spirituality requires passionate motivation, discipline and a willingness to flow gracefully with the tides of the natural, psychological and spiritual worlds.

*

So where does this leave us in the real world? 

It leaves us with the normal disciplines of being a better person. 

It reminds us to contain our emotional processes and guide them into suitable contexts. 

It reminds us that so many of humanity’s problems and abuses originate in bad thinking – thinking that is fuelled by unconscious and primal drives.

 We need those teachers who clap their hands a few inches from our faces and exclaim:  Wake up!

Moment by moment we are invited to be conscious and aware. This is not stern and earnest behaviour. It is beautiful and enlightening. Each breath brings new patterns.

*

I hope that is helpful.

Thinking in progress . . .

Follow Your Blissters Podcast

My friend Will Gethin has a great series of podcasts exploring the theme of The hero’s Journey. Ironically and realistically he has named his podcasts ‘Follow Your Blissters’.

In bi-weekly episodes, Will interviews people about their experience of living out The Hero’s Journey in their lives. His first interviews include Thomas Moore and Tim Freke. And he has just uploaded his interview with me. His burb includes this text: ‘In this interview, we uncover William’s intriguing journey from novelist, propagator of Sixties counterculture, honorary Hells Angel and academic to trailblazing pioneer of the modern UK holistic movement.’

You will find Will’s podcasts here: https://consciousfrontiers.com/podcast/

Three Reasons People Fall Asleep in Meditation – and Solutions

Over the decades that I have been teaching and leading meditation there is a common problem that arises. People fall asleep when meditating.

Here are three possible causes and their solutions.

 

Fatigue

The first challenge is straightforward.  People are tired and when they give their bodies the opportunity to be still and at ease, their bodies follow a natural instinct and slip into slumber.

There are two solutions. The simple one is do not meditate when you are tired. Timing will vary. For instance, some people have energy after eating, but others need a nap. Some people can easily meditate when they get home from work; others need a meal and a rest. Some people also need to make adjustments according to the time of year and seasons. You need to understand what works best for you in terms of timing and your circadian rhythms.

The other solution is less straightforward. Many people experience a general fatigue due to their lifestyle. Too much work. Too much fun. Too much family. Whatever the reason, falling asleep in meditation is a prompt to tweak how you are living. Your body is dropping into sleep in order to make up for the stress from the rest of your life. The solution here may be troubling or a very useful nudge: change your lifestyle.

 

Dissociation and Avoidance

A second reason for why people fall asleep in meditation is more subtle and sensitive. When people meditate and drop into a sense of calm and being at ease, they may start to experience bodily sensations that are due to muscle and cellular memory. These sensations, which may be very subtle, are often related to trauma and injury. So it is natural that people will want to avoid these negative feelings and reliving the unpleasant experience. Falling asleep is a good strategy to avoid the pain.

In worst case examples, people who were abused as children may, during their abuse, have dissociated from their bodies. This is a poignant but effective escape and survival mechanism. It is as if their consciousness absented itself from their bodies and the traumatic experience. So later in life, in meditation, as old memories surface, they follow the same survival pattern that they used in childhood. They dissociate and fall asleep.

This is obviously tender material and requires careful compassionate attention. If people feel that this may be their case, then there are two ways forward. The first is to recognise what is happening and use the meditative practice of deep self-compassion to address the painful history. This strategy only works if the meditator is strong, balanced and able to turn up the volume on self-compassion.

The second method is to engage with a therapist or meditation teacher who understands how histories of trauma are held in the body. In the last two decades there has been a useful growth in body-based psychotherapy.

 

Stodgy and Inert Energy

A third reason why people may fall asleep in meditation is that their mind, emotions and body are stodgy and not in flow. This can be an understandably uncomfortable realisation.

Especially as people sink into being at ease or, practice techniques in which they connect down into the Earth, then it can feel as if their energy and vitality clog up like slow treacle. This is like taking a sleeping pill or sedative. The brain feels heavy. Morpheus and Hypnos, the gods of sleep, magnetically attract people into slumber.

The solution to this problem is systemic. The whole system needs to be freed up into a more fluid state of movement.

Inside meditation this can be achieved by doing exercises frequently taught, for example, in Qi Gung and Kabballah. Sense and guide energy up and down, through and around the body, varying the circulation and speed.

At the same time people can review their diets and general exercise regimes. Reduce foods that sedate instead of vitalise. Move your body in expansive movements. Check that you are flexible in your emotional and mental stances.

Meditation is more than silence and emptiness

There is an exciting dimension to meditation, which is often ignored or even dismissed. This is the exploration of altered states of consciousness, and mystic and psychic experiences.

There are several reasons for this omission. The first is a misunderstanding of the Buddhist idea of emptiness. Western interpretations have dumbed down sunyata (Sanskrit), a complex concept that attempts to describe meditators’ calm experience of infinite unknowing. This has been inaccurately interpreted to mean a void in which there is nothing but silence and emptiness. In fact, the void of sunyata is an infinite space that harmoniously includes and contains everything.  

(Representation of the observable universe on a logarithmic scale by Unmismoobjetivo – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0)

A second reason for ignoring the spirituality and metaphysics of meditation has been a utilitarian move to present meditation as a safe secular practice that soothes and supports wellbeing. The fear in education and medicine is that the metaphysical aspects of meditation will sabotage its mainstream acceptance.

A third related reason is a cultural snobbery around spiritual and psychic experiences, which are often judged as naive or, worse, a possible symptom of mental illness. So, many meditators keep quiet about their spiritual experiences, not wanting to be the targets of unpleasant comment.

This distrust of meditation’s metaphysics is often supported by a famous story about an experienced meditation teacher and an enthusiastic student.

Enthusiastic student: My meditation was amazing! I saw angels and fantastic colours! I heard a voice and felt the vibration of liberated beings!

Teacher: Be quiet. All that will pass.

(Photo Dharma from Sadao, Thailand – 018 Devas in Heaven, CC BY 2.0)

This fable is often used to assert that all psychic phenomena in meditation are irrelevant figments of the imagination and distractions.

But that is not the real lesson of the story.

The actual teaching is more important: whatever the experience, meditators need to maintain a state of watchful, calm and compassionate equanimity.

Inside this composed mood, meditators can then observe all phenomena with a kind but detached curiosity, and assess the usefulness and value of whatever has arisen. Importantly they can also discern whether the phenomena are creations of their own psyches or are external realities; and if the phenomena are indeed creations of their own psyches, they can reflect on why they have arisen.

The story about the teacher and student does not tell students to dismiss all phenomena. It tells them to observe with equanimity whatever arises.

We can immediately see here the psychological value of mature meditation. Mindful curiosity allows meditators to calmly engage with their experiences. The sensations and memories, for example, of traumatic events can be witnessed as they emerge as thoughts, feelings and subtle sensations. Tranquil breath and self-care then enable a healing process of acceptance and integration.

(Francesco Botticini – The Assumption of the Virgin)

Beyond this internal psychological dimension, there are also the external spaces accessed in altered states of consciousness. This is where meditation starts to be a whole lot of fun. But I need to be crystal clear. At the risk of repetition, exploration of these psychic dimensions has to be practised with compassionate equanimity. Perceptions and experiences are always balanced with reflective and sceptical detachment. Otherwise the result can be dissociation into a psychic Disneyland.

That said, the cosmos and its subtle dimensions are full of interesting phenomena, beings and experiences. Our psyches are totally free to explore the cosmic environment. This is the greater ecosystem. Big bang. Time. Consciousness. Gaia. Christ. The Divine Feminine. These are just hints at what the meditative psyche may explore. Exploration expands consciousness and connection.

Remember that Buddhist paintings of meditation and its inner realms are not empty but filled with strange beings.

Humans are never freer than when the psyche is in meditation. Any limits are only self-imposed and do not come from external agents. (Trust meditation teachers who empower you to explore!)

In exploring these metaphysical realms it is useful for practitioners to understand their own levels of psychic sensitivity and their own psychological tendencies. I often think that the differences between the many schools of meditation come from their founders’ different levels of psychic sensitivity. For example, if practitioners are not at all psychic, then because they do not have the same experiences, they may naturally be sceptical of psychic phenomena. At the same time, those who are naturally psychic often need to discipline themselves, so as not to get lost or distracted by their perceptions. Equally meditators who possess busy minds need to calm their endless interpretations.

In my classes I often ask for a show of hands to find out where people are located on a spectrum of psychic sensitivity. We then unpack together how this influences their meditative experiences.

In a recent training for meditation teachers, there were some colleagues who were very psychic and always perceiving beings from other dimensions. Other colleagues were more oriented towards ‘melting’ into a sense of unity with all that is. The conversation between the two groups was very helpful in highlighting how these differences influence our experience of meditation. That said, there was never disagreement about the core requirement of calm equanimity, or that spiritual growth is always about compassion, connection and consciousness.

The Indian sage Patanjali (500-400 BC) described the subtle phenomena of meditation as coming from an ‘over-shadowing cloud of spiritual knowledge’ or a ‘raincloud of knowable things.’

When meditators start to describe their metaphysical experiences, it can be problematic for sceptics, triggering warnings of naivete, delusion and possible mental illness. This is understandable. There are indeed delusions.

My response is to be reassuring to that caution.

Meditation is not an empty void but an expansive ocean. Therefore practitioners are continuously developing the skills of perception, discernment and interpretation.

Cosmic curiosity — exploring metaphysical dimensions — is healthy, positive and developmental. 

(For a relevant online workshop on this theme click here)