The Spirit of Findhorn

 

Two decades ago I wrote a short article about the ‘Spirit of Findhorn’ for Network News. I forgot about it until last week when a conference organiser at the Findhorn Foundation asked me whether they could reprint that article to help promote their coming Autumn conference. I replied. ‘Yes of course you can.’

Re-reading the article I quite like it still. Most of all, however, I find myself pondering how I am also in an awkward situation. On the one hand I am deeply involved in a project to mainstream a holistic and person-centred approach to spirituality; so I have to appear acceptable and sensible. (Great I have a Ph.D. from LSE etc.) On the other hand I have written a book on angels and fairies, and here I am too writing an article about the angel of Findhorn. (Whoops. This is a bit woo-woo and flaky and bonkers.)

So this is what I say to people who are snobbish and sarcastic about fairies and angels. I say to them: Have you never felt the beauty of landscape? Have you never felt the presence of a tree or mountain or river or ocean or cathedral? Where is your poetic imagination ? Why do you lock yourself in a realm devoid of mystery and imagination? Etcetera!

What follows is my original piece for Findhorn. If you are interested in their Autumn conference click here
On the other hand you might want to join me for the Diploma in Practical Spirituality and Wellness that I am leading at Findhorn starting in October in four four-day slots. More info here

 

THE SPIRIT OF FINDHORN

People often ask me about visiting Findhorn and I also often have an intuition that people need to visit Findhorn. I also often find myself saying this:

“Even if the workshop is rubbish, even if the workshop facilitators are rubbish, you will nevertheless have an extraordinary experience. There is a spirit to the place that transcends and permeates even the worst events.”

This, I know, can sound like faint praise. But it also acknowledges one of the most important realities about the Findhorn foundation: It has an extraordinary and wonderful spirit.
The spirit of Findhorn. What do we mean by this? We mean that there is some kind of mythical and energetic being, some essence, which is at the very core of the place. This spirit of Findhorn can equally be called the ‘over-lighting angel’ of the place.

In tribal societies, in classical Rome and Athens, there was no problem about discussing the spirits, gods and goddesses, and angels. Every activity had a spirit. Every place had a spirit. Athens was over-lit by the great angel and goddess, Athena. There is a myth that this being went on to over-light Constantinople and then London.

If a flower can be over-lit and coloured by a fairy, if a mountain can have its huge and sweeping mountain spirit, why can’t a wonderful human community also have its angel? Anyone with the slightest sensitivity, if they choose to sit in silence and to open their psychic awareness, immediately feels and senses this presence that permeates and over-lights everything at Findhorn.

When I first came to Findhorn and sat in the sanctuary, I swooned at the magnificence and beauty and healing nature of this wonderful angelic presence that is companion to the whole community.
Sometimes people forget that a human community is also an eco-system, as fantastic and complex as anything in the Amazon rain forest. And like any eco-system, it has its nature spirits. Human beings are, despite appearances in the industrialised world, not separate from nature and Gaia. We are part of nature and we too have our great nature spirits that work with us, as individuals and as communities.

I would dare to suggest that the Angel of Findhorn has a magnificent history of being involved with human communities. Within her energy field she carries lovingly tolerant and understanding patterns of how humans can behave and inspiring blueprints of how fully perfect this community can be.

Even the most cynical of visitors may quickly become seduced by the quality of silence at Findhorn. What is this quality? It is the atmosphere of the Angel’s energy field inspiring us to something new and more loving.

Every time I visit Findhorn, I am touched, moved and educated not only by the people, but by the ever present spirit of the place. I am grateful and I seek to encourage everyone and anyone to enjoy a similar relationship.

For the Findhorn Co-Creative Spirituality Conference:
https://www.findhorn.org/programmes/co-creative-spirituality/

For the Diploma in Practical Spirituality & Wellness:
https://www.findhorncollege.org/programmes/applied-spirituality.php

Self-Care for Medics

Preventative Medicine and the Inner Smile

This is a chapter I wrote for Andrew Tresidder’s book for doctors, nurses and other healthcare professionals Health and Self-Care: Inner Balance for an Effective Life for Health Professionals. 

You can download a full PDF of the book here https://healthandself.care

*

Visiting my GP a little while ago he began talking with me about his own health. This was not unusual as we had known each other for twenty years and he had read my self-help book The Endorphin Effect. He was committed to a holistic approach and believed that good medicine enabled patients into self-care.

‘If only I had practised what I preach,’ he said wryly, ‘I would have caught my own condition much earlier and probably avoided surgery. ’

We then chatted for a while about the archetype of the wounded healer and the self-sacrificing hero; and that medics have a calling to relieve the suffering of others, but not themselves. Self-care is hardly on the clinical map and hardly possible in a busy day.

‘You could do the self-examination in the bath or lying in bed or even commuting to work,’ I nudged. ‘You know exactly where to scan.’

He sighed. He agreed. He then had to see more patients and I left.

*

The interesting thing for me about clinicians is that of all people you know how to scan a body for signs of ill health. You know the crucial importance of early diagnosis and appropriate adjustments in behaviour, diet, exercise and life style. But you rarely do it for yourself.When you examine patients you get a quick sense of their state from their body posture, skin tone, breathing and the state of their eyes. But you rarely do it for yourself.With careful hands and appropriate kit you touch, push, look, listen and feel. You know all the signs of ill health. But . . .

More than that, before any physical examination you ask the core question, ‘How do you feel?’ But . . .

Again – and I know that I am repeating myself but it bears this repetition –because it is your profession you know exactly what to scan for and what signs are important, but in failing to self-examine you continually risk your own physical and mental health.

So. How do you feel?

Your main piece of kit here is your own mental ability to scan, sense and cognise what it feelslike inside your body. This requires the self-discipline of an intentional pause and then deliberately focusing down into your own physicality.

This sensory, felt awareness of yourself is crucial. It is the sovereign individual who alone can really know and experience their own state; and is able to self-assess and catch early signs of threatening symptoms. Who else can notice those signals that require just a tad of relevant adjustment: a bit more exercise, regular stretching, earlier nights, less caffeine, better food, more fresh air?

Being very serious and also pragmatic, surely the long-term viability of the NHS is based in this self-awareness, early diagnosis and preventative self-care.

*

Self-care as preventative medicine is not of course a new model. Indeed in classical Chinese medicine the art of being in a friendly clinical relationship with your own body is considered the foundation of good health. There is even a clear set of instructions on precisely how to conduct this practice. At its heart is a relaxed and friendly bedside manner towards your own physicality.

Sometimes this self-care practice is translated from Chinese as The Inner Smile, which may sound quirky to a cynical ear, a prime candidate for a bad science award. But unpack the Inner Smile tolerantly and we can see that it meshes extremely well with a modern understanding of the integration of brain, nervous system, endocrine system and gut ecology.

The Inner Smile is in fact a good example of psychoneuroimmunology (PNI) and polyvagal theory put into practice.  The practitioner is advised to do it daily, when the body is at ease, with a particular focus on letting the abdomen drop down and sink into relaxation. With a calm and friendly attitude the practitioner then conducts an internal scan, especially checking in on all the major organs and noticing how they feel. Moreover the practitioner is asked to come into a direct and personal relationship with each organ, greeting it with a smile.

Is this hippy-dippy? Anyone with the slightest knowledge of mind-body anatomy and PNI will understand that this internal focus triggers signals from the brain through the nervous system into the endocrine system. It is crucial therefore that the practitioner’s attitude be friendly. If the self-examination is conducted with a purely clinical, impatient or, worst, an inquisitorial attitude, the message triggered in the neuro-endocrinal system will be that of threat, thereby precipitating the production of cortisol and adrenalin. If however the attitude is friendly and comfortingly parental then the neural signal is reassuring and soothing, triggering a cocktail of wellbeing hormones: endorphins, oxytocin and serotonin. Just as an external caring parent can do wonders for our health, so an internal caring persona can have a similar positive effect.

Scanning with the Inner Smile then serves two purposes.

  • It brings into conscious awareness the felt state of your own body; early diagnosis leading to appropriate early intervention.
  • It self-soothes, relaxing and opening up tissue, integrating heart rate variability, settling and balancing gut ecology — all of which support general good health and a strong immune system.

Done on a daily basis the benefits are obvious.

*

But people are predictably human and, despite how sensible and positive this practice is, there is resistance to adopting it. I opened this piece with that conversation with my GP who was bemoaning that he had not followed his own advice and caught an early diagnosis on his own illness. He provides an excellent example of the many clinicians and carers who fail to self-care even though they know precisely how to do it and how beneficial it is for them.

So why is there this resistance? Why do professionals who preach self-care and the importance of early intervention completely ignore their own advice? In my opinion it is good to be realistic about the sources of this self-sabotage, because recognising them makes them easier to manage. So here are a few possibilities. See which ones might apply to you:

 

WHY I DON’T SELF-CARE

  • Can’t break old habits
  • New behaviour to learn
  • It wasn’t in my training
  • Embarrassing and awkward to care for self
  • Internalised authority figure judging you for appearing soft and narcissistic
  • Pretend there is not enough time
  • Frightened to look at what might be wrong
  • Addicted to role of stoic hero and healer
  • Scared of feeling feelings
  • Lazy and lack discipline
  • Depressed and no motivation

Those are all extremely good and normal reasons for avoiding self-care.

What therefore might motivate someone to push through the resistance? We could just wait for a harsh health crisis to prod you into action – the stick. Or — and I write this carefully after decades of experience in the field — you could just exercise sensible self-discipline,similar to washing your hands after the loo. I have led hundreds of trainings and I really know that other than the unpleasant shock of a severe illness, the only thing that seems to work is a disciplined rhythm that ultimately, like hand-washing, becomes a part of your normal life style. The carrots of self-care and early intervention are obvious.

*

To summarise.

Be encouraged as a professional by the skills and knowledge you already bring to self-care.

YOUR SKILLS AND KNOWLEDGE

  • Physiology
  • Body awareness
  • Necessity of early intervention
  • Good bedside manner
  • High awareness of the basic strategies for general good health
  • High awareness of the immediate ameliorating strategies for specific health challenges
  • Importance of modelling self-care for others
  • Congruence
  • Scientific understanding of the neuro-endocrinal mechanism and benefits of the Inner Smile self-care practice

 

And do the practice.

INNER SMILE SELF-CARE

  • Daily — perhaps in bed; lunch break; watching television; whenever suits you
  • Allow your body to sink down into being at ease
  • Let your abdomen slump and let your breath soften
  • Switch on the attitude of good bedside manner, like a friendly parent
  • Focus down into your own body and scan it
  • In whatever sequence works for you, give awareness to and feel into each organ and each region; sense into your systems
  • Notice how it all feels and the indications
  • Think about the appropriate health benefiting activities
  • Action the appropriate health benefiting activities

 

The long-term benefits for you and your community are immense.

*

You can download a full PDF of Andrew Tresidder’s book here https://healthandself.care

Gut and Nirvana

What is the connection between the state of your gut and spiritual wisdom?

If you are up-to-speed with developments in medicine you will know that there is substantial evidence now for the health connection between the lower intestine and the brain. This is so well evidenced that some hospitals are performing poo transplants, replacing unhealthy with healthy faeces. The condition of the gut is implicated in so many illnesses. Some of them are obvious, such as inflammatory bowel disease, obesity and cancer. Some are more unexpected such as autism, Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other mental health conditions.

Spiritual traditions have known about the gut’s importance for millennia. You can see it expressed in drawings and sculptures of many goddess figures and Buddhas. These images show a contented being with a large but very comfortable belly.

In most traditions of meditation, self-healing and internal martial arts, there is clear guidance to be at ease in our abdomens – to ground, centre and earth our bodies. When we do this, our stomachs relax and sink. There is a shift in our physical and mental states. We become calm in our bodies. Our centre of gravity drops down into our abdomen and is no longer in the chest or head. The feeling is good and comfortable. From this stable and agreeable state we can then meditate and do our spiritual practices more effectively.

The teaching is always the same. Be centred and at ease in your body. In martial arts and classical Japanese medicine there is a single word for this state – hara. To be in hara means to be grounded down in your body and at the same time kind and mindful.
All of this points to a very clear traditional understanding of mind-body-spirit integration.

This connection between the gut and our psychological state is so clearly demonstrated in anxiety and tension. When we are anxious our gut is tense, acidic and its microbes unbalanced. Our heartbeat is not integrated. Our breath is uncomfortable. Our brains are over-stimulated and it is difficult to think straight. We may sweat or shake or feel nauseous.

Most spiritual traditions teach the same quick and efficient way to manage that horrible state. It is very simple: belly breaths. These are soft, slow and calm breaths down into the abdomen. Just two or three soft breaths can work wonders.
These gentle abdominal breaths send reassuring messages through our neuro-endocrinal system. They are a signal that we are in control and consciously self-managing. Get your abdomen to be at ease – and it will ripple through your whole body, calming your heart, breath and brain.

But for me there is more to it than just the physical and mental wellbeing. There is also an important spiritual dimension. This is the crucial concept that the spiritual purpose of being human is to manifest love and compassion, and to become fully mindful and conscious. I am sure that many of my readers align with this philosophy: we are here to embody love.

And one thing is certain. If we are a bag of nerves, dealing with the frantic arousals of survival and anxiety, we cannot fulfil this spiritual purpose. On the contrary, we need a calm foundation, a gut that is at peace.

Our bodies need to be at ease so that we are oases of calm and blessing in a wounded world. So whenever you can and whenever you need, remember the universal strategy taught for millennia across the world: Gentle, slow, soft breaths down into the belly. Just two or three soft breaths can shift the mood. This is good for your health, your spiritual growth and everyone around you.

Happy breathing.

New Years Resolutions and Cosmic Balance

Ninety per cent of New Year’s resolutions fail. People look forward into their lives and commit to change. Unfortunately the vast majority are sucked back into old behaviours. Little do people know that their failures are part of a grand psychological and cosmic drama.

January the first month of the New Year is named after Janus the Roman two-faced god. He looks backwards into the previous year. At the same time he looks ahead into the future. When people make New Year’s resolutions they are just like Janus bewitched by both the future and the past.

Deep in the darkness of mid-Winter we ponder our previous year and we make commitments for the coming twelve months. We resolve to change and improve.

Researchers have looked at these intentions. (https://www.statisticbrain.com/new-years-resolution-statistics). Topping the list is losing weight and healthier eating. This is followed by self-improvement, better financial decisions, stopping smoking, doing more exciting things, spending more time with family and friends, more exercise, learning something new and selfless good deeds.

This same research is sobering as it shows that only nine per cent of people feel that they succeed in fulfilling their resolutions. Our pledges are well motivated and reasonable. I will exercise. I will stop being snippy with my family. I will save money regularly. They are fuelled by good intentions. Yet there is a ninety-one per cent failure rate.

What lies behind this dismal record? It is too easy to blame laziness or a lack of commitment. I suggest that there are two other powerful but unrecognised forces that fuel our resistance to change. One is biological. The other is a universal dynamic systemically built into the very essence of life. It is good to acknowledge and be realistic about both.

*

First the biology.

As a species of successful apes we know that we are biologically engineered to survive. We are driven to eat, create shelter and procreate. But beneath these obvious instinctive drives is another crucial force, the hidden mechanism of homeostasis. This is the regulatory method built into our physiology, into our nervous and endocrine systems, that ensures a stable state. For example if we get too hot we sweat in order to produce moisture that will evaporate and cool our skin. Your homeostatic mechanism knows the stable state of your body and works to maintain it.

But homeostasis also creates problems. Once your physiology and psychology are accustomed to a particular state then homeostasis will work to maintain that state to ensure stability and continuity. Even if that behaviour, or emotion, or thought pattern, is self-harming the homeostatic mechanism is driven to maintain and to continue those conditions. There is this powerful biological dynamic in all of us to persist in behaviours that have become habitual.

How many times have you pledged not to react to someone in a certain way? But when that person presses your buttons off you go triggered into your conditioned and habitual behaviour, driven by the biological mechanism of homeostasis that is blind, sometimes stupid and very powerful. We can see this in addictions and habitual behaviours of all kinds and the power they have over us.

We can make clear, adult and conscious decisions about what we want to do. But irresistible and painful cravings may then corrupt our resolve and suck us back into old, even self-destructive, patterns.

Homeostasis works against us when we seek to change. This is a harsh reality that needs to be acknowledged. Of course it is balanced by another survival instinct. We are also animals who enquire, follow our curiosity and adapt. We learn how to self-manage our habits and cravings. But as mature adults most of us are wise enough to acknowledge that we are vulnerable to the strength of old patterns.

*

Then there is a cosmic dynamic that is similar to homeostasis. It is a magnetic attraction that glues everything into solid form and has implications for human behaviour.

Look at the big picture.

The whole of the universe, from a grain of sand out to the infinity of endless galaxies, is held balanced between two great forces. One force is the continuous expansion and movement initiated by the Big Bang. The other force is gravity, magnetism, that holds everything in place.

Nothing could exist if the only dynamic were explosive never-ending expansion. It requires the equalising balance of gravity and magnetism for anything to manifest in solid form.

This polarity between endless expansion and the magnetism of gravity was recognised and symbolised in many ancient philosophical and spiritual traditions as a marriage or a dance between two cosmic forces. Mother-Father. Yin-Yang. Earth-Heaven.

Taoism the ancient philosophy of China appreciated this dynamic relationship and represented it in the famous Yin/Yang symbol. A circle with a wavy dividing line. One side black and Yin. The other white and Yang. But with a small white dot in the black and a small black dot in the white. Yin is the force of magnetism, gravity and containment. Yang the outward expansive emergent dynamic. They meet and are also within each other. Both are required for the manifest cosmos.

As tiny human actors in this cosmic drama we are living proof of this polarity, attracted simultaneously to change and to staying the same. We face and are pulled in both directions. Our biological homeostasis is reinforced by natural magnetic force.

Sometimes the containment is so strong that it feels like inertia and depression. Contrarily sometimes the expansion is so strong that we feel hyper and over-excited.

From this perspective resistance to change is not only a result of physiological and psychological homeostasis. Staying the same is also a cosmic tendency.

You may not buy this metaphysical idea that we are influenced by this dance between cosmic forces. But it is surely a grand metaphor to describe and explain some of the human drama and why it is often so difficult to fulfil our resolutions.

*

So what can all this teach us that might be useful? Here are a couple suggestions.

First, if we acknowledge the biological and natural forces that are constantly at work within us, we can be less naïve and ashamed when our intentions stumble. Being insightful and forgiving makes it easier for us to try again. Stumbling is normal.

Second, we can be more strategic and mindful as we plan our resolutions, recognising that we may need more enthusiasm, endurance and support than we previously envisaged.

Sex Scandals and a Buddhist Nun

Some would argue that the purpose of religion and philosophy is to curb man’s baser instincts. So do they have anything useful to say about today’s ongoing sex abuse scandals? My friend the groupie who became a Buddhist nun provides a useful insight.

The world’s religious and spiritual traditions acknowledge the powerful, sometimes overwhelming, biological drives for food, for territory, for status and power, and for sex. We see these same instincts at work throughout the animal kingdom.

Spiritual traditions recognise these biological drives and suggest strategies to manage and contain them.

Monks, nuns and priests of all religions take vows of celibacy.

More extreme, in Christianity there are flagellants who whip their own bodies. There are some Shiite Muslims who also self-flagellate. And Hinduism too has yogis who perform various weird acts of bizarre self-harm.

All of these dramatic strategies are attempts to contain the instincts of the flesh.

Samuel Johnson, our great eighteenth century essayist and also a committed Christian, realistically commented on all this:

‘Mortification is not virtuous in itself, nor has any other use, but that it disengages us from the allurements of sense.’ [The History of Rasselas, Prince of Abissinia]

But it is not realistic, is it, to envision the Houses of Parliament or Hollywood studios as places inhabited by nuns and monks, who authentically practice, abstinence, self-restraint and mortification of the flesh? (Is this what Harvey Weinstein or Kevin Spacey are pretending to do when they go for residential therapy?)

*

Many years ago I had a good friend who was a 1960s Swinging London groupie into sex, drugs and rock and roll. She then disappeared out of my life for a few years. When she reappeared a decade later she had transformed and become a Buddhist nun. By the time I met her she had kept to her vows, including celibacy, for seven years. She was authentic.

Obviously there was a question that I was dying to ask her.

What – I asked her have you done with your libido, with your animal instincts?

She smiled and responded that she had followed the counsel of her Abbess who gave her very simple advice:

Notice the arousal, but do not wallow in it.

Notice the instinct, but give it no energy.

Notice and move swiftly on.

This is useful advice for all of us, isn’t it, when we are aroused and might behave in a dishonourable, inappropriate or bullying way.

Notice the arousal.

Give it no energy.

And move swiftly on.

BBC Radio 2 Moment of Reflection

This is the text of my BBC Radio 2 ‘Moment of Reflection’ broadcast on 8 October 2017

 

BBC RADIO – MOMENT OF REFLECTION

 

The annual season of party political conferences has just ended
And I find myself thinking:
Political parties are a bit like religions.
There are
Strongly held beliefs.
Internal divisions.
Conflicts with those of other faiths.

But both of them – political parties and religions –are fuelled by idealism
– a wish to make life better for everyone.

People who are into religion and spirituality however
Don’t need power.
We influence through personal behaviour,
through modelling
how to live in a way
That serves and cares for others.

We are, I suggest, inspired by a personal connection
With life’s wonder, goodness and beauty –
By whatever name we call it.
And we are inspired too by a knowing that the purpose of human life
Is not
material success and status.
But we are all of us on a journey
Developing
love,
compassion
and wisdom.

So I have a prayer
May our politicians– here and across the world –
be inspired by those same high ideals.
Love
Compassion
Wisdom

Pause

Silence

*

You can listen to the audio of this here on the BBC website:
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/p05jh54q

If you want to listen to the whole interview that precedes the reflection, you can listen to it here on the BBC website. My interview starts at 7:40am
http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b096xwzl