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Covid 19 blog #12: can you take a risk? Dare you eat a peach?

Do I dare disturb the universe? /Shall I part my hair behind? /Do I dare to eat a peach?” T.S. Eliot The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

“And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.” Anais Nin (quote found in Elizabeth Lesser’s book Broken Open)


Week 10 of lockdown. 10 weeks of being in, adapting to, well, what exactly? What is this thing we’re in, really? And more importantly, how do we get out of this? Do we need to take a risk?

I went to the supermarket this morning for some essential nonessentials, you know just exercising my freedom as a boomer consumer. I had a lovely chat with a staff member who said “me mams 91; I thought, well she’s been isolated now for all this time, so I took her to the beach. We looked at the sea and I got her a magnum. She loved it. I mean you canna be sure, but it was lovely and I got her home alright.” Before I left the supermarket I picked up a bottle of coke. In the impossible to socially distance aisle filled with around 7 people, a woman looked at me then suddenly flattened her body to the shelves. To her, I guess, I posed a real and present risk. A threat.

For some the staff members action might seem idiotic (covidiot! they will cry) and yet for others it will appear timid and they will suggest her mum does more, gets out more, socialises. Who is right? How do we know what risks are right? You canna be sure, or can you? Risk plays out in other contexts too, with its accompanying support and judgment. For example, the case of Dominic Cummings travelling hundreds of miles from the south with his son after developing coronavirus symptoms[1]. Risk? Stupidity? Hypocrisy? Perfectly legal? You choose.

The changes that we have experienced and have-to a greater or lesser extent-settled into are quite subtle at times and at times quite profound. In The Guardian Susie Orbach writes We are learning a whole new etiquette of bodies. We swerve around each other, hop into the near-empty street, calculate distances at entrances to parks, avoid body contact, even eye contact, and keep a look out for those obliviously glued to their phones, whose lack of attention threatens to breach the two-metre rule. It’s odd and disconcerting and isn’t quite second nature”.[2] Once the message (whatever the message) has soaked into our bodies it’s became deeply internalised; the unconscious takes over and we operate not from a reflective space but from an automatic, habitually driven and compressed domain. You have to wonder what purpose this might serve, to have us all that unconsciously fearful.

In a piece on spiked online[3] it is reported that “Boris Johnson recently joked with his colleagues, saying: “‘I’ve learnt that it is much easier to take people’s freedoms away than give them back.’” That isn’t funny. The use of terror to cow much of the public, decimate economic life and suspend everyday liberty is not a joking matter. Terror has consequences.”

It is much easier to take peoples freedoms away than give them back. The throw away comment is in fact a profound statement on the conditioning that we surrender to as human beings, our capacity to be drawn into and habitually attach to fear driven and self-protective narratives: save, protect, stay, alert.

Two years ago, I was working with a number of male clients whose experience of dating caused me to reflect on the nature of risk and risk taking. Rob (not his real name) was 18 and had been in a romantic relationship with his girlfriend for over a year. They had both been each other’s firsts and after losing her virginity his girlfriend appeared to have second thoughts and ended the relationship. They tried to reconcile, dated for a few weeks and when they went out for a meal to celebrate her 18th birthday, she looked up to him and he bent towards her to kiss her. Her hand swept up, “that’s assault” she said, and walked out. His risk had failed. Another client, Joel, (again, not his real name) was 27 and still a virgin. He felt unable to undertake any form of physical contact on a date, since he believed this was tantamount to male privilege and “sexist abuse” and when I explored the notion of risk taking, he recoiled in horror (“that’s a bit rapey” he said to me).

We are learning a whole new etiquette of bodies.

When you take a risk, it just might blow up in your face; when you do not take a risk, you might stay in the very place you are in. Forever. What to do?

A year ago, I spoke on BBC radio about the plight of contemporary couple’s low drive in their sexual relationships and introduced the shadow side of consent culture[4], that because everything has a shadow i.e. another side, that young men now are sometimes becoming sexually risk averse, fearful of being called a rapist post intercourse if women subsequently withdraw consent, which is a lose/lose situation for both sexes. This subject is covered in extensive detail in the books The Coddling of the American Mind by Greg Lukianoff and Jonathan Haidt and The Rise of Victimhood Culture by Bradley Campbell and Jason Manning. The BBC presenter suggested that it was most important for all of us to be risk averse; I disagreed, saying we need to be risk aware, to be risk averse shrivels our lives and allows us to live (if we can call it that) only in fear. We remain tight in bud.

The Belgian psychotherapist Esther Perel[5] uses the metaphor of anchors and waves to illustrate the importance of risk in healthy couple relationships-and hence of life itself, since relate is what we all do: anchors are safety seeking activities, waves are risk taking ones. She writes “The challenge for modern couples lies in reconciling the need for what’s safe and predictable with the wish to pursue what’s exciting, mysterious, and awe-inspiring.” We desperately need to reconcile our lockdown anchors and waves in a skilful, healthy manner, or our ship will either sink or never leave harbour again.

In The Spectator this week (23/05/20) Susan Hill writes “a neighbour told me she will probably never go out again because she is simply too terrified. She is just 60, and in good health. [   ] we have been systematically terrified about our age, our weight, every conceivable health issue, as well as conditioned to look upon everyone in the street, running or cycling past or in a shop a potential “super spreader”. It is unhealthy, and it will be a very hard habit to break.”

She is just 60.

In The Lonely Crowd the sociologist David Riesman described three ways people can operate from according to their values and beliefs. Most folk are, he states “tradition directed” that is to say they embody the values handed down to them from the society they find themselves in. During times of change and discord people might become what Riesman called “other directed” where they quickly embody new values and beliefs. These new values are most quickly absorbed in moments of crisis or threat. The third category and the smallest is what Riesman called “inner directed,” literally those who do the sometimes-hard job of reflection and inner exploration; those who doubt, challenge and are sceptical. These are the people who have the greatest growth potential. Perhaps herein lies a clue to risk taking: in what sense does being inner directed help (or, of course, hinder)?

Its important to remember that there is no such thing as zero risk, if you do nothing you still risk “doing nothing” and its consequences. Asking for zero risk, asking for government to perpetually guide you is really nothing less that self infantilisation, turning your adult and visceral self in a docile body dominated and other directed; tracked and compliant. If you let somebody manage your risks, they manage your life.

We’ve been presented day after day with threat: the dead, accounts of intensive care units at crisis, people struggling to breathe, loss after loss and lack of PPE, and this Velcros to us and we ruminate on it. It sticks. We allow our anxiety-our threat barometer-to prove, to evidence, that we are in fact in danger, yet the truth is that day in, day out, psychotherapists and counsellors see clients whose danger has long passed yet lives on, stored and energised in memory, identity and self-protection behaviours that reduce them, make them miserable and keep them in a “nervous” nervous system. They can be locked down into a narrative that they don’t even see; it just “is”. The battle is still being fought when the war is long over. We seek certainty, though this might be naïve and foolish for it might never exist, nor in truth have never existed. How much better it might be to have the tools to live with uncertainty and doubt? Wouldn’t that be more adult?

We are going to have run a risk assessment on coming out of lockdown and living with coronavirus in the future, and individuals, families and groups are going to have to weigh up the risks without becoming risk averse, according to reciprocal harms, contexts and lives lived. We are going to have to take intelligent risks and full responsibility for what’s coming up. There will be no safe space for the unaware who are other directed. In the words of Susie Orbach again[6] “we will have to find new ways to live with our fears and discomforts, to overcome Covid-minted social phobias, with what we project on to other people’s bodies and the fears we have about our own vulnerabilities.”

Perhaps the old Native American wisdom story is illustrative here[7] (you have probably heard it before). One day a grandson was talking to his grandfather who said “there are two wolves in my back-yard fighting; one is the wolf of hate and fear, the other is the wolf of love and endeavour” The grandchild looked up “which one will win grandfather?” he asked. The Grandfather looked down and said: “the one I feed”.

We can stay inside our shells and shrivel, we can live anchored forever, or we can, with thought and skill, challenge, risk, learn and grow -we can surf the waves[8], disturb the universe, and we can dare to eat a peach.






[4] See and E.g. “Between the idea/And the reality/Between the motion/And the act/Falls the shadow”. T.S. Eliot (again) The Hollow Men

[5] Esther Perel Mating in Captivity



[8] Cf Jon Kabat Zinn saying “you cant stop the waves but you can learn to surf”  a hallmark statement of mindfulness


Covid 19 blog #11: you gave away your power. What comes next?

“Mr Duffy lived a few feet away from his body” -James Joyce Dubliners

“true spiritual realisation, authentic enlightenment, is found in the body and nowhere else” -Khenpo Tsultrim Gyamtso

Lockdown shocked me. It happened suddenly and seemed to arrive without warning. Today (16/05/20) marks nearly 9 weeks of lockdown with some lifting of restrictions (garden centres opening, more time out), yet the impact of what occurred in such a short amount of time expressed itself clearly to me today. I had paid a visit, cleaning bucket, bleach and binbag in hand to my (our) shared office. It was quite clear that nobody had been in for 9 weeks; the plants were dead and the cups and stationary, still out, looked as if the last person in the room had intended to be back very soon or had simply vanished, then that Sunday happened.

The swift way things changed, almost overnight is, in my experience, quite unique. What is also quite unique is the loss of freedom we have all endured (we have, and we are still enduring it-unless we see this as a long holiday) and our seemingly comprehensive inability to challenge the lockdown law. Dissent has, until very recently been scant, from an island which -I thought-prided itself on being bolshy to authority.

So, this new narrative, unfolding in real time before our eyes, has been horrible, tragic and fascinating. We have given away our power, literally; as a colleague very recently said to me with despair “I now feel powerless”.

Governments across the world have granted themselves what are often called Henry VIII powers. Named after the 16th Century Monarch, these are unprecedented powers with unchecked control. Silie Carlo of Big Brother Watch called these new powers “draconian”[1] The U.K. is not alone here; it is a practice which appears to be world-wide in its deployment.[2]

So new powers are brought in, fast. To save lives, fast. We lose our personal power, fast. To save lives, fast.

What’s wrong with this picture?

In 2007 the Canadian writer Naomi Klein published her ground-breaking book The Shock Doctrine[3]. The book received mixed reviews, but its gist is, I believe, most relevant today, when we see and experience the lockdown narrative being rolled out in front of us like a new orthodoxy. Klein’s central assertion is focussed on the political exploitation of national crisis’s (disasters or upheavals) that establish new, controversial and questionable policies, policies that are enacted while citizens are excessively too distracted (financially, physically, emotionally and psychologically) to engage and develop an adequate response, and effectively dissent or resist. We don’t see what is happening when our backs are turned-or up against the wall. We also don’t see what is happening when we are being paid to sit in the sun. Klein offers numerous examples from the South American economic disasters of the 1970s to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. While our back is turned, while our faces are looking elsewhere, while we are being paid to be distracted, governments further erode personal powers; hence the chip and pin approach to beating the virus by the NHSX.

So, in a few short (okay, long) months a new orthodoxy is created that we are hesitant to criticise; we have lost our power. Paranoia?

Another way of describing this is by using the concept of groupthink. It was Irving Janis in 1972 who rethought Orwell’s notion of newspeak into groupthink which “refers to a deterioration of mental efficacy, reality testing and moral judgement”[4]. According to Janis there are three elements to this:

  1. A group of people share a common view which is untested and without evidence
  2. Because this view is therefore subjective (i.e. held at the level of belief) they disown any new evidence or contradictory view
  3. To reinforce the new orthodoxy any and all dissent will not be tolerated; dissent is often described as dirty, filthy, disease ridden and morally disgusting (though officially their responses are skilfully polite)

You can easily see the groupthink narrative, supported by police, BBC and mainstream media in general, the NHS and then the public. Against this, we can feel powerless.

But wait: isn’t knowledge power? And can’t we use it to speak truth to power and change things? Both of these notions are simply naïve, in my opinion. They are naïve because knowledge and power are not the same by any means; knowledge is a tiny part of power (see below) and power cares little for truth; in fact most seats of power know “The Truth”, they just prefer the power of lies, they have no care for truth, it holds no energy or attraction for them[5].

There is, I think, a really good dramatic example of this from an episode of Game of Thrones[6]. Baelish is approached by Cersei, accompanied by four Lannister guardsmen, as he walks through the Red Keep. The missing Arya Stark weighs heavily on Cersei’s mind and she entreats Baelish to use his resources to find her. Littlefinger points to Varys, the Spider, as a better source of information. The conversation rapidly takes a nasty turn, as Baelish tries to press home the point that “knowledge is power” and that he knows all about the affair between Cersei and her brother Jaime (and, as a result, who sits upon the Iron Throne).  Littlefinger is then lost in the smirking narcissism of his own cleverness, and is not paying attention to the look on Cersei’s face, who is furious. This is where Cersei, like all royals-like all of us-could lose her sovereignty; at this point she is several feet away from her body. But in a few seconds, she recovers herself; she breathes, her chest expends and contracts and she responds, embodied. Littlefinger, though, plows on: “Prominent families often forget a simple truth… knowledge is power.” Cersei has stopped raging and can’t let this smirking upstart think he’s got the better of her. She lets rip; but by now is fully at one with herself; it is like mindfulness in action. She orders her guards to seize Littlefinger and slit his throat. At the last moment she orders them to stop and release him. It’s a demonstration, she explains, that Power is power.”

The point being, that knowledge (cognitive power) is useless without emotional power, social and economic power, but they are all useless without embodied power; the connection to the aliveness of our somatic living, our sovereignty.

This is also the power of presence. This is placing your attention to the here-and-now of embodied living. I direct my attention to the present, to being. What I put my attention onto or into is, in essence, my life. Not rooted or fixated in the vagaries of mind I can turn my attention to my embodiment, feeling the body from within. This is akin to waking up to a sunset or the shimmering ocean at noon, or indeed a vast sky of empty, embodied radiance. Traleg Kyabgon[7] writes that this is like “snow falling gently onto rocks and settling easily on the ground […] or waves crashing back into the stillness of the ocean.” This is dropping our story, like a tree drops its leaves in autumn. Does the tree feel fearful? No, it remains present in its authenticity: this is presence.

This contrasts with Foucault’s notion of docile bodies[8], where our cognitions and emotions are repositioned by authority to a depth that effectively impacts negatively on our nervous system; we are then driven into fight or flight-or freeze; fear drives us out of our bodies and reduces us into anxiety and self-protection. This could be called lockdown fear-lockdown reduction, or the new fear of coming out of lockdown and challenging the new orthodoxy. We’re groupthink sheep; docile bodies are easy prey.

It’s easy to get doctrine shocked and catapulted into a new orthodoxy when we’re disembodied; if we are so much in our thinking/emotional domain we are, quite literally giving the shockers a head start. Pun intended. Living a few feet away from our bodies is the Western malaise; lockdown adds another layer of alienation. Zoom et al is a potent way of relaying information and staying in touch, but it’s not touching, it’s merely a substitute for the real thing i.e. face to face embodiment. It’s continuing being touch deprived. It’s important-crucial-that we don’t think otherwise and come to live another few feet away from our bodies.

Thinking is good; cognitions and knowledge is good, finding an emotional connection is good; but the missing link is deepening into a somatic inquiry: how this feels in the body keeps you powerfully grounded, and like Cersei Lannister able to retain your true sovereignty. Peter A Levine[9] writes “embodiment is about gaining, through the vehicle of awareness, the capacity to feel the ambient physical sensations of unfettered energy and aliveness as they pulse through our bodies. It is here that mind and body, thought and feeling, psyche and spirit, are held together, welded in an undifferentiated unity of experience”


To take it a  little further, Mariana Kaplan[10] writes “our own body is the sacred Bodhi Tree* that calls to us, inviting us to dwell deeply within its sanctuary and to stand unwavering in the face of the modern demons of self-hatred, self-denial, self-abandonment, shame, unworthiness, helplessness until the essence of our own embodiment reveals itself, and we reclaim our bodies as our rightful home”


What comes next for all of us, has to be a critical challenge to an authority(ies) that has never had-in peacetime in this country-so much power. We cannot have that power both misused, abused and directed to taking away our further freedoms, our personal power. It is a fact that we might not be able to stop shocking doctrines being put into place, but at the very least we need to be aware of what’s happening while it’s happening-which we won’t be if our heads are not in the right place; we must retain the power of our bodies and minds to enable this.





*under which the Buddha became enlightened





[4] Janis, Victims of Groupthink 1972

[5] See Sunday Times 17/05/20 “Trump doesn’t care who you are, he cares only that you like him. That’s why he’s in power” by Camilla Long


[7] Traleg Kyabgon Mind At Ease


[9] Peter A Levine In An unspoken Voice

[10] Mariana Kaplan Eyes Wide Open


Covid 19 blog #8: a time of loss and a time of adaption-to what?

“do not go gently into that good night/old age should burn and rage at close of day/rage, rage against the dying of the light” -Dylan Thomas

Counselling clients (and doing a fair bit of self-reflection on my own experience) has led me to agree with many that the time we are going through now is most akin to a time of loss. This, of course, provokes in most of us a range of feelings that resemble grief in its many forms. It was Elizabeth Kubler-Ross[1] who categorised these into what has become known as the loss cycle, the passage of grief and mourning that seems to have five distinct phases to it: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance or, as it is sometimes known, adaptation[2].

What has always struck me is that the first three stages-denial, anger and bargaining-have a certain energy to them, whereas depression is flat and energyless, and since I picture this cycle like a ski slope, the passage to acceptance is uphill and can be hard work indeed. We have a tendency to re-visit (recycle?) parts of these stages, sometimes like a pinball, yet feedback from clients who am I counselling right now (April 2020) are reporting lowness, flatness, loss of motivation, a quite specific sense of doubt, that nothing positive seems to be happening, feelings of discouragement; a sort of loss within the loss, so to speak.

The fight or flight that propelled the initial three stages may be being replaced by a stage of immobilisation. This is a very difficult stage if we are all going to get through it; a depressed nation will find it hard to get back in its stride-whereas a nation in denial, anger, or bargaining, these energies can be harnessed, accommodated and met: a freeze is going to take a long thaw to release.

Here are some of the changes (losses) we have been encouraged to adapt to:

  • feeling constantly no longer safe and under threat
  • feeling at the mercy of an invisible enemy that can infect me and my loved ones at any moment
  • mainstream media (e.g. BBC, Sky, Channel 4, ITV) seemingly invested in keeping me in a constant state of fear to retain their ratings
  • having to be locked inside the house without the possibility to move or expand, to fully decompress
  • being asked paradoxically not to do things, the opposite of the stress of “so many things to do”
  • being asked not to shop, not to work, not to socialise, not to eat breakfast/grab a cup of coffee at the coffee house in the morning
  • being asked to keep 2 metres (6 feet) distance
  • being asked not to do handshakes, hugs, kisses with people
  • being asked not to touch (people, doorknobs etc) -which barricades off a fundamental human need[3] -will some experience touch deprivation?
  • groups being suddenly polarised between those who are “pure” i.e. who always obey the law, and those who are “not okay” (i.e. unpure) who are perceived as flouting the law and therefore are akin to dirty, disease spreaders
  • the infantilisation of my decision making
  • clustering older age groups together as unfit and inessential; in essence institutional agism
  • being asked to be okay with my work (which I might have done with skill and passion for 40 years) now being regarded as non-essential
  • now being part of a hastily formed, fear driven narrative and orthodoxy that has become shameful and disgusting (note the contagion metaphor) to challenge

And so, the lockdown continues, yet recent studies post SARS (2009[4]) suggest that prolonged quarantine actually increases PTSD; studies show in general psychological symptoms like emotional disorders, depression, stress, mood disorders, irritability, insomnia and signals of post-traumatic stress might powerfully increase due to lockdown itself.

What else has changed?  Time spent on social media has doubled[5], there has been a transfer and legitimisation from living a real life to now living a Zoom based virtual life. We are besieged on TV/radio with instructions on digitally connecting. My inbox/social media has never been fuller with businesses encouraging me to take part in “free” webinars, advice, online video expertise, trainings. Young people are continuing their studies on line and children are playing there as well; yet the risk of being hyperconnected, which can in turn become quickly addictive, pathological and is hugely difficult to pull out of is not addressed fully; in fact, hardly at all.

We are at risk of online gambling increasing, food disorders intensifying (sales of flour have skyrocketed, which means a huge increase in cake intake), suicidality climbing due to loneliness and mounting partner/child abuse[6].

This is, in all probability, the tip of the iceberg.

And this is, at the time of writing, less than 40 days in lockdown. This is a hell of an ask for any nation.

At this time of writing, there is something else which I feared we might have lost, but whose green shoots may be reappearing. In the Sunday Times letters column (26/04/20) a woman writes simply “I do not consent to a year of lockdown for over 70s. I will not do it. And I bet I’m not the only one”

This is not belligerence or ego, this is the spirit of dissent, of scepticism, of not taking things at face value, this is the great British characteristic of saying “prove it to me”, of questioning any form of blind obedience, of staying curious to the point of insurrection; creating a heterodoxy of thought, Galilean in its non-consensus. (Incidentally, if you hear the words “scientific consensus, reach for your gun; science does not have such a thing as consensus-you are being fed a lie).

It might be notable that it appears so far to be those in the over 50s generation (and it’s interesting that some-which some? -have called Covid 19 the “Boomer Remover”) seem to be more vocal about this loss of dissent than those younger. Why might that be? Could it be because those over 50 are smarter? I would think not. It could be, though, that those over 50 have literally been lied to, disregarded, shafted, conned, ripped off and shit on so many times in their lives, by governments, scientists, statutory bodies; bullshitted by committees and corporations with their countless false promises and mediaspawned lies that they have a greater tenancy towards disbelieving and doubting. When you have been screwed over and over so many times by the folk who take your taxes it makes you a bit cynical. And that might be a healthy thing. Anger has an energy.

Or, it could be, that the older you are, the more you have to lose: your life. A year indoors if you are 80 could well be the last year of your life; a year spent indoors if you are 20 is less likely to be. At an older age, you are more likely to ask “do I want to live long, or well? Do I want to walk out and feel the sun on my face?”

A newly formed orthodoxy might say: “but people might die, the disease could spread”. And of course, they might be right, but the remark places us in a tight and morally infantile psychological bind, the only resolution to which is to lean into risk and uncertainty itself with mindful awareness. The (critical) parental injunction that this is embedded into only serves to further seduce and reduce us. We are not children and we can take intelligent risks.

Many of us have been doing for over 50 years….

The sceptic might, of course be wrong; dissent does not arrive with a guarantee of being informed or correct. Yet this might matter less than the freedom to be sceptical; the freedom to dissent. We cannot lose this, this great British characteristic. It is allied to that great British attribute of not taking ourselves or situations too seriously, to satirising all sacred cows; this was the dissent that took our freedoms so seriously that we rebelled at the thought of ID cards, yet we have gone into house arrest willingly, clapping with approval.

Decades ago, the French philosopher Foucault[7] pointed out that for every dominant discourse there is a subjugated one that is all but suppressed by fear, by force, by blind and unproven consensus. The dominant discourse holds power itself, to the extent that we identify with it and make it our new orthodoxy. It can feel like safety, it is more akin to safteyism.[8] A docile complacency, a fragility then develops and we fit our experiences to suit the dominant discourse of the time. This is the very opposite of what Esther Perel calls Eros[9], living. Mourning becomes us.

In spite of what we might think, this is the very reverse of what a working nation needs. It needs dissent, challenge, discomfort and disagreement, it needs friction and creative antifragility[10], pushback and scepticism to establish the new and become innovative, it needs risk and it needs play and it needs Eros itself.

How do we maintain our antifragility[11]? How do we connect with our insightful rage and wise Eros? What light might be dying, what subjugated discourse might we be in danger of losing as we fall more deeply into our mourning?



Also see

and for comparative lockdown figures



[2] In the context now: what might we be really adapting to and when does the merely adaptive become maladaptive?



[5] and







IMG_1869 (2)

The Sentinels of Whitley Bay

“strange days have found us/strange days have tracked us down”-Jim Morrison

One of my great pleasures these days is my mindful walk along Whitley Bay, a pleasure that has grown in the past few weeks of lockdown, for lately there has been a powerful addition along the coast. Weeks ago, some stranger had the idea of piling a set of beach stones atop each other, one at a time, to create a wonderful cairn. Over the weeks others-including myself-have followed, and now there are dozens of these silent cairns, stone sentinels looking out at the sea. The sight is unexpected and truly breath-taking.

What to make of this?

One the one hand, it is perhaps testimony to the time we are living in; would these have appeared without Covid 19? We will never know.

On the other hand, they bring to my mind a host of other associations, literal, figurative and symbolic.

I was remined of Arthur C Clarke’s short story The Sentinel, written in 1948 and published in 1951 at the dawning of the space race to the moon. In the story a pyramid like structure is found in Mare Crisium on The Moon; its function is silent and mysterious. Later Stanley Kubrick played with the idea and turned it into the monolith in 2001: A Space Odyssey. It became symbol of a gateway to the stars, to something vast and other worldly.

These Sentinels of Whitley Bay also remind me of the 1988 film City of Angels. Nicholas Cage plays an angel who groups with others of his kind to witness the dawn, to hear the sound of the sunrise, of the new day.

Perhaps it’s also fitting that Whitley Bay-nestled as it is in the old Kingdom of Northumbria- lies only a few miles up north of Jarrow. This is where Bede, now St Bede, surely like Peter, a rock, was to build a fledgling Christian community that would soon stand the test of time as a pillar of worship.

There is, for me, something spiritually grand about these rocky sentinels; a testimony to our human capacity to create, to build, to say “I was here” or “I have created this”. These rocks, standing like monks in prayer before the sea, their stone solidity such a contrast with the flow, the rhythm and movement of the waves; yin and yang at Whitley Bay.

Lastly, in poetry I was reminded of T.S. Eliot’s Choruses from The Rock where he writes of the Rock as the Witness, the critic and the stranger and asks, wholly appropriately for this age “where is the knowledge we have lost in information?”

What do we-what can we-bear witness to in our lives? How might we take time to stand, as rocks, still, silent and strong? These are indeed strange days. Can we, grounded as stone, welcome in and befriend the strange?


Covid 19 blog #7: exploring the “Covid pause,” retreat and reset

There seems to be more time these days. Of course, that can’t be right, can it? More likely, it’s my experience of time that’s changed. With less traffic on the roads there has been a vehicular slowdown, but also a corresponding slowdown in my mind-or rather, the nature of my mind-traffic has slowed somewhat. Its feels more paced, as if my whole fight or flight system has calmed down.

As I walked barefoot along the beach today, I was aware of both how my mind creates this thought traffic, and that there are actually gaps in between the thoughts-as similarly there are normally always gaps between the cars on the road. These gaps; tiny openings, small tastes of liberation, freedom from conceptual thoughts and thinking, what my life should be, ought to be, must be, a whole set and system of imposed, yet internalised preferences. These gaps are-in Buddhist terms-bardos-or mini bardos which (for me) open and close quickly like the aperture on a camera.

It’s often said that thoughts (and emotions) do three things: they self-arise, self-display and then self-liberate. It’s this middle bit which is the tricky bit; in the self-display the whole of our situation as crazy humans becomes exposed, with our habit of grasping and attaching to our thinking, emotions and the supposed meanings we derive from this we keep the self-display going, nor matter if it’s healthy or not. It’s habitual, familiar, and it is to the familiar we are drawn before what is true, good, healthy or beautiful.

I bring-or direct-my attention to walking along the beach. The sensations, walking barefoot, are very immediate. Lifting my foot, swinging it forwards, putting it down. Repeating this, I walk; sensations of wet sand, sea water, cool and refreshing, the movement of my legs, my pelvis. The felt sense of my embodiment, of being human. I breathe, it feels free.

This time, this time of a great pause, is open and more expansive that normal (is it really?) and it is for me redolent of being on retreat. Perhaps, at this time of lockdown, we could all try a little of the retreat experience at home?

I try to remain silent. My wife works upstairs. I practice developing a sense of acceptance to sound intruding from the neighbours’ children, DIY next door, drills switching on and off. We often, I reflect, in the absence of stimulation, try to fill the gaps not with an exploration, a savouring of the gap, but with distraction; gaps can be fearsome, especially if we have never experienced them before. What do they mean? Will we fall into the gap and vanish? It might mean that we are more that our distractions and our thoughts, and this can be so unfamiliar to us, loss-threatening perhaps?

If this could be a retreat, perhaps it could follow some of the retreat domains: the outer retreat, the inner and the secret.

The outer: that’s just the outer environment, yet this outer world is pervasive in entering into us, impacting and triggering us in often wild and unpredictable ways. There’s a kind of feedback loop here in the sense of how we in turn impact on the world. How we might work skilfully with the neighbour’s drilling, how this sense of irritation feels to us, how the sun shines and then the days cool as clouds arrive; we’re happy being warm, sad being cold. This opportunity to reflect; sound only exists in silence-before and after sound there is silence, and silence is like a container for sound, just as sky is a container for clouds. This is exploring a shift in perspective, and vaster view, is it not?

The inner: this is the body, the soma, rich in all of its internal experiences, the felt sense of the embodied me. This is an embodiment that we are, to a greater or lesser sense alienated from: “Mr Duffy lived a few feet away from his body” as James Joyce wrote in Dubliners. The drilling stops, and I follow my internal sensations, bring my attention to them, this allows my triggered mind to settle. Mindful walking, on the beach or otherwise, activates this feeling of being, of grounding and belonging, of embodiment.

The secret: this might pertain to the reason, the intention to do retreat. And then the why, the motivation, which can be very personal. To deepen and develop. Deepen and develop what? If I can deepen and develop my fledgling capacity to become more familiar, more intimately connected with not just my mind but my embodiment, I can both relate to my stories, stories of pain, stories of suffering and my methods of liberation more skilfully. Why would I do this? Because if I can do this, I might be able to help others do the same. Is this arrogance-that I suggest this? I don’t think so, not if I keep track of my ego.

The learning here is that we cannot escape pain. Life will be full of pain at times. But this resistance to pain creates a story of suffering and, in turn, disempowers us, leaves us victims to a narrative of suffering which we in turn maintain and project out into the world. Crazy humans with crazy minds, drawn more to the familiar than the healthy! We can explore our narratives of suffering though, and seek to let them go.

Attention and soma: bringing our attention to the body right here and right now outside the conceptual mind.

So, is this a reset time for us? If it is, perhaps we could ask ourselves, in the “Covid bardo,” in the midst of this, some questions, reflection questions that might help us reset our lives as we go through then exit this time (which we will). We might like to take time to appreciate what we gained from this experience that our normal, frenetic life did not provide, the connections we made, the spaciousness and expansiveness of these days. We might ask ourselves what truly nourishes me in my life? What depletes me in my life? And, how might I re-relate to my body and mind, my deeper sense of self to bring more nourishing thoughts, feelings and activities into my world?

Delivering sessions of mindful counselling, an integration of mindfulness and psychotherapy, has given me the opportunity to explore with clients this “Covid pause” in our lives*, and investigate how, at this time, we might not get so caught up in thoughts, anxieties, ideologies and conceptual dead ends; in a sense, the self-display of our suffering.

This pause is unique. We don’t know yet what the long-term impact will be, and though many of the folk I talk to are held in abeyance, being patient, this waiting has produced in some a sense of disquiet, a sense of unease that feels close to a potential dis-ease. This pause in normal living has allowed folk to register how uncomfortable they are at times with their own minds,** and may be allowing what they have suppressed in their lives to come to the surface: old and denied wounds, regrets, truths about relationships, intergenerational hurt, repressed desires. This could be a “ticking time bomb” -or not. We just don’t know yet, and we have no idea this might impact on society.

My hope is for a kind of reset, an retreat into an exploration of where we are, how we are, what we relate to and what we might be able to liberate; the very stuff that holds back and yet drives our minds, an exploration with a sense of greater attention and more compassion.

As Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche writes in his book In Love with the World

“make friends with your experience and see if you can notice the spacious awareness that is with you all the time. Everything you ever wanted is right here in this present moment of awareness”

Right here, and right now.

May you all be well

May you all be happy

May you all be safe


*of course, for those in the frontline of the NHS the notion of any kind of pause is laughable to say the least. These personnel may have other long-term impacts.

** and some are not, some are settling into this very well.

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Covid 19 blog #6 when the world stops, how do we cope?

“first there’s me. Then there’s mine, then there’s trouble” -Akong Rinpoche

“how do we act when we do not get what we want, or when we do not want what we have?”-Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche

My local supermarket. I queue outside at two metres distance from the person in front of me. I wait. We are allowed in, one by one when, one by one, a person walks out. There is a sense of annoyance if it’s felt a person is taking their time to choose Yorkshire tea or another brand, “just buy it, let me in and out” says a voice behind me (or, is that, inside me?).

We are zoned in-store; two metres distance, follow the arrows in, and follow the arrows out. There is a wall of clear Perspex between us and the store cashier. Distance, distance. This is a somewhat paradoxical and completely novel idea of public solidarity: in order to unite as a community, we must remain apart as individuals; effectively it reverses all previous norms of relational engagement.

We work from home. One of us is upstairs, the other downstairs, or looking after the kids. It’s not a holiday, but it’s not really work-we don’t go anywhere. With what new words can we use to describe this? Perhaps its not really working from home, its struggling to keep working in a pandemic?

Save, stay, protect. This is not life as we know it. There’s a task at hand. But what exactly is the task? We are going to be here in this strange bunker for a while, this is not going to go away quickly.

We are on alert, it seems; at times ready to criticise or finger those around us who do not, will not, comply with the task. We are our own thought police. Save, stay, protect.

Many of us are finding it so difficult to remain productive and positive, to start something meaningful and to finish it. In his book Homo Deus Yuval Noah Harari writes of a future where there are two levels or classes. He posits one class, the useful class, who are employed-usefully-in government or A.I. sanctioned work, then another class, the useless class who have little to do. Do they create, write, play and come together, growing gardens to rival Eden in comfy suburban plots? Or does this useless class just sit around being useless, personifying the Channel 4 video directing us to “give us your arse,” that ends with an overweight male belly settling onto a sofa. Is this the task?

This is a forceful glimpse of a world without work; a task without a task. Indeed, this is the very scope of the book Daniel Susskind wrote with the same name: A World Without Work. To have no work for many us is-after the holiday is over- to have no meaning, no purpose, no use*. And that’s a bitter pill to swallow. Perhaps the truth is that in order to live without structure (a structure which for most of us has largely been imposed on us) we need to be more grown up, more mature to be able to create our own structure, even before we attempt to be post structure. How many of us have this capacity? How many of us will just “give us your arse”?

We sit and look at screens, but how can this be human connection? If we’re going to connect with people, is it done by sitting looking at the screen? Should that be The Screen? The Screen, like some dystopian film, The Screen speaks…make Orwell fiction again, please….

On the other hand, what this has given us is a once-in-a-lifetime chance to really see ourselves with the clearest of views. At no other time, ever in our lives, have we had the opportunity to see what would happen if the world simply paused. If it stopped. This is it: The Great Mindful Pause.

Here it is. This is it. Here we are-or rather, here we aren’t.

Stores are closed. Restaurants are closed. Streets are empty. The planet itself is shaking less (less traffic!). I have never experienced anything like this before in my life. I am trying to really pay attention, use my mindfulness in ways that I have never done before, without feeling devastated, depressed, and heartbroken; I am trying to notice the good, the beautiful and the true around me. I am trying to stay curious to life.

Walking along the beach yesterday, other walkers have begun to build cairns of rocks, one rock on top of the other, cairns standing 1 foot, 3 foot tall, dozens of them as if this is Northumbria’s own range of Indonesian temples, temples of stone, temples of a creative expression of a remarkable and unbroken human spirit in the strangest of times.

In his book In Love with The World Yongey Mingyur Rinpoche suggests we should acknowledge the wave but stay with the ocean, in other words keep our attention on the vaster, more meaningful view, and if we can, keep our view as vast and spacious as we can. The opposite would be contraction, reduction, compression. This, perhaps, is the task, to either stay fused to our previous lives, compressed, or develop strategies of defusion and decompression, for the world itself can feel smaller, tighter at times like this-and very scary.

Thinking about The Great Mindful Pause It reminds me of the line from William Burroughs book The Naked Lunch. What is the naked lunch? a frozen moment when everyone sees what is on the end of every fork. Sounds good, all of us open and attentive in bare awareness, but what if what you now see is so dam scary, scary because you have never ever seen this view before, because you denied this view ever existed?

When we experience change, we experience threat, and we try to hold onto what we have, or had, we refuse to let the old ways die. But die they have, and we both need to mourn and move on, or the trauma of loss could freeze in our bodies and minds. We might be better placed to let this new life in, whatever shape it might take. Perhaps we need to trust its emergence. At first this is hard, very hard: we are not in a new life but clinging to an old one, essentially in transition-as we always are. We are, in Buddhist terms, in a kind of bardo or inbetween stage.

And practically, just say, I’m going for a walk. Lift one foot forwards and walk. Keep going. Ask, do you want to walk with me? When your body moves, energy enters and energy moves; it’s one of the most important protections against trauma because trauma is a tightening in the body.

It is hard to stay with the ocean. Years ago, in my mindfulness training, I fell. At least, that was how I felt, just as if my whole personality was falling away, endlessly falling away. This was dreadful. And here I was, espousing impermanence yet clinging, grasping tightly to me, mine, myself. I called up to consult, to get help and asked what my root tutor Rob Nairn might say about this experience, what it was, what could be done about it? The reply? “Rob might say about this, “excellent””. Keep going, walk.

You see, to pursue the metaphor more, my view was of the specifics of each tiny wave, crashing on the sandy floor, lost. Months later, I realised that I had got it all the wrong way round. In truth I am of the ocean, we are of the ocean; waves are what we must learn to let go of; as Mingyur Rinpoche writes “these waves are essentially empty”.

Walk with me; acknowledge the wave, but stay with the ocean.



*of course, there are many working in ICUs who have more work than they can rightfully manage. How are we to resolve this polarity?


Covid 19 blog #5 should we be together or separate?

An occasional lite blog reflecting on the impact of the virus from a therapeutic setting.

I received a phone call yesterday from a couple that I had been seeing for counselling. They were spending time together, but this was very new, normally they lived very busy lives and met up at night and weekends; now they were on top of each other and it was driving them crazy, cramped up in a small house.

I reminded them that a healthy couple relationship is a balance between togetherness and separateness; too much togetherness and it feels like suffocation, too much separateness and it feels like the whole thing is falling apart.

But here’s the thing: every couple has their own sense of what is the right proximity from and to each other, its actually called the intimacy gap (not really such a great name, perhaps).

Were going to have to learn new habits, the old motto in couple relationships about spending more time together wont work; our whole lives will have to be led in a mindful, deliberate, aware manner if we are to get through this. Jon Kabat-Zinn says of mindfulness that it “means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.”

Be mindful, deliberate in your connections and distancing; when this ends (and it will) you will need this skill to recalibrate new habits (which are old habits) all over again.

At this time of crisis, with the virus chomping at our heels, we just might be experiencing too much togetherness; if so, use that morning exercise and go out on your own, store up your “alone battery” and bring it back into the relationship, it’s one  way of keeping your relationship fresh and alive.



Covid 19 blog #3 mindful walking

An occasional lite blog reflecting on the impact of the virus from a therapeutic setting.

So, we are in the midst of what some are referring to as a “lockdown”, though we can still go out to exercise-walk, cycle, run. My preferred exercise is mindful walking. I first learned this practice from tutors at the Mindfulness Association, and at first, I hated it! Now it’s my favourite practice.

How does it work?

You walk: swing one foot out and bring your awareness to the feeling(s) in the foot (the balls of your feet, your heels) as you lift and land, then the same as the other foot lifts…and lands. With gradual practice you then begin to experience the feeling in your ankles, your calves, your thighs and the how your pelvic girdle moves as you walk.

Now you bring your attention to your upper body, feel the breath as it works its way through; belly, chest, nostrils, the movement of air or wind at your face. Then your body as a whole.

As you walk, as you practice this, you become more and embodied, and you can begin to explore the sensory world around you; bring your attention to what you smell, see, touch, hear and taste as you walk. A park, a wood or the beach is a great place to do this, but urban environments work just as well-as long as you keep your Covid distance!

A mindful walk brings us out of the heady, anxious thoughts we might have at this time of crisis, and back into our calmer, embodied self.

See you out there walking!


Covid 19 blog #1 welcome to my world!

An occasional lite blog reflecting on the impact of the virus from a therapeutic setting.

“you know the thing, the thing I want to say about this coronavirus thing? I mean, I don’t have it, but you know what I want to say?” I shifted in my chair. I had seen this client for a while, and was getting used to her style. “What do you want to say about your experience of this?” I asked. “I want to say: welcome to my world! That’s what I want to say! I don’t want belittle anybody’s experience but this is how I feel all the time. I wonder if people might now think about folk like me, anxious and panicky?”

I have been reflecting on this time; it can appear that the country, in fact the whole world is in a state of panic, where our National fight or flight in the UK nervous system has become pulled, attenuated and is now behaving in irrational, compulsive ways.

There is a way out.

Meeting your experience with mindfulness and compassion can help us bring our attention to the facts (how much we have to self-isolate, what distance between each other, and what’s happening inside us right now) and to our attitude, how kind we might be (or not) to ourselves and others around us. How we might grow this.

Not just thinking of ourselves but how our behaviours impacts on others, with empathy, reflecting on those whose experience is always like this, welcoming ourselves to a whole new world!


RAIN: coming to your emotional rescue

“there’s no weather channel for our emotions. We don’t know whether to expect sunshine or clouds each day. Why can’t we just be happy?”[1]


There’s an old pre-Buddha story from India. A man is sitting by the side of the road and hears the sound of thunder a mile away. He looks down the road and sees a cloud of dust. As it gets closer, the cloud of dust is revealed as a wild forest elephant bellowing towards him. As the elephant gets closer the man realises that clinging to the beast is a small man, held on by a rope. The road vibrates, the elephant gets closer, and as it passes the man asks “where are you going?” the rider on the elephant looks down and says “ask the elephant!”

When the Buddha heard this story, he added a little to it. He suggested that the elephant, since it has been around for a lot longer that the rider, has learnt a thing or two. He proposed that the elephant had learnt to hire the services of a lawyer, principally to defend but also to justify the elephant’s actions.

This is pretty much our predicament as human beings; the rider is our reasoning side, but the emotional side of us is older, stronger and often more powerful. Yet when we become emotional, we often seek to defend our emotional side and justify our actions-no matter how out of kilter they might be. Here is where we can be our own worst enemy, getting caught up and engulfed in “wild forest” emotions such as anger, hate, jealousy, pride, doubt and fear; these emotions end up ruling us, the tail wagging the dog.

Our emotions are also the way we often find meaning in our lives:[2] I feel this, so it means….being key. We end up fusing to this meaning, essentially identifying these wild forest emotions as us; this meaning is me, my identity.

Then we believe we do not have a choice about this: I feel it therefore is must be so. We are emotionally fused to not just a belief but a set of often wayward beliefs that run our lives.

The American writer Byron Katie[3] has developed four questions that can help liberate us from this fusion. She invites us to ask about any thought, emotion, statement or set of beliefs we have:

  1. Is it true?
  2. Can you absolutely know that it’s true?
  3. How do you react when you believe that thought?
  4. Who would you be without the thought?

When we ask the first question the immediate reply is often: yeah, its true. But the second question takes us further, because we usually find it almost impossible to “absolutely” know that anything is true. It shines a little daylight into things, and it’s a really powerful intervention into difficult thoughts and emotions (emotions are often defined as agitated mental states, which include thoughts).

However, if we really want to work on our emotions such as anger, fear or jealousy we might need to dig a little deeper to help defuse the habit we have of recycling old emotional states that justify what are often out of date, disabling beliefs.

One such method is RAIN, the mindfulness practice popularised by Tara Brach[4]. RAIN stands for recognise, allow, investigate and nonidentification. When we have strong emotions and we are invited to explore them we tend to either block the emotions, drown in the emotions (justifying them) or distract ourselves. However, we can approach these emotional states, and essentially RAIN practice works to do just this.

Let’s explore this:

  1. Recognise: we can consider this as “re-cognise” or thinking about our thinking. This is often talked about as taking a meta approach, but here it is looking at the emotional state without blocking, drowning or distracting ourselves from it.
  2. Allow: we can allow ourselves to feel the emotion as it is, accept it for what its is, warts and all, no matter how unpleasant it is. Standing firm in the midst of difficult emotions, unyielding yet compassionate towards them is essential here.
  3. Investigate: we then approach the emotion itself with a kindly curiosity, as if we are befriending the emotional state. There are 4 components to this stage:
    1. Mindfulness of thoughts: thoughts are often the kerosene on the fire of difficult emotions, and if we can approach these thoughts with intimate attention, they will have a tendency to defuse.
    2. Mindfulness of emotions: we might label the emotion, and pause in its presence, allowing it to simply be. We might notice that there are layers here, for example underneath anger sadness might appear. Notice what happens when we bring acceptance to this, how this changes the emotional state.
    3. Mindfulness of bodily sensations: we feel into the emotional state, allowing it to work its way through our bodies, perhaps asking ourselves: what is happening in my body right now? Where is (e.g.) anger in the body? How it is now?
    4. Mindfulness of concepts: we can explore, again with intimate yet kindly attention, what sets of beliefs this leaves us with; what meaning this emotion brings to us. Are these concepts real and fixed or do they alter over time?
  4. Nonidentification: there is nothing to do in this last stage but rest on the outbreath and let the experience wash through us; it’s the part of the practice which is truly mindful as we relax in natural awareness, as if we have broken through a trance of wild forest emotions.

RAIN practice is not a “one shot deal” it is a practice that yields more and more every time it is experienced. RAIN is not about getting rid of our emotions, suppressing them or acting them out. Far from it. Our emotional states can be creative and can generate great insights; RAIN practice encourages us to work skilfully with our emotional states before we become engulfed and identified into what we think they might mean; it helps stop the wild elephant from running down that unhelpful road and taking charge of our lives.

[1] Dzogchen Ponlop Emotional Rescue

[2] Lisa Feldman Barrett How Emotions Are Made


[4] Tara Brach Radical Acceptance


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