Slowing Down to survive the Season

How was your December? Did you remain in one piece? By Christmas Eve I was bit done in.  I’d been through an intense month at work, flown to Singapore for a few nights to meet my 86-year-old mother who came in from England. On day two her viral aches flared up big time and I got gastro so there we were in our twin-bedded luxury hotel room, me rushing to the bathroom and my mother whimpering with pain, making the next day’s onward flight to Australia a bit of a challenge to say the least.

On arrival in Australia, Mum got the gastro (which lasted two weeks) and I had to fly straight up to Brisbane for work the following morning at 7am. Still a bit of digestive disaster, I had stayed overnight in a pretty basic motel at Tullamarine and, distracted by worry about Mum,  managed to leave my laptop on the conveyor belt at Security. Inconvenient, but I did get it back the next day; as a dear friend quipped, security is a pretty safe place to leave your computer.

The previous week, rushing for a train, I had nearly fallen down the steps at Flinders Street and the Friday before  Christmas I was so caught up in thoughts that I threw the ball for my dog Bertie into the road rather than into the trees. Bertie has zero road sense and, but for the timely appearance of a Guardian Angel disguised as a fellow dog walker, he would have run out in front of the cars. Like so many of us I was galloping mindlessly towards the end of the year.

By Christmas Eve, although the gastro had gone, I had a touch of Bridget Jonesitis (the world can appear very smugly married at Christmas time with everything screaming happy families and TIS THE SEASON TO BE JOLLY).  Remember Colin Firth’s reindeer jumper in the film of Bridget Jones’ Diary?  To add to the heady mix, I had some personal life entanglements – the jolly season does tend to heighten emotions – and the night before Christmas I experienced a resurgence of grief for my father who died last December.  How I wished I could pick up the phone and chat to him. Dad loved Christmas and was always the life and soul of the party – I can remember him drinking a bit too much and playing catch with a bowl of Christmas pudding one year.

Never one to be defeated and wallow, I took a deep breath – well several – and spent the evening dipping into some inspirational texts, quotes, poems and other self-help bits and pieces which I have collected and curated over the year, treating myself to a philosophical and spiritual immersion.  One of the texts I returned to was by Henry Scott Holland, a piece that was read at my grandmother’s memorial service and at my father’s funeral in January. Here’s an excerpt.

“Death is nothing at all…I have only slipped away into the next room. I am I and you are you. Whatever we were to each other, that we still are. Call me by my old familiar name, speak to me in the way in which you always used. Put no difference in your tone, wear no forced air or solemnity or sorrow. Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes we enjoyed.”  

My father and I enjoyed lots of in-jokes, references that only we understood, and we invented multiple silly languages that involved Mr Bean-type gesticulations. That humorous and playful thread still connects me to the essence of my father. Then I came across Mad Dogs and Englishmen (as in they who go out in the midday sun), the song written and sung by Noel Coward (although some attribute the words to Rudyard Kipling) in 1931. It satirises the failure of the British to adapt to foreign climates and starts like this:

“Mad Dogs and Englishmen
Go out in the midday sun,
The Japanese don’t care to
The Chinese wouldn’t dare to.
Hindus and Argentines sleep firmly from twelve to one
The Englishmen detest a siesta.”

While my father was not an embarrassing English man ‘abroad’, he was quintessentially English and always had dogs at his side. I can picture him now striding across heather-clad moors with his black Labradors. How these memories nurture me.

Then I dipped into a bit of Buddhist compassion – for self and others, remembering to slow down and simply be present to what is and to surrender to things and situations I can’t control and change; life doesn’t always deliver what we want.  I love the concept of coming back to the senses as a way of circuit-breaking the chatter of the mind. There’s a softness to kindness and compassion – it’s the opposite of achievement-driven rushing. And softness can twin with resilience; I remember an Ayurvedic retreat where we visualised a strong spine, our support system, while breathing in and out peace.  Just ten deep breaths can re-set an agitated system. Ahh…By Christmas Day I had undergone something of a 360-degree transformation. When I walked my dog in the morning, I felt my feet on the ground, listened to the rustling of the trees and the orange of the canna lilies and the purply blue of the agapanthus flowers jumped out at me. I spent a joyous day with my mother and my brother and his family celebrating in the traditional way.

A few days later, I heard a wonderful program on BBC Radio 4 about sloths and the benefits of taking life at a more leisurely pace. Slow-moving animals live longer – and even creatures associated with industriousness have some less active members among them – think un-busy bees and lazy ants. The only time that sloths speed up is when they have sex and that’s all about survival. As they normally keep a low profile to reduce their exposure to predators, raucous sex and lots of movement puts them at risk, making it sensible to get it over with quickly. Well, we don’t have to take too many leaves out of the sloth’s book, but a few maybe, and those that we do, we should digest slowly – they take a week to digest their food!

Happy New Year to all my readers! May it be evenly-paced, kind and mindful.

Life Lessons at the School of Life

“Lost for words, copywriter ditches job and calls it a day.”

I wrote this mock headline as part of a wonderful class – How to Stay Calm – at the School of Life in Melbourne. The exercise was to coin a headline summarising a situation where we lost our cool and did more than just feel our anger, we acted upon it.

For those who haven’t come across it before, the School of Life was started by philosopher, TV presenter and author Alan de Botton and has its headquarters in London. To quote from their website: The School of Life is devoted to developing emotional intelligence through the help of culture. We address such issues as how to find fulfilling work, how to master the art of relationships, how to understand one’s past, how to achieve calm and how better to understand and, where necessary change, the world.

Melbourne’s School of Life is located at the Spencer St end of Bourke St and has a small cafe framed by natural wood bookshelves stacked with everything from the classics and contemporary literature to self-help, philosophy and the humanities. The lecture-style classroom leads off the cafe and is also book-lined, intimate and inviting.

Copyright: School of Life

Copyright: School of Life

For three hours last Wednesday Elise Bialylew, founder of Mindful in May (, led us in a wonderfully rich discussion drawing on the works of some of the great philosophers and thinkers from Kierkegaard to Buddha as well as contemporary thinkers, psychologists, neuroscientists, futurists and researchers.

I’ve explored all sorts of therapies, attended different types of retreats and experimented with various styles of meditation and ways to stay balanced, but there’s always more to learn and re-learn. It’s not as if we were taught how to manage or relate to our emotions at school or university, at least not when I was in the education system. Elise reminded us that emotional wellbeing is a skill and takes practice just like a sport. So, as well as going to the gym, we need to make time for training our minds.


Emerging research shows that mindfulness – training our minds to focus on one thing at a time and staying in the present moment – can actually develop our pre-frontal cortex. This is heartening as our brains haven’t kept up with the pace of change and evolved to cope with the demands of modern life. But a little mind training can help update the software. Want to know more? Try reading Daniel Siegel’s The Mindful Brain or do what I did and download some guided meditations onto my phone. I love guided meditations as I find it much easier to still my mind and focus.

During the class we also reflected on what it is to be human, and the fears that we all share. According to Buddhism, mankind’s five greatest fears are: fear of death; fear of illness; fear of losing your mind; fear of loss of livelihood; and fear of public speaking. Who hasn’t experienced one or all of those at some stage in their life?

Given our inherent human vulnerability – it’s time we learnt to listen to the likes of researcher and author Brené Brown who writes that owning our vulnerability can be a strength and actually connects us to others – the last part of the class focused on five key prescriptions for living. (If you’ve not yet discovered Brené Brown, I highly recommend one of her TEDTalks –

The Five Prescriptions

1. Acceptance – survival stories – Elise recounted the story of a shipwreck survivor entitled the Sinking of the Trashman which is part of a collection of extraordinary stories called The Moth (more about the Moth in a future blog). What emerged from this tale of survival was a belief in a higher power, a conscious choice of focus (expressed as a sense of wonder at the sky, the stars etc), a talisman (she threw a black pearl into the sea as kind of offering), a determination to focus on positive memories even in the face of death (two crew members were eaten by sharks), a great deal of resilience and lots of common sense practicality; for example, she used seaweed for insulation.

2. Discernment – mindful awareness – a recent study showed that five hours of mindfulness actually changed the body’s genetic expression and can help with inflammation and chronic pain. What’s more, it can even boost production of an enzyme that protects against ageing. Forget botox and collagen…

3. Surrender to the Ascetic or Aesthetic – perhaps losing oneself in nature or becoming absorbed in a work of art.

4. Compassion – empathy and identifying with others – which can sometimes mean simply holding the space for another person rather than trying to fix them. But equally important – and it’s not valued in our culture – is self-compassion. How can be kind to others when we insist on beating ourselves up and criticising ourselves?

5. Communion and Connection –this is about connecting to others. I’m reminded of that famous John Donne poem – ‘No Man is an Island’. Where would we without friends and community?

No man is an island,
Entire of itself,
Every man is a piece of the continent,
A part of the main.