Creating a retreat at home

Every year I spend the equivalent of over a month on retreat. I am very fortunate that I get to volunteer at a retreat centre where I do two of the things I love the most – hang out with like minded, positive people who are committed to their own growth and cook! This enables me to go on far more retreats than I would otherwise, and although I am working, I get to hang out and learn from some of the best meditation teachers. I also go on one retreat a year as a punter so I can participate fully. I also get to spend more time than I would usually in nature, especially around trees.

I should have been away last week so now I am feeling in the need of that opportunity to reflect and go within. When I went on my first retreat 11 years ago, in 2009, I worried about being disconnected from the world. This was only a weekend! The longest retreat I have done so far is 12 days. Even a week doesn’t always seem long enough now.

As soon as I arrive on retreat I sense a slowing down. My mind stops racing, I stop worrying about messages and emails I haven’t replied to. There’s nothing that can’t wait. I rarely read on retreats now because that is just more input which is what I am trying to reduce, to detox my mind. It’s not easy because the mind always wants to be busy. It’s also tempting to find things to do to avoid being with my thoughts.

Sometimes a retreat will go swimmingly and I feel as if I’m on cloud 9 all week and could meditate for hours. Other times I will be dealing with difficult emotions – stuff that is happening in my life or has come up from the past. Over the years I’ve learned to use that as my material to work with. If something is presenting itself to me then unless I face it it’s only going to resurface at a later date.

When I came away from my first retreat I felt so blissed out I just wanted to hold onto that feeling for ever. However, trying to grasp onto pleasant emotions is only going to cause suffering because nothing is permanent. Sometimes it could be quite jarring to return to the ‘outside’ world among people who haven’t been on retreat. I would get frustrated at their lack of self-awareness. That presented more material for me to work with; developing compassion. After all you don’t know what you don’t know.

It’s now nearly 5 months since I was last on retreat so I feel I am well overdue. To that end I’ve decided to create my own retreat, here at home. Over the May bank holiday weekend I shall turn off my phone – or put it in airplane mode so I can still use the Insight Timer app. I shall start at 7pm on Friday evening and continue to lunchtime on Monday morning. I won’t watch TV, check my emails, make any phone calls, read anything other than poetry and definitely no social media!

I’ve planned out the schedule as follows:

Friday 1 May
7pm –  dedication ceremony and short meditation
Saturday 2 May
7.30 am – bodywork and meditation
10.30 am – meditation
4pm – relaxation and meditation
7pm – inspirational readings, meditation and chanting
Sunday 3 May
7.30 am – bodywork and meditation
10.30 am – meditation
4pm – relaxation and meditation
7pm – inspirational readings, meditation and chanting
Monday 4 May
7.30 am – bodywork and meditation
10.30 am – meditation and closing ceremony.

The body work will consist of either yoga, EFT or a do-in, depending whether anyone joins me. Each session will last between one and two hours.
If you like the sound of this and would like to join me I am happy to stream the meditations over Zoom, do some q&a to help you with your meditation whether you’re a beginner of if you’ve been doing it for years. If it’s the latter come and join in the power of collective meditation.

So how will I feel at the end of it? Of course that is unknown because I don’t know what will surface over the 4 days. One thing I do know though is that I will definitely feel better afterwards. My head will be clearer, I will feel refreshed and cleansed. I also won’t be drinking any alcohol or caffeine – I rarely drink these days anyway. I will still go for my daily walks and I may do a bit of gardening because that is my way of connecting with nature.

I’d love to invite you to join me. To make it affordable to everyone just pay what you can afford.

Click the link and pick your price!

See you there!





What are you searching for?

I would wager that everyone is searching for some sort of meaning in their life. There are probably as many ways of doing this as their are people in the world. Many are probably not even aware but everyone is motivated to do things that they think will make them happy. Even bad things. Because doing things that are unskilful (I prefer that to bad) can sometimes distract us from being with feelings, thoughts or emotions that may be painful or uncomfortable. Drinking or taking drugs is a prime example of this.

You see when I look at my life it has been pretty hard (by Western standards anyway). I was in an abusive marriage for 15 years and the abuse continued afterwards too, I am still single at the age of 53 having had my hopes dashed many a time, my eldest son is a homeless heroin addict and I have no idea where he is right now, I used to have a business and lost a lot of money in the crash of 2008 and had to sell my house to pay off some debts so I have no financial security (if anyone ever does), my ex husband died in 2014 so I am now my sons’ only parent, among other things. I am now consciously creating my life. I live in a beautiful area, I have enough money (for now) and some savings so I am richer than many in the world. But it’s not about material wealth for me, it’s about the riches within.

I would probably not have chosen this path if I had know differently when I was younger but all the hardships and good times have led me to where I am now. When my marriage became intolerable in 2001 I was so scared the only thing I could think of to do was to pray. I don’t believe in God in the Christian authoritarian sense but by praying – I didn’t really know who I was praying too – I found the strength within me to get out. It wasn’t easy by any means and I had 3 young children to think about too. What it did give me though, was faith, faith in something higher.

I have been studying Buddhism since 2007 and what I have learned from the Buddha’s teachings has helped me through many a difficult time since. I have learned not to take things so personally. Everyone is on their own journey and doing the best they can with the tools they have at their disposal. I was brought up in a Christian environment and now it all makes sense. I can see the meaning and symbolism instead of taking it all literally. I no longer want to be bound by the label of a ‘religion.’ Buddha wasn’t a Buddhist and Jesus wasn’t a Christian but we can learn from the examples they set. What I do like about Buddhism is that it recognises that everyone has the potential to become a Buddha.

We are all divine, spiritual beings. Human beings. The more we can let go and allow ourselves to be the more our divine nature shows through. We don’t need ‘fixing’, we don’t even need to search for anything. I now choose to radiate love, starting with love for myself. Love is the highest vibration. It is not weak, it takes strength to love. That’s why it’s hard sometimes, especially when we have been upset by someone else’s actions.See my previous post on forgiveness.

It is a paradox that when we reach enlightenment, we will realise that we were enlightened all along. I sometimes get glimpses of it in my meditation, that sense of pure love and light and peace with the world. That’s when I am reminded I can stop searching, I already have it within me. Of course I forget but one thing I always remember is to have faith.

Love to you all you amazing beings. Choose love, always.

What are your triggers?

One of the joys of meditating and mindfulness is that you get to know yourself better. It’s not always easy because we have to face the dark side too! As we start to live more mindfully we become more aware of our thoughts and feelings and start to act on them less (hopefully!). We also start to notice patterns and how particular situations can trigger a strong reaction and leave us feeling hurt, upset or angry. We are only human and it can be dangerous to suppress these feelings because they will only resurface at a later date. However we can choose how we respond.

So what to do? As I try to live more ethically I always try to respond with love; firstly to myself and then to the person who may have done something that upset me. It’s usually the ones closest to us, our family and friends, who push our buttons the most anyway. It’s not easy because my first thoughts are usually to start blaming them for how they have acted. I try to remember that everyone is doing their best and it’s not personal even though it may feel like it. Everyone is a result of their conditions and if something upsets me I can look back and see how similar situations have provoked the same reaction. However I know that if I do respond skilfully in a loving way I will feel better about myself and I’m creating a better world for those around me too. If someone does something that hurts us the chances are they are hurting too so don’t they deserve love too? We all do. I still allow myself to feel what I’m feeling and by acknowledging the negative emotions it takes the power away from them.

Here’s to creating a more loving world one step at a time. Compassion is a radical act. The people or situations we have difficulty with can be our biggest teachers. Look at how the Dalai Lama responds to the way his people have been treated by the Chinese. What a wonderful example.

Meditating with crystals

I have been using crystals for over 10 years now. I have also been meditating for almost as long and yet it was only today I thought of combining the two so I appreciate this is not a new idea. It’s just a new experience for me.

I am by no means an expert on crystals – I just know they work. I don’t even know the names of them (apart from rose quartz) let alone their qualities. I bought the ones in the picture above yesterday and have forgotten the names of them already.

The person who first introduced me to crystals told me choose the one(s) I liked and trust they were what I needed. And really that’s all you need to know. Pick up whatever you are drawn to and they will provide the healing you need.

I’ve had a difficult few weeks dealing with hurt and emotional pain. I was away in January visiting a friend and my meditation practice had slipped. So yesterday I went crystal shopping. The blue heart is to help with communication and protecting my aura. The others are for grounding. I definitely needed that as I am very good at spending too much time in my head and overthinking things. I walked around all day yesterday with the crystals in my pocket and felt their effects immediately.

So today when I sat down to meditate I was still very much in my head. Then I thought why don’t I hold the grounding crystals. I realise I may be preaching to the converted here but sometimes we overlook the most simple ideas.

The result? Difficult to describe sometimes but definitely miles better than before. My third eye is open again after having been shut for a few weeks now. I had completely forgotten about it and how much better it feels to have the chakras open again. I would just add though that I wouldn’t expect this kind of thing to happen all the time. It happens to me quite a lot but only recently because I have built up a depth of practice. It’s like paying into a bank account – of course it’s best to keep it topped up regularly – but if you miss a few payments the reserves are there already.

Doing away with negative self talk

I guess like me you are probably your own worse critic. My one intention for 2017 is to love myself more. We are only 11 days into 2017 and I have messed up spectacularly a few times already. Or have I? Is that just me being overly critical of myself? Probably, because when I have confessed to friends they have reminded me I am only human.

I have been practising meditation and mindfulness for about 10 years now. If anything that can make it worse because I can see my patterns and sometimes I feel powerless. I have noticed in the last few weeks that I can still feel just as insecure as ever. So what do I do? Beat myself up even more. I am now trying to laugh at it – not at myself – but at the human condition in general. I have been setting very high standards for myself. I think I should be a good Buddhist and because I am a coach I should be calm in all situations. And there’s another thing. That word ‘should.’ We should be this, we should be that.

So how am I going to stop criticising myself? I can practise more self-compassion. I can choose to be connected to my inner child and recognise when she is hurt and be kind to her. I have had many challenges in the last few years so I am also choosing to give myself a break. If a friend had been through similar I would be there for her so why can’t I be there for myself? I am also accepting that it’s ok to lean on people sometimes. That’s what friends are for after all. I don’t do it very often so I’m going to let myself be carried sometimes.

So if you’re stressing already about your new year resolutions, look at them again. You are good enough already.

Love Helen

The trouble with mindfulness

I am writing this post in response to an article ‘Is mindfulness making us ill’ that appeared in the Guardian magazine at the weekend. It was written by a writer on ‘politics, social affairs and economics.’ Her name is Dawn Foster and it appears she has had one bad experience of meditation and found a few others who have too. Suddenly everyone is an expert because they’ve been to one meditation class or on a 6 week course. Last week I heard Leicester University have jumped on the bandwagon and are now offering a Masters qualification in ‘Mindfulness and Compassion.’ This in my view is the real problem – that people teaching mindfulness do not have a regular practice which is more important than all the ‘study’ in the world.

This would have been a good opportunity for Dawn to investigate what really happens in meditation with experienced practitioners. Painful stuff comes up more often than not and mindfulness alone will not fix the problem. Because you are sitting with your bare experience there is no chance to suppress it by being busy or pretending that you have ‘dealt with it.’ It may be that counselling or therapy would be appropriate in some cases and a good teacher would know this. In my experience mindfulness helps me with difficult times because I know the only way is ‘through’ or it will come back to bite me later. I have also learned that you never deal with anything. Stuff from the past will always come up unexpectedly and each time it does I gain a greater insight one way or another.

I am by no means an expert, my first meditation experience was in only in 2006 and I have been practising ever since. There is still a long way to go and the further you come it would seem the less you know! It is a lifelong journey and to dismiss meditation, mindfulness or whatever you wish to call it after one disappointing experience seems crazy to me. Would you give up eating after a bad meal?

Shame on you Dawn, it would appear you are an experienced journalist but why let the facts get in the way of a good story?




Calming your thoughts

Something I hear a lot is ‘I can’t meditate because I can’t empty my mind.’ I have to confess before I started meditating I thought that what was supposed to happen too. Meditating is about getting to know your mind, spotting patterns and assumptions. Recently I’ve been getting more than a little frustrated with myself as my thoughts seem to be on overtime at the moment and even meditating twice a day my mind is still as busy. At the weekend Prakasha was talking about waiting for our mind to settle. If only! Sometimes even after an hour of sitting on the cushion it was still as busy.

Last night I woke in the small hours and my mind was racing as per usual. I then remembered something else that Prakasha had said about facing everything in our experience so I thought instead of trying to turn away from the thoughts I would let them in. I felt all the thoughts come rushing into my head like children running out of school at the end of the day, and then – they settled. It is so easy to turn away from those parts of our experience we don’t like but when we face them we actually feel happier.

I am working in a school at the moment where people are dropping like flies with sickness. I almost felt guilty this morning because I had so much energy and enthusiasm. There is much published in the media at the moment about how mindfulness and meditation improve health. I know from experience that it works.


Meditation may prevent absenteeism by stressed public servants

I came across this article from the Guardian which was published in January via another blogger today. It is interesting to note that studies are showing that mindfulness training is reducing sickness absences yet there is also concern that there is a shortage of qualified teachers. Following on from my post of a couple of days ago I wanted to highlight this issue again. As far as I am concerned although there are many trainings out there of varying quality the main issue is whether the trainer has a mindfulness practice herself. You can go on all the courses in the world but if you are not embodying it then it will not have a lasting impact on the people you are training.

I am planning a mindfulness programme for the school where I am currently working.  It is not something to be taken on lightly. It takes thought and preparation but I know that potentially the results will be literally life changing.

Mindfulness in schools

‘Mindfulness’ is a buzz word these days and that has to be a good thing.  I found a resource the other day that had the instructions for a mindfulness exercise a teacher could do with their class. All well and good if the teacher is an experienced practitioner.

Authenticity is everything. You would not go into a class and teach maths or history for example if you knew nothing about the subject yourself. You may get so far reading off a crib sheet but once the pupils started to ask questions if you did not have the necessary background knowledge you would soon be outed as a fraud.

Mindfulness is no different, you can only go so far reading out a document you found on the internet. If you do not have a regular practice yourself you will find it very hard to embody it while teaching it to your pupils. That is not a problem however, start doing it yourself, even 5 minutes a day is better than nothing. Keep a record of what you notice, however small and insignificant it may seem. The effect is compounding (think compound interest) if you improve by as little as 1% a day that is 3778% in a year!

Find guided meditations online, buy a CD and/or go to a class. For me the last option is the best because you have the support of your peers. It has taken me several years of going to a meditation group nearly every week to establish a regular daily practice myself. That’s not to say it will take you that long, I know someone who went on a retreat (her first) and then carried on meditating every day from then onwards. Also going on retreat for me is a must, I go several times a year. It gives me space to consolidate my practice and meet with like-minded people. The beauty is though whatever your lifestyle you can find a way that works for you. There is no one-size fits all. Just start where you are.


The Beauty is in Impermanence

IMG_1012[1]I was up at silly o’clock this morning to give my son a lift to work as all the train times are messed around in the holidays. It was about -6°C so everything was covered in a thick layer of frost. The sun had not yet risen but there was an orange glow on the eastern horizon. The world looked magical: the fields, the trees, the towers of Arundel Castle and Cathedral rising through the mist, the gentle reflection of the light in the river Arun. I observed to my son it was a shame that I had not brought my camera with me.

On the way home I thought ‘Does it really matter?’ I remember the days of film when we only had 24 or 36 shots and we had to pay for every one to be developed whether it came out or not. We thought carefully about of what we wanted to take pictures. These days with digital we can take as many as we want, memory card permitting, and then delete the ones that are not in focus or that we do not like. And what are we missing if we are always observing the world through the lens of a camera? Trying to preserve each moment for ever we are not being fully present at that time. How about we just appreciate the beauty in each minute instead, knowing that nothing will ever be exactly the same again?

Earlier this year I took part in a flash mob in celebration of the first gay marriage in Brighton. After we had finished singing as we were dispersing I heard a couple of people say, ‘What a shame we will never sing together again.’ No! You have missed the point. The beauty was the fact that that particular group of people would only sing a song together once. It was a precious moment. Of course it has been preserved on youtube though!

We spend most of our lives in the past or the future. Leave your camera at home today and appreciate each moment as it comes and goes. I promise it will be a much richer experience.

P.S. I took the photo above from my living room window after I returned home.