As I stood next to a man roaring with rage and wet with tears, in a community hall in deep west London, I thought – well, this is awkward. I don’t even like man-hugs, particularly those three-pat buddy jobs they do in Hollywood. Yet here was a real live male in distress, perilously close. Should I hug him, against the advice of my inner Brit?
When I was offered the chance to go Jan Day’s ‘Living Tantra’ one-day workshop in October, I snapped it up. The last time I’d been to one of Jan’s workshops was back in 2008, when we were filming it for a side project to the One Giant Leap movie documentaries. I’d had a great time, but as creative consultant on the project, I couldn’t fully immerse myself in the weekend. This time, I would be on my own and free to explore.
I arrived feeling relaxed and with no particular goal in mind, other than to enjoy myself and be open to whatever came up. As we waited outside the large sunlit room at the Study Centre in West London, I eyed my fellow participants with interest. It always fascinates me to see who’s attending any workshop I go to: is there a ‘type’, or even an archetypal workshop attendee? Broadly speaking, not really. There were people from all walks of life and ethnicity, ranging from their mid 20s to their late 60s. I suppose you could say that a unifying factor was that everyone seemed to be a bit nervous.
Now I don’t know if you agree, but I think one of the hardest things we encounter in life – apart from our relationship with ourselves – seems to be our relationship with other people. Yet the absolute fundamentals of relationship, especially intimate relationships – not just being able to say clearly and freely yes or no, but also being able to hear and receive a yes or a no – are skills that aren’t taught to us at school, or at any level afterwards. I say this because it seems most of us are so wounded that the devastating experience of hearing a no is something we avoid at any cost. It plugs us into our deepest fears of rejection, of not getting our needs met, of not getting what we want. It’s primal. I believe our society desperately needs the basic tools to be able to handle this and start healing these wounds.
In Jan’s workshop we explored these fundamentals, first through movement and then, in the afternoon, through touch. The first exercise was deceptively simple. After a warm-up, we formed two lines, women facing men, and the person directly opposite became our partner. We took it in turns to be a mover or a receiver. The receiver held their hands either open in a welcoming yes, or palms facing up and forward in a clear no. The mover then moved towards or away from the receiver, depending on what was going on for them. Throughout, we were instructed to remain conscious and focused on our feelings, what was going on inside us, and not to bother (if possible) about what was going on for the partner.
I could see on my female partners’ faces how intense this was for them. But I was thinking – hey, this is easy; I’ve got no problem with saying yes or no. It wasn’t until my third partner who did not move towards me once during the entire exercise that I started to feel my own wound opening up. It wasn’t easy to keep my arms open in a yes, when all the time I felt I was getting a no, or at best a circumspect maybe from my partner; but in doing so, it allowed me to feel my heart wound opening up inside me. The wound of rejection, of feeling unwanted, of not getting my needs met. I kept breathing and allowed the feelings to flow through me, without judging them. Afterwards we sat down and shared our experiences. My exercise partner said she could see me struggling with her not moving towards me, and how hard it was for her not to simply acquiesce in order to make me feel better. I felt so grateful to her for this, and to be reminded that everything starts with the pure power of an authentic yes or no.
I was so excited by this that I called my partner during the lunch break to ask her, in reference to a recent discussion we’d had, whether she could appreciate that when I said no, it was not a rejection. She said that she could.
In the afternoon, accompanied by the muted sounds of tube trains from beyond the large windows, we explored the yes and the no through touch. In groups of four we took it in turns to be the person in the middle who could control how, and where, we were touched by the others. This took the experience to an even deeper level; it was about being able to express truthfully not just a no – don’t touch me there, stop, pause, leave me alone – but perhaps even more profoundly, the yes: yes, I like that, yes, do it more, yes please. In the two minute warm up, I felt a bit uncomfortable being touched by these complete strangers and I could feel my body tensing up, but allowing myself the simple permission of being able to say stop, slow down, just one person, or no was a huge relief (afterwards, my partners in this process shared that it was a great relief for them too). The second time, which lasted about ten minutes, I relaxed into the process until I began to luxuriate in it. To be able to say truly - yes, I love this, all of you, please, do it more! - was liberating. I walked out of Jan’s workshop feeling like a million dollars.
It is only when we can trust someone implicitly that our relationships can truly flourish. And the foundation of this is authenticity. This means having the courage to say no, even when we feel we should be saying yes. It also means having the courage to receive a no, to really hear it. Because, as Jan explained, an authentic no is the greatest gift we can give the other; it brings clarity, truth and therefore healing. It is only from this point of complete honesty that we can build successful relationships. And this corresponds on every level – from our sexuality to our day-to-day communication.
In my life, it has taken me a long time to be able to say no, when my all my conditioning has been telling me to say yes. It’s often one of the hardest things to do. We are programmed to please the other, to seek reassurance and love from the other. We are so terrified of losing the approval of the other that we will often, if not always, say yes when we mean no. And this confusion fans out across society, meaning that abuse can flourish when the individual feels incapable of expressing their truth. All the recent revelations about the abuse that so many women have experienced (and men too,of course) highlighted by the #MeToo campaign are founded on this terrible fear: the fear of saying no, of hearing no and the terrible lack of clarity around the no. Boys and girls, men and women, all need to learn to hear and experience the no with confidence, with empathy and with understanding. If we can truly embrace this simple yet fundamental concept, we can finally blossom as a society. We can be confident in our relationships on every level, knowing that not only are we asking for what we actually want, but also expressing clearly what we don’t want. What could be simpler than that?
“The brain can only assume its proper behavior when consciousness is doing what it is designed for: not writhing and whirling to get out of present experience, but being effortlessly aware of…
I am 74. I have always considered myself to be fit and healthy, even though I have been living with the consequences of a serious rock climbing injury for the last 20 years. I have followed a healthy diet and lifestyle: largely vegetarian, low alcohol consumption, not overweight, no drugs for the last 40 years, and high level of physical activity.
So, one day in July this year, I was shocked when swimming in the sea near my house in N Wales - to discover I could hardly catch my breath. And then the following day when I started to go up the stairs at home, I found myself struggling to get to the top without stopping. At that point, I chose to tell myself that age has finally caught up with me, whatever that was supposed to mean. Any crap rationalisation rather than consider myself to be less than a perfect specimen of humanity!
The next morning, when I struggled to get out of bed because I was so breathless, I took my pulse and fear shot through me as I registered how fast it was beating. Then, after an emergency visit to my GP, I am being whisked off to my local district hospital in an ambulance with flashing lights, feeling somewhat detached from it all.
When told I have heart failure with the left side of my heart working at less than 25% of its expected capacity, I refuse to take it in and incongruously argue that I am healthy. Part of my reluctance at this point is because two days later I am due to fly to Corfu to take part in a week-long group process: Tantra Mantra with my beloved. At this point, I desperately hold onto the belief that I am still going to make it.
All in all, after a week in hospital I am discharged feeling weak, with two pieces of metal scaffolding (stents) in one of my coronary arteries, which had become completely blocked up with fatty deposits. My heart lifted, and I felt like cheering towards the end of the stenting procedure when the artery reappeared on the monitor screen as it finally became filled again with blood, signalling that the operation, during which time I had been fully awake, had been a success. It took all of ninety minutes – the blockage had been a long one and it required clearing a little bit at a time to avoid any mishap. And my breathing was easier.
For the first four weeks, I had to take things very easily, and was not allowed to drive. Since then I have been making a steady recovery back to normal day to day life: looking after the large house and smallholding where I live, taking my dog for walks, even logging a large fallen oak tree using a chainsaw. This morning I went for a rather cold, even in full wetsuit gear, but enjoyable swim in the sea. It was the end of October.
Although I feel a lot better, I am taking a lot of medication to control cholesterol, thin my blood and slow down the heart and more. This is to prevent more blockages and clotting around the stents as well protecting my heart muscle while it heals. I am even following a more strict, self-imposed diet: cutting out almost all dairy, less sugar and taking specific heart associated supplements.
Until I get the results of the MRI scan, scheduled to happen end November, I am still being treated for heart failure. I am hoping then for confirmation of the improvement I feel. Of course, as Ischaemic Heart Disease is the number one killer in the Western world, it is not surprising that I have some definite anxiety around the outcome.
Whatever the outcome I have been prompted to take stock of my life: accepting my ultimate mortality and not knowing when that will be. And there have been positive developments: in my close relationships. My beloved tells me I am sweeter now than before all this happened, and my daughter says she likes spending time with me and appreciates me. She and I have a chequered relationship which has been very tense at times gone by. It is a great relief that it is so much better now.
On self-reflection, I have realised I can be kinder to myself and that means being kinder to other people around me. I live at a slower pace and rest most afternoons. I expect less of myself and of others. What’s the point of driving myself to an early grave while there is still so much to live for. I don’t know about being sweeter, but I do know I can choose to be harmonious in the way I interact with those close to me rather than being over-reactive. And this makes for a happier life in many ways. And with so much experience of living it is time to choose the easy option!
I now look forward to sharing simple pleasures with my beloved, leading to a deeper, soft connection, without needing the excitement that is so often associated with friction. I think it amounts to being in the heart rather than the head. I have been on this journey for the last four years since finding a new lover. Together we have been through several positive, life-changing experiences. This is just the latest.
‘Those tender words we said to one another are stored in the secret heart of heaven. One day, like the rain, they will fall and spread, and their mystery will grow green over the world.’Rumi
The mystery that lies within the hidden heart of the human being, and is also the secret heart of heaven, takes us right to the core of creation and the dark wholeness that births what indigenous cultures call the ten thousand things.
‘In the whole of the universe there are only two, the lover and the Beloved.’ And for some, for the mystics of the world, the divine is not father nor mother, but the sweetest, most ecstatic lover that seizes our heart in the most passionate affair of our life.
When the heart is on fire a blaze is created that burns away everything in its path so all that is left is Love. This evisceration, this burning, is the necessary but cruel cleansing that returns us to our self.
‘I burnt and I burnt and I burnt’, says Rumi: ‘I lost my world, my fame, my mind. The Sun appeared and all the shadows ran. I ran after them but vanished as I ran. Light ran after me and hunted me down.’
Al-Hallaj, who was executed for revealing the divine secrets put it this way: ‘When Truth has taken hold of a heart, She empties if of all but Herself. When God attaches himself to a man, He kills in him all else but Himself.’
There is just so much that has to burn in us, so much that has to die, but the destruction of the false self - that scaffold we erected to stave off the wounds of childhood and other incarnations – is consoled.
And it is consoled by the arising of the divine light within, from a small spark to a steady and fierce longing that somehow makes all the pain worthwhile. Just as the pain of childbirth subsides in the memory of the mother as joy takes over, so too are we soothed by sheer wonderment and joy.
But the ego does not go easily. What has to die are all the psychological patterns and attachments that keep us wedded to the world.
Irina Tweedie, who spent several years with her Sufi master in India, said the pain was so bad she thought she was going to die…and the rewards do not come from the world but from the divine. As Rumi says, he lost his world, his fame, his mind.
Everything is given but everything has to be given up. But as Andrew Harvey says, when you no longer want the world, when it no longer matters, it is returned to you on a silver salver. That is the cosmic joke, or one of them.
An emperor had a slave whom he loved immensely and he wanted to know if the slave really loved him. So, into a room heaped with vast treasures, he summoned all the slaves saying they were free to take what they wished. They were over joyed and ran here and there taking what they most wanted. But the slave whom the emperor loved just stood in the corner of the room. When the room was empty, the slave walked quietly over to the emperor and stood by him, his eyes full of love. The emperor said to him, ‘What do you want?’ And the slave said, ‘I want you, just you.’ And the Emperor said to the slave, ‘Because all you want is me, all I possess is yours.’
As Harvey says, in his marvellous book The Way of Passion, it is trust, absolute trust that is the key. And for the Sufi, life itself is the greatest teacher and everything and everyone that crosses our path has the exact lessons we need to learn.
It is what I call having an eye for initiation. The Sufi teacher counsels us to look for the hint in the heart and the wayfarer lives not by the rules and regulations of society nor the covert co-dependent agreements of our culture, but learns to listen only to the still, small voice within.
To hear, and learn to obey that voice, so much rubbish has to be removed. So much that we thought important heads for the shredder! And it is seen that none of it was important after all.
What is revealed is that each of us is unique, that each hair on our head really is known, and that we, as this particular manifestation, will never pass this way again. We are important, vital even, and are here to play our part, large or small, it doesn’t matter.
But this way is not for the sensible, rational man or woman; this way is not for those intent on safety; it is only for those willing to give themselves to an affair of the heart, responding to the call of the moment.
A Persian poem offers this warning: ‘Do not come near to the Lane of Love! It is not a thoroughfare! You cannot sleep, you cannot eat; you don’t enjoy the world anymore.’
As Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee points out, a human love affair can pierce the heart, how much more potent an affair with the divine lover who lives inside your own self.
From Him, from Her, there is no escape, no hiding place. But as Rumi says, if we don’t make this journey within in truth we have done nothing with our life:
‘Desperation, let me always know how to welcome you, and put in your hands the torch to burn down the house.’
When I first started this piece, I wrote a piece called Exile and Longing, which grew out of my own experience of exile from family and society, and the choice to live by my own light come what may.
Often, those of us with mystical awareness, have to live outside the consciousness of the culture which we were raised in, beyond its limitations and judgments, patterns and demands.
As a boy, I was baffled as to why I did not want what others wanted, why achievements, even success, were not important to me, did not satisfy me. What I held to was a small light burning softly inside me, which I finally began to nurture.
Irina Tweedie wrote of her small life, living alone in North London, looking down from her hilltop at the comings and goings of those engaging in the world, and knew that although she had given up everything the world sees as important, she had gained the one thing that matters.
‘Those who belong to the Beloved, carry His curse, which is the memory of His embrace. Nothing in the world will fulfil them,’ writes Vaughan-Lee.
So it is, and if your heart is longing and burning, if you are calling God secretly in the night, if only Love will do, at some point you will be answered. Spiritual processes always begin within before manifesting without. You don’t find a teacher, the teacher finds you.
‘Light upon light, Allah calls to Him whom He wills.’
When the divine spark is lit within and the Beloved turns towards you the journey of lover and beloved begins. One light calls to the other, the other calls in return. Finally, the ‘I’ that stands in the way is no more and the two merge in an ecstatic union.
‘If you are seeking, seek Us with joy for we live in the kingdom of joy. Do not give your heart to anything else, but to the love of those who are clear joy. Do not stray into the neighbourhood of despair; for there are hopes: they are real, they exist. Do not go in the direction of darkness – I tell you, suns exist.
Rumi said this because he knew. His meeting with the ferocious wandering Dervish Shams completely remade him. He went from erudite, spiritual scholar to Love’ supreme poet, today the world’s most popular poet. The price he paid was a terrible grief.
The ecstatic union that he enjoyed with Shams came after Shams struck a deal with God, the price of which was his life. The old sage, despised and feared by many, knew that he must pass on what he knew to someone worthy of it and capable of transmitting it to many.
He found Rumi in Konya and their great spiritual love affair began, a union so intense that it roused jealousy and anger among Rumi’s family. Shams disappeared once sending Rumi into paroxysms of grief and longing.
He was found and returned and they were reunited in joy, but Shams disappeared for a second time, finally murdered, probably by Rumi’s younger son.
It was this final pain that Rumi transformed, as he united on the inner planes with his beloved master, spending the last 30 years of his life working to bring the divine light into the world.
There are many different Sufi groups with differing practises, but the work on the path is similar: meditation, chanting the names of God, working with dreams, facing the shadow – all those qualities we have buried and not loved , facing the contra-sexual aspects within, what Jung called the anima and animus, and working with archetypal energies.
And what is right for one aspirant is not right for another. Each of us is unique, yet the practises of the path keep us on track in single-pointed focus on our heart’s devotion.
This is polishing the mirror and when the heart is free of blemishes, the divine sun can be reflected in it. Here the mind is drowned in the heart and as we return to the unmanifest world from when we came we sacrifice ourselves on the altar of love.
Finally, the heart is made as soft and as warm as wool, and the alchemy that was started within you way back when is over……for now.
A lover does not figure the odds. He figures he came clean from God as a gift without reason, so he gives without cause or calculation or limit. A conventionally religious person behaves a certain way to achieve salvation. A lover gambles everything, the self, the circle around the zero! He or she cuts and throws it all away.
This is beyond any religion.
“Work is that which you dislike doing but perform for the sake of external rewards. At school, this takes the form of grades. In society, it means money, status, privilege.” Abraham Maslow (1909 – 1970) His “…interest in human potential, seeking peak experiences and improving mental health by seeking personal growth had a lasting influence on psychology.” 
“Every great dream begins with a dreamer. Always remember, you have within you the strength, the patience, and the passion to reach for the stars to change the world.” Harriet Tubman (1820 – 1913) escaped slavery to become a leading abolitionist. She led hundreds of enslaved people to freedom along the route of the Underground Railroad. 
Work versus Passion, can I have Both?
Maslow and Tubman are from very different backgrounds. Both respected, they each knew lots about work, passion and a continually changing world based on clashing cultures and the times in which they lived.
Both are right as they were each dedicated to a cause and reached for the stars. However, in the 35+ years working in the corporate world, no matter what the background or circumstances, the common complaint is typically, “I hate my job and want a new one that fits my values and passion. How do I do that?”
Coaching hundreds of employees, peers and friends over the years, I came to the conclusion that I too had the same basic question. As a short-term fix I jumped from one job to another (and a big raise and new title), but no matter how exciting at first, the honeymoon ended somewhere at the two to four year mark. The cycle would continue.
The 50s – I’m not going anywhere Career or Workwise
As I hit my early 50s, I felt that something was missing from my life. It wasn’t money, relationships, friends, traveling, or my industry being ripped apart; it was my lack of passion. My BA in psychology and MBA in Marketing were virtually useless after 2000.
In 2001 I was working in Silicon Valley for a new, hot start-up and then lived through the crash of the economy and poor business models (2008). I was the last person standing in our Partner Marketing department. Hundreds of people were let go.
I knew in my heart that changing jobs again would not bring me any more satisfaction, but landed a great looking job in Washington DC at another startup; it was sold.
I needed a major lifestyle change.
I got divorced and moved to my New York childhood home with my mom. What I thought would be 6 months turned into 8 years, becoming her caretaker and holding her hand as she died. At the time that I sold her house, I was 62 with no job or home.
I moved in with my boyfriend. I had no choice but to look at my life and decide how satisfying it was. I took a few years off to read, attend retreats and meditated; it was clear my life needed a good dusting.
The 60s – Too many Deaths of Friends
Let’s face it, I would never be a Maslow in psychology or a Tubman helping free folks from slavery and getting them to safer pastures.
So I took stock of my passion. It had been growing through the years, but I always put it behind the important stuff, “my work.” As I started to take a look at my life, panic set in. Would I have enough money, was I too old to be hired, could I handle the 60-hour workweek and the speed at which everything was changing?
I looked at my skill set and tried to figure out what really turned me on (my passion – what was that again?). What activities could take me to another place where time wouldn’t matter? I discovered there was a world of activities to explore.
Finding your Passion and New Lifestyle
- Resources and budgets
A budget is a plan that allows you to compare the amount of money you have with your expenses. Budgets can be developed for any time period, but a monthly review is a good idea to see if you are on track. Budgets are flexible and can be changed based on circumstances. With budgets you remain “in the know” of your resources so there are no surprises.
In 1977, I was one of the first women to graduate with a Master’s in Business Administration. I got my first job with Ford Motor Company and the sky was the limit. Six years later poor profits and sales got me thinking the grass must be greener somewhere else. Having worked for over 10 firms, I realized that much of the grass was already browned.
We aren’t talking about downsizing; we learned it had another inside name, “dealt by 1000 cuts.” The reality was that the world was changing and the skill sets were very different than when we were trained.
- Living Situation
There are many different “family” units and living situations; multiple marriages, divorce, combined families, sexual orientation, homelessness, and adults living in their parents’ home or parents living in their child’s home. What will you do?
- Unresolved relationships
We see many of these around us. Our nuclear family, extended family, friends, marriage, living together, affairs, moving away, changing interests, illness, grief, excitement, all exist in our changing world.
My living situations changed over the years. I went from family home, dorm, apartments, leasing million dollar homes, brownstone, back to family home, living with boyfriend and now, finally, taking the step to move into my own apartment.
- Making Money to Survive or Thrive
Depending on your chosen (or not) lifestyle, this will impact how you live. Decide what you want and what you can afford or what can fit into your life. There are endless choices. But you must do your research first.
- Choice to Retire
Why retire? Perhaps you have hit a certain age, have become sick of your job, or new needs arise. The world is your oyster, if you can afford it.
- No Choice to Retire
Money, money, money, obligations, ego, status and power, all contribute to your choices. You need to look deep into your heart, mind and bank account before making a change.
You won’t find many volunteers who hate their jobs. There may be problems and you may choose to leave, but it is a personal choice and thus offers complete freedom to do what you want.
- New Life Style
As you explore your life, where it is now, and where you want it to go, this may push you to adapt to a new life style, which matches your passion. It is up to you and no one else. Then you try to make it work with others. There are big decisions to be made here.
Planning is key. You need to be your own project manager and keep on task, regardless of what is happening in the world (fires, floods, tsunami, hurricane, governments take overs)…you can continue to plan and re-plan until the day you die.
- Baby Steps
One of the best pieces of advice I have gotten was “take baby steps.” It takes out the panic and frustration as you begin this process. Even if you could do a project in three steps, turn them into 9.
You must decide for yourself what type of action you will take to create changing beliefs, different mind frames and your Plan.
Once action is taken, a periodic review of how you are feeling and the results you have achieved is imperative. As we go through this change process, both beliefs and affirmations allow us to shift positions, both philosophically and physically, knowing that we can always shift it again at a later date.
Passion from the Masters
I have studied, read, and met many wise people.
“Humans create their own boundaries, their own limitations. We say what is humanly possible, and what is not possible. Then just because we believe it, it becomes truth for us.”
This process can take a while. It took me two years. It can be fun and very frustrating. At the end of the process you may not be able to put all changes in place, but do what you can. The rest will find you.
 Don Miguel Ruiz, The Mastery of Love (2011)
The Christmas after I turned 59 was my dark night of the soul. For the first time, I honestly faced the nagging concern I’d had for so many years - I’d messed up! I’d messed up by choosing not to take my place at university all those decades ago. Fear had kept on stopping me going across the years - fear of being back in an environment where I was not in charge, fear of having to conform - so I didn’t.
I didn’t get married, didn’t have children, didn’t have a career, didn’t have a house, and didn’t create any sort of nest egg. I seemed to lurch from one inspiring project to another but wasn’t able to build any firm foundations and each crumbled one by one. I went from being immersed in a frenzy of activity to crashing and burning. At 59, my lifelong failure stared back at me unblinkingly. I thought all there is left is for me - is to go downhill and die.
Yet instead of sidestepping all of this as I normally would, I allowed it to be. I allowed the possibility of it being true. I stopped resisting, stopped denying, and just stopped. I was holed up in bed with a bad chest infection and I lay there until I was motivated to move again.
Then something unexpected happened. Unexpected as I’d learned that to create one’s own reality you had to focus on it. However, all I was focused on was this barren landscape of a life less lived! At least, that was how I saw it during those few weeks.
Out of the blue, an ex-flatmate got in touch from Peru. He offered me a job, a paid one, writing for his spiritual tour company. Within a few weeks, I was on an all expenses paid trip to experience his signature bucket list tour, which included Lake Titicaca, Machu Picchu, Cusco and the Amazon jungle for a week’s Ayahuasca retreat. I was rooming with another ‘elder’ woman and a seed of a thought emerged that maybe we ‘elder’ women have wisdom to offer the world. It came from some of the quiet thoughts she shared with me about the world.
Much of this magical tour was an ordeal because I was far too unfit for the Andes but it was still an incredible journey. And even though I am at my worst in hot humid environments surrounded by insects, I fell in love with the jungle. I loved the noise - the drumming rain on the roof of my roughly hewn wooden cabin on stilts, the orchestra of bull frogs and other wildlife which escalated during the frequent rain storms. And then there was the beautiful sound of the shaman singing his songs of protection in the middle of the night as I journeyed with Ayahuasca on a deep exploration of my psyche. I had a vision of my birth - me with my feet braced at the entrance to this world screaming for all I was worth ‘Noooooooooo!’. It was an opportunity to let that resistance to being alive on this planet go. About time too.
When I arrived back in the UK, I just wanted to lie face down on the grass in the rain all the time. And as the rainforest had got deeply under my skin, I found myself choosing to spend four months in an off-grid yurt in a secluded Welsh valley during the wettest winter on record in Wales! It was like living inside a drum. And as I learned the rhythm and voices of the stormy winds I knew I might never live in a house again. Emerging out the other side of this womb-like existence - where it took an hour to boil a kettle on top of the woodburner for tea, and two hours to cook a stew or heat enough water for a wash - I realised I may be a worry wart but I was also a resilient and awesome woman!
The idea that we women over 50 are wild, wonderful and wise began to root more deeply.
Having discovered that this part of Wales is my spiritual home I stayed. I found myself a small caravan to live in which shook in the wild winds and where I could hear the rain hammering on the thin aluminium roof. Joy!
An Intuitive PR course I did online around my storytelling - separate from my spiritual travel work - showed me that the people who would be most interested in what I had to share were women over 50. It was like a light bulb going on and it married so well with my increasing sense of us ‘elders’ sharing our wisdom with the world. And before you think you don’t have any - think again.
You can’t make it through 50+ years on this planet without gaining insight, understanding and your own unique perspective. I’d wager a bet on us all being far wiser than we give ourselves credit for. Somehow it’s easier in the ageist society we live in, to believe we’re not worth very much at all, particularly once we’re past menopause. After all, if we aren’t slim, young, fertile and gorgeous, we must be on the scrap heap. So speaks the masculine voice of authority through the press, through our peers and even through our own family.
Another out-of-the-blue opportunity pinged its way in to my inbox - the chance to participate in a shamanic retreat with Elen Tompkins, author of Silver Wheel - the Lost Teachings of the Deerskin Book. As I read the offer I burst into tears. And no matter how hard I tried to talk myself out of it, I knew I had to go. I had already committed to following my heart, but this was the first time I truly followed it without having any conscious sense of the reason for doing it.
A couple of months later, I was camping in a tiny tent during a massive storm under the stern gaze of a rock giant and his mate, with the deep rumbling roar of a waterfall nearby. It was a mystical place to be and perfect for eleven of us to experience thirteen shamanic ceremonies from the Elven Realm of Lemuria. I still had no conscious sense of what I was doing there except reconnecting with an ancient vow. I wondered what that could be.
A few days later, I lost my job and my landlord decided that he had better ask me to leave too. I also had a very sick cat, who was cage-bound for weeks. Did I have a Plan B? Of course not! But I do believe that when things become so chaotic, a breakthrough is just around the corner. So I stayed as calm as I could and allowed life to unfold, and for magic to happen.
Money-making suggestions started pouring in. But I haven’t been able to work purely for money for years. I have to work from inspiration and ideally a bonus is the essential cash flow. But something else happened - out of the suggestions emerged the idea of a community. A community of women over 50 who acknowledge they are truly wise elders with something of value to offer the world.
As I drove through a beautiful Welsh valley, I asked out loud what would be the name of the place where these wonderful elder women would meet? Our version of The Red Tent. At that very moment, the name The Silver Tent boomed out. I felt goose bumps race over my arms while energy shot down through my crown chakra and out through my feet. I burst into tears. Just thinking about this moment as I write is enough to make the tears flow again. I knew in that instant this was bigger than me. It was as if I had been the open-hearted goddess through which this could be birthed. My vow.
All of a sudden, I understood why my life has unfolded the way it had. I had been waiting to be 62 years old, in the right place at the right time – in order to bring this divinely inspired enterprise to fruition.
I saw this community as a crystalline structure, transparent, strong and deeply feminine. It would be a place where we would meet on and offline, learn from each other, share with each other, and discover that being wise elders is our birthright. In fact, it is in our DNA, it is what we’re designed to be. This stage of our lives, far from being a fading out is the most profound, magnificent and creative time of our lives. And above all, we’d take our wisdom out in to the world. I began to believe the Gloria Steinem quote that says ‘one day an army of gray haired woman will quietly take over the world’. Yes, yes, yes.
This was back in October 2016. Since then, almost 3000 women from all around the world have joined the Silver Tent Facebook Group. It is the most engaging and supportive group, I have personally experienced and the feedback is quite extraordinary. I was totally clear from the beginning that this was to be founded on the principles of conscious, co-creative collaboration and to be a place of non-judgemental support, nourishment and learning. What came through intuitively is that this would be the space to create a movement of women over 50 who would create this third stage of our lives imbued with meaning and celebration, as well as making a profound difference in our world.
I am in awe every day at the conversations unfolding in the group and the transformations, which occur. One woman shared her sadness and anger at her relationship ending. She allowed herself to be vulnerable. The wisdom and support from the community was way beyond what you’d expect in a FB group. Woman after woman shared their experiences and reminded her of how wonderful she is and that she didn’t need to settle for anything less than she deserves. She kept in touch with us posting her feelings along the journey -of failure and upset and of challenge - until she shared with us her excitement at enrolling in college again to learn something new. She changed her life and herself in the process and told me that her transformation was helped substantially by being a part of The Silver Tent and receiving such non-judgemental support.
Another woman poured her heart out about her ex-husband and his imminent death. As she posted, day by day taking us with her on her emotional journey, she called on our help and support, but what she didn’t realise for a long time was how much we received from her. Her growth shone through as she learned moment by moment to be more of herself through self reflection and forgiveness. She has been an incredible beacon to all of us. She has helped us understand that our most vulnerable moments can give others more than we can ever believe possible. We certainly don’t need to be perfect in order to share our wisdom.
There are many stories of how this growing global circle of women over 50 is transformational. The Facebook Group is giving people the space to be vulnerable and find support. Our online video meet-ups have taught us that even though we’re meeting in a virtual room, we actually feel as intimately connected as if we were all sitting round a blazing fire sipping mulled wine together. There is an oxytocin rush, which gives us all a wonderful level of deep nourishment. And from this, we’re developing offline meet-ups around the world as well as retreats and house parties.
One of the biggest visions of The Silver Tent is to create co-housing communities all around the world. A new Silver Tent member contacted me recently to talk about just this. She had been her mother’s carer for six years until her death about two days before we spoke. Depression had been her companion for a while and she believed there was nothing for her after this. But she came across the idea of co-housing and it brought some light back to her life. After we chatted for an hour or two about co-housing, we knew we were on the same page. She came to meet me and we are now working together to create the first community of this kind. We’re starting from scratch with no funds available so it is a fascinatingly big project, one that is changing her life… and mine!
There are so many plans to develop. Silver Sofas will be our version of AirBnB helping our women travel around the world feeling supported and safe. Our Silver Wisdom Portal along with Silver Tent Radio and TV will be where we share our wisdom within and beyond the community. Not to mention the quarterly bursary and the philanthropic foundation, which will emerge once we are more than breaking even financially. And there is always more.
It is fascinating to look back and see that the seeds of this have been within me all my life. Just like an acorn grows into an oak tree, I have at last grown in to who I have been destined to be. It is an amazing and magical adventure.
Francesca Cassini, Founder, The Silver Tent
The Silver Tent is creating a movement of post-menopausal women regaining their wild, wonderful and wise elder status to enable the re-emergence of the female elder in western society.
It does this by serving women to reconnect with their wisdom and re-ignite their dreams through an online community offering on and offline conferences, coaching and mentoring, luscious retreats and workshops, global travel experiences and peer to peer meet ups.
The current foundational team and faculty coaches/mentors are wise elder women themselves, are experts in their field, have great experience in running relevant events and in particular supporting women to recognise their value and wisdom through a number of modalities.
‘After the soaring, a peace
like swans settling on a lake.
After the tumult and the roaring winds,
Sheila Kitzinger, the natural childbirth activist who died in 2015
I am 64, and entering into the terrain of my own drawing-closer mortality - yet talking about death is still forbidden. Sex is so much more out in the open. Death is the last taboo. We do not talk about dying, how we’d like to die, or how others have died.
Last October, my mum nearly died of sepsis – her organs had begun to close down but being the 90-year-old Yorkshire woman she was and still is, she battled through – and then by chance, I saw there was a death café at the Dissenter’s Chapel in Kensal Green Cemetery as part of their October Month of the Dead.
I invited a close friend who presumed erroneously that Death was the incidental name of a café, and that we were meeting for Saturday morning tea and a natter. Instead we found ourselves in a circle of twelve discussing - the feelings that are evoked when a family member dies, the nature of a good death and different funereal rituals.
It was simply incredible to have this space to reflect on death and dying. There was a palpable sense of closeness and connection between us all at the end. Amanda and I definitely felt more alive as a result of the extraordinary conversations. One man admitted he’d never really expressed the grief around his mother dying. Another woman talked about the terrible suicide of someone close to her in detail. There was the death/life paradox in action. Plus it took place in this simple chapel created for non-conformists in 1834. Perfect. It sounds weird to say but we loved it, and vowed we would visit more. Forget bars and restaurants, death cafes are the place for truly, deeply, madly meeting.
A few months later, I found myself having the idea – we’d already featured a couple of fiercely brave pieces of writing about death, My First Death by Lena Semaan who told us about her friend, Bob, who had been terminally ill and courageously took the act of dying into his own hands, plus Dreaming of Death by Caroline Bobby who has been in an intimate relationship with death since she was young - for a Death Dinner as part of our OUTage series of events supported by the Arts Council. It would also take place at the Dissenter’s Chapel. The aim was to invite ten people from Deathworld – from mortician and author Carla Valentine to Soul Midwife Patrick Ardagh-Walter, to academic and expert in death rituals, Professor Douglas Davies to coffin plate aficionado, Hannah Gosh who happens to have a tattoo of one on her leg – to dialogue openly about their interests in death and dying, then dig a little deeper. We, at Advantages of Age, are keen to open up this last taboo as well as helping to form a Death Community, supporting the Assisted Dying movement, and also facing the nitty gritty of what we might personally want in terms death and dying.
I also thought it would be fascinating to invite the guests to come dressed as they would like to be buried or burnt. As well to bring objects with them that they’d like to go alongside them on the onward journey. This personal DeathStyle fascinated me.
Our aim was to turn the death stereotypes on their head. The guests arrived to a big red neon sign declaring Welcome to Death and then had their photos taken in or out of a deliberately kitsch Lachapelle-influenced gold frame with a leopard skin backdrop! Of course, not everyone was so keen to be snapped in this Day of the Dead type Momento Mori and we let them off the hook. Professor Davies wore his grey suit but had a rather extravagant cravat with it. Patrick, the soul midwife, was in his suit and photographed with his white miniature rose, the object he had chosen to take with him into the next world, which he felt crossed over between earth and spirit, a living rose. Others were keener to step into the frame, Liz Rothschild who runs a woodland burial ground, had turned up in her cream nightie and had chocolates to munch in the after-life. Suzanne, co-founder of Advantages of Age, was wearing a sexy scarlet dress clasping a photo of her beloved boys. Caroline Rosie Dent dazzled with her gold and black Victorian dress, black shawl and headband covered with ivory roses. In fact, she was the style star of the Death Dinner.
Everyone was welcomed over that liminal threshold into Deathland by the Queen of the Night (Ingrid Stone), all in white, of course, rather than black, with her purifying burning sage sticks. In silence, we made our way to our seats at the table accompanied by the haunting, ethereal sounds of Fran Loze’s cello. An abundant feast – from tomato and goats’ cheese tartlets to Parma ham and the remarkable broken heart cake – had been prepared by Caroline Bobby, our magnificent cook and a guest.
During the first half of the dinner, I invited the guests to tell us a little about their relationship with death and how they were linked to Deathworld.
Charlie Phillips, photographer, has documented Afro-Caribbean funerals at Kensal Green cemetery for years. He explained how Afro-Caribbean funerals are changing and that the emphasis is on paying out a lot of money and having songs like Do It My Way by Frank Sinatra these days. He had brought along his camera, of course, as his death object because apparently he is referred to as ‘the dead man photographer’.
Liz Rothschild is a celebrant, started the Kicking the Bucket Festival in Oxford, owns a woodland burial ground and has a show called Out Of The Box about death. Liz explained how when a friend of hers died, her group of friends gathered in such an intimate DIY way, it inspired her to want to support others create this kind of a ceremony.
Hannah Gosh makes modern mourning jewelry and told us why she is so taken with coffin plates. She had also brought along a pug’s skull as her object, but not her pug’s skull!
Caroline Rosie Dent is an end of life doula and a death café host, she told us about her death anxiety as a child, and why she’d brought along a part of her son’s umbilical cord to take with her on the ancestral trip.
John Constable aka John Crow wrote The Southwark Mysteries, a series of poems which became a play. It is the story of the Winchester Goose, one of the medieval sex workers in the area who were condoned by the Bishop of Winchester but forced to have unconsecrated graves. John has been a campaigner around the Cross Bones graveyard for many years and holds a monthly vigil there on the 23rd of every month.
Caroline Bobby is a writer, cook, erotic healer and psychotherapist. She had brought with her The Book of Longing by Leonard Cohen and her favoured piece of fine woolen cloth, that she would like to be wrapped in when she goes. She sees herself becoming ash and being blown away.
Patrick Ardagh-Walter is a soul midwife, which he describes as being simply alongside someone as they approach this last stage of their lives.
Carla Valentine is an author, mortician and the Technical Assistant Curator at Barts Pathology Museum where she looks after 5,000 body parts in bottles. She describes herself as being quite an unusual child who was interested in death and whose grandfather died when she was seven, in front of her.
Professor David Davies lectures in Death Studies, his most recent book is Mors Britannica: Lifestyle and Death-Style in Britain Today. He explained that he’s fascinated by different groups and their attitudes to death, some like their lives and deaths to cohere, others are just the opposite. He said he hadn’t brought an object because he’s never thought of having an object with him at that time.
Liz Hoggard is a journalist who admits to feeling like a bit of a death tourist in our midst. She sports pearls that might act as some sort of collateral in a future existence and has brought along two lipsticks, one of them is black, the other red. Max Ernst described the latter apparently as ‘the red badge of courage’.
During the break, we listen to Caroline Bobby’s recorded version of her piece, Dreaming of Death. It is precious and moving. In it, she says: ‘I don’t know if I long for death just because living with baseline depression is unforgiving, and every morning is a shock. I don’t think it’s just that. This human and embodied world has never, quite felt like my natural habitat. At a cellular level I am aching to go home.’
After this raw and vulnerable piece, we entered a discussion about death led by Suzanne. We looked at whether there is a revolution in death going on, whether death is really trending, how we could welcome death into our daily lives in conversation and what sort of funerals we would like. Some of it was funny, other parts were poignant. Professor Douglas Davies declared controversially that the only revolution going on is amongst middle-class women. ‘The Death Chattering classes,’ he asserted.
Finally, Charlie Phillips declared that ideally, he would go while making love. And that he’d like ‘Lucky Motherfucker’ on his gravestone as well as ‘Came and Went at the same time’. As you can imagine, laughter rippled through the chapel.
I announced that natural birth activist and then death activist, Sheila Kitzinger had inspired me. She had a death plan, managed to stay at home to die surrounded by her close family despite doctors trying to get her to hospital because she had cancer, then she was put in a simple cardboard coffin decorated by family and friends, and eventually taken in the back of a car for a small woodland burial. The more flamboyant memorial service came later.
Son – take note!
Death Dinner will be screened for the first time tonight - 6.30pm at Barts Pathology Museum, E2. https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/death-dinner-film-screening-tickets-38270917344
The staging of our second Campfire Convention event in London is timely. The speed of change around us is accelerating. It’s time to take stock. It’s also the week that I’m celebrating my 60th birthday. I can’t believe how the years have flown by, but I still have the burning passion and sense of mission I discovered in my 30s.
Our idea behind the Convention is to challenge and push for new approaches. Change at all levels, from personal to community, from political to global.
The ethos, values and principles of Campfire are based around cultivating hope and aspiring to be a hub for good. It has to come down to giving people a sense of engagement and empowerment – both individually for each of our members and collectively for our community - and a belief that we can make a difference and that the world can be a better place.
The world’s been in trouble lately and we’ve lost our way in many senses. There is an urgent need to come together to try and reimagine how we might shape our world. Politics is too important to be left to political parties. Political enlightenment begins at home and I’ve come to believe that a far more prominent female energy is needed in the world and Campfire is doing its bit to help bring that about.
I’ve been doing even more dreaming than usual. Being out and about in a motorhome without a UK base since January I’ve learnt to live without luxuries and possessions. It’s not only been a grounding experience but one that has led to a re-evaluation of what is important after talking to many people around the UK at our various Campfire Conversation events and I’m getting a sense that ‘social glue’ or belonging comes pretty high up that list for so many.
Our patron, Brian Eno, admitted that a revolution has unfolded, but it didn’t come from the people most of us expected. Now that it has happened and the course of history has been changed, the rules have been broken, we have a level playing field which means that social and political concepts considered off-piste as recently as two years ago can become acceptable, desirable even. This has both inspirational and sinister potential. We need to come up with the inspirational ideas and get them out there. This is our time.
The end of neoliberalism, even capitalism, is in the air and along with those changes, a shift in the way we live together, work together, interact and do business. Post capitalism needs new models and uniquely we are in a position to seize the narrative, to come up with the concepts. Most good ideas are arguably coming from outside the main political parties, though Jeremy Corbyn has recently shown a fresh level of imagination in his speeches around new economic models.
There is now a focus on sustainable communities as well as sustainable ecology, co-housing and energy consumption, online platforms that work for the good of all. Our Campfire Kudos scheme can work on input / output metrics, rewarding engagement and encouraging a culture of volunteering to get things off the ground. This works hand-in-hand with a growing realisation that by helping each other we help ourselves. No longer is ‘what can I get from this?’ the primary objective. A move from ‘extrinsic’ values – those based around fame, power, wealth and competition, is being superseded by a realisation that ‘intrinsic’ values - universal rights and equality, the natural world and independent thinking – are more important in many ways. In short, the fundamental shift that still needs to happen is not putting ourselves first. A move from ‘I’m alright Jack’ to ‘How does this effect the planet and all those on it?’.
Anomie and alienation have predominated, but now it’s time to move towards community engagement and social cohesion is likely to be the result. Campfire can play its part galvanising at local level via what we’re calling our new ‘Beacons’ initiative.
Campfire is a new community, inspired by my previous project, the now-defunct Big Chill festival, which in its heyday opened my eyes to the power of connections and how they could not only create a feel good factor but also a movement for change. With Campfire the possibilities are ever more exciting. The Big Chill was all about a community built around the idea of partying but it became increasingly about hedonism and commercialism. Campfire is more grounded in discussion and collective co-operation, with essential change at the widest holistic level very much our aim now that it is within our orbit.
Campfire can be many things – an alternative journalistic voice, a means to portfolio our key interests and enthusiasms, a platform for connection and collaboration, an ad-free forum for chat and the shaping of new agendas. Together we can craft something of great value, a resource built on collective wisdom and templates of experience. Members might start a new Project on the future of work and what it looks like, on sustainability, on new approaches to learning, on the politics of food production. Or start a Beacon. Or join one and go to our events in Malvern Hills or Edinburgh.
Our political proposal, Trailblazer politics, has values at its heart. “Values are the bedrock of effective politics” suggests writer George Monbiot. Social networking need not be about marketing spend to boost pages, algorithmic targeted ads, posting what you had for breakfast or swinging a general election. It can have a heart and a soul, a purpose and a real-life element. The Campfire circle is a great leveller.
So why am I doing this? Connecting people and watching the sparks – the buzz of the flow of ideas, the collaborations, not to mention the happy collisions – the friendships, relationships and even the marriages (I know of at least 30 from The Big Chill community).
And of course, seeing others blossom and flourish.
It’s not hard to sense that a change is already occurring at a personal level - health, exercise, nourishment, food choices, mobile and flexible working, jettisoning the stuff that makes us feel stressed and disconnected, less credit and fewer mortgages, freer living, co-ops, joining local community initiatives, exchanging life experience and knowledge. That sense of community belonging can give us an anchor but it can also energise, heal, inform and educate.
I hope to inspire as I’ve been inspired. To challenge my own comfort zone, step up and maybe encourage others to do the same.
Our choice of language shaped by our visions is important – we can build the stories, everyone loves stories. Has anyone noticed the way that words such as ‘love’ and ‘empathy’ have recently appeared in political rhetoric more often lately? Let’s legitimise ‘love’ and ‘empathy’ as political forces in themselves. Let’s turn things upside down.
Our new kind of politics is a holistic politics, sharing from a sense of self, a sense of connection to our chosen communities and a vision for a better world where everyone can have a say and we can all make a difference.
Campfire can connect globally, whilst joining the dots and respecting the differences, welcoming diversity and expanding horizons through initiatives online and offline.
I’ve often started from a utopian viewpoint. On my travels in Greece I reflected on the word utopia, originating as it does from the Greek Ou (not) and Topos (place). It was first used in 1516 by Sir Thomas More in his book ‘Utopia’. “Nobody owns anything but everyone is rich - for what greater wealth can there be than cheerfulness, peace of mind, and freedom from anxiety?”
Politics dies without imagination, people die without nourishment, hope dies without community. More than ever, we need to make a connection between dreams and pragmatism, we need to talk and listen, we need to write and express, to formulate ideas grounded in local communities, to convene in unconventional ways.
That’s how we will make a difference. That’s how we already are making a big difference. Sparks are igniting, beacons are being lit.
We have to believe in ourselves as a force for change. We have to believe in a movement that has the potential to reach out beyond party lines, a message that appeals to as many as possible. I’d like to think that Campfire is here for good.
Campfire Convention 002.UK takes place all day Saturday November 4th at Union Chapel, London N1. https://campfireconvention.uk/events/campfire-convention-002uk-london