Tag Archives: retreat

At the pace of what is real

I’ve been travelling a lot over the past month – South of France, French Alps, London, Amsterdam, and now back in India…with a full heart, relieved to be home again, and grateful for all the soulful joyful reunions with friends and family in Europe. Also with a tired body, taking time to rest and get comfortable with the monsoon weather and crazy beloved India.

The need for rest has been appearing synchronistically in conversations with friends and coachees for the last few weeks. For example my GP and health coach cousin who works with women in their 30s that have developed a range of psychosomatic conditions, often because of a diary full of everything, but rest. A coachee saw her emotional eating habits transformed once she allowed herself proper rest. And my partner Shivi needs complete rest to recover from a viral fever – no phone, no movie, not even a book…

This – naturally! – comes at a time when I’m learning how to rest properly, for example deactivating after lunch and dinner, taking a break after every hour spent behind the computer, no phone 1hr after waking up and 1hr before sleeping…and the health effects are so clear. More peace of mind, clarity, ease, stability. Less stress, cravings and fewer outside events triggering annoyance or frustration.

Mark Nepo calls this state ‘At the pace of what is real’ in one of his poems in ‘The Book of Awakening‘. I love sharing it with my Joyful Living Retreat participants on Day 4 when we look at how to flow through life..

The ocean stirsthe heart, inspiresthe imagination& brings eternaljoy to the soul-4

In my search for rest, I’m facing a big saboteur – the one saying ‘you’re not working hard enough, you’re not productive enough, you don’t deserve rest, you’re not doing anything with your life.’ Or even ‘You’re already meditating and doing yoga every day, what more rest do you need?!’

Luckily my inner leader is telling me that I’m more productive when fully rested because the right things happen at the right moment, effortlessly. And that in rest and quiet we create the space to listen to our soul and where it’s guiding us. As Rumi puts it so beautifully:

Rumi quote

I’m curious to hear your thoughts and experiences with busy-ness, rest, going at the pace of what is real and listening to your soul. Respond to this post, email me or join us for the next Maitree Community – the Sangha of Joy’s monthly call where we’ll be exploring what INTUITION and GOING AT THE PACE OF WHAT IS REAL means to us..

The August Sangha calls are taking place on Sunday 14th August at 11am Central European Time/2.30pm Indian Standard Time and Thursday 18th August at 4.30pm Central European Time/8pm Indian Standard Time. Get in touch with me if you’re keen to join (julie@maitreecoaching.com)!

Heart Space: the magic of synchronicity

“Is it always like this or are we special?” asked one of the participants of the my latest retreat in Crete. I replied: “Both. It is always like this and it is always magical.” In the months leading up to the retreat I was observing the group coming together – some signed up months in advance, others cancelled last minute. Coincidence? Or is it a complex cosmic law that our limited understanding is (yet) unable to grasp?

11050285_10153456708621474_5756494883385179597_nIt has been two weeks since the end of the Joyful Living retreat in the remote village of Sfakia in the South of Crete. I’m still in awe of the perfect synchronicity – perhaps the best term for that complex cosmic law – that brought this group together. So are the participants who are already booking their flights for the reunion in October. One of them, a theatre producer from Zurich, writes: “I’m astonished at how open and warm we were in the group and this very quickly.” “It was a real joy to see how the group evolved into a small family in just the space of a few days!” shares Mouna, an interpreter from Paris.

The swift intimacy created after sometimes only a couple of hours is a marvel to most people attending my workshops and retreats. In my experience, connection and transformation happen when synchronicity enters the scene. Then meaningful coincidences start occurring, such as people find themselves working on a similar life purpose, or bringing an identical inspiring object to the workshop. Or I will intuitively share an experience which is deeply meaningful to one or more participants.

10960096_338628133003942_6718140125432231663_oTo trust in synchronicity is one of the cornerstones of being a transformational facilitator and coach. My coaching school CTI calls this skill ‘dancing in the moment.’ To surrender control initially feels counterintuitive because as a facilitator you are ‘doing nothing’ but following the flow of a session. Slowly you build trust that whatever is unfolding, is exactly what participants need in that very moment. When I feel I am working hard, I know now something is wrong!

In fact the only thing to ‘do’ as a facilitator is to role model how to interact with an open heart, a sensitive spirit, a curious mind and a flexible body. Thus you give the group permission to enter into a safe space. They respond by sharing the full spectrum of their humanity. It is as if in this ‘heart space’ we can uncover the strength of our vulnerability. We recognise each other’s stories of feeling intensely alive or of sabotaging our wildest dreams. By “taking the lid off ourselves” (‘The Heart of the Buddha‘ by Chogyam Trungpa, p6) we give each other permission to relax, be present, connect with our inner self and leave our unique footprint.


Occassionally I come across a group where the heart space is unstable. This usually indicates that one or more participants has become sceptical and closed their hearts. The crucial thing to do as a facilitator is to stay curious and avoid closing our heart in retaliation. Fear can easily make us defensive or judgemental. Yet when we stay open hearted we invite a participant to express their doubt and neutralise the impact. Mostly this is enough for the air to clear and for synchronicty to work its magic once again. I remain in awe.

Watch this space for my next piece on how flow and synchronicity are related to gut feeling.

Yoga and human development weekend retreats in Europe, summer 2014

Come and join me for one of four refreshing weekend retreats this summer in Europe!

imageInspired by the popular retreats in Auroville, South India, I’ll be facilitating three human development retreats in three places in Europe that are close to my heart.

I’m also super excited about co-facilitating a yoga coaching retreat weekend in London with the wonderful Laura Graham Dullaert (12-13th July, see more info below).

Through coaching, we distinguish our inner leader and saboteur voice, connect with our life purpose, and discover where we store our emotions in our body. Listening for the answers within, we create more awareness in our body, mind and soul, and how they’re connected.

The retreat will give you coaching tools so you can start using your listening capacity and intuition both with yourself and others. We’ll tune into that life affirming fulfillment energy so you can unlock your full potential. You’ll come away feeling refreshed and empowered.

Each retreat we’ll draw upon the beauty of the natural environment.

In the Provence, there’s the lavender fields and the gentle June sun. In the Cotswolds, there’s the ancient English forest and village life. In Amsterdam North, there’s the water, the boats and the harbour looking out over the busy city life from a distance.

Get in touch with me to reserve your place!

The lavender retreat, 28-29th June

image Bonnieux, Provence, France (1hr drive from Marseille airport) Explore your full potential in the fresh early summer in the Luberon. Sample the air filled with herbs, lavender and the gentle June sun. For more info, click here.


The green retreat, 19-20th July

imageLower Slaughter, Cotswolds, UK (1.5hr train drive from London Paddington) Retreat into the green forests and English village life. Rejuvenate and explore in a beautiful garden home. Register by 7th June to qualify for the early bird fee! For more info, click here.

The water retreat 16-17th August 

imageAmsterdam North, the Netherlands (location tbc, 30 min cycle ride from Amsterdam Central station) Jump on the ferry away from busy Amsterdam town and take in the quiet harbour perspective. See the sun or rain drops play with the water. Register by 19th July to qualify for the early bird fee!

Yoga and coaching retreat, 12-13th July

imageSynchronicity yoga studio, Clapham, London SW9 Join Laura and Julie for an urban retreat to build awareness in your body, mind and soul through yoga and coaching.

Laura and I have been working together for the past 10 months on fusing yoga and coaching. We’re super excited to share our learning with you on three key themes: listening, intuition and balance.

imageYoga and coaching invite you to listen to the conversations going on between your mind, body and soul. You learn to recognise the different voices and to find your own path, in your life and on the mat.

You start to become familiar with the voice of your intuition and how to use it to enhance your well being and your relationship with others. You learn to look after yourself, to trust yourself to create the yoga practice that you need.

Balancing the need for discipline that a daily practice requires, with adapting it according to your needs is the key to a sustainable, injury-free and joyful yoga. This integrity is exactly what we’re looking to achieve in life. We want to make empowered decisions which are in line with our values, instead of following what our circumstances dictate.

Check out Laura’s website to see the amazing teacher she is, making ashtanga yoga accessible, sustainable and a lot of fun! For more info, click here.
Register by 31st May to qualify for early bird fee.

About meditation

On Thursday I came out of a 5 day silent meditation retreat in the green mountains of Sri Lanka. I would like to share with you 5 insights I gained as many of my coaching clients are keen to keep up a regular meditation practice and lead more mindful lives.

I often work with clients on addressing the balance between being and doing. Meditation is a great antidote against our tendency to perceive ourselves as ‘human doings’ instead of ‘human beings’.

1. The middle way


One of the challenges of meditation is finding the middle way between trying too hard and too little. The meditation instructor at the retreat explained that he generally taught Northern Europeans to reduce their current effort by 50%. Southern Europeans should reduce their effort by 25%, while Sri Lankans should increase their effort by 500%.

Meditating is like holding a little bird in our hands. If we squeeze to tightly, the bird will suffocate. If we hold it too loosely, the bird will fly away. The same goes for meditating. If we manage to walk the middle way, our mind neither suffocates nor does it fly away.

2. Clarity


Meditation is not about fighting the mind, it’s about taming it.  We cultivate the mind’s power of concentration. From a ‘monkey’ mind which jumps all over the place, it becomes stronger and sees more clearly. We experience more peace and mindfulness.

During meditation we all struggle with aches, boredom, or endless thoughts. Meditating is not about torturing the body and punishing the mind. Gently bringing the mind back to the breath is a more effective approach than scolding it. As long as our back is straight, we can meditate in any seated position, cross-legged or on a chair. Mind and body should be relaxed, although there is another paradox to consider: not being a slave of your body’s aches nor of your minds’ wanderings.

3. Impermanence


A regular meditation practice enables us to be more present to the now. We can leave behind memories of the past, worries about the future. Instead of daydreaming, there’s the joy of the present moment. There’s the daring to embrace the beauty of now, and trusting ourselves that whatever happens in the next moment, we will manage just fine.

The moment always changes, and so will our thoughts, emotions. Making friends with impermanence, is a powerful and courageous thing to do. It means that we allow the wind of change to blow through us. We experience beauty, happiness and joy as much as we allow ourselves to feel sadness, loss because we know there will always be change.

4. Flow

20140307-130842.jpgThere are two ways to relate to emotions. Either we repress and control them, or we express and indulge them. Instead, in meditation we attempt to just create space for them, to experiment, to make friends.

One of the things I focus on in my coaching sessions is to enable clients’ emotions to flow so that they are e(nergy) in motion. This way, emotions don’t get stuck in our bodies, and all our energy is freely available to follow our life course.

5. Consciousness


If we imagine ourselves in a sailing boat setting course for the other side of a lake, we need to learn how to navigate the wind, the currents of the lake and our little boat. An enlightened being is able to reach his destination without diverging, while most of us get blown off course regularly.

Coaching and other forms of therapy and meditation, allow us to become more conscious of our life course and choices. We also learn from our past mistakes to navigate more accurately.

The benefits of a regular meditation practice are worth it. For me, the glimpse of a blissful calm lighting up around my third eye chakra is enough to make my morning. After the retreat, I feel a steady, nourished feeling in my stomach which stays with me all day. Even after standing for two hours in a overcrowded Sri Lankan train!

Yoga at Mysore, or how to stretch your way to heaven

mysore palaceThe last two months I’ve spent studying yoga asana, pranayama, philosophy and sanskrit at Mandala Yoga Shala in Lakshmipuram, Mysore. Mysore is a proud heritage city dominated by the Maharaja’s palace where Krishnamacharya, the ‘father of modern yoga’, used to teach. Lakshmipuram is a leafy neighbourhood full of mansions from the Maharaja’s time. Walking the quiet streets, here and there you’ll spot little yoga shalas started by (students of) students of Krishnamacharya. They mostly teach non-Indians who are keen to sample the traditional Mysore style of Ashtanga yoga.

Lakshmipuram street viewSo among the kurtas, cows and coconuts, you’ll spot one or two foreigners carrying yoga mats. They come from Europe, America, Asia and they live across the neighbourhood in rooms and apartments rented out by Indian families. They hang out in a couple of places and talk about adjustments, anatomy, pranayama, healthy food, ayurveda. Some live here, many come back every year.

PadmasanaThere’s also the K. Patthabi Jois Ashtanga Yoga Research Institute in Gokulam, the Beverly Hills of Mysore where Patthabi Jois moved his shala after the one in Lakshmipuram became too small. The ‘main shala’ is considered something of a fad by the cool Lakshmipuram crowd. Why spend so much money for maybe one adjustment a day if you’re lucky? Those in the early slot have to get up in the middle of the night to secure a space; if you don’t, you can practice in the changing rooms. I’ve heard nothing beats the energy at the main shala, but not everyone appreciates the business empire that Sharath has built. He is the grandson of Pattabhi Jois, founder of Ashtanga Vinyasa Yoga and together with B.K.S. Iyengar the most famous of Krishnamacharya’s pupils.

So we’re good here in Lakshmipuram. The classes are small, the teachers genuine and the people dedicated to this intense physical style of yoga. My Taiwanese classmate moans and groans as my teacher lifts up his leg to almost 180 degrees in a standing balance pose (utthita hasta padangustasana, see picture). The corrections are pretty severe so you have to listen to your body and tell your teacher when to stop, else you risk straining a muscle. Everyone seems to get injured at some point and there’s a lot of talk about the yama principle of ahimsa, non-violence, against yourself as well as others. Ashtanga practitioners can be fiery people with a competitive edge so it’s important to stay with your own body’s pace and not want to advance too quickly.

TrikonasanaI’ve been very careful not to injure myself because to me this is the opposite of why we do yoga – for spiritual growth, for meditation in movement, for being present in your body, breathing and purifying it for 2 hours every day. And yet, it also happened to me. I was working very hard on extending my hamstrings, which in London had seemed impossible. I had become used to bending my knees a little in all forward bends and focusing on opening the hips. Instead, on the very first day here my teacher told me after a few asanas that he’d seen enough. We were going to start from scratch. We were going to lengthen my hamstrings and I wasn’t to bend my legs in any posture. As long as my hamstrings stretched no further, we wouldn’t go beyond sun salutations and standing postures, only a quarter of my normal practice. Ouch. That hurt my ego, but at the same time – wasn’t this a unique opportunity to allow my body to really open up, now that I finally had all the time in the world? Why rush ahead when the whole point is to take life as it comes? If my body has stored up years of office work and stress and cycling and running, then why not now take the time to purify it?

UpavishtakonasanaSo I did, and it hurt massively. My teacher told me to persevere, not to mind others who were going ahead much faster through the sequence, and to breathe through the pain – after all this is what is called ‘good pain’ in Mysore. ‘Bad pain’ is when knees or other ligaments hurt; ‘good pain’ is when muscles scream ‘stop torturing me’. I didn’t stop, I kept breathing and discovered another benefit of the practice. You learn to stay calm and keep breathing under tough circumstances. It makes a difference.

So after a month of painful practice, I suddenly felt a lengthening. When I walked my strides seemed longer, my feet more extended and my hips were turning backwards more. I could now hold my leg straight in most poses and even clasp my hand around my wrist and put my chin on my knee in seated forward bends. Well, for a couple of days, until my teacher pushed me forward a little more, and I didn’t tell him to stop and my right hamstring was stretched just a little too much. Ouch.

Eka pada sirsasana‘Don’t worry, this is normal, just take some pain killers and keep practicing.’ I decided not to be upset with myself, for after all, I’d taken all the care in the world to avoid an injury, and yet, there it was, it seemed inevitable. And I know how much I learnt from previous injuries about how to heal the body and the effect of asanas on different parts of your body. So I went practicing again the next day, testing which poses I could and couldn’t do. I just kept breathing and maintained a gentle practice. Until I hit Janusirsasana A, when my body suddenly remembered that this was the pose in which it all happened, and wham, I couldn’t stop crying. My muscles screamed, ‘How could you have done this to us??’ But the led class went on, and amazingly, in Janusirsana B and C, I was all fine again. It was as if my body had retained the memory of the injury and then had let go. Of course it was still painful, but bearable and not emotional.

I think this is one of the most beautiful things about the daily Ashtanga practice – the continuous cleansing makes one not only very sensitised to the needs of all parts of your body, but also able to flow through life much easier. After a meditation in movement, things don’t stick so much and we rest in the more stable rhythm of the universe. Every day we feel different in our body, but whether we’re ecstatic or sad, the breathing and focus wash out any extremes. Fewer emotions hook themselves in your body. We get a glimpse of the peacefulness and bliss beyond Maya, our perceived reality of form. This is Brahman, the land of Samadhi, where the ego is dissolved in flames and objective truth shines its formless glory.

All yoga pictures are by Christine Love-Hewitt. Check out her site http://www.yogicphotos.com so you can book your own photo shoot at Mysore!

Take off

So the adventure has started. I’m on a 7-month sabbatical in India to do yoga, to write another novel, to do nothing, to see where life takes me and to enjoy. Not sure about the order.

On last year’s trip to Thailand, I discovered the benefits of yoga almost as a side effect to writing my first novel. I had told friends, family and colleagues that I’d write that book, and so I would. Meanwhile on lush tropical islands I learnt much more than I anticipated about letting go, love and life. So much so that the ending of my book was changing real time.

Now I feel quite different and one of the main reasons for taking more time off is to explore what happens when you let things happen to you. Instead of organising life, why not flow with what the moment offers? If you like it, you go, if it doesn’t feel right, you stay. You can go in the general direction of your intentions and wishes, but be mindful of alternative suggestions that come your way. It would be a shame to miss out.

Since it’s my wish to study the eight limbs of ashtanga yoga, I decided to start this adventure in Mysore, Karnataka, India. This is the city where Pattabhi Jois, who brought Ashtanga yoga to the West, used to teach before his death in 2009. For the past nine months, I’ve been doing self practice ashtanga (Mysore style) at Stillpoint Yoga London (a wonderful family of lovely people). I love starting the day with a 90-minute mind-body-soul purification. In my experience, a regular practice cultivates awareness, stillness and a profound sense of ease, grace if you like.

It means that it becomes easier to be present, kind and loving in the moment, and be attuned to what your heart, or intuition, tells you about what is happening. Life becomes lighter because unnecessary worries about the future drop away. Should I stay or should I go, is a question that you can trust yourself to answer more truthfully. If you stay, new opportunities materialise, others close down. And if you go? Same thing, just different!

To ‘follow the flow’, or to use another yoga favourite, to ‘open your heart’, you’ve got to know it first. That’s not that easy, especially when educated in a system that favours rational thinking. Yoga – asana, pranayama, meditation etc – helps you unpeel the layers covering the heart so you can give more freely without expecting one-on-one returns. The beauty is that you’ll receive returns in spades, or other unexpected shapes that you may have never noticed before.

So let’s see what happens over the coming months now that I’ve created the opportunity to flow and learn. I don’t plan to practice at Patthabi Jois’ studio because ashtanga yoga can get a little competitive, and its birth place is likely to attract the alpha male variety of the yogi bear. I do want to write about these crazy yoga cities full of Westerners seeking enlightenment while creating new social hierarchies based on how long one can stand on one leg. I intend to blog and do research for the new book. And to enjoy myself. Inshallah!

P.s. needless to say, I don’t think that yoga will magically turn all the world’s problems into pink bunnies. I do think it’s one of the ways that can make people feel more comfortable in their own skin.

Koh Yao Noi – my paradise island

There is a small island in the Andaman Sea where life is peaceful, the birds chatter and occasionally a fisherman’s long tail boat ploughs the sea. Limestone cliff islands are dotted across the bay. The beaches are long and sandy though the tide reveals rocky surfaces – this is Koh Yao Noi’s ‘asshole barrier’. People looking for full moon raves on pristine beaches usually take the next ferry out to any of the surrounding islands, such as Phuket which has overcrowded beaches and plenty of seedy nightlife. On the ferry to the island I met a bunch of elderly French men who advised me not to go there because there would be more competition. I had to reiterate that really, I was here to write a book, not to find a man. They were headed back to Phuket the next day.

This type of merry-go-round tourism dominates most of the other Thai beach destinations but is (still) completely lacking on Koh Yao Noi. The only beat here is the beat of the tide, the sun rising and setting over the limestone cliffs. The slow magic of the island gradually took hold of me over the two weeks that I’ve been here. Little by little I learnt to read the signs of this long stretch of land of fishermen and rubber plantations. I shook off my big city girl pace and tuned into the local rhythm. So much so that when I took a day trip to Phuket town, I quickly became saturated with the city’s history and shops. I felt relieved to take the boat back to my peaceful haven a couple of hours earlier than I’d planned.

On my first days on the island, I found a sturdy bungalow with a wide view of the bay, and sorted out my yoga classes and bicycle. I was ready to start my new life as a temporary writer, cyclist, yogi, sea swimmer, and beach bum. First I had to let go of my urban suspicion of insects and loose animals. I’m still convinced that one day I’ll have to face a big hairy spider or a cobra, but by now I’m quite chilled that there are about twenty soft shell crabs shuttling about me while I’m writing this on the beach. When I go swimming, I’m fine with minute jellyfish biting me. I make peace with water buffaloes and stray dogs when I encounter them on my jungle shortcut to town. After all, I remind myself, they’re not out to get me. Yesterday evening I felt very much the local girl when I cycled to a party with a headlamp, turning it quickly to the back of my head when battling up a steep hill so that a lonely motorbike overtaking me would not knock me off the road.

Enjoying life on Koh Yao Noi is like a membership of an exclusive club. It’s a pact of loving the low life, with a touch of inverse cosmopolitan pretension. Many people return here year after year, like the Finnish adviser to the Chinese government who lives in Bangkok with his large family of seven, or the Muslim Londoner who comes to recover from Thai boxing fights in Phuket. My neighbours are a wonderfully unconventional Californian lady and her son who’s a bit of a local hero and famous all over the island. She’s a master storyteller at 72 – you’d barely give her 50 – while he’s a rock climbing survival expert who’s a conscious objector to his mother’s real life embroidering. Then there’s the yoga teacher warrior girl from Buffalo, NY; the Russian ship broker who’s built a massive villa; and the flirty Italian bartender who started the local pizza place.

My landlord, a policeman, and his Japanese wife, run eight bungalows. Sometimes he asks me to help him out a bit, like when he couldn’t work out the accent of the Swiss fisherman reporting a sailing incident over the phone. So I took down the report of how a large yacht had hit his little long tail boat and had taken off straight after. The guy was still recovering from the shock of being thrown into the sea when he saw the yacht owners on the back of the boat while there was no one in the cabin.

Most businesses on the island are run by farang (Westeners), or Chinese, while most local Muslim people stick to fishing or working on the rubber plantations. Many women work as cooks or waitresses in the islands’ restaurants and bungalow resorts. Yet times are changing. Burmese immigrants have come to work on the rubber plantations while the local kids hang out playing video games in internet cafes. They’ll probably leave the island to join the burgeoning tourism industry in Phuket and around. Or perhaps, with over seven million people passing through Phuket airport every year, it is difficult to imagine that they won’t bring mass tourism to Koh Yao Noi.

As it is now, their island is the perfect place to write. Life is so easy that writing comes naturally at many points in the day. I usually wake up by 6.30 to see the sunrise from my bed, go to a yoga class, have breakfast, stroll to the local coffee place and start writing. Then I’ll have lunch, go for a bike ride or a swim, write some more till it gets dark. By that time I usually have already run into a few people I know and last minute plans have been made for dinner. Or I write some more. What a wonderful life.

Return to Sénanque: a summer retreat

In August I went back to Notre Dame de Sénanque to spend five days in silent retreat. This time, the valley was drenched in the scents of summer. It was also much more crowded in the abbey than when I was last there during the Christmas holidays. The hôtellerie monastique was full and every day hundreds of tourists toured one of the Provence’s most iconic places. In the evening, quietness would return to the valley and abbey. Only the chants of the monks occasionally filled the air. The silence was easy to bear and the pattern of the services now familiar. Yet I also found myself facing more profound concerns about taking the next step in my faith. Being raised in a secular and rational environment, it is not self-evident that that next step is adult baptism.

I was welcomed back heartily by Frère Jean, the hotelier, and quickly settled into the rhythm of monastic life. Every morning I was woken up early by the chants of the monks floating through the courtyard into my open windows. I’d have breakfast while the morning flavours started to stir. Then I’d head out on my morning walk, climbing 40 minutes to reach the village of Gordes, have my coffee and write my diary. I’d walk back just in time for mass, organise lunch and write my book in the afternoon. After a few hours, I’d climb up to my secret sunning spot, quickly covering up my bikini if I heard footsteps approaching. Dinner would follow, and evening service. With the last light and the heat disappearing from the valley, I finished every day with a run through the mountains.

When I arrived hitchhiking on the first day, I had to wait for two hours before Frère Jean had time to receive me, a good introduction into the different pace of time in the abbey. Then he remembered me and expressed his profound happiness to know that I was considering baptism. He had been very anxious over my soul. He was still puzzled that I hadn’t chosen a Catholic community  but an Anglican one and tried to steer me to the right faith. I was firmly resolved when explaining that it was very important to me to have found a church that was actively involved in the community where I live. Moreover, I feel much more comfortable in a faith that allows priests to have wives, and women to become bishops and priests too. Frère Jean settled the matter with a joke. He was looking forward to the day when he would receive me back at Sénanque as a Anglican bishop.

Meanwhile, I got a much more beautiful double room and Frère Jean put me in charge of coordinating lunch and dinner time food service. He often asked me to come into his office to translate some bits of English that he didn’t understand. ‘What does this word ‘hi’ mean?’ ‘Well, it’s like salut which isn’t perhaps the way you would expect people to address a monk but then the English written language is much less formal than the French.’ I asked him whether we could have a small performance for the Assumption of Virgin Mary day by a classical pianist who often comes to stay at Sénanque. Frère Jean had to ask the prior for permission. When we all gathered for the concert the next day, he said: ‘You see there is a French saying that whatever women want, that is what God wants.’

So we enjoyed a lovely private Liszt concert in the abbey. But Frère Jean later told me that those moments were rare. That life at the abbey is hard. I said that I had rather been struck by how animated and fulfilling their lives seemed with the rhythm of prayer, study, work on the fields and giving people spiritual guidance. He said, ‘Yes but the early morning hours after vigiles at 4.30am, they are the longest period of meditation. We never travel anywhere, the world only comes to us.’ We were conversing against the backdrop of a picture of the Alps covering the whole wall of the parlour. He continued, ‘Very few people nowadays can stand this type of life. We need more people in the abbey to manage all the work. Last year a monk joined us but he left after a month and we haven’t heard from him since. Now we’re expecting four new monks from Vietnam but God knows how difficult it will be for them to settle in such a different culture.’

It was harder for him to respond to my search to make sense of religion at a later stage in life. I had been struggling with British philosopher Bertrand Russell’s stance on religion: ‘When one can’t find out whether something is true or it isn’t, one should suspend judgement’. I was much impressed with his book ‘The conquest of happiness‘ which is a great example of a philosopher translating wisdom to a wider audience, and therefore thought I should carefully consider his opinion.

I find the church the perfect place to remember the ebb and flow of life and going to church for me is an existential touch point which I prefer to experience as part of a community in my own culture. As my parents didn’t have me baptised when I was a child, to become a true part of this community I have to negotiate my faith being an adult. And while many adult Christians may confront doubts time and again, they are already part of this community, whereas I have to consciously agree with all the teachings of the church to be baptised. So, for example, I find it hard to believe God is merciful. I perceive of God as a force field randomly distributing good and evil. Equanimity and faith are the key to maintain happiness in face of a world where many cruel things happen. Some of them turn to good, and others never do.

There is another very emotive strain of faith which I find even harder to negotiate. This is to have a dialogue with God when I pray. It’s not that I don’t have this dialogue, it is just that I’ve always mistrusted it. I remember when I was about 12 years old I decided that it was better to talk to Freya than to God because of some viking book I had been reading. When I was 16 and a hippie, I decided to address fairies instead. Philosopher A.C. Grayling made some great points about fairies in his book Against All Gods: “Religious belief of all kinds shares the same intellectual respectability, evidential base, and rationality as belief in the existence of fairies.” He explains that people up to the 19th century believed in fairies and thought that they were much more present in their lives than God was because things that would go missing, such as shoelaces or a teaspoon, were believed to have been stolen by them.

In short, I find it very hard to acknowledge that this is anything more than an overactive imagination. Yet when I pray answers appear out of nowhere. Many Christians believe this is one’s personal dialogue with God. I’m still trying to figure out how to make sense of these questions, and reconcile a rational point of view with a spiritual one. It’s quite an adventure.

the writing class

My blog has gone a little quiet these last months. Many of you know this is because I’ve been taking a creative writing class at Citylit London to  focus on my novel. I’ve tremendously enjoyed the course because of my fellow students and expert tutor. Sharing work and receiving feedback pinpoints your style and what you have to work on. And writing is as much about inspiration as about drafting and crafting your pieces over and over again, as I’ve learnt. The best thing about the course, however, is that it has given me the confidence to say that I’m writing a novel and get two months off work to finish it this summer.

The students on the course were as diverse as London – diverse backgrounds, different ambitions and styles. Yet everyone was committed to spend two hours on a Monday night after work and write every week to share their work in class. We started with a 25+ group, but many soon dropped out. Among them were the two Cypriot sisters who had come to support their younger sibling to learn to write letters, the gothic mental health nurse with an attitude and the guy from West Africa who wrote a prayer blog.

So in the second week we settled down with a group of about fifteen, and got to know each other quite intimately through reading our writings. Over the course of 12 weeks, we became used to reading our work to the group and receiving instant feedback. Many were inspired by their family’s migration history – from South African Indian to Bermudan to Jewish and Latvian exiles during the war. Some wrote to make people laugh, others drew upon intimate moments in their (families’) lives. It was a bonding experience bringing together a journalist, mother, psychoanalyst, marketing adviser, council worker, communication adviser, paediatrician, business consultant, television executive.

All this was superbly managed and guided by our tutor, Zoe Fairbairns. One week the non-native speaking council worker read out a poem that repeated ‘When he comes…’ as the first line of every verse. Zoe, with a straight face, suggested that although the girl perhaps did not intend the sexual innuendo, it in fact added an interesting dimension to the poem. She suggested that the girl may want to change one of the lines from ‘When he comes, I sip my latte and smile’ to something more appropriate.

As the course advanced our stories showed that we’d become more skilled in the tricks of the trade, such as the use of metaphor, dialogue, point of view and building suspense and a storyline. Zoe was severe but fair with us, creating a safe environment to grow and giving everyone an equal chance to read their work. She helped us prepare for publication, giving confidence but also making us aware that there may just possibly be fewer people reading than writing books, some of whom may just possible be better than we are.

Yet I’m persevering and am tremendously enjoying writing my novel. It’s now much easier to share my work and receive feedback – as Kingsley Amis said: “A bad review should spoil your breakfast, but not your lunch”. Also I learnt to rewrite pieces over and over again, to kill my darlings and be strict with myself in terms of point of view and use of tenses. The challenge I’ve set myself is to use the minimal amount of words to achieve maximum impact. Ernest Hemingway was a master in this. His writing expresses a lyrical sentation without a lyrical word; a mood of melancholy and languid acceptance without using any such word. Read for example these sentences from two of his short stories:

“The sea broke in a long line in the rain and slipped back down the beach to come up and break again in a long line in the rain.” – Cat in the Rain

“In the evening they all sat at dinner together in the garden under a plane tree and the evening wind blew and Elliott drank white wine and Mrs Elliott and the girl made conversation and they were all quite happy.” – Mr and Mrs Elliott

This week I heard I was accepted to a writers’ and artists’ retreatin a deserted village high up in the mountains in the Languedoc. I’m looking forward to refining my own style there, and hopefully will publish some of my work on the blog soon. Stay tuned!

A retreat into the new year

This year I took a different approach to New Year’s. I spent three days in the 12th century Abbaye de Notre-Dame de Sénanque in the Provence, one of the few still functioning Cistercian abbeys in Western Europe. From 29th December 2010 to 1st January 2011, my days were marked by eight moments of prayer: vigiles at 4.30, laudes at 7.45, tierce at 10.00, sexte at 11.45, messe at noon, none at 14.30, vêpres at 18.00 and finally complies at 20.15, after which the lights went out. I took long solitary walks in the surrounding hills between the three meals, taken in silence with the other retraitants listening to stories of the lives of saints and the bishop’s views on globalisation. Frère Jean, who was in charge of the hôtellerie monastique, had invented a tradition to mark the new year – move the morning’s vigiles to midnight, and have a celebratory breakfast for the Mary the Blessed Virgin at two in the morning with chocolate, honey, and croissants.

From short whispered conversations in the abbey’s corridors, I gleaned some of the other retraitants’ motivations to celebrate the new year in silence – mostly a mixture of spiritual contemplation, refuge from a stressful worldly life, and consolation from bereavement. There was a Spanish priest who had founded la Famille Missionaire Dialogue de Dieu to teach people in Avignon to pray after he contracted malaria on his African post. A communications consultant could not help but flirt and talk about wine, passing frère Jean a note for me with his address and wine recommendations. An old lady had recently lost her husband and had come to Sénanque because her husband and she had always said that they should visit. A bourgeois Parisian dame maintained perfect make-up and colour coordination yet her face was marked by grief. A young priest skipped most services to roam the grounds of the monastery seemingly in search of God. A young woman with intense eyes prostrated herself on the floor of the chapel, palms turned upwards to beg for mercy. A concert pianist was allowed to play Liszt in the closed part of the convent. And a tattooed man was on his way from Rome to Santiago de Compostela.

The monks’ community on the other hand is steadfast, focused, and very busy. There are only six of them to manage the estate and spend over six hours a day in prayer and church. The remainder of their 17-hour day they energetically occupy themselves of the hôtellerie, olive trees, lavender fields, beehives and the many tourists visiting every day. Many admiring faithful come to consult them in their search for God. So when frère Jean wants to offer me spiritual guidance, he can only offer me a window between 17.00 and 17.30 because he’s so busy these days with the olive harvest and then there are these priests who have come from Italy to speak to him urgently. Besides farmer, hotel manager and spiritual counsellor, he is a very accomplished singer and he reads widely, mostly spiritual literature – even the popular spiritual guru Eckhart Tolle is part of his book collection.

In a constant rhythm of prayer and labour, time must take on another dimension for these monks. The continuous pace must create a unity of hours across the days, seasons and years. I imagine that this age old pattern of life and the absence of choice yield a vast capacity for contemplation and dedication to God. Although the monks’ lives may seem sheltered, it’s easy enough to see that like their brothers in Thibhirine they too would follow Christ to the end, murdered as hostages of Algerian mujahedin.

And although enchanted with the friendly atmosphere and quietness of heart, I found it hard to enter into the rigid Catholic symbolism of some of the monks’ rites. If we could get to a more abstract expression of faith, could we make this religion more contemporary and accessible for younger generations? If the psalms were put to better music and words, the violent symbolism of Christ nailed to the cross replaced, the choreography of consuming the body and blood of Christ reviewed, perhaps it would be easier to find spirituality in our own culture instead of going into a Buddhist retreat. Yet while walking to night mass across the Romanesque courtyard lit by moonlight, the bells tolling and the monks chanting halleluiah, I was happy to start 2011 in a different way.