‘Big’ people are people too

Dr Akong Tulku Rinpoche, 1939-2013

Doesn’t this guy look sweet? He’s Chöje Akong Tulku Rinpoche, co-leader of Kagyu Samyé Ling Monastery and Tibetan Centre in Eskdalemuir. And he’s been dead for nearly three weeks, stabbed, along with his nephew and another monk, while in Tibet. He was making his annual visit to all of the projects which his Rokpa Trust supports.

Living in Eskdalemuir and not being part of the Samyé Ling community is an interesting experience. It has its advantages – regular bus services for one. The Centre has about 30,000 visitors per year, and many arrive by bus from Lockerbie train station. There are also the lovely Tibetan Tea Rooms, with a vast range of Yogi Bhajan teas, and hot, frothy soya milk drinks to enjoy, and the beauty and tranquillity of the temple. And of course a valley full of kindred, hippy spirits: no fear of being the village weirdos here!

But it’s also strange, in unexpected ways. Being English and living here, everyone – whether Scottish or Buddhist or both – assumes that we moved to the valley because of Samyé Ling. Not true: we didn’t even know it existed until we came to view our house for the first time. I have a lot of sympathy and resonance with many of the fundamental teachings of Tibetan Buddhism, especially those espoused and embodied by Akong Rinpoche. But the religious and material culture of the tradition simply confuses me. I find visiting the temple rather akin to visiting Roman Catholic cathedrals in France: beautiful, impressive, but – with no common symbols or religious cues for me to latch onto – bewildering.

I’ve kept myself at a distance from Samyé Ling for the 13 years I’ve lived here, partly simply because it’s not my tradition, and not my religious community, partly because I think I fear being subsumed into the majority faith community in this valley, being swept up in a common language of symbols and practices that I do not share. I have connected with and made friends with people in the natural way of the everyday – meetings on the bus, in the café, at community-wide events.

When I first moved here, a friend recommended I have a meeting with Rinpoche, or his brother and fellow founder of Samyé Ling, Lama Yeshe. I never did, and never had cause to regret it in terms of my own spiritual development. But since his death, as I’ve begun to learn more about the man and his mission, I feel sorrow that I never met Akong Rinpoche simply as a person.

I tend to avoid putting myself in the way of ‘big’ people: charismatic leaders and their ilk. I tend to speak to the ‘little’ people, the ‘ordinary’ people. But in doing so, how many great people have I missed out on connecting with, simply as people? ‘Big’ people are ‘ordinary’, too. It’s a kind of reverse snobbery that I’m coming to believe is intimately wrapped up with my fear of my own power.

A few days after Rinpoche’s death, I was returning to Eskdalemuir from Newcastle, and bumped into a friend in Carlisle, who used to be our closest neighbour. She offered me a lift back to the valley, and I gratefully accepted. On the way back, she shared with me that at one of her regular meetings with Rinpoche, a couple of months after our house fire, he asked after us, after how we were managing, and if we were getting the support we needed from the community.

I found this deeply moving. Samyé Ling is much more than a community of Tibetan Buddhists in the Scottish lowland hills. It is the administrative centre of the Rokpa Trust, a charitable organisation which runs numerous projects in Tibet, the UK and Zimbabwe, “helping where help is needed”. Rinpoche was its founder, its inspiration, its figurehead and its lynchpin. He was also the spiritual teacher of hundreds, if not thousands of people – not only who live at or near Samyé Ling, but around the world. And he took the time to know about us, and to ask after us, to care for our well-being.

I was barely aware of him in life, but in death, he has earned a place on my Samhain altar. What is remembered lives.

Seeing with our hearts

Last week, I started my year’s teaching at Newcastle University, where I’m also a PhD candidate. It takes at least 2 hours to get from my home to the university, so although my teaching is all in the afternoon, I went down the night before, to make sure I was fresh, unhurried and well-prepared for my first day with a new group of students.

I arrived on the train late in the evening, tired and hungry, and having failed to book a hotel room in advance. Despite that oversight, my first priority was food.

I walked up the hill into town, my clothes, toiletries and teaching notes trundling behind me in my trusty black trolley. Thankfully, I quickly reached a pizza place which does great gluten free pizza bases, and gratefully sat down at a small table with a view of the street.

While I was eating my salad, a man with a black bin liner in hand walked up to the sheltered alcove by the restaurant’s doorway, and sat down on the hard ground to beg. He had all the hallmarks of being homeless and living on the streets. A weather-bitten, hard-lined face; a hoodie to keep the worst of the night cold from his head; a sleeping bag, which he produced from his bin liner.

As I ate my meal, I watched as people passing by on their way to a night of enjoyment variously gave him the leftovers of their take-away food, offered him the loose cash in their pockets, refused his requests to ‘spare a little change’, or ignored him completely.

I mulled over my options while I was eating. I could save a piece of my pizza for him. I could give him the £10 note that was sitting in my phone case. Or I could start a conversation.

I finished my meal, paid my bill, and left the restaurant. I walked up to the man, and said, “I don’t have any change, but I can buy you some food if you’d like?”

I didn’t buy him any food (he’d already been given plenty by other passers-by, he said), but we did talk together for the best part of an hour. He gradually opened up, and told me about his life, his reasons for being on the street, his addiction and ongoing recovery, his contrition for some of the things he’d done in the past, and his faith. I listened, and I shared some of my own story in turn.

Just before I left him, he asked me to pray with him and for him. I am a Pagan, and he was a Christian. But I am also an Interfaith Minister. I did what I knew how to do: I prayed the prayer of my heart, but in his religious and spiritual language.

It was a beautiful experience, and deeply moving. We allowed ourselves to be vulnerable, and real with one another – two strangers, meeting by chance on the street, one autumn evening in northern England. We opened a doorway, for those minutes, that let through the light and breath of heaven.

I’ve been inspired to cultivate moments like these – what A Course In Miracles calls “holy encounters” – even more than usual. All it takes is being present and open, and seeing with our hearts.

Baking for health and fun

One of the less well-known aspects of fibromyalgia, ME and Chronic Fatigue Syndrome that we who have one or more of these conditions have to deal with is food sensitivity.

It’s not as debilitating as pain or as frustrating as cognitive dysfunction, nor does it lay us as low as exhaustion, but it certainly makes life more complicated.

Times when I’ve thought, “Fuck it,” and eaten the pastry, cream or bread anyway, I have inevitably remembered, a day, hours or sometimes minutes later, why that was really, really not a good idea.

One way to turn this complication into an adventure is to get curious, open-minded and creative in the kitchen.


This is the olive, pine nut, sun-dried tomato and chilli not-bread I made on Wednesday, and it’s YUMMY! Just in case you want to try it yourself at home, here’s the recipe 🙂

1. Preheat oven to 180º C

2. In a large bowl put:

3 cups gluten-free white bread flour (or gluten-free flour mix + a teaspoon or two of xanthan gum)
3 heaped teaspoons gluten-free baking powder
Liberal sprinklings of pine nuts, chopped chillis, sun-dried tomatoes, green and black olives and/or other tasty ingredients of your choice

3. Mix well together.

4. In another large bowl put:

3 eggs
1½ cups milk or milk substitute of your choice
⅜ cup oil/liquid fat of your choice

5. Beat well together.

6. Add wet ingredients to dry ingredients and mix extremely well.

7. Grease/oil a bread tin very well.

8. Pour in mixture and level roughly. Cover tin loosely with greaseproof paper or foil.

9. Bake for 35-50 mins (depending on your oven, how many extra ingredients you included, and how wet you like your not-bread). When it comes out, it should easily lift from the tin – after a bit of shuggling around the edges with a knife- and sound hollow when rapped on the base.

10. Enjoy with marg, butter, pate, etc.

Let me know how it turns out for you!

The challenge of romance

So, yesterday was Valentine’s Day, and today is still part of the festival of Lupercalia, which is one of the possible origins of our modern celebration. Given that a lot of my work is around, love, relationship and marriage, you might expect me to be all over Valentine’s. But you’d be wrong.

For all that this festival has ancient roots, both Pagan and Christian, it’s become a ‘Hallmark holiday’ – nothing more than an opportunity for retailers of to drive us into a consumer frenzy.

Love is not a commodity. Love cannot be bought or sold. Yet we are seduced into believing that our love must be expressed through expensive tokens, often bought at the expense of blood, as well as money. Diamonds are a perfect example.

And we are sold the idea that if we don’t celebrate romance in our life on this one day in the year — especially if we don’t have romance in our life — then our lives are dull, dire and dreadful.


There’s also this thing called patriarchy, and romance has long been a ploy of patriarchy to keep women – and men – in prescribed and controlled gender roles which maintain the status quo.

The image above links to a strongly argued critique of romance under patriarchy, yet the essay lets itself down, in my view, with one sentence which stereotypes (heterosexual) women’s and men’s expectations of online dating sites:

Women seek connections and men seek casual fucks with sexually objectified women who, they believe, will be just like the tortured women in the porn they consume.

While in further conversation the author states that she bases these stereotypes on an extended period of conversation with heterosexual women about their experiences of online dating sites, my own conversations with heterosexual men – both those who have and those who haven’t used online dating sites – lead me to a different conclusion.

People of all genders and sexual orientations are seeking connection, love and belonging. People of all genders and sexual orientations are twisted up by patriarchy in different ways around how and where to look for that connection, and what it ought to look like.

Patriarchy fucks with all of us, and a crassly commercialised, flowers + diamonds = romance Valentine’s Day is one expression of that.

And yet, the impulse to celebrate love is a healthy and joyful one. Love is an amazing adventure, whether it is romantic love – whatever the genders or numbers of the people involved – the love of friendship, the love between parents and children, the love between humans and companion animals, or Divine Love.

What might save Valentine’s Day for me is the celebration of these deeper and broader kinds of love, rather than keeping it just for romance.

In that vein, I leave you with this video by Dr. Meg Barker of the Open University, whose research finds that society’s preoccupation with a certain kind of romantic love over all other kinds can harm us, and suggests some more healthy ways of celebrating love.

Adventures in death and magic

On Tuesday, I attended my grandmother’s funeral. It was weird. She was my last surviving grandparent, and at 95 had had a good innings. That wasn’t what was weird though. The weird thing was that seeing her coffin was the first time I’d ever met her.

I don’t feel badly about that. She was always a vague, shadowy figure to me, someone who I knew existed, but had had no burning desire to meet face to face, except out of an idle sense of curiosity.

In fact, as I sat in the pew behind my father, listening to the priest offer prayers for her, and later, as I enjoyed a meal with the side of my family I so rarely see, I felt that I was not so much losing a grandmother as gaining an ancestor.

What is remembered, lives.

Knit – purl – relax

In mid-December I had my twice-yearly check up with my GP. I’d actually not seen her for more than a year, so I filled her in on what had been happening since January, which was a lot.

She congratulated me on staying mainly even-keeled through it all, but was mostly interested in how well – or not so well – I’d been pacing myself, as over the summer I’d been either working or spending my time in bed recovering from work.

Or, more accurately, working in bed when I should be resting and recovering.

My GP suggested I take up a hobby, one that doesn’t involve a screen or thinking too hard. My mind immediately went to knitting, and my GP agreed. (Which is awesome, ‘cos now I get to say that my GP prescribed me knitting!)

My first project was a scarf for a friend:


which has now been duly despatched. Then I moved on to a hat for my nephew/Godson:


Then a hat (pic below) and a neck warmer for myself, and now a blanket, also for my nephew.


That’s enough patting myself on the back, though. What I really wanted to talk about is how hard I find it to really stop and relax. Anyone who knows me in face-to-face life may find this difficult to believe – I come across to many people as very laid back – but it’s true.

I think it’s partly the effect of having most of my social life online for the past 15 years. Social relaxation means being on a computer, online, which by definition (for me) isn’t relaxing. It means being ‘on’ in some indefinable way. Maybe it’s because ‘computer’ also equals ‘work’.

Whatever the reason, reducing screen-time has long been a back-burner goal of mine. Knitting and crocheting, it turns out, are the perfect way to achieve it.

First of all, I’m not a very good knitter, and an even worse crocheter, so I have to concentrate on what I’m doing. That means I can’t be online at the same time – I have to give the yarn and the needles or hook my full attention.

Secondly, the process has a wonderful rhythm to it – needle, yarn, twist through; needle, yarn, twist through; needle, yarn, twist through. It’s the kind of rhythm conducive to a gentle trance state, a kind of attentive drifting which frees me from whatever concerns are worrying at the edges of my consciousness.

Thirdly, it’s a creative, time-limited activity, which results in an actual thing at the end of it. Each project has a beginning, a middle and an end, and I have something to show for it, every time.

I’ve known for years (thanks to my friend Robert Holden) that setting achievable goals releases dopamines, and completing those goals releases endorphins – both happy chemicals home grown by our very own brains, which keep us relaxed and able to bounce back from stress. Knitting is a fun way to put that knowledge into practice.

Finally, it’s something I can do literally anywhere. Unlike baking, my other favourite creative relaxation, I can knit in bed, or on the train, or curled up on the sofa under a throw.

Crochet is even more portable: I’ve taken to keeping a crochet project in my bag at all times, so when I’m in a stressful situation – e.g. waiting for a dentist’s appointment, which I had to do twice this week – I can pull it out and lose myself in the rhythm of the hook and yarn.

Knitting or crochet isn’t for everyone, but all of us can benefit from taking up an enjoyable activity of little consequence, which we can do anywhere, yet which has tangible results.

Do you have an activity like that you can turn to?