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‘Brain Pickings’ – Healing the Heart of Democracy

‘Brain Pickings’ is a beautiful online offering which addresses every aspect of the human heart-mind, and now, as you can see, even politics falls within its remit. If you feel moved to subscribe please find Brain Pickings online for nourishment and encouragement!


“America, if eligible at all to downfall and ruin, is eligible within herself, not without,”Walt Whitman wrote in his timeless meditation on democracy. A century and a half later, as we find ourself amid the terrifying testing ground of Whitman’s wisdom, we would do well to remember that whatever redemptions democracy may have must also come from within, not without. Leonard Cohen captured this brilliantly in his unpublished verses about democracy, which produced one of his most beloved and beautiful lyric lines: “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in.”

How to harness the redemptive light that comes through the fissures of democracy is what educator, activist, and poet laureate of the human spirit Parker Palmer (b. February 28, 1939) explores in Healing the Heart of Democracy: The Courage to Create a Politics Worthy of the Human Spirit (public library) — a book originally published years ago, the timelessness and timeliness of which is being proven daily.

Art by Oliver Jeffers from The Heart and the Bottle

In a sentiment that calls to mind Leonard Cohen’s wonderful insistence that “a revelation in the heart” is the only force that moves minds toward mutual understanding, Palmer considers the deeper rationale for his title:

“Heart” comes from the Latin cor and points not merely to our emotions but to the core of the self, that center place where all of our ways of knowing converge — intellectual, emotional, sensory, intuitive, imaginative, experiential, relational, and bodily, among others. The heart is where we integrate what we know in our minds with what we know in our bones, the place where our knowledge can become more fully human. Cor is also the Latin root from which we get the word courage. When all that we understand of self and world comes together in the center place called the heart, we are more likely to find the courage to act humanely on what we know.

The politics of our time is the “politics of the brokenhearted” — an expression that will not be found in the analytical vocabulary of political science or in the strategic rhetoric of political organizing. Instead, it is an expression for the language of human wholeness. There are some human experiences that only the heart can comprehend and only heart-talk can convey. Among them are certain aspects of politics, by which I mean the essential and eternal human effort to craft the common life on which we all depend. This is the politics that Lincoln practiced as he led from a heart broken open to the whole of what it means to be human — simultaneously meeting the harsh demands of political reality and nurturing the seeds of new life.

Parker Palmer

Framing his central inquiry into “holding the tension of our differences in a creative way,” Palmer — who has lived through some of the past century’s most tumultuous and polarizing periods, from WWII to the Civil Rights movement to the plight of marriage equality — writes:

We engage in creative tension-holding every day in every dimension of our lives, seeking and finding patches of common ground. We do it with our partners, our children, and our friends as we work to keep our relationships healthy and whole. We do it in the workplace … as we come together to solve practical problems. We’ve been doing it for ages in every academic field form the humanities to the sciences…

Human beings have a well-demonstrated capacity to hold the tension of differences in ways that lead to creative outcomes and advances. It is not an impossible dream to believe we can apply that capacity to politics. In fact, our capacity for creative tension-holding is what made the American experiment possible in the first place… America’s founders — despite the bigotry that limited their conception of who “We The People” were — had the genius to establish the first form of government in which differences, conflict, and tension were understood not as the enemies of a good social order but as the engines of a better social order.

A large part of that capacity for holding differences creatively, Palmer argues, comes down to all of us — “We The People,” in our dizzying diversity — learning to tell our own stories and listen to each other’s. (Lest we forget, Ursula K. Le Guin put it best in contemplating the magic of real human communication“Words are events, they do things, change things. They transform both speaker and hearer; they feed energy back and forth and amplify it. They feed understanding or emotion back and forth and amplify it.”) Palmer himself awakened to the power of this simple, enormously difficult act of mutual transformation when he took part in the annual three-day Congressional Civil Rights Pilgrimage from Birmingham to Selma, led by Congressman John Lewis. Palmer encapsulates the story of one of humanity’s greatest moral leaders:

On Sunday, March 7, 1965, six hundred nonviolent protesters, many of them young, gathered at the foot of Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge to begin a fifty-mile march to the Alabama State Capital in Montgomery, a protest against the ongoing exclusion of African Americans from the electoral process. When they reached the other side of the bridge, the marchers were brutalized by state and local police, mounted and on foot, with billy clubs and tear gas. This atrocity, witnessed on television by millions of Americans, scandalized the nation. It also generated enough political momentum in Congress that President Lyndon Johnson was able to sign a Voting Rights Act into law five months after the march.

John Lewis leads peaceful marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge, Selma, Alabama, 1965

Leading that historic march was 25-year-old John Lewis, one of the first to be brutalized by police, his skull fractured and his body scarred to this day. Echoing Rebecca Solnit’s increasingly timely insistence that the most hope-giving movements of social change often begin in the shadows and the margins, Palmer writes:

The twenty-five-year-old John Lewis and his age-mates in the Civil Rights movement were the descendants of generations of people who had suffered the worst America has to offer, but had not given up on the vision of freedom, justice, and equality that represents this country at its best. Those people nurtured that vision in their children and grandchildren at home, in the neighborhood, in classrooms, and especially in churches, creating a steady multigenerational stream of “underground” activity that was largely invisible to white Americans until it rose up to claim our attention in the 1950s and 1960s.

John Lewis (front, right) being beaten by police, Selma, Alabama, 1965.

Decades later, on the bus to the airport after the endpoint of that commemorative Civil Rights Pilgrimage, Palmer found himself seated behind 71-year-old Lewis — a “healer of the heart of democracy,” by then recipient of the Presidential Medal of Freedom — and overheard him telling a remarkable true story that stands as a powerful moral parable:

In 1961, [Lewis] and a friend were at a bus station in Rock Hill, South Carolina, when several young white men attacked and beat them bloody with baseball bats. Lewis and his friend “did not fight back, and they declined to press charges.” They simply treated their wounds and went on with their Civil Rights work.

In 2009, forty-eight years after this event, a white man about John Lewis’s age walked into his office on Capitol Hill, accompanied by his middle-aged son. “Mr. Lewis,” he said, “my name is Elwin Wilson. I’m one of the men who beat you in that bus station back in 1961. I want to atone for the terrible thing I did, so I’ve come to seek your forgiveness. Will you forgive me?” Lewis said, “I forgave him, we embraced, he and his son and I wept, and then we talked.”

As Lewis came to the end of this remarkable and moving story, he leaned back in his seat on the bus. He gazed out the window for a while as we passed through a coutnryside that was once a killing ground for the Ku Klux Klan, of which Elwin Wilson had been a member. Then, in a very soft voice — as if speaking to himself about the story he had just told and all of the memories that must have been moving in him — Lewis said, “People can change… People can change…”

Palmer reflects on the enormous legacy of Lewis’s moral leadership:

During the three days of the Civil Rights Pilgrimage, I was reminded time and again of the themes that are key to this book: the centrality of the “habits of the heart” that we develop in the local venues of our lives; the patience it takes to stay engaged in small, often invisible ways with the American experiment in democracy; the importance of faithfully holding the tension between what is and what might be, and creating the kind of tension that might arouse “the better angels of our nature.”

Palmer returns to the central premise that the act of listening to each other’s stories is our only vehicle to common ground, however small the patch. With an eye to his notion of “the politics of the brokenhearted” — a term particularly apt today — he writes:

Hearing each other’s stories, which are often stories of heartbreak, can create an unexpected bond [between those with opposing political views]. When two people discover that parallel experiences led them to contrary conclusions, they are more likely to hold their differences respectfully, knowing that they have experienced similar forms of grief. The more you know about another person’s story, the less possible it is to see that person as your enemy.

With an eye to what is often referred to as “politics of rage” — topics of especially charged polarity — he adds:

Rage is simply one of the masks that heartbreak wears. When we share the sources of our pain with each other instead of hurling our convictions like rocks at “enemies,” we heave a chance to open our hearts and connect across some of our greatest divides.

In a sentiment of particular poignancy and resonance today, Palmer writes:

We do violence in politics when we demonize the opposition or ignore urgent human needs in favor of politically expedient decisions.


The democratic experiment is endless, unless we blow up the lab, and the explosives to do the job are found within us. But so also is the heart’s alchemy that can turn suffering into community, conflict into the energy of creativity, and tension into an opening toward the common good. We can help keep the experiment alive by repairing and maintaining democracy’s neglected infrastructure… the invisible dynamics of the human heart and the visible venues of our lives in which those dynamics are formed.

It is well known and widely bemoaned that we have neglected our physical infrastructure — the roads, water supplies, and power grids on which our daily lives depend. Even more dangerous is our neglect of democracy’s infrastructure, and yet it is barely noticed and rarely discussed. The heart’s dynamics and the ways in which they are shaped lack the drama and the “visuals” to make the evening news, and restoring them is slow and daunting work. Now is the time to notice, and now is the time for the restoration to begin.

For those of us who want to see democracy survive and thrive … the heart is where everything begins: that grounded place in each of us where we can overcome fear, rediscover that we are members of one another, and embrace the conflicts that threaten democracy as openings to new life for us and for our nation.

Half a century after Eleanor Roosevelt made her eloquent case for the power of personal conviction and our individual responsibility in social change, Palmer adds:

Full engagement in the movement called democracy requires no less of us than full engagement in the living of our own lives. We carry the past with us, so we must understand its legacy of deep darkness as well as strong light. We can see the future only in imagination, so we must continue to dream of freedom, peace, and justice for everyone. Meanwhile, we live in the present moment, with its tedium and terror, its fears and hopes, its incomprehensible losses and its transcendent joys. It is a moment in which it often feels as if nothing we do will make a difference, and yet so much depends on us.

Healing the Heart of Democracy remains an indispensable read, immensely emboldening at this particular moment in time. Complement it with Palmer on the elusive art of inner wholenesseducation as a form of spirituality, and his magnificent Naropa University commencement address about the six pillars of the wholehearted life, then revisit Mencken on reclaiming the spirit of democracy from the conformity that passes for it.

Reiki One – for heart-mind, body and soul, 23-26 November

It’s nearly time for another group of people to begin walking a most wonderful new path on their life journey – the path that will take them to the deepest part of themselves where they can find refreshment, renewal and profound healing. This is the path of Reiki.

I stand humbled and grateful to be in the company of those who open themselves to the kind of life change that so many years ago I would not have believed possible: to be able to place my hands on myself and ease discomfort and sickness in my body; to heal the hurts of a lifetime in my heart; to work with all the unhelpful patterns in my thoughts; to experience the peace which waits for me in the deepest well of my being. This is Reiki in action.

More than ever before we need that in our lives which can help us move forward in this wildly changing world with hope and confidence, so roll up and let’s engage in change where we know it can make the difference – in ourselves. When I invite Reiki to create change in me, I create change in the world. More than ever before, let’s say YES!Reiki - a light in the dark

The space between stories

The Times They Are A-Changin’ sang Bob Dylan back in the Sixties. Indeed. In another time – in this very time – another man writes eloquently about change on a grand scale in the big world theatre. With appreciation, here is Charles Eisenstein:

The old world falls apart, but the new has not emerged. Everything that once seemed permanent and real is revealed as a kind of hallucination. You don’t know what to think, what to do; you don’t know what anything means anymore. The life trajectory you had plotted out seems absurd, and you can’t imagine another one. Everything is uncertain. Your time frame shrinks from years to this month, this week, today, maybe even to the present moment. Without the mirages of order that once seemed to protect you and filter reality, you feel naked and vulnerable, but also a kind of freedom. Possibilities that didn’t even exist in the old story lie before you, even if you have no idea how to get there. The challenge in our culture is to allow yourself to be in that space, to trust that the next story will emerge when the time in between has ended, and that you will recognize it. Our culture wants us to move on, to do. The old story we leave behind, which is usually part of the consensus Story of the People, releases us with great reluctance. So please, if you are in the sacred space between stories, allow yourself to be there. It is frightening to lose the old structures of security, but you will find that even as you might lose things that were unthinkable to lose, you will be OK. There is a kind of grace that protects us in the space between stories. It is not that you won’t lose your marriage, your money, your job, or your health. In fact, it is very likely that you will lose one of these things. It is that you will discover that even having lost that, you are still OK. You will find yourself in closer contact to something much more precious, something that fires cannot burn and thieves cannot steal, something that no one can take and cannot be lost. We might lose sight of it sometimes, but it is always there waiting for us. This is the resting place we return to when the old story falls apart. Clear of its fog, we can now receive a true vision of the next world, the next story, the next phase of life. From the marriage of this vision and this emptiness, a great power is born.”

Nights drawing in and drawing out – nights of Reiki at the First Degree

Unbelievably, it has been five months since I was enjoying the wind heralding the beginning of Autumn; now the wind is chasing crispy leaves across the dark earth, clattering branches one against another like skeletons amongst the empty trees, and I am drinking tea while the light gives way to a wild darkness. Already the bulbs are joyfully bursting through damp soil, snowdrops gathering their starry clusters ready to shine smiling green eyes beneath their drooping creamy lids.


And here I am, dreaming another Reiki class into being, with students waiting and preparing for the healing power of Reiki to flow through their hands and bring them the miracle of their own growth, their own flowering into a fresh Spring.


To the returning of the light – a sigh and a deep bow.




First Degree Reiki – a beautiful beginning for Autumn

What a beautiful way to begin the Autumn, whilst the days are still warm and the evenings cool, the nights drawing in and the bird-song drifting away into the stillness – we sit and hear a story from long ago; about how an old Japanese man went on a personal quest in hopes of bringing natural healing back into the world. The story of Reiki is told around the world in differing forms, yet the result is the same for those of us who, having listened to this story, hear a call ourselves to bring healing into our own lives and the lives of others: we finish our story-telling and our time together with Reiki in our hands, and with wonder in our hearts.

This coming week I will be working with people who have committed themselves to a lifetime of healing adventures! If this is something you’ve been thinking about yourself, then be free to come along on the first evening of the class, to drink tea and hear the wonderful history of this healing art. And who knows? You may decide to stay on and learn Reiki for yourself, or maybe have a Reiki treatment in order to feel the truth behind the story! Whether or no, you will be welcomed with warm hearts – and hot hands! Drop me an email if you’d like to know more but, in the meantime, I’m going to pour my tea and watch those nearly-autumn breezes rustle in the trees…

The Son and the Stars

Tomorrow my only child is due to have her first baby, a boy.

I’ve been helping her and my son in law to decorate the nursery (and every other last thing they could think of to chuck paint at) making things for their new freezer, shopping for bits and bobs, and now I’m back at home packing my own little bag in readiness for a week or so in London when her time comes. I’ve been fairly laid back, indeed sanguine, for all these preceding months; now it is as if my own hormones are asserting themselves: I cry at the drop of a hat, I feel overwhelmed with love and fear for the journey my precious girl is about to embark on. I think of her own pains and fears, joys and sorrows both for the birthing process and the years to come. I think of the blessing of a sense of continuance, wholly unlooked for yet so powerful and, also unexpected, the even greater bond that is already developing between she and I. Paradoxically, I feel calm and confident and capable, completely ready for this new role of ‘grandmother’ – I am so, so ready to fill those boots!

I had no mother. No-one to guide or support, no-one for me to snap and bark at through the teenage years, nor to act as buffer between my fragile sense of reality and a scary world when I stepped out into it as a fledgling musician and actor. When it was my time to bring a child into the world, the whole process of preparing and giving birth to her and then bringing her up, well – it was like sailing across a great, blind sea without rudder or compass, just the stars and an ocean of love to buoy us up and keep us afloat. It was wonderful! Those years as a mother were some of the hardest and most beautiful of my life. These days they are just beautiful. A little like Reiki, the most ordinary and the most extraordinary reside gently together, lighting up life regardless of the daily humdrum details of daily living. Reiki – The bigger picture and the detail. What a blessing!

More than ever am I grateful for and to my Reiki family and my practice – my solid bedrock of ‘elder’ wisdom – my compass, always pointing to the stars. And now my lovely girl, a woman entering her mothering years, will be compass, stars, and all the world to her beautiful boy until he is able to steer his own course and follow his own star.

We’ll walk the road together

Kate Rusby sings this message from me more beautifully than I can express.

Love and blessings to everyone on this glorious sunny, crisp Autumn day.


Days of beauty and wonder

Sitting in warm Mediterranean sunshine, I eat a late lunch surrounded by carpets of leaves, red and gilded in the light. Squirrels play Kiss Chase and birds dart for berries whilst I contemplate the serenity of the day, the Reiki treatment I’ve just given, and the gratitude I feel ‘for every living thing’.

When the time comes

Someone asked, “What would you want to help you make a good death?”

“The church bells sounding with the blackbirds’ evensong, and my daughter’s voice.”

It was a beautiful question and my answer was there, even before my next breath. There it is – the instinctual priorities pop out before you can say ‘natural burial and no flowers, thanks.’

I say it was a beautiful question because it came from the need for the deepest enquiry, a question that is easily and often avoided. I’m not suggesting that we romanticise and sentimentalise death in Victorian or any other terms, but I have sometimes wondered if part of the secret of living well, happily, and to our true potential is linked with keying into those rock-bottom priorities, feeling our personal, necessary connections.

Seriously thinking about life means knowing, and really understanding with deep acceptance, that death will come. Seriously thinking about death means more than cataloguing a bucket list; it means finding the simplest of blessings, the most minute realities of personal human existence that matter to each one of us – a different kind of bucket list – and making space for the practising of peace.

Some of us are fortunate that the manner and time of our deaths are still a mystery to us. Some people get through every day with the knowledge that their time is short, and live out the remainder of their lives with as much joy and meaning as they can muster; still others endure pain and indignities that we fear would undo us, yet these courageous people often connect with the tiniest of realities to hold them gently until they release themselves from life.

Am I saying we have to die before we can really live? No. But perhaps consideration of how to make a good death can help us to make a good and more joyful life.




I’m a Road Runner, Baby….

Reiki at Kenyon Ranch, Tubac, Tucson, Arizona

I could never express in any succinct form the wild beauty of this place. Dry, yes, but also green, the land grows tender shoots, cultivated carefully by the gardeners at the Ranch. They have even made a rose garden! The mountains are redolent of the Wild West, and there are four different ranges circling Tucson.

So far, one of my friends here has seen a real, live road runner, with plumed tail and all, and we are looking out for the coyotes and the wild boar which are called Javelina, (pronounced Havelina). They’re fierce and to be avoided, but they seem attracted to Reiki Home yet keep a respectful distance.

There is too much food, all of it delicious, so I will be returning looking like a small pillar box, but I expect I’ll be dancing it off soon enough!