Mindfulness for Olympians and all our children

I have long practised mindfulness and meditation daily; I believe it to be essential to our inner harmony, silencing the inner chatter which can be damaging to spiritual, mental and physical wellbeing.

So I am not surprised to learn that it is being hailed as a factor in Team GB’s success at the Rio 2016 Olympic Games, with many athletes using the Headspace app devised by sports psychologists at the English Institute of Sport.

Cyclist Laura Trott, who became the most decorated British female Olympian of all time, said recently: “The first [part] is all to do with breathing, and really ties into the idea of mindfulness – only thinking about what you’re doing in that very moment and not allowing your mind to run away with worries about past events and those in the future.

“By thinking about your breathing, it stops you thinking about anything else. If you push your belly out when you take a breath in, like doing the opposite to what you think you should do, it really helps.”

Children, too, can benefit from learning these techniques. Academics from the University of Cincinnati, in a study published in the Journal of Child and Adolescent Psychopharmacology, looked at a small cohort of children diagnosed with anxiety disorders. The team found that the anxiety level of their patients was significantly reduced after mindfulness-based cognitive therapy, and the more mindfulness they practised, the less anxious they felt.

One interesting US education resource is MindUP, developed by the Hawn Foundation and the brain child of actress and philanthropist Goldie Hawn. She was inspired by her concerns over rising levels of anxiety and stress among children in the US after 9/11. The programme suggests that children should have two-minute moments of self-reflection and meditation three times daily, with the idea that it will calm them and allow better focus.

Ms Hawn will explain MindUP at a talk in London this month for the Pure Land Foundation at China Exchange, a programme of events designed to enrich lives through creativity, spirituality and self-expression. A keen proponent of meditation, Ms Hawn will also lead the audience in a “brain break”, explaining: “You go inward for a while. It’s important to do that … it helps relax your brain and strengthen your brain.

“It gives great context into behaviour, emotions, reactivity, stress, how to reduce our stress, how to recognise it.”

Ms Hawn has been studying Eastern philosophy for decades and says: “What I’ve learned through my meditation is a sense of equanimity, a sense of all things being equal.”

In this, I agree with her. Mindfulness is an essential tool for achieving inner peace and working towards a state of true contentment.

Establishing healthy development through studying the mind

How do we establish and encourage healthy social and emotional development in children today? Our young people are under stress as never before, with worries stretching from doing well at school, making friends or pleasing their parents, to serious issues such as cyberbullying and the effects of climate change. Even Brexit is causing anxiety among British children about the opportunities they may not have to work and study abroad when older.

One valuable project focuses on helping young people to understand the way their own minds work – and how they can learn to manage stress, from quite an early age. It comes from the excellent MindUP educational programme developed by The Hawn Foundation and the brainchild of actor and philanthropist Goldie Hawn.

Ms Hawn had become concerned by statistics about the increases in school violence and bullying, youth depression and suicide, and she was worried about what she calls “the persistent failure of the education system to help children cope and flourish”. She wanted to help those children suffering from high levels of stress and who were completely lacking the skills to navigate in a complex world.

She enlisted experts from psychologists to neuroscientists to create an evidence-based resource for schools which could build self-esteem and resilience in youngsters. The result was the MindUP 15-step programme, which will be the subject of a talk by Ms Hawn in London this month for the Pure Land Foundation at China Exchange, a programme of events designed to enrich lives through creativity, spirituality and self-expression.

The MindUP programme is global in its reach, serving nearly one million children in the US, Canada, UK, Serbia, Mexico, Hong Kong, Australia and New Zealand.

And most importantly, it works. Scientists from the University of British Columbia reported in 2011 that 82 per cent of students reported feeling more optimistic and positive, and 81 per cent felt the programme taught them how to be happier. A further 58 per cent reported that it had encouraged them to be more altruistic and to help others.

While the programme uses mindfulness and “brain breaks” – moments of meditation – as part of its core stages, brain anatomy is also taught. One US teacher, Mylene Prano, has reported that her pupils are now commenting on fairy tales from a neuroscientific, rather than pantomime perspective.

“When I read them a story,” she says, “they now tell me if the characters are using their prefrontal cortex or their amygdala.” Among the testimonials on the Hawn Foundation website is one from a small boy who draws comfort from the fact that the boy who was bullying him was “not using his prefrontal cortex to make good decisions”.

In this way, MindUp engages all of our childrens’ brains – the anatomical elements as well as the spiritual, making a difference which will last for life.

Goldie Hawn is building healthy self-esteem through education

Goldie Hawn is an actress and comedienne much admired by many of us. Her infectious smile and good humour has delighted the world for decades. So it’s difficult to imagine her unable to experience joy.

Yet in 1972, when she was at the height of early fame, Ms Hawn has talked of how she lost her signature laugh. Stress and anxiety left her on edge, she has said, and sent her on a nine-year journey of exploration into psychology, meditation and neuroscience in an attempt to understand what was happening in her mind.

Even as she regained her sangfroid, however, Ms Hawn stayed fascinated in how human brains are affected by emotional stresses and strains. And after 9/11, alarmed by the rise in US teenagers being medicated out of their fears and depression, she commissioned scientists to create a programme which could be used in schools as an alternative to dispensing prescriptions. Moreover, the educational system had to be prophylactic too, building the sort of healthy self-esteem and cognitive understanding in the young which would last a lifetime. On Goldie’s watch, no one else would lose their laugh in hard times.

The scheme which she helped to developed is called MindUP; it has been validated by academics and is now studied across the US and Canada and in the UK too. Ms Hawn is giving a talk about her work in London this month for the Pure Land Foundation at China Exchange, a programme of events designed to enrich lives through creativity, spirituality and self-expression.

One of the key elements of the 15-stage MindUP programme is “brain breaks” – moments of mindfulness and wordless breathing exercises which Ms Hawn also encourages parents to do with their children at home.

“Sit with your children for 10 minutes a day,” she urges in her book 10 Mindful Minutes. “Focus on your breathing, then ask your children to sit comfortably with their hands in their lap, and close their eyes.”

Ms Hawn also encourages families to engage in “mindful listening”, which requires parents to collect a variety of familiar household items (pencils, papers, coins), put them in a pot, then shake the pot and ask children to focus on the sound that makes.

Interestingly, Ms Hawn has passed on her passion for mindfulness to her own daughter, the actress Kate Hudson, who has written a book, Pretty Happy: Healthy Ways to Love Your Body. “During one particularly difficult time in my life,” Ms Hudson said recently, “when I was feeling overwhelmed, it was meditation that brought me back to me. At the time, a tough decision left me feeling completely upended. I could not stop my mind from racing. I could barely sleep. And I felt trapped by my anxiety.

“My mom told me to just start simply, by calming down and bringing awareness to my breaths,” Hudson added. “She told me to follow my breaths in and out, remembering that the thoughts would come, but to just watch them pass, and to always come back to a simple breath.”
Those techniques – which combine what is best in ancient philosophy and cutting edge neuroscience – have passed through the Hawn family, and are now shared via MindUP around the world. Ms Hawn’s gift is not just to make us laugh, but also truly to be happy.

Groundhog Day: each day is a lifetime

One of the most important Buddhist teachings is reincarnation. It is believed that while the body decays, the spirit never dies. The spirit retains the information and lessons learned in each lifetime and carries them forward to the next life in a different physical body. Reincarnation is an evolving spiritual journey toward enlightenment.

Sometimes when we are confronted with difficult challenges, our programmed natural response is to resist, struggle and fight. But our struggles and fights don’t seem to change the life situations that we have helped to create: it is only when we become aware of the lessons behind all the drama that we can start to make real changes and find the path towards freedom.

This is the message at the heart of Groundhog Day, one of the world’s best-loved films. Groundhog Day has just been turned into a piece of musical theatre at the Old Vic in London by Olivier award winning director, Matthew Warchus, the multiple award winning composer, Tim Minchin and the Bafta-winning writer Danny Rubin. Rubin was the original film’s screenwriter too.

The very funny, very profound show – for which I am proud to be production partner with the Old Vic – has been greeted with five-star reviews and critical acclaim for its clever, smart, witty and inventive staging, music and book, and performances.

The audience follows TV weatherman Phil Connors (played by Andy Karl on stage, in the role made famous by Bill Murray) as he finds himself in Punxsutawney, Pennsylvania, when sent to cover the small town’s annual Groundhog Day. Phil starts selfish, condescending and arrogant, and his relationships with women are exploitative and based on instant sexual gratification.

As you no doubt know, Phil is soon caught in a perpetual loop of events, with each day playing out exactly as before. As Phil realises he must relive the same day over and over his emotions take him through the Kübler-Ross five-stage model of grief. He goes through denial, anger, bargaining and depression before reaching acceptance.

He explores freedom and a life with no consequences at the start – you can kiss a stranger, rob a bank, cause a police car to crash, hold orgies – but he thinks only of himself, not the impact that his actions have on others. This “freedom” unfortunately doesn’t bring a sense of peace and contentment.

Despair then leads Phil to commit suicide in numerous creative ways, but he wakes up the next day doomed to endure the same hopeless boredom and inability to change his future.

Slowly his responses change. Instead of resistance, he begins to accept. Instead of indulging in carnal pleasure, he starts to learn to play piano, save people from accidents or death, and help people to express their love. The experiences that he creates become joy filled with sense of purpose.

Phil gives up on a seduction of his colleague Rita, seeing her finally as a person to appreciate rather than as a sex object. But this new attitude leads Rita herself finally to reach out to him. They fall in love authentically and miraculously – and this allows the clock to move forwards again.

The ending is moving and I found tears in my eyes. Groundhog Day shows us, in a joyful and uplifting way, that each day is a lifetime. It is up to us to choose how to live each day to the fullest. We may be given certain constraints in our lives but we still have the free will to live consciously and to choose our actions with compassion. It is the choices we make that transform the experiences we create, and dissolve the perceived constraints of our lives.

Albus Potter and the influence of our parents

The new Harry Potter play will leave fans reflecting on their parents’ enduring affect on their own lives

How fortunate I was to attend the opening night of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, the new two-part play by Jack Thorne.

The play staged at the Palace Theatre and based on a new story by JK Rowling is brilliant, and rightly received five star reviews, with critics calling it “game-changing” and “thrilling”.  Audiences are delighted to see Harry Potter as a grown man working at the Ministry of Magic, while his son Albus Severus Potter heads off to Hogwarts.

At school, Albus – named for Dumbledore and Snape – encounters Scorpius Malfoy, son of his father’s enemy Draco Malfoy, and the scene is set for an extraordinary, almost Dickensian look into the entirety of the Potter world.

But this blog is no place to discuss the plot – I would not want to ruin the night for other fans. However, I find it fascinating to reflect on theme of parental legacy as it affects us all – muggles or not.

Our parents endow us not just with genes and an education, but intangibles: family history, traditions, experiences and attitudes. Very often the names they choose too are redolent with personal heritage and hints of expectation.

One only needs to think of the American tradition of naming sons for their fathers – the Bush presidential dynasty, the Gettys, the Rockefellers. And a look at those American names also reminds us instantly that being your father’s son is not always easy. Sometimes we cannot live up to their expectation. Sometimes we do not want to. We resist it, fight it, choose a different path.

In Chinese culture, the influence of family is even more obvious as the surname or family name comes before the individual or given name. This is to signify that the family stands above the individual, and that we must see ourselves from the perspective of family and community rather than looking to one’s own individual journey and life purpose.

Personally, I do not believe that we are defined by our heritage. I understand, too, that it can be difficult to reach that point where one can empathise with one’s mother or father’s desire or ability to influence your life, let alone accept it.

As children, contesting the family and standing up for oneself is an important part of growing up. But the process is not complete until we are able to understand the ways of our parents, and accept their lessons with good grace. This is the wisdom of age.

Our common ancestry belies mistrust of immigration

Resistance to foreigners betrays an ignorance of the past

“When you start about family,” said Alex Haley, author of Roots, the novel which explored and exposed much of the history of African-American slavery, “about lineage and ancestry, you are talking about every person on earth.”

He is quite right. For every person who claims proudly that their line goes “back” so many hundreds of years, it’s worth reminding ourselves that all families, ancestors and forebears go “back” equally far. You can trace them to the humans discovered to have lived in Ethiopia 2.8 million years ago, to the Georgians from 1.8 million years ago, and to the first humans to move to Asia, Europe and Australia.

I was reminded of this recently by the conversations about immigration which seem to be dominating politics and the public mood around the world. In the haste to find a scapegoat for national problems, whether they concern housing, employment or trade, many people seem determined to blame those they label outsiders or foreigners. People who look or can be labelled as “strangers” find themselves in the firing line.

This is tied into fears over terrorism especially that which derives its inspiration from the so-called Islamic State.

It is not unusual or unhuman to worry about the unknown. And although most of us try hard to co-exist peacefully with each other as humans rather than as different tribes or races, there are some – especially now – whose fear finds expression in hate and prejudice.

No wonder then that we have seen a surge in anti-immigrant hate crime in recent times; the National Police Chiefs’ Council (NPCC) reported an average 57 per cent nationwide increase in hate crimes reported by in the aftermath of the Brexit referendum.

Yet, ironically, we are all much more closely related than we know. Recent advances in DNA testing and genetic profiling by companies such as ancestry.com and 23andMe have revealed that we do not have to look back millions of years to find a common ancestor.

A Cornell University study published in the journal PNAS (Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences) in 2009 found that the average amount of DNA in an African American’s genome that could be traced back to West Africa was about 77 per cent, but it ranged from as little as 1 per cent to as much as 99 per cent.

At 23andMe, researchers have looked at the genetic ancestry of about 78,000 customers likely to consider themselves as entirely of European ancestry and found that 3-4 per cent of those people have “hidden” African ancestry ranging from 0.5 to 0.75 per cent. These findings suggest that this group of customers have an African ancestor who lived about six generations, or about 200 years, ago.

Not only does our inability to accept that we are more alike than we know threaten our peace and happiness, but paradoxically it also makes us more vulnerable. Often terrorists are home-grown but believe themselves to be “other”. If we accepted our commonality instead of looking for differences, we might find ourselves safer and more secure in reality and in our imaginations. What a bonus for mankind that would be.


The Go-Between and how not to be haunted by history

A new musical version of a classic tale reminds us to be ruthless with the past, or the past will be ruthless with you

I am fascinated by the relationship between past and present: how easy it is to let the events of our youth affect our present state of mind – indeed, some people allow those events to affect them for their whole lives.

These themes are explored with poignancy and care, and through superb acting and music, in the new musical version of the classic tale by LP Hartley The Go-Between.

The production, which I am delighted to be involved in, stars legendary actor Michael Crawford in the lead role of Leo Colston, a man whose entire life is destroyed by a series of actions carried out in childhood.

In the story, a young Leo is persuaded to act as intermediary, passing messages between Marian, a beautiful young woman whose family are Leo’s hosts, and first her fiancée Lord Trimingham, and then her lover, a handsome local farmer called Ted.

Leo does not know initially he is doing anything wrong, but when the truth behind the messages comes out, his role as the go-between triggers a tragedy. We learn over time that the events changed his life, destroying his self-belief.

Yet when he finally meets Marian in old age, it emerges that she has been able to live, love and move on more easily. It is Leo who was the prisoner of time, not Marian.

Should we all worry about being trapped by the past? Of course. As Buddha says: “Do not dwell in the past, do not dream of the future, concentrate the mind on the present moment.” This is the central premise and power of contemplative meditation.

This is not to say that we cannot learn the lessons of the past; just that we must not become caught up in re-examining them again and again, like a numismatist poring over an old coin, unable to appreciate its value from looking too hard.

But also I would say that we should not try to live too far ahead either. Dreams can inspire but they are not blueprints for life.

The balance is to try our best to live within our “now”. By all means learn from our past, but do not become its prisoner.

Joyce DiDonato and the power of music

One of my greatest pleasures is to listen to the mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato, who has just been named the Maria Callas Debut Artist of the Year, a prize awarded by the Dallas Opera.

Miss DiDonato’s mellifluous coloratura voice has graced the world’s stages, entrancing audiences with her interpretation of works by composers including Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti.

Currently starring in Benoît Jacquot’s production of Werther by Jules Massenet at the Royal Opera House, Miss DiDonato is wowing London audiences in this tale of doomed and tragic love.

When I first met Miss DiDonato, I couldn’t help but notice she was vibrating with love and joy, and that many people were naturally drawn to her energy field and her warmth. They seem to soak up her aura and cannot get enough of it.

My affinity with her was heartfelt and instant. In each other, we recognised kindred spirits. And I admired her extraordinary musical talents, but also her generosity, her enthusiasm, her graciousness, and her passion to make the world a better place.

For Miss DiDonato is more than an opera star – she is a stellar human being, unafraid to use her position to support others, not least as a long-standing supporter of LGBT rights.

Miss DiDonato responded to the recent murder of 49 people at the Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida by posting a link to her performance in February 2015 of Dido’s Lament from Henry Purcell’s 17th-century opera Dido and Aeneas. She performed that at the Stonewall Inn, a famous gay bar in New York’s Greenwich Village. The performance was given to commemorate the emergence of the modern gay rights movement, which had been sparked into life following riots at the Stonewall in 1969.

And at the 2013 Proms, she moved many to tears when she dedicated her performance of Somewhere Over the Rainbow, from the Wizard of Oz, to the LGBT community “whose voices are being silenced”, particularly in Russia.

I also admire her work with the Carnegie Hall’s outreach programme which last year saw her visit the Sing Sing prison in New York state, collaborating on songwriting and compositional projects. She also performed for the prisoners, as she did in April this year on a return visit.

But perhaps it is the support Miss DiDonato has given to the Dallas Street Choir which moves me most. This choir is made up of the homeless – people who have lost their voices as well as their places in society. By encouraging them to sing, the Choir gives back to these dispossessed men and women their dignity and hope.

Her performances for the Choir not only raised vital funds, but also endorsed the value of song as a mark of respectability.

She may be divine on stage, but Miss DiDonato is no clichéd diva: “I know that every time I step on the stage it’s a real gift,” she says. “So I try not to take it for granted, and I try to make it an experience that the public can really participate in.”

Miss DiDonato’s compassion and humanity is an example to us all.

A perfect pas de deux is on the road to wisdom

As a dance aficionado, I know this art form is intensely demanding on a physical level and requires total dedication. I’m also aware of its mental needs: the intensity of concentration allied to the body’s strength and flexibility.

When it comes together we reach a sort of sublime transcendence. You can see it in a dancer such as Carlos Acosta who may perform a perfect hortensia, looking almost as though he is swimming in the air. Then, I see ballet as magic, more than physical exercise.

Ballet may yet be something more than that too: a step on the road to wisdom. An interesting study published in February in PLOS One suggests that regular ballet classes and lessons may improve brain power. The research carried out by the University of Chicago’s Department of Psychology had been aimed at assessing a possible link between meditation and the gaining of wisdom.

Dancing had been included merely for comparison purposes, and the research team had not been expecting to find it was associated with wisdom. The team’s members were left surprised. Patrick Williams, lead author and a postdoctoral researcher admitted: “The link between ballet and wisdom is mysterious to us and something that we’re already investigating further.”

This includes studies with adult practitioners of ballet, as well as among novices training at Chicago’s famous Joffrey Ballet. Williams wants to track novices and seasoned practitioners of both meditation and ballet for months and years to see whether the association holds up over time.

I am not surprised at the powerful effect of ballet on the mind. The seminal American modern dancer and choreographer Martha Graham said: “Dance is the hidden language of the soul of the body.”

Meanwhile, the artist and choreographer Pina Bausch, founder of the Tanztheater Wuppertal, used dance to challenge and stimulate the mind of the viewer. David Bowie was so influenced he drew from her work for his 1987 Glass Spiders tour.

What is it about dance that speaks to us so deeply? For Bausch some of the power was in repetitive movements, which she believed had different meaning every time they were performed. And I can imagine that new emotions allied to perfect repeated muscle memories will create healthy neural pathways throughout the brain.

Could this be the source of wisdom, the constant stimulation of the brain while in perfect harmony with the body? It is at the very least stimulation for the soul.

King Ludwig’s castles reflect his inner struggles

Attending the English National Opera’s new production of Tristan and Isolde by Richard Wagner – its first since 1996 – was a great joy. I am delighted to be supporting this opera, which is directed by Daniel Kramer and features designs by Anish Kapoor, one of the most influential sculptors of his generation.

As I waited for the curtain to rise, I was reminded of the composer’s curious relationship with his patron Ludwig II, King of Bavaria, who lived from 1845–86.

King Ludwig was a reclusive character whose flamboyant taste in castles – astonishing neo-gothic palaces which decorate the tops of Bavarian mountains like fairy tale castles or indeed opera sets – belied his inner need for quiet, simplicity and even secrecy. Inside his most famous palace – the Neuschwanstein – his bedroom is simple and almost monastic, the small single bed a shrine to his single state. Yet the walls are painted with romantic murals telling the story of Tristan and Isolde.

The stimuli for building these edifices came from King Ludwig’s visits to France, and Versailles in particular. He envied the French their artistry and culture, and decided to encourage the development of the Arts in Bavaria on his return.

The schloss which resulted – including the breathtaking Neuschwanstein (which I have visited), the Linderhof, Herrenchiemsee and the Munich Residenz Palace Royal apartment – were initially popular. Construction brought employment to hundreds of labourers and artisans, and money flowed into the poorer regions of the country.

But gradually the sheer excess – combined with Ludwig’s increasingly eccentric behaviour – turned the court and country against him. Ludwig was declared insane, and subsequently died in strange circumstances. Was he murdered? It’s impossible to rule out.

At the heart of his story, I believe, lies a struggle between his strict Catholicism and his homosexuality, which at the time was forbidden both by Church and state. Ludwig must have lived in a state of constant internal conflict which resulted in a lifetime spent curating his own reality: a world that was very romantic and beautiful even though it was not accepted by others.

In this, he reminds me of more modern celebrities such as Michael Jackson who seemed to suffer equal depths of personal turmoil. Jackson, like King Ludwig, found his outlet in creativity and the arts. His output was prodigious and Jackson knew its value saying: “Music has been my outlet, my gift to all of the lovers in this world. Through it, my music, I know I will live forever.”

Did Ludwig hope to live forever through his castles? Perhaps. Yet his wider legacy is importantly tied to his patronage of Wagner, whose music might never have been composed without the king’s support.

Certainly that was partly driven by his suppressed attraction for the young composer: “Alas, he is so handsome and wise, soulful and lovely,” Ludwig said, “that I fear that his life must melt away in this vulgar world like a fleeting dream of the gods.”

In the end Wagner was not able or willing to stay by Ludwig’s side, yet the king continued to pay his bills from afar. It is a debt modern music lovers can never repay; its value is too great.