Catching God: Glimpsing Genius in the Creative Process

Elizabeth Gilbert has been fascinated with creative writing her entire life. She’s most well known for her very successful memoir Eat, Pray, Love.

In this funny, personal and surprisingly moving talk, she muses on the impossible expectations we place upon those who are engaged in the creative process.

Following the incredible success of Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth feared that anything else she wrote would be forever judged by the world against her former “freakish” success.

This was a very scary proposition – if her greatest work was already behind her, then how could she keep on doing what she loved, and write?

Was there a way she could put some psychological distance between herself as a writer and her anxiety about what the reaction to her writing would be?

Her search for answers to these questions lead her into some rather surprising territory – to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and to the sacred dances performed in the deserts of North Africa hundreds of years ago.

The people from these distant times and cultures had a very different view of creativity, she found, and she began to see that it was a view intimately known to many great artists of our time.

It’s a view that can help shift our psychology to be less afraid of embracing our creativity. So that instead of getting overly psyched out by it, we can simply enjoy and express it.


Poems of Transformation: Love After Love, by Derek Walcott

Sacred Union Alex GreyLove After Love

The time will come
when, with elation
you will greet yourself arriving
at your own door, in your own mirror
and each will smile at the other’s welcome,

and say, sit here. Eat.
You will love again the stranger who was your self.
Give wine. Give bread. Give back your heart
to itself, to the stranger who has loved you

all your life, whom you ignored
for another, who knows you by heart.
Take down the love letters from the bookshelf,

the photographs, the desperate notes,
peel your own image from the mirror.
Sit. Feast on your life.

– Derek Walcott


Derek Walcott, Nobel Prize winner for literature in 1992, usually writes long poems. But this poem, “Love After Love,” is different. It speaks of feasting and celebration. And of the joy of two selves, long parted, reuniting. Evoking in the reader his or her own particular experiences of separation and belonging.

There is something profoundly affirming and validating that may be recognised in its lines; we may puzzle who is this person whom we are to greet again? This stranger from whom we have been parted for so long?

As individuals born into the modern world, we aspire to create the life we want for ourselves. We strive to “make something of ourselves” in the world. Yet ancient psychological traditions would say that the pattern of who we truly are lies dormant within us from the beginning, ready to unfold, just as the oak tree is already there in the acorn. Suggesting that one’s task in life is to discern the pattern, listen for it, and make room for it to emerge, instead of trying to “make ourselves happen.”

It may take some time, perhaps most of a lifetime, before we realise that a quiet, strange voice is whispering beneath our outward efforting and labours. Speaking from a different current, which may want to go one way even while we push to go another.

Until that time, the conscious self assumes the role of sole champion of our destiny and purpose. However as we soften with experience, the conscious self comes to embrace that other one whom you also are.

Walcott’s poem touches a deep current of human experience, of exile and homecoming. It is as if you have known all your life that home is as near to you as your jugular vein, yet still distant somehow. Coming home, then, is a joyous communion with your self, a celebration and festival of your life. The time for which, the poet says, is now.


Artwork by Alex Grey


Silence, Please: The Regenerative Effects of Peace and Quiet

silence pleaseIn the year 2008, Finland appointed a delegation tasked with creating a national brand. The delegation issued a slick “Country Brand Report” highlighting a host of marketable themes, including Finland’s renowned educational system and vast natural beauty. And one curious theme made the final list too, which they deemed would appeal loudest of all: silence.

The “silence” associated with Finland, was no longer to be thought of as boring and unexciting, urged the delegates, but could be considered a “natural resource,” especially amidst a modern world of loudness and busyness. A world in which some pay out hundreds for expensive noise-canceling headphones; and others are willing to part with thousands for weeklong silent meditation courses.

Recent studies highlight the peculiar power of silence to calm our bodies, turn up the volume on our inner life, and attune our connection to the world. Contrasted with “noise,” a word that comes from a Latin root meaning either queasiness or pain; and the notion of “noise pollution,” a term coined by researchers in the 1960s that pointed at the harmful effects of noisiness on the activity and balance of life.

The word “noise” comes from a Latin root meaning either queasiness or pain.

Noises are received as physical vibrations by the ear where they are converted into electrical signals for the brain. There they first activate the amygdalae, the region of the brain associated with memory formation and emotion, prompting an immediate release of stress hormones like cortisol — people living in consistently loud environments often experience chronically elevated levels of stress hormones.

On the other hand, as one study at Duke University by regenerative biologist, Imke Kirste, showed; two hours of silence per day actually prompted cell development in the region of the brain known as the hippocampus. “We saw that silence is really helping the new generated cells to differentiate into neurons, and integrate into the system,” remarked Kirste.

Kirste concluded that neurologists could find a therapeutic use for silence, for instance in the treatment of conditions like dementia and depression that have been associated with decreasing rates of neurogenesis in the hippocampus.

Two hours of silence per day actually prompted cell development in the hippocampus

For decades, scientists have known that the brain’s “background” activity consumes most of its energy. Difficult tasks like pattern recognition or arithmetic, concluded neuroscientists in a 1997 study at Washington University, only slightly increased the brain’s energy consumption. They argued that this “default mode” of brain function had “rather obvious evolutionary significance,” for example in detecting predators, and other “automatic” functions.

However, follow-up research in 2013 by Joseph Moran and colleagues, has shown the default mode is also enlisted in self-reflection. During the time when the brain rests quietly, wrote Moran and colleagues, it integrates external and internal information into “a conscious workspace.” Freedom from noise and goal-directed tasks, it appears, allows us to weave ourselves into the world, to discover where and how we fit in.

“If you want to know yourself you have to be with yourself, and discuss with yourself, be able to talk with yourself,” said Noora Vikman, an ethnomusicologist and consultant for silence to Finland’s delegates. Thoroughly convinced by the power of silence, in 2011, the Finnish Tourist Board released a series of photographs of lone figures in the wilderness, with the caption “Silence, Please.”


Mindfulness: Entering a Deeper You

Mindfulness is a secret that was well understood in the ancient world and has been kept alive by certain cultures until the present day. It is so effective that it’s now one of the preferred treatments recommended by the UK’s National Institute for Health and Clinical Excellence.

Monk SweepingThe practice of mindfulness is a process that leads you to a profound understanding that thoughts and feelings (including negative ones) are transient. Like clouds in the sky, they come and they go. And ultimately, you have a choice about whether to act on them or not.

Mindfulness practice helps cultivate a deep and compassionate awareness that allows you to assess your goals and make the best choices towards realising your deepest values. It is the beginning of a process that puts you back in control of your life.

Mindfulness-based Psychotherapy

Living mindfully has been shown to exert a powerful influence on one’s health, wellbeing and happiness. The cultivation of a mindful life is akin to learning a musical instrument, or training a system of muscles through regular and patterned exercise. The skills and benefits gradually accumulate, deepen and unfold.

It is important to have good guidance. Mindfulness-based psychotherapy provides a coherent structure within which you can observe your own mind, body and life unfolding. It offers a systematic, safe and trustworthy approach for working with, and through, whatever arises.

Through its simple yet radical practices of self-awareness and self-inquiry, you begin to see what happens when you pay attention and act with kindness and compassion towards yourself and others, even if it feels a bit artificial at first.

Emotional Freedom

An important aspect of mindfulness-based psychotherapy is learning how to simply be with one’s emotions. While we inevitably feel a little sad, anxious, or irritable from time to time, it’s not the mood that does the damage but how we react to it. . .

For instance you may have noticed that the effort of trying to free yourself from a bad mood can often make things worse? It’s as if struggling against difficult feelings pulls you deeper into an emotional quicksand.

The reason this happens is because our state of mind is intimately connected with memory. It’s constantly trawling the depths in search of memories that echo our current emotional state. These memory echoes are incredibly powerful, and once they gather momentum, they are almost impossible to shake free.

In mindfulness-based psychotherapy you learn to recognise memories as they arise and to safely and freely experience your emotions, without getting overwhelmed by the influences of the past.

Suffering is Optional!

A further benefit of mindfulness practice is the eradication of unnecessary suffering from our lives, much of which arises out of our habitual ways of thinking and acting.

Mindfulness-based psychotherapy encourages you to see and break unconscious habits of thought and behaviour that prevent you from living life to the full. You begin to see that while pain is a part of life, suffering is optional!

Sometimes the habits that cause us the most suffering are the ones we’re most unaware of. It’s as if we’ve trained ourselves to look the other way while we suffer! A trained therapist acts as a kind of mirror in which we can become aware of our blind spots. As we begin to see how we habitually block and judge ourselves, alternative paths and choices emerge.

In time, new pathways are carved out in our neural circuitry and old patterns are permanently released. It’s worth remembering that it may take time for mindfulness practices to reveal their full potential, but they lead to deep-down and lasting change, which really can make your life more joyous and fulfilled.


Photo by Andy Cheek of Stevenage, Herts.


The Inner Critic: A Pathway to Wholeness and True Conscience

Inner Critic“I can’t do it. . .”

“I’m not worthy. . .”

“I must be perfect. . .”

“I must not make a mistake. . .”

“I’m not good enough. . .”

“Nobody loves me. . .”

Any of this sound familiar?

Everyone has an inner voice like this. In traditional psychology it’s referred to as the superego, or more popularly known as the inner critic.

For many people it is the main source of immense and unnecessary suffering through shame, guilt, low self-esteem, and devaluation. The good news is that it can be fully understood and transformed into a source of inner support and guidance, instead of self-recrimination and judgement.

The inner critic serves as a kind of “false conscience.” It is built mostly through identification with judging, criticism, blaming and punishing attitudes from our childhood environment. Over time it becomes a harsh inner judge and a cruel source of self-punishment. Instead of being the light of true conscience, it develops into an inflexible part of the mind with harsh rules and commandments.

The inner critic constantly monitors, scanning you and other people’s perception of you. Whenever it detects something that it doesn’t approve of, it immediately judges and condemns you. As well as causing suffering in your day to day affairs, it can be a real problem in psychotherapy because it attacks you every time you uncover something of which it disapproves!

As a result of this many people engaged in psychotherapy can unnecessarily suffer. Or to avoid this suffering they may avoid experiencing important parts of themselves that the inner critic judges as “no good.” These parts are kept “off limits,” effectively blocking you from being fully conscious of yourself.

An essential part of psychotherapy, especially if you suffer from low self-esteem, guilt or shame, is to help you recognise your inner critic for what it is, and learn to effectively deal with it in ways that free you to reveal more of your true self. A good therapist will provide you with the support, understanding and methodology to do this, at your own pace.

This consists in learning to recognize and confront the assumptions and principles that keep your inner critic in place. At the same time, cultivating key antidotes to the self-judgement process: compassion, will, and strength. And most important, learning to disengage from your inner critic when it is most painfully active.

As we gradually become free from the inner critic and begin to experience ourselves more fully, we feel the confidence and the energy to let others see us as we are too. In time the harsh judgements and censorship of the inner critic are replaced with a sense of wholeness and a different voice emerges–that of your true conscience.

In this way, work on the inner critic becomes a pathway to your true self.


Sadat Malik
Phone: 07710 511 517


The Mind of the Meditator: The Neuroscience of Mindfulness

The Neuroscience of MeditationWhen Tenzin Gyatso, the 14th Dalai Lama, was invited to address the annual meeting of the Society for Neuroscience in 2005, a few hundred members petitioned to have the invitation rescinded. They felt a religious leader had no place at a scientific meeting. The invitation stood and the Dalai Lama posed a challenging question to the gathering: What relation could there be between spiritual tradition and modern science?

In fact the Dalai Lama had sparked this dialogue about science and spirituality as early as the 1980s which led to the creation of the Mind & Life Institute, dedicated to studying contemplative science and contemplative neuroscience—the scientific study of the brain of the expert meditator.

Research has started to explain why training the mind to meditate offers so many cognitive and emotional benefits. These benefits have been known for thousands of years by those drawn to such practices, but never backed by scientific research until recently.

This research coincides with further neuroscientific findings that show that the adult brain can still be deeply transformed through experience. For instance when you learn to play a musical instrument your brain undergoes changes whereby certain areas of the brain actually get larger through a process called neuroplasticity. A similar process appears to happen when you learn to meditate.

The cover article in the November 2014 issue of Scientific American, describes how three major forms of meditation from the Buddhist tradition—focussed attention, mindfulness, and loving-kindness—activate and develop corresponding brain areas, which can be observed through the latest advances in neuroimaging. Some of these findings are summarised below.

Focussed Attention and the Neuroscience of ‘Wandering Mind’

The first form of meditation, known as focussed attention, aims to quieten and centre the mind in the present moment while developing the capacity to remain vigilant to distractions. The meditator typically directs attention to one thing such as the in-and-out cycle of breathing. Naturally the mind wanders and the practice is to notice when this happens and restore the object of focus.

Neuroimagery linked with this practice shows that a part of the brain known as the default-mode network (DMN) is activated when concentration is lost and the mind wanders. The DMN is a kind of autopilot that steps in with control when we become distracted. The brain will carry on with the task even if we’re no longer present to what’s happening. That’s a really good thing because in this case the task is breathing!

When we realise we’ve been distracted a different part of the brain, called the salience network, is activated. This functions like a compass needle that triggers an alarm if it strays from an intended direction. The salience network can be trained in meditation practice and is a part of the brain’s cognitive cycles involved in sustaining concentration on one thing.

Finally the prefrontal cortex and parietal lobe are engaged in “taking back” attention to the object of focus by detaching it from any distracting stimuli. The prefrontal cortex then continues to retain a high level of activity as the attention remains directed to the object of focus, such as the breath.

Expert meditators with more than 10,000 hours of practice show more activity in these attention-related brain regions compared with beginners. Their brain imagery resembles expert musicians and athletes capable of sustaining a sense of effortless concentration and control during their performances.

Mindfulness and Attentional Blink

The second meditation form studied by researchers, mindfulness, tries to cultivate a less emotionally reactive awareness to emotions, thoughts and sensations occurring in the present moment to prevent them from spiraling out of control and creating mental distress. The meditator remains open and attentive to any arising experience without focusing on anything specific. This is also sometimes called open-monitoring meditation.

Researchers measured what is known as attentional blink, which is the time the brain takes to ‘reset’ in-between two experiences. Often if the delay between two experiences is less than 300 milliseconds, the second one goes unnoticed. If the delay is greater than 600 milliseconds it is usually detected without difficulty. The reset time is connected with how easily the brain is able to ‘let go’ of one arising experience and be open to the next.

Research showed that mindfulness practice, which cultivates a nonreactive form of sensory awareness, resulted in reduced attentional blink after three months of intensive practice. Meaning that the brain’s capacity to remain open to new experience significantly increased.

Expert meditator’s brain activity, compared to novices, was also shown to diminish in anxiety-related regions such as the amygdala. Anxiety is often a core emotion connected with mental flight and dissociation from experience, it is often an habitual response of trauma survivors. In long-term meditator’s the actual size of the amygdala decreases. This insight may be particularly helpful in dealing with distress and traumatic pain, which may otherwise be feared and repressed from conscious processing.

Loving Kindness and Attunement to Suffering

Finally, another type of practice studied by researchers is known in the Buddhist tradition as compassion and loving kindness and fosters an altruistic perspective toward others. This has proved to be more than just a spiritual exercise with potential benefits for health care workers, teachers and others who run the risk of emotional burnout linked to the distress experienced from deeply opening to another person’s plight.

The practice begins by focusing on an unconditional feeling of benevolence and love for others, accompanied by the silent repetition of a phrase conveying this intent. After a week of practice, novice subjects watched video clips showing suffering people with more positive and benevolent feelings than non-meditators.

Instead of leading to distress and discouragement, the practice reinforced inner balance, strength of mind, and a courageous determination to help those who suffer. This is like the difference between a loving, comforting mother at the side of a sick child versus a mother overwhelmed with anxiety at the sight of her child’s distress. In the latter case the mother may end up with the common experience of burnout, which ultimately won’t do her or her child much good.

A Way to Well-Being

These and many more studies are demonstrating the important place that contemplative and meditative practices may have on brain development and cognitive processes critical for mental and emotional health.

Many therapists now recommend mindfulness meditation to support psychotherapy. Some psychotherapists undergo long-term mindfulness training themselves, integrating this into their practice. They can therefore provide their clients the unique opportunity to experience the majority of the therapy session in mindfulness.

If you’re interested in such an integrative approach to psychotherapy, don’t be afraid to enquire about any mindfulness training your therapist has received and if they integrate this in their practice. Meanwhile, if you’re new to mindfulness and meditation practice and want to try it out yourself, then a great place to get started is Mark Williams and Danny Penman’s book, Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World.

And of course feel free to get in touch if you have any questions that I can assist you with or to book a session to see what a mindful approach to psychotherapy is like in practice and how it can help you.

Sadat Malik
Phone: 07710 511 517