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Our Indestructible Heart Essence


Created from a conversation with
Professor Theodore Zeldin
On 14th August 2007

So what is it that makes your life something from which others can learn?

What do you think your life has been about?

Well I would say that a thread in my life has been service to others really, in various different ways.

I first went into school teaching with grandiose ideas of changing society. And that was my motivation, it truly was my motivation. But after five years of teaching in secondary schools, mostly state but also one independent school, I didn't feel I was an agent for change just a cog in a machine. So I turned to something that was more effective in helping people on an individual level. I gradually developed as a yoga teacher. Yoga was a theme in my life. I started when I was 17 years old and practised regularly on my own until my early twenties when I started attending classes. What I particularly liked about teaching yoga was that your students so obviously benefited. They came to the class each week of their own volition and reported that their wellbeing was enhanced.

Obviously bringing up children is very much service to others. I have two children. And I think the experience of bringing up children is one in which you develop selflessness. This is because it is a twenty four hour job and you never really get a let up. In a way you come face to face with your own selfishness and obviously you have to overcome it if you are going to be a good parent. Bringing up children has been the most creative thing I have done in my life. You are shaping other people. You are laying the foundations of who they are as a person and influencing what decisions they will make in the future.

What is your next 20 year plan?

Well I've recently retrained as an English Language teacher. And I would like to continue doing that for as long as I can. I feel it is helping other people,which is something that is important to me, and I find it is an interesting and stimulating form of teaching. I like the precision of the English language, probably because I originally trained as a scientist, a biologist, and have quite an analytical mind. It is a form of teaching with great versatility; you can live abroad, have classes, work with individuals, and work with different types of people.

Now that I have actually started English language teaching I've become more aware of the pastoral care role you play. For example giving guidance to a student who is struggling to understand his gas bill or make sense of the ticket system on our trains. In addition, by working on language competency, you are generally helping the student feel more settled in a new culture. Recently I experienced this first hand in Italy when I was learning Italian as a beginner. As I became more adept I felt more competent in dealing with everyday matters such as ordering a meal or buying my railway tickets. An important effect of this increased confidence was developing more meaningful relationships with the people I was meeting in my daily round, such as the waitress or the staff at the ticket office. This was a good and important experience in relation to feeling more at "home".

When you began you wanted to change the world. Why did you want to do that?

Well I've never thought about that before. I've always just accepted how I feel and think about society and acted accordingly.

Giving it some thought now I would say that there were several factors that influenced my world view but ultimately, taking all these factors into consideration, I came to my conclusions through my own independent thinking.

I came from a relatively privileged background but through my father's work as a NHS medical consultant was exposed, at home, to general discussion about our wider society. My home and school life lay great store by straightforwardness and honesty. I was brought up in the Presbyterian Church which has a strongly egalitarian message. I went to university, studying psychology and biology, where I read a variety of books and where I meet a variety of people. All these factors contributed to me having a strong sense of justice and feeling that society was often unjust and that we should do something about this; for example increasing equal opportunity in our education system.

You've turned you attention to yoga. What is yoga?

A sweeping question! If I tell you how I came to it perhaps that will help.

As I mentioned earlier I started doing yoga on my own when I was 17. I was just interested in being supple and strong. I have always been quite a physical kind of person. I continued to practise regularly on my own until I started attending classes when I was 21 or so. At that age I found the yoga practice accelerated my sense of standing on my own two feet, thinking for myself, challenging what was being said to me and being much more my own person. This process of self-actualisation usually starts at that age but for me it was accelerated by the yoga practice. I remember one particular instance. There were two overweight professors in my university department. I was in rather awe of them. But then I began to think if we were in a yoga class together I would be a lot better at it than them. And I began to realise we all have our own strengths and weaknesses and I began to see them in a more complex way.

So the yoga was very influential for me. It increased my self-esteem, gave me a stronger internal locus of control (having more control over what happens to you) and lowered anxiety. I didn't have any major problems with anxiety but I was a slightly anxious type. So the yoga was particularly helpful to me in that respect.

When I came out of school teaching I studied for a Diploma in Health Education. My dissertation was about yoga and health. I was particularly interested in the psychological effects. When I finished the diploma I continued this research on a part-time basis in a university psychology department. Having a background as a biologist I found some of the ideas in yoga didn't fit in with the more scientific view. This grated with me and I really wanted to find out the" right" answer.

So I taught yoga for 20 years or so. I worked with adults, young people and children. I worked with individuals and groups. I specialised in Yoga for Pregnancy. As well as teaching locally I devised and ran a nationally recognised teacher training course about Yoga for Pregnancy. My teaching was successful and while our children were still at school I was happy with this part-time teaching.

What were the main conclusions of your psychological study?

There were some conclusions from my study but overall the results posed more questions than gave answers. Having done the study I then knew what were the most interesting and likely to be the most fruitful questions to ask.

There were 166 sixth formers (76 boys and 90 girls) in my two year study. During the experimental periods half experienced a 6 week yoga course (1 hour per week), which I taught, and the other half acted as a control group.

Examples of significant findings are:

63% of students reported that the yoga had helped them with sleep. The commonest benefit was ease of going to sleep.

There was some evidence of lowering of

anxiety and increasing of self-confidence for small groups in relation to particular situations e.g. the lowering of anxiety and increased self-confidence about giving their opinion to their General Studies group.

The students experienced positive effects relating to their academic work; these related to improved concentration, greater clarity of thought and more positive feelings about their academic work

The girls were more responsive to the yoga training than the boys.

Areas that the study indicates would be fruitful for further research are:

the effect of yoga techniques on sleep, attitude to academic work, performance in sport, group dynamics and interpersonal relating and sex differences in responsiveness to yoga.

Why have you now chosen English Language Teaching?

Well perhaps I better put things in context otherwise it doesn't make sense. As I said I taught yoga for over 20 years and then I developed bipolar (manic depression: and was ill for three years. I had no indication of anything like that and I lost a considerable degree of my yoga prowess during that period of illness. You need a certain physicality to teach yoga successfully; you need to be an inspiring model to motivate your students. I no longer felt able to do that and so that phase of my working life had passed. As I mentioned before I chose to develop as an English language teacher because it is helpful to other people and I find it interesting. In addition I already have much of the body of knowledge associated with the skill, it is flexible and adaptable, you can continue with this activity as you become older and there is demand for it.

How do you explain that you developed bipolar?

With hindsight I think it was probably unavoidable. During the six years before I became ill there were several factors at play. I had a genetic predisposition. A relative in my grandmother's generation has similar problems in the second half of her life and one relative in my generation had problems as a student. The physiological upheaval of the menopause made me emotionally labile. This resulted in me not coping so well with life's ups and downs such as the death of my father. In spite of retraining I was unable to secure part-time work as a primary teacher in my area. I planned to marry this with my freelance yoga teaching. This was the first time in my life that a major plan had not come to fruition. I found this frustrating and very difficult. I participated in the stressful activities of learning to scuba dive to rescue level and teaching yoga in a top security prison for men. I came to enjoy the scuba diving but every time I had to learn a new set of skills I found it stressful. For a year I taught 5 classes of yoga a week at the prison. My teaching was very well received but it was a stressful environment to work in. I increased my energy levels by regularly practising astanga yoga, a very physically challenging form of yoga, and Zen meditation, a very intensive form of practice. All in all it was a dangerous cocktail for me.

I first became ill on a 5 day Zen retreat. I became high and psychotic. I was in this state for a further 2 weeks, becoming increasingly ill, before my husband was certain I needed medical attention. Much of what is wrong is in your head so it is difficult for others to realise you are ill. Psychosis is quite bizarre. I had experiences such as asking for a Bounty bar, which I saw clearly as a solid object, at the train buffet, only to be told they didn't stock Bounty bars. Or to ask for directions from a stranger and to talk in what sounded like "tongues", all gobbledygook. I don't think most people are aware of the extremes of mental state that can occur when our mind becomes imbalanced.

Why did you practise Zen?

I was motivated to practise Zen as I was seeking an authentic practice and was inspired by the leader. She had that marvellous characteristic of being ordinary and special all at the same time. As I became more experienced in the practice I found that on the retreats (sesshins) I experienced feeling closer to God. I remember on one particular sesshin, when the teacher very much encouraged you to go at your own pace, an approach that really suited me, I experienced this profound and deep sense of peace and calm.

"The peace of God, which passeth all understanding" (Philippians 4: 4)

I have also experienced feeling closer to God in a different way in a Christian setting. I am a Quaker but think of myself as a Christian Buddhist. On hearing an inspiring Anglican sermon, that gave guidance on dealing with certain issues, I decided to take morally the right path and in doing so experienced feeling closer to God.

In a truly gathered Quaker meeting where people sit together in silence and speak if they feel prompted inwardly, there can be a real sense of the presence of God. The prompting to speak is far deeper than a person just deciding to talk.

Do you think your life pattern is decided by the will of God?

No. I believe we have free will. We can go against the guidance of God if we choose to.

Do you pray?

Yes I use prayer. I've been involved in prayer in recent years quite a lot and my experience tells me that it is effective. For example if you are going to meet someone, perhaps a relative you're having difficulties with, and you pray beforehand that you will get on well, you find things go more smoothly. Prayer seems to increase a sort of calm confidence about the encounter. I think you become more sensitive and pick up on nuances of behaviour. Prayer can also remind you of the value system that you want to work with.

My first experience of the effectiveness of prayer was when I was teaching in a secondary school in my mid-twenties. I didn't call it prayer at the time but I now think that's what it was. I taught a very disruptive teenage girl; all the staff found her difficult. The day before meeting her again I decided to do a yoga visualisation about her, seeing things from her point of view, being positive about her and surrounding her in light. The next day when I saw her in class her behaviour had completely changed. She just came into the class and was different. Of course my behaviour will have changed too but it felt very much like a two way process.

In the last 50 years, in the West, the attitude of the relationship between men and women has greatly changed. Have you kept up with that?

In my schooling and my upbringing I have had strong female role models. I went to a girls' independent school where all the teachers were female and most were single. We were encouraged to take responsibility and lead. Both my grandmothers were strongly independent as was my mother who although she did not work was fulfilled as a musician. Throughout my teenage years, even though he strongly believed in education for girls, my father had the mantra "that women, who have children, should only work part-time". I heard him but didn't at that age necessarily agree. It was not until I went to university that I became more aware of feminist issues. Prior to that it never crossed my mind that I wasn't included by such words as "mankind".

Once I had children and had experienced a full-time work commitment, doing my Health Education Diploma, whilst looking after a 9mths-18mths child, I found I did agree with my father's mantra and vowed only to do part-time work while our children were little. It was a very active and positive decision and one that I've never regretted. I wanted to have time to enjoy our children growing up and be there for them as well as engaging in other activities. I remember my son as a 6 year old writing a piece from school saying I was important to him as I was always there. I found that very moving.

In working in education and from working freelance I have been mostly sheltered from gender discrimination. There have been minor instances but nothing of great import.

My husband and I endeavour to have a relationship of equality, taking into account both our needs and interests when making decisions and sharing out household tasks.

To what extent have you been influenced by your husband?

Well I would say that, from my point of view, fundamental to our relationship is that he has always allowed me to be myself. Because of this he has always been supportive of the activities I've done. Being involved in freelance work this support has been particularly important. He always took his share of child care for example when I was training to be a yoga teacher he'd looked after the boys each weekend of the two year course . In these ways he has facilitated my development. During my period of illness, which lasted for three years, he was particularly supportive; always forgiving and loyal, never giving up on me in spite of enormous difficulties. It must have been a terrible time for him.

Charles Darwin 27thNovemebr 1863

"Much love much trial, but what an utter desert is life without love."

A response to his friend Hooker whose son had contracted scarlet fever.

My husband is an intellectual person and is good at weighing things up and I'm naturally more impulsive. I've learnt from him to plan more thoughtfully and realistically. I feel this has been a helpful influence.

What do you think are the most important problems in the world today?

The thing I feel most passionate about is climate change. It is so obviously upon us. Gradually the issue is being addressed but I fear it is too little too late. To my way of thinking government initiatives are not sufficiently radical they are just not taking the bull by the horns. There need to be far more incentives to improve the situation for example incentives to insulate all buildings, produce less polluting cars, increase public transport and tackle the major problem of aviation. I think much of the change that is required will come from the grassroots; people will just take the matter into their own hands. I pray this disaster will be averted as our planet is so precious. It is our home.

We are planning to build an ecological house. By investing in a heat recovery ventilation system, insulation, south facing windows, and solar heating for the hot water we hope to run a house with the minimum of extra heating. I feel highly motivated with this project as it would be marvellous to feel you are reducing your ecological footprint; treading gently on the earth.

With this project in mind we recently visited BedZed (, an ecological housing development in south London. We were very impressed with how the houses needed very little extra heating.

Poems and Paintings

I find it marvellous when you find a painting or poem that gives expression to how you feel. It is a eureka moment to find someone thinks in the same way as yourself and can express it so fully.

Painting Exploding Raphaelesque Head Salvador Dali 1951

You can view this painting at or you can buy a postcard of it from The Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh - Sales 0131 624 6219

Salvador Dali painted this picture in response to the bombing of Hiroshima. I came across it two years ago in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art.

I find this picture really speaks to me. For me it is a very arresting image.

I find I can take the picture at different levels.

On an international level it is about the rebuilding of countries and communities after war. The shining golden light representing the strength of the human spirit in the face of adversity; this spiritedness shining through.

On an ecological level the shining light represents the rejuvenating power of mother nature; in spite of ecological disaster rejuvenation can occur.

For me on a personal level the fragmented and turbulent head represents the destructive nature and turmoil of mental illness and the shining light The Love of God, The Buddha Nature, The Indestructible Heart Essence of Our Being which enables you to recover and once again find a positive path in life. The compassion shown to me by the doctors and nurses, who cared for me, stems from this same "light" as does the compassion motivating scientists to develop and produce effective medication. Without such medication I doubt I would have made a full recovery or be able to maintain a mentally healthy state. Without these modern medications I could well have ended up in a hospital for the rest of my days.

The eyes of the facial expression show the deep sadness at having become ill and the disturbance it caused. The gentle smile around the lips gives expression to the peace of finding a way forward.

Poem O Me! O Life! Walt Whitman Leaves of Grass 1900

O me! O life! Of the questions of these recurring,
Of the endless trains of the faithless, of cities fill'd with the foolish,
Of myself forever reproaching myself, ( for who more foolish than I, and who more faithless?)
Of eyes that vainly crave the light, of the objects mean, of the struggle ever renew'd,
Of the poor results of all, of the plodding and sordid crowds, I see around me,
Of the empty and useless years of the rest, with the rest me intertwined
The question, O me! so sad, recurring - What god amid these, O me, O life?


That you are here - that life exists and identity, That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse.

I first came across this poem when I was doing a gap year in America. I found the line

"That the powerful play goes on, and you may contribute a verse"

deeply inspiring. It was a feeling that;

"Yes, how ever small my contribution it is a worthwhile endeavour."
"Yes, I can contribute and take my part."

Although I still find the phrase "you may contribute a verse" inspiring in the same way, I find the rest of the poem rather grates with me now.

When I was younger I was rather judgmental in relation to other people. Hence my identification with the ideas in Whitman's question. Now I am much more generous in my attitude towards people and much more accepting of how things are. This doesn't mean I don't want to change things but for the time being say " Well that's how things are. Lets take it from there" I strongly believe that every person is able to make a positive contribution. Although the poem is eventually also saying this I find Whitman's use of the word "Play", to describe life, to be shallow and superficial. It reduces life to a sort of charade. I find this really jars. It completely disregards the sacredness of life, the serious nature of life, the importance of our heart connections.


Poem The Prelude Introduction William Wordsworth 1805

This poem is about Wordsworth's life and in particular about the formation of his mind.

I first came across this passage when during my illness I was high and psychotic; near to the time I was admitted to hospital for the third time. At that time the poem really spoke to me and now that I am well it also speaks to me. This makes me realise that even in an unbalanced mental state you can have some underlying valuable feelings. It is the deluded thinking on the top that is the problem. This passage is how I feel about the future now; a flexible and adaptable approach. An approach that enables you to respond positively to the opportunities that arise; to think out of the box!

Oh there is blessing in this gentle breeze
That blows from the green fields and from the clouds
And from the sky: it beats against my cheek,
And seems half-conscious of the joy it gives.
O welcome Messenger! O welcome Friend!
A captive greets thee, coming from a house
Of bondage, from yon City's walls set free,
A prison where he hath been long immured,
Now I am free, enfranchis'd and at large,
May fix my habitation where I will.
What dwelling shall receive me? In what Vale
Shall be my harbour? Underneath what grove
Shall I take up my home, and what sweet stream
Shall with its murmur lull me to my rest?
The earth is all before me: with a heart
Joyous, nor scar'd at its own liberty,
I look about, and should the guide I chuse
Be nothing better than a wandering cloud,
I cannot miss my way. I breathe again;