The Seven Planks of Spiritual Practice

 Inspirations  Comments Off on The Seven Planks of Spiritual Practice
Jan 112016

Having a spiritual practice may be helpful to us in many ways, but what does this actually mean, and how would we start?  When I am asked about getting started, I suggest that people explore a couple of established, named spiritual paths which appeal to them: for example, Buddhism, Quakers or others.  I also suggest that they try ‘nameless’ approaches, such as mindfulness, and meditating in nature.  For a much fuller version of this advice, see chapter 8 of my book, Out of the Woods: A guide to life for men beyond 50: this section is suitable for men and women of any age.

My own spiritual path has been evolving for 40 years, helped by involvement in several named spiritual paths, and a lot of more fluid personal exploration.  These 7 planks are important parts of my current spiritual practice:

  • Divine unity: open to a sense of divine unity and vitality in all forms of life, including the land, sea and sky. This is what Jesus, in his native Aramaic, calls Alaha.  I find this is a good counterbalance to my tendency to focus on my own problems and needs.
  • Creation is now, and we are all part of it: try imagining that our world is being shaped at every moment, and that our job description as humans is to fulfil our part in this process. You can find this idea in the original teachings of Judaism, Islam, and Christianity: see the Genesis Meditations by Neil Douglas Klotz.
  • Gratitude and Celebration: yes, there are plenty of problems, and it’s easy to feel dragged down, but you can feel more resilient, more able to choose, if you focus on what’s positive, and the scope to grow through the problems.
  • Simple presence: you can find this idea in mindfulness, Christian, Buddhist and many other teachings. In essence, the invitation is to be here now, with compassion for yourself and anyone else involved, and to let go of old stories, dramas and projections.
  • Prayer: this idea is often misunderstood. I don’t mean it in a ‘Lord, won’t you buy me a Mercedes Benz’ sense: I mean prayers of conversation and invitation, where you ask to be shown how you can serve the highest good of all, and how you can fill your souls purpose in this human life.
  • Soul’s Journey: I get a new perspective, and a positive approach to upsetting situations, through the belief that my soul has a life and continuity before and after this human time, and that my soul has chosen whatever situations I am facing here and now.
  • Spiritual Community: this is what the Buddhists call Sangha. I find great nourishment and resilience in sharing spiritual practises with a group, and feeling the depth of mutual support which comes from this.

7 planks1 7planks2

Football as a map of the inner life

 Football  Comments Off on Football as a map of the inner life
Sep 162015

I am writing this at the start of September 2015: what a delicious set of upsets we’ve already had in the first few weeks of this Premiership season.  The bookies had Chelsea as favourites to win the league again, yet they have made one of the worst starts ever for defending league champions.  And as a West Ham supporter, seeing them win decisively at the Emirates and Anfield has been delicious. Since so many people share my love for the game, why not use it as a guide or metaphor for the inner life?

The image of the club is like your image in the world around you.  Whatever your present reality, the glories or otherwise of your past have created a mass of associations which are held by many others.  Like a club, you will have fans and opponents, and their beliefs about you will change only slowly.

The players at the club are like the aspects of your personality.  Some are wild, some are quiet.  Some break the rules often, others keep their nose clean.  Some appear on the pitch often, some stay mostly in the reserves.  Your players could be called sub-personalities: star centre-forward carrying so many expectations, the wiry winger, the chunky fullback, the goalie who pulls off miracle saves.  Or in worldly terms, the romantic, the geek, the angry hitman, the saintly sage and so on.

Often you may be only aware of one of your players at a time: the geek may lead in a work task, the romantic may lead on a hot date but substituted by the lonely moper if you are losing the match.  Although only one of your inner players has your attention, ie the ball, other aspects of you are on the pitch, in the team, and it can help you to draw them into the manoeuvres.

One of the things I love about soccer is the astonishing difference the manager can make.   This season, look at transformation of Crystal Palace under Alan Pardew.  Or more intriguingly, look at the poor record of Mark Hughes in recent posts, and the sustained benefit he has brought to Stoke.  What’s the analogy for your inner life?  As in football, your inner manager needs to bring a combination of intelligence and inspiration, technique and passion, to your inner team.

Your inner manager sets the flavour and atmosphere for your whole inner team, and his choice of tactics, substitutions, comments to the media, can all be highly influential.  Think about the huge range of personalities among current premiership managers, and see which one you resonate with, and if there’s another you’d prefer to have as a role model…

Just as different football teams respond to different managers and approaches, there’s no one prescription for your inner life.  But somehow, you need to connect with your sense of purpose and passion, so that your inner players go out with fire in their hearts, and can pull themselves back against impossible odds.  Remember Newcastle’s legendary recovery from 0 – 4 to 4 – 4 against Arsenal?

Looking at Barcelona’s continuing success, it’s so clear that it arises from brilliance in both method and motivation.  Your inner manager needs to know what training and techniques will help your players face the challenges of your life.  He needs to find the right team choices among your inner players, so that you bring a mix of skills to bear on every situation.

The coaching team are also vital in the morale and the skills of your players.  Your coaching inputs may come from friends, professionals like counsellors, resilience training, or weekend groups like those at Hazel Hill see for details).

My local paper in Bridport, West Dorset, once had a caption which nearly gave me heart failure.  It read Here’s to the Premier!, over a picture of four men with bubbly at the low-key ground of Bridport Football Club.  They are celebrating promotion to the Toolstation Western League Premier Division.  It’s a useful reminder that few of us as individuals will be in the limelight of a UK Premier League.  Most of us will be in the equivalent of the Toolstation Premier Division.  Local football clubs have just the same dramas and delights as their big brothers, so whatever league you may be in, find the passion and wisdom to manage your team well.

Football as a guiding metaphor is explored further in Alan’s book for men beyond 50: Out of the Woods: A guide to life for men beyond 50. See more at






There’s more than one premier league.




Nov 012013

helena-bonham-carter-dominic-west-liz-taylor-richard-burtonThe recent BBC4 biopic on Richard Burton and Liz Taylor was magnetic and illuminating.  It showed why these two had such fascination for each other, and us: and it also showed many of the don’ts for men and women in relationships beyond 50.

The film’s focus is the year when Richard and Liz got together to perform Private Lives, a play by Noel Coward about a middle-aged couple who can’t live with each other – or without.  Burton is 57, Taylor has just turned 50: they’re by now twice married and twice divorced from each other, both with new partners, but both fascinated with each other.

The acting by Helena Bonham Carter and Dominic West is superb: we get the charisma, and the angst about ageing, and a stunning array of dysfunctional relationship skills.

Burton’s appeal grows not only from his looks, but also his wonderful voice (Oxford Welsh with notes of Hollywood), his gift for quoting Shakespeare, and a tinge of underlying vulnerability.  During rehearsals for the play, he repeatedly snubs Liz to spend time with his new girlfriend.

On the one evening he asks Liz to dinner, when she tries to discuss their relationship, he abruptly starts appraising her acting.  Like many men, he’s too vulnerable to handle the intensity on offer – and with a woman as stormy as Liz, who can blame him?

In Liz Taylor at 50, we see a star who’s still charismatic, who gets a standing ovation when she walks on stage, but is overweight, needy, scared of ageing, and afloat on a befuddling mix of drink, drugs and pills.

Liz’s relationship armoury makes heavy use of threats, abrupt withdrawals, and nagging.  She’s used to getting whatever she wants, and part of Burton’s appeal to her is he has enough strength to resist her – sometimes.

There’s brief, honest, touching conversation between them about what makes a good relationship.  Burton includes  ‘the ability to be openly abject with each other’, which is perceptive, but rarely happens between them.

It’s poignant to see a couple with such talent and charisma, and such love for each other, unable to get it together: but hopefully we everyday mortals can learn from them how not to do midlife relationships.  If you want to learn how to do them well, buy Out of the Woods: A guide to life for men beyond 50.


Oct 252013

Even better with women!

Celebration of Older Men

Illustration by Hugh Dunford Wood used in the event brochure

Older men are hardly a trendy topic, and to celebrate them is unheard of.  So this event which I organised at Bridport Arts Centre could be unique.  And despite my tendency to be critical of most things, including myself, I can only describe the evening as a total success.

My motive in creating the event was to promote my new book, Out of the Woods: A guide to life for men beyond 50: I decided that the best way to do so was through a performance event bringing several talents together.  The leaflet promised Stories, songs, insights, even facts, about the marvels and mysteries of men beyond 50.

Fortunately, I already knew other men of this age with relevant talents, and was delighted that they readily agreed to take part.  Geoff Mead is a professional storyteller from Lyme Regis, who specialises in those rare fairytales where the central figures are older.  He was a superb compère for the whole evening, and told a couple of brilliant and relevant tales.

Clive Whaley is already known around Bridport for creating a superb documentary-musical, Lonely Boys, which explores the marvels and mysteries of men at different life stages.  For this Celebration, he performed a few songs from Lonely Boys, and a couple written specially for this evening.  He was supported by Steve Jones, a brilliant local professional musician, who also added atmosphere to the whole evening by playing keyboard boogie before the show and during the interval.

Although I have done a lot of public speaking and run many workshops, I was pretty nervous about my own role in the event.  I was confident about my colleagues, who are all seasoned performers.  The prospect of making the story of older men and my book entertaining was truly daunting.  The rest of the team simply urged me to be myself, and it worked.  My selected readings from the book went well, and taking questions from the audience created a sense of conversation about the issues.

We promoted the evening as suitable for men and women of all ages, and the local press were really supportive in putting the word out.  We had a capacity crowd, and a few people turned away at the door: I was delighted that over one third of the audience were women.  As I have realised the depth of many men’s denial about ageing and the need to change, I have realised that women can play a vital role in getting my book into the hands of men who need it.

Every individual element of the evening worked well, and the combination was outstanding.  Probably the highlight for me was singing alongside Clive on a modified version of the Stealers Wheel classic which we had adapted: Stuck in the Midlife with You…  Life beyond 50 should include plenty of new adventures, and this was a good one.

Oct 082013

Highlights and the back story

Andrew BillenIt was actually four months before the launch of my book that The Times decided they wanted to run a major feature on it, and asked if they could send a reporter along to a workshop.  This  can be a risky move, but I said yes, provided that their reporter was a man over 50 and that he participated.

The Times agreed, and on June 18, Andrew Billen came along to a Men Beyond 50 open evening in London.  This was nervy for me, especially as the other men attending didn’t know there would be a reporter, let alone a photographer…We started with a very honest conversation about how to handle confidentiality, and with Andrew making clear his commitment to participate.  I was impressed and touched that within a few minutes of all this, it felt just like a regular men’s group.  Men were opening their hearts about relationships, work, ageing fathers – the classic shipwrecks and upsides of midlife men.

Andrew Billen had never been in any kind of men’s group before, and began the evening in a spirit of polite but definite scepticism.  As the evening went on, I could see that he was touched by how this process was helping people, and I was touched  by his own honesty in participating.  I could also see that he was very bright, and could be challenging, so I approached my interview with him a few days later quite nervously.

The page and a half feature which appeared in The Times 2 on September 17 is accurate and positive, about my book and Men Beyond 50 groups.  Some of the personal confessions which Andrew extracted from me are daunting in cold print, but I had decided to be brutally honest.  Men distrust anyone who put themselves on a pedestal or pontificates, and being really honest about your own mistakes makes clear you’re not doing that.  Here are some excerpts from the review:

Out of the Woods is a tremendous practical resource, with advice on everything from unemployment to self-employment, from your parents’ death to your own.  It is also a book to set whole streets of alarm bells ringing.  Its central metaphor is a shipwreck, Heeks’s own having been the breakdown of his marriage just before he was 50.  He counsels us to salvage from ours opportunity.

“A lot of men, Heeks said, “do not have intimacy skills”.  This evening, however, had “felt like a deep sharing”.  After two hours’ sharing, he summed up our plight.  Ten million British men are over 50, 42 per cent of all male adults.  They face depression, isolation and a heightened suicide rate.  Yet in the media, and society, they are invisible.

A week later we meet for a pub lunch.  He is apprehensive about what I thought about the session, but I was impressed.  What struck me was the loneliness in the room.  “It is poignant”, he agrees.  “Some of the men there would make good partners.”  While others, I say, seemed just unhappy by temperament.

So is he now the finished product, ready for his seventies and death?  The short answer, he admits, is “no”.  He is almost 65 and does not like what he sees happening to friends the other side of 70.  “I am hitting my own fears about ageing.  I notice my own hair is getting quite a lot more grey and I am quite upset about that.”  Shouldn’t he be beyond all this? “I should.  But I am being quite honest and answering the question.” 

“I am a lot happier on average than, say, I was in my forties and probably even my fifties.  I am happy, but I still have bits that are troubling me.  The key message in my book and in other books I value is that being happy in old age doesn’t just happen randomly.  Like reinventing relationships and sex, life after 50 really is different.  You have to do things differently.”

And while I won’t be joining the MB50 network yet, I take what Alan says seriously enough for Out of the Woods to earn a place on my shelves.  I like to hope it will save me a fortune on women and motor insurance.