Treasure inside

Autumn’s here and there is treasure on the ground here in London.

It’s encased in a tough, rounded and spikey jackets. Here it stays… growing, protected. Until the moment comes to open.  There is a magic to holding a freshly emerged conker. There is a slight give if you press one between your thumb and finger. If you drop them, they bounce. They are soft for a day or two before they dry (and become hard little grenades for children’s games). There is a soft velvety sheen on the white part. They are unbelievably shiny.

Conker inside spikey jacket. Conkers are the seed of the horse chestnut tree, thought to be introduced to the UK in the 1600s – © Shilpa Shah


Conkers remind me of us.

Usually coated in layers of protection. Judgements. Fears. Shallow breathing and shoulders which can creep protectively forward. A stream of thoughts about things I ought to know. The weight of traumatic memories and planning ahead. Keeping up with technology and devices. A sense of constriction.

But occasionally we do open. We can’t make it happen, it just sort-of does. A shiny soft golden core showing itself. Our hearts start speaking. We feel curious. A tinge of vulnerability. An aura of strength and potential.

To me, it seems that every day, countless messengers are sent to help us practice pausing and opening for a moment. The sound of birdsong when stepping out of the door. Light filtering through leaves when looking up into a tree. A child laughing in the playground when passing the local school. An old song on the radio. The comforting warmth on the hands before the first sip of a cup of tea. A long hug.

Conkers that shine © Shilpa Shah


In all of my work I do my best to help create supportive conditions for clients to loosen the spikey jackets, together, and invite openness. Even if just for a moment at a time.

Breathing exercises help some people. As does creativity – singing or playing on big paper with pastels, crayons or collage-making tends to help people to connect the head with the body, heart and spirit. And encouraging people to gently surface and name the often-unspeakable power dynamics between them. It’s an atmosphere which blends the ‘a-ha!’ of answering a puzzle, with the ‘aah’ of a gentle sigh.

In moments like these, space is created to let transformation in. It’s a softer space where listening, honesty and learning happen with more ease. Where we feel wobbly, yet can see with eyes that are fresh and clear. Where we can melt into the painful things with kindness and sprinkle gratitude upon what’s good.


“When we drop fear, we can draw nearer to people, we can draw nearer to the earth, we can draw nearer to all the heavenly creatures that surround us.” – bell hooks.



Fear and love after the London Bridge attacks.

I was cycling home last night over Waterloo bridge, around 9.30pm. I felt happy and free. I thought of going to a bar at London Bridge who make the best hot chocolate in the world (in my opinion). A minute later, I realised I felt exhausted after a long day and decided to go home.


I read the news about the London Bridge attacks when I got in. My breathing shallowed, my stomach clenched, tears surfaced. I immediately messaged friends and family who might have been in the area. My cousin had been there, but left five minutes before it happened. I thought of people hurt or killed and found it hard to get off my phone and to sleep.


When we notice a threat, the feeling parts of our brain fire up and our body is filled with stress hormones. We typically respond with Fight, Flight or Freeze. The thinking and behaviour patterns our bodies have learnt from past experiences of danger immediately kick in. If you’ve experienced trauma in the past, this response might feel quite overwhelming. We do what we can to feel safe – we barricade ourselves physically and emotionally, holding close what is familiar and pushing away everything else.


I’ve been reflecting today on what helps us in times like this, as individuals and as members of a wider diverse community and society. Here are a few thoughts – I’d love to hear yours in response.


Support yourself first



Acknowledge how you feel – if you don’t have words for it, try picking three or four words from here. Notice what’s happening in your body. Are your shoulders, neck clenched, is your breathing quick or slow? Whatever you notice, be gentle – whatever you’re feeling is OK.


Breathe. Lengthening the out-breath can slow the firing of stress hormones and support the nervous system to come back into balance. Inhale for 3, exhale for 6. Or use a rather mesmerising gif like this or this (try using these when supporting children with anxiety too). Put on a favourite song and sing or hum – it will help your breathing regulate itself. Meditate or pray, if that’s your thing.


Move. Walk, run, stretch, do some yoga. Anxiety floods our muscles with lactic acid, moving helps it to dissipate – particularly shaking out the legs and hips. Drink plenty of water.


Get off Facebook – We want to stay in touch. However, scrolling through a long newsfeed of commentary, images and videos can re-trigger your fight/flight/freeze response over and over again. It’s simultaneously addictive and harmful. I’m not suggesting de-activating your account – but try to use it mindfully.


Be in community



Our emotional responses can lead to opposing instincts within ourselves–  do we barricade ourselves with PLUs (People Like Us) or we reach out and affirm our strength together as a wider community? As well as practical actions, the following can help build a sense of solidarity.


Talk with your family, friends, neighbours. Ask people how they are feeling rather than what they think about it – and listen to their response. Being listened to with patience and without judgement can feel very supportive in itself.


Reach out to others – those who are similar and those who are different, if it feels OK to. Say hello or smile to people on the bus (in London this is weird behaviour, but often it’s appreciated). Check in on your neighbours. Recognise that the UK and London Muslim community will bear the brunt of any fearful backlash after this incident. A gentle inquiry into how any Muslim friends and neighbours are or a message of support might be appreciated. Bear in mind many will be fasting currently for Ramadan until 9.15pm or so.


Commit to community over the long term. London often feels quite transient with many people passing through. Mainstream culture is to pack diaries and juggle over what feels most exciting/important to do every day. Yet there can be a magic in meeting the same group over a period of time. At the regular Tuesday night women’s singing group I run in London, creating a welcoming space for women of different backgrounds and needs is the number one priority. It’s paying off in terms of how much we learn from each other and how we are developing trust. You might have a local community association or an activity group doing music, sports, campaigning, a book club etc. Notice who is part of it and challenge any groups you are part of to be more inclusive and welcoming to all.


Notice the wider picture



We all want to be safe and to keep our loved ones safe. As we are hit with waves of fear or grief, we can develop a deeper empathy with our sisters and brothers facing state-delivered terror in places such as Palestine, Syria, Iraq, Nigeria, Calais… And closer to home, UK residents (including the disproportionate numbers of Black people) murdered in our UK immigration detention centres, our prisons and police cells.


‘Terror’ groups and our dominant right-wing politics (propped up by violent institutions) are both sides of the same coin. They are both extremist, un-feeling and anti-democratic. They both draw strength from others’ fear and use it to control populations.


What is fear comprised of – judgement, loneliness, being closed, feeling under siege? The opposite is love – being open, connected, generous, fair. Knowing you don’t have all the answers and trusting that we can work them out together. A recognition that none of us are free until all of us are free.


We all have forces of love and fear within each of us. Can you be curious about how these forces weave their paths within yourself today in relation to wider society? Notice about how you feel about different politicians and political priorities, as we see societal forces of fear and love playing out in the current UK election campaign. Notice where you feel scared and closed off and where you feel open and generous.


Be kind and non-judgemental with yourself as you notice – it’s human nature to have a spectrum of various emotions. When we recognise and accept ourselves as we fully are with gentleness and care, we create space for love and courage to grow.

How I work with you as a Facilitator

Some more general detail about how I work.

As a Facilitator for a workshop, away-day or residential:

The first thing I ask you is to share your story and hopes for the meeting – how did this group get to this moment? What change do you want to see as a result of this meeting? As well as task-based objectives, how do you want the meeting to help people connect to themselves and each other better?

I will encourage participatory agenda planning to involve people across your organisations and design a way to do that with you.

I see each person as a whole – with physical, emotional and spiritual needs and capabilities as well as intellectual. I will discuss with you how we can honour each of those aspects through the agenda design.

Workshops and meetings can be intense for many. I will champion a culture of gentleness and self-care at the beginning of the meeting and throughout it.

I pay particular attention to meeting accessibility requirements. I observe how power dynamics in the group are influenced by things like gender, race, disability, language and class. I work to quickly to create safety, particularly supporting those on the margins to thrive. Which of course benefits the whole group. I do not shy from ruffling the feathers of those who are used to taking up more space.

I encourage participants to share their stories, which help to strengthen the collective story and identity of the group.

I draw on my training in community-participatory methods and ‘Direct Education’ when designing a workshop that meets your objectives and harnesses varying energy levels and learning styles. So I am likely to suggest Theatre of the Oppressed games, collective collage-making or relaxing a post-lunch breathing space as well as more conventional methods you may have experienced such as Open Space Technology.

I support you to reflect and evaluate the impact of the meeting in an participatory and meaningful way. This will support organisational learning and planning future steps.


To discuss working with me for your away-day, residential or workshop, please contact me