Getting out of my head…

I’m tired of feeling ill

And I’m frustrated because I feel like after 3 days of wonderful painting and at the beginning of the New Year I “should” be feeling better. But I’m not. And one of the things that I’ve been learning over the last few days is about listening to my body.

I should say I’m beginning to learn about it. Despite feeling truly rubbish I spent 4 hours this morning in an internet cafe cracking through my to-do list. But I genuinely don’t understand what I’m supposed to do when I’m feeling so stressed about not making progress with my fieldwork. This is exactly the tension that I’m negotiating; trusting the process vs. just gritting my teeth and getting on with it. The need to be efficient (or the illusion of efficiency) is deeply ingrained, especially when survival (in the form of my stipend) apparently depends upon it.

Anyway…back to the art.

In Isabel’s beautiful wooden house 6 of us each had our own place to paint, a seemingly unending supply of paper and a beautifully vibrant range of paints to share. Each morning and each afternoon for three days we started with a meditation or bodywork exercise, painted for an hour and a half and then talked about what we’d painted. The idea was not necessarily to paint something beautiful but to paint whatever you felt inspired to paint in that moment.

For me this liberation was kind of scary. I haven’t really done any art since school and then, although I tried hard, I was never very good at it. I love colour and I love crafts but usually I would choose something where I’m ‘following a pattern’. Letting go is not one of my strengths.

But nine hours in front of a blank sheet of paper is a long time. On day one, I wondered if I’d be bored. Then I started to have fun. One day two I started to feel self-conscious. Then I started to connect with what I was feeling and paint it. On day three, I started to really play with the paints. Then, as I loaded my hands up with paint to smear on and throw at the paper (by this point the brushes were mostly redundant), I started to sheepishly (and knowing it wasn’t really the point) reflect that maybe I wasn’t at bad at this art malarkey as I’ve been telling myself all these years. I’m not saying I’m good, just that maybe I’m not terrible.

And in between, when I remembered that I was feeling ill, I curled up on a mattress and drank fruit tea and dozed for a few minutes until I was ready to go again.

The painting process and the finished paintings gave me an opportunity to share and discuss some of the contradictions and tensions that are a part of my life right now and to continue my quest for a new, simultaneously less stressful and more meaningful, way of being in the world. What I thought was a break from my research gave me a chance to think about the way I relate to my studies in relation to other areas of my life. In particular, the combination of the unfamiliar joy that I got from using my hands to intuitively guide the paint onto the paper and being in the company of several women who are, in one form or another, therapists who are very aware of their own embodiment, made me realize how caught up in my head I am and how disconnected I have become from my own physical wellbeing.

Back to the yoga for the New Year then….or at least, when I can get rid of some of the gunk that has currently taken up residency in my body. Which brings me back to where I started…I think this is an important lesson for me, but one that I’m only just taking baby steps towards beginning to understand.

…with love and genuine thanks to Isabel and all the other very lovely participants in the workshop 🙂



In January 2007 my New Year’s resolution was to “be brave”. In February 2007 I came to South East Asia. My first extended period of traveling, my first time in South East Asia, mostly on my own, armed with my schedule of how to see all of Asia in 9 months.

After two months of traveling, and just after my scheduled ten days in Laos, I arrived at Mutmee Guesthouse in Nong Khai and saw an advertisment for a 1-week intensive yoga course. I thought that I could be flexible enough to adapt my schedule to fit that in.

I hated the first day of the course. It was physically and mentally challenging and I spent most of the time in tears. At the end of the day I said to the course co-leader, Pancho, that I didn’t think I could continue. He, very kindly and gently and without any knowledge of my resolution, told me to “be brave”. That comment, combined with a whole string of similar synchronicities, enabled and supported me to complete the course.

When I look back it seems very clear to me that if I hadn’t completed that yoga course I would not now be in Laos researching my PhD about happiness. The week (which continued to be difficult) provided a space for me to reflect upon and experience the changes that I needed to make in my life. Shortly afterwards (after a few inevitable twists and turns) I returned to Laos, nurturing the love and fascination for the country that became the basis of my current research. I never saw the whole of Asia.

Yesterday morning my 2012 resolution came to me during my meditation practice.

“Allow life.”

In 2007 I carved out a space that I needed – and at that time that was a very good thing. In 2012 I want to start recognising and using the spaces that present themselves to me. I want to allow spaces to open rather than forcing them to open. 

Now, this might sound like hippy-shit to some of you (I’m imagining rolling eyes) but actually the idea comes from my research. Before Christmas I increasingly found myself missing out on interesting ethnographic research opportunities because I already had a meeting or a workshop planned. I find this balance difficult; it represents a cultural difference (Lao people plan less than Brits), a methodological challenge (I’m treading a line between ethnography and participative groupwork)
and a personality trait (I like to be in control). Consciously shifting the balance back towards unstructured and spontaneous interactions will be very challenging for me, but I think it will benefit the quality of my data.

I think it will also benefit my quality of life. For example, I know that I write best in the evening and into the night and that I need long periods of time for ideas to mull and digest, yet I still beat myself up for not sticking to a 9-5, sat in front of my desk, structure. I need to find a different discipline of allowing myself to listen to the natural rhythms of my life and the rhythms of my research and trusting that the work will get done.

So now, 7am on 31st December 2011, I find myself back in Mutmee Guesthouse contemplating space. I’ve been back a few times over the past few years; I love this beautiful garden overlooking the Mekong and am in awe of the community of beautiful spiritual interesting people that gather here. I’ve been ill and in low spirits over Christmas, so when my friend Kathrin invited me to an art therapy workshop over New Year I battled my beliefs that “I should be working because I’ve only just had a holiday” and “I should be saving the money not spending it” and “I’m shit at art” and came with her over the Friendship Bridge. The workshop starts at 9am, I’ll let you know how it goes.

Happy New Year. Happy 2012.

Getting to the heart of it.

Many moons ago when I first worked in youth work I (and my colleagues) used to do an exercise with groups of young people to get them to introduce themselves. I would explain that many years ago (and sometimes still) families had a coat of arms that said something about who they are and about their values. After some chat about the sorts of things that might be represented on a coat of arms I gave them a sheet of paper and asked them to draw their own individual “coat of arms” or “badge” to introduce themselves to the group.

When I started doing workshops here I wanted to find some way to get young people to introduce themselves to me and to each other. I kept coming back to this exercise because I like its openness to interpretation and that it can be completed on different levels whilst encouraging people to think a little below the obvious to the things that really represent them. But the coat of arms is a broadly European image and I didn’t think that it would resonate with the Lao young people I am working with. I needed to think of an alternative.

Ever since I started learning Lao language I have been fascinated by the prevalence of the word “jai” (heart). Many many words (and in particular emotion words or words describing character) either start or end with “jai”. For example “understand” is “kow jai” which literally translates as “enter heart”. Linked to this, I’m fascinated when, at my Saturday afternoon meditation classes at the temple, the monk talks about mind and points to the place that I consider to be his heart. So I decided to play a bit with the concept of heart.

Right now I’m in the process of transcribing the workshops that I facilitated in November and December. I thought it might be interesting to describe this particular process that I went through with one group.

I started by talking about my observation that many Lao words contain the word “jai” and asked the group to brainstorm as many such words as they could and, amongst much giggling, we filled a big flipchart full of words. Then I asked what the word “jai” meant to them. It’s a hard question, right? Think about it for a moment: what does your heart mean to you?

One person talked about it being the thing that gave him life. Another said that her heart is where she has true feelings. Then others talked about how those feelings might be good or bad, about how feelings can make you happy or sad – and they talked about being broken-hearted and about hearts being connected to love.

Finally I gave each person a sheet of paper with a big heart drawn on it and I asked them to individually show me what is in their heart. I had done my own example but I didn’t really want to show it at that point because I thought that people might just copy my ideas. So I gave them some prompt to think about:

What are the things that are most important to you?
What are the things that you cannot live without?
What are the things that make you very happy?
If you play football every week and you love it – put that in your heart!
If there are things or people that are very very important to you – put them in your heart!
If you have a dream of something that you really want to do (even if you cannot right now) put that in your heart!

I said they could draw or write their thoughts, made it clear that they didn’t have to stick to the prompts and told them that there would be some time to share the things they wanted to share with each other – but that they didn’t have to share anything with the group that they didn’t want to. And then I left them to it for 20 minutes.

I’ve done this exercise with three very different groups now. I have to admit that the first time I did it I had no idea if it would work…I thought it might be too open, too abstract…but I wanted to give it a try. With every group it has been completely different. For example, the first group almost all chose to draw the contents of their hearts where as the other two groups predominantly used writing, and different groups appeared to pick up more on different prompts. However one thing in common between all groups has been a desire to share their hearts with each other. In each group we have spent time going around almost every person in the group (one or two in each group chose to opt out) with each person explaining their heart and answering questions from each other. The young people in each group mostly know each other well already and this sharing has always been done is a spirit of respect and good humour. I shared my own heart at this point – while others might not agree, I think that it is really important for me to be a part of the group and to share information about me and my life to the people who are so generous in sharing their own lives with me.

I will use these hearts and the ensuing discussion as data in their own right, but they have also been useful as prompts for  further exploration in interviews and ongoing conversations. I haven’t done any formal analysis yet but my initial thoughts are that, across the groups, hearts were filled with people and with dreams. Another very initial observation is that a group of mostly relatively affluent and education young people with families in Vientiane tend to dream of doing things, while a group of young people who generally have far fewer material resources and less stable family networks tend to dream of having things. However, in both cases, a large number (maybe the majority?) of these dreams are related to having or doing things for other people, most often family.

Busy Busy Busy

I got back to Laos last month after my holiday and, keen to take advantage of all the groundwork I had already put in, lept straight into a month of hectic fieldwork.

In the last 3 weeks I have run 6 research workshops in 3 different organisations, made a good start on translating all the data generated by these workshops, trained 2 new translators, completed 14 interviews and set up another 15 or so for the next couple of weeks. I’ve also more or less completed a 60 page report that I’ve been working on for another organisation and fitted in some house viewings because Lis and I are thinking about moving house. Phew.

I do not want to sound one little bit like I am complaining. I love it. And I genuinely love all of the young people I’ve been working with. We have been having some very very interesting and open discussions and I am 100% appreciative of their enormous help and support and interest in my quest.

I’ve realised, however, that there are a few fundamental challenges in writing a blog about a research process.

The first one is about ethics and I’ve written about that in another post so I’ll skate over it just now.

The second is about being so close to the process that I have no idea what is interesting any more. After writing a fluffy post about my favourite things, is anyone going to care that I’m changing my research focus slightly? As a result of the time delays (and of using that time to do some more focused thinking) it is now most likely that I’m going to focus only on young people in Vientiane, and specifically those who volunteer or work with (so far loosely defined) development organisations. Do you care?

Anybody who has done a Phd will know that moment when someone asks you what your research is about, you start to tell them…and you see their eyes glazing over. I’m a bit worried that this blog could be like that, except I can’t even see your eyes to know.

Thirdly…social research is a messy process. I currently have lots of half formed thoughts and I know that my current ideas will go through a process of being torn apart, scrutinised and lovingly pieced back together in different combinations with different emphases. That is how I work and I do (at least on good days) trust that process.

So, I leave you with one promise and two qualifications about anything that I write on this blog in the next year.

1. I promise that whatever I write I will have agonised over the ethics of it.
2. I do not promise that you will find it interesting (although I do promise that I will find it interesting).
3. I do not promise that I will not change my mind entirely and write a paper in a year’s time saying completely the opposite.

As one of my young translators said to me the other day as we crawled over enormous flipchart papers with life-sized pictures of young people trying to read scrawled thoughts about happiness: I have a strange job. Wonderful…but strange.

My favourite things.

I promised myself that my next blog would be about my research. Now that I have my permission there is nothing to stop me writing highly academic posts about complex methodologies and ethical dilemmas solved, right?

But since I’ve been back from Indonesia life seems to have gone a bit crazy. Alongside getting started – which I am doing and which I will write about, I promise – all these insecurities have been seeping out. What am I doing? Will I ever have anything interesting to say? Have I got time? Am I working hard enough? Blah blah f***ing blah.

Then a few nights ago I was out for dinner with some friends of friends that I’ve never met before. I happened to mention that avocados were on my list of favourite things. The resulting conversation revealed to me that not everyone has such a list and, in fact, I was considered quite strange (I hope in a good way) for having one.  I shared this revelation on facebook and it caused a flurry of comments.

So, in the spirit both of sharing and of lifting my own spirits by reminding me of the things I really love, here is my first attempt to get the list out of my head and onto paper. Originally I’ve said there were no rules but now I’ve realised that the one rule I do set for myself is that the list can’t contain people that I know, because otherwise it would just be full of my family and friends.

So without further ado….and in no particular order….here are my favourite things.

  1.  Ripe avocadoes
  2.  The sea and especially wild remote deserted beaches
  3.  Arundhati Roy
  4.  Tempeh
  5.  Laughing so hard that I can hardly breathe
  6.  Watching ‘Strictly Come Dancing’ or ‘Pride and Prejudice’ or ‘Guys and Dolls’ on TV with my mum
  7.  Spinach
  8.  Any technology that allows me to cheaply communicate with family and friends a long way away
  9.  Sunshine
  10.  Draft Guinness
  11.  Nights with good people in pubs with log fires and good music (and definitely no TVs)
  12.  Walking meditation
  13.  Watermelon juice
  14.  Hugs from people who matter (which, truth be told, is pretty much everyone)
  15.  Virginia Woolf
  16.  Finding the perfect present for someone
  17.  Sleep
  18.  The jungle
  19.  Johnny Depp
  20. A good cuppa (of the builder’s variety)
  21.  Stories (both told and read)
  22. Mike Scott
  23.  Walking through Holyrood Park and up the Royal Mile in Edinburgh on a crisp blue-skied winter day
  24.  His Dark Materials
  25.  That wonderful feeling when you really connect with another person…
  26. …especially a young child
  27.  Traveling through beautiful Lao landscape, preferably using a mode of transport that doesn’t put a pane of glass between me and said landscape
  28.  The labyrinth in George Square (although the location is probably less important, just that’s the one I know)
  29.  The Princess Bride
  30.  Good conversation (either serious or nonsensical)
  31.  Bright colours
  32.  Thich Nhat Hanh
Over to you…

Jungle adventures and literary pursuits and good news


At the overwhelmingly beautiful closing party of the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival I take a moment to retreat from the music and use the toilet. I’m second in the queue and the woman in front of me is deep in conversation with another woman. The cubicle becomes empty but her conversation continues so I indicate that I will sneak in front of her and she smiles her assent. When I come out her conversation is drawing to a close and I comment “you look so very happy”. She answers “this festival has offered me an opportunity to see that a different life is possible for me. Now I’m going home to work out what that life might look like.”

I am just back in Laos after a wonderful holiday in North Sumatra and Bali. I am living that different life. I don’t know how to use words to express just how wonderful the holiday was so I offer you a few short snapshots that can maybe convey just a little of that wonder.

I’m walking through the jungle. My back hurts and my breathing is laboured, but I am surrounded by green beauty and my spirit is soaring. Suddenly our guide stops. My trekking partner and I follow his gaze up into the eyes of a wild orangutan less than 10 metres away. The experience is gloriously frightening. This orange monkey is big and we are told that he probably wants the lunch that we are about to eat. But we are in good hands; one guide encourages us to stay calm while we slowly walk past the orangutan and the other stays to check where he goes so that we can adjust our route. Thirty minutes later as we eat our (delicious) lunch another family (including an oh so cute baby) come to watch us, but they stay at a comfortable distance.

A few days later I’m sitting in the banks of a river overlooking the jungle with two Indonesian men, eating corn that is freshly barbecued on an open fire. Kendro owns the land that we sit on and he is talking about a school group from an international   in Malaysia that is currently visiting the jungle. This morning he saw them dropping plastic bottles on the ground and when he asked the leader to tell the students not to do it the leader was less than responsive. Eman charitably suggests that maybe they don’t know it’s wrong but Kendro screws up his face and says: “I didn’t go to school and I know it’s wrong. If they pay so much money to go to an international school and they don’t know then something is very wrong.”

We talk about their lives for a while and later I ask the two of them what they think about the tourists who visit the jungle from far off countries and specifically if they are jealous of our freedom to travel. They both look at me as if I am crazy and Kendro sweeps his hand across the wide view of river and jungle. “Why would we be jealous? We live here.”

I’m sitting in a panel discussion at UWRF and the jungle seems a long way away. The discussion is about happiness and on the stage sit four inspiring men, each from a different country and a different discipline, talking about happiness. Honestly, the essence of most of what they say I know, but to hear it again in this setting, utilising a blend of poetry, culture and research is wonderful. So wonderful that as I hang on every word I find myself crying big fat  happy tears. In this moment I am so grateful for this holiday, so grateful for the opportunity to do my research, so grateful for my life.

I’m sitting in a cafe in Ubud. I have just finished my volunteer shift, helping at a children’s drama workshop conducted entirely in Bahasa. I am energised by the vibrance of the workshop leader and the children. I check my emails and, quietly sitting in my inbox, there is a simple message saying that my research proposal has been approved and I can get my visa as soon as I am back in Laos.

What the waiting looks like.

Promised update: still no news.

A few people have emailed and asked what I’m actually doing while I’m waiting, so I thought it might be interesting for you to hear about my week. I’ll keeping it anonymous and pretty general, because who knows what will end up being included in my research, but it’ll give you an overview.


The organisation where my research will be largely based often has volunteer meetings on a Saturday morning. Last Saturday I spent all morning with young volunteers and staff visiting families who receive financial support from the project in order to send their children to school. It was very interesting for me to visit the school children’s homes and see the interactions between the volunteers and the families.

I spent the rest of the day with my friend Bea who was visiting from London. I first met Bea in 2007 on a boat going to Si Phan Don in the very south of Laos when we were both backpackers. We only spent about a week together, but we’ve stayed in touch and it was really special that she came back and visiting me here. We spent most of the afternoon and evening gossiping, wandering along the Mekong and eating good food.


After a morning yoga class I had a very delicious Chinese dumpling lunch and catch-up with my friend Toni who is the yoga teacher.

In the afternoon, Bea and I went to a new Lao friend’s house for good chat and to eat delicious Lao desserts. It turns out that the woman whose house we were visiting knows some people at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (where my research proposal currently resides) and will make some inquiries for me to see if she can find out what is going on. I’m not writing that with any expectations- just an indication of how things often work.

She also gave me some lemongrass to plant in our garden, which I am disproportionately excited about.


After a morning visit to the market with Bea, I settled down in a cafe with my laptop to catch up with my research journal and to do some writing that I had promised my supervisors before our next skype meeting next week.

After a working lunch I cycled for what seemed like forever to a youth centre where I have offered to do a little bit of volunteer work. I met with the staff and agreed to run one after school activity a week which will focus on songs and games and very simple storytelling. I will also do some conversational English activities with the volunteers at the centre. After the meeting and being shown around, I hung out with the young volunteers and the children doing today’s arts and crafts activities – paper mache, mat weaving and making very cute little animals out of stones.

In the evening I got caught in an enormous thunderstorm as I tried to get a tuktuk into town to meet Bea to have dinner. I arrived drenched to the skin, but we still managed to have a lovely meal and a couple of cocktails and more good chat and it was sad to say goodbye.


A friend of mine is volunteering for a local non-profit association which is struggling to write up two research reports in a very tight timescale, so I offered my help while I’m waiting. Today we had a meeting that lasted most of the day to get our heads around what needs doing and who will do what. I’ve probably agreed to do a bit much – not like me at all (!) – but there will hopefully be a little bit of cash attached to the work which will help keep me out here a little bit longer.

I nipped out at lunchtime to have lunch with with a woman who I’ve been trying to get hold of for ages who works in a youth non-profit association. We talked about possible links between her organisation and my research.

In the late afternoon and through to bedtime I worked at home on the document that I HAD to send to both my supervisors today and on a bit of paid work that I’m doing for one of my supervisors. I’m helping Kay develop the facebook presence for Childhood Studies in Edinburgh – making my addiction pay!


This morning I met with a woman who works with an International NGO that supports vulnerable children here in Vientiane. I helped her think through and update the questions for a regular survey that they conduct with children and young people. We also discussed my research and how I can work with the organisation once my permission comes through.

In the afternoon I popped home briefly to ask our security guard (I feel I need to add that he is shared between 6 houses) if he could keep an eye out for the guys who deliver drinking water and buy 3 enormous bottles for us. Then I popped into the youth project where I am largely based but no-one was there. So I worked on my research journal and familiarising myself with the data for the other research report . I was thinking that I might go into town tonight but it is pouring with rain and the thunder is literally shaking the door-frames so I think I’ll stay in, get this posted and crack on with that research.

I usually attend a meditation group on a Wednesday evening but everyone seems to have a lot on right now so it has not happened for the last couple of weeks.


Tomorrow I plan to spend the morning catching up with my main youth centre and the afternoon running (ably assisted by young volunteers) my first after-school activity group at a different youth centre. I expect that we will sing “heads, shoulders, knees and toes” dance “the hokey cokey” and the children will laugh at my attempts to speak Lao.


Is as yet a bit of an unknown. Which probably means that – amongst catching up with a whole range of research-admin type things and maybe hanging out at the youth centre – I’ll get a massage.

Interspersed in all of this are regular phone-calls to the university to ask if there is any news. It can be difficult to find a balance between not pestering and reminding them that I am still waiting. And since I’ve stopped having formal Lao language lessons (it got too expensive) I’m always trying to find opportunities to practice.

This week I also started an online meditation course. Although that might sound a bit strange – it definitely took me a while to get my head around it – I think it is going to be really good. I genuinely see my meditation practice as an important part of my research, not because everyone here meditates – far from it – but because it is an experiential way to understand Buddhist teaching and culture. It is also something that I see as personally invaluable – I’m not sure if I would’ve got through the last 6 months intact without it. So in line with the teachings of this course I have upped my daily morning meditation from 15 to 20 minutes. I know, I know, not much, but still requiring a level of discipline that doesn’t come easy to me.

And next week I’m off to Bali for two weeks. I’ll take work with me but it is essentially a holiday. A week in Sumatra hanging out with orang-utans and elephants, then a few days chilling on one of the Gili Islands and, finally, a week volunteering at the Ubud Writers and Readers Festival. Every bit of that sentence is exciting for me – but I realise what I’m most looking forward to is the sea. Oh I do like to be beside the seaside. And next week (ok, strictly speaking the week after) I will be.

Visa…what visa? My life is too busy to do a PhD…