Hot Flushes, Hot News

In a recently televised experiment on the BBC, two male politicians agreed to wear zip-up vests designed to mimic a hot flush. After this uncomfortable experience one of them asserted that women needed support in order to contribute to the economy for longer, while the other pronounced that what affects women also affects family life, which must be supported.

Each of these men gave valid reasons for taking menopause seriously; but I was left wondering why funding women’s mental and physical well-being had to be justified either in direct financial terms (contribution to the economy) or indirectly, through women’s support for others (family life). Women’s well-being seemed only to matter as long as it was deemed ‘useful’ in some way. Supporting well-being because it is a good in itself doesn’t seem to have occurred to them. Isn’t upholding the dignity of life, and improving the quality of that life, the proper goal of any politics?

Politicians looking uncomfortable in zip-up jackets was just one of many news items on the menopause in recent years. Prominent women are now using their public platforms to push for change. Indeed, so many have joined this chorus that a small revolution in attitudes has begun. By publicly documenting their own trials and triumphs on the menopausal journey, these women have begun to blow away centuries of ignorance and taboo, and in so doing increased awareness of the impact menopause can have on women’s mental as well as physical health.

There is also increased coverage of scientific research into different forms of HRT, and older women are sharing what they wish they’d known before the onset of menopause in order to help prepare and support younger generations. These campaigns have fuelled such an increase in demand for HRT that parts of the UK are experiencing serious supply shortages.

Menopause is no longer something we whisper about. It is now unacceptable for managers to scoff at women’s requests for ‘reasonable adjustments’ in the workplace. Menopause is at last being brought out of the shadows. Where women were once expected to retreat and suffer in silence, their concerns and perspectives are now coming into the full glare of the media.

In February 2024, The Equality and Human Rights Commission issued guidelines, including a video, aimed at employers wishing ‘to ensure fairness and inclusivity in the workplace’ for female employees struggling with menopausal symptoms. The full guidelines and the research underpinning them led to their creation can be read on the EHRC web site. This is a big step forward – and the advice is both clear and practical. But these are still only guidelines. Employers are not obliged to provide what they consider goes beyond ‘reasonable adjustments’.

But some employers are listening. In 2018 just 10% of employers offered any kind of support, according to a recent article in Positive News. This year (2024) has seen that rise to around 46%. Over 1,500 major employers have signed the Wellbeing of Women workplace pledge to improve conditions for employees going through the menopause. And recent years have seen a steady growth in grassroots help and support groups. Menopause cafés are opening in some companies and in public spaces, offering a place to chat through worries and share advice with women at or approaching the same stage of life.

There is increasing awareness of early menopause, too, and of the various symptoms of perimenopause. The astonishing disclosure in a 2021 UCL research report by Dr Megan Arnot that menopause is not even being studied in 59% of our medical colleges has prompted a call to overhaul education at every level. A positive outcome of this report has been funding for researchers at UCL to develop the UK’s first national menopause education and support programme, to be delivered in community settings.

Much of the conversation is centred around dealing with symptoms, which is of course crucial, but there is still a tendency to treat menopause as a problem. Menopause is not a problem if women are given space and time to adjust. It is not simply a change of body that can be sorted out with a desk fan and the right hormone supplements. It requires a shift of perspective on life, our place in the cycle of nature, and in the universe of which we are all part. Menopausal women, no less than young women or teenagers, need time to exercise, to eat well, to rest properly, and to think. We need to be cut some slack at times in the workplace and for our continuing contribution to be recognised, and we also need space to reflect on the passage of time, on what we wish to do with our remaining decades, on what is important to us, and how we can plan for a healthy, happy old age.

I salute and applaud those women who are using their public profile to bring about change. There’s still a long way to go but at least we’re now openly and unashamedly talking about the subject. Women won’t be going back to suffering in silence any time soon.

Hot Flushes, Hot NewsClaire O'Brien2024-04-21T11:03:02+01:00

What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping?

What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping? It’s a famous koan – an insoluble question posed by a Zen Buddhist Master to his student. Give a clever-clogs answer and the fierce Master might bash you with a broom handle. Instead, the student must try to answer authentically, from the depths, and rise to a new level of understanding.

I was born with only one hand. The other – my ‘little hand’ or stump – has been a kind of personal koan I’ve had to ponder all my life. It has forced me, sometimes against my wishes, to grow in directions I may never have taken. I’ve written a memoir about it called The Sound of One Hand, because it is also inevitably linked with my Buddhist journey.

As a child I didn’t want to discuss it much. I didn’t want a prosthetic because I didn’t want to make any concession to it at all, not even covering it up. My parents told me I was no different from anyone else. At school I competed hard; winning stuff gave me recognition and helped me feel equal to my fully-armed friends.

This narrative persisted well into adult life. If anyone asked (which they rarely did) I told them the hand hadn’t affected me much: ‘A little bit of course… for practical stuff.’ I pushed to one side lurking suspicions of being different or awkward or weak. What was the point of exploring such uncomfortable feelings? I’d still have one hand missing and I’d be miserable aswell. I was doing okay thank you very much.

One day I was on my way to work on the Tube when I saw a guy with a missing hand. A banker, I thought. (We were at Bank station.) I quickly hid my little hand under a book, hoping he hadn’t spotted it. I didn’t want a chat with him on the inevitable theme. But this episode set me thinking: ‘I’m 29 and have been meditating for nine years or so. Surely I can face these feelings a bit better? Why don’t I want to meet anyone like me, let alone engage with them?’

In my thirties I started to talk about it more. An inner shift in me allowed others to ask how it had happened. ‘I was born like this,’ I replied, privately acknowledging the wish for a longer, more heroic explanation. I also started to breathe and pause whenever I felt the instinct to hide or tuck the stump into a sleeve. I still do sometimes, but it also helps to lean into the feelings and resist habitual urges; it opens things up in all sorts of ways

Through writing the memoir I’ve been able to reflect on how much my little hand has shaped me. It’s been a grain of suffering in an otherwise happy and fortunate life, a pinch point around which my growing self has had to forge an identity. As I approach my fiftieth birthday I realise more than ever that the way our lives unfold is a mystery. There are so many causes and conditions for what happens to us. For me, my hand is just one. Maybe not even the main one. I probably wouldn’t have been a rock star, even with two hands!

No doubt everyone, even the most blessed among us, has a difficult condition to contend with, bodily or otherwise. The pain and confusion that surrounds these deeper conundrums is often what opens the way, delivering us to the doorstep of Dharma practice. A paradox worthy of a koan. For, in the larger scheme of things, this may be the greatest blessing of all.

What is the Sound of One Hand Clapping?David Waterston2024-04-02T17:17:53+01:00

Going with the Flow

Recently, I hit on an idea. Instead of stressing about the pile of chores facing me each day, or the tasks over-spilling my desk, I would give up ‘admin’ altogether. So I put away my To Do list, and banned any reference to work-related items. To be more precise, I re-named them. I did Really Useful Things all day instead. This made a real difference. I no longer groaned over my loss of adventure or fun. Instead I basked in a vision of usefulness, where purpose and meaning meet in perfect union, and sighed with satisfaction at the really useful way I spent my hours. Believe it or not, as my attitude changed I felt the burden lighten. Seeing time so usefully employed, I began to appreciate my individual efforts, and how each creates the whole.

Did this work? Well, yes. Up to a point. But …

I had to wonder: is a simple change of attitude enough? Can it sustain us through horribly busy patches? Would it cope with undue stress? And then, what about those ‘really useless things’ which are just as important? Some activities serve no obvious purpose but still lend a dash of colour: ones without rhyme or reason that bring added zest to life; or, being unexpected, open up space for unplanned joy. A change of attitude may help in part, certainly, but more is needed. We need a change of state.

What state is that? It is the state of FLOW. When we flow with the stream of life, we are never stumped or stuck, stopped or stymied, bored or burdened The endlessness of our jobs dissolves, because it too is part of the flow. This is not an idea or attitude. Flow is something we experience deeply from within. It is our essential agreement with Life as it is. Flowing with whatever comes, we have the energy to engage fully and creatively, with focus and care. How different we become – and how different Life looks – from a state of flow.

Into the Flow is the second of my Gentle Guides to Meditation. It is also a guide to flow. For meditation, in essence, is the practise of flow. Meditating, we see flow close-up, from within. We explore what it means, how it feels. We taste for ourselves its infinite ease and freedom.

Flow is a blessing, in meditation and in life. Finding flow is the first step to making peace with ourselves, with the world – and (as it happens) with our ever-flowing To Do list.

Going with the FlowElizabeth English2023-12-05T08:26:03+00:00