Phil Startin lives in Arrochar, in the Scottish Highlands, with his American wife. He was diagnosed with PPMS in 2007, and as a result he had to retire in 2014 from his career in management consulting.
Phil found Overcoming MS in 2011, having previously discovered mindfulness meditation, and has been on the OMS Recovery programme ever since. He currently teaches the eight-week mindfulness-based stress reduction (MBSR) course to people with MS, and delivers the mind-body component of some of the OMS retreats. He is an OMS Ambassador, a trustee for MS-UK and attended the first UK OMS Retreat in 2013.
How has COVID-19 impacted your lifestyle?
We live in a small village in Scotland which is fairly isolated. My wife Cristina has probably been most impacted by the COVID restrictions because she runs a Bed & Breakfast from our home. It’s a shame we can no longer accept visitors, especially as we had our busiest number of bookings for the holiday season ahead. She has been busy cancelling bookings, updating the website, refreshing the rooms, and tending to the garden.
I am used to and enjoy solitude! I have not left our village for weeks. We have been able to get supermarket deliveries and have fantastic local shops nearby. But I also enjoy company which is the main reason I left academia after my doctorate and went into consultancy - for the social interaction. We actively chose to move away from the frenetic busy life near London and had always loved Scotland. So we moved and we chose to have a calmer, more simpler life, closer to nature.
Are you managing to stay in touch and connected?
I am grateful we have technology to help us keep connected. I coordinate the West Scotland OMS Circle. We have a Zoom meet up once a week and I host a group meditation twice a week. I run group meditations fortnightly with groups from Arrochar and a village on nearby Loch Fyne. I also teach and am running remote learning meditations for MS-UK in June this year. So as you can see I’m relatively busy interacting with people. I am probably doing more Zoom meetings now than I was at the beginning of March but the novelty does wear off! That being said, I do enjoy regular Saturday Zoom drinks with friends.
Are you managing to stick to the OMS programme and keep exercising?
I am probably doing more exercise now than I was before the UK’s lockdown! I have always enjoyed the gym and have created a mini set-up at home as my nearest gym is over 20 miles away. I am so glad I did as I have everything I need and plenty of time to exercise. I feel well and motivated at the moment.
Are there are challenges you are facing due to the restrictions?
I’m not suffering personally but I would like to highlight the impact I believe COVID-19 will have on people around the world. I worry there will be huge anxieties for many people - about lack of work, paying bills, housing, the future, DMT treatments and other illnesses etc. Reducing stress is so important, wherever and whenever possible and I don’t underestimate how difficult that will be for many people. So my thoughts are to keep being kind, to be accepting of people’s circumstances and differences and to be aware of mental health issues. Wherever possible I hope to support our MS communities, our local friends, community, and family.
Where we live, in Loch Lomond and the Trossachs National Park, many businesses will be adversely affected due to the lack of tourism. So I hope many people will return to staycation in the UK when all this is over.
You’re a bit of an expert so how do you practise meditation?
Expert?! I’m not sure there is any such thing. But I have a few meditation hours under my belt and have been fortunate to have had some great teachers. I undertake a formal meditation for at least 30 minutes each day, generally in the morning. But I do many additional mini-meditations throughout the day when I intentionally take time to breathe and connect with my body. I try to do a ‘gratitude’ exercise each day when I think of three things I am grateful for.
How do you find the mood of your local OMS Circle?
I would say our Circle is pretty positive. One of our group had COVID and recovered fine. So we were pleased to hear that.
For all of us who have MS, who live with a chronic, progressive illness, we are used to uncertainty and don’t know what the future necessarily holds. MS prepares us for situations like COVID-19; we know life is uncertain but all we can do is improve what we can and live the best life we can.
Are there any positives about social-distancing?
For sure, we live in beautiful countryside and the Spring weather has been, somewhat surprisingly for Scotland, absolutely glorious. We have had the best April for years and our village has been blissfully peaceful. We are enjoying having the house to ourselves, enjoying the garden, the quiet and nature. Although I hope it doesn’t last too long!
How do you remain positive?
I accept there is nothing we can do to change the situation. We can get organised and prepare for when lockdown eases, and in the meantime just enjoy what we have. And I think about others who have less, who are struggling with their mental health and I want to be there to support those who need it when that time arises. I’d like to extend my best wishes, for a healthy, mindful lockdown. Meeting up again will be all the better after this enforced absence.
For further information, Phil has provided some handy links:
Having a few guided meditations is really helpful in establishing and maintaining a practice.
There are several on the OMS website: https://overcomingms.org/resources/guided-meditation.
Also Bangor University and Oxford University have very strong mindfulness research groups and they have made their guided meditations available: https://www.bangor.ac.uk/mindfulness/audio/index.php.en and https://www.oxfordmindfulness.org/learn-mindfulness/resources/.
There are literally thousands of guided mediations available on the Insight Timer app https://insighttimer.com/meditation-app.
Perhaps you have more time for reading right now and here are some of Phil’s favourite meditation books:
“Full Catastrophe Living”, Piatkus, by Jon Kabat-Zinn – by one of the key figures in modern secular mindfulness
“The art of meditation”, Atlantic Books, by Matthieu Ricard
“A mindfulness based stress reduction workbook”, New Harbinger Publications, by Stahl & Goldstein – teach yourself meditation!
“Mindfulness”, Routledge, ed Williams & Kabat-Zinn – collection of somewhat academic articles from Contemporary Buddhism
“Wholeness and the Implicate Order”, Routledge, by David Bohm – a different interpretation of quantum mechanics but with a surprising connection to mindfulness