Angela Lee-Foster is the new Producer Arts Health and Wellbeing for Britten Pears Arts in East Suffolk. Here the practising Buddhist talks about meditation in the middle of a pandemic, mindfulness for menopause and how music and the arts can transform lives
I had a ‘Billy Elliot’ childhood. Brought up in the North-East, where my father was a miner, I was inspired by drama (I was in the same youth drama workshop as actress Gina McKee), but my heart lay in dance. We couldn’t afford ballet lessons, but at the age of 18 I discovered contemporary dance and won a place to train at London conservatoire, Laban (now Trinity Laban).
Making a living in dance wasn’t so easy so I ended up returning to study an academic degree in Women’s Studies (I was always a passionate feminist after my brother subscribed me to Spare Rib when I was 16!). I then worked in advocacy and public policy for leading national communication disability charities for 15 years. In 2005 we relocated to Suffolk, and I went freelance as a consultant. Then, I had my second child at 46 which was quite impactful! More recently I have gone to work back in the arts – my first love – and feel like I have come full circle. I think my life has been full of curiosity, wonder and love of learning.
I’ve been a practising Buddhist for over 35 years. When the pandemic struck my Buddhist practice – in particular meditation and my community of Buddhist friends – was incredibly supportive. Like many people I was a little terrified at first. But over time came to love the peace and space of the first lockdown. I went for a daily walk, noticed the changing seasons. For me it was The Great Pause. I had more time to reflect, read, write, do all those craft things I had been putting off. But mostly I valued the strength of people’s resilience and our sense of community. I worked all the way through the pandemic and was glad to do so. I am so grateful to the scientists who developed the vaccine which has enabled us to slowly emerge, and I think values and attitudes around community and connection have changed for the better having been through this traumatic time together. Now we know that compassion is at the heart of a strong society.
I had been practicing mediation for decades and I went to an online retreat in 2020 with other Buddhist practitioners who talked about teaching secular mindfulness. I decided to train with Breathworks to teach Mindfulness for Stress and Mindfulness for Health (for people with chronic illness and pain). But towards the end of my training realised that the content of these courses could be used to develop a specific course for women facing menopause and teaching mindfulness to women in this time of their life would be incredibly beneficial. Mindfulness meditation had a hugely beneficial impact for me particularly at this time, it helped me manage my physical symptoms of hot flushes, my irritability and sleep problems with equanimity and calm. I came to relate to myself with far more compassion. The pilot course I ran at the beginning of this year proved me right. The participants found mindfulness transformative to their menopause journey.
I have developed this pioneering Mindfulness for Menopause course, an evidence-based course aimed at helping women embrace the change of menopause with awareness and compassion. It is taught online over eight weeks including Zoom sessions along with an online community which had a wealth of resources and guided meditations and mindful movement to practice at home. This course helps women seek balance during the turbulence of menopause, helps them nurture themselves during this period of change and embrace this natural milestone in their lives with calm and equanimity. It’s very effective online and the approach and tools I use have been proven to work very effectively.
Mindfulness helps us live our lives with more presence. All our experience is meditated by our minds but often our minds are pulling us along in a haphazard fashion, sometimes on negative thought trains which can lead to a lot of self-criticism and suffering. Mindfulness and compassion go hand in hand. We learn to understand our mind and how it works, we gain perspective, we reconnect our mind and body, we begin to embrace difficulties with compassion and realise the simple beauty of everyday life. Who wouldn’t want this in their lives? Now, more than ever, after all the difficulties of the last two years, mindfulness offers us a practice to come home to ourselves and in doing so we can understand others feel the same as us and build connection and compassion.
After several decades I have found my way back to the arts, bringing all my passion and interest in arts and wellbeing and my experience and expertise from three decades in the charitable sector to a role I love. I am Producer Arts Health and Wellbeing for Britten Pears Arts. My role sits across Performance and Public Engagement, Artist Development and the Community Programme. The Community Programme exists to have a positive impact on the health and wellbeing of those in East Suffolk and beyond through participatory heritage and music projects, working with individuals of all ages and strengthening the communities that exist around them. The Producer role manages the connection between local work and national conversation. This includes curating Think Tanks, developing cross-sector training, delivering ‘MOTs’ for musicians, which are themed retreats allowing time and space for musicians to reflect and rejuvenate and nurturing innovate projects such as Enquiry Residencies which bring together interdisciplinary work around health and wellbeing. My role is responsible for the delivery of all aspects of Britten Pears Arts, Health & Wellbeing work and my remit is across all Music Programme strands, honouring Britten Pears ambition to embed our Arts, Health & Wellbeing work truly into everything we do. Music and the arts transform lives and brings people and communities together. Our founders’ vision inspires all our activities: from work with our local communities to our national leadership roles in the fields of programming, talent development and music for health & wellbeing. I hope that my role will play a significant part in realising this vision.
I would like to think the last two years have been a turning point for us. That we have come to recognise the importance of caring for ourselves, our communities and our planet. Life is fragile and precious. I’d like to hope that we go forward with a sense of gratitude, tenderness and kindness. That we can each find our song and sing it, and in doing so create a little more harmony.