About Sara MacKian…

I am a Senior Lecturer in Health and Wellbeing at The Open University, UK with an interest in how people cope with the complex life challenges thrown their way. My research is wide ranging but the driving theme is a curiosity for how people interact around issues of health, wellbeing and spirituality.

I’m particularly interested in how identity, experience and social change empower or disempower, and how people can bring about change. This has resulted in studies on ME, maternal health, parenting, gay men’s health and civil society. More recently I have been exploring the use of alternative spiritualities by individuals and organisations to enhance wellbeing. I have a particular interest in qualitative, creative and participatory research methods and have developed a technique of mapping the worlds revealed through in-depth research to aid in revealing that which is invisible in the everyday spaces around us.

27 Responses to About Sara MacKian…

  1. Patricia Bartley says:

    Hello Sara

    I was at your talk in York yesterday evening.

    Just wanted to say that I really enjoyed hearing about your work and I’m encouraged to learn that spiritual experiences (in whatever format) can be treated seriously in academic work.

  2. Sara MacKian says:

    Hi Patricia – I’m so pleased you enjoyed the talk, and thank you for posting. I’ll keep trying to convince the rest of the academic world that ‘otherworlds’ should be treated seriously! 🙂

  3. I love your blog, so inspiring!!

    We are reaching out to specific bloggers, who share our vision and would be supportive of the message in our film FINDING JOE. http://findingjoethemovie.com

    Please take a minute to watch the trailer, and if you are interested I would love to talk to you about how you can get involved!

    Thank you


  4. Sara MacKian says:

    Hello Nicole – this certainly looks very interesting. Please feel free to email me at the Open University if you want to talk to me.

    All the best


  5. Peter Arnold says:

    I’m curious about why many people make choices based on their feelings rather than on reasoning from evidence. I also have difficulty in finding clarity in any of the meanings of the term ‘spiritual’, i.e. in ‘spiritual experiences’ above. This might have something to do with the lack of clarity in my own mind at the age of eighty-five, but do I possess this mind or does it possess me? I don’t expect you to provide an answer.
    OK, this is just for fun, and surely that reflection of a fuzzy white haired old man I see in a mirror only identifies me to other people. It’s not me. I’m the thing that is looking at it.

    • Sara MacKian says:

      Peter – you’re right, I don’t think there will ever be clarity over what ‘spiritual’ means or might mean. For a long time the idea has been high-jacked by religion, but many people claim to have ‘spiritual experiences’ through art, music, poetry, love… so ‘religion’ is just one cultural institution for dealing with the spiritual. For me, it is precisely your final sort of comment which hints at ‘the spiritual’ – an awareness or sense that ‘what we are’ isn’t the obvious surface manifestation, and that there is ‘something else’ which is worth exploring. Thanks for your comment! 🙂

  6. Hello You,
    I have been intrigued by your interests in this subject, and I imagine for you to choose this you must have some connection.
    I have experienced now twice over severe forms of post natal depression and have been hospitialised once because of it. However during the time I was hospitalised I did turn to the bible for reassurance even though I only attended Sunday School as a child and other church events.

    However I do believe in life after death due to experiences I have had following the death of loved ones. And of random experiences unconnected. As a result I truly believe there is another life after this. Not sure if I have answered your question, but I hope it helps!

    • Sara MacKian says:

      Hi Andrea – thanks for your comment. I’m sorry to hear you’ve suffered with PND, me too, and it is often, like you say, at times of crisis that people turn to the spiritual in whatever way works for them. A lot of people report spiritual encounters when they are very ill or around the death of a loved one and it opens up a new way of dealing with the challenges they face. Does your belief in life after death help you face the idea of death easier?

  7. Norma Murphy says:

    Hi Sara
    I worked as a Marie Curie nurse for 12 years and I was often very conscious of spirit/spirituality when nursing people in the very end of life stages of their illness as we’re the patients and it was often spoken about and I could identify with them.
    I was aware of an aura/ spirit?

    I did strive to provide the best nursing care and holistic approach to the patients’ care, however the gap for me was meeting their spiritual, they were met from above.

    Furthermore, without sounding conceited I did provide an excellent service but, only with the spiritual support I received.I am a very chicken hearted person and without the spiritual support I got, I would most definitely not have been able to do my job.

    Spirituality,guardian angel, call it what you like,I certainly couldn’t live my life without it.

    • Sara MacKian says:

      Hi Norma – thank you so much for your comment. You clearly provided wonderful care for the people you worked with, as so often the spiritual needs of patients are left unspoken and unacknowledged – especially if they fall outside the mainstream religions. There is a growing move in health and social care to train and support people in being able to acknowledge and help patients with their spiritual needs in palliative and end of life care and you sound like you’ve got a wonderful approach which others could learn a lot from. There are also a growing number of nurses and doctors who are speaking out about unusual encounters they experience around dying patients, and I’d love to hear more about your experiences.

  8. Bob Auld says:

    How very interesting. I am an OU graduate (2010) History and Religious Studies. I have a solid Marxist background and a sceptical and agnostic frame of religious reference. I also have prostate cancer at an advanced stage and had taken to spending a fair amount of time contemplating my situation. I find meditative practice extremely helpful. I was introduced to this at my local Hospice by a Bhuddist who is a counsellor there. The concept I have been introduced to is called Mindfulness, and basically involves seeking to create the circumstances where you live for and in the moment. Using meditation daily on my own, and in groups twice a week, plus lots of choir singing, lots of allotment gardening, two half days a week as a volunteer helper in primary schools, some attempts at drawing and writing poetry, and the constant quietly effective support of my wife and family, I have made much progress in living each day and each minute without regret or introspection, and largely without fear of the future.

    • Sara MacKian says:

      Hello Bob – thank you for your comment, and I’m sorry to hear you’re living with advanced prostate cancer. Mindfulness is something which is being applied widely in mental health support work, and increasingly in dealing with physical illness as well. The mind is a powerful thing, and as you’ve discovered, the sort of approach you are taking, living each day as it comes, focusing on the small positive things around you, can have a powerful effect. And interestingly, all the things you are involved in – from singing, poetry and meditation to helping out in primary schools and allotment gardening – are also all things which people report as being inherently ‘spiritual’ in some sense. I think those are the sorts of things which connect us as individuals to something that is ‘bigger than us’, whether it is connections with other people or connections to a sense of wonder about the world. And those things keep us rooted in a sense of being able to carry on whatever the circumstances. It is that connection to others and the other, that relational consciousness, which seems to lie at the heart of people’s feelings of spirituality, whether or not (as your experience shows) they link that to any particular religious reference. Thank you for sharing and I wish you all the best.

      • Bob Auld says:

        Thank you for your perceptive reply. I have spent the day trying to analyse my practice. A large amount of it consists of structured daily routine which has underplayed but clear ritualistic elements. Meditating at the same time and in the same place. Going for a walk which takes in our allotment, doing the seasonal daily tasks there. Drawing a new flower or plant each morning, and then going out and doing a collective activity. The two that work best are telling stories in primary schools, and choral singing. They both require total concentration in the moment and both yield massive collective feedback. At the end of each day I have a review which has many of the characteristics of prayer. I recognise the help I have had, reflect on my continuing wonder at the world’s diversity, recognise that I am fortunate to still be contributing, and to be still receiving so much back in return. I simply express the hope that whatever tomorrow brings I may continue to find it all worthwhile. I do not consider myself to be particularly spiritual. I love music, and the hills, and wild places, but my influences are Ruskin, Clare and Burns rather than any religiosity. I find the company of those of faith congenial in the main, we appear to have a great deal more in common than I once thought, but I find religious doubt much more understandable than any degree of certainty.

        • Sara MacKian says:

          You may not consider yourself to be particularly spiritual, but to me your approach to life sounds very spiritual. But I think you are absolutely right to make a distinction between this sort of ‘spiritual’ practice which connects you with the moment and with others, and ‘religious’ practice which so many people think encompasses all spiritual practice – and it doesn’t! Only such a small part of it.

          Given your interest in writing, poetry and meditation, I wondered whether you had come across the idea of ‘small stones’? It’s something I started recently and it is a beautiful combination of mindfulness and writing. Here’s a link:

          • Bob Auld says:

            Thank you for the wonderful link. I will have a go.

            I am no great poet but the following pretty much sums up where I’m at. I wrote it in March 2012 for my wife Sally , on our 40th wedding anniversary.

            Stand tall, like a mountain.

            When first across the pond, one night, we saw
            From the slopes of a pear orchard at e’en
            A sight so vast, majestic, pure and raw,
            I thought I was in Tokyo, or heav’n.
            Mount Hood, in the distance, wreathed in snow.
            Think Fuji, and that wave by Hokusai.
            The sight entranced, the thought still makes me glow.
            We held there, ‘neath a dying western sky.
            Today, we try to stand like Mount Hood, strong,
            Rooted in earth, sublime. In rugged times,
            For forty years, we’ve trod this road so long.
            By peaks and valleys, in all kinds of climes.
            Grant us peace to stand tall, like the mountain,
            Now the waters ebb and drain my fountain.

            Your comments, blog and suggestions have been a concrete help in reassuring me that I am not some sort of self-indulgent crank but part of a considerable movement, part of it formally religious, part of it more broadly engaged,which is concerned with reconciling us to the reality which seems to be that consciousness and our bodies are indeed one and the same thing, and that our unique place in nature is transient but can be deeply felt . I of course don’t like being terminally ill, but I feel privileged to have had the last seven years where my horizons have contracted but my focus has become clearer. I read in today’s Guardian of a farewell tour by the Guitarist Wilco Johnston, who is dying of pancreatic cancer and has set out on one final round of gigs, free from mawkishness, just expressing what he does best. This seems to me the best possible thing to do in the circumstances. I wish you every success with your inquiries

          • Sara MacKian says:

            Thank you so much for sharing that Bob. Beautiful words. I also heard recently about Wilco Johnston’s farewell tour. I really admire what he is doing, as I admire your approach to living with your illness; and I think so much could be learnt about how we might create a better world collectively if more people approached life in such a way. As you said before, your situation has intensified your focus on recognising how fortunate we are to be able to contribute to the world, and how wonderous that world really is. It is that capacity to truly be in love with the world and our place in it which seems to be at the heart of a meaningful life, but, sadly, it is something which eludes most of us for most of our lives. I wish you all the best for the future, and thank you for inspiring me to keep going with this research.

  9. john says:

    how can people change their lives dramaticlywhen the world and nearly everyone or country is racing toward an evermore unsainable commerial world

    • Sara MacKian says:

      That’s a big question, John. And one that I’m certainly not qualified to answer! But what is interesting is that at this time where the world does indeed seem to be racing towards its own doom, more and more people are openly talking about trying to find an alternative that is more ‘spiritual’ in some sense. And I mean spiritual in terms of finding that meaningful link with others, rather than in any religious sense of the word.
      So individually we may be inconsequential and unable to ‘make a difference’ but collectively, if enough people wake up to the reality, we might steer humanity away from what at the moment feels like inevitable catastrophe..?

  10. Sharon says:

    Hi Sara,
    these subjects are coming to the fore now which I find wonderful.
    My MSc research looked at the effects of spiritual healing on people diagnosed with Fibromyalgia. I am a healer myself and have friends with Fibromyalgia, hence my interest.
    The main outcome was based around a raised self-esteem leading to increased social interaction. In general pain levels were experience as lower and more controllable which demoted the pain itself to a symptom rather than a life limiting factor.
    I look forward to hearing more of your work.
    with best wishes,

    • Sara MacKian says:

      Hi Sharon – thanks for your post. Your MSc research sounds really interesting and I’d love to hear more about it. I have done research on ME before and some of the people I spoke to were using Spiritual healing to cope with that, so I’d be really interested in hearing more about its use with Fibromyalgia.

      If you’re happy to, perhaps you could email me at the Open University and we could talk more?

    • amanda haywood says:

      how very interesting. i started reading this blog with a view to undertaking the o.u course but find the demands of study difficult when living with fibromyalgia. stress increases pain.if i can help at all with your study please feel free to contact me

  11. June Burgess says:

    Hi Sara,
    I have found that practising thankfulness works for me. I am a committed Christian and I try to talk to God regularly throughout every day, no matter what I’m doing or how busy I am. Being thankful for the little things and focusing on the positive has made a huge difference. For example, I was late going to work one morning and had to spend time scraping the ice off my car windows. I was getting even more stressed by the delay until I made a decision not to live like this. Instead I began to thank God that I have a car to scrape, I have the energy to do it, for the beauty of the ice patterns on the window and the sharp, clean air. As I continued, I found my attitude changed completely and I felt His joy awaken within me and I started to smile.

    I have found that being thankful can transform even the dullest of moments. For example, while washing the dishes – thanking Him for the rainbow of colours in the soap suds, the shine of light on the clean glasses, and that I have easy access to lots of hot water. It takes practice and effort to achieve an attitude of thankfulness, but the results are worthwhile.

    I recommend reading ‘One thousand gifts’ by Ann Voskamp.
    Thank you for your blog.

    • Sara MacKian says:

      Hello June – thank you for your comment, I will check out the book you recommend. Your story about scraping ice off the car windows reminds me of an example I use in my book about getting stuck in a traffic jam, and how different people choose to deal with that in different ways depending on where their focus lies and how they construct the world around them. I will write a blog post about it soon, so you might like to keep an eye out for that!

  12. Chris says:

    In September I was diagnosed with motor neuron disease, a terminal illness. After overcoming the initial shock I am coping, however there is no one who understands how you truly feel or with whom you can have an in depth discussion on what I think would be a spiritual level (what exactley is a spiritual approach?). I have joined a group that is doing mindfulness training and I do live from day to day without worrying too much, however I find there is a “brick wall” accross my mind behind which are contained thing I don`t want to face up to and this is the difficulty.
    Don`t know where this get me but that`s how I see it.

  13. Dear Sara

    I am a Belgian anthropologist and with a colleague of mine we are planning to organise a seminar on “enchantment” at the University of Liège. I have just discovered your work and we would be pleased to have you among us.
    If you are interested, please let me know asap. I will send you more details by mail.
    Best Regards
    Arnaud Halloy

  14. Tony Sandy says:

    Over the last couple of days I’ve had some dreams different from my normal ones (going to university or just lately being on a ‘journey’). The first harps back to a dream I had several years ago, in that once again I was confronted with the unknown. In this recent dream I was facing a cupboard, with black hand prints all over it. When I opened the door there was nothing inside it but I suddenly turned to the front door behind me and said to the invisible presence there, to get back where it belonged (in the cupboard): The first time this dream type occurred, I turned to face a door on my left, slowly creaking open, to reveal nothing and once more I woke up freaked out.

    Last night in the dream I was walking my dog along the shore, when i noticed these deep marks in the sand like feet had gone in and sunk a long way down, at which point I found myself getting sucked down and woke up when I was up to my neck. I dropped off to sleep again and this time dreamed I was with my wife and one of our dogs and we were walking down the middle of the road, when this construction vehicle, a dumper truck that carries ‘sand’ in a bucket at the front of the vehicle, nearly ran me down.

    Like Freud and Jung I believe dream symbolism is a message to the conscious mind, sent in visual metaphors, simply because the unconscious cannot communicate in any other way with its counterpart (sound goes with action in the physical world and sight with thought, in subjective reality in my opinion). I have evidence that such dreams are symbolic in that I’ve often woke up at night, needing to urinate badly, and it always includes dreams about large bodies of water that I’m drowning in (the sea principally) or the landscape is suffering from flooding.

    During the days preceding this I was light headed , like a puppet on a string and was finding it hard to swallow, so I was wondering if this was my body sending me an obscure semaphore message to say I was ill (I injured myself a few weeks ago and I’m getting some strange electrical reactions in the area of the injury that makes me think a visit to the doctor might not be a bad idea) or that my relationship with my wife was in trouble (it was) or that this was a presentiment that we were going to move (we’re thinking of going back to where we came from)? As an update I now remember that I was on my back when I suddenly woke and this has happened before without the dream – could it be sleep apnoea?

    I’m also wondering if this could be related to spiritualism and the vague messages given to people, and hypochondria as again some vague unconscious stimulus trying to tell us something but because it is only coming through as symbolism, we cannot put our finger on what it is trying to tell us exactly?

    • Sara MacKian says:

      Hi Tony – thanks for stopping by 🙂

      Very deep questions. I agree totally with you that there is a lot going on in the subconscious which we’ve lost the ability to tap into or fully understand. I think that the more people explore this side of being human – like Jung did – the more we will rediscover about it. I say rediscover, because I’m sure this is something we were more attuned to before the world became so full of constant external stimuli which we have come to reply on.

      And yes, sounds like a visit to the doctor for your injury might be a good idea!

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