Essays Opinion

Humour, Dancing and Dying

Humour is the only test of gravity, and gravity the only test of humour. For a subject which will not bear raillery is suspicious; and a jest which will not bear a serious examination is certainly false wit.’ Leontinus

For a brief time ago our lives contained some serious absurdities. Personal growth boom of the 1980’s and early 90’s dragged some of us from badly lit consulting rooms into nude marathon encounter groups and a whole host of other diverting forms of therapy by the sunny sides of swimming pools. We were living in the damp towns. They were part orgy (though we never saw much of that) and part journey into inner space. Even those fleeting adventures ware laced with old-fashioned, inverted Puritanism. Any incidental enjoyment was drowned in a compulsion to be spontaneous and insightful, “come on. Be more spontaneous!” Nowadays, regretfully, we have sunk into a quagmire of self-importance, verging on pomposity.

I much prefer gallows humour, once so common in mental hospitals and other grim institutions. It has an intense vigour. Many years ago I talked with a young social work student at the time at St Luke’s Hospital, in Huddersfield West Yorkshire. She complained about various hospital professionals, including me. “You don’t take the work seriously. You don’t recognise their pain and suffering. I asked her to explain. “You are always laughing and making jokes”. I pointed out the distinction earnest and serious but it was a waste of time. Despite her accusations, we took the work very seriously but we also knew we were living close to farce. She was involved in a sprint and ours was a marathon. The humour recognised the impossibility of our work. Daily we face profound human suffering and neglect in a place that was doing enormous damage to people – not just the patients but also the staff.

I’d like to see the late Ruth Picardie go ten rounds with my earnest student.

‘A few people, I think reckon that cripples can help them to get to heaven, including, my born-again former school teach who this week sent me a book of true-life stories of Christians who have experienced tragedy of one sort or another… all of them have found hope in their suffering through knowing God, who suffered first. In an accompanying letter, she urged me to allow the peace of God into my heart at this difficult time. To her, I say, sorry Miss, but I was the one who carved ‘666’ on the desks, I’m still half-Jewish (sadly the wrong half) and no death-bed conversion looms, despite the scary grim reaper ad.’  Picardie 1994

One major discovery after twenty years was that client’s ability to get into trouble always exceeds the facility of professionals to rescue them. Of course they’re really supposed to rescue themselves, as in the story of the two Rogerian therapists. The two wise men were standing by a large pond discussing the finer points on non-intervention. They observed in the distance a woman struggling in deep water. She seemed to be in trouble and there was fierce struggle, her arms waving for a few moments until all was silent in the mixture of water and weed. After several moments of contemplation one therapist commented: “What a shame she didn’t cry out for help”. 

Some jokes reveal a serious side to our human nature. Chogyam Trungpa, a late great Tibetan lama, writes directly about seeing through the great joke:

‘So a sense of humour is not merely a matter of trying to tell jokes or make puns, trying to be funny in a deliberate fashion. It involves seeing the basic irony to the juxtaposition of extremes, so that one is not caught taking them seriously, so that one does take seriously their game of hope and fear. This is why the experience of the spiritual path is so significant, why the practice of meditation is the most insignificant experience of all. It is insignificant because you place no value judgement on it. Once you are absorbed into the insignificant situation of openness without involvement in value judgement, then you begin to see all the games going on around you. Someone is trying to be stern and spiritually solemn, trying to be a good person. Such a person might take it seriously if someone offended him, might want to fight. If you work in accordance with the basic insignificance of what is, then you begin to see the humour in this kind of solemnity, in people making such a big deal about things ‘. Trungpa 1969

Trungpa points to the essential pomposity and absurdity of our professions. Every profession has a vibrant version of the policeman’s imagined thin blue line. I never visited or worked with any organisations for the mentally ill, learning disabled or homeless that didn’t believe it tool in and cared for people ‘nobody else would touch’. Most of us have to believe in our singular importance; that we stand as warriors, the last line of defence against the overwhelming forces.

Some of us earn a reasonable living by charging distressed people folding money for simply talking to us. We mostly listen and they mostly talk about loneliness, despair, having little intimacy, not being understood by ‘significant’ others. Our heads nod gently and mouths go “hmmm” and “hmmm”. I’ll never forget one of my early experiences in counselling, the counsellor nodded off during one session. I went on babbling on regardless. I can laugh about it now…

Several years later in the Manjushri Buddhist centre in the Lake District I was doing a long period of silence. I sat in their beautiful grounds with card round my neck: ‘Lee is doing a period of silence’. Several people I’d previously counselled came to talk. It was relaxing just to listen and not to think of something wise to say. One told me afterwards, in a rather back-handed compliment, that it was the best session she’d ever had.

We’re all pioneers  of a sort – rough frontiersman and women. The so-called helping professions are at the beginning of an exciting journey, that attempts to explore and enlarge human awareness and establish new disciplines echoing some of the experiences of the sixteenth-century physics – the age of Alchemy. Like then we are attempting to transform base metals into gold. There is that sense of arrant nonsense and profound wisdom jostling side by side – often very difficult to tell which is which.

Mostly though the picture is of isolated and earnest therapists and other helpers, silently inventing overcomplicated theories, facing distressed clients and both agonising eternally. It is rather more like chess than dance. Vicarious suffering meets individual pain – the fixed grimace rather than the spontaneous smile. The mouth may smile but the eyes rarely. Professional, some of whom had a traumatic time in training, like I did, with a sodding miserable Western European teacher, seek unconsciously to wreak some kind of vengeance in turn on their own students. And so the negative Karma continues.     

I suspect that Psychotherapist are rarely writers, poets or musicians, with the ability to capture the butterfly wing quality of dynamic encounters with people, My experience in meeting with distressed people owes more to the Marx Brothers than to Karl Marx, or Sigmund Freud for that matter. I suspect that therapy sessions with large helpings of frothy bubbles and joy are considerably more typical than the po-faced and respectably accounts common in books. Of course there is considerable suffering but many sessions are punctuated with jokes and laughter. At least I would hope.

Some years ago I visited a bright young lady at her home. She had a learning disability, was cancer-riddles, had about two weeks to live and was just about to enter the local hospice. Her mother, a devout Roman Catholic, was painfully angry. She was especially furious that her daughter has summoned for me to be with her in the final days. I was adding to the already immense problems. The atmosphere was deeply fraught.

Lying quietly upstairs in her bedroom, the daughter asked weakly, ‘I would really like to learn to relax. Can you teach me? I replied smiling “Aren’t you cutting it a bit fine?” The acute tension was suddenly released. We both collapsed and laughed and took several minutes to recover. She was the best student (and teacher) I ever had. Her concentration was completely undivided and she died peacefully a few days later.

Humour and laughter aren’t chocolate and whipped cream in therapy but the genuine bread and butter, milk and apples. They aren’t optional luxuries only to be indulged in several hours later of bawling your eyes out. Laughter doesn’t have to be painfully earned.  It comes free. It comes bubbling up like a warm spring. Humour is the core. It’s the yeast that gives life to important processes by which we expand our awareness of ten thousand different realities.  – all inconsistent with one another, but it doesn’t matter.   Through humour, we toss life in the air lightly like a pancake and flip it un-neatly over, eventually becoming the pancake ourselves.

Humour can help free us from many fixed illusions. It shakes our attachment to the ego. We don’t know whether we are Chou or the butterfly, or even if it matters.

Once I dreamt that I was a butterfly, fluttering here and there; in all ways a butterfly. I enjoyed my freedom as a butterfly, not knowing that I was Chou. Suddenly I awoke and was surprised to be myself again. Now, how can I tell whether I am a man who dreamt that he was a butterfly, or whether I am a butterfly who dreams that he is a man?

I believe there is no answer for that, but in any case we must remember that the ‘Toa Te Ching’ of Lao-tzu (who almost certainly never existed) and the utterances of Chuang Tzu are not to be taken too seriously for the sake of you spiritual health. You can hear these ancient Chinese masters laughing on almost every line. Watts puts it uncharacteristically soberly: ‘It must be understood, in passing, that both Lao-tzu and Chuang Tzu enjoy the humour or overstating their case – the latter sometimes choosing truly preposterous examples to illustrate the point.’

Humour provides an immensely earthy challenge to established realities and psychological concepts. Somehow, in the same moment we can be both in the clouds and standing firmly on the earth. Life is never as we imagined or expect it to be. In a single moment we are surrounded by immense high stone walls topped by electrified barbed wire of human suffering. There seems no escape possible, only dreary life imprisonment. In the same moment the walls and wires fall down in a large pile of rubble, turning into a giant duck, topped by a face that looks exactly like our own.

A good friend came to see me the other day. She is a painfully thin woman with Anorexia Nervosa, highly anxious and her appearance was accompanied by an agitated gait or shuffled from years anti-psychotic medications. She said nothing for a long moment between us. “You seem quiet?” I said. Then as if out of nowhere she said  “Apparently the Sioux (Native Americans) when under stress because of the declining buffalo herds, become collectively and electively mute during the last Century.”

I wasn’t prepared for this and didn’t know how to use this genuine nugget of information. I think it sat with me like a small confused piece of jigsaw in a great puzzle that was beyond us both.  My immediate response was a considerable mixture of helplessness and love. I looked a genuine fool with an impressive array of felt-pens of various colours and several large notepads, like a timekeeper at the Olympics, much too late for the race. I asked her to draw picture of this and she took the pens from me and began to draw the most amazing array of sketches depicting ancient herding buffalos. Then she stopped and waited silently, sitting sideways to avoid my gaze.

 “Have you talked to someone about this before, your muteness?” I asked her. She replied slowly but in a clear voice “No, nobody wanted to listen”, her slow and scratchy voice ran round and round my empty head. I just wanted to give her a hug. Instead I said nothing, my detailed and intimate knowledge of the Sioux was rendered useless at a stroke. As I looked at these drawings I was flooded in an overwhelming feeling of humility. Great! She’s cracked it. She’s identified herself with the Sioux Indian’s because they lost their voice when they lost their herd. She’s drawn them back into existence, in her own vision and in doing so, found a voice. We talked and laughed together from that point onwards.

The thing is that in the west Psychotherapeutic ideologies they discourage dancing barefoot in the long wet grass. How can you dance with the term ‘ongoing Dyadic relationships’. This language doesn’t smell right. This and other terms like ‘cathartic’ and ‘transference’ are the purgatives elixirs of human growth. The taste is so dreadful it must be doing us some good. There the language used is classy nonsense. The language is of the supermarket. Mearns and Thorne use such phrases such as “to open myself to myself” and “to trust the feeling of inter-relatedness” , the use of crude tools applied to the ‘client’  and “my spiritual experience is to ‘capitalised’ on, all sounds unlike the music of spirituality but of inflating egos.

Nothing in genuine spirituality prepares the students for hammers and spanners. Are we running away from our own shadows because we can’t think of anything else? Or is it just fear? Surely we realise this strategy can’t succeed. Are we simply searching over in the light because we’re told to do so and it’s where everyone else is looking? “I know it’s over there because that’s where everyone is.” Are we afraid to stick out in the crowd, to take up unpopular causes? Are we condemned eternally to search uselessly amongst crowds, rather than where the key, or Buffalo, was lost in the certain knowledge we’ll never find it?  

Growth can take place can take place anywhere and everywhere depending on our attitude and skills, and yet we still associate growth with pain. Somehow we’ve learnt to trust suffering with meaning and mistrust both laughter and joy. If someone is crying in deep sorrow, they are obviously facing harsh realities, because they are having a bad time. Must realities be so harsh? If we are relaxing, laughing enjoying ourselves, we are obviously escaping something deep and painful. But why? If laughter can be an escape from difficult and unpleasant realities, then so can crying and pain. Are misery and mania so different? I see more people running away from in tears than running away in laughter. What prevents jokes and joy from being a floral gateway into new perceptions and less that tears and pain?

When we lose sight of the far horizon, we can also lose our sense of humour, or proportion of things. We lose our ability to roll over and over, seeing the world and ourselves from many different and disturbing angles. We can no longer see the cosmic joke. The joyous mystery had fled and only oceans of self-pity remain. The sparkle and lightness have disappeared. We take ourselves all too seriously, too earnestly, much of the time.

I recall distinctively my own years of depression where every morning seemed grey, even when the sun shone brightly. I found it difficult to appreciate anything or anybody – the flowers in the garden, the taste of an orange, the love and nourishment of a partner. For me every slight movement was an effort. I nearly drown in misery. I couldn’t make any sense of how or why other people found ordinary life so enjoyable. What did they find to enjoy? I’d ask myself. I was envious, puzzled and often furious. I couldn’t begin to see the wonderful and changing world as they saw it and felt it to be. Instead I was full of enormous rage about life. Life has failed to deliver what I’d expected. I had, without intention, built a grim prison inside myself. 

Without humour, ordinary humour, our mind loses capacity to move in a thousand different directions, to laugh at its own weakness and stupidities. We call that process negative and destructive self talk or thought patterned – becoming depressed. We are pressed down in a hundred different ways. One major indication that oppression lies in dragging ourselves heavily through life, hardly able to hold the mind together form one moment to the next. Getting through each day requires supreme effort.  Yesterday, last week or month or year, we walked the high tightrope of ordinary life without even realising the difficulties. We didn’t give it a second thought and could fall to the ground at any moment.

Humour invokes that gossamer subtly of shifting through different realities without making judgement of what is more or less real. Shakespeare said: ‘There is nothing either good or bad but thinking makes it so.’ The tufts of that flexibility of mind float lightly on the breeze. Weighed down with self-conscious, heavy fears and ideas, we cannot fly at all. We are blinkered with only the most restricted view, though a commonly held one.  Our minds become chronically conditioned. Suddenly, through a flash of humour, the world can turn on its axis and we see everything from a startling new and wider angle. What we’d thought was everything is now only a tiny splinter of the expanding universe.  

Trungpa again links this suffocating process with ‘Big Me’ – ‘having to be good, having to behave myself’. This kind of moral straitjacket is a black parrot that sits on my shoulder screening out my failings and shortfalls. At all cost I have to ‘do it right’, whatever that might mean. The spiritual pathway can easily be a souped up exercise in ‘doing it right’ to the power of ten, not a genuine search for truth but a hollow acting and posturing. Humour sees directly beyond that crude duality, observing both situational poles as they really are.

I wonder if most of us can identify with the great struggle with the ‘Big Me’. Maybe we have become firmly attached to particular image of ourselves, so we sell people attractively packaged icons – reflecting how we wish to be seen, cunningly concealing the inconsistencies and brutalities. There is a sophisticated social game in which the talker and the listen collude. ‘I’m not like that. I’m really like this…. I’m not untidy; I’m really tidy and neat. I’m not aggressive…’

When we misconstrue the mask as ourselves we become deluded as to who are. Until we learn to slip out of that carefully packaged identity. We learn to comment internally: ‘That wasn’t really me, I don’t know what came over me…’ But sadly a lot of people go on to painful lengths to develop more elaborate mirages, to deceive people rather than simply be as we are, whatever type of chaos that might mean. In playing these social games over many years, we can acquire lots of adoration, lots of friends and yet we lose intimacy with ourselves.  We begin to believe in our own press releases, but no matter how chic we try to appear to world we have still yet to gain intimacy real with ourselves.   

Oh for the joy of throwing over the social straitjackets and begin dancing barefoot in the wet.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Zen teacher, wrote:

Life is filled with suffering, but it is also filled with many wonders, like the blue sky, the sunshine, the eyes of a baby. To suffer is not enough. We must also in touch with the wonders of life. They are within and all around us, everywhere, anytime. (Hanh 1982)

Pleasure and pain come equally to us. One day it rains; the next day it shines. We have to avoid getting hooked on rain (or pain), sun or pleasure. Whatever comes can be equal to us, is important for our life-long learning. To become a part of the planet’s wonders, both inside and out, we need to learn to dance and play like little children. ‘Ring – a- ring a roses, we all fall down.’ We need to recognise our fragility, to value our inconsistencies, to live daily with our mysteries. We learn to wheel and whirl, everything from the foxtrot to rock and roll to the cha cha, but particularly to relearn the dance from our birth. That means really hearing the natural music – the Nada – of our life and moving in harmony with. Our bodies sway subtly like leaves in the autumn wind – spiritual Fred Astaires and Ginger Rogers, wheeling and whirling away into nothing.

So many people who came through my door for assistance of one kind or another, had never learn to play. They didn’t know how o magic a vast and ever-changing universe from a few wooden bricks and a tin of soup bubbles, or to conjure up a rail network  from a row of old shoe boxes. They didn’t know how to move in subtle circles or hold hands in fairy rings, or receive a foot massage, or spend days to fantasy rabbits. They only knew how to be responsible, how to make money, how to sit on committee; most of all, how to be what others thought they ought to be. Perhaps they’d dream as small children flying kites over the Andes, but now they were qualified accountants, social workers or estate agents, and suppose to behave themselves.

Real and creative playing is essential for spiritual growth; in fun, throwing ourselves into the flow of life; of flexibility in thought and movement. We can forget ourselves completely in the absorption of the moment. We learn to move in a myriad of way and simply create, For many even leisure has become just another way of achieving yet more, of destroying ourselves. I talked recently to a businessman whose golf game had become as stressful as his work. He worried about his swing and lowering his handicap. He strove tensely to become more competitive, then took regular lessons to become less and less tense because it ruined his swing. Far from being a way of relaxing, he has made the game yet another handicap.

The unexpected worries and disturbs our ego. Why? Maybe because our egos like to be the fount of all wisdom, a know-it-all like the Delphic oracle. It manufactures its own distinctive version of the world – a virtual reality.  It likes to know what is coming next. We haven’t grasped or understood what the Chinese Mandarin means in the film The Inn of the Sixth Happiness:  ‘A planned life can be endured, but no lived’.

There can even be playing, or dancing, in our dying. We must die – all creatures do, but this relationship with ourselves in the same. Dancing in living and dancing in dying. At the moment of death we can dance the whole of nature, to forget who we are. What stops us from dancing is fear – fear from the unknown, we might fear looking stupid, fear of trivial secrets, fear of pain, fear of losing contact with other who meant  so much to us. Saying goodbye? But who or what is dying? What else is there left to do – to dance and then to die?

We return and conclude with Trungpa who recalls a wonderful story:

There is a story of a person who died laughing. He was a simple man village person who asked a teacher the colour of Amitabha (Buddha of Compassion) that traditionally in iconographical terms, is red. Somehow, by mistake, the thought the teacher had said the Amitabha’s colour was the colour of ash is a fire. And this influenced his whole lifelong meditation practice; because when he practised visualising Amitabha, it was a grey Amitabha. Finally he lay dying and wanted to be completely sure, so he asked another teacher the colour of Amitabha. The teacher said that Amitabha colour was red and the man suddenly burst into laughter: ‘Well, I used to think him the colour ash, and now you tell me he is red’. He burst into laughter and died laughing. Trungpa 1987

What an absolutely marvellous way to die! Most of his earthly life spent meditating on totally the wrong colour of Amitabha. It turned out to be red rather than the colour of ash. If he ever reached Nirvana, would he ever be forgiven for his inaccurate iconography? Could Amitabha got over the affront to his colour? So what the hell! Fortunately he realised at the very moment of death the ultimate absurdity of it all. From ash colour to ashes. Or as Blyth once observed: ‘All beauty, all music, all religions, all poetry is a dance of the mind. Without this dancing of the spirit there is no true Zen.’


Blyth, R.H. (1960) Zen in English Literature London. Dutton.

Chuan-Yaun, Chang (1975) Creativity and Taoism. New York. Wildwood House

Hanh Thich, Nhat (1982) Peing Peace London. Rider.

Picardie, R (1998) Before I Say Goodbye. London. Penguin

Trungpa, Choygam (1969) Meditation in Action. London. Stuart and Watkins.

Trungpa, Choygam (1987) Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism Boston. Shambala.

Dedicated to Janet, a survivor of the Cambridge mental health system and to Serife a wonderful dancer in life who came to death with a couragous and open spirit, for whose kindness and patience I am indebted.


More Than A Curious Incident

Anyone who has a disability, like those without disabilities, can experience psychological, physical, and spiritual suffering; struggling against often—overwhelming barriers; battling for some order in our ordinary everyday lives; fear of chaos. However the disabled can also face immense obstacles of discrimination, be victimised and abused by others; being patronised, treated like a small child.

The National Theatre production of Mark Haddon’s novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time gives lucid insight into this. The play adapted by Simon Stephens is an outstandingly sad and uplifting adaptation about a family breakdown narrated by a 15-year-old boy called Christopher who loves dogs, lists, numbers and accuracy and hates the colours yellow and brown, and being touched, and who had what was commonly assumed to be Asperger’s. Christopher’s journey is an all-too-human account of failed relationships, confusion, anxiety, pain and finally hope. Like Christopher I meet many people with disabilities who are struggling to make sense of pain; to try to reduce and minimise the suffering; to follow back to primary causes; to see the learning in it. At the same time trying to reach for joy and love; for some harmony with the universe; to avoid becoming split off and alienated.

Pain as a term appears so rarely in literature that it indicates some sort of basic denial by the professionals. From my own experience pain involves feelings of disease; a sense of impermanence; feelings about getting older and losing capacities, especially memory, dying and death, colds and influenza; coughs to rigor mortis; general discomfort, toothache, lumbago and rheumatism, depression, despair, loneliness, confusion and being ‘lost’. . . . Feelings of being isolated and cut off; of becoming a non-person echoing states of fear and anxiety; friends and relatives getting ill and dying.

The poet Clare, through years of pain and alienation, wrote:

‘Into the nothingness of scorn and noise,
Into the living sea of waking dreams,
Where there is neither sense of life or joys,
But the vast shipwreck of my life ’s esteems;
And e’en the dearest— that I love the best —
Are strange — nay, rather stranger than the rest.

(John Clare ‘Selected Poems’ Everyman 1965 p297)

And Shakespeare wrote of a similar experience.

‘ . . . Horatio, what a wounded name,
Things standing thus unknown, shall live behind me.
If thou didst ever hold me in thy heart,
Absent thee from felicity awhile,
And in this harsh world draw thy breath in pain,
To tell my story.’
(Shakespeare ‘Hamlet’ v, ii 358)

Habitually we put ourselves in the way of pain; even in concrete ways like smoking or drinking to excess. These ways frequently take us ‘out of control’. We like to flirt with danger by increasing the risk of injury to ourselves; we can feel, that sometimes in the way we drive a car. Our psychology colleagues talk of sado—masochistic elements in personality. We can ‘enjoy’ a kind of suffering; just watch a suffering jogger on the road pursuing health, running through the pain barrier: the popular ‘no pain no gain” philosophy.

So much of what we do is damaging. We are continually losing contact with our essential nature in steering too close to pain. The concept of ‘internal saboteur’ is useful. We can easily become our own ‘worst enemies’. For some, the regular experiencing of pain is one of the very few ways in which to be reassured of our very existence. Much of helping involves facing the suffering and hypocrisy so prevalent in our society. This can be overwhelming, especially if we have very little emotional support.

I talked once with staff at a South East London training centre who couldn’t accept the grief of Sam, a man with learning difficulties. They couldn’t empathise with his loss of both his father and mother within six months. He’d had to move from his home into a local authority hostel. One year after, staff felt either that he should be through the pain by now or that ‘People with Down’s Syndrome don’t’ grieve’. Sam struggled not only with the loss of the two people who lit the most to him as well as his comfortable home, but also with the ritual rejection from the support workers, who were constantly trying to cheer him up, get him out of the sulks’.

An inability to recognise the person’s grief will make them lonely at the very time that they need other people and love and friendship. They not only need their grief recognised, they also need permission to grieve, especially if they live in a large institution where so many of the activities that take place are a sort of whipped—up happiness. It would seem that a flight into jollity is often used as a means of stifling grief by staff who do not know how to help bereaved people.

The effects of illness and physical pain can also be missed or misinterpreted. I met Darren, a young 23 year old man who became angry and threw some crockery against the kitchen wall. He was sent to his room by his family and carers. His anger and distress continued and support workers eventually called the psychologist. Psychologist concluded his outburst we attention seeking. Darren’s behaviour however had a physical cause, nothing to do with his disability, or attentional needs. Later on that week Darren was admitted to hospital for treatment for an cancer of the stomach. Darren later returned home distressed unable to cope with being in hospital. He died two weeks later with the full support of his family and carers.

Intense suffering can drive us inwards and cut us off from those who love us. They are or seem estranged. This asks questions about whether the pain of different individuals is sensitively accepted and recognised. We can learn something by asking:

What is the nature of suffering for any of us?
What help is given to understand that?
How is growth encouraged from ordinary pain to joy?
What healing can there be with dying and death?
What is the role of beauty and joy?

How far are the support and services a source of pain?
In what ways do the services assist in this creative process or are part of the problem?
Do they provide an atmosphere of ‘realistic optimism’?
Are the staff spiritually aware and sensitive about what it means to be human both for themselves and for those
whom they are supporting?
Is suffering seen in fundamentally human ways, recognising our commonality, compassion, rather than wrapped up in professionalised jargon and ideologies?

Much of the suffering by people with impairments is unnecessary. The flight from pain often turns into a flight towards it. The Disability model holds that serious illness and physical or intellectual impairment exists but only become disabling because of the rejecting and oppressive response to such impairments by the non—disabled world. But pain and suffering can also come close to humour. Bauby writes after his massive stroke: ‘Whereupon a strange euphoria came over me. Not only was I exiled, paralysed, mute, half dead, deprived of all pleasures and reduced to a jelly—fish existence, but I was also horrible to behold. There comes a time when the heaping—up of calamities brings on uncontrollable nervous laughter — when, after a final buffet from fate, we decide to treat it all as a joke.’ (Bauby 1997)

Pain and suffering is a crucial part of nearly everyone’s story. Tendency to run away from or ignore the suffering and pain — both our own and others; to avoid and escape; drowning in drink, drugs and rock ‘n roll, are endless. Other people’s fears are much like our own. We can learn to look at people as if through a glass screen. Much personal growth and love is needed to work in more—involved, creative, and constructive ways. Most frequently we are asked to be advocates and witnesses. And Haddon expresses this too. The novel and play gives insight as to what we need to understand something of the lives of others. Empathy. Imagine trying to understand either Hamlet or Lear without empathising and knowing that they are both driven men, tortured by pain, how can we know what is happening to them. It would be entirely laughable.


Mustard Seeds

There is a old story in Buddhism, usually referred to as the Mustard Seed story. A mother who has just lost her child hears that the Buddha is in town; she goes to him, weeping and begging him to use his supernatural powers to revive the child. The Buddha consents to this request provided she would fulfil a task. The task given to her is to go to the village, knock on each door, and get a mustard seed from any house where there has never been a death. The mother goes around and after some time comes back to the Buddha, having realized that death is inevitable and that there is no one who is not affected by death: Everybody has to die. What the Buddha indirectly taught her by this exercise was the First Noble Truth in Buddhism, known as Dukkha, often translated into English as “suffering”: Existence in this realm, in this form and with our sensory organs, is unsatisfactory in its essence. Life is full of anxiety and uncertainty. We are born, we grow, we get sick, and we die. We have to be with those whom we do not like, and sometimes we have to be away from those whom we like.

Even when we have health and wealth, we seem to be unhappy. This existence is described in the Diamond Sutra (1969):
Thus shall you think of all this fleeting world,
A star at dawn, a bubble in the stream,
A flash of lightning in a summer cloud,
A flickering lamp, a phantom, and a dream. (sect. 32, p. 74)

In the story of the mustard seed, there is a (relatively) happy ending. It is not that the Buddha cold-heartedly taught the mother about the inevitability of death but that through this process of enquiring and searching the mother came to an understanding of death. If the story had ended there, it would have only pointed to a part of the truth—namely, the inevitability of death. But what about the other parts—for example, on how to cope with death (and other miseries in life)? It is here that we can see the importance of Sangha, a spiritual community of like-minded people. The grieving mother joins the Monastic Order and with support from them and efforts on her part eventually achieves enlightenment.

Perhaps, one of the reasons why we avoid talking about death or tremble at the idea of facing death is that we can see our own end; we can see our own loneliness. We may study about death in books, and we may think that we are prepared, but when a loved one dies, there is nothing more helpful than having a few caring friends and family members around us, not so much lecturing us about life and death, or what happens after death, but simply being there and sharing the pain with us.


To study death, we must study life; to be more accurate, we must study living. The Dalai Lama (1997) says, “One of the principal factors that will help us to remain calm and undisturbed at the time of death is the way we have lived our lives. The more we have made our lives meaningful, the less we will regret at the time of death. The way we feel when we come to die is thus very much dependent on the way we have lived”. (p. 26)

Religions tries to provide a basic framework whereby questions related to the origin of life, the meaning of life, life after death, and so on, can be studied. Similar frameworks have also been provided by philosophy and science, even though there are those who say that science cannot deal with questions related to meaning. Organized religions through their dogmatic view and stance on what constitutes a (meaningful) life and how one should prepare for death and afterlife sometimes have closed the gates to fundamental enquiries.

How does one begin an enquiry and how does the genuine curiosity of a child change to cynicism or to the all-knowing arrogance of an adult? One can say that a child has a “beginner’s mind,” that is, a mind prior to conceptualization, discrimination, and judgmentalization and prior to thinking and comparing; in short, a child’s mind is the closest to the “no- mind” of Zen (Kapleau, 1979, 1980): a mind, empty yet full of potentiality and creativity, a mind full of awe and wonder. However, over the years, whether in school, a family, or society, the beginner’s mind is transformed into an expert’s mind, where there is little room for awe and wonder, the essential ingredients of and prerequisites to Wisdom.

In the Buddhist Scripture (Majjhima Nikaya, 1995, Sutras 63 and 72) there are basic questions that the Buddha refused to answer (Dhammananda, 1987, p. 34):

Is the universe eternal?
Is it not eternal?
Is the universe finite?
Is it infinite?
Is the soul the same as the body?
Is the soul one thing and the body another?
Does the Tathagata (a perfectly enlightened being) exist after death?
Does He not exist after death?
Does He both (at the same time) exist and not exist after death?
Does He both (at the same time) neither exist nor not exist?

John Hick in his book Disputed Questions (1993) proposes that, in general, there are two different kinds of questions that need to be considered: the unanswered versus the unanswerable: The difference, then, between the two kinds of avyakata [the undetermined questions is this. The unanswered questions are legitimate questions to which there are presumably true answers, but to which we do not in fact know the answers. It is not excluded, in logic, that human beings might someday come to know the truth of these matters. But it would still be the case that salvation/ liberation does not depend upon such knowledge and that the search for it is not conducive to salvation/ liberation. In distinction from these, the unanswerable questions are about realities transcending the systems of categories available in our human thought and language.

It seems appropriate to refer to the subject matter of these unanswerable questions as mysteries, matters that are beyond human comprehension and expression. But once again we do not, according to the Buddha, need to be able to penetrate these mysteries in order to attain liberation; and to feel that we must hold a dogmatic view concerning them is ultimately counterproductive.

The following (fundamental) questions appear in the various religious and philosophical traditions: (1) Who am I? (2) What is the meaning of life? (3) What should I do or not do? (4) How do I know, or how can I find the truth? (5) How do I know what I think I know? (6) How was the universe (or I) created? (7) What happens after I die? (8) Is there a God? (9) Why is there so much suffering in the world? Perhaps, a question to add to this list is “How would I (like to) die?”—with a possible follow-up: “What would I be thinking (or saying) at the last moments of my life?”

Dennis was a man of about sixty who had cancer of the liver, and when I last visited him after he returned from the hospital, he appeared rather healthy in spite of the fact that he was expected to die within a few months. He knew he was approaching death, and I found I could offer him no words of consolation. When we shook hands he said to me, “I am ready to go.” He survived long beyond the time expected by the doctors and his family, and during these last months he went many places and really seemed to enjoy his life.
Throughout these last months his life centred around the preparation for his death; he very carefully kept his personal belongings in order, bought a cemetery plot, made a will, and even washed the bowls from which he ate after every meal, thus indicating that he was quite ready to “leave” at every moment of his life. Nevertheless, according to his wife, from time to time he uttered the question, “Where am I going?”

I have a definite feeling that my good friend knew that his question could only be answered by “going,” or by experiencing death. He was driven to find the answer to his question by preparing to “leave” every moment, by living with his entire being from moment to moment. Dennis’ words “Where am I going” were not uttered out of anguish or desperation. His careful preparations and calm acceptance of his fate were very possibly the reasons why he lived much longer than was expected.

Interestingly, as mentioned in one of the sacred epics of India, the Mahabharata: Of all the world’s wonders, which is the most wonderful? That no man, though he sees others dying all around him, believes that he himself will die.

The mystery of life and death has been one of the primary motives for humanity’s search for the meaning of life. This perhaps has most aptly been provided in the spiritual traditions of the world, especially in the Wisdom Traditions. Religions at their best guide, provide meaning, inspire, and question. It is the spiritual aspects of the religions that we are concerned with here; these are often known as the Inner Ways, or the esoteric, mystical, contemplative paths of the religions.

McGrath (2003) stated that “one of the assumptions that underpins the literature is the belief that facing a life threatening illness is a life crisis that intensifies the individual’s search for meaning” (p. 882). In fact, this along with death of loved ones are perhaps two of the most common reasons why people have turned to religions, and continue to do so, not only for comfort but also for finding the answer(s) to this enquiry. For me spirituality is the search for a sense of meaning and purpose in life implicitly imbued all aspects of lives. One can learn much from a near-death experience not only of oneself but also of others. Death also makes us face certain “unpleasant” situations in life, although most of us may prefer the “postponed living”. Studies have shown that physically healthy individuals with a well-balanced spiritual life also have better psychological health, while other studies have confirmed that a patient’s spiritual beliefs have a significant impact on their health.

When working for the London Buddhist Hospice I was made aware importance of meditation in the dying process. Meditation is an ancient transpersonal method for bringing about ‘peaceful heart and clear mind,’ even with individuals who have never meditated before. The notion or belief in afterlife, even with a certain degree of uncertainty, sometimes referred to as “uncertainty comfort,” has been shown to be comforting not only for survivors but also for some hospice patients.

Connelly (2003) found the art of dying consists in having cultivated throughout life a sense of acceptance and the will, the intuition, and the prudence necessary to know when to dully commit to this duty at the end of life. One of the important conclusions of the study was that the awareness of and facing one’s finiteness can promote personal growth in the second half of life. These studies are pointing to the importance of having a spiritual outlook in life and towards death.


There are many ways in which one can study death. One can actually die and see it for oneself (conscious dying); one can see what happens when someone else dies (this might be an emotional encounter, especially if that person is a dear one); one can read about the death accounts of different people; one can consider death as another stage in life; one can look at death as the end of life; one can think of death as a release from this prison like life. However we look at this issue, the existential point remains: Until a few minutes ago, there was a being here, in a body, and now the body is here, but something is not there. We may not know what death is, or we may not be able to define it exactly, but we certainly know when life is no more. This sort of experience is a “hmmm” experience. If there is a moment of realization or an insight into this mysterious process, then it is an “ahhh” experience. If a genuine transformation of heart or mind has occurred, the attachment to the body is dropped.

As Dorothy Sayers (1987) puts it,
The only two things we can do with death are, first: to postpone it, which is only partial solution, and, secondly, to transfer the whole set of values connected with death to another sphere of action—that is, from time to eternity. (p. 197)

Death is a mystery, and there is very little that a comparative religious study can reveal about it that the actual existential experience of dying cannot teach us. The difficulty is that this experience is often shielded from most of us. Examining death leads to examining life. The question of meaning—meaning of life and death—is one that has been considered and discussed in the world’s religions. This question, however, is by no means limited to the domain of religions; it also belongs to philosophy and psychology. It can be said that this question goes to the core of our humanness. When one listens to a dying person, or reads the accounts of terminally ill people, it is clear that, as death nears, the perennial idea that grips the imagination is the idea of meaning or value.

Many people consider the process of dying as the Ultimate Journey, with death as its destination. We do not know exactly how or when we will get to that destination or whether there is somewhere else that we have to go after we reach there. At the same time, we do know (based on observation) that we will get there. Different spiritual traditions provide, sometimes detailed, explanations about how to prepare for such a journey, how to have the knowledge of when our death might happen, and what happens to us after we have died.

A journey usually begins at one point and ends at another. This is not necessarily the case for a spiritual journey. A sacred quest starts with oneself and ends with oneself; for this reason it is often called an Inward Journey. Before we begin a journey, we need to know our destination. With that, we study the various ways of getting from Point A to Point B, arranging for the necessary materials, and so on. A guide, sometimes considered to be indispensable, is one who knows the way, who has already gone from Point A to Point B, and is willing to show the way. Some say that a guide is absolutely necessary and that one should not venture or start the (spiritual) journey without a proper guide.

There is a school of thought that says that the real guide is already within us—often called the Divine seed or the Buddha nature. A spiritual journey, in many ways, is similar to a regular journey. It takes time; it needs supplies and ammunition; it requires strength, discipline, faith, and hard work. Tillich (1957) says,

Faith is the state of being ultimately concerned; the dynamics of faith are the dynamics of man’s ultimate concern. Man, like every being, is concerned about many things, above all about those which condition his very existence, such as food and shelter. But man, in contrast to other beings, has spiritual concerns—cognitive, aesthetic, social, political.

If life is a series of experiences, then there are certain experiences that we can avoid, for example, by seeing the effects they have (had) on those who experienced them. Then, there are certain experiences that we cannot avoid, some of which might be pleasant, in which case we might try to repeat them, and some of which might be unpleasant, and we try not to repeat them. In all these experiences of varying depth and value, there is one element that is common—that is, the experiencer, who can review and evaluate the experience afterward. Among one of the experiences that cannot be avoided, there is one that holds the supreme position, for the experiencer afterward is no more: That ultimate experience is death.

Interestingly, the experience of enlightenment, as depicted in various spiritual traditions, is similar to the experience of death in the sense that the experiencer, although still alive, is no longer the same person.

As Lama Govinda (1976) shows us, “life means giving and taking: exchange, transformation. It is breathing in and breathing out. It is not the taking possession of anything, but a taking part in everything that comes in touch with us. It is neither a state of possession nor being possessed, neither a clinging to the objects of our experience nor a state of indifference, but the middle way, the way of transformation. We are transformed by what we accept. We transform what we have accepted by assimilating it. We are transformed by the act of giving, and we contribute to the transformation of others by what we are giving”. (p. 182)

There are yogis who practice “meditation on death and dying” throughout their lives so that they can have a peaceful and aware death. There are those of us who avoid or postpone thinking about death and dying. Perhaps a proper dosage would be frequent (meditative) reminders of the inevitability of death; more important, it is recognizing that living well determines, to a large extent, dying well. Living well means living a spiritual life.

To the question of “What is death?” Robert Thurman (1994), a scholar of Buddhism, says, “the question is a scientific one. Western science holds that a “flatline” on the EEG means cessation of heartbeat and brain activity, and therefore represents death. The illusion of the subjective “I” in the individual consciousness assumed by materialists to correspond with the presence of brain wave activity, should cease with the cessation of brain waves. Yet the picture of death as a nothing in consciousness is not a scientific finding. It is a conceptual notion. There are many cases of people being revived after “flatlining” for some time, and they report intense subjective experiences. (p. 23)

Life consists of various stages (or processes) of birth, growth, decay, and death. Seen in this way, life is not the opposite of death. Viewed as process, dying is a continuation of living. In fact, this perspective is used in the world’s different religions and mythologies as the merging or unification of the individual’s consciousness with the Infinite (the Divine, the Ultimate). Although dying is a process, death is but a moment. As Tagore said, “Death is just the moment when dying ends.”

The life of a being is composed of many (transformative) processes, which ordinarily are called experiences. There are some who believe that there is a continuous cyclic process, implying not returning to the initial state but repeating birth (more accurately called “appearance or formation”), growth, decay, and death (more accurately called “dissolution”). Those who hold this view, in a certain sense, subscribe to the continuity of life, with all its ramifications, such as rebirth, or reincarnation, and karma.

Erich Fromm, (1992) argues if avoidance of pain and maximal comfort are supreme values, then indeed illusions are preferable to the truth. If, on the other hand, we consider that every man, at any time in history, is born with the potential of being a full man and that, furthermore, with his death the one chance given to him is over, then indeed much can be said for the personal value of shedding illusions and thus attaining an optimum of personal fulfillment. In addition, the more seeing individuals become, the more likely it is that they can produce changes—social and individual ones—at the earliest possible moment, rather than, as is often the case, waiting until the chances for change have disappeared because their mind, their courage, their will have become atrophied.

How one lives has much to do with how one dies. It is this awareness that helps us prepare for the final departure; every person we meet might be the last person that we face in this life. Every action that we perform might be the last action that we do.

Letting go

There is a famous story about a Zen monk that makes this point: On his death bed a Zen master was asked by his disciples to leave his last words for them, and thus they brought him a brush and ink. The dying monk wrote, “I don’t want to die. I don’t want to die (Shini tomo nai. Shini tomo nai).” The disciples were very much perplexed and annoyed because the words did not seem to be those of an eminent Zen monk, so they asked him to write what he really felt. The monk then wrote, “Really, really (Honmani, honmani).”

This story may conflict with our image of a great Zen master; the Zen monk is expected to be calm in facing death as the result of his Zazen practice which presumably enables him to live constantly in the here and now and to transcend the dichotomy of life and death. Assuredly this monk did not betray the general expectation as he wrote his last words with such self-composure, not in confusion and despair. The master was experiencing his immediate reality, which was his natural unwillingness to die, while in contrast his disciples were concerned with their image of what it means to be a famous Zen master. This story seems to convey that, as long as we live, the natural attachment to our physical existence is undeniable, even for someone who has cultivated the ability to transcend life and death.

Kishimoto Hideo, was a Japanese scholar in the field of religion. He suffered for many years from a terminal illness and left us a valuable document which contains his talks about his experience of death in life, and also a manuscript in which he set down his perception of what it means to die. Being driven by the physical terror of death, which he characterized as incomprehensible, unquenchable “thirst or hunger for life,” he had hopelessly attempted to intellectualize about the life hereafter. As he was a scholar, he first endeavored, in vain, to convince himself to accept his fate by utilizing the religious knowledge which he had accumulated. As in our previous stories, the attachment to physical life was unquestionably overwhelming for him. Then, he writes suddenly one day he had a flash of illumination: The only necessary thing is our preparation to confront death when it comes. What I discovered here was that I was afraid of death because I was thinking that I would experience it, and then I discovered that death was outside of my experience. What we can experience is only life or living. It was a shocking experience for me to realize that there is no other way permitted for human beings to live except to keep living.

Kishimoto goes on to state that death is simply the lack of life, and the only thing given to us is life or living, nothing else. Thus his question became very clear: “How can I ’really’ live what is left of my life?” Since life, for which he was “thirsty,” was no more granted, he tried to live best each and every given moment beyond which there was no further assurance of life. He convinced himself that it was necessary for him to be ready to confront death at any moment when it came with the attitude of calmly bidding farewell to his life. Thus, whenever he said goodbye to others, he experienced that moment as if it had been the last opportunity for him to exchange these words.

According to Kishimoto, this attitude was the only way he could face the physical fear of death and best live his given life. Kishimoto submitted himself to the necessity of death and demonstrated the freedom of the human will in choosing his attitude in confronting death. Thus Kishimoto’s efforts to live consciously and fully in the present began as soon as he was sentenced to death by his terminal illness, and his stance of constantly dying to his previous self seems to have enabled him to exist in the immediate present.

Kishimoto’s attitude of being ready to confront death with a calm and serene mind, as the result of his effort to experience each and every moment of living as the last moment, reminds me of the story about the famous haiku poet Basho (Iwami, 1958). Basho (1643-1694) when he was about to die at the age of fifty-one, composed a haiku which can be translated:

In my journey
I suffer from sickness.
And yet my dreams
Are running in the withered fields

Basho’s disciples asked him: “Can we consider this haiku as the last one that you leave to us?” He answered, “this haiku cannot be considered as either the last, or not the last. Each and every haiku that I composed throughout my life is no other than my last” Thus, Basho referred to this attitude or way of living in the presence of death. Basho was not a hermit nor did he abhor life; rather, he loved his life deeply, and all the by living his life in the presence of death. With the conviction that travels through life as if it were a journey, one becomes aware that each and every stage of the journey is the ultimate in itself and should be lived with one’s entire being and effort in the expectation of death.

In the eyes of the man with this conviction, the world he lives in appears at each and every moment as extremely beautiful and as the manifestation of eternal life itself. Like the following poem, many of Basho’s haiku express this feeling:

Of an approaching death
Showing no signs
The cicada’s droning

Such a short lived insect that puts all of its efforts into singing in harmony with the forest intrigued the mind of the poet. As a nature poet, Basho does not speak of the cicada as outside of himself but as his inner reality through which he experiences the approach of death. Suzuki (1970) has commented on this poem saying: “The cicada is perfect, content with itself and with the world…. As long as it can sing it is alive, and while alive there is an eternal life and what is the use of worrying about transitory-ness”? In hearing the cicada’s drone perhaps Kishimoto would have felt that even the cicada was saying goodbye to its life by living each moment with great intensity, or, while “showing no signs” of approaching death.

The question then arises, Why was it so desirable for Kishimoto and the poet Basho to have a calm mind, undisturbed by the fear of death? To find an answer to this question, we must consider the Japanese cultural tradition. According to Kishimoto, the place occupied by death in the East and West differs because of the socio-cultural traditions involved. In the West death is outside of life as well as the negation of life, and people tend to make an issue of whether or not the dying person physically suffered. In the East death or dying is regarded as one’s last enterprise in life; death exists inside, or as a part of the journey of life. The concern is therefore not with physical pain or suffering, as in the West, but rather with the kind of attitude the person had when he or she met death. What is most important for the Easterner is the demonstration of control over the fear of death, and this control is considered to be the result of a lifelong effort to keep the mind calm and serene in the face of any emotional experiences.

Kishimoto understood that someone filled with agony at the time of his death and this would not be an appropriate death in the East for one who is spiritually matured. For the Easterner, the idea of a good death is exemplified by the description of the death of Buddha, found in the Mahii-parimibhiina Suttanta. Buddha passed away while experiencing samadhi, or the calmness and peacefulness of mind, which was the result of his lifelong meditation practice.

If we explore the importance of living a spiritual life and if we undertake and maintain a regular meditative experience it will likely lead us to a reflective attitude toward life, death, and dying.

Wisdom Traditions

Nowadays, we can easily access the spiritual or medicinal teachings of the traditional systems, such as Yoga and Ayurveda of India, Sufi healing of Islam, Chinese (herbal) medicine, and native peoples’ healing arts. The self- help sections in many bookstores is filled with “How to” books and video and audio tapes: how to remain young and beautiful, how to be happy, how to be healthy, how to be free of pain. It is not that one should ignore the health of one’s body or mind, but when the focus of spirituality becomes solely the improvement and the appearance of the physical body, with little emphasis on the mind and the spirit, then that spiritual system has gone out of balance.

There is therefore a possibility of diluting the highest values of these traditions to simply leading a healthy, peaceful, and happy life. In many mystical traditions there are different forms of meditations and spiritual exercises to help the individual face the process of dying. For many of these traditions, death is just another stage in life. An interfaith or multifaith approach can show how various traditions look at the process of dying, afterlife, grieving, and rituals and ceremonies for the dead.

Specifically, one can look at the lives of the sages from the various religious traditions and see how they died and how they viewed death. Having presented a brief survey of the death accounts of many sages from Asia, Blackman (1997) stated, “The masters from the East maintain that to live righteously, let alone to die well, one must act without any personal attachment to one’s actions. To be delivered from the fear of death and the certainty of rebirth, one must act without desire, without a personal agenda, and without attachment to results”. (p. 8)

Inevitably, one then begins to see that the lives of the sages signified their deaths. I have also noticed that the sages from the Wisdom traditions (of both the East and the West) have considered their teachings in life to comprise various connected elements, such as (1) liberation: showing ways of being liberated from the mundane attachments of daily life and overcoming one’s ego; (2) union: showing ways of reuniting or reconnecting to our true nature, to God; (3) transiency: teaching us about the illusory or impermanent aspects of life; (4) wisdom: providing us with the means and ways of seeing the Reality and how to live peacefully with ourselves and with others. Many of these sages, who through years of discipline and spiritual practice had achieved mastery of mind and body, did not use these powers to remain young, to heal themselves, or to have a peaceful death.

Some of these sages died very young, some were killed, and some died of very painful diseases. They never thought that the Eternal Life was this material life. They were all good physicists, knowing that any living physical organism is subject to the laws of nature. What they perceived was a different dimension, a dimension that the laws of physics, as we know them at the present time, are not capable of identifying or describing. Most came to this conclusion through a “mystical” experience. This experience is often called the experience of the unity of existence. To that extent, having a body was and is necessary to carry out the daily activities, but at no time was the focus of the sages’ attention or thoughts the beautification, the excessive maintenance of the body or the prolonging of life.

According to Buddhism, and perhaps Hinduism, the last thought in the present life is the impulse or the imprint for the first thought in the next life. The Buddha said, “Rebirth arises from two causes: the last thought of the previous life as its governing principle and the actions of the previous life as its basis. The stopping of the last thought is known as the decease, the appearance of the first thought as rebirth”. (Kapleau, 1979, p. 68) Thus, what one says, thinks, or does at the last moments of one’s life is of crucial importance. If one has lived a pure life, the chances are that at the last moments, thoughts of love, compassion, forgiveness, and equanimity would arise.

Victor Frankl argues “What was really needed was a fundamental change in our attitude toward life. We had to learn ourselves, and, furthermore, we had to teach the despairing men, that it did not really matter what we expected from life, rather what life expected from us. We needed to stop asking about the meaning of life, and, instead to think of ourselves as those who were being questioned by life—daily and hourly. Our answer must consist, not in talk and meditation, but in right action and in right conduct. Life ultimately means taking the responsibility to find the right answer to its problems and to fulfill the tasks which it constantly sets for each individual (Victor Frankl, 1984, p. 85)

There are different reasons why we become interested in spirituality in general and as a special path in particular: the loss of a loved one, a terminal or a painful disease, an enquiry of existential magnitude. According to Zen Buddhism and other forms of Mahayana Buddhism, the relative realm of existence (Samsara) is not different from the ultimate realm (Nirvana), and it is only in the Samsaric realm that one can recognize the Ultimate. Buddha (1989) identified eight worldly concerns as the basis of human misery: Monks, these eight worldly conditions obsess the world; the world revolves round these eight worldly conditions. What eight? Gain and loss, fame and obscurity, blame and praise, contentment and pain. (Anguttara Nikaya, Vol. 4, p. 107)

These four pairs deal with one’s attachment toward what one thinks are desirable (gain, fame, praise, and pleasure) and one’s aversion toward what one thinks are undesirable (loss, shame, blame, and pain). Because of the impermanence and transiency of all things and phenomena, we experience Dukkha, the unsatisfactory nature of existence, the main cause of unhappiness. In Buddha (1987), one reads, “And what, monks, is the Noble Truth of Dukkha? Birth is Dukkha, ageing is Dukkha, death is Dukkha, sorrow, lamentation, pain, sadness and distress are Dukkha. Being attached to the unloved is Dukkha, being separated from the loved is Dukkha, not getting what one wants is Dukkha. In short, the five aggregates of grasping are Dukkha”. (Digha Nikaya, Sutra 22, verse 18)

There seems to be a longing to be free from this painful existence. For the Sufis (the mystics of Islam), the separation from the Beloved is the ultimate pain, and until the reunion happens (through fana, or extinction of the individuality or the lower self), the continued existence, baqa, is only a dream (see Nurbakhsh, 1978, 1979). The 13th-century Sufi poet Rumi says, “Between a man and God there are just two veils, and all other veils manifest out of these: they are health, and wealth. The man who is well in body says, “Where is God? I do not know, and I do not see.” As soon as pain afflicts him he begins to cry, “O God! O God!” communing and conversing with God. So you see that health was his veil, and God was hidden under that veil. As much as a man has wealth and resources, he procures the means to gratifying his desires, and is preoccupied night and day with that. The moment indigence appears, his spirit is weakened and he goes round about God”.

What used to take many years, and perhaps many lifetimes, is now thought (at least by some) to be achieved in a short time, and the process of natural maturation and spiritual growth is artificially hastened, providing a market for genetically engineered spirituality; meanwhile, many sages have said that there are no such shortcuts to enlightenment. The spiritual maturation process, or spiritual fermentation, involves an earnest, hardworking, and sincere student who is ready to work, an honest and enlightened teacher who is willing to teach, and a society that supports many spiritual activities.

Sri Aurobindo (1983) says, “Being attracted to any set of religious or spiritual ideals does not bring with it any realization… a mere mental activity will not bring a change of consciousness, it can only bring a change of mind. And if your mind is sufficiently mobile, it will go on changing from one thing to another till the end without arriving at any sure way or any spiritual harbour. The mind can think and doubt and question and accept and withdraw its acceptance, make formations and unmake them, pass decisions and revoke them, judging always on the surface and by surface indications and therefore never coming to any deep and firm experience of Truth, but by itself it can do no more. There are only three ways by which it can make itself a channel or instrument of Truth. Either it must fall silent in the Self and give room for a wider and greater consciousness; or it must make itself passive to an inner Light and allow that Light to use it as a means of experience; or else, it must itself change from the questioning intellectual superficial mind it now is to an intuitive intelligence, a mind of vision fit for the direct perception of the divine Truth”.


The day is no more, the shadow is upon the earth.
It is time that I go to the stream to fill my pitcher.
The evening air is eager with the sad music of the water.
Ah, it calls me out into the dusk. In the lonely lane there is no passer by,
The wind is up, the ripples are rampant in the river.
I know not if I shall come back home.
I know not whom I shall chance to meet.
There at the fording in the little boat the unknown man plays upon his lute.
Tagore, 1971

Every inhalation and the following exhalation signify life and death: There is a continuous dying. The moment when the next breath does not arise is considered by many as the moment of death, a transition, or a step toward the next rebirth. Chuang Tzu (1968) says, “Life is the companion of death, death is the beginning of life. Who understands their workings? Man’s life is a coming together of breath. If it comes together, there is life; if it scatters, there is death. And if life and death are companions to each other, then what is there for us to be anxious about? (p. 235)

Things and beings come into existence when the conditions are appropriate; they last for a while, growing and decaying, and finally when conditions are again appropriate, they simply disappear or dissolve. The last moments of our life are perhaps the most important and precious moments, since to a large extent our thoughts during these moments will determine who we will become in the next life. Would we be conscious and aware at these last moments? Would our mind be in a peaceful, relaxed, and compassionate state? Would we be surrounded by family and friends in a conducive environment? When the time has come to leave, can we let go? Can we forgive all those who may have knowingly or unknowingly hurt us? Can we ask forgiveness from all those whom we may have knowingly or unknowingly hurt? Can we look back and have no regrets about the things we should have done or should have said? Can we review our life, even if it is in a few seconds, and feel that we have done what we came here to do? Would we be able to look back at life and sing along with Tagore sentiments:

I have had my invitation to this world’s festival, and thus my life has been blessed.
My eyes have seen and my ears have heard.
It was my part at this feast to play upon my instrument, and I have done all I could.
Now, I ask, has the time come at last when I may go in and see thy face and offer thee my silent salutation?

My deepest thanks goes to Meenakshi for sharing her understanding and insight in Sufism (the mystical tradition of Islam).


Nothing Special

A number of months ago I ran a workshop on Mindfulness In Social Care to a group of newly qualified social workers. At the finish a close friend asked one eminent colleague what he’d thought of it. After some considerable thought he responded: ‘I enjoyed it but there wasn’t anything new’. He wanted to be surprised, to learn some fresh techniques. He wanted to be filled rather than emptied.

We are obsessed with the quest for the fresh and fashionable, when we need reminding of what we’ve already forgotten. The desire for newness has become a serious obstacle to seeing ordinary miracles, no longer appreciated by jaded eyes. We don’t see the world fully or properly any more. We don’t have the vital energy running right through us, like young children in a playgroup with their noise and bustle. Every single moment, those energetic chimps uncover something fresh in the hardly noticed — by adults anyway — sticks and stones of the playground.

My mother said that when very young I made steam trains from old shoeboxes and pushed them ceaselessly around the narrow hallway. We recall things rather than see them ever afresh. My father-in—law used to injure himself every year or so. Whilst he was working in London, his wife would radically rearrange the furniture. He’d come back on the train, enter the bedroom and leap on the bed, except it wasn’t there. It was across the other side of the room. The picture in his mind’s eye didn’t exist out there any more. We struggle with the great differences between our imagination and what exists.

There were once two students, both extremely proud of their teacher. They wished many others to appreciate him. A great opportunity arose for publicity.A new temple had been opened and respected teachers traditionally scribed their teachings on the fresh walls. At their request, the temple authorities gave permission for their guru to write an important message. Nervously they asked the great man if he’d write something. He agreed enthusiastically. They waited anxiously outside. The guru was in and out in a moment. Inside they saw the single miserly Chinese character for ‘ATTENTION’ on the far wall. It was very unimpressive, unlikely to attract any prospective students. They wondered how to raise this problem and eventually arrived at a solution.

‘Master. Your message is a little short’

He responded quickly: ‘Why didn’t you say’?’

He went into the temple again and exited almost as quickly as the first time. They rushed in to see. Now the message on the temple wall was much longer.


ATTENTION? Nothing complicated or flashy, certainly nothing fresh, but if they couldn’t see the vital importance of mindful practice they didn’t deserve such a great and persistent teacher.

Montaigne (1958) noted:
‘Stupidity is a bad quality; but to be unable to bear it, to be vexed and fretted by it, as is the case with me, is another kind of disease that is hardly less troublesome, and of this I am now going to accuse myself.’

It is so easy to become chronically self—righteous and stupid. When you’re naturally dogmatic like me, it is very easy. Like Montaigne, I have a gift for bearing it with bad grace. I constantly struggle with the feeling that life is teaching me the wrong lessons; that I know best what I should be learning. Humility is an uncommon human quality and spirituality can become an effective cover for all sorts of arrogance. ‘I’m more holistic than thou’ is best avoided. We do need to take things apart, to ask shrewder questions — but also to avoid the pitfalls of self—cherishing and missing the whole picture. The Tao trail points to essential unity. This is definitely not some unattainable Holy Grail but an ever present reality that we stumble over but rarely recognise. It is a practice done amid the washing of clothes, using the vacuum cleaner and cleaning dirty saucepans. The healing takes place from where we are, not from where we might like to be. We turn away from trying to better ourselves and become what we already are.

The basis of all healing lies in being a vehicle for vital energy. Nothing special. This asks that we are gentler with ourselves and with others; learning to accept ourselves; that we recognise in our hearts the essential connectedness; surrendering our different images of perfection as deluded measures of the world and seeing it with reverence, honesty and love. As Sawaki Roshi commented: ‘Everybody is in his own dream. The discrepancies that exist between the dreams are the problem’ (Uchiyama, 1990)

I’ve supported my disabled friend Kevin for many years. I met him during my own training. He died in 2007 of a sudden heart attack. He’d been a great teacher to me. I’ve learned lots that I definitely didn’t want to learn, the heart of real spiritual learning. I’ve had to come down from the high mountain of all the books and academic research and genuinely experience the front-line actually working with disabled people rather than simply reading about it, much more challenging.

Kevin and I had very different dreams and scripts but they are almost certainly from the same play. In our heads, things are supposed to run smoothly and coherently, but they rarely do. He helped me to experience more fully the frustrations that emerge from the huge gap between ‘supposed to’ and actual life, and how and why we are both bewildered and disappointed by life’s constant ‘imperfections’. Like him, I’m usually seeking more control; wanting the world to be more as I imagined it to be. We were both profoundly disappointed with the world as it is, that constantly fails to live up to our expectations.

As we grow older, we both learn to live more comfortably with our everyday stupidities, rather than get any wiser. I get older rather than wiser. I experience my daily existence as continually tripping over the obvious, being mind-bogglingly insensitive and stubborn, and retaining an impassioned resistance to any major learning. In the past, I had a great tendency to hit myself really hard when falling from some presumed high standards. A great rage of disappointment would make my throat sore. Nowadays that happens rather less; not the attainment of any wisdom, just getting fatigued. I’ve grown a little more comfortable with the stupidity both in myself and in others. It feels more and more like a pair of old slippers.

This kind of stupidity arises because we lose our essential ‘beginner’s mind’. This does not involve some high standard to be attained or some subtle spiritual achievement. Beware of making it yet another examination. Dogen Zenjii expressed it well: ‘Each evening we die, each morning we are born again.’ If that really happens to us, we can bring freshness to each dawn, but mostly we cannot. Instead I carry the heavy stones of each previous day on my ever aching back — all those worries and concerns from the previous day, weeks or even years; still lying there, making it difficult to dance and even to sleep. Stones and rocks of guilt, blame, injury, sorrow, mourning — I’m sighing deeply whilst writing them down such an endless list. I rarely seem to shed anything, just add this heavy burden over the long years. I know something of my stupidity in that l write and talk too much and hardly ever listen.

We do need a beginner’s mind, that strips away our fixed notions and dogmas. ‘You can’t go in with preconceived ideas of how to “fix up” the situation. Once when starting some group training for GP’s, I was attacked by several group members because I remained silent whilst they expressed a number of overwhelming (to me anyway) expectations. As we’ve noted previously, beginner’s mind is different from ignorance. Observing students over many years, I have noticed that their semi-digested reading often obstructs the communication process. At worst the client feels as though he or she has been vomited over. The embryonic professionals are seeking significances and patterns that were in the books but not necessarily in the present experience.

Zen Master Dogen was given a salutary lesson in significance by a Chinese tenzo, the head cook of a monastery. In the thirteenth century, Dogen made a dangerous sea journey from Japan to China, surviving typhoons and pirates. After his arrival he met the tenzo, who had walked miles to buy shitake mushrooms — brought by the boat from Japan — to flavour the monastery’s noodle soup. Dogen was ready to sell him the mushrooms he’d brought, but so impressed was he with the old cook that he invited him to stay the night and have a meal. The tenzo declined, saying he had to return that same evening.

‘But surely there are other monks who could prepare the meal in your absence’?’

‘I have been put in charge of this work. How can I leave it to others?’ responded the cook.

‘But why does a venerable elder such as yourself waste time doing the hard work of a head cook. Why don’t you spend your time practising meditation or studying the words of the masters‘?’

The tenzo burst out laughing. ‘My dear foreign friend, it’s clear that you don’t understand what Zen practice is all about. When you have time please visit me at the monastery so we can discuss these matters more fully.’

Dogen had obviously never read the Tao Te Ching: ‘Cooking a small fish and ruling a big country, need equal care’. Dogen eventually visited this fine cook and the marvellous book Tengo Kyekun (‘Instructions for the Zen Cook’) was one result. (Wright, 1983) I keep a copy to me as it has been an inspiration over many long years, although I’m no great fan of Dogen — a bit too much like St Paul rather than Jesus for my taste. But the tenzois marvellous advice is to cook with what we have already: the herbs, the rice, the noodles and all our own skills and difficulties are in the cupboard there is no need for any others.

Listening skills are lifelong herbs, with wisdom and discipline, but only in brief flashes. Nothing is more important or more sacred to me than these tasks given to us to listen, whatever we are doing at this very moment. Our anger, impatience, stupidity, love and perseverance all flavor the delicious soup, along with Dogen’s shitake mushrooms, which we can now buy in the supermarket.

In my early twenties I also learned the hard realities of living on the street. I quickly leant that you only have to ask [homeless] people what they need and empower them to find their own solutions. The hard part of any genuine learning is to give up the ideas you already have, much harder than acquiring new ones. Later when I got off the street and entered into a profession I used go to the homeless planning seminar in Cambridge where I lived. There is a big and probably increasing homeless problem in Cambridge. The city council has developed a fresh overall strategy for dealing with it. lt is a clever plan, very much like the half a dozen other plans l’ve seen over the last 25 years. It is an excellent example of top—down planning. No homeless people were formally invited to this crucial seminar. The planners had precious ideologies that would have been swirled away by the direct experience of homeless people.

ln Japan they have the phrase shoshin, which means beginners mind ’. The goal of practice is always to keep our beginner s mind. Suppose you recite the Prajna Paramita Sutra only once. It might be a very good recitation. But what would happen to you if you recited it twice, three times, four times or more ? You might easily lose your original attitude towards it. The same thing will happen in your other Zen practices. For a while you will keep your beginner s mind, but if you continue to practice one, two, three years or more, although you may improve some, you are liable to lose the limitless meaning of original mind. (Suzuki, 1973)
How can we possibly maintain that freshness and vitality in the things we do everyday? l am a stupid and complaining Zen monk, a great trouble to everyone, who has learnt hardly anything from the finest teachers, largely wasting their time. But there are one or two brief moments, when even l understand the long dead Chinese tenzo s message. We are not asked to become better persons, to be improved models — thank goodness. All that arrant nonsense is a further expression of disastrous craving, intense human suffering, deep discontent and splitting. Zen Meditation leads us boldly to be what and where we are. lf we follow the sitting we can uncover our true and original nature. Some of us are lions, yet many others are dandelions — it just doesn’t matter, we develop and blossom just as we are, without pretending to be anything else, better or worse than we truly are.

The Trappist Monk Thomas Merton had this to say of the meaning of the Tao without meaning:
The secret of the way proposed by Chuang Tzu is therefore not the accumulation of virtue and merit proposed by Ju, but wu wei, the non-doing, or non—action, which is not intent upon results and is not concerned with consciously laid plans or deliberately organized endeavours: ‘My greatest happiness consists precisely in doing nothing whatever that is calculated to obtain happiness . . . Perfect joy is to be without joy. (Merton, 1965)

We are happiest when unconcerned and not knowing whether we are happy or not. The more carefully we fire the arrow from the bow, the more likely we will miss the target.

So what is all this ‘living in the moment’? I don’t have any fixed answers anymore. I notice that giving complete attention to someone in distress is difficult. The mind plays many tricks with past and future, moving chaotically between difficult times and experiences.

Enright writes:
I am quite serious in asserting that most of us in the mental health professions, are much of the time, to a surprising extent, not fully aware of our actual present. Much of the content of our consciousness is remembering, speculating, planning, . . . or carrying on a busy inner dialogue. More specifically we professionals, sitting with a patient may be diagnosing, ‘prognosing’, planning our next intervention, wondering what time it’s getting to be, etc. — we are only rarely being really open to our experience of self and other …. Engaged as we are with our own phantoms, we attend only sketchily to the other. Since he then seems rather pale and incomplete, we fill him our with our own projections and react vigorously to these (Enright, in Rowan, 1983).

I was reflecting on being really listened to, being profoundly heard. It has happened so few times and only for brief moments, usually in the formal presence of Zen teachers. Each experience was deeply intense and wholesome. Each time I felt both naked and relieved. I was seen for who I was, rather than who or what I might become. I was accepted just I was — warts and all. The social games and strategies I used were no longer necessary.

Two Zen monks set out for a monastery some distance away. On the journey they came to a river, swollen by unseasonal mountain rains. A young woman in formal dress was waiting, unable to cross by herself. The older monk picked her up and carried her through the waters. The monks walked on for ten miles in silence, but when they came into sight of their monastery the younger monk asked:

‘Why did you break the vows of our Order and have physical contact with that woman?’

The older monk replied: ‘I put that woman down ten miles back. I see you’re still carrying her’.

So there were all these monastic rules, regulations and even vows. Perhaps the older monk had broken one of them but in the name of compassion rather than lust. The young woman couldn’t cross the river without help. But the younger monk couldn’t lay the event down. Throughout the long mountainous walk he worried, and asked for clarification with a hint of rebuke: ‘Why did you break your vows?’ He carried that woman deep inside his head, unable to live in the moment, unable to enjoy the breeze and the countryside, constantly reflecting on broken vows, guilt and fears.

A poor man came to the Archbishop Esai and pleaded: ‘My family is so destitute that we have had nothing to eat for several days. My wife and children are about to die of starvation. Please have compassion ’.

At the time there was no clothing, food, or other possessions in the temple but Esai saw a thin piece of copper allocated to make a halo for a Buddha statue. He took it and broke it up, giving the man a piece, telling him to exchange it for food.

The disciples reproached Esai. ‘That is nothing other than the halo for the statue of the Buddha. Is it not a sin to use the Buddha is property for personal use? ’
Esai responded: ‘Yes, it is. Yet think of the Buddhas ’ will. The Buddha cut off his flesh and limbs and offered them to living human beings. Even if we gave the whole body of the Buddha to the people who are actually about to die of starvation, such an action would certainly be in accordance with the Buddha’s will. Even if we went to hell because of this sin, I have just saved living beings him starvation’.

These students had lost the plot. The sacred halo was needed to feed a destitute family that day, not for formal worship, Jesus allowed the hungry disciples to pick corn on the Sabbath and was severely criticised by Pharisees. They stared at the finger, not at the moon.

Jesus responded: ‘The Sabbath was made for Man, not Man for the Sabbath’

The purpose of making statues was to serve those pilgrims following the pathway of the Buddha. ‘To save all sentient beings. The author Robert Pirsig, was right to suggest that following the Buddha, living in the Tao, is a daily discipline of infinite subtlety, not some crude motorcycle handbook to be followed diagram by diagram.

We can easily turn a vow from a joyous aspiration into an instrument for the severest self—punishment, a form of Buddhist Puritanism: we turn it against ourselves in an inverted arrogance. We can use it as proof of our worthlessness and weakness of we even think about breaking it. Rather than allowing our promise to be something that helps us and lifts us up, we use it to beat ourselves down. But when we are depressed, we need our vow more than at any other time. We can use it to help our healing, to make decisions easier, and sometimes even to keep us safe and alive. My life has been full of such oppressive feelings, taking me right away from living in the present time.

Chogyam Trungpa wrote:
The essence of meditation is nowness. Whatever one tries to practice is not aimed at achieving a higher state or at following some theory or idea, but simply, without any object or ambition, trying to see what is here and now. One has to become aware ofthe present moment . . .’ (Trungpa, 1969)

That is so very easy to talk about it but so very hard to practice, especially in ordinary, everyday life, full of the fires of desire. I’ve sat for so many years on a black zen cushion, my mind running rampantly all over the place although the body was still. In the beginning I had clear ideas about the point and purpose of meditation. I was going to be enlightened, to become illuminated, to be a better person, to listen more carefully . . . The list was very long.

My favourite cartoon contains some of that stupidity. Two huge hippos are standing in a swamp, stretching away into the distance, infinite and featureless. One comments to the other: ‘Do you know I keep thinking it’s Thursday’. Well I spend a great deal of time, wondering whether it’s a Thursday or how many shopping days there are to Christmas.

As the years rolled on — five, ten, twenty years of meditation — most of these ideas slipped away. They became increasingly irrelevant. I remained the same undisciplined slob but the many ambitions and the register of supposed achievements fell away. I wasn’t making any genuine progress but cared less. I dropped those ideas. They slipped off my back, usually without me noticing. I had fewer and fewer ideas about why I did this or that. I didn’t know any more what the point was. I just sat for most of the time, as the hours rolled interminably on. I felt settled.

Of course the everyday bustle, hustle, razzmatazz and greed is a far cry from Zen Master Unmon; ‘If you walk, just walk. If you sit, just sit; but don’t wabble, whatever you do’. Unmon takes us right back to the eternal Tao. Just to be our ordinary selves; living with simple and necessary rituals and activities; unconcerned with the complex social games played inside and outside. What does it matter what people believe and expect? Is it practicable to live in that way anymore? Can we avoid reflecting on what we see in others and guessing what they feel and think so we can calculate?

After opening Pandora’s Box, can we ever go back? YES. It doesn’t mean complacency and self—satisfaction. It means the difference between joyful service and covert spiritual greed. Of course there is an inherent and healthy drive deep within us, to create a better and more natural state, to live more simply, to be less plastic and conformist, free of the self- created internal noise and chatter. But even this drive can become an exploited trap — a spiritual materialism, a sophisticated variation on greed. We can be immensely greedy for possessions of the spiritual kind, to be liberated, awakened, to walk on water. We can build superior pyramids of ideologies. We can develop photographs of loaves of bread rather than bake the delicious and nourishing loaves themselves.

There’s a quotation from a sixteenth century poem by Edmund Spenser:

Sleep after Toyle,
Part after stormie Seas,
Ease after Warre,
Death after Life
Does Greatly Please

Spenser reminds us of the essential realities of human life and death. The mariner’s life that strips away the triviality of those trends that currently suffocate us. We need to return to some quiet and authentic traditions. They stress everyday living and relationships rather than anything wonderful and extraordinary. Our search for magical and superior techniques is not only unnecessary but also part of our sickness. We should be deeply suspicious of those forces, spiritual and therapeutic, that offer the possibility of major change, purchased through increased power and money. This is the damned trouble with inspirational spiritual teaching by great teachers such as Dogen. It sounds so ordinary — no great drum rolls or cymbals. You only realise you’ve had it when it’s too late. Blink or yawn and you’ve missed it. It all seems so banal at the time. You were expecting lightning to flash and thunder to roll and there’s only a slight cough or a shake of the hand. You were looking up in the air to find the stars and planets and it came silently on the back of a blowing leaf.

There’s an old Chinese story about a man who heard of a great teacher, many hundreds of miles away. He walked over seven mountain ranges; across ten broad rivers and countless streams; was robbed twice; hungered and thirsted many times; wore out half a dozen pairs of stout shoes. Eventually, after nearly a year, he arrived exhausted but content at the remote place where this great teacher was living and teaching. At the first meeting, he prostrated himself three times in the dust, as was the custom, and begged to be taught.

‘Please teach me, Oh Great One. I have come from a far’
The Great One responded brusquely — ‘Do good and avoid evil’, and then silence.
After a long wait the deeply disappointed student replied: ‘Is that it? Is that all? Is this teaching the reason why I sold everything, crossed all those rivers, nearly died in the mountains, walked a thousand miles, was robbed of all my possessions — to hear what every five—year—old child knows already?’

‘Ah’, said the Great One, ‘a five year old child may know it but an eighty-year—old man can’t practice it.’

You can sympathise with the exhausted student. He was expecting a drum roll at the least, some really clever comments of mystifying complexity; the communication of secret tantric empowerments. He’d made a massive journey at great personal cost and yet travelled no distance at all — his head still firmly in the clouds, clogs covered by unseen dog shit. He’d suffered, made very considerable sacrifices and expected some tangible reward.

The moving of the legs one in front of the other, and the ideas of liberation whirling about inside the head are easy. Spin—dryer mind. Everyday and banal practice is infinitely hard, as the Great One explained to the tired and angry student. If he had any sense the student would have stayed with his new—found teacher and studied hard to find a basis for solid living. However my best guess is that he left almost immediately and found someone with much better tricks and a more sophisticated spiel. That would have been his great loss.

All this leads one to ask, how to live with our internal demons or dragons? Most of us are haunted by an eternal succession of demons and dragons. Most of us spend some time on the run, attempting to escape the modern equivalent of those horrors. Sadly among the homeless are many emotional ‘runners’ — people trying vainly to escape ordinary living. Everyday Taoist practice is about learning to face the dragons and tigers — gently and slowly.

There is an old story about dragons and a temple. Paintings of dragons are a feature of great power in new temples. Many centuries ago an abbot from central China was visiting a colleague in the far south. The occasion was the opening of a new temple, and seeing the traditional dragon painting for the first time, the abbot was very impressed with its power and energy. He asked his colleague whether the man might be interested in working at his new temple. The colleague introduced him to the painter so that arrangements might be made directly.

The exchange was very agreeable and it was arranged for the artist to travel up in a month or two to execute the commission. The two men shook hands and as they parted, the abbot asked:
‘You have seen a real dragon. You do paint from real life?’
The artist was shocked. ‘I didn’t know there were any real dragons’. The abbot said firmly that dragons lived close to his temple and under no circumstances would he ever employ a painter who just used his imagination. Somewhat ashamed the immensely curious painter said:

‘What if I come up early, see the dragons and then do the painting?’ This was acceptable. So a few weeks later the painter made the long journey northwards and arrived towards nightfall. The following morning the abbot took him far out into the thick bush where the dragons lived. He left the unwilling artist on his own in a small clearing with water and bread. ‘I will be back in three days to collect you. Sit very still because these dragons are easily spooked’.

The artist was a city boy and soon became nervous. He sat right through the cold days and nights, but saw nothing and heard little.
On the fourth morning the abbot arrived. ‘Well. What did you see?’ The depressed painter said: ‘Nothing. I’m cold and frozen. I want to go home’.

The abbot asked: ‘Did you move at all?’ ‘Well of course I moved,’ said the artist angrily. ‘Ah’ said the abbot, ‘that’ll be it. These dragons are highly nervous. But you can’t give up now. Think of painting dragons from real life instead of just from your imagination’.
The guilty victim was persuaded to spend another three days and nights with some more bread and water. On the seventh morning the abbot returned. Before he could speak the furious painter screamed: ‘l’m so furious, cold and frustrated. I’ve spent six long days and nights in this desperately forsaken spot and seen absolutely nothing’.

His face went scarlet and his body shook violently. The abbot waited until silence was restored:

‘Now you’ve really seen the dragon, come back to the temple and paint it’. Even today, people say that the dragon in this remote temple is so powerful because it was painted from real life. How long do you think you would be able to sit still?

Uchiyama Roshi wrote:
When you climb a mountain, you climb moment by moment, one step at a time. It’s not that you climb a mountain only when you reach the summit. To advance one step at a time is what’s important. We live moment by moment, step by step. This is an activity of the whole universe. It is an activity that is good for nothing .There is nothing to pick up or throw away. There is nowhere to go. With this pure inner force within myself I live always here and now, manifesting the whole universe. (Uchiyama, 1990)

We’re not asked to jump over high buildings, wrestle with demons, turn pebbles into gold or even to lead a reasonably good life, whatever that might mean. We are asked to be simply human. What that really means for each of us is uncovered during our life-long pilgrimage. It is a journey through fog and mist, fear and anger; through stupidity and some very occasional flashes of wisdom.

It is very simple but not at all easy; difficult to remain undistracted, to avoid life’s almost irresistible seductions. This ordinary pilgrimage gradually reveals our true nature and helps our service to others to become a little more joyful. We gradually discover ways to fit in with the infinite world that surrounds us. We uncover some harmonies, a little realization of how very partial our understanding is and how infinite our ignorance. And when in danger we can always climb the nearest tree, and exercise the Tao of survival, of simple mindfulness.

Yes, and when I am walking with myself in a beautiful orchard, even if my thoughts dwell for a part of the time on distant events, I bring them back for another part of the walk, the orchard, the charm of this solitude, and to myself. Nothing at all special, just very ordinary — living directly in the unfolding moment, whether with kingfishers or dragons. But is there any greater challenge?

Essays Opinion Photography Reviews

Mindful Pilgrimages

Dear readers I confess. I affirm and attest that I am a more than occasional countryside rambler. Because of that I understand that our relationship with the land is not a straight forward one. It can inspire and infuriate, it can scare us to death and nourish our spiritual needs. It can take us on a journey to places far beyond the literal surroundings of where we happen to be at any given moment, whether it’s a feeling to escape from crowded, chaotic lifestyles or just the feeling of a fundamental connection within ourselves.

We have words and phrases that allude to this magical, mystical quality: genius loci, ley lines, Cynefin and hiraeth (Welsh), psycho-geography, terrior and La France Profonde (Deep France), Aboriginals relate to it as ‘Songlines’ and more recently ‘spirit of place’ – a term coined by the Australian singer songwriter Shane Howard in his seminal folk-rock outfit Goanna.

These words might have different meanings, but they are all rooted in the belief that landscapes, like you and me, can speak to us in some way. I recall excitedly reading Lyall Watson was all the rage in the seventies with his best-selling books ‘Supernature’ and ‘Lifetide’. This scientist, biologist and spiritual thinker’s role in life was to build a between scientific investigation and mystic revelation. He profoundly opened the door to many around animalistic beliefs, stating “I have no qualms about seeing the soul in a rock and attributing awareness to a tree… I think the whole Earth is intelligent and we simply are the most vocal part”.

I don’t mind admitting that it took me over a decade to become converted. However please let me assure you I was no spaced out hippie leftover from the sixties. I consider myself to be scientifically sceptical and experimental in my existentialism. But I accept there is something more out there that we can possibly define or claim to have one source, one maker, one belief system.

A few years back I’d gone to Carreg Cennen Castle, an abandoned stumpy-toothed ruin perched on a cliff in the desolate Black Mountains region of the western Brecon Beacons. The ruin had such an unsettling – but not altogether unpleasant – effect on me. I cannot properly explain it, but a postscript to my journal at the time read “It feels as though a stronger light is on me, I feel dizzy,  as though a sledgehammer punch has just been dealt”. I was frightened, tearful and yet exhilarated. The only other time I have felt that was standing at the base of Uluru, in central Australia (climbing up the rock is believed by tribal Elders to be an act of desecration).

Each time I have come away with uncontrollable shivers down the spine. Like Lyall Watson I believe that the reach of landscape extends way beyond the stuff that fills the confines of Ordinate Survey maps, it is alive; animate and articulate a repository of folk memories, war and peace, life and death, fire and rain, love and sorrow. And you don’t have to be a loopy mystic to join in. It’s out there (in simultaneously in there) for everyone.

Mostly I feel lucky in Britain, for the island is latticed with highly charged Celtic trails, ghostly highways (there’s one outside my door), old Roman roads and drover’s routes that can take us further than we’d ever imagine. Unsurprisingly the landscape is a constant source of literally and artistic inspiration, it’s the backdrop of a vast library that continues to expand our consciousness with a momentum that paradoxically seems to increase the further we distance ourselves from our primal past, the days when crops gave us our daily bread, not computers (yes I’m a Luddite but rather than slipping into that territory, I’ll get back to point).

Sadly some books I read have not always treated our landscape as the starting place of spiritual journey. In 1920’s Daniel Defoe of Robinson Crusoe fame wrote A Tour Thro’ the Whole Island of Great Britain, finding the mountains to be “a horrid and frightening place, even worse than those mountains abroad”. OK Defoe didn’t like mountain then. But what’s not to like? They are primeval and magnificent, a magnet for any red-blooded man or women. However thankfully, and not a moment too soon, the travel writer and Observer columnist, Robert MacFarlane has but all this straight in his wonderful contribution ‘The Mountains of the Mind’.

It’s odd though, Defoe’s view was not in industrial Britain either, he was writing in the days before urban slums, teeming new towns, belching chimney smoke, huge furnaces and coal mines, when the mountains were only seen in terms of danger and death. As depicted in the opening ceremony of the London 2012 Olympic Games, the industrial revolution changed everything, ushering in a new dawning of an age and a major shift in the relationship that we had with nature. The wild nature that scared Defoe now inspired different emotions. Nature became sublime, an escape from the harsh realities of a new, ugly, unforgiving “march of progress” of the industrial age.

William Wordsworth eulogised his beloved Lake District – romance was in the air and on the canvases of JMW Turner and John Constable. The doors of perception, possibly of Blake’s mystical vision – of a New Jerusalem, were beginning to open and we’d never look back on the landscape the same way again. It became a benign retreat, a space to breathe for the urban masses, leading to the creation of The Nation Trust, which would never ‘prevent wild nature having its way’. I don’t suppose Daniel Defoe would have signed up as member.

So here we are, in the early 21st Century, with Darwinists like Richard Dawkins telling us fundamentally there is no God (and maybe his scientific argument is correct, even if his method of persuasion isn’t), however look closely and you’ll notice how science is coming up with ever more astounding revelations, binary codes, the mathematical language spoken by computers, transforming everyone’s live as the giants of Facebook, Apple and Microsoft slug it out for world domination. Who needs magic and mystery in all this? The probable answer is: most of us. There are other meanings and realities out there for the grabs, you don’t need to believe in science fiction, bug-eyed Martians, UFO’s, parallel universes to be touched by them. The evidence is much closer to home.

After my Uluru and Carreg Cennen baptism I headed west to southern Ireland. To Burren, that moonscape of fractured limestone rock just south of Galway. It’s an otherworldly grey dome of apparently barren landscape, except for the rare plants that grow in its fissures. The wind howled in from the Atlantic Ocean and the sun blasted through the clouds like some biblical searchlight as I approached Poulnabrone Dolmen (Standing Stone), the skeletal framework of a Neolithic tomb balanced on the limestone pavement. Those were only the elements of the scene. The sum of the parts between the rock, sun and man was somehow much greater. Something lifted up inside me, an energy – a synergy, that wants to escape my flesh and blood.

AE Housman’s ‘blue remembered hills’ from his ‘Shropshire Lad’ cycle of poems evoke a potent vision of Englishness and country life, tinged with a lost youth:

What are those blue remembered hills
What aspires, what farms are those
That is the land of lost content
I see it shining plain,
The happy highways were I went
And cannot come again

Reading this also takes me back to the work of the seminal TV dramatist Dennis Potter (remember when, in the good old days, TV plays were about something other than shouty social realisms). Anyway his words are suffused by a spiritual sense of place, in his case his native Forest of Dean, just down the track from Housman’s Wenlock edge. Potter pinched Housman’s ‘blue remembered hills’ as the title for his 1979 play featuring adult actor taking the part of children romping about the forest, a location that cropped up in ‘Pennies From Heaven’ (1978) and the Singing Detective (1986).

The Forest of Dean is one strange spooky place, a high plateau on the road to nowhere, bypassed, ignored, arcane and insular. These ancient Oak woods, laden with memories of the forest as King Canute’s royal hunting ground, begin to incongruously at the back door of the industrial terraces. Spirits even exist underground as one of the free miners of the forest once told me about the tradition going back to the 13th Century “this mine is a living thing for me, with a language of its own. It’s always telling me something”.

Then there”s Wye valley on the border of Wales and Herefordshire. Close by is a walk up to Hergest Ridge from nearby town of Kingston. One day I went up the graded slope and was met by wild horses. There they stood on the ridge so ethereal, perfectly still, I could not tell if they were really there or if they were an apparition of my mind at the time. I sometimes feel as though the mind does play tricks and yet when it happens I don’t mind; dreams and legends, hopes and fears all make up the tapestry of the land. It is a subjective world and such journeys can shine the brightest imaginably light, not only on the lives of our pre-historic ancestors, but it also offers an atavistic revelation bathed with an umbilical sense of connection to our lives today.

If any of this sounds too trippy for your taste, let me assure you again that I’m a level-headed kind of guy, for most of the time. Lots of New Age mumbo jumbo leaves me stone cold. I don’t do hallucinogenic drugs, instead dark ales and single malts spirits are my poison. And I don’t feel any great need to believe in pixies, fairies and the like, but I respect those I know who do. But I do believe when you follow an old drover’s road or pilgrim’s trail, those footprints that went before you, although long gone, leave behind a legacy. Such experiences lie on the surface and just below we have relics of timeless history. Their residue reveals a sense of attachment, or perhaps a higher purpose to life or it can leave us in solace and comprehension of the every-changing nature of things, the Tao, within our busy lives. It’s the same when you come across a place that immediately speaks to you in a language can – and yet can’t – understand.

Where next then? One day, I’ll travel up to the Orkney Islands, maybe in my favourite time of year mid-winter (it’s the only time to go, you know). I hope to end up, as you do, at Skara Brae, Northern Europe’s best preserved prehistoric village. My efforts to trace my family tree, reveals that I have Scottish ancestry near this lonesome part of the world. It’s a remarkable site that became known to the world, following a great storm in 1850. Before then it was lying buried beneath the sands for more than 40 Centuries. It’s not that I desire to simply poke about the dark confines of the dark low, covered passageways and well-preserved. For me it’s a spiritual journey to my own hereditary past. a nation of people I never knew, like Shane Howard, unearthing the roots of deeper cultural connection and sense of belonging, my spirit of place.


The Old Ways: A Journey On Foot
Robert Macfarlane (Hamish Hamilton, 2012)
A brilliant account of what can happens to ramblers in-between the country pubs.

‘The Other Side of the Rock’,
Shane Howard.
(Goanna Arts, 2012)
A great new album which illustrates how communities of Mutitjulu, Imanpa & Kaltakatjara, in central Australia have retained a strong connections to Uluru.

For Albert, my companion in the pilgrimage.


Vulnerability, Courage and Healing

A few years ago a friend rang me in a state of turmoil.

‘My secretary, Debbie has been off sick for two weeks with probable Leukaemia. I am fond of her and wish to know how she is. But if I ring up it will look as if l am trying to find out when she is going to return. I have no wish to pressurise her. But if l don’t ring, she’ll feel I don’t care . . .’

I responded directly: ‘Dave, are you really fond of her‘?’

‘Yes’ he replied in a voice that was breaking.

‘Then immediately put the phone down and ring her.’

Vulnerability is not necessarily a weakness, as the Tao Te Ching reminds us of the strength and wisdom of vulnerability. ‘That the weak overcomes the strong’. However as we’ve seen, we are constantly exhorted to be more competent in caring and less vulnerable. We strive to learn much more and to become muscular in physical, psychological and spiritual senses. This approach contrasts greatly to Shamanism — healing through wounds. How can we learn to accept these immense treasures inside us and use them for the benefit of all? What sort of training would be necessary?

The over-valuing of competence can mean hiding the ‘unacceptable’ bits from ourselves and others. Kay Jamison, a professor of psychiatry and a psychiatric patient writes:

I am tired of hiding, tired of misspent and knotted energies, tired of the hypocrisy, and tired of acting as though I have something to hide. One is what one is, and the dishonesty of hiding behind a degree, or a title, or any manner and collection of words, is still exactly that: dishonest. Necessary, perhaps but dishonest. I continue to have concerns about my decision to be public about my illness, but one of the advantages of having had manic-depressive illness for more than thirty years is that very little seems insurmountably difficult. (Jamison, 1995b, pp. 7-8)

We can use these experiences of distress and isolation to enter other worlds. They can help narrow the boundaries between different sorts of reality, enlarging our experience and bringing us into more intimate and direct contact with loving others. A healing that means melting the boundaries, being less partial to ourselves and creatively including others in more intimate and wholesome ways. Our broken hearts can make us more available to others.

Direct experience becomes gradually devalued and even rejected. The suffering and poverty of the vast majority turns into yet another service industry. Anti-discrimination strategies become ends in themselves, just mantras for use in college student assignments, separated from any genuine struggle against racism or sexism. We lose sight of the overall struggle for liberation. Walsh (199o, p.16o) comments:

The helping tradition no longer focuses on or even appreciates direct experience of the transcendent. Then what is left is an institution largely devoid of direct experience of the sacred techniques for inducing altered states then give way to mere symbolic rituals, direct experience is replaced by belief and living doctrine fossilizes into dogma. What remains is simply a series of empty rituals.

These suffocating trends have enormous consequences for health and social services in stimulating a culture of fear and competition. Diverse professions compete aggressively with each other, to achieve dominance — nursing versus social work, psychology versus psychiatry. Their very survival seems to depend on the destruction or at the very least the diminution of the other, rather than in making vital connections to expand common knowledge.

Reports about scandal after scandal make important points about the failure of the mental health services to cooperate fully, to save the life of a child or prevent patients from killing themselves.

One disturbing tendency is to industrialise human helping. As we saw with DSM labelling, differentness can easily become understood as deficiency. Human needs father a business more closely linked to professional ambitions than any needs of the distressed service users. People are encouraged to become the passive recipients of quasi-monopolistic services; to be a cash crop for exploitation. Vast tensions in socioeconomic structures are reframed as in some way the fault of individual consumers.

Ironically, major socioeconomic changes select ever more groups for social exclusion and then have to provide the relevant professionals to herd them, be it social workers, nurses, occupational therapists.

Wilkinson (1996) writes of the unrelenting processes of social differentiation which reflects and amplify social hierarchy. It is these processes which create social exclusion, which stigmatise the most deprived and establish social distances throughout society? Such devalued individuals pay extremely high costs.

These powerful trends are an essential ingredient of the ‘consumer’ revolution. We gradually leave behind ways of living, understood as a series of actions for yet another that is simply a collection of experiences more passive than active from being heroic to sunbathing on a sandy beach.

Tourists, holidaymakers, and others are not doing anything very much: they are simply purchasing and laying clown stocks of pleasant memories to be replayed and enjoyed in later years. People are not agents any longer; they are the consumers and the recorders of their own experience. They are their own video-librarians, collecting and arranging shelves of happy memories. Actions are replaced by holiday scrapbooks.

Consumers demand services that are easier to access. Everything from education upwards and downwards must be glycerined. Kenyon (1997, p.25) writes:

The fact is that Brahms needs effort, not just on the part of the performer but from the listener. And we underestimate that at our peril. The big classical works — not just the huge symphonies of Bruckner and Mahler and the operas of Wagner, but also Handel operas, Bach cantatas — make demands on the listener just as do a great book or a great picture.

This sort of challenge lies uneasily with the wishes of consumers for smooth products that ask for little effort.

It was many years ago but it remains fresh in my memory. I wanted to train for nursing profession so attended a selection interview for the course at Cambridge University. I’d been an Elderly Care officer for several years. I was asked to write the required essay on my personal background. I included that I had suffered physical and emotional abuse as a child. I endure regular physical battering by my teachers and that these had left scars that made me want to run away from school. I concluded that the health care field was a process to heal myself and possibly others.

The academic tutor was an earnest intellectual with a degree of studied, ‘objective’ distance that I found disconcerting. He was not at all empathic, rather grim. The hour-long interview felt like an incessant prodding by a long pole. Right at the end he leaned over and remarked languidly: ‘Of course with your background, if we accepted you, we would insist on psychiatric treatment. How would you feel about that?’

‘Psychiatric treatment …. ’ Struggling to answer I felt battered again.

Instantly I was demoted from senior lunatic catcher to junior lunatic. The insistence on psychiatric treatment was made with rubber gloves. I gathered myself together, or rather made a pale imitation of it and muttered ‘OK’. It was far from convincing. I’d received a valuable lesson. Until that moment it had never occurred to me that my childhood was a ‘problem’. But the Pandora’s Box was opened, never to be closed again.

The damaged and wounded side of me has seemed, for the most part, unacceptable to my chosen profession. I’ve written widely about being battered; appeared on prime—time TV shows to talk about the beatings; even made training films on violence. Professionally the response has been largely hostile. Modern social workers are not supposed to be ‘damaged goods’.

Now we’re all managers and technicians, not teachers or healers. Few articles in the journals acknowledge the hidden reasons why many people come to the helping professions. These have much to do with expiation, guilt, seeking forgiveness, experiencing loneliness. This profession was founded on the wounds and scars of people with experiences like mine. We have grown fat and influential on the suffering of neglected and damaged children. We have created a whole new industry out of their pain.

Olshansky (1972) writes:

First, professionals, by training, are committed to treating pathology and abnormality even where none exists …. Second, professionals too often develop a sense of superiority to the people they help. Enjoying feelings of superiority, they somehow lose interest and faith in the capacity of their ‘inferiors’ to change, to grow. Moreover; they expect less from these ‘inferior’ persons. Third, professionals tend to see . . . only the ‘inner space ’, the intra-psychic  professionals tend to place low value on experience. The only experiences they value are the clinical ones, where they are in control and their contacts are brief. The experiences outside the clinic seem to them to be of little value . Fourth, professionals are imprisoned by habits. They prefer to do what they have done. It is easier and more comfortable to treat pathology as they have been doing and as they have been trained to do.

The other side of this issue is the pressure from patients and clients for us to become gods. We demand that doctors don’t make mistakes, always get it right. The British Medical Journal has described doctors as ‘the second victim of medical error’, often paying for a mistake with their mental health, marriages and livelihood.

‘The easy, understandable and completely wrong answer is to blame those who made the mistake.’ (Rice, 2000, p. 25)

So the next time some medic saws the wrong leg off, meditate on their structural problems! The British Medical Journal has understandably come up with the completely wrong answer — to erase large zones of personal and professional responsibility.

Much of this adds up to a flight from pain, a protection against getting too close to emotional and psychological distress, the development of yet more rituals. When doing community nursing I had a patient allocated to me. Her file contained a query about the possible battering of an old lady by a relative. Seven social workers had visited over a number of years. Periodically at a local day centre, the old lady was seen to have bruises on her legs and upper arms. On a number of occasions this was referred to the social work team and investigated. Nothing was discovered about these bruises.

I visited on two occasions. On the second occasion the male relative broke down in floods of tears and ‘confessed’ to ill-treating his elderly relative. He had in his own words been ‘wanting to clear things up for some time’. He felt that the various professionals concerned ‘didn’t wish to hear about the violence’. They were looking at him ‘through plate glass’.

These sorts of defensive strategies serve as a barrier. It often seems to us as professionals that accidents and illness, dying and death, divorce and sorrow are processes happening to others — not to us. Working with others can be a sort of voyeurism, spectator therapy. I recall seeing a patient who was also a social worker, specialising in marital breakdown. A few months earlier her husband had left her for a young woman. She couldn’t understand why it was such a dire struggle. ‘I’ve been through so many breakdowns.’ But this time it was a direct experience, not one to be listened to and watched.

At another level, sickness, especially that with a high psychological component, becomes a fresh sort of immorality, involving the unforgivable burdens placed on others. My friend Jane got cancer a few years ago and nowadays avoids reading anything about it. Most writings make her feel guilty. She feels blamed by much of the sensational output from radio, TV and in magazines and newspapers. If only she’d ridden twenty miles a day on a monocycle, eaten two kilograms of raw rhubarb weekly, washed it down with a quart of pure halibut oil whilst listening to relaxation tapes. The more guilty she feels, the more stress and that is linked with cancer. Never mind the ‘big girls don’t cry’ crap, this one does and openly.

Jane told me how she searched for healers. They had rituals and white coats, leather couches, usually freezing hands; communicated solemnly amid the frequent purification of hand washings. Mostly they subtly deprecated the last professional she’d attended.

When she described the previous interventions there was a slight lifting of eyebrows and increased tension round the mouth. The implication was usually that she was an idiot who’d entirely neglected herself and had put herself foolishly in the cold hands of other barely qualified idiots.

They were talented at communicating disapproval. She was somehow to blame. Diamond describes a particular cul-de-sac when writing about surviving cancer:

It seems that there is a small space where new age philosophy meets sharp—heeled Thatcherism and it is in the idea that we are all entirely responsible for our individual physical states. In a way, of course, that is true enough: my choice to smoke for all those years, to live in the centre of our smokiest city, to eat full English breakfasts in bad provincial hotels must certainly have taken its toll on heart and artery and bronchial tube. And yes, I still smoked and carried on doing so through the treatment I would accept that I may bear the responsibility for the cure not working. It’s the idea of taking spiritual responsibility for a disease once it’s been diagnosed which annoys me. For it leads to the idea of the survivor as personal hero — that only those who want to survive enough get through to the end, and the implied corollary that those who die are somehow lacking in moral fibre and the will to live. I accept that some can grit their teeth, and get through the treatments more happily than others, and even that there are various calming regimes which make the treatment slightly more bearable. In terms of responsibility, though, as far as I’m concerned I will be cured only of the surgeons have cut out the right bits of my neck and the radiologists and radiographers have chosen the right bits of my throat to point their machine at. (Diamond, 1998, p. l96-7)

This sharply observed position is underpinned by an acute lack of humility on the part of New Age healers, a tendency not unknown in mainstream medicine. This is a fresh sort of fascism.

Jane’s experiences were that psychotherapy didn’t help much, neither did crystal swinging or the laying on of hands. What helped her the most was swimming and taking responsibility, not culpability, for the distress. For 18 months she was the first person to arrive each morning at 7 am at Huddersfield swimming baths. At the end she still disliked swimming but her health was much stronger. Jane has long since given up playing at tough girl, well for most of the time.

Kevin is another friend, who has physical disabilities, visual impairment and happens to be a very effective spiritual teacher. It’s lunchtime, but as I’m on this draconian diet to shift a sagging stomach my plate is empty. I’m making a meal at very short notice for Kevin as one of his personal assistants dropped out at short notice for sketchy reasons. I am struggling to heat a freshly prepared dish of vegetarian pasta which, as I am a meat eater, is a considerable difficult skill for me to master.

Kevin is fuming inside and keeps asking: ‘Who was supposed to do my lunch’? Who has dropped out? I am unhappy about this’.

He’s unhappy! What about me? Dragged away at five minutes’ notice from my office and struggling with a dumb microwave. I take his lunch to the tray on the wheelchair for the third time.

‘It’s still cold’ he grimaces. Whatever my limited skills as a nurse, I’m useless as a cook. These banal practicalities are the real test, not the ability to write an essay or research breakthroughs in nursing science.

For the seventh time: ‘Who should be doing my lunch?’

I don’t know or care one bit. Anyone except me. He tells me once more that he’s unhappy. I know he’s unhappy. I struggle again with the microwave, having just failed to find any potatoes. Kevin has a marvellously subtle way of requesting something and when you can’t comply he responds with an implication of incompetence, honed over many years in residential care. The potatoes must be there, it’s just that I’m too stupid to see them. I’m now chock full of rage. I’m so angry with him because he asks the same question over and over again to which I don’t know the answer. I know about memory loss due to the head injury. I’m beginning to feel that I should know who dropped out. My anger rattles around the cutlery drawer. Now I can’t find anything even the napkins. Kevin asks very pointedly how I became a nurse. He seems bemused rather than fascinated. It obviously didn’t include microwave oven or potato tests as I take his meal out once more and simultaneously explain about the obligatory oral exam — for the nursing, not the cooking.

He’s deeply angry.  Too stuck in that bloody wheelchair while the real world goes by. From the promise of a young soldier, playing prop forward for the local rugby union team to life in a wheelchair, seldom going out. Planned routines, an important aspect of his everyday life, are disregarded by thoughtless others. Waiting all day for assistance, who never comes because she’s too busy. Sacred staffing rotas are ignored and unexpected stand ins are dumped on you, and even the microwave mounts a dumb resistance.

I know a thousand clever tricks from counselling training and nursing to process and juggle this anger. I can envision pink flamingos flying over the African plains; hear light waltz music to relax tense tissues; do Yoga Asanas on my neck; whip myself with an ideological birch for falling short of the lunch preparation competencies — from empathy to communication skills.

I choose none of the above. The immense anger surges up my body almost to choking point. After a brief period of this surge, I can feel Kevin’s frustration every time he speaks, both in overtones and in undertones. Some comes from immense disappointment about life in a wheelchair, having to depend on frequently unreliable people making your lunch, whilst mine comes from childhood beatings.

‘Would you like some peas?’ I ask. I can find a packet of peas but no potatoes.

‘Yes’ he responds like a demented parrot, ‘But who was supposed to do my lunch? Where are they? I’m unhappy.’

For the umpteenth time I respond that I don’t know. I wish I did know. It’s an extremely large part of the human condition to be unhappy. It arises out of the great disappointment that life isn’t the way it ought to be, but is the way it is. The person supposed to prepare the lunch didn’t show up; didn’t care enough; didn’t follow the script of the rota.

Kevin and I share that disappointment in spades, except that my begrudging generosity is to be punished, instead of the bastard who sloped off somewhere.

It’s the story of my life. Who are we and who is unhappy? When I’ve finished all these ideological ramblings, simply a major distraction, there’s still lunch to get. The damned microwave is infuriating. None of the buttons work. Why do machines always make me feel stupid? He’s hungry and so am I. Spin-dryer mind whirls round and round again. Anger; healthy eating or rather not eating; accumulating lots of brownie points; unhappiness; should be somewhere else; deep disappointment about not being a good enough person; should feel warm compassion for Kevin but don’t at present; return reluctantly to the discipline of mindful practice; come back to the kitchen and attend to the lunch. This time the veggie dish meets the Kevin test, but only just.

‘Can I have some more coffee?’

I make the coffee ungraciously, and then there’s all the washing up.

I sat down and took a deep breath, ‘Kevin, I’m sorry about lunch, and for not listening earlier. I share some of your frustration and disappointment’

Kevin reached across the table and felt for my hand. He rested his on top of mine.

‘It’s OK, thank you for lunch. I know you’re not a vegetarian’

We both laughed.

Kevin took a deep breath ‘I miss my mum you know,’ and began to sob.

Kevin had lost his mother 12 years ago to breast cancer. We talked about his happy memories of the time they had together. We talked too of the last few days in the hospice where she was made comfortable before dying. There we were at the table, two men in their forties, holding hands and both of us filled with tears.

The book Wounded Healers (Rippere and Williams, 1985) contains accounts by professionals who have suffered from depression, including psychiatrists, nurses and social workers. After their breakdowns they encountered three kinds of reaction from colleagues: active support, accepting them, assuring them that their job was safe: ‘You’re O.K. We still want to know you’; apparent indifference — not noticing their distress or depression, making no comment: overt hostility — employers trying to get rid of them and hostile receptions from colleagues.

In recovery, most felt their skills and empathy had been improved by the experience. A ‘fallen’ social worker wrote:

‘Looking back on my period of depression, I feel it was a turning point in my life. It threw me back on my own resources, and although this was enormously painful at the time, it was the beginning of a long process during which I began to discover what I wanted for myself as an individual rather than as a wife’

That is in stark contrast with this vision of practice in a best-selling social work textbook:

For most people, most of the time, the human way of life ensures self-maintenance; but for a minority, either because of defects of birth, deprivation during childhood, the onset of sickness and old age, they experience of an accident, the shock of bereavement or job loss, or the ill-effects of political , economic or social planning or discrimination, self-sufficiency runs out, and the need for a maintenance mechanic becomes apparent. This need pinpoints the heart of the social worker’s role. (Davies, 1985)

The essential tools are spanners and a handbook — not much space for the healing potential of wounds! All of us are damaged and wounded. The challenge is to use these wounds in the compassionate service of others. Our so—called defects are an important way to serve others. There is an old story of a middle—aged Japanese woman, as sharp as a lemon. She had brought up her only son after her husband died suddenly of a heart attack. She had become embittered; felt that life had dealt unfairly with her. She worked hard, cleaning and washing for a living for little reward.

When the son was nearly 18, the headmaster called to see her. He was highly respected as a teacher but nationally known as a calligrapher.

‘Your son is very talented. He should go to university and enter a profession. I know you have little money but, with your permission, I could write a letter of introduction to the Dean of the faculty at Kyoto University, whom I know from university days. He might decide to take him and find a bursary.’

The mother accepted and watched the headmaster take out a piece of paper and write the letter with a blunt pencil borrowed from her. She was puzzled that he didn’t use his brushes and pens and inks. A few weeks later she travelled with her son to the university.

After handing in the letter to the Dean’s secretary, they waited in the corridor. The Dean came to collect them and was very friendly. He explained that his respect for his old colleague — the headmaster, was so great that he was willing to take the son.

‘Over the next few days, I will try to find a bursary and a place for your son to live. I have just one request. Is it possible that I can have this letter because it’s a work of art and I should like to frame it?’

She explained that the letter belonged to him and then travelled back home alone. Over the next few days she was both sad and joyful. She reflected on the blunt pencil. It made no real sense when he had such excellent pens and brushes. Then she awakened. She was herself a blunt pencil self-pitying, nothing special, but in the hands of a master, giving herself over to the Buddha she could be a vehicle for the creation of a work of art.

Most of us are blunt pencils, some like me perhaps much too blunt for this increasingly sophisticated world. In the right hands, gradually giving up our demands and bitterness, we can be used to create masterpieces, worthy of framing.

Wordsworth’s writing often echoed a wholesome wonder, a respect and worship, detecting an underlying presence:

And I have felt
A presence that disturbs me with the joy
Of elevated thoughts; a sense sublime
Of something far more deeply interfused,
Whose dwelling is the light of setting suns,
And the round ocean and the living rain
And the blue sky, and in the mind of man:
A motion and a spirit that impels
All thinking things, all objects of all thought,
And rolls through all things.

(Wordsworth, Lines written on Yintern Abbey, 1798).

We can gradually lose contact with that, become alienated even from ourselves, seduced into an excessively technological universe with plastic toys and mobile phones. None of that is ‘wrong’ unless we lose a sense of proportion and see it as important.

Wilber (1979, preface) comments:

we create a persistent alienation from ourselves, from others, and from the world by fracturing our present experience into different parts, separated by boundaries. We artificially split our awareness into compartments such as subject vs. object, life vs. death, inside vs. outside, reason vs. instinct, a divorce settlement that sets experience cutting into experience and delighting with life. The result of such violence, although known by many other names, is simply unhappiness. Life becomes suffering, full of battles.

This is a struggle with perceived splits, looking through a glass very darkly. The desire to control is the opposite of a genuine spiritual pathway. Any perception of the world as a series of technical difficulties risks losing the real sense of wonder and marvelling that Wordsworth communicates so well. We are already deep into this sort of society, relying on various forms of social engineering, failing to understand the essentially organic and intimately connected nature of our world.

Everything we do can become calculated, no longer trusting our true nature. It is necessary to reflect before we even walk or crawl.

Merton (1965, p.23) comments on the essential dangers of the excesses of introspection:

The more ‘the good ’ is objectively analyzed, the more it is treated as something to be attained by special virtuous techniques, the less real it becomes. As it becomes less real, it recedes further into the distance of abstraction, futility and unattainability. The more, therefore, one concentrates on the means to be used to attain it. And as the end becomes more remote and more difficult, the means become more elaborate and complex, until finally, the mere study of the means becomes so demanding that all one s effort must be concentrated on this, and the end is forgotten.

I increasingly noticed that our university postgraduate students did work that was more and more distant from the frontlines in nursing and social work. Twenty five years ago we researched issues that had some direct relevance to services; nowadays they produce acres of literature courtesy of the internet and tons of stuff about research methods, but precious little that might improve the services next week or even next year. Reflection can become obsessive.

In mental health, we have already built a high brick wall to protect against a necessary madness, a chaotic and potentially creative disorder. Occidental ideologies are kept distant from Western ideas and practice. Japanese approaches to personal growth, such as Morita and Naikan therapy, remain virtually unknown, in contrast to the great import of the martial arts such as judo and karate. (Reynolds, 1980).

These particular therapeutic systems pose difficulties for the West because they are based on ‘being’ rather than on `having’, on quietness and even silence rather than talking. Mental illness has become a sickness to be managed and sometimes ‘cured’. In contrast, Jamison sees her own manic depression in more complex ways, comprising both yin and yang.

The ominous, dark, and deathful quality I felt as a young child watching the high clear skies fill with smoke and flames, is always there, somehow laced into the beauty and vitality of life. That darkness is an integral part of who I am, and it takes no effort of imagination on my part to remember the months of relentless blackness and exhaustion, or the terrible efforts it took in order to teach, read, write, see patients, and keep relationships alive. (Jamison, 1995b, p. 210).

Transcendent experiences are more usually psychiatrised nowadays. Seeing visions and hearing voices are categorised as psychotic in DSM IV. Hallucinations result in yet more pills. Socrates commented rather more wisely out of his own experience of hearing demons’ voices: ‘our greatest blessings come to us by way of madness, provided the madness is given us by divine gift’ (quoted in Walsh, 199o, p. 9o).

Thankfully, we have the beginnings of a more gracious and delicate psychiatric understanding. Whilst mainstream psychiatry still favours drugs to treat ‘voices’ some dissidents see that as dangerous. Taylor, a Bradford psychiatrist, comments:

‘I don’t think voices are necessarily signs of mental illness. For some people, the experience is brought about by intense distress, and that tends to get them into contact with mental health services} (Moore, 2000, p. 46).

We have a slow move towards some levels of healthy diversity and humility. The shamans have an extremely long tradition. They were the healers in the ancient tribes, still relevant in some parts of the so called undeveloped world.

He or she is in touch with both the extreme pain and the joys of living, described by Jamison above. This sort of journey is fraught with dangers and through it the wounded healer develops a particular relationship with the essential nature of sorrow and suffering. Through his or her gifts, knowledge of alternative ways of living, the overall possibilities of the whole community for survival can be increased.

Kalweit (1992, p. 248) looks at the basis of shamanic healing:

So what is healing, where does it begin, where does it end? Are we really only trying to get rid of physical ailments and to balance psychological deficiencies? Or are we looking for more? Is it really the case that all that needs to be healed is what is labeled illness in the hospital and the psychiatrists office? Certainly the first stage of healing is the healing of body and mind. But the second stage is healing the ‘ego condition. ’

Here we open ourselves to a level where healing is an expansion of perception and of communication.

Many years ago I interviewed a nursing student who wanted a placement with me. She was struggling with her social work / nursing combined course and life as a single parent. Her marriage had just ended in divorce. Towards the end of our encounter she broke down in tears.

She sobbed: ‘I suppose you won’t take me now, I’ve broken down.’ I responded, recalling my own experience at Cambridge, ‘We will take you because you are crying.’

It was sad that she was learning to think that strength meant becoming like a rock rather than a reed. I explained that her suffering could become the start of an important journey.

There was a Zen master who returned home after a long journey to find the funeral taking place of a favourite daughter of friends and neighbours. A man found him in a corner weeping. ‘How can you help your friends in their hour of need, if you’re overwhelmed by tears?’ The master responded: ‘On the contrary, I can help best through my tears.’ Of course he could. His contribution was to feel the full sorrow and tragedy of the event rather than to sit meditating in some corner.

The Zen teacher, Bernard Glassman (1998, p.34) writes of religious retreats in Auschwitz, the former concentration camp:

There are many ways to express a broken heart: tears, laughter, silence, dance, and even German lullabies. You don’t find wholeness till you’re ready to be broken. Evening after evening we found new ways to express our brokenness. Each time we did this, a healing arose. And in the mornings we always went back to Birkenau. It was an endless continuous practice.

Ordinarily our wounds are hidden, protected from others. In this dreadful place it was impossible. Faced with this horror, people’s wounds were opened wide and healing began.

The Norwegian painter Munch wrote of the ways in which creativity exists alongside profound anxieties:

My whole life has been spent walking by the side of a bottomless chasm, jumping from stone to stone. Sometimes I try to leave my narrow path and join the swirling mainstream of life, but I always find myself drawn inexorably back towards the chasms edge, and there I shall walk until the day finally fall into the abyss. For as long as I can remember I have suffered from a deep feeling of anxiety which I have tried to express in my art. Without anxiety and illness I should have been like a ship without a rudder.

The artist lives with an acute sense of impermanence; his painting, writing, music constantly reflecting an acute sense of the ephemeral — the light is fading, the sounds dying away. Munch lived on the edge of a despairing chasm, threatening to pull him in — never to return.

Grof linked some transpersonal crises with these shamanic traditions:

In the experiences of individuals whose transpersonal crises have strong shamanic features, there is a great emphasis on physical suffering and encounter with death followed by rebirth and elements of ascent or magical flight. They also typically sense a special connection with the elements of nature and experience communication with animals or animal spirits. It is also not unusual to feel an upsurge of extraordinary powers and impulses to heal (Grof and Grof, 1986, p. 7—20).

Traditionally the roles of client and professional existed in one person. Injury and vulnerability might also be deliberate.

‘Genuine healers can injure themselves without a second thought; if they are holy, then their wounds heal by themselves. In this way they test their capabilities and provide proof of their healing ability’ (Kalweit, 1992, p. 36)

This seems a bit ostentatious to me and a very long way from practical Zen. My own practice is based on my personal experience of being battered as a child. This forged a strong desire to work with the socially excluded and marginalised. Nursing has been a quest for meaning through clumsy attempts to serve others. I’ve always felt that wounds become our source of compassion.

‘Our suffering is a sacrifice, but often what we suffer from can be a gift of strength, like the shaman’s wound becomes the source of his or her compassion.’ (Halifax, 1994,p. 15).

This is the core of Glassman’s broken heart – a form of awakening:

At some stage the hero’s conventional slumber is challenged by a crisis of life—shattering proportions, an existential confrontation that calls all previously held beliefs into question. It may he personal sickness, as with the shaman; it may be confrontation with sickness in others, as with the Buddha. It may be a sudden confrontation with death.

My past experience of violence still affects me, but sometimes enables me to have more direct communication with those who are battered, and abused. I understand when the abused tell me they freeze when recalling the experience. In my case I disconnected psychologically away from the abuser’s hand and entered a dream state. Sometimes walking in an imagined field, where nothing could hurt me. We know the mind as a self-protective mechanism when under some form of assault.

But eventually the abuse catched up with you. My initial breakdown occurred at the point of my first episode of depression. I know now I was reaping the whirlwind of past violence. There other factors involved to, like brain enzymes not processing properly; perhaps genetics, I rule out none but added another — a spiritual crisis.

What does that really mean’? My ordinary ways of living in the world, frameworks of meaning, weren’t working. I was pitch forked into despair. During this crisis I felt completely separated from the universe and other human beings; precariously perched on the edge of the unknown world. In the depth of depression i felt overwhelmed, alone and misunderstood, mixed in with strong suicidal feelings.

My everyday life was totally wrecked. Everything was worthless, disintegrated into dust. It had been a substantial illusion but nothing more. There was nothing to hold on to, everything shifting in all directions. Those dark uncertainties were filled with great anxiety and gloom. I lived on the edge of nothingness for several months at a time, sometimes even years.

Monthly I travelled by train to visit my Zen teacher at Throssel Hall, where I described living on the edge of oblivion. She congratulated me vigorously. ‘Wonderful Lee. It’s going really well.’ Whatever was going really well wasn’t me.

I couldn’t concentrate on what was happening around me. My scattered energy was fixed on so many negative things from the past and anxiety about the future. I wasn’t engaged with others usually close to me . They seemed distant. I didn’t feel their love. I was frozen, nobody could possibly understand what I was going through.

At infrequent times I emerged into the bright light once more. I blinked to see the immense wonders all around and the shadows melted away. Sometimes, coming from the shadows, I felt light and joyful, like brightly coloured balloons floating upwards. The suffering self was lost for a few hours or days and the way clearly marked, and then the darkness returned.

I am still engaged in that daily struggle that brings so much beauty and sorrow. Most days and weeks I still feel much that way. The only difference now-a-days is I use my direct experience – it has become a form of Shamanic training.

Shamanism is the exploration of personal vulnerability, a continuous contact with the damaged side — wounds stemming from isolation, lack of love and developing ways of using these to reach out lovingly to others. Professional training usually strives to conceal such wounds. Nursing text books mostly discourage self-revelation whilst, in contrast, Shamans use ‘wounds’ overtly as a primary source of healing. This vulnerability involves ‘the dissolution of the boundary between self and the world’ (Kalweit, 1992, p. 71).

Shamanism returns to being human rather than acquiring masses of techniques that offer radical improvements. Shamanic practice turns its back on Homer’s Calypso and the struggle to be superman or woman. Instead it undertakes a paradoxical journey, arriving back at the same place. On the day of my leaving the monastery I asked my teacher ‘What does it mean to be a monk?’ He answered ‘Tomorrow morning, a Zen monk will wake up in your bed and go and get some breakfast. I could have killed him and it took me years to appreciate his response.

The shaman’s art is based on the nature of interconnectedness.

In old Earth cultures, the shaman is the servant of the people, the gods and ancestors, the creatures, plants, and elements. When the world is out of balance, the shaman redresses this disequilibrium. In these cultures, like in Aboriginal culture, illness is understood as a loss of the sense of connectedness, of relatedness,  of continuity — the experience of a kind of existential alienation.

This sort of approach calls for a different posture — knowing nothing. How might an empty mind be used in nursing practice? I can only speak from my own experience. For some time I have been I part of a team offering to meet with people characterized as having severe and enduring mental health problems who are also usually veterans of psychiatric services.

Rather than ‘therapying’, we try to offer speculative comments to the people, which they may, or may not, find interesting. Early in my new experience, I found myself striving to divest myself of the belief that the theories that had been part of my professional socialization were more real, helpful, truthful than other; more vicariously adopted ideas. By doing so, I found that I could be more creative, playful, and interesting for the people who I were listening. (Stevenson, 1996).

Shamanic training would involve interrelated elements:

• Wounds: the shaman explores and uncovers his or her various wounds and stigma. For me, it was a long experience of violence, humiliation and anger. How can we use these experiences so that suffering can be forged on an anvil for healing? Newly forged it becomes the core of the healing.

• Empathy: the connections between us, the ability to put oneself in the shoes of the distressed other.

Can I see another is woe
And not be in sorrow too?
Can I see another s grief
And not seek for kind relief?
(Blake, 1794)

• Loving-kindness: to be a vehicle of affection for the world and the people in it; to make manifest the linking of all things. Schweitzer commented; ‘the only ones among you who will be truly happy are those who have sought and found how to serve.’ (quoted in Walsh,1990, p. 211).

• Rituals: the silence and preparation in the car before entering the house or centre to start interviewing. It involves an obligatory conversation about the perfidious English weather; drinking any tea on offer. Leaving the various bureaucratic forms for the end so that they can be completed together, a practical act of unity; summarising what has been agreed and saying goodbye. These rituals are important for healing as well as for mind focusing. These rituals are jointly accomplished. It is vital for the client to be centrally involved.

• Mindfulness: quietening the mind; daily discipline turning interviews into a meditative experience; concentrate on keeping in the now; keeping the mind single pointed. This sort of learning means giving up what we thought we knew already. It means disposing of our excess baggage.

• Mutual transformation: this process of disciplined helping trans forms both sides, becoming one. We are not helping so much as both being helped. Both shaman and client are students learning to uncover the mysterious elements.

‘All psychotherapeutic methods are elaborations and variations of age—old procedures of psycho logical healing} (quoted in Walsh, 1990, p. 184)

One study shows that some mental health service users increasingly prefer the perceived holism of complementary therapies to drug treatment. One user comments: ‘I have developed a style which combines a spiritual grounding with a variety of therapies, such as the use of art, music, verse and knowledge of stress management to help gain control over my emotions’ (MHP, 1997).

Imagine what great healing could be brought by genuine collaboration between nurses, doctors, social workers and other professionals, combined with the experience and vision of users.
Otherwise we seek answers to the problems of ordinary living that arise out of a profound dissatisfaction with the aridity of much contemporary psychiatry and other professional disciplines.

But as a wise once said to me: ‘just because we don’t fancy the shadows in Plato’s draughty cave, doesn’t mean we have to rent rooms in Disneyworld’. I think he meant we must take great care not take flight from reason as well as a genuine quest for nonexistent certainties.

At the basis of all our healing is increasing self-awareness and compassion to others. This asks us to be gentle with ourselves and others and to surrender our different images of perfection as deluded measures of the world, and to see it with honesty and love.

And not knowing is important too. The direct opposite of not knowing is pretending or even deluding yourself that you have knowledge. An American professor was anxious to learn more of Zen on a visit to Tokyo. Through the consulate it was arranged for him to visit a Zen master. Very carefully the master made tea whilst the professor chattered on about his readings of Zen. He talked of the books he’d reviewed, the seminar he`d attended, the important people he’d met. He continued his discourse until the tea was made and the master poured it into the cup held by the professor. The tea overflowed from the cup into the saucer but still the professor talked on.

It was only when the tea poured from the saucer and onto the floor that he stopped and exclaimed: ‘My cup is full’. The Zen master said softly: ‘So I see.’

Montaigne (1958 , p.25 5) had in mind people like this particular professor: ‘The learned generally trip over this stone. They are always parading their pedantry, and quoting their books right and left’.

But these drives have all sorts of origins. Some of us are driven by self-importance; others like this Japanese farmer, by a desire for increased material comfort and concern for the family. Many years ago a hard—pressed farmer in northern Japan sought help from an old Buddhist abbot who he respected a great deal. ‘I desperately need money. My daughter must get married soon and acquires a dowry. My son needs more land and a house of his own. I need to clear my debts, so my wife and I can rest easy in our old age. Do you know any sure way of making gold‘?’

The said the abbot, ‘What a relief, I thought you were going to ask something difficult. That’s simple. Follow my instructions carefully and you will make lots of gold, quite sufficient for all your needs. First get a large cauldron full of water and bring it to the boil on a roaring fire. Then put into the water two large smooth stones, preferably from the beach. Add a pinch of salt and pepper and the leaves of these herbs. Simmer for precisely two hours and the stones will have turned into pure gold nuggets?

The farmer was extremely pleased. He listened intently and rushed off to try out the recipe after profuse thanks and many bows. The abbot shouted after him:

‘Just one last thing. During the whole process you must not think of a green crocodile or else the whole process will fail.’

‘I understand’ he called back breathlessly.

Next week the abbot observed a head—bowed and defeated man. ‘What happened‘?’ he asked. ‘Well’, he explained, ‘I got everything perfect the cauldron, the boiling water, the pebbles, the salt and pepper and the herbs and the whole mixture is bubbling nicely when the image of a green crocodile enters my mind. The pebbles simple remain pebbles. The harder I try, the more the green crocodiles come into my head. I can’t eat or sleep. I wish l was dead.’

As usual and most annoyingly, the Zen story ends just as it gets interesting. Perhaps the farmer eventually realises that the abbot had given him something much more precious. He had skillfully cut at the scales over the gold seeker’s eyes. Perhaps the farmer now understands that he’s a shaman. Hopefully the ‘failure’ of the gold experiments is the beginning of liberation.

After a quarter of a century in paid and unpaid helping, one thing is clear: I can live with doubt and uncertainty and not knowing. I think it is much more interesting to live not knowing than to have answers which might be wrong. I have approximate answers and I possible beliefs and different degrees of certainty about different things, but I ’m not absolutely sure of anything and there are things don’t know anything about, such as whether it means anything to ask why we’re here… I don’t have to know the answer. I do feel frightened sometimes by not knowing things, by being lost in a mysterious universe without any purpose, which is the way it really is as far as I can tell. So in this respect it frightens me as much as it inspires. Now that is a million light years away from ignorance and much closer to humility.

Sometimes though, we cannot live with the ‘not knowing’, and that’s OK too. My friend Dave eventually plucked up the courage to call Debbie, and told her about his irrepressible concern for her wellbeing. Though he was still unsure and consumed with self-doubt, he didn’t hold back because a greater force was at work. When Debbie answered she was simply thrilled to hear from him, she had hoped he’d call. The conversation was to be a life changing event for both of them. Dave supported Debbie through the treatment of Leukemia and they are now engaged to each other. Vulnerability was transformed into a strength.

References supplied on request.


Spirituality, Compassion and Imperfection

Several years ago in a large shopping mall I watched this scene unfold. About 100 yards in front of me an elderly lady had fallen down an escalator. Her shopping had spilled everywhere. One of her legs was bleeding, and with the escalator still moving there remained other possible dangers.

As I approached five or six people, none of whom knew the lady or each other until moments before, had already burst in to action, forming a collaborative team. A young man pressed the emergency button to stop the escalator; a couple lifted the elderly lady from the metal stairs, where she was balanced precariously to the main floor, and someone’s coat was placed under her head. A middle-aged man dialed 999 to call for an ambulance. A young woman came out of the nearest shop bringing with her a first aid kit. She knelt over the elderly ‘patient’, asked how she was, assessing for shock, and explained that she was a off-duty nurse. The lady was shaky but unbowed. The gash in her leg wasn’t too bad, although there was a lot of blood.

The main actors stood around sympathetically, awaiting the arrival of the paramedic crew. One man had blood on his jacket from lifting her off the escalator. Another man and woman had collected her spilled shopping and put it back in the bags. Other people offered help but weren’t need, so effectively had the team performed. And then the experts arrived. The ambulance could be heard some distance off; the paramedics, so familiar from various TV programmes, dressed in medical uniforms carrying specialist equipment, arrived efficiently and quickly. The helpers melted away and became curious onlookers.

Everyone was touched by this experience. For a few minutes these complete strangers had acted selflessly, had given no thought to themselves. Nobody had thought ‘this is no business of mine’, or if they had, they had quickly dismissed it and taken responsibility, like the good Samaritan. Then the middle-aged man looked at his watch and the spell was broken. The young man talked to his girlfriend they and walked off, leaving the off-duty nurse in charge.

The patient seemed fine and people remembered who they were – an accountant going to a busy company board meeting; a mother collecting her children from school; a young woman in love… for a few moments the world had frozen a compassionate snapshot, but then, as in the marvelous last lines of Larkin’s poem Aubade the everyday world began to move once more. The shopping mall accident became an event, to be mused over that evening in front of a score of TV sets or even earlier in two dozen offices. But for a few moments all those ordinary people had behaved extraordinarily, lost in the service of a single distressed other.

With the plethora of books about spirituality from the self – improvement industry, we can easily forget that spirituality is simply a journey of uncovering oneself and about melting barriers: that one is all things: mountains, rivers, grasses, trees, sun, moon, stars, universe, are all oneself. Realising this natural state results in what is commonly referred to in Zen Buddhism as ‘true compassion’. Other people and things are no longer seen as apart from oneself but on the contrary, as one s own body.

The Vietnamese Monk Thich Nhat Hanh expresses ‘true compassion’ in terms of the many true names we have:

I am the child in Uganda,
all skin and bones,
my legs as thin as bamboo sticks,
and I am the arms merchant,
selling deadly weapons to Uganda.

I am the twelve—year-old-girl,
refugee on a small boat,
who throws herself into the ocean
after being raped by the sea pirate,
and I am the pirate,
my heart not yet  capable of seeing and loving.

I am a member of the politburo,
with plenty of power in my hands,
and I am the man who has to pay
his ‘debt of blood ’ to my people,
dying slowly in a forced labour camp.

My joy is like spring, so warm
it makes flowers bloom in all walks of life.
My pain is like a river of tears,
soul it fills all four oceans.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can hear all my cries and laughs at once,
so I can see that my joy and pain are one.

Please call me by my true names,
so I can wake up and so the door of my heart,
the door of compassion, can be left open.
(Hanh, 1982, p. 63-4)

However true compassion is difficult to achieve in modern society. Our existing government uses zero tolerance as a way of dealing with complex social issues, connected to us all. At present the newspapers are full of stuff about zero tolerance to beggars, London police are extending their policy of arresting beggars — especially those considered aggressive. The Victorian debate about the deserving and undeserving poor has never really gone away. We are in great danger of using ideological aerosol sprays on difficult and extremely complex social issues. We are zapping the beggars and moving them off the streets, but to where’? We demand speedy and effective remedies, rather than trying to understand how we are all interlinked and why it is undesirable to have the sort of life we wish. We have to give up this war against ourselves; the unceasing struggle against our ordinariness and grasping for the extraordinary, thinly concealed under the skin of personal growth.

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with the way we are. Our imperfect lives can echo love and joy, pain and despair, all of which contrasts immensely with DSM IV (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, Vol. IV), squashing people into tiny boxes. There is enormous pressure to be similar; to fit in, to believe the same ideas, wear the same things or risk exclusion, to become invisible. Our biological magnificence is found in and amongst us, the miraculous diversity of sex, gender, race, skin colour, height and breadth, and varying ideas and aspirations.

However ever new models of perfection surround us, thus making us feel that we’re outdated, disconnected and unwanted. There are better quality models, just like next year’s car or fridge. Now there is a ‘new man’, ‘new woman’ and even ‘new child`, as seen in the glossy brochures. They walk taller with more self-assurance, are cleverer, more confident, better mentally adjusted, wittier, handle life more effectively. They can take on all our existing roles and tasks and conduct the London Symphony Orchestra whilst playing the mouth organ and simultaneously composing a Shakespearean sonnet.

Of course these super individuals have their gurus — fitness coaches, personal growth therapists, spiritual masters — to whom they pay homage. They turn their busy lives into a business venture, never having a moment for aimless wandering or watching Telly Tubbies. They write and illustrate coffee-table books, produce video tapes and CDs, guiding the rest of us, all below-par schmucks, to the fashionable Celestial City of the day in several easy steps for only a few dollars more. With a bit of application and lots of money we can become just like them — extremely successful, wealthy, serene and handsome. We can join the spiritual Baywatch plan or become Buddhist Bunnies, with cotton lotus blossoms covering our slim rears.

These new people are huge improvements on us; giant evolutionary steps further on. We are Neanderthals to their Homo sapiens. They are physically more powerful, beautiful, sexier, fitter, wiser, with an improved sense of humour and a natural grace. They never smoke, chew gum, eat cream cakes, pick their feet or noses, swear at idiots, fart except in toilets or refuse to admit when they’re wrong. They always make the right choices in relationships and would honestly level with their intimates if things went emotionally wrong — which is never. They work on themselves assiduously and self-consciously. Their only dreams are about improving themselves.

The one tiny problem is that they don’t really exist, except as destructive fantasies inside our paranoid and fevered imaginations and profiles in the colour supplements. The dangers lie not in fantasies about superiority but in rejection, as Foucault reminded us. For example the worship of so—called beauty necessarily involves rejection of the so—called ugly. The disabled actor Nabil Shaban (1996) invented the term ‘body fascism’ to describe the pernicious process of rejecting bodies that are not ‘beautiful’ or are seen as ugly within narrow boundaries. This rejection includes (or rather excludes!) those viewed as large, fat or elderly, and those with visible disabilities — those in wheelchairs and the vast numbers who don’t look anything like Naomi Campbell or Claudia Schiffer.

Processes of exclusion are used to project dissatisfaction — a profound revulsion against the way we are, a deep and largely unattainable desire to be someone better — leading to eccentric plastic surgery, fantastic profits in cosmetics, excessive time in fitness centres. Slimming becomes a lifestyle for many women in pursuit of perfection. This is a quest for perfection by hungry ghosts; the holy grail is no longer sought in temples. cathedrals or even Jerusalem, but hungered after in shopping malls, at Weight Watchers or growth groups, or via counselling and psychotherapy.

Somehow we are considered just not good enough any more. The media offer a multitude of improvements on our inferior and flawed selves. There already exist vastly improved models that typify what we might become, with considerable effort and guidance from a variety of gurus and counsellors. The journey towards perfection, whatever that might mean, becomes almost irresistible. We seem increasingly under an obligation to work on ourselves, to become better. The real question is: good enough for what or for whom’?

We are swamped by noisy invitations to ‘improve ourselves’ — to read faster, to speak more clearly — from plastic surgery to the ‘working on ourselves’ of the personal growth movement. More recently the growth in knowledge of genetics, has offered the even greater ‘promise’ of reconstructing and even adding to existing physiological structures. So we can refurbish ourselves, rid ourselves of flat feet, smelly breath, a dull personality and unruly hair. Why should living with our so obviously flawed and often damaged selves be in anyway acceptable? We can get fresh and glossy packaging so easily.

Or as the Cartoonist Feiffer wrote acidly:

I used to think I was poor. Then they told me I wasn’t poor; I was needy. Then they told me it was self-defeating to think of myself’ as needy. I was deprived. Then they told me that underprivileged was overused. I was disadvantaged. I still don’t have a dime. But I have a great vocabulary.

Our flaws and often charming eccentricities become increasingly pathologised, formally listed in the psychiatric textbooks, especially in DSM IV. The DSM system constructs diagnostic categories out of everyday living and, increasingly, behaviours that are often ordinary and even banal. Many categories like the personality disorders are vague and essentially ‘untreatable’; even more bizarrely their untreatability becomes an ingredient of their diagnosis.

We live our lives in packages and ribbons, TV and magazine adverts turn us into yet another, if unusually complex, commodity in the global supermarket. We have all become easy targets for the selling of chocolate, cigarettes, cars, holidays. We all dress completely uniquely but reasonably alike in similar T-shirts, jeans, socks and trainers, carrying cloned plastic bags, all with identical fashionable logos.

We are recreated in ten thousand different images. A multitude of glossy fashion magazines tell us to look this way, to wear this colour. There are powerful messages about the currently preferred sexy shapes and sizes. We are instructed about what makes us attractive, via a hundred thousand Seychelles photos. But the real media gift is to package and sell us ourselves, all tied up with attractive ribbons. The makeover industry has entered the body, the mind and now the soul. For a brief season or two, a souped-up version of spirituality becomes popular.

Much of this is about increasing control. Clearly this is a ripple of infantile omnipotence — if I control myself I can hold the universe in the palm of my elegant hand. Magazines and newspapers, especially their colour supplements, persuade us to ‘improve’ — physically, socially, materially and spiritually — so they can sell us even more goods and chop down still more of the Brazilian rainforest while urging us to become ‘better and more socially aware’. The trend is for articles about ecology, the greenhouse effect, global warming — whatever is sexy and fashionable. Currently there is sensible and growing pressure for more effective husbandry of the planet, campaigns against excessive waste, We have to live more prudently and wisely. These important messages are sandwiched between expensive adverts tempting us with impossibly expensive perfumes; urging us to drive bigger and faster cars guzzling ever more petrol.

But the real money is not in Brazilian rainforests, cleaner beaches, organic farming, respecting the planet, but in the so—called ‘improvement’ of ‘oneself’. This is the age of mind hucksters. These psychological fitness coaches borrow from Charles Atlas and develop muscles of the mind and soul. First they need us to feel bad about ourselves. The media are full of stuff about ‘pressure’ and ‘stress’ , and they increase our overall stress by devoting thousands of column inches to extolling impossible attainments, as if they were ordinary and everyday. The various remedial packages increasingly contain the magical word ‘SPIRITUAL’. This is no longer a genuine longing for liberation or enlightenment, but a crude expression of greed.

But why do spiritual teachers have to be perfect? The worship of any sort of idol, false or genuine, is both dangerous and destructive. The Zen masters and Tibetan lamas I’ve known were ordinary men and women shrouded in projected mystery, capable of great heights and extraordinary stupidities. Sometimes in equal measures. Inevitably and with monotonous regularity, it’s revealed that our favourite spiritual gurus chewed tobacco, drank excessively, or were fond of sex with beautiful men and women.

Somehow we’re feeling increasingly bad about ourselves, whereas others seem so much better. We’ve seen the mirror of the soul and fallen far short of vague but high standards, regularly redefined by a distant group of judges. Just as in a Kafka novel, we never get to meet these people. They keep putting up the psychological and spiritual high-jump bar, so it becomes ever harder to clear. These so-called ‘experts’ appear regularly in the newspapers, on television and radio. From where do they get their standards? Can they live by their own advice – have regular peak experiences, leap triumphantly over ethical walls, achieve total psychological consistency?

It’s become almost immoral and a waste of our ‘vast untapped potential’ to be just ordinary — even normal? ‘Average’, ‘just normal’, ‘very average’ have become modern insults. Most of us are fairly slobbish, watch TV for long hours weekly, eat lots of food that is notably unhealthy, take insufficient exercise, and even more dreadfully obscene — smoke, take drugs and drink alcohol. So bloody what? The struggle against personal inadequacies but not structural failings has become a war.

John Diamond, who begins his book entitled ‘C — because cowards get cancer too . . .’

It isn’t a book about a battle against cancer because I despise the set of warlike metaphors that so many apply to cancer. My antipathy to the language of battles and fights has nothing to do with pacifism and everything to do with a hatred for the sort of morality which says that only those who fight hard against their cancer survive it or deserve to survive — the corollary being that those who lose the fight deserved to do so. (Diamond, 1998, p. 10).

In this context of an overall battle, ordinary vulnerability is completely unacceptable. lt is repulsive and repugnant to be frightened, anxious, stupid, depressed and despairing. We must reach for the distant stars, grab a necklace of peak experiences, be ‘self-actualised’, at least treble our potential and turn into geniuses. We should dream (or is it more usually a nightmare) of becoming a ‘better person’; more of everything our mind and grasp can desire. The heart is usually a lot wiser than that.

But any genuine move towards better living lies in robust action rather than in simply reading and listening. Action can be painful and demands a fundamental integrity. It involves genuine personal awareness, accepting ourselves – our faults and all-  and it also means critically reviewing how we live and whether it’s justified if it involves the use of scarce and essentially non—renewable resources. This always requires some pain and sacrifice and is founded on deep respect and reverence for this fragile planet.

We desire painlessness, a sort of enduring spiritual anaesthetic, which inevitably involves an obsession with sickness and health, seen in direct opposition to health. Despair is reconfigured as clinical depression. Foucault reminds us: Every society establishes a whole series of oppositions — between good and evil, permitted and prohibited, lawful and illicit, criminal and non—criminal, etc. All these oppositions, which are constitutive of society, today in Europe are being reduced to the simple opposition between normal and pathological. This opposition not only is simpler than others, but also has the advantage of letting us believe there is a technique to bring the pathological back to normal. (Foucault, quoted in Adams, 1999, p. 58)

This results in attempts to vanquish and exclude the rejected polarity. Zero tolerance. Yet another defense is to magic away distressed people through linguistic conjuring. The poor become ‘disadvantaged’ unhappy people are ‘dysfunctional’, battered children are transformed into ‘non—accidental injuries.

Galbraith suggests this is a strong insurance against discomfort:

Those so situated, the members of the functional and socially mobilized under class, must, in some very real way, be seen as the architects of their own fate. If not, they could be, however marginally, on the conscience of the comfortable. There could be a disturbing feeling, however fleeting, of unease, even guilt. (Galbraith, 1993 , p. 97)

We cannot live side by side with obviously distressed people unless they are to blame and we are innocent. Nothing inside them or they way they live can be allowed to disturb our lives. This jargon of poverty and distress cleverly manipulates issues of power and pain by transferring them to a psychological framework. The poor have dwindled away not in size but in presence. They have ceased to be sweating and struggling human beings, real to the senses.  One disabled friend told me recently that two support workers had left him because they felt over involved. When I asked what he thought they meant, he said: ‘They’re supposed to be objective’. We both laughed.

Altruism has become especially suspect. Ideas of personal service are disparaged and derided. Those who serve others are condemned as do-gooders, out of touch with harsh realities. Self—interest becomes the only legitimate motivation, any seeming compassion is stupid or fraudulent. All of us know that’s untrue. Our daily lives are full of small moments of love, from those who cherish us at home to strangers who politely wait while we drive into busy lanes of traffic.

We are not born ignorant but perversely forget what we know. We grow up and lose much of the intuitive understanding we gained as small children. We are carefully socialised amid an ocean of triviality and wisdom. The triviality protects us, inadequately, from a primordial fear of powerful and seemingly overwhelming shadow forces. These forces seem both separate from and hostile to us. They seem to cut the light from our life, threaten to overwhelm everything we do. They seem a perpetual enemy, of which we must be constantly vigilant. Part of our mind is constantly looking over its shoulder.

We seek distractions to avoid the shadows, squandering our preciously brief existence. This can mean almost anything — toys of all sorts, computers, hi-fi equipment, sex, cars and boats, reading books on personal growth. Usually, our main escape routes involve busyness — a thousand inconsequential activities, hurrying and scurrying rather than facing the challenge of shadowland. We read, listen to loud music, play football, watch TV and chatter on interminably, rather than face this terrifying part of ourselves, invested with our fears, despairs, hostilities and anger — profoundly unacceptable fragments of ourselves. To fail to accept those fragments, is to fail to accept the whole, and to die slowly and fearfully whilst still walking around on two legs.

We can run away from many essential realities but we can’t run away from life, sickness and death. There is no escape except through suicide. We pretend that we’re happy and whistle a happy tune. We learn to substitute impermanent goods and possessions for the real things in life, but moths and rust destroy them all eventually. In running away, we are forced to value the tinsel of existence. We make demands, inaccurately identified as needs. We live complicated lives that involve rushing from here to there and contain little silence and space.

Why are we obsessive about measuring our ‘achievements”? Socially and economically we play ‘winners and losers’. Losers are on the dole or have poorly paid or worthless jobs. They live in run—down council house estates, probably in northern England, Scotland or Wales. They eat fried bread, beef-burgers, fish and chips, and are labelled ‘malingerers’ by the popular media. They are on the far edges of our society. They share most of the sorrows and very few of the joys.

The winners are valued and ‘successful’, acquiring the mountain of consumer durables that proclaim their ‘high’ social status. For a brief moment they can deceive themselves, feel at the top of the pecking order, the king or queen of the cardboard castle. They can show the world their large country estate, motor launch, Rolls Royce or platinum American Express card. But these ‘successful’ people really know that an accumulation of material possessions is no genuine achievement.

Paradoxically the more ‘successful’ the social presentation, the more lonely we become. We are on our own even in the presence of many others, no matter how intimate. The vital realities of our lives — such as being born, our dependence on others, becoming sick, dying and death — are denied and almost completely submerged under a hogwash of external activity. We are packaged and sanitised. We are hopelessly lost in the noisy global market. That is an immense cost for a few hours of escape from fear.

Now we live hand to mouth — often frightened, joyful, anxious, angry, loving, untidy, feeling ugly and unwanted — we begin to feel less real than the people in a breakfast cereal TV advert, with glowing faces and eager anticipation of the day ahead. Everyone else seems so much more alive. We watch ourselves like thousands of football spectators. Our minds are fragmented much of the time. There are more post mortems than real action. Even when we feel good, we know that further bouts of despair and self-doubt are just around the corner.

John Clare, the nineteenth—century poet, wrote of living with the ‘shipwreck of my own esteem:

‘As young children, we knew loneliness as an occasional visitor, especially at night. Now that visitor has taken up lodgings. Our essential selves are brick—walled from others. We can never show our real and essentially vulnerable selves. We can show only the tidy ends, the authentic untidiness remains closely concealed. But that means denying our human uniqueness, all the personal experiences and true feelings — ultimately to bury the deep knowledge of who we really are’.

So there is a great temptation to see spirituality as something special, involving superior powers. It is usually written of as if it contains extra ingredients that are possessed only by the chosen few — modern Calvinism. ‘One of the ways in which “spirit” has been interpreted is to separate it altogether from organised religion and a set of beliefs and link it to a “special way of being”. Spirit and spiritual states are seen as something beyond the mundane and everyday. This sort of quest for perfection is destructive, whether in chocolate cakes or in gurus. This Disney like process — the temptation to beautify and sentimentalise, concentrating exclusively on light rather than darkness — is powerful and injurious.

Our yearning for spirituality, like our yearning to be of service to others can also be an inventive commodity of the ego, all with improved products with fresh ingredients. Spiritual gifts are easily used for egotistical purposes, subverting even the noblest of intentions. And it is easy to get absurdly fluffy about spirituality. The paradoxes become filled with mystical nonsense. Sadly much of what passes for contemporary spirituality is linked with the New Age movement, characterised by intellectual promiscuity – the borrowing and stealing from hundreds of different disciplines. This results in an unhealthy sprint from reason, taking refuge in a mess of sentimentality.

As a finite self then, a human struggles to find goodness, truth, beauty and life at the exclusion of evil, poverty, ugliness and death. But such one-sided fulfillment is impossible. Given the inseparability of the poles, one cannot arrive at a pure or absolute form of one pole at the exclusion of the other. Although someone might find temporary, relative satisfaction, the negation of that satisfaction soon arises. Expressed with the metaphor of waves, insofar as people exist as waves on the agitated surface of an expanse of water we are eternally unsettled, for waves continue to arise and fall in endless succession.

So the question becomes, how to ride that wave? Or in contemporary terms, in the age of plastic surgery, the dawn of cloning and the growth of ten thousand psychological tricks, the question is can we give up perfection for ordinary human living? Can we arrive at a genuine understanding of imperfections? We don’t want to eradicate them — but to learn and grow from their promptings. This is the essential Tao, the harmony of ordinary everyday living rather than devotion to self-cherishing. In our own wisdom and competence we can choose the unique human heritage — of compassion, caring that comes from genuine empathy for the other, with the ordinary life of triumphs and disasters, illness and eventual death.

Matt Seaton, husband of Ruth Picardie, illustrates this struggle when watching his wife dying over the months:

‘You always imagine death as a sudden event, a clean break between being and non-being, possession and loss — and for same facing perhaps the dreadful trauma of losing a loved, one killed suddenly in an accident, that is how it must be. But with a progressive disease like cancer, dying is a relentlessly process of estrangement. You want so much to do and say the right thing, but you are doomed to frustration, failure and regret. The only really ‘right thing’ would be to make that person you love well again, and that is the one great god-like task you cannot perform’. (Picardie, 1998, p. 103)

The dying of a loved one shatters all social conventions. Ordinarily we feel compelled to wear a social face, a smoothly smiling face that is acceptable, likeable and popular but without authenticity. Who are we? We have forgotten how to communicate with others. We have sold our integrity for some cheap social acceptability. We translate our natural changeability into a learned consistency with little substance. This face buys shallow acceptance. To be rejected might mean social death, perhaps to be viewed as mad. To be deemed crazy, psychotic, the odd one out or as ‘making waves’ is a fundamental fear. Events such as dying and death crash through all of that skin—deep presentation.

So going back to true compassion. We are the homeless people in the night shelter next door; the social service bureaucrats as well as residential workers supporting people with disabilities; we nurse the patients — sick and dying in hospital — as well as sell military hardware to the Middle East and patent for profit the discoveries of human DNA research. We are all of us so much more than lengthy lists of problems, symptoms and diseases. We are a huge and necessary diversity of peoples and individuals, each one a galaxy of elements with it’s own imperfections. Embracing this seems to me to be at the heart of spirituality.

References and further reading

Adams. Peter (1999) The Soul Medicine – An Anthology of Illness and Healing. London. Penguin

Diamond, John (1998) C – Because Cowards Get Cancer Too. London. Vermillion

Galbraith, John Kenneth (1993) The Culture of Contentment. London. Penguin

Gould, Stephen Jay (1996) Life’s Grandeur. London. Jonathan Cape

Hanh Thich, Nhat (1982) Peing Peace London. Rider.

Ives, C (1992) Zen Awakening. London. McMillan

Lomas, P (1987) The Limits of Interpretation. London. Heinemann

Picardie, R (1998) Before I Say Goodbye. London. Penguin

Shaban, Nabil  (1996) Without Walls: Supercrips and Rejects. Channel 4 TV

Trungpa, Choygam (1969) Meditation in Action. London. Stuart and Watkins.

Trungpa, Choygam (1987) Cutting Through Spiritual Materialism Boston. Shambala

Uchiyama, K (1990) The Zen Teaching of ‘Homeless’ Kodo Shimogyio-Ku. Japan. Schumucho

Essays Opinion Reviews

The Alleged Lunatics

John Thomas Perceval (1803 – 1876) founded the first ever user-led advocacy service, the Alleged Lunatics’ Friend Society, in 1845. Perceval’s beliefs about mental distress and recovery resonate with those of the service user/survivor and advocacy movements today.

Perceval was a very remarkable man and was author of a moving account of his own incarceration and (mis)treatment for mental ill health, A Narrative of the Treatment Experienced by a Gentleman, During a State of Mental Derangement: Designed to Explain the Causes and the Nature of Insanity and to Expose the Injudicious Conduct Pursued Towards Many Unfortunate Sufferers under that Calamity. The first volume of the Narrative appeared anonymously in 1838, and the second volume, under his name, in 1840.

His father was a politician who became prime minister, only to be assassinated in the Houses of Parliament in 1812, when John was only nine. His killer was John Bellingham, diagnosed as insane and hung shortly after. In his Narrative, Perceval describes an idyllic upbringing broken by the murder ‘I was born of parents powerful, honourable, and happy, till a cruel blow deprived my mother of a husband, and her family of a father.’ He was educated at Harrow, served briefly in the army, but left and went up to Oxford University. While there he heard of an evangelical group in Scotland and decided to leave to learn more of the so-called ‘Row miracles’. However he found the experience of seeing others having visions and speaking in tongues in church disturbing, and the group in turn considered him very odd.

Perceval left Scotland after three months and went to stay with friends in Dublin, and it was here, in December 1830, that he experienced his first breakdown. In January 1831, his oldest brother Spencer brought him in manacles
by coach from Ireland to the well-respected private madhouse establishment of Dr Edward Long Fox (1761–1835) at Brislington (Gloucestershire). Perceval was ‘treated’ with shockingly iced baths and forced dunkings, cold vapor baths, and medicines that he called ‘noxious fumigations’, and twice with bloodletting.

In May 1832, after continual protests, he was transferred to Ticehurst House in Sussex, owned and run by Dr Charles Newington and probably the most lavish asylum in the country – although luxury was most certainly not Perceval’s experience: ‘I met… with nothing but severe falls and blows on my face and arms from the door, and rough handling from my attendant; who threw me back violently on the seat, and when there struck me in the abdomen, and then pitched into my face.’

Perceval became deaf in his left ear as a direct consequence of the attacks he experienced from his ‘keeper’. After three long years in madhouses, Perceval finally got his freedom in 1834, moved to London, and married Anna Gardner. They had four daughters – the first born in 1836. He decided to write a book of his experiences and moved to Paris in 1835, where he met Dr Esquirol, soon to be a leading figure in the reform of asylum abuses, who advised him about the political actions needed for reforming the lunacy laws. Perceval wrote a great deal of his Narrative, published in two volumes in 1838 and 1840, during this period.

Journey out of madness Perceval’s Narrative is essentially a journey backwards into madness, in which he is trying to make some sense of what happened to him, five years on. He describes the barbarity of treatments beginning in Dublin, at Brislington and later at Ticehurst. Some were part of the so-called ‘heroic regime’ – based on attempts to shock the unwary lunatic into sanity – which included freezing baths. Other strategies were based on disrespect and devaluing, which Perceval found unusually abhorrent because of his aristocratic background: ‘The gross want of respect to situation, rank, character, or profession, manifested by these men on all occasions, is shocking to the imagination, and revolting to reflection…’

Other practices were simply ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ – the characteristic of mental health services for centuries – ranging from mocking and winding up through to unnecessary seclusion and manacling to kicks and punches. Things were done daily without the slightest attempt to consult or engage with him. The madhouse regime was aimed at breaking down his will and rendering him remonstrance; and impolitic, without a thorough knowledge of the temper and humour of the individual to whom it was applied.’ The Narrative reflects on what might help in healing. ‘The chief thing to be desired in the treatment of an insane person is quiet, peace, security; security from intrusion, observation, exposure. A lunatic appears insensible, but his is, perhaps the most alive of any mind to ridicule, and to the contemptibleness of his state… If indeed, he were in quiet, peaceful circumstances, if he were secure he might find his mind reflect to his conscience perfectly, what the trouble occasioned by internal and external alarm prevents him noting; but the opposite is his position.’

As Perceval gradually recovered, he considered the key issues in healing and understanding. He explores the meanings of literal and metaphoric communication as well as the spirit: ‘… you will hear one lunatic declare that he is made of iron, and that nothing can break him; ‘I resolved – I was necessitated – to put my strength and abilities against that system… in order to expose and unravel the wickedness and the folly that maintained it, and to unmask the plausible villainy that carried on totally passive and compliant. My silence, I suppose, gave consent. I mean, that I was never told, such and such things we are going to do; we think it advisable to administer such and such medicine, in this or that
manner; I was never asked, Do you want any thing? Do you wish for, prefer any thing? Have you any objection to this or to that?’

Perceval sums up his brutal experiences in Brislington: ‘For nearly eight months I may say that I was never out of a strait-waistcoat; I used to be tied up in it, in a recess the whole day, on a wooden seat, for months and months, with my feet manacled to the floor, and in the presence of fourteen other patients.’ In the eyes of Perceval, the mad doctors understood very little about insanity and its treatment: the 19th century mental health services offered almost the exact
opposite of what was needed for recovery: ‘I needed quiet, I needed tranquility; I needed security, I needed even at times seclusion – I could not obtain them. At the same time I needed cheerful scenes and lively images, to be relieved from the sad sights and distressing associations of a madhouse; I required my mind and my body to be braced, the one by honest, virtuous and correct conversation, the other by manly and free exercise; and above all, after the coarse and brutal fellowship I had been reduced to, I sighed for the delicacy and refinements of female society.’

In Perceval’s view, staff needed to comprehend the whole social context of their patients. This had to begin with understanding the meanings of the various ‘delusions’ expressed. Nothing was just nonsense; everything had some sort of meaning. Instead: ‘If the insulting and degrading treatment… was indeed designed to mortify and probe the feelings, it was preposterous, without explanation, expostulation, or another, that he is a china vessel, and that he runs in danger of being destroyed every minute.

The meaning of the spirit is, that this man is as strong as iron, the other as frail as an earthen vessel; but the lunatic takes the literal sense, and his imagination not being under his own control, he in a manner feels it.’ Later he becomes even more specific about methods and remedies. He starts to consider the central significance of breathing and the links between body and mind: ‘… a healthy state of mind is identical with a certain regulated system of respiration, according to the degree of bodily action; that the exercise of reflection or of conscience, in the control of passions or affections of the mind, is concomitant with, or effected by a proper control of the respiration – quiet when the mind is quiet,
accompanied with sobs and sighs when otherwise. That the mind and the blood being intimately connected, the health of the body depends also on this healthy regulation of respiration, promoting a proper circulation and purification of the blood; that, consequently, the effecting respiration by mechanical means, without the control of the muscles by thought, is profitable to the health of the body, and also to the mental faculties.’

Slowly Perceval’s distress and confusion turns to compassion for others, and on to advocacy. In chapter xxvii of the Narrative he comments extensively on ‘my wretched companions in confinement, and in affliction’. He writes about 12 individuals, one an elderly man, and feels for their pitiable circumstances. ‘The treatment I had endured was shameful, but yet I was a young man. The treatment of this old man was horrible. All day long he was confined as I had been, on a wooden seat, amidst noise, insult, flippancy, and confusion. After sitting a whole day, in the evening I heard him begging for one of the hair cushions of the chairs, to put under him; no one attended to him; I did: the servant desired me not to do it, but I gave it to him.’

Perceval became a warrior for better conditions and compassionate care. In the opening section of the first volume he cries out: ‘I open my mouth for the dumb… I entreat you to place yourself in the position of those whose suffering I describe, before you attempt to discuss what course is to be pursued toward them. Feel for them; try to defend them. Be their friends – argue not hostilely.’ In the second volume, it becomes a bold cry to arms. ‘I resolved – I was necessitated – to put my strength and abilities against that system, to fail in no duty to myself and to my country; but at the risk of my life, or my health, and even my understanding, to become thoroughly acquainted with its windings, in order to expose and unravel the wickedness and the folly that maintained it, and to unmask the plausible villainy that carried on.’

He saw the law and the English desire for justice as the primary route for radical change. He struggled to use the legal process for better conditions and his own release, with disappointing results. ‘In order to succeed I desired first legal assistance to set forth my case and to save my rights; secondly to be taken to London to be for a short time under the care of a surgeon who had known me from a child, that he witnessing my state of mind and body, and hearing my complaints, might be able to argue and to give evidence concerning the necessity of requiring me to use the cold bath, at that inclement season… These requests were denied.’

Soon after the publication of the books, Perceval began advocating for people in poverty, detained lunatics and against the new Poor Law. He gained an appointment as Guardian of the parish of Kensington. During his statutory visits, he learned about Richard Paternoster being confined at Dr French’s madhouse in Kensington, and campaigned for his release. When he was freed, Paternoster wrote a letter to The Times ‘for fellow sufferers to join him in a campaign to redress abuses in the madhouse system’. Perceval soon joined him, and they petitioned the city magistrates for an investigation into asylum treatment.

Perceval gathered together a group of supporters. This group expanded, and in 1845 became the Alleged Lunatics’ Friend Society (ALFS). Most were either ex-patients or had relatives in the psychiatric system; some were Perceval’s relatives. The ALFS pressurised successive Home Secretaries for radical changes in the asylums, including Northampton County Asylum where the famous ‘lunatic pauper poet’ John Clare was incarcerated from 1841 until his death in 1864, and took up the cases of more than 70 patients.

The Alleged Lunatics’ Friend Society became a major influence in highlighting the whole issue of improper confinement in the asylums with the very resistant Lunacy Commission. Differences that arose between Perceval and other founder members – not least, over his continued religious zeal – perhaps suggest that he remained a difficult person, but there is no evidence of any relapse into mental disturbance. The society advocated boarding out schemes rather than asylums for distressed people, based on the well- known Geel system in Flanders. John Bucknill, the leading 19th century alienist (psychiatrist), also recommended the Geel system. He also argued for non- restraint, with some few exceptions – an emerging characteristic of ‘progressive asylum practice.’

Perceval noted: ‘I am convinced that the collecting of lunatic patients together is a necessity to be deprecated, rather than a principle to be admitted.’ The society advocated traditional treatment systems before involuntary
admission and for after-care following discharge. Perceval gave evidence to a Select Parliamentary Committee in 1859. When asked why he was so single- minded about ensuring the delivery of patients’ letters, he responded: ‘I consider myself the attorney-general of all Her Majesty’s madmen.’

After 20 years of vigorous activity with Perceval at the helm, the society seems to have come to a natural end in the mid-1860s. ‘One suspects that the appointment of his nephew Charles Spencer Perceval as Lord Chancellor’s secretary in 1866, and later as secretary of the Lunacy Commission, finally gave him some peace of mind.’ Perceval helped us to understand in a profound way so many dimensions in madness, recovery and advocacy. He promulgated a very modern concept of advocacy – both peer, individual and collective – that flourishes robustly today. He made the valuable connection between spiritual exploration and breakdown; outlined some vital principles for healing and recovery, and linked embryonic advocacy with radical changes in the law and regulation to outlaw injuriously oppressive treatments.
His favourite offspring, the Alleged Lunatics’ Friend Society, was the first formal body to collectively advocate for the needs of users and relatives. Most importantly, he gave us the two volumes of his vibrant Narrative.

These wonderful volumes graphically describe the torments of an alleged lunatic, his ‘injurious treatment’ and his recovery. For which we owe Perceval an enormous debt.



Perceval J. A narrative of the treatment experienced by a gentleman, during a state of mental derangement: designed to
explain the causes and the nature of insanity and to expose the injudicious conduct pursued towards many unfortunate sufferers under that calamity.
Volumes I and II. London: Effingham Wilson, 1838; 1840.


Also see Patient and Reformer


Ordinary Everyday Miracles

Our contemporary society is beset with a huge variety of social, economic and spiritual ‘problems’. We are increasingly anxious and develop an ever widening range of solutions from psychotherapeutic to pharmaceutical, from relaxation to meditation, from yoga to biofeedback. We seek various certainties. Assorted gurus, from the mainstream to the flaky, pronounce on all possible and impossible ways to attain some utopian fragments in every magazine, journal, newspaper, radio and TV station. Most offer rainbow dogmas, try to convince us that we need their special skills and know-how. In their eyes we are usually lesser people defective or traumatised, who need mending and healing. Such gurus appreciate both lots of cash and worship.

Western therapists too transform age-old human dilemmas into psychological problems and claimed that they (and they alone) had the treatment. The result was an explosion of inadequacy. Daytime TV is packed full of programmes where distressed people crowd into studios to disclose their innermost secrets and bizarre doings and get fifteen minutes of fame. The captions underneath the exposed faces scream:  MARRIED WOMAN KILLS BOTH CHILDREN WITH AN AXE or TRAN SEXUAL STRIPPER REVEALS ALL and even GAY PRIEST HAD SEX ON ALTAR…

People almost beg to expose their intimate pain and suffering, mostly great anger and rage at how other people have misbehaved towards them. The world is negatively different from how they had always imagined it. They receive from their TV hostess and the assorted studio counsellors and psychologists, small capsules of ’wisdom’, mostly various versions of ‘Take more control of your life.’

Every time they exercise personal power, the audience claps and stamps its feet. The big message is ‘Show life who the Boss is’. When lost in a forest, as in life, just run faster. We’re like a tiny white mouse on the huge head of a woolly mammoth. We scream out ‘Left. Left. Right. Right. Straight on.’ Every so often, by complete coincidence, the mammoth goes to the left or right whilst we are screaming ‘Left’ or ‘Right.’ So we think the beast is under control at last. We’ve finally cracked it. But at the next ‘Straight on’, it goes boldly right-wards.

These authors of pop psychology books are mostly of the same breed. They write from high up in the clouds, mist hidden. They get there by spiritual helicopters rather than by scrambling up. Our knees are bloodied; theirs are pristine. They wear crisp white linen suits, a red rose in the buttonhole and expensively coiffured hair — a million miles away from noisy city traffic jams, canned food with additives, screaming kids, TV game shows, packet soup and pot noodles. Their heads are eternally clear and fresh, full of the harmonies of Mozart’s clarinet concertos. Even their voices have a superior, mystical ring from high spiritual and psychological plains to where we lie on our bellies in the mud on the valley bottom.

They are very special people, never squandering valuable time. They use time management, wave electronic organisers and jog vigorously to work just in time for a healthy muesli breakfast. Their mountain-top instructions are clearly heard because they have taken elocution lessons, and when young wore braces on their teeth. They invoke us to become smarter; to get up much earlier in the morning — the early worm catches the bird; take freezing cold showers three times daily; concentrate more fully; do exercises; breathe much more deeply …. These peak-top travellers are regular smart arses.

These gods and goddesses have mature and lasting relationships and make excellent parents. Everyone loves and admires them. Of course they don’t exist in any real world. Every so often a magazine exposes them mercilessly as less than ordinary human beings, with drink and drug problems and a tendency to lose their rag, frequently have unsafe sex with the wrong people and eat live hamsters.

Pop psychology is a huge growth industry and nothing seems to be able to halt the personal growth juggernaut, the lust for designer personalities and souls. We give thousands of pounds to become like them, as the evangelism of their books, tapes, CDs and websites announces. Popular spiritual books featuring angels, miracles and even chicken soup are carried away from bookshops by the barrow load.

Our popular journals and magazines contain millions of powerful images of human beings. The women are mostly tall and slim, and always beautiful in an unanimated way. They are framed gorgeously against golden beaches or fashion hot spots. The men and women all seem to come from the TV show Baywatch. The men are tanned and heavily muscled with sixpack stomachs. There are mental equivalents of these paragons. They cope with life easily; they are always calm and serene, even in the midst of life`s storms. These men and women are supermen and superwomen are not only lovely and handsome but seemingly talented as well. Glossy packaging is everything.

This pursuit of perfection, increasingly common in both physical and psychological ways, is very dangerous. We spend our money on plastic surgery, struggling vainly against gravity, and now even have the prospect of changing our genes. We try to improve our mental state through a myriad of expensive and doubtful methods. It is a clear route for non—acceptance of who and what we are.

This disparagement is not accidental. These professionals trade on making us feeling mildly to severely inadequate, as with much contemporary advertising. ‘Buy this hook/cassette tape and you’ll be a better parent.’ ‘Use our new product and you’ll look like a million dollars.’ ‘Make the sheets shine with brilliant new Washo and become a better Mum (or Dad). They exploit our negative feelings about ourselves so we feel even flabbier — physically, psychologically and spiritually. They promote the immense and highly profitable illusion that we can improve ourselves no end by purchasing their products.

But stress has become the biggest reason for time off work, beating the common cold or flu. We find it much harder to survive, simply to cope. We fall short of ever-increasing demands from many different sources. Some ruthless goddess keeps putting up the high jump bar. We have got to analyse our thousands of personal inadequacies. Each day we discover more. We’ve grown up in a culture of continually examining ourselves of self-conscious living. We are not just contemplating the navel but also the toes, fingers and other intimate parts. We are self-conscious and striving citizens, parents and even lovers, judging by the sale of sex instruction books. Perhaps we should practise jumping underneath the bar, rather than over it?

We are ‘working on ourselves’. Most of us are currently working on ourselves trying to become better versions of who we think we are. The phrase ‘working on yourself conveys a cartoon of a boiler-suited man working underneath himself with hammers and spanners. We buy and read enormous quantities of glossy personal growth books, queue for self—improvement tapes, and increasingly pay to visit a horde of therapists and counsellors. We rely on the insights of strangers. Ours has become a culture of extreme introspection and reflection, like living in a Woody Allen film. We live increasingly intentionally, unlike our parents and grandparents, who wrestled with two world wars, in which the flower (the male flower at least) of a generation died in the stinking Somme mud.

Each day brings yet more scares the newspapers are full of Frankenstein stories, conveying global threats from genetically modified food, economic crashes, air crashes, hurricanes off the Eastern coast of the United States, residues of nuclear pollution from the Chernobyl disaster in Ukraine still affecting Welsh mountains (where I walk), virus mutations and the increasing inefficacy of antibiotics …. And then the stories about us — we’re obese, eat too much salt, take hardly any exercise, have become lousy parents. We can frighten ourselves into stupidity, too fearful to face daily life.

Many news stories contain grains of truth and we do need more awareness and global warming and the depletion of the ozone layer. We need to take necessary measures against harmful effects on the planet, but the overall Frankenstein effect doesn’t help. lt wears us down. Daily tragedies push us inexorably towards collective paralysis. The world is not at all how we imagined it to be, and never was or will be, but this seems to come as more of a shock to our generations. It had seemed that it was our planet, our world. It isn’t ours. We have always ‘belonged’ to it rather than the other way around.

‘God forbid that we should give out a dream of our own imagination for a pattern of the world’ (Frances Bacon). The medieval essayist’s comment is wasted on us. We want and even need the real world to reflect the patterns of our dreams. But dreams can turn into nightmares. Learning becomes largely a method of simply manipulating concepts, not about stripping away useless ideas. We get farther and farther away from ordinary living. Da Vinci saw that the best place to study spiders was in the hedgerow not a library. Nowadays there are probably more spiders in libraries than in the polluted hedgerows, but we know what he meant.

The world is not supposed to be perfect according to our ideas. We have tried so long to change the world, yet liberation as Kornfield suggests is not to be found by changing it, by perfecting it or ourselves. Whether we seek enlightenment through altered states or in community or in our everyday life, it will never come to us when we seek perfection. The popularity of seeking perfection reflects a deep rejection of ordinary life and an inability to live in the present moment. We aren’t dancing joyfully along the sandy beaches but poking and prodding nervously at life. It might bite us back. lt is a symptom of our increasing anxiety and no sort of ’cure’. We are encouraged by the relevant professionals to examine our deficiencies, not to look at our strengths and resources. More crucially we reduce the diversity that contains the marvellous paradox of commonalties and differences and the real essence of humanity, one of many animals on this small blue planet.

The last words in Darwin’s On the Origin of Species:

‘Thus, from the war of nature, from famine and death, the most exalted object which we are capable of conceiving, namely, the production of the higher animals, directly follows. There is a grandeur in this view of lye, with its several powers, having been originally breathed into a few forms or into one; and that, whilst this planet has gone cycling on according to the fixed law of gravity, from so simple a beginning endless forms most beautiful and most wonderful have been, and are being, evolved. (Darwin, 1964)

We can be captured and enraptured by that simple and genuine magic. Diversity is of profound importance. Gould comments on the reasons for saving species:

We relish diversity; we love every slightly different way, every nuance of form and behaviour and we know that the loss of a significant fraction of this gorgeous variety will quench our senses and our satisfactions in any future meaningfully defined in human terms. What in the world could possibly be more magnificent than the fact that beetle anatomy presents itself in more than a hah” a million packages called species? (Gould, 1994)

We talk and write a great deal about improvement and progress. What are the measures? Do our methods of improvement work? Do they diminish essential diversity? Have we hit the designated targets and completed all the relevant tasks? Have these ways of calculated living, aiming to accomplish defined life tasks, proved ‘successful’? For example our systems for improving mental health seem to be boomerang shaped.

Ironically, mental health education, which aims to teach people how to cope more effectively with life, has instead increased the demand for psychotherapeutic help. By calling attention to symptoms they might otherwise ignore and by labelling those symptoms as signs of neurosis. Mental health education can create unwarranted anxieties, leading those to seek psychotherapy who do not need it. The demand for psychotherapy keeps pace with the supply, and at times one has the uneasy feeling that the supply may be creating the demand. I have a strong sense that we are gradually diminishing ourselves.

Can you measure all this? A Slovene friend told of a visit from an American academic. They went with his two young children for a picnic near Lake Bled. On the mountainside, in sight of the lovely lake, they ate sandwiches, drunk orange juice, talked a lot and the children chased each other, and finally the sun set. On the way back to Ljubljana the American asked: ‘Do you think that was a successful picnic?’ What was the measure of success? Was it the number of sandwiches eaten; the amount of orange juice drunk; the noise of the children playing; the quality of academic discourse? Or does something essential evaporate the instant we ask these sorts of questions?

What does it mean to survive joyfully today? I don’t really know and can offer no real ’solutions’, but I can ask what I hope are interesting questions. I’m no expert in living and certainly not any sort of guru, just someone struggling and occasionally surfing with life. My natural and inherent agnosticism makes me deeply suspicious of so called ‘solutions’. I deeply appreciate the many gifts of life — music, poetry, wind on the heath, the sound of the sea — which to my mind all echoes of the Tao.

I’ve have myself wrestled over many years with feelings of fear, anxiety and especially anger and rage. I’m a difficult person, a hedgehog living among moles, telling people things they don’t want to hear. My life is much of a mess rather like that of most people. I often draw on the words of Thoreau ‘The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation’.

These sorrows and disappointments are the stuff of living. They are our human heritage. We are falling in love, falling out of love, getting sick, recovering, feeling lonely, despairing, feeling unappreciated. Quite recently, the feeling has developed that we can sometimes escape these sorrows, that life should mostly be lived contentedly, that we have almost a duty to be content and effective; that we can and even should exorcise the darker sides of our life with or without magic pills; that this darkness can be passed through and beyond lies harp music and honey sandwiches. Somehow life can and should be fixed. I’m even more suspicious of the syndromes than of the remedies.

‘It’s too easy to dismiss somebody else’s lived experience as a symptom of this, that, or the other pathology: to label it, disinfect it, store it away neatly in slim buff files and prevent it making dangerous contact with the experience of normal people’ (Barker, 1998, p. 270).

Barker rightly pathologises the whole process of diagnosis rather than people. Like him, I don’t believe there is that much wrong with the way we live or are; not nearly as much as the soul hucksters would have us believe. We’ve got this desperate need to make headway. ‘I’ve grown up you know. I’ve passed through a lot. l’ve made real progress. That was a difficult phase I was going through which is now ended.’ It sounds like a therapeutic train running in Euro Disney.

l am extremely dubious about ideas of personal progress and growth. Progress has become the ultimate contemporary illusion. In a century that has seen concentration camps and holocausts, we need to talk of human progress. lt usually means banishing our darker selves to the nether regions; a way of disposing of unacceptable feelings.

Gould finds dangers in progress. Progress as a predictable result of ordered causes therefore becomes a double delusion. First because we must seek its cause more in the quirkiness of the wheel, turning tires into sandals and big brains towards fear of death, than in the plodding predictability of the wedge, propelling monkeys into men; secondly, because the supposed sweep towards progress only records our myopic focus on the right tail of a distribution whose mode has never moved from a prokaryotic cell. (Gould, 1994)

These delusions involve the identification of a spine so that other events become peripheral. Underlying dominant Western ideas are attempts to dispose of pain and suffering. We seek comfort and contentment, or in Watts’s words: to have pleasure without pain, wealth without poverty, and health without sickness. But as is now becoming obvious, our violent efforts to achieve this ideal with such weapons as DDT; penicillin, nuclear energy, automotive transportation, computers, industrial farming, damming, and compelling everyone by law, to be superficially ‘good and healthy’ are creating more problems than they solve. (Watts, 1979)

Human beings cannot be ‘fixed’ by trained mechanics like broken cars in a garage. The dominant ideologies insist that almost everybody is broken. They involve an unceasing search for fresh syndromes and new methods of intervention.

ln principle, there is an assumption that all human problems can be converted into technical problems, and if the techniques to solve certain problems do not yet exist, then they will have to be invented. The world becomes ever more “makeable” and everybody and everything is converted in to commodities for the purposes of buying and selling. We are surrounded by increasing numbers of psychological plumbers, electricians and mechanics loudly selling their wares and taking attention from the destructive structures that we could and should change.

I’ve worked long years in nursing and social care and was a counseling therapist for over ten years. Most people I worked with professionally were poor and felt devalued. They were isolated and despairing. Uncovering pathology and the associated labelling and blaming of ‘patients’ is extremely profitable. There are massive bucks to be made from persuading people that they are the victims of complex syndromes, invented only yesterday. Many people are delighted to be labelled, an aspect of sado—masochism, to be placed in a solid box.

The poet T. S. Eliot describes the whole distressing process:

Half the harm that is done in this world

ls due to people who want to feel important

They don’t mean to do harm —

but the harm does not interest them,

Or they do not see it, or they justify it

Because they are absorbed in the endless struggle

To think well of themselves.

Healing and therapy have become very important vehicles for ambition, ways of achieving personal importance, any injury is either denied or not perceived. So called compassion can cover many sins. Picardie, who was dying of cancer, had trouble with ‘rubber neckers’:

I had a message last week and I had no idea who she was. I ’m afraid I have no intention of going to the science museum with her, rude as that sounds. I am sick of being everybody’s favourite cripple — you wouldn’t believe the number of acquaintances who suddenly want to be your best friend and feel they’re entitled to regular, blow by blow accounts of your emotional/physiological state. ‘But Ruth, how ARE you? ’ they ask, meaningfully.

(Picardie, 1998)

They are voyeurs, living their lives through other people, the more distressed the better. Most of this discovery of new syndromes and conditions has no scientific validity. We have little hard evidence of these supposed syndromes and even less to indicate that current techniques might be effective. Evidence—based clinical practise is in the very early stages of development.

Many popular interventions are done with crossed fingers. People work in a massive industry with obscure products. Psychology, counselling, psychotherapy are all part of a billion—dollar—plus industry, employing hundreds of thousands of professionals, the great majority with a vested interest in uncovering vast tracks of pathology to help pay their mortgages. Sometimes it feels that one half of the population is counselling the other half. They are searching for yet more customers after completing their diverse diplomas, certificates and degrees. They need a regular cash crop to pay for the frothy capuccinos.

These ‘healing’ professionals make a very comfortable living from this intense atmosphere of anxiety and uncertainty, of which the search for healing is one aspect. People seek any refuge from the rapidly changing times. We are persuaded that we live in an enormously dynamic period. We’re all dizzy. We believe that we’re in a great flux — the World Wide Web, globalisation, mobile phones, the information revolution, robots …. I’m not sure it matters much, even if it proves to be true. It gives some sense of transient importance to be living in ‘significant times’. What does it really mean except to express some anxiety about the future and satisfy the desire to be special?

We’ve become totally obsessional. We want desperately to understand who and what we are, to have a way of living, but mostly to get rid of all the pain and anxiety. ‘Lifestyle’ is one word that sums it all up. We want to be fashionable and different. We want to be in charge, to possess many more bunches of bananas — the old-fashioned term is greed.

We try to control, conquer and overwhelm this small planet and ultimately the infinite galaxies beyond. We don’t even have much control over ourselves. We get lost in our own shadows and are fearful of the dark. In this greed for control, we easily fall prey to the powers of darkness.

What’s the alternative?

The alternative is look at the spirit or Tao of change. I won’t try to define the Tao because l’m not that stupid. I’d rather dance around it with various stories.

There is an old Zen saying that when a wise man points a finger at the moon, a fool looks at the finger. The sardonic Zen saying about pointing the finger captures the truth, that a good teacher points in the right direction but the student stares just at the finger. We need to see far beyond our narrow and partial concerns and pay attention to the Tao and wider compassion, but a good spiritual teacher is always like an alarm clock who wakes himself up whilst the student sleeps on.

Chao-Chou asked, ‘What is the Tao?’

The master [Nan-ch’uan] replied, ‘Your ordinary consciousness is the Tao.’

‘How can one return into accord with it? ’

‘By intending to accord you immediately deviate’

‘But without intuition, how can one know the Tao? ’

‘The Tao’ the master said ‘belongs neither to knowing nor to not knowing. Knowing is false understanding; not knowing is blind ignorance. If you really understand the Tao beyond doubt, it s like the empty sky. Why drag in right and wrong? ’ (Watts, 1979)

You see how Chao—Chou tries to pigeon hole it and Nan—ch’uan dances right out of reach. Chou wants to get his philosophical scalpel and cut it into ten thousand bits to discover how it all works. My younger brother, when he was six, did the same with alarm clocks but they didn’t work on reassembly, with dozens of small bits left over. Chou has this butterfly net, waves it around in the direction of his teacher and completely misses, catching himself. The Tao is not hard to define, just completely impossible. It’s like a fish trying to grasp the idea of water. Our linear way of thinking find circular systems indescribable. Tao is too circular for conventional tape measures. We may slice thin pieces off to file in to various boxes, but every so called single event is part of something else.

The story of Matzu, the great Zen teacher, pokes its finger through considerable fantasies. He strikes through cosmetic pretences with a sudden blow.

He spies a poor student meditating on a rock. ‘What are you doing?’ he asks the poor student, who replies ‘I’m meditating’

‘Why?’ probes Matzu.

‘To become a Buddha,’ says the human-tethered goat to the hungry tiger.

So Matzu starts slowly polishing a tile.

‘What are you doing?’ says his victim.

‘I’m polishing this tile.’


Says Matzu, ‘To make a mirror out of it.’

Says the student, ‘That’s ridiculous. You’ll never make a mirror out of a tile.’

Delivering the punchy checkmate, Matzu replies, ‘And all the meditating in the world will never make a Buddha out of you.’

Matzu sees through it all. He sees the gross attachment to meditation or psychotherapy, the obsession with some fixed point; the belief that the Tao is tarmacked, with double yellow stripes down the middle. Now we have become meditation junkies, still clutching onto ideas about the purpose and what might be achieved. Our ideas about meditation and personal growth obscure the ordinary realities of everyday life. ‘Throw it all away’ Matzu shouts, more in hope than in reasonable expectation. I believe the fool continued meditating as if nothing had happened. He wanted to hang onto something, however useless. He mistook the pointing finger for the glowing moon.

Many human problems come from forms of disconnectedness and imbalance. However much genuine healing comes from unknowing and from being vulnerable. This sense of vulnerability also provides an antidote to healing through increased strength and wisdom, the powerful message in the West. The ‘Tao Te Ching’ sees great danger in striving for better and better states.

Give up trying to seem holy, forget trying to appear wise, and it will be a lot better for everyone.

Abandon trying to seem good, throw out self righteousness, and rediscover natural compassion.

Stop trying to be so smart, quit being calculating and you won’t become a rogue.

(Freke, 1995)

This makes a vital distinction between wisdom and cleverness. It raises the issue of striving and/or intentionality. The more we struggle to be better or wiser, the more we are bound to fail.  The message is a difficult one for Western minds. Allow natural spontaneity to arise rather than this constant and exhausting effort to be better than we essentially are, warping our original nature. Give up trying to be saintly. Very few of us, if any, are genuine saints. This so called Higher Way can easily lead to self righteousness; to a feeling of smugness. Enjoy your own authentic stupidity rather than strive vainly to be wise.

The third Zen patriarch said: ‘Do not search for the truth; Only cease to cherish opinions.’ Paying attention — mindfulness — is the key to the spiritual way of life. We need, but stoutly resist the constant practise of mindfulness in everyday activities such as cooking and cleaning, which spreads out from formal meditation and pays attention, brings full energy to our daily living, especially to what and who is right in front of us. Our minds become still so we can really hear and experience what Nature is sending. In that stillness we experience the subtleties of change, the universe actually breathing; understand that it is part of us and we are immersed in it. Nothing is separate.

To be filled with the masculine power of Yang,

Follow the feminine nature of Yin,

Be empty like a valley,

Where water gathers to form a stream,

Gather Natural Goodness,

Until you are like a little child again.

(Freke 1995)

The ‘Yin’, or female aspects, of flowing gets close to the essential Tao; not doing or imposing, but flowing. All our spanners and screwdrivers will do us no good. Life is a current in which we all swim and eventually drown. We can struggle in it, try to impose our will, but the river flows heavily and smoothly, quickly and slowly. It would be wiser to feel and enjoy its nature rather than try to control or understand it. A good swimmer moves in harmony with the water.

This involves moving in tune with its currents. The Tao has its way. We are not only a part of the Tao; we are the Tao and in no way separate from it and that is the first essential barrier to study. We cannot stand aside and hope to hear the music; to listen to the great river of life, to the flowing of the water. It has its own directions and inherent nature. It is about needs, not wanting or having. We can give up the desire to control, or rather let it just melt away.

The ‘Yang’, or masculine aspects, of discipline completes the Yin/Yang dyad. Flowing isn’t about letting everything hang out, making love not war. Discipline is currently having a bad press. Individuality means we do what we fancy. Not at all. The Tao requires very considerable internal discipline, mainly in the giving up of our ideas. Meditation practice doesn’t involve some grandiose notion of some higher state (whatever that might mean) but a practice changing our whole relationship to Nature and to other sentient beings.

lt happens in the present moment. There is no other time but the present. We learn to live in this moment, none other. Part of that means giving up precious ideologies — the internal acquisitions, much more sticky than material objects such as cars and boats.

The spiritual road is about living out our uniqueness, not our individualism. We are all of us different and need to celebrate that overall and wonderful diversity. But we do need commonality as well as difference. The elements that connect can be healing and wholesome. We struggle hard to be different, to be increasingly unique. We industriously pursue the goal of the extraordinary like a car mechanic. But we are not custom—built cars. We are already unique before the moment of birth, extraordinary and also very similar. The modern disease is ‘individuality’.  We are struggling to be different and distinctive, part of this enormous global diversity, which our struggle reduces.

I recall the old Chinese saying: `We are all islands in the one great sea.’ I recently amended this saying to ‘we are all islands, but look below the sea we are Islands holding hands’. We can just be — rather than become anybody or anything.

So now you know everything. What exactly do you know? Does it involve looking at the finger or the moon? Does it really matter? lf it’s glowing reasonably brightly, that’s probably the moon. Very few fingers are made of green cheese, so you could tell with a single bite. After seven very long days of sitting on your bum, you’ll be so numb you wouldn’t care at all.

Ours is a serious but not earnest journey. We need a sense of humour to make sense and nonsense of ourselves. Life makes fun of us and we should help it. Humour turns us over like a pancake tossed in the frying pan. We thought we knew this and that and suddenly life does a back flip. It’s not something on the very edge, to be indulged at certain times and places, but something central to living. It isn’t like luxury Swiss chocolate eaten only at Christmas, but like bread and butter eaten every single day.

Sometimes comedy is entirely serious. I have a soft spot for academic con—men. An American physicist, Sokal, was furious about the lack of rigour and hollowness of postmodernist philosophy. He wrote a hoax paper entitled ‘Transgressing the Boundaries: Towards a Transformative Hermeneutics of Quantum Gravity’ and sent it to Social Text, supposedly a learned postmodern journal. With considerable pride he afterwards described this paper as ‘a mélange of truths, half—truths, quarter—truths, falsehoods, non sequiturs, and syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever’. Of course it was accepted and published some months later. Sokal wrote a splendid book culled Intellectual Impostures. What a marvelous stunt to break through a dense forest of academic pomposity.

The spiritual way is nothing special at all. We make a great song and dance about it as ‘the road less travelled’, but it contains no showy magic, cheap or expensive gimmicks, or even motorway restaurants. It has no religious fireworks, spiritual miracles or anything of much interest. It’s just ordinary, walking the road, playing with the dog, paying attention, often boring, living in the present moment. Nothing to write home to Mum about. Blink twice and you’d miss it. It’s elements are so mundane, so ordinary it`s easy to miss them. It’s easy to miss the ordinary everyday miracles whilst looking for a rare eclipse.


dedicated to the memory of Ray Wills, co-founder of the Buddhist Hospice Trust and a close friend, guide and teacher of ‘ordinary everyday miracles’.



Barker, Pat (1998) Another World. London. Viking Press

Darwin, Charles (1964) On the Origin of Species. Cambridge University Press

Freke, Timothy (1995) Lao Tzu Tao Te Ching. London. Piatkus.

Gould, Stephen Jay (1996) Life’s Grandeur. London. Jonathan Cape.

Kornfield, Jack (1993) A Path With A Heart. London. Bantam.

Picardie, Ruth (1998) Before I Say Goodbye. London. Penguin.

Watts, Alan (1979) Tao- The Watercourse Way. London. Penguin.