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.