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.


Kingfisher Dreamings

Bare willow strands
flick the slow moving river
and in the cool breeze
darts the halcyon
neon blue with flash of red
low over muddied waters,
seeking no great mystery
only fish

Opinion Poetry 'n Prose

Sleepy Tigers

Sleepy tigers
on my sparse haired chest;
sum total
of my happiness

Many years ago I overheard an old Indian story about a monk – or was it monkey – not sure, anyway he was being chased by a tiger, so he thinks he’s going to outwit the tiger, dashes up a tree thinking he is safe there. But the tiger laughs and climbs up too and is inching towards the poor soul shaking on the branch. The monk – or monkey – is just about to devoured by the hungry tiger when he notices a small cherry, he quickly realises his predicament with the tiger is hopeless, so picks the cherry, he vows to taste that cherry with every morsel of his body, with every ounce of his life, all resistance is gone and doing so he discovers his life is complete by THIS cherry… arhhhhh! He fully awakens.



I’ve come back once again to Wu-Wei. Wu-Wei is defined (in philosophical Taoism) as action accomplishing its purpose in accordance with the natures of things and events. There are other more esoteric definitions but I will use this one as it relates to my experience, or rather brush stroke, with Wu-Wei that was expressed in a previous post The Art of Patience (6th March, 2014).

I contemplated Wu-Wei from the perspective of the Chinese painter’s and the ‘open way’, to express ‘the natures of things and events’. I focused on one painting – unnamed – that reflected a moon on water. I recalled how standing before it, it held me, the observer, in sparkling peacefulness: a state of surrender to the innate emptiness of oneself that is difficult, if not impossible, to define (even with calligraphy).

I’ve come to realise that for many years my search for ‘self’ was in fact a disguised search for Wu-Wei. I just hadn’t realised it. And without knowing I would look for depictions of Wu-Wei elsewhere in literature, poetry and musical notation. In short Wu-Wei, consciously acknowledged, has become a quest for ‘direct seeing’ of oneself – the nature of things and events.

And this still ripples and resonates within me in different moments; typing on a keyboard, driving the car, listening to birdsong, making cups of tea, playing chess, meditation, the ripples continue on and on. An example of this comes from a piece by J. Krishnamurti. His volume of works relate to a view that learning from experience is of deepest value once we know, and come to terms with, the conditioned mind (something those Wu-Wei masters knew all about).

There is an opening narrative that introduces Distraction (Series I Chapter 82) which expresses Krishnamurti’s poetic spirit, something that I find in-between his words, in a way similar to those simple ink brush strokes. Here, I believe, Krishnamurti is pointing to the same moon.


It was a long, wide canal, leading from the river into lands that had no water. The canal was higher than the river, and the water which entered it was controlled by a system of locks. It was peaceful along that canal; heavy-laden barges moved up and down it, and their white triangular sails stood out against the blue sky and the dark palms. It was a lovely evening, calm and free, and the water was very still.

The reflections of the palms and of the mango trees were so sharp and clear that it was confusing to distinguish the actual from the reflection. The setting sun made the water transparent, and the glow of evening was on its face. The evening star was beginning to show among the reflections. The water was without a movement, and the few passing villagers, who generally talked so loud and long, were silent.

Even the whisper among the leaves had stopped. From the meadow came some animal; it drank, and disappeared as silently as it had come. Silence held the land, it seemed to cover everything.

Noise ends, but silence is penetrating and without end. One can shut oneself off from noise, but there is no enclosure against silence; no wall can shut it out, there is no resistance against it. Noise shuts all things out, it is excluding and isolating; silence includes all things within itself.

Silence, like love, is indivisible; it has no division of noise and silence. The mind cannot follow it or be made still to receive it. The mind that is made still can only reflect its own images, and they are sharp and clear, noisy in their exclusion.

A mind that is made still can only resist, and all resistance is agitation. The mind that is still and not made still is ever experiencing silence; the thought, the word, is then within the silence, and not outside of it. It is strange how, in this silence, the mind is tranquil, with a tranquillity that is not formed.

As tranquillity is not marketable, has no value, and is not usable, it has a quality of the pure, of the alone. That which can be used is soon worn out. Tranquillity does not begin or end, and a mind thus tranquil is aware of a bliss that is not the reflection of its own desire.

She said she had always been agitated by something or other; if it was not the family, it was the neighbour or some social activity. Agitation had filled her life, and she had never been able to find the reason for these constant upheavals. She was not particularly happy; and how could one be with the world as it was? She had had her share of passing happiness, but all that was in the past and now she was hunting for something that would give a meaning to life. She had been through many things which at the time seemed worth while, but which afterwards faded into nothingness.

She had been engaged in many social activities of the serious kind; she had ardently believed in the things of religion, had suffered because of death in her family, and had faced a major operation. Life had not been easy with her, she added, and there were millions of others in the world like herself. She wanted to go beyond all this business, whether foolish or necessary and find something that was really worth while.

The things that are worth while are not to be found. They cannot be bought, they must happen; and the happening cannot be cunningly planned. Is it not true that anything that has deep significance always happens, it is never brought about?

The happening is important, not the finding. The finding is comparatively easy, but the happening is quite another matter. Not that it is difficult; but the urge to seek, to find, must wholly stop for the happening to take place. Finding implies losing; you must have in order to lose. To possess or be possessed is never to be free to understand.

But why has there always been this agitation, this restlessness? Have you seriously inquired into it before?

“I have attempted it half-heartedly, but never purposely. I have always been distracted.”

Not distracted, if one may point out; it is simply that this has never been a vital problem to you. When there is a vital problem, then there is no distraction.

Distraction does not exist; distraction implies a central interest from which the mind wanders; but if there is a central interest, there is no distraction. The mind’s wandering from one thing to another is not distraction, it is an avoidance of what is. We like to wander far away because the problem is very close. The wandering gives us something to do, like worry and gossip; and though the wandering is often painful, we prefer it to what is.

Do you seriously wish to go into all this, or are you merely playing around with it?

“I really want to go through to the very end of it. That is why I have come.”

You are unhappy because there is no spring that keeps the well full, is that it? You may once have heard the whisper of water on the pebbles, but now the riverbed is dry. You have known happiness, but it has always receded, it is always a thing of the past. Is that spring the thing you are groping after? And can you seek it, or must you come upon it unexpectedly?

If you knew where it was, you would find means to get to it; but not knowing, there is no path to it. To know it is to prevent the happening of it. Is that one of the problems?

“That definitely is. Life is so dull and uncreative, and if that thing could happen one wouldn’t ask for anything more.”

Is loneliness a problem?

“I don’t mind being lonely, I know how to deal with it. I either go out for a walk, or sit quietly with it till it goes. Besides, I like being alone.”

We all know what it is to be lonely: an aching, fearsome emptiness that cannot be appeased. We also know how to run away from it, for we have all explored the many avenues of escape. Some are caught in one particular avenue, and others keep on exploring; but neither are in direct relationship with what is.

You say you know how to deal with loneliness. If one may point out, this very action upon loneliness is your way of avoiding it. You go out for a walk, or sit with loneliness till it goes. You are always operating upon it, you do not allow it to tell its story. You want to dominate it, to get over it, to run away from it; so your relationship with it is that of fear.

Is fulfilment also a problem? To fulfil oneself in something implies the avoidance of what one is, does it not? I am puny; but if I identify myself with the country, with the family, or with some belief, I feel fulfilled, complete.

This search for completeness is the avoidance of what is.

“Yes, that is so; that is also my problem.”

If we can understand what is, then perhaps all these problems will cease. Our approach to any problem is to avoid it; we want to do something about it. The doing prevents our being in direct relationship with it, and this approach blocks the understanding of the problem.

The mind is occupied with finding a way to deal with the problem, which is really an avoidance of it; and so the problem is never understood, it is still there. For the problem, the what is, to unfold and tell its story fully, the mind must be sensitive, quick to follow.

If we anaesthetize the mind through escapes, through knowing how to deal with the problem, or through seeking an explanation or a cause for it, which is only a verbal conclusion, then the mind is made dull and cannot swiftly follow the story which the problem, the what is, is unfolding. See the truth of this and the mind is sensitive; and only then can it receive.

Any activity of the mind with regard to the problem only makes it dull and so incapable of following, of listening to the problem. When the mind is sensitive – not made sensitive, which is only another way of making it dull – then the what is, the emptiness, has a wholly different significance.

Please be experiencing as we go along, do not remain on the verbal level. What is the relationship of the mind to what is? So far, the what is has been given a name, a term, a symbol of association, and this naming prevents direct relationship, which makes the mind dull, insensitive. The mind and what is are not two separate processes, but naming separates them. When this naming ceases, there is a direct relationship: the mind and the what is are one.

The what is is now the observer himself without a term, and only then is the what is transformed; it is no longer the thing called emptiness with its associations of fear, and so on. Then the mind is only the state of experiencing, in which the experiencer and the experienced are not. Then there is immeasurable depth, for he who measures is gone.

That which is deep is silent, tranquil, and in this tranquillity is the spring of the inexhaustible. The agitation of the mind is the usage of word. When the word is not, the measureless is.

J. Krishnamurti Commentaries on
Living Series I Chapter 82


The Art of Patience

During a recent visit to Budapest I came across a gallery of Chinese ink paintings called The Spirit of Mountains, the Fragrance of Flowers. The gallery at Kogart House features some of the most exquisite ink drawings from the 19th and 20th century I’ve ever seen. It provided a great resting point along my walk to the main city park. Having decided to only rest here, I didn’t expect to be captivated. But the calligraphy, brush strokes and minimalist watercolours I became transfixed in a state of quite joy and sparkling peace.

My attempts to walk away only preceded a gentle inward nudge to go around again. It occurred to me I wasn’t “looking”, or “seeing” anything but was actually bathing in the gallery. I was caught up, soaking up a certain light. Not seeking – not knowing, just bathing. One silk painting soaked me the most, it was called ‘Returning Home by the Full Light of the Moon’. The artist was unknown, but it took centre stage of my awareness. Before me radiated a golden moon with broad single black ink brush strokes sweeping across the lower half of the canvass. I recognised it was the moons reflection on the water, and a reflection of the water-course way rooted in the present, the now, that is found in the philosophy of Ch’an.

Likewise this painting shone down, in directness, nakedness, then gradually the moon and water immersed into my senses a sweet blissfulness arose. I stepped back from the piece and saw something else, a spirit that I had no words to describe, though I started clutching for some. I walked out and continued on my walked, trying to resist labelling the awareness I had in there, in front of this painting. But none the less it doggedly pursued me for the rest of the day. What was this awareness? Emptiness? Nothingness? or Mu as it is known in the Buddhist tradition?

I was exhausted from the walk, and from the emotional energy and after thought. What was this experience? This bathing in the light of this ink painting? I recalled a word or phrase Wu-Wei from early translated chinese books I studied on Confusianism, Taoism and Buddhism, Wu-Wei kept cropping up and I didn’t know what it meant. Descriptions I had read didn’t make a lot of sense. Phrases like non-doing in action, action without attachment and so on. These books didn’t reveal much. Or rather, my way of reading what was said did not reveal much. Once I asked my Tai-chi instructor once and he just kept on moving, one form to the next. I mistook his lack of verbal reply as disinterest, I didn’t see that he was showing me Wu-Wei in his actions.

I visualised the painting again in my mind’s eye. What is this Wu-Wei about and why is it holding me there? Is Wu-Wei looking at the image or painter? Is it a style of painting? Is it a conveyance of our essential nature?…. what is it? Then it slowly struck me, its none of these phenomena and yet it is all of these phenomena. Non-doing in action is both painter and painting, and from the point of view of the gallery, it is simultaneously the observer and the observed. Non-doing in action is not design, it is not planning, not aiming, nor is it intent or intention. It is beyond the artist and the art that is produced. Wu-Wei is the quality of patience itself required to bring the painting into existence. This patience, waiting with no intent, no expectation, just allowing the moment to unfold and to follow this moment one brush stroke at a time.

Questions then ran deeper, is the practice of Wu Wei in art the same as the practice of meditation and love? Does the practitioner need patience as an essential quality to be productive, intuitive, loving? Without patience, what can we do? What can we achieve, what can know? I’m gently reminded here of a story of the Buddha, when asked by a follower what is Buddha nature, what is enlightenment?” he simply smiled and held a flower up in between his fingers. He was demonstrating Wu Wei. The flower blossoms when the time is right, when the conditions for fruition, or opening up, are ripe.

And this teaching of patience corresponds directly to my own experience. I realised how recently I have lacked patience. Every time I lose patience, I lose Wu-Wei. Without Wu-Wei my relationship to myself, my children and other family and friends is impaired and creates disharmony and thus more impatience. Losing patience in ourselves and others we miss seeing the brush strokes on the canvas, the spirit of mountains, the fragrance of flowers. Instead we could be returning home by the full light of the moon.

Opinion Poetry 'n Prose

On Humility

If we want to answer the question, how tall can the human species grow, then obviously it is well to pick out the ones who are already tallest and study them. If we want to know how fast a human being can run, then it is of no use to average out the speed of the population; it is far better to collect Olympic gold medal winners and see how well they can do. If we want to know the possibilities for spiritual growth, value growth, or moral development in human beings, then I maintain that we can learn most by studying our most moral, ethical, or saintly people. (Abraham Maslow)

I know that I am no saint, I am human. I try to accord my life with certain values; openness, tolerance and compassion. I try to live by simple ethical considerations to each and every situation, for example the principle that it is better to do no harm, than it is harming others by doing “good”. I know that I haven’t always succeeded, and I have lost count of the times I’ve failed. My contribution to human happiness is a drop in the ocean, but never-the-less it is there.

Perhaps being human is to understand humility with dignity and hope as Mei Rozavian Wenyi reminds us

I’m glad my life isn’t perfect,
I’m proud that I make mistakes,
I’m happy I have my problems in life…
It reminds me I’m real,
I’m human… I’m me.

Used with kind permission


Doris Lessing Remembered

It was a rainy autumnal afternoon in Cambridge, and I was dwindling in a bookshop, browsing humanist psychology for my degree. I hadn’t found what I was looking for so I decided to leave and was approaching the front door when I overheard a gentle voice in the corner of the lobby. I turned to spy a small gathering of men and women around a signing of a new edition of The Golden Notebook. I drew closer and listened attentively to Doris talking. As I drew a little closer still I caught the words “the new man isn’t afraid to listen to us, he isn’t threatened by Feminism, he may even one day join us…” Let’s say I was warming to Doris at this point.

I later discovered that Lessing had also been influenced by Sufi mysticism, which had been introduced to her in childhood by the renowned teacher Idries Shah. Both Feminism and Sufism underpinned her belief in equality between the sexes and promoted better than any one else I know the dialogue of the committed relationship. Long before the generation of Women from Venus, Men from Mars, Lessing converted me.

Many years later, and a few brief email exchanges I’m still learning, I’m still working towards the great leap forward in every man, every woman.

Farewell Doris, and thank you.


Coming Home

I’ve come to a stage in my life where I feel love is not so much a conscious decision, not on its own anyway, but also it is an involuntary act. It appears to me that I (we) have no choice but to love, and be led by love. But the real test (if there is one) comes when people can’t get along. When people become at odds with each other, when we construct artificial barriers of the ego, to protect oneself, and ultimately cause the other person harm or loss in some way.

For instance, on my return from a holiday abroad I discovered that whilst away my neighbour decided, in her wisdom, to cut down the trees in the back of our garden. Six trees totally ruined by her thoughtlessness, her reaching over the dividing fence and ripping the trunks in half with a blunt hack-saw. At first I was shocked, horrified, distraught at the callous act, to encroach on our small but lovingly tendered garden, and cause such carnage to the trees I have protected for years. I burning with rage over what happened, for days I became a monster possessed, then I realised something… her act came about through a lack of consciousness, respect and caring. She is possibly bi-polar and in her frantic hyperactivity did this with a lack control too. Then it hit me here I was doing the same, acting from the same place – rooted in ignorance.

It took me a short while to understand this and then to approach her with love and understanding. Sadly she still didn’t see that she had done anything wrong, her defences were going nowhere, but I was no longer in the clutches of ignorance and anger. I accepted her, her act and her suffering. We are all suffering in some way or another, and compassion, and forgiveness seems the only way out. I still have to sort the garden out and do something with the trees that got damaged, my spirit still hurts for the injury caused upon mother nature, but I’m not carrying the pain so much. I’ve put it down and given myself permission to leave it there. To let it go.

I think incident this teaches me to love in the most difficult of circumstances, to extend love to those, who are out of touch with themselves, others and common gardener decency. And I know that neighbours can be at war for much less. But I had no choice, with love somewhere in the midst of chaos, I had to lay down my weapons, and pick up the pipes of peace. I had to relearn fast that no-one is perfect, least of all me. I still have a long way to go. Who knows, the trees might even grow once more.


Romeo and Juliet

Since my early teens I’ve felt stirred, frustrated and inspired by the greatest writer who ever lived (in my humble opinion), William Shakespeare. I was only 13 years old when my English teacher, Mr Conte, brought Julius Caeser to my world and slowly he taught me about the value of studying and memorising significant passages.
But it wasn’t until I became a father that I started to see a need to share my rekindled passion with the people I love.

My daughter Isabel shares this love for literature. One day, when Isabel was eight years old, she came home happily spouting a line of Shakespeare: “I know a bank where the wild thyme grows.” Her teacher was an woman who took a particular interest in the hero of her youth, and she had decided to pass the torch on to the younger generation.

When I heard my daughter quoting this line from A Midsummer Night’s Dream, a light went on in my head. We should go somewhere to see the places that inspired these stories. But where? There are so many. Together we made the decision. Italy sprang to mind. And after further thought and deliberation we settled on Verona, the city where we could retrace the narrative of Romeo and Juliet.

Why Romeo and Juliet? I recalled how I was in Mr Conte’s class, acne faced, with my hormones changing – falling in and out of love in successive failed plots, that served only to reveal my emotional unreadiness at that age. Looking back I realise that rather than trying to understand Julius, I needed to know Juliet and what it was that drove her and Romeo to play out their cosmic dance of longing, passion and tragedy.

So under the famous balcony in Verona and I’m hoping to inject the spirit of shakespeare, of human drama within Isabel’s grasp of the world and the oceans of emotions she will no doubt face in her own time. I’m hope the Shakespeare’s message will stay with her somehow. Nothing can stop her heart breaking, not even her father’s over-protection, but she may have the vocabulary to recognise it – seeing it in both a personal and universal way – and, more importantly, be able to express it in a meaningful way.

This is what matters I feel. I want Isabel to get Shakespeare’s message: to never give up on the all pervasive, everlasting flame within her soul. And I hope too when it comes to nursing her broken heart she remembers that not all human activity, including love, is folly. But this will take more than a single trip to Italy, it will take practice, and lots of it.

Rather than follow the hordes of lovelorn visitors who flock to the former inn known as the Casa di Giulietta (or Juliet’s House) to leave the letters and messages in the courtyard beneath the balcony, sticking notes of love against the brick wall with chewing gum. Isabel and I will walk away quietly leaving nothing behind. But we’ll take away this vow to practice.

Isabel and I will set up a routine. We will spend time together reading each day and memorising small quotes from Shakespeare’s play. These hours will be spent together learning, starting with Romeo and Juliet then everything else from As You Like It to King Lear. We’ll started with short accessible passages from the comedies and, gradually over time, increased the length and complexity of the passages. These hours we will sit next to each other totally engaged in something we both love, and we will have enormous fun doing it.

I feel that learning passages from Shakespeare is a lot like learning a foreign language. Some of his words are unknown to us, even as adults. Shakespeare’s sentence structure can sounds odd to our modern ears and Shakespeare is constantly speaking in complex metaphors that can sometimes be difficult to understand. I certainly struggle with it. So what I’ll do is teach Isabel how to understand every word in the Shakespeare passage being studied, then memorize the passage so that her knowledge of Shakespeare become fluent, the way a foreign language can become fluent.

And as each passage is discussed, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to The Tempest (with a lot more plays in between), we will talk about the stories, the characters and the meanings of the works so that Isabel gets the kind of knowledge of Shakespeare she’ll need to become a student, thinkers, and ultimately, a teacher of Shakespeare.

There is no doubt in my mind that
knowing Shakespeare will help prepare Isabel for the years ahead. Or as Hamlet says: It will better prepare us for the joys, as well as the whips and scorns of time. If we practice, practice, practice, it will introduce Isabel to the rich world of literature, and, from there, to the universe of cultural references embedded in that literature.

Shakespeare will give Isabel confidence and it will, ultimately, by giving her Shakespeare’s perspective on the world, teach her to be a more moral human being, when it comes to dealing with adolescent romance and it’s many pitfalls. She will be stronger and wiser. Her knowledge of true love will pull her through. And to quote Hamlet again, it’s a consummation devoutly to be wished.


Ordinary People, Extraordinary Compassion

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 dialled 999 to call for an ambulance. A young woman came out of the nearest shop brining 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 form 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 marvellous 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.

Meanwhile telephones crouch,
getting ready to ring.
In locked-up offices, and all the uncaring
Intricate rented wolrd begins to rouse.
The sky is white as clay, with no sun.
Work has to be done.
Postmen like doctors go from house to house.

(Larkin, 1990)

Opinion Poetry 'n Prose

Lament by Gillian Clarke.

For the green turtle with her pulsing burden
in search of the breeding ground.
For her eggs laid in their nest of sickness.
For the cormorant in his funeral silk,
the veil of iridescence on the sand,
the shadow on the sea.
For the ocean’s lap with its mortal stain.
For Ahmed at the closed border.
For the soldier in his uniform of fire.
For the gunsmith and the armourer,
the boy fusilier who joined for the company,
the farmer’s sons, in it for the music.
For the hook-beaked turtles,
the dugong and the dolphin,
the whale struck dumb by the missile’s thunder.
For the tern, the gull and the restless wader,
the long migrations and the slow dying,
the veiled sun and the stink of anger.
For the burnt earth and the sun put out,
the scalded ocean and the blazing well.
For vengeance, and the ashes of language


This is what Gillian herself describes about the poem:

‘Lament’ is an elegy, an expression of grief. It can be a sad, military tune played on a bugle. The poem uses the title as the start of a list of lamented people, events, creatures and other things hurt in the war, so after the word ‘lament’, every verse, and 11 lines, begin with ‘for’.

The poem is about the Gulf War, which happened in 1991 when Iraq invaded Kuwait, and the United States, with Britain’s help, bombed Iraq. This war has never really stopped, it still threatens the world. War can’t be waged without grave damage to every aspect of life. All the details in the poem came from reports in the media.

There were newspaper photographs of cormorants covered with oil – ‘in his funeral silk’. ‘The veil of iridescence on the sand’ and ‘the shadow on the sea’ show the spreading stain of oil from bombed oil wells. The burning oil seemed to put the sun out, and poisoned the land and the sea. The ‘boy fusilier who joined for the company,’ and ‘the farmer’s sons, in it for the music’, came from hearing radio interviews with their mothers. The creatures were listed by Friends of the Earth as being at risk of destruction by oil pollution, and ‘the soldier in his uniform of fire’ was a horrific photograph of a soldier burnt when his tank was bombed.

The ashes of language are the death of truth during war.

Lament is from Collected Poems published by Carcanet Press Limited
Copyright © Gillian Clarke 1997 used with kind permission



On the 23rd March 2003 the UK / US coalition forces embarked on the invasion of Iraq. Ten years on I look back in my diary of that ill-fated day and the growing feelings of fear, anger and sadness which followed.

I wrote:
I am against this war because the case for war (weapons of mass destruction) has not been proven; and because the unilateral, pre-emptive strike policy of the Bush administration, combined with their rejection of global legal systems, which have taken decades of diplomatic work to assemble, places us all at risk from future unilateral actions by like minded and even less “friendly” regimes.

This evening, with alliance troops in Baghdad, I could write at length about how things might have been had inspections continued for several months; how the country should have been flooded with thousands of inspectors armed with the locations of the three hundred sites of weapons of mass destruction as specified by the US security services; how any invasion should have been UN sanctioned.

If weapons of mass destruction are found in Iraq and paraded as justification for the war, should we believe that evidence when it is revealed? Some may insist that our leaders would never lie to us about such things. I wish I could share that view. They have, at the very least, misled us in the past. When these weapons are found I hope I will be able to believe that “we” didn’t put them there. Or does this suggest more faith in the sanity and honesty of our democratically elected leaders than is justifiable?

I find it worth noting, albeit with a healthy dose of scepticism, we have a long and dishonourable history of arming and supporting “pro-west” fascists and despots, the liberation of Iraq for the Iraqi people (if that is what happens) will be a rare and welcome example of us doing the right thing. I could accept the responsibility of war, if (and it’s a big if) the philanthropic, humanitarian, “liberate and leave them” motive to govern themselves is adhered to.

But ten years on, why do I still hear that voice in my head saying “Get real man, who you trying to kid?!” I couldn’t quieten that voice, history will not allow me to silence it.


The Practice of Love

Although I often express this philosophy of love in Buddhist language it is not the property of any religion exclusively. I’ve seen it in Hindus, Buddhists, Janists, Muslims, Sikhs, Christians… alike. It is there in the Kabbalah and its there in Quaker meetings. It is there in the great movement of the dervish and in the stillness of quiet contemplation. All these traditions are human attempts to connect with the ideal of perfect love and to optimise the human response to it. Therapy, religion, enlightenment and spirituality are, or should be, different names for the same thing, liberation from self into a direct encounter with reality.

I am a Buddhist, relying upon the unimpeded light of Amitabha Buddha. Light or love or spirit – call it what you will, comes to us from the Unborn. I am, therefore, a Buddhist, because to me the key element of Buddhism is to take refuge. For me it is important to take refuge in a Buddha, or, to put the same thing differently, it is important that what I take refuge in is a Buddha. A Buddha is one who embodies unconditional love. Other traditions know this by other names but its essential to understand that we have the same or significantly overlapping faith, in love.

Before committing to Buddhism, I travelled to the north of Scotland on a mission to visit the Findhorn Foundation. Whilst I was there I met EiIeen Caddy, the founder of the community, who said to me “the meaning of life is love”. At first I thought it was yet another well trodden mantra for the new age movement, but she said it with such belief in her eyes, her voice, her heart that I could only smile. Eileen just radiated love.

Eileen later explained that she believed that spirituality derives from the contemplation of love in its purest form, unconditional love, beyond what is possible within this world. She also explained that love is quickened by proximity to death, I later learned that she was battling with cancer, but her community applied their spiritual awareness and healing hands to her health for many years on.

We are all trying to love – all trying to live loving lives. However, because of the way this world is, our love is continually frustrated. We can all experience disappointments and we carry the hurt of these disappointments and defeats and this sometimes leads us to act in ways that are destructive. Love thus gets twisted.

Eileen believed that the most ‘evil’ acts are distantly related to a desire to love, but sometimes it is very distant. I struggled with this message but now I realise Eileen was right and how vital it is to maintain the courage to go on loving through all our disappointments is the central challenge in life.

Eileen taught me that spirituality must be based on the awareness of a ‘love that surpasses human understanding’. Mindfulness of that love is the substance of spiritual practice no matter what cultural trappings it is dressed up in. For traditions to quarrel, as they have done for over two thousand years is thus absurd, but it is all too common and is just another example of how love gets twisted.

Love is not something one earns or deserves nor is it something that one has any control over. We are beneficiaries. Love is freely given. To live a spiritual life is essentially to do things ‘for the love of it’. No other motivation is required.

On the one hand, this means to do things without attachment to a result or reward. On the other hand, everything we does in practice have a goal in view and that goal is closely or distantly related to what we love. Love provides the framework within which a meaningful life is lived. Love is the substance of it day to day. The frustration of that love is the ‘dukkha’ that either drives us into twisted harmful counter-productive activity or enlightens us and puts us onto a spiritual path, that is, a path that expresses our love more directly.

Creativity (both practical and artistic) is directly related to love, is the expression of love and its struggles. Creative acts either celebrate or sustain the things we love or they enhance our love, either making things that might not have initially seemed so loveable, or carrying us through our disappointments and defeats in a more constructive way.

So most spiritual practice commonly involves some kind of contemplation or meditation or prayer. These practices keep us focussed on pure love in one or other of its manifestations and this sustains and cultivates the love in our lives. The art of mediation or prayer, therefore, like other art, either celebrates love or transforms adversity into love. However, there are limits to what one can do by contrivance.

The Buddhist precept ‘Right effort’ is a where effort flows from inspiration rather than something that can create inspiration in the first place. Love could be called eternal life – and much has been written in all traditions to describe love as a more alive kind of life than mere animate existence.

Grounding one’s life in love is thus an antidote to worry. Love protects us so that we do not then need to be always on guard, or in a state worry or to act defensively. ‘To love’ is not the same as trying to sustain a particular emotion or a state of mind. It is not possible to sustain any state of mind indefinitely, but it is possible to have a sustaining faith in love. We are recipients of love even when we are asleep and we can have confidence in it without having to think about it all the time.

Eileen taught me that through this understanding we are able to love others and truly enjoy this life and all other lives hereafter. Love appears in the ephemeral world but it belongs to eternity. The person who lives by love is rooted in eternity rather than ephemerality. This part does seem to be something that one can learn, at least to some extent. One can make a conscious shift from the position of attachment to ordinary things into the world of love.

However, this is only an option if one has a strong sense of the love and this sense is associated with gratitude for eternal life. I think it was Krishnamurti who said that where love is lacking, there is karma. Karma is the dead side of animate existence. Karma is mechanical, inexorable and deadly, whereas love is alive, unpredictable and joyous.

If Krishnamurti is right then love lifts us above karma. Love is the only thing that can rescue us. If we do not have the consolation of love then we go on being dead. When bad things happen, if we have confidence in love and eternal life, then we can remain grounded in that and not be overwhelmed by the soap-opera of life.

This seems to me to be what spirituality is all about. There are many people who play around the edge of spirituality but when some upset comes along in their life they do not rely upon love but turn back immediately. For such people worldly attachments are really what is more important, but it is a sad state because they are closed to the blessing that is at hand.

Love is a circular blessing. The more love enters one’s life the happier one is and the more grateful one feels and the more grateful one feels the more easily love seems to enter. And so it goes… spirituality is a matter of living in a simple way, nothing special, and having a practice that enables one to return again and again to love and the consciousness of its all enfolding blessing so that confidence is always growing.

Many blessings.



Can you value your uniqueness, as part of the whole?
Be subtle as breath, and supple as a baby?
Be a polished Mirror reflecting Truth perfectly?

Lao Tzu ~ Tao Te Ching
(Translated Freke 1994)

These days it is extremely socially valued to be distinct, above the herd rather than below it. But our struggle to become distinct can result in us looking and sounding similar. We wear the same sorts of fashionable colours and styles; even deviate from the norm in similar ways; think the same sorts of ideas, driven by contemporary, powerful social and economic forces. Even when we do manage to be special, seemingly in some way ‘unique’, it turns out to be distinctive only in the way that many others are.

The woman at the Ascot horse races discovers that a dozen others are wearing the same dress and hat. She is mortified; her great day in the royal enclosure absolutely ruined. Striving hard to gain accretions — like thousands of barnacles on a ship’s hull- serves only to warp her true nature. We feel that being ‘special’ involves becoming important, acquiring things and designer labels on our clothes, or cloaks. We can become like scouts and girl guides— skills in cooking. Path-finding, sailing, knot tying, tent pitching; invisible badges all over the clothes, but what have all these ‘things’ and ‘roles’ got to do with who we really are? Do they add up to a hill of beans?

This striving for individuality and distinctiveness is not necessarily healing, but becomes a sickness. The healing doesn’t lie in accentuating separateness but in coming together. The reason for the Buddhist community life (Sangha) is inherent in the nature of the Buddha ’s teaching. We have seen that this teaching consists of diagnosis and prescription: diagnosis of the human malaise as consisting essentially of the disease of individualism, and prescription for its cure as consisting primarily of the undermining or erosion of the notion that individuality is something permanent and of great importance. It is in the life of the Sangha that the prescription can most effectively be applied. Here is the community of being which comes into existence when the walls of individuality are completely and permanently broken down. And here too, are found the optimum conditions for those who are seeking to achieve that state of life and consciousness where individuality is no more, but who have not yet arrived at that state.

We may desire but don’t need this pursuit of individuality. We may desire independence but thirst and hunger for interdependence, finding harmony in working and collaborating with others. We need an active fellowship — a sense of union with others, as the Buddha suggested, that may come over the internet or more likely through ordinary conversations, cuddles and laughs from those intimate to us, both geographically and emotionally.

Of the many threats to the building of community, one comes from the belief that we have nothing much to learn from the past, based firmly on the illusion of progress. It worships everything that is modern, combined with a profound disrespect for our grandmothers and grandfathers, either literally or in developing professional disciplines. For example the study of pre-history teaches us that our ancestors were much more accomplished than we ever imagined. Too much preoccupation with modernity can lead us to look to the future and rarely back into the past. We need vision in both directions — past and future — as well as the clearly focused skills to survive in the present moment.

A Zen teacher who ran a bakery employing homeless people just outside New York commented:

One of the most popular pastries we baked was… a dense chocolate torte… it turned out to be delicious and special. Around that time, we hired a professional baker to help us increase our efficiency — and he made a few changes in the way we prepared our Godiva chocolate torte. Almost immediately, we got a call from the people at Godiva, and they said, ‘What’s happened? ’ In fact it was good. But it was good the way any other chocolate torte was good. It was no longer special… Experts can be useful . . . but… we had to learn to keep our uniqueness and style… (Glassman and Fields, 1996).

This outlines the tension between our drive to be special and our original face, or as Bankei would have called it, our unborn mind. The top confectionery expert on chocolate tortes came to give advice, just like any expert in making over deficient psyches. He did this job well, analysing and reconstructing the process of cake making so that the new product was uniformly excellent. He looked at every tiny segment of a complex operation in great professional detail. The brand new chocolate torte was launched and delivered to the shops, amid great pride, glossy brochures and the loud fanfare of trumpets. Everyone was delighted.

However there was a great problem in the shops. The purchasers of the new torte compared it adversely with the previous, so—called inferior version. Their mouths and stomachs were fine judges. It wasn’t that the original torte had been better or worse, but that it had been ‘unique’ and the new version was uniform and standardised. The new and delicious torte was like everyone else’s — mouthwatering, but delicious in the same way as everyone else’s. You could buy this sort of torte in most discerning confectioners, almost anywhere. The original might have been ‘less perfect’, whatever that means, but it had been a definite reflection of that particular bakery, in a way that the new one was not. It was a direct expression of the expert’s work.

This was the result of conscientiously and eternally striving to be better. To make perceived improvements is an important aspect of human striving, but we can get hemmed in with fantasies of improvement, as Feynman might have noted. They can be self—incarcerating and claustrophobic. They can reject the natural flow of the chocolate, with all its quirky, incalculable outcomes, in favour of something much more calculated and planned which is content with agreed standards, measured dessert spoons and regulations.

This is an almost irresistible movement from the scruffy to the slick. The old torte—making process in that particular bakery was scruffy and large elements were virtually unmeasured, based on guesswork. The new system, cleverly designed by the confectionery expert was slick. Everything from start to finish was completely standardised and measured.

There is no need to search to be unique, we are already. The drive for psychological and even spiritual betterment, as with chocolate tortes, can take us away from our original face. We can become standardised, similar in artificial ways to most others. Not only do we end up wearing the same jeans or chinos, but our naked souls are clothed similarly.

Our essential ‘vitality’ as the Nei—yeh Taoist text has it, comes from being wholly and fully who we really are. Christ of the Gospels talks of ‘living more abundantly’. Worry and greed generate illness, and an increasing craving to be better can easily be a denial, a fundamental lack of acceptance of who we really are. That sort of craving can never be satisfied by hungry ghosts.

Nowadays our TV screens are packed full of DIY gurus and cookery experts. There’s no end to the demand for this sort of basic entertainment. Raymond Blanc, one extremely popular cook is like a pharmacist, a domestic scientist, presiding over a large kitchen and measuring with extraordinary care the various ingredients for the dish. His culinary precision is remarkable and he uses a great traditional pedagogic style. Yet you know that his instructions should be followed exactly and will always end up with a delicious meal. It feels as though you’re observing a great technician at work. Precision cooking at its finest.

Yet another popular TV cook, Keith Floyd travelled abroad a lot and had on hand vast amounts of cheap red wine to flavour various dishes and sauces. Much of this wine went down his own throat. In great contrast to the pedagogue, this chef throws handfuls of herbs and this and that into various simmering saucepans. You don’t feel ‘taught’ at all, not at all like a small errant child, but part of a hastily arranged party, where the guests become increasingly inebriated and begin to dance.

In one kitchen the stress is on the goals, and in the other it’s on the whole enjoyable process. In one kitchen processing food is an exact science, in the other flamboyant fun. One experience is of very formal learning, where my admiration of the cooking teacher grows and grows. But afterwards, I don’t feel like cooking or that I’ve gained increased confidence, or even feel the slightest bit hungry. It all feels rather like painting a Rembrandt by numbers. With the second cook, it’s all great comedy, although I’m not sure what he’s doing or where we’re going. It’s not an ascetic experience but sensual. After all this is not medicine, but eating and drinking. I could throw this and that into any old pan and it would taste reasonable, especially if I drank sufficient alcohol.

With the famous pedagogue I can be confident that his recipe will always work out correctly but it will never really belong to me. It will remain firmly his. Like the chocolate cake, it will be excellent but always uniformly excellent, nothing genuinely distinctive and unique. With the second chef, it will never be his, it would always belong to me — whether edible or not, it will have a unique, un—uniform quality. Every time this dish is made, it will taste different.

The second chef passed on to me via the TV something of the joys of cooking, the real process of preparing food. Although impossible to follow, even when sober, he took a whole liberating process and communicated it, as all great teachers rather than technicians do. He captured its whole spirit.

The helping profession strikes me as much the same. Many of us give help via a series of models, diagrams and carefully organised strategies from textbooks that look more like car repair manuals — year on year. Each particular part is exactly described — dissections of empathy, projecting warmth and accurate feedback, but it bears very little relationship to the whole activity. We haven’t communicated the essence — any of the warmth and fun— in our work. I’ve been fortunate to meet several great teachers in my career, although I didn’t usually realise they were great until a long time afterwards.

One early encounter, whilst working with homeless people took place at the Mill Road Project, in Cambridge. The Project gave out bus tickets and small amounts of cash to various itinerants. It was presided over by Reg, whom I’d presumed on several previous meetings to be affable but bumbling. Reg let me sit in on brief interviews. It was fascinating to see him at work. There was the usual long series of depressing encounters, an eternal file of the disabled, the elderly and what used to be called before the war ‘the feckless’. These people were ‘down on their luck’. Many were old soldiers, British Legion types, never adjusting to civvy street, whilst others emerged periodically from assorted prisons and mental hospitals into the smog and busy traffic.

Of course I had read some related books and articles, mostly of the sickly sentimental ‘I rescued the homeless’ type; and attended several relevant lectures and seminars, but those were simply words and this was so much more. There was the world of difference between going to the zoo to watch the big cats sleeping and actually wrestling with them, feeling their sharp claws and teeth on your flesh. Although my experience of sleeping rough had involved some direct wrestling with the tigers.

Reg dealt with the homeless in a courteous and priestly style. He seemed devoid of any organisation. He had a natural gift for anarchy, of the ‘large piles of files all over the floor’ variety. He gave the many downtrodden guests some quality time, whereas I was more brisk and business—like, operating on piecework and strongly influenced by my idea of what constituted professional skills.

I vividly recall one encounter. The man was in his early thirties, wearing dirty work trousers and a scruffy T shirt. ‘I’m a time—served carpenter by trade, mostly working on buildings. Split up with my wife some years ago, she was always difficult to live with, and never seen the two bairns since. Just come in to Cambridge from Birmingham on the train. Left my carpentry tools in the left luggage office so I could look for work. After a couple of days of looking, I’ve found work with Laings and start work tomorrow morning at 6. I need £20 to pay to get the tools out of the station and get some new work clothes. And I don’t have a penny piece. I’ll pay you back in a few weeks.

Reg listened carefully and gravely. After a few more questions and many serious nods of the head, he got out a battered tin cash box and handed over two scruffy ten pound notes. The man bowed his head, uttered repeated thank yous and left hurriedly, as if Reg might suddenly change his mind. l was astounded.

Reg could see I was fit to burst as he turned to me: ‘Well what did you think of that man and his story?’

‘l thought it was a completely preposterous pack of lies. With those unblemished hands he’s no more a carpenter or builder than I am. He’s probably been in London some months at least, probably living in a Sally Army hostel. The money is obviously going on the drink right at this very moment’

‘Yes — you are completely right. I can’t disagree. He’s probably half drunk already’

‘Then why did you give him the £20 if you knew the story was false‘?’

‘Who else in Cambridge is he going to fool with such a stupid story? He’ll probably starve to death’

Being intensely full of myself, arrogant and stupid to boot, it took me many years to work on that simple story. lt wouldn’t let me go. It stuck in my mind like a piece of grit in an oyster. lt wouldn’t go away. l’m not sure there is any real moral. Morals — drawing out the underlying message — were never the stock in trade of Bankei types. They just got on with ordinary living. The homeless man’s story was almost certainly grossly inaccurate but somehow nevertheless true. Reg was a guru who had almost disappeared, forgotten to teach. He had deep saddle sores from too much riding on the backs of bulls.

The emphasis in work with the homeless in those days — and today — was on the great split between the ‘deserving’ and the ‘undeserving’ , finding out whether you were of ‘ good character’. lf you were of good moral status, then you deserved to be helped; if not, then there was always the workhouse. So the resources were given for presenting good illusions, putting on an attractive charade.

Reg revealed the mirage nature of this — nobody deserves or doesn’t deserve, whatever that might mean. Did the Good Samaritan ask for the bona fides of the injured traveler, or even references? He was much more generous than that. He just helped him up onto his beast and paid for his care at the inn, not a passport or social security benefit voucher in sight.

Rosie, a young woman with learning difficulties in her early twenties, had recently been discharged from a long-stay hospital and wanted a dog for her twenty-third birthday. lt was her heart’s desire. Why? We can only make guesses. Perhaps it was some great symbol of freedom, a celebration of her escape from the grim institution, but she hungered badly for a dog — an ordinary mongrel. ‘Please can l have a dog for my birthday?’ lt seemed a reasonable request.

But unfortunately she had only exchanged one kind of institution for another. She now lived in a staffed group home, run by a large voluntary organisation. The staff wanted to help but the hypothetical mongrel presented huge organisational difficulties. The opinion of the other residents must be taken into account. How would it affect their lives? Perhaps some of them might be allergic to canine fur. Others might not like dogs. There was the whole democratic process to go through, including the views of the staff who had to work there every day. Could she look after this animal? lf not, who would take on the responsibility, and was it fair on them? After all dogs are not just for Christmas, but for life. Who would take financial responsibility for any necessary vet’s bills when her social security income was so low? What did the complex risk—assessment processes have to say? What if one of the residents was bitten — would the existing household insurance cover it? The process was absolutely endless. There was always yet another steep hurdle.

After two interminable staff meetings the problem was referred ever upwards. Nobody wanted to accept responsibility for this truly awesome decision. At regional office level it became an issue of hygiene, as well as one of endangering the security of the group home through the construction of a dog or cat flap. Various senior officers discussed this endlessly, as well as the implications for fire regulations. What were the regulations about the size and construction of various sorts of door flap? How could the organization ensure that the builder was adequately insured? Hundreds of pounds was spent, enough to buy a Crufts champion, without any clear decision. National headquarters were asked for guidance.

The whole process took more than five months. Her birthday came and went, and so did Christmas. The file on the canine request grew thicker and thicker, to phone directory size. Phone calls and meetings proliferated. Just before the referral to the United Nations, a good old—fashioned English compromise was reached, balancing the least danger with the greatest acceptability. One evening Rosie came home extremely tired from the adult training centre and was introduced to the home’s newest inmate. She passed it by without a break in her step, showing unerring Zoological accuracy: ‘That’s not a dog. lt’s a cat.’

All those intelligent and professional staff, employed by a caring organisation, were completely unable to respond accurately to the uniqueness of Rosie’s desire for a dog. They couldn’t recognise the incessant yearning she had for some canine company, that it wasn’t remotely like the desire for a cat. She wanted something to train, to take for walks, to throw sticks into the far distance and have some chance they might be brought back. No cat could do all of that.

lt wasn’t because staff didn’t care — they spent thousands of hours trying to square the circle. lt wasn’t because they couldn’t tell the difference between dogs and cats — at least two of them were dog owners. They had also clearly understood, just how important having a dog, as opposed to having a cat, was for Rosie. They had breakfast with her every day, they accompanied her to the local shops. The juggernaut system they operated just wouldn’t permit an accurate and sensible decision. Overall guidelines and general principles had to be adhered to. Rosie’s choice was only one of any number of items that had to go into the service spin—dryer. All these items had to be taken into account, resulting in a stupid and unsatisfactory compromise, made principally by distant people who were completely unable to recognise the uniqueness of either the hypothetical dog or Rosie.

Again we see how the services are trying to be slick rather than scruffy, erring towards yang and neglecting yin. Efficiency and best value are the bywords. So the dog gets tippexed out and the cat brought purring in. Each step in this long and expensive process is very sensible and coherent, but somehow — largely unintentionally — returns the requested dog into a cat. Every single segment of that essential uniqueness, which Reg taught so well, is ironed out.

The seventeenth-century Japanese Zen Master Bankei brought to practice an earthy freshness that still breathes through the stories, which even three centuries on still contain an immense vitality. He left no written expositions of his teachings and gave strict orders that nobody else was to reduce them to writing. Nevertheless his students were disobedient and did record his teachings, in particular about the ‘Unborn’.

Take this comment from one sermon:

What we call a ‘thought’ is something that has already fallen one or more removes from the living reality of the Unborn. If you priests would just live in the Unborn, there wouldn ’t be anything for me to tell you about it, and you wouldn ’t be listening to me. But because of the unbornness and marvellous illuminative power inherent in the Buddha mind, it readily reflects all things that come along and transforms itself into them, thus turning the Buddha-mind into thought.

But his main lessons are not to be found in the formality of sermons in the temples but rather, like Christ, in the way he lived. During one of his retreats, a student was caught stealing. Others reported it to him and asked for the student’s expulsion. Bankei ignored their demand. Later the student was caught stealing again and once more Bankei ignored their request for expulsion. The other students were angry and drew up a petition asking for the thief to be sent away, otherwise they would leave. Bankei read the petition and called everyone before him: You are wise brothers. You know what is right and what is not right. You may go somewhere else to study gr you wish, but this poor brother does not even know right from wrong. Who will teach him if I do not? I’m going to keep him here even if the rest of you leave.’ A torrent of tears cleaned the face of the brother who’d stolen. All desire to steal had vanished.

My favourite story is about hecklers at one of Bankei’s lectures. Two students of another teacher were angry when their master lost all his students because they went to hear Bankei talk. They stood on the edge of the crowd and heckled. ‘Our teacher can do magic. He can make the clouds move and bring the sunshine. What magic can you do‘?’ Bankei responded: ‘It may be that your old fox can do these things but my magic is that when I’m hungry l eat, when thirsty I drink.’

Now that’s what I call extremely powerful stuff. It leaves everyone just breathless. He could join any spiritual Magic Circle anywhere in the world with tricks like that. The message was so direct and clear, almost brutal, give up this intense yearning for the mysterious and delectable, live with the world as it genuinely is. See and delight in the ordinary magic and miracles everywhere around you. If these two poor stooges, the hecklers, had even one shred of wisdom, they’d have left their tired old fox and simply followed Bankei, but I don’t think they did. I bet they stayed close to their cloud mover. They were looking up in the air for intoxicating conjuring, not for immensely skilful ways of living. Staring upwards, quite soon they would get their sandals all covered in dog shit.

Bankei didn’t give starving people photographs of loaves of bread. He gave them real loaves so that they could eat their fill. He didn’t deal in complicated ideologies and paradigms, but suggested directly what they might do about their perceived problems. He was the direct expression of the Buddha nature, the unborn mind.

On the day of his death the monastery bell began to toll. A young monk coming out of the main gate spoke to a blind beggar who had sat outside for many years. ‘The great teacher is dead’ said the young monk. ‘l’d guessed that. He’d been ill for quite a while’ said the beggar, ‘He was a really great man. When you’re blind you must listen more carefully to the sound of people’s voices. Sometimes you can hear that although people say they are sad their voice sounds glad; and sometimes when they say they’re glad they sound sad. But with Bankei, in all the years I heard his voice, every time he said he was sad, he was only sad, and every time he said he was glad, he was only glad.’

Chuang Tzu write about our projections and expectations. If we see another person, we develop a whole series of ideas about how they are supposed to think and behave. We assume they have control and operate under the very same principles as we do. Reality may not be like that at all.

Imagine that you have an enemy. Someone tells you that he let some people down by not turning up to give a talk. Just imagine the response: ‘Well I have to say, he’s that sort of person. We have found him to be totally unreliable. He does what he wants to do in the way he wants to do it.’ You already had an extremely poor picture of this person and the information just received fits this.

Now suppose this person is a close friend — imagine the very different response: ‘This is not at all typical. He must have been sick or had some accident. I can’t understand it. We’ve always found him to be utterly reliable. On the one hand, when the person is someone we don’t like we find the example fits with what we’ve experienced the mind-set of the person. On the other, when it’s someone we do like we find it incomprehensible and alien to our picture of him.

But this attitude of non-judgment is both hard both to practice and not to practice. I’m really familiar with the ten thousand traps that it is heir to, especially the arrogance and stupidity of raising oneself high above others, feeling that you’re in some way better. Although in my heart, most of the time I feel not better, but much worse than others. This habitual posture is an expression of the very next grave precept — ‘Do not be stingy’. Stinginess reflects a lack of awareness, generosity and compassion towards others. Again all these projections arise from the network of expectations. I should wash my mouth out with carbolic soap every single time I break that precept, except it would be very expensive and do disastrous things to my digestive system!

What is unique about us? When all our roles and other accretions are stripped away and our so—called achievements are no more — with what does death leave us? Bill ’s long-suffering wife came to my home early one Sunday morning. She had been crying all night. Her tale began rather hesitantly and then became more fluent. ‘You’ll remember Bill. You met him at some party and he came to visit you several times. I recalled him well — an awkward, self—opinionated middle-aged man with an extremely chequered career. He’d left many jobs — fruit picker, postal worker, taxi driver — just before he was sacked. We’d had several fierce arguments about the nature of the universe, whether there was life on other planets, about truth… Mostly I enjoyed those arguments but his boss, a former Roman Catholic priest whom I knew well, was not so pleased. He worked in a group home for people with learning difficulties who had recently been discharged from long-stay hospitals. The serious question was, who had the greatest need ~ he or the residents. Bill was always late for his shift, due to regular drinking bouts.

He was regularly ‘pissed off’ with his boss, who he assessed as ‘an emotionally constipated bastard’. Bill’s diagnosis was probably accurate but it didn’t help the smooth running of the shift system. His boss’s diagnosis – ‘Bill has an ego the size of the Royal Festival Hall and an authority problem to match’ was probably on the ball; they were both shrewd judges of horse flesh if it wasn’t their own. I first met Bill at a social event one Christmas. He was a larger than life character, drinking gallons of cheap beer and brandy, taking numerous pills, having affairs with assorted colleagues and discovering the occupational disciplines of life in extensive conflict with enormous passions. For Bill, this resulted in a major crisis every year or two.

‘Bill died on Tuesday’, his wife informed me as she sobbed, apparently Bill had staggered back late at night from the off-licence, presumably already tanked up. Slaloming across a busy main road, he had been hit violently by a car that hadn’t stopped, probably because the driver had been over the alcohol limit himself.

‘Well he told me that he was a Buddhist. He read a lot of books on Zen and Tibetan Buddhism… so… I need your help to arrange a Buddhist funeral’. It was a considerable surprise that he was Buddhist. He always seemed a straightforward agnostic. Did reading a few books make you something? It seemed churlish to argue about theological brands, particularly when the object of the discussion was already dead, or at least in between rebirths.

I slowly savoured Bill’s wife’s request daunted but the fact I never arranged Buddhist funeral, I had never even attended one. Surely she couldn’t be serious. How could I conduct any sort of funeral? I would need to enlist the help of my friend Rev. Jim, an ordained Zen monk. He would have to guide me. So I spoke words of agreement. It would take place at 1pm the next Tuesday.

‘What do you want me to say in the funeral address?’ ‘Tell the truth about him. No nonsense? Easier said than done — exactly what is true about anyone? But I knew what she meant. There is a convention in newspaper obituaries that only saints die; sinners live forever. A journalist friend killed herself recently and the Guardian obituary never mentioned suicide. We needed to speak of his Unborn Mind, the essential nature of the man without any gloss.

The following morning the phone started to ring. First it was the funeral director. What were Buddhist procedures? Could I write them down? Shortly afterwards it was the crematorium. Were there Buddhist hymns that could be played during the service? They were anxious to get tapes for the sound system. People were nervous and confused. We were leaving behind carefully rehearsed scripts.

I began three days of preparation, ringing around his friends. Some were grieving deeply; others were getting on with life. I needed a picture of him as a living breathing person. It was a fairly raunchy and chaotic picture. He drank a great deal; womanised extensively; smoked much dope, mixed with a variety of other drugs; battled with all authorities at all from the Inland Revenue to the police and his gentle boss; and had, in between times, shown great chunks of captivating compassion — a latterday Falstaff.

I made copious notes and discussed the eulogy and the service in detail with his wife at a second meeting. She seemed happy with the arrangements.
I found a tape of Japanese bamboo flute music — shakuhachi — for the worried man at the crematorium. It sounded suitably oriental and dirge—like. If I was to play the fool in front of a hundred plus guests, I’d do it medieval Japanese style. There wouldn’t be many samurais present.

The chant for ‘unexpected misfortunes’ in the Buddhist services book looked promising. There are few greater unexpected misfortunes in life and death than being mown down by a ‘hit and run’ driver. I started to rehearse.

Suddenly it was the day. More than a hundred gathered: two wives (one ex-); assorted friends and mistresses from work; drinking companions; brothers and sisters; his weeping mother; and the crematorium staff, who had never seen a Buddhist funeral, but neither had I.

Thankfully Rev. Jim presided over the service, in line with ancient tradition. He welcomed people, explaining the service to an eerie silence. His voice came and went in waves, trying to sound confident. ‘We’ll begin with Japanese music, followed by chanting; followed by a short talk about our friend Bill; then more chanting and a period of silence. The service will begin and end with the sound of this meditation bell.’ After the beautifully wistful shakuhachi music faded away, we waited for a moment and then began a deep rhythmical chant from back of my throat. The Japanese sounds came pouring into this very Christian chapel of rest.

When finished a reading of The Gobunsho, or Epistles, I talked slowly of Bill:

‘All of us knew Bill. That’s why we’re here. Not primarily to feel sorrow at his death, although most are grieving, but richly to celebrate his life — who he was and what he did in his uniqueness. He wasn’t a saint by a long way. He was an ordinary man with more than his fair share of desires leading a life good in parts and with some great difficulties in others. He had a chequered career — lots of different jobs from bookmaker to postman, from supermarket manager to travelling salesman. He lived life abundantly.

Many will know of his drink and drugs problem. He struggled over many years to kick alcohol and get off dope. Many will know he felt a great failure as a father to his five children. Many more will know that he had intimate relationships with a number of women. It is not our part to judge him here but to tell the truth. The truth is that he worked with people with disabilities; that he read widely and thought deeply; that he wondered a lot about the nature of life and the planet; that he could be difficult and bloody minded; but that there was a great mixture of joy and suffering deep within him. In other words, he was much like the rest of us.

We don’t know what is happening to Bill, but he’s returned to white ashes. He was a follower of the Lord Buddha. Perhaps at this moment he waits outside the Nirvana gates. l knew and respected him. Let’s send our good wishes whatever religious faith we have or none. Let’s end this funeral service in silence, finishing with the sound of the bell.’

Like Bill’s life, one moment the funeral was rolling along and then it was over. The music and chanting faded away. The large Japanese meditation bell tinkled three times, followed by deep silence. I waited outside in fine drizzle to shake hands with each mourner as they went. Bill’s wife embraced me with her thanks. One skeletal young man covered in tattoos, even on his bald head, shouted: ‘Nice one man!’ before climbing onto a damp motor bike. I went home by car — moved and empty. I was too full emotionally. Some deep mysteries had been touched in this ceremony. I was part of some huge process, tapping into the flow of a great river. Just for a single moment we had felt the original, unique nature of that old rogue Bill.



Tonight I received news that one of the great figures of English rock has died. Kevin Ayers, aged 68, was the founding member of the Soft Machine, a band that inspired a generation of young musicians and singer-songwriters alike. I had most of Kevin’s vinyl records, they didn’t gather dust.

Many moons ago I formed a 3 piece band called Whatever She Brings We Sing, after the name of his early 70’s ground-breaking album. It was a tribute band to Kevin’s song-writing, and a few compositions of my own pen bundled in for good measure. All the time I felt his hand in my guitar playing, in performing, his genuine affection and respect for Blues music and a rather unique whimsical sense of humour.
His unique voice also captured a whiskey throated, gravely soul that projected pure love.

Sadly Kevin dwindled in the eighties and nineties due to the effect of drugs. He emerged with Falling Up (1987) that featured one time collaborator Mike Oldfield. Then in a few years later he returned with Still Life With Guitar (1991), a collaboration with Eddi Reader and Fairground Attraction. His last album The Unfairground (2007) was in my view one of his greatest recordings, the songs were simple, and peppered with the wisdom of his years.

I will never forget the last gig I saw him play, a wonderfully intimate set in the cellars at the Jazz and Roots Club in Shrewsbury 2003. He was on great form, having conquered a long standing addiction to heroin and alcohol. There was a moment in the concert where he slow everything down, to deliver a sublime version of Lady Rachel. The moment sent the hairs on the back of my neck standing on end. It was his on-stage electricity, his unshakeable charisma, timing and belief in song.

I caught up with kevin briefly after the gig as he climbed into his touring camper van. I asked why he didn’t play much in the UK anymore? He still had a strong following here in England. He just smiled and said he was now living in southern France, he liked the pace of life there, it suited his Chi, as he put it. He was performing still, in Belguim with a Jazz outfit. He suggested I must go and see the scene there. I nodded that one day I would. We talked a little about his memories of Hendrix, and like him he didn’t follow the rules. We shook hands before he disappeared into the night. It was an emotionally ride home that night. I didn’t want it to end.

It’s emotional now, but in a different way. It feels like I’ve lost a friend. His songs filled my heart, in the good times and bad. They carried me across the turbulent waters of life. They rested my mind safely on the other side. He was a maestro, a mentor, a pacifist and a true gentleman. Wherever Kevin is now, I will keep the faith he imbibed in me. His music hasn’t died. It never will.

Opinion Reviews

On Sylvia Plath

Ever since my early twenties I have been inexorably drawn to Sylvia Plath. There is something that haunts me about her life, her poetry and her deep rooted despair and depression and how it came out in her writing.

I remember when I first felt a kinship with Plath, it was reading her diaries (from her early years at Cambridge), around the time when she met Ted Hughes. Reading her diaries it seemed to me that Plath constantly lived on the cusp of a complete and utter nervous breakdown. Her mind was often ravaged by scarred thoughts of the past, oscillating between bouts of severe depression and terrifying anxiety.

I too am more than acquainted with the ‘black dog’ of depression, and I know only too well that the ordinary act of waking up can bring with it a sense of pointlessness, unimaginable panic and feelings of desolation. I can only begin to imagine the additional pressures that weighed in on Plath’s depression: child rearing, marital distress, the unresolved feelings she held towards her father for whom her poetry and prose, was filled with rhythmic, angry, injecting volatile emotion into a myriad of words.

I try to relate Plath’s battle with depression to the generation that influenced her. The early 1960’s was a terrible time for women. Worse still for clever ambitious women. Valium had been on the market for a few years in and by this time was being advertised aggressively by the medical profession at healthy women who felt trapped. Tranquillizers were commonly used to silence the voice of dissatisfaction, descent and unrest of women in society. These desperate and distress women had to be medicated away. Why wouldn’t any woman (or man) go mad in a society like this?

These days depression is the stuff of dinner-party prattle, but Plath explored the condition with no sense of its being a “condition” that others shared, no established therapeutic vocabulary, and no Prozac was on offer. It wasn’t until the early 1990″s that depression entered mainstream social discourse and began to lose its stigma. Ironically, now that we regard it as a standard, hardly shameful diagnosis, routinely treatable with drugs, we may have lost a raw sense of how awful, terrifying, and bleak is the real thing. Plath reminds us sharply of that horror.

I also wonder if Plath would have been better able to cope had she been born in a different time. Would she have found our modernity, a cosy coffee-house environment (complete with wifi internet access) easier to live with. Would she have been less dependent on the approval of viewers and critics and more aware of the positive effect her book was having on young and splintered psyches?

Would she have found a way to connect with people who understood her aesthetic and validated her experience? Would she have been better ‘received’?
Or would that kind of facebook connectedness and access to unmitigated and often misspelled negativity have driven her even madder? I wonder.

Haphazardly one morning, I thought I’d type her name into YouTube. After all these years, for the first time I heard Sylvia’s voice. It’s a beautiful voice with its educated, New England lilt of a kind that barely exists anymore. It’s also lucid, articulate, strong, and witty as she talks of how prose allows you to include more of the detailed experience of life, those “toothbrushes” you can’t put into poety. And there she is reading Daddy!

“Daddy,” it begins, “I have had to kill you.”

The poem’s rhythms, that potent blend of nursery rhyme and ragtime, still thrum through me:

“You do not do, you do not do
Any more, black shoe”

rhyming daringly at the stanza’s end with “Achoo”.

“the brute heart of a brute like you”…

Plath’s narrative voice resides inside my head conscious and unconscious, sometimes fluttery, self-conscious, sometimes melodramatic, sometimes afraid. But which ever it is there a sense of the irrepressible effervescence, amongst the personal hauntings, and the fact that women inflect experiences differently from men. We cannot, it seems, escape that.

By some accident of time and place, I met the feminist poet Doris Lessing whose writing was one of the first to introduce me to feminism. Lessing had known Plath for many years and she told me of Plath’s life and her vivid presence as well as of the tragedy of her suicide, in part occasioned by a toxic cocktail of anti-depressants she was allergic to.

But what Lessing also recalled was a story of a woman, a mother, a daughter, a wife, an artist who still believed not just in the possibility of happiness, but in herself. However brief and fragile her moment of hope, however anguished those last months of her life, Plath recognised the timeless incandescence of her achievement.

The suffering of those who take their own lives seems to me to be unimaginable – a terrifying and heartbreaking thought, how much worse their psychic pain must have been than anything one has oneself experienced. This psychic pain invades us all, at some point in our lives. The floor of some world seems to fall away from under us, and keep falling and falling. It shakes us to the core and renders our deeply held beliefs in kindness, compassion and love into doubting heaps of pain-filled ‘what ifs’.

Plath’s poetry attempted to answer this, though ultimately I suspect nothing ever can, not even poetry. But I will always admire her attempt, with her fierce intelligence, her language, her wit, her consonantal music – her sheer gift, and what must have been her drive, as its guardian, possessor, possessee, to realise it.

Plath’s poems walk with me each day, like inner voices, where even the parts of a rejected self, can find and incorporate a greater whole. Plath’s poems gives me a gentle hand on the shoulder and a quiet place under the Hawthorn tree to find that whole.

It is, as she wrote:

“A gift, a love gift
Utterly unasked for …”

It is, a star passing from her hand into ours.

Star Clusters

Art Opinion

Sir Patrick Moore

Beyond Is Light

Tonight the news reached me that you had died. I pray Sir Patrick you went peacefully, content with your lifetime achievement, a service to us all.

It’s true you made me look up, aged 6, I saw the canopy of stars and question from where did it all come. You helped me see my place through my first toy-town telescope. I stayed up all night looking for something out there, extra terrestrial, finding instead the vast unknown in immense magnitude. I stayed awake high on emotion, in belief, confidence that your guide would see me to the belt of Orion, Ursa Minor and beyond.

I honour you and your dazzling display of virtuosity on the xylophone, adding seamless couplets of percussion to an equation of music I’d never heard before. But I remember you more so for the warmth in you eye, with its glint of promise, of an unknown future, charting the possibility of finding more in the ever expanding universe.

It’s taken us three million years for us crawl this far and your contribution to a kinder human race was not so infinitesimally small as to pass unnoticed. It’s there for all to see.

It’s true, I did look up. I looked up to you.


A Thousand Years

The Sex Pistols, strictly speaking, were right: there is no future, for you or for me. The future, by definition, does not exist. “The future,” whether you capitalize it or not, is always just an idea, a proposal, a scenario, a sketch for a mad contraption that may or may not work. “The future” is a story we tell, a narrative of hope, dread or wonder. And it’s a story that, for a while now, we’ve been pretty much living without.

A hundred years from now: can you imagine that day? Okay, but do you? Do you believe “the future” is going to happen? Do you believe there will be a human beings around to witness, to appreciate its accomplishment, its faithfulness, its immense antiquity? What about two hundred years from now, or even five hundred? Can you extend the unfinished horizon of your expectations for our world, for our complex of civilizations and cultures, beyond the lifetime of your own children, of the next two or three generations? Can you even imagine the survival of the world beyond the next thousand years?

I was surprised at just how long it had been since I had given any thought to the state of the world a thousand years hence. I don’t know what happened to the future. It’s as if we lost our ability, or our will, to envision anything beyond the next hundred years or so, as if we lacked the fundamental faith that there will in fact be any future at all beyond that not-too distant date. Or maybe we stopped talking about the future around the time that, with its microchips and its twenty-four-hour news cycles, it arrived.

Some days when I pick up the newspaper it seems to have been co-written by J. G. Ballard, Isaac Asimov, and Philip K. Dick. Human sexual reproduction without male genetic material, digital viruses, identity theft, robot firefighters and minesweepers, weather control, pharmaceutical mood engineering, rapid species extinction, transnational corporatocracy, reality television—some days it feels as if the imagined future of the mid-twentieth century, in Aldous Huxley’s vision, was a kind of checklist, one from which we have been too busy ticking off items to bother with extending it.

Meanwhile, the dwindling number of Huxley’s items remaining on that list: interplanetary colonization, sentient computers, quasi-immortality of consciousness through brain-download or transplant, a global government (fascist or enlightened) aren’t too far away. And because this has been represented and re-represented so many hundreds of times in blockbuster films, novels and on television that they have come to seem, paradoxically, already attained, already known, lived with, and left behind. Past, in other words.

This is the paradox that lies at the heart of our loss of belief or interest in the future, which has in turn produced a collective cultural failure to imagine that future, any future, beyond the rim of a couple of centuries. The future was represented so often and for so long, in the terms and characteristic styles of so many historical periods that at some point the idea of the future—along with the cultural appetite for it—came itself to feel like something historical, outmoded, no longer viable or attainable.

Like most I fear the end is always looming, whether it be due to global warming with its floods, storms, desertification, or the possibility of viral pandemic, meteor impact, or some kind of nuclear exchange. Maybe not tomorrow, or a year from now. If you had told me, when I was eight, that as an adult of the future I would feel uncertain in terms of our eventual survival, or even that sometimes I would feel so disparages to think the world would better off without human beings in it, I suspect you would have broken that young heart.

Yet if you ask my eight-year-old daughter about the future, she pretty much thinks the world is never going to end, and that’s it. She sees herself as living on the first page, of the first paragraph, of a long, strange and bewildering book. When I talk with her about the future, she listens very carefully. “Will there really be people then, Dad?” She asks. I tell her without hesitation, “there will, I hope.” I then stand back watch her mind working – or rather drawing – this world with a beating heart of hopefulness and the silent stirring of her brilliant imagination.

What I see is this: in having children—in engendering them, in loving them, in teaching them to love and care about the world—parents are betting, whether we know it or not, on the future. We are betting on our children, and their children after them, and theirs beyond them, all the way down the line from now to 3,012.
For children, who are more than capable of generating a full head of optimistic steam about next week, next vacation, next birthday, are relying on this.

We may not predict or measure out the passage of hope, into the unknown future, of the future race of creatures that might help build it. So what can we do to revive and restore the whole idea of the future? How might we start thinking about the future again, to the degree if not in quite the way same way that we used to do, and how do we reintroduce the notion that we don’t just bequeath the future, though we do of course? We start, perhaps, with understanding and accepting the responsibilities necessary to give what every child needs to, in the very broadest sense of the first person plural pronoun, inherit it.

You see if you don’t believe in the future, unreservedly and dreamingly, if you aren’t willing to bet that somebody will be there, to be alive, a thousand years from now then I don’t see how you can have children. If you have children, I don’t see how you can fail to do everything in your power to ensure that you win your bet, and that they, and their grandchildren, and their grandchildren’s grandchildren, will inherit a world whose perfection to accomplish it is only limited by the imagination of those creatures creating it. Besides, I don’t see how anybody can force me to pay up on my bet if I turn out, in the end, to be wrong.

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.


Take My Heart…

This week I have to go to my local health centre to pick up a prescription for myself. More importantly I am going to get an organ donor card. I carried one for a couple of years now but lost it. When I die and have no need for a heart, liver, kidneys, corneas et al, it will good if someone else can benefit from the use of my organs. I believe most people feel the same, especially if the proposed beneficiary is a relative and/or child. An opting in system gives more choice than an opting out one. One the other hand, many people who would happily take part don’t even know the system exists, or, with the best will in the world, fail to “get around to it”.

An opting out system would avoid this. It should be assumed that most people would wish to take part, and if not, opting out cards would be available for people who, for religious or other reasons, wished not to have their organs used when they have no further use for them. Opting out could be registered in your medical records or NHS digital records so that, in this computer age, a lost card would not matter and abuses of the system (“we couldn’t find his card so we assumed it was OK”)  could be minimalised. In the meantime, I shall get the opting in donor card, put it in my wallet, and try not to lose it again.

How to become a donor


Selling Dead Fish

If the NHS reforms continue and fail it won’t be a failure of communications, after all the coalition Government has repeated stated that it was listening. Listening does not equate to agreeing. Nor will be a failure of will or effort, for these changes come with ready built-in non returnable determination. No, if the NHS reforms continue and fail it will be a failure of intellect.

But how did we come this far to dismantling the NHS. How did we slide closer and closer to the precipice?

There is an idea that if you win the hearts and minds of a few leaders the rest will follow like so many sheep. Keep meeting the same, tame leaders, flatter them a bit, put them in charge of a think-tank, tell them what you want them to say and send them out to spread the word to the rank and file. Except that it doesn’t work. You don’t hand opinion farmers ready-rolled opinions and then expect them to go forth and influence. They have inconvenient minds of their own, so do their victims. They all need convincing, with something long forgotten and devalued in business culture – experience. 

If you were selling cars, would you get ten of the country’s leading drivers in a room, suck up to them, hand them a 300 page document describing your new car then tell them to go away and tell their friends? And if you did, how many cars would you expect to sell? You would create an advertising campaign to sell the benefits. You would get Jeremy Clarkson and his motley crew of middle-aged male petrol-heads to drive it irresponsibly fast and then put it on TV so that people of a similar demographic can drool over it. You might even set up a Facebook page, get a few cheeky celebs to tweet their approval, buy some space on cool websites for teaser ads, put some never before released footage on Youtube, create a buzz and get people talking about it. Remember hype conceals as much as it reveals.

It was once said of Hewlett Packard’s marketing that if the company was selling sushi it would call it raw, dead fish. Reading through the papers that pour out of government (which are ignoring professional bodies and academic institutions, like the King’s Fund) one can only conclude they were all on the same training course. On the surface these “modernisations” are fine ambitions to which every right thinking person aspires, and it would be if it any of it were true.

Lets examine the premises of these reforms.

1. Involving doctors more closely in commissioning decisions.

  • Most doctors are extremely uncomfortable with having more accountable for buying in what they can afford and leaving what they cannot. 
  • It doesn’t close the gap between health and social care. It opens it wider to a point where the needy and dispossessed are somehow meant to disappear without trace.
  • It doesn’t address inequalities of health nor does it make for better services.

2. It improves patients choice.

  • Patients are also told that they will be more involved in the design of local services. Why on earth would they want to do that? Feeling poorly? Take your mind off it by co-producing an integrated care pathway with your clinical commissioning group. 

Now the doctors have taken industrial action, and not for nothing: what’s in it for them? How they can be asked to more accountable? How can have governance, performance management, peer review and added regulation increase the time needed to heal patients. It’s like they are being told they must have extra homework, Saturday detention, and cross-country runs with cold showers followed by the high jump for shirkers. There will be more prefects and more rules, fewer holidays and less play time. There will be a lot more talk of freedom but many more visits to the headmaster’s office to prevent anyone from abusing it. 

Yet somehow this brilliant, handsome, vote-winning policy comes over like an awkward duffer. How did it happen? Patients have been told that doctors would be responsible for commissioning a completely alien concept that means nothing to them and leaves the door wide open to incentive driven cuts and closures.  

Yo Sushi calls it tasty Japanese food in a fun environment. The same product from the NHS would be sold under the slogan get your dead fish here.


With No Parachute

I never try to analyse my dreams, but for years I have had a re-occurring dream where I am falling, free falling, towards something obscure in the middle of the countryside field. In the dream I don’t possess a parachute and long before I reach the point of impact on the ground the emotions are so overwhelming I snap out of it, I wake up, usual shouting a garbled helpless sound.

It haunts me this dream, but I try to come to terms with this helplessness, along with the other existential fears I harbour, creativity. I recently composed an instrumental for the guitar called ‘Free Falling’. The guitar is my Bach flower remedy (groan). Seriously though if you suffer from anxiety or any other condition, I advise you to consult your Doctor first.

Anyway whilst camping under the stars last night the dream happened again. The sky opens and clouds evaporate and the ground comes closer and closer. The grip of feeling intensifies and it reaches the point that I can see the target. It’s a large tent, a Marquee getting bigger and bigger.

I hear voices coming from inside. They sound familiar, as if they are voices of people I’ve loved, some I’ve lost, throughout my life. All assembled under the most enormous canvas roof imaginable. The tent and I contact and I suddenly find myself cushioned. Wrapped up in a ball of arms, a sea of faces. I feel less anxious as I come towards the end of my decent. I have lost the fear that accompanied me in free falling only to find joy, an indescribable joy, waiting for me at the end of my decent.

In this final moment the tent disappears and everyone has gone. Except I see my daughter (older than she is now) sitting alone in a deck chair, smiling and looking up at the clouds, her face, rosy cheeks and wavy hair. Radiant she is and I am hovering over her looking into her bright blue eyes, her mother’s eyes, and know that I will always look over her with this feeling of joy.

Though I have tears, my tears are a happiness to find her safe, content and smiling. I call her name and stroke her face and tell her that I love her, and that she is eternally beautiful both inside and out.

I must tell about this dream some day. And I must tell her every day, that I love her, like I’m falling from the sky with no parachute.


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

Opinion Poetry 'n Prose

Without Destination

Sanity begins on a benign train looking out of the window towards ticker-taping scenery that conveys the country in a soulful rhythm. Time moves on in slow motion with impartial thoughts and fading smiles shunting past tattered flags and broken signals. It’s a longing for the journey which like a plot is always twisting turning beckoning chance or co-incidence, without destination.


The Rotten Apples

I’m not an economist but it seems that the British public having faith in our banking industry again is as likely as talking poetry with the taxman.

In this year’s Reith Lectures, Professor Niall Ferguson called for simpler regulation and stronger enforcement of the rules as a recipe for a better banking system. Complex regulation benefits no one but lawyers and a laissez faire regime creates the conditions in which fraud and negligence thrive.

This week, another bank chief, Bob Diamond, has admitted the much more serious charge that Barclays rigged rates at the height of the financial crisis. The news has already cost Barclays more than £3bn in share value and could cost Mr Diamond his job.

Even Stephen Hester, chief executive of RBS, whose computers have gone down so inconveniently, can do better than that. He has been very clear about who is responsible and what is to be done about it and if sorting it takes too long, no doubt he’ll fall on his sword.

In both cases, expect the pain of sudden unemployment and disgrace to be alleviated by a large severance package. Knowing you will probably get away with it is a powerful incentive to criminals and a charter for incompetent chief executives who are never really sacked, merely recycled.

I believe the biggest problem with the banking industry is not greed, because it’s only natural for greedy people to gather where the money is. Nor is it lack of regulation, because there are regulations although much less than we had before FSA were stripped of its powers. Strong enforcement and clear regulation are mutually dependant. You can’t have one without the other.

I believe the biggest problem is the failure to legally punish wrong-doers and how that allows for this culture to grow. There are laws aplenty to deal with those who offend but punishing the guilty is only possible if you know who they are and they know what they are responsible for.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that those responsible will never be punished in law. The coalition government seem to be ignoring the same institutions, by not calling for a public enquiry.

Despite tent pitching, placard waving and energetic calls for social justice, nobody responsible for the systematic failure at Barclays and places like it will get anywhere near a courtroom let alone a jail.

In fact few bankers go to jail each year for individual criminal acts of insider trading and false accounting. Institutional greed and carelessness such as the sub-prime mortgage scandal which triggered the 2008 crash and plunged the world into recession are seldom punished. 

Failed institutions are bailed out even when it is clear they should be shut down. In no other industry, except banking, would you see insolvent organisations rescued as a matter of course.
The effect on the tax payer which repeatedly subsidises the serial failures is to drain our national budget of resources and of the will to keep succeeding.

The get out of jail free card for failing institutions is that the share holders and account holders will suffer if they’re not rescued.
It’s hard to work out who is in charge in a landscape filled with partners, collaborators, networks, and boards. Deeper and thicker mud for regulators to wade through.

The concern is who will lead the way out of this financial crisis? The banks, the FSA or other independent financial regulatory body? If this doesn’t happen we will be set follow other European countries who have declared themselves financially insolvent or bankrupt.

Will Britain soon join other countries who are in need of the International Monetary Fund to broker a rescue package? The IMF, considered by many as an undemocratic financial authority, may not be ready to lead the world in accountability, but it’s a sorry state of affairs if they can’t be better at it than the banks.