Sunday, March 30, 2008

Herpes Zoster (2)

(A picture of Bilston (near Wolverhampton) Steelworks in the 1940s. Chimneys like this contributed to the term "Black Country". As a small child I thought the place was pitch black, and the people pitch-black in colour like Tar-Babies, and was a bit disappointed to find that they weren't when I passed through with an uncle en route to the Wirral on holiday).

I spoke to Mum on the 'phone today, she had six telephone calls before mine, two from neighbours asking after her and offering help. Mum lives in a very socially deprived and "rough" area of Birmingham. Her flat is in a mini-tower block and Mum is not unacquainted with the pleas of addicts trying to get access to their suppliers via her entry phone. Her neighbours may live on the floors above and below, and they seldom meet, but "walls have ears", word gets around, and a little help is forthcoming.

One neighbour took away Mum's bedsheets to launder (I had changed her bed which was rather more than she could manage but, like many of her generation, Mum has always resisted a modern automatic washing machine). Another made her a sandwich and a cup of tea. The block of flats is like an anthill, a vertical village. Not that relationships aren't often acerbic and even sour. Mum feels she is 'a cut above' many of the rest, especially as she used to "own her own house", was born in Bourneville, the model village founded by the Cadburys, and won a scholarship to the Girls' grammar School (even if she had to go to school in borrowed mens' boots).

She told me that one neighbour scathingly told her, "Oh ar (Yes), we all know yow got twelve coats, Mary" when she went out in a new one (from a second-hand shop) last autumn. But twelve-coat Mary is cut from the same cloth as her neighbours, and it is a cloth of Brummie warmth, candour and kindness.

My own impression of the neighbourhood is that it is socially cohesive and neighbourly in a way that more genteel communities aren't. Every shop I went to in my couple of days in Bartley Green I was met with greetings of "Yow're Mary's boy, intcha?" and "Ow's yower Mom?". The doctors' receptionists were truly receptive listeners, with no trace of bored condescension such as one is used to in surgeries in this better-heeled corner of commuter Essex, and made useful suggestions about support and help without my having to plead or bluster.

The doctor who visited her promptly knew all about her social circumstances as well as her health, sat on her bed and held her hand. He also set in motion a plan to care for Mum over the next six days, including a Community Rapid Intervention Service call to assess her coping skills. This was done by an experienced and friendly nurse before I left for home, and did a lot to reassure us both that Mum was not isolated and alone, and help was available if needed.

It seems unlikely that traditional Buddhism, even in its "Western" form, will ever be planted in neighbourhoods like this, and there are counterpart neighbourhoods here in Essex where it has never gained ground, or not so far. But the wisdom, solidarity, candid speech and openness to how things are needs no lily-gilding from the East. Perhaps communities like this need to be protected from the worst depredations of capitalist consumerism, from onslaughts of media cynicism that belittle and demonise the poor; but maybe they are strong enough, and savvy enough, to survive as they are. I hope so.

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Herpes Zoster - and a journey home

Herpes Zoster, better known as 'shingles', is a very painful condition affecting peripheral nerve endings in the skin. The first symptom is severe pain, like being stabbed by hot needles in the affected area, commonly the back and chest wall, but sometimes on the head and scalp, or one of the limbs - and almost always on one side of the body. The cause is a virus that attacks the nerves, a virus that in a slightly modified form also causes chicken-pox, so that people who have had chicken-pox are generally immune, unless their immunity is compromised by old age, disease, or debility. As the disease progresses we see the unmistakeable tell-tale sign: a string of angry blistered wheals, conforming to the distribution of the affected nerve. The lesion or 'wound' looks for all the world as if the unfortunate sufferer has been struck with a cat-'o-nine-tails, and even a light touch will cause them to flinch in pain.

When I visited my Mum in Bartley Green, Birmingham, on Thursday afternoon, this - shingles - is the picture that greeted me. Mum is 91, and generally in good health, with a robust constitution and a lively mind. When I found her slumped in a chair in her flat it was clear something was wrong, and I could see her hand was swollen and discoloured. She thought she had pulled a muscle in her shoulder carrying her suitcase on to the train from Euston, and a visit to A & E had supported this, because the rash still hadn't 'come out', and she came home with codeine tablets for her pain.

With the kettle on for a cup of tea, I got her into the kitchen where the light was better and looked at her hand and arm. Not a pretty sight. Up her arm I could feel the swollen nodular nerve-endings, and in the palm of her hand and up her ring finger the angry blistering was apparent, an open-and-shut case of herpes zoster. Nurses aren't really supposed to 'diagnose' disease in the absence of a doctor. But it is generally accepted in medical circles that diagnosis is not a skill exclusive to the medical man, and I was confident enough to tell Mum what was wrong, and knowledge - as they say - is power. Knowing what was wrong reassured her it wasn't something dreadful, just dreadful enough! And occasion for a visit by her GP. Although Mum is pretty fit, she's not so young, and it's as well -living alone and unsupported by social care agencies - that her GP knows how she is and keeps an eye on her.

Working in Zambia during the early 1990s I saw a lot of herpes zoster: the locals called it "God's burn", and it was an early sign of HIV/AIDS, because of the disrupted immunity caused by the virus. Our clinic there was regularly visited by young people with very severe shingles, and of course you didn't need to be very highly qualified to know what it signified for them: a virtual death sentence. All we could do was supply pain killers, give advice about keeping the lesions protected from abrasion, drinking plenty and taking appropriate rest, and recommend a visit to the local hospital for a blood test. At that time specific anti-virals weren't available; even now they're only available to the few who can afford to buy private medicine.

While waiting for the doctor to make a home visit to see Mum, I did a little shopping for Mum and took a walk along the dam at Bartley Green reservoir, stopping to gaze at the stand of ancient beeches that crowns a low promontory a mile away over the water - Frankley Beeches. This has been a local landmark for centuries past, on the Western fringes of Birmingham, offering a view over the "Black Country" towns of Dudley, Halesowen and Oldbury. I used to cycle here as a child, and here I got my first sense of there being a 'world outside' away from my mother's apron-strings. The familiar topography, the low hills and little valleys, still with ancient damply winding lanes and overarching oaks, the introjected horizon and the memory-soaked planes and smells of the fields all spoke deeply, achingly, to me of home. Home. How complex, rich, bittersweet, challenging, wonderful and human is this sense of home. How blessed, yet how complex, this human existence, this mortality of ours.

Earlier I had spent a wonderful couple of hours with Peter Gilbert and some of his colleagues at Stafford University, in conversation about our shared interests in 'engaged' spirituality. Peter Gilbert is Professor of Social Work and Spirituality at Staffordshire University and NIMHE (National Institute of Mental Health Excellence) Lead on Spirituality. A strong supporter of the hospice movement, Peter leads intimate retreats for hospice staff (one is upcoming in July and I will link to details soon, so readers can find out more). Peter explains: "The retreat is about creating a safe space to share at a deep level and take comfort from each other, and also take time to step back and reflect on what is happening to us and around us".

More about this conversation, and about my discussions with Mark Savage, Peter Gilbert's Buddhist colleague, on a later blog.

The image above is the view from Frankley over South West Birmingham looking towards the city centre. This to me is home.

Saturday, March 22, 2008


I've been following the news from Tibet in the newspapers and on the TV and radio and wondering, as always, how to make sense of what is happening, how it will be resolved. I've also read posts from a few e-groups, many of which invite readers to sign petitions urging some sort of action on political leaders, or Governments.

I find myself in a quandary about such things, because petitions sometimes betray a highly polarised political position, and extreme political positions generate suspicion and mistrust in me rather than allegiance to the cause being promoted. So it is with petitions calling for people or Governments to 'boycott the Beijing Olympics' and such-like. I've seen them before (re the Moscow Olympics) at the height of the Cold War, and I mistrusted those too.

Although many commentators characterise the situation in Tibet as a simple matter of colonial oppression, an uprising against the uncompromisingly atheistic strictures of Chinese communism, there is good evidence that what the Tibetans are protesting against is the the incursion of the new Chinese experiment with capitalism, consumerism, materialism and greed; an experiment that is unwelcome to Tibetans as it is to the oppressed peoples of other parts of the developing world, in the sweatshops of India and of China itself.

Perhaps this is why Western Governments and the Western Media seem reluctant to criticise the Chinese. After all, the Chinese are the most recent, enthusiastic and successful 'converts' to the capitalist liberal market ideology that drives the West, and is probably going to drive us all to extinction. Many of us are already so tranquillised by the spate of cheap consumer baubles manufactured by the Chinese and on sale in our High Streets and Malls that we pay little heed to the desperate plight of the planet, or to the great majority of its inhabitants.

So I take my lead, respectfully, from 'Gyalwa Rinpoche', HH The Dalai Lama himself. He advises us, on pain of his resignation from spiritual office, to eschew violence of any kind, avoid extremes of language including the agitation for unilateral boycotts, diplomatic withdrawal, or military excursions and engage in human dialogue. This is surely not only the 'right' way dharmically, but the only effective way to any reconciliation of views and aspirations between West and East, whose peoples are sisters and brothers to each other: all poor lambs going more or less unaware to our certain slaughter.

Friday, March 21, 2008

I Ching

Picture of Avenue Marceau from top of Arc de Triomphe, Paris

Yesterday my wife and I returned from a short visit to Paris, a break she really needed from her onerous duties as a nurse in a busy specialist medical ward. Just before she broke up for her leave she had been confronted by two heroin addicts in her ward, trying to steal medicines from her medicine trolley and from the ward office. They managed to steal the contents of the ward donations box into which people sometimes drop coins to help buy 'essential equipment' for the ward.

All this bother was eclipsed by an exciting trip on Eurostar from the rather vulgar new St Pancras International station to the shabby, well-worn terminus of Gare du Nord. We stayed in a nice hotel in Avenue Marceau, one of the boulevards radiating from the huge "square" at whose epicentre is the tomb of the Unknown Soldier, itself surmounted by the huge monumental edifice of the Arc de Triomphe.

I visited the tomb early one morning while most of Paris and certainly my wife was still sound asleep. The only other person there was a taciturn and rather mournful-looking public servant with a droopy moustache and wet track-suit bottoms. He had washed the surround to the tomb and was carefully brushing away the little remaining surface water with one of those old-fashioned flat brooms one sees sailors use to sweep the deck of a sailing ship. From somewhere in the odd recesses of my brain I recollected that the French verb to sweep with such a broom is 'balayer'. This has lodged in my memory from the time when I read Alain Fournier's classic of unrequited adolescent love, 'Le Grand Meaulnes'. I don't think I have ever remembered this factoid before in over 54 years. It's odd to think it will die with me.

At our son's suggestion my wife and I made our way to Shakespeare & Company, one of Paris's oldest bookshops, in the Left Bank's Latin Quarter. This is a real English eccentricity, a ramshackle warren of interconnected rooms stuffed floor to ceiling with old books. Books on the ground and first floors are for sale, the rest are for on-site browsing only.

An old Arkana copy of I Ching almost leapt into my hands, and my wife found an elderly hard-backed edition of Webster's Family Dictionary and a second hand Ruth Rendell mystery. I recollected that the I Ching was high on Ray Wills's list of favourite books. It was one that he said he would want on that Desert Island if he were ever consigned there. I glanced at it in the evening at our hotel. That same night I woke from dreaming to the phrase "all is change, and the rest is ideology". Make of that what one will; of course it is mere ideology to do so.

The image above is of three coins, similar to those sometimes used to consult the I Ching. Casting the three coins six times yields a hexagram (two trigrams, one above the other), each hexagram proposes a personal interpretation for the enquirer. The I Ching is made up of 64 such hexagrams.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Healing Words

The image is of "Healing Hands" by Silvia Hartmann, to whom thanks.

I received the message below today from Mick Lewin, who penned these thoughts himself; and it contains a very timely message for me, as I feel a little rushed and a little run-down (following a nasty throat and sinus infection that persisted and persists still). Thanks, Mick.


Healing is just a breath away

Remember that healing doesn’t always embrace curing

The time to start on a healing practice is when you feel you are too busy for it

Open up a 'Healing Diary' to record your thoughts and progress

Change your thoughts; change yourself, that’s what healing really means

Cultivate gentleness ( towards yourself and others) even in times of difficulties

Remind yourself of the truth in Walt Whitman’s words: “ To render the body strong, clear and lovely is a religious duty”

Undertake regular body scans listening to the 'pain' of those parts that have been ignored for so long

Healing at its very core is about love and the gateway to love is forgiveness - towards our selves and others

We all have the power to transform our lives; affirm this and believe this - HEALING CAN TAKE US INTO A NEW LIFE

Implicit in these tender injunctions, for me, is the encouragement to meditation, to setting-aside a regular period of time 'to sit with our selves', as Ray put it, and familarise ourselves with the mind we take so much for granted, and which exercises such an unchallenged tyranny over our experience.

I sometimes find it hard not to assign some kind of purifying or "improving" purpose to meditation, and this is just one example of the mind-tyranny I mentioned. There are lots of examples of other tactics mind conjures up, as we know. But Mick's advice goes straight to the heart of the matter, with love and gentleness, in ten short and achievable steps, one step at a time, beginning now with the next breath............

Monday, March 3, 2008


It's wise to be sceptical about the thoughts, images, memories and ideas served up by the mind, but also to be respectful of intuitions, neither grasping at them nor thrusting them away.

It's in this spirit that I offer this reflection, which may or not 'mean' anything, but I feel I want to share/record.

Last night or rather this morning I woke from an odd dream. Many of my dreams (or those I recall on waking) have something derived my my nursing and teaching roles, and this dream - although the detail eludes me - had me in some sort of teaching role with a young person, a woman I think. She was resisting my lesson, not mockingly but almost so, and I was aware in the dream of my whole 'lesson-plan' sliding away in the face of her complete scepticism of my message. I can't remember what I was trying to put across, only that she insisted that "It isn't like that at all! Every atom of you has been used before, over and over and over again". I woke with this idea, or more an awareness, that my substantiality, my integrity, my solid sense of who I am was just an idea, a sort of mental crystallisation of a swirling process of change. This quite intense feeling was very short-lived, although something of it persisted all day, and it became translated into a kind of abstract toying with the idea of "old atoms" being recycled in my body, of nothing being new or permanent, of 'karma' and so on.

There was a very strong sense that this dream, and the ideas it gave rise to, were somehow the result of my time with Waveney Miller. All last evening and as I prepared for bed, my mind was drawn back to images of her, a felt sense of her presence.

Waveney and I often listened to Ray Wills talking in the basement room at Friends' House, St Martin's Lane. Ray was a great one for recycling stories from his childhood, and one of his favourites (and mine) was the story of how his father bought him a set (I think 15 volumes) of 'The Great Childrens' Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Knowledge' on the "never-never" from a travelling salesman who called at the front door. My own parents did the same for me, although I was probably too small to read them in 1939 when they were published. Many years after my own father died I was preparing for a part-time degree and those Encyclopaedias, and my fathers bestowal of them on me as a little boy, came to mind; I was overcome with grief and gratitude and sat weeping at my desk, to the consternation and wonder of my family who came to watch!

Ray told of his exceeding wonder at the pictures of a spiral galaxy in the Encyclopaedia, and an account of how stars were formed at the moment the universe emerged. Even as a child (perhaps the "even" is superfluous and misleading) he knew, he said, that he was himself "Star- Stuff", formed of the same material as the galaxies, part of the same celestial song. I remember the awe in his voice as he repeated the words, "Star-Stuff!" then a man in his seventies, but transported back to that moment of childish wonder and of realisation: "Star-Stuff!", and so we are.

The image of a spiral galaxy (M100) was taken by the Hubble Space Telescope in 1994. The spiral galaxy is an estimated distance of several tens of millions of lights years distance from Earth.

Sunday, March 2, 2008

Mrs Waveney Miller

I've been to see Waveney Miller who I traced to a Nursing Home in a village near Sandwich, Kent after almost eighteen months of vainly trying to find her. Waveney has been a Trustee of the Buddhist Hospice Trust for twenty years and is a dear friend to so many. It was a very moving experience to find Waveney and see her. I felt floods of happiness and I broke down in tears, weeping through my laughter and joy.

From the last time I saw her she is totally changed physically following a series of incapacitating strokes. Only her eyes and her spirit remain the same. She is terribly frail, bedbound, almost emaciated, with contractures of her arms so she holds them over her chest. She can only move her shoulders in a kind of shrug, and she can move her head from side to side with difficulty. She can't speak and can swallow only with help.

I gave her a few teaspoons of a drink and had to hold her mouth closed so she could swallow it, but most came out again. Her beautiful hair is gone and most of her teeth. Waveney who was always so immaculate about her appearance and so vivid in her attire had a tuft of white bristle on her chin. But she gave a little chuckle when I told her through my tears that I was her "naughty boy" (she gave me this label because I was rather cavalier with Tibetan Buddhist niceties), and she was my Dancing Dakini (because of her girlish tendency to dance at any invitation), and she chuckled when I kissed and nuzzled her cheek.

We spent an hour together and most of the time I just gazed at her, but I told her a few stories and reminisced a bit about the IWS. We spent a few minutes in shared quietness of the heart. On her locker I left a little vajrasattva statue with a sweet face that sometimes came to our London meetings. It has a dancing mien and he holds the vajra of compassion to his heart and the bell of wisdom in his lap. I keep seeing her in my mind's eye and feel her holding me in her heart as I write.

She is truly a great and inspiring bodhisattva, little West Indian immigrant nurse, "three parts Tibetan, two parts Scottish Presbyterian, with a twist of Japanese from a former life". How wonderful to know her, and to have found her again. I shall hope to go again soon, but I said Goodbye as well as Farewell. She is on Morphine patches for pain (probably muscle-contractures, but who knows?). I don't know if she really recognised me, but it doesn't matter does it? The moment we spent together, and all we have shared over the years, is a blessed gift of dharma, and I am so grateful.

Waveney Miller is a long-standing supporter of the Buddhist Hospice Trust and she has been a Trustee for about twenty years. She and I met at the Inner Work School meetings hosted by Ray Wills from 1990 onwards. She attended very regularly, travelling up from Ashford in Kent where she had her home. Over the years we became close friends and, not infrequently, conversational sparring partners at meetings. We used to clash about everything! Waveney is a disciple of Rigdzin Shikpo Longchen Foundation) and follows the Tibetan Maha-Ati/Dzogchen tradition; I often chided her that she was three parts Tibetan Buddhist and two parts Scottish Presbyterian, as she had very pronounced evangelising and missionary tendencies with most people she met: once cornered by Waveney with a discourse on karma few escaped with their scepticism intact about rebirth in the hell realm.

Waveney was born and raised in the West Indies of Afro-Caribbean parentage, although she knew that she had in a former life lived in Japan, and has strong Scottish ancestry. Waveney trained as a State Registered Nurse in her home country, following the noblest traditions of Nightingale Nursing that had been carried there by the Scottish Presbyterian missionary doctors and nurses who colonised that land. In the late 1950s/early 1960s she travelled to England to work as a nurse in London.

At some point her feet carried her, unaccountably, to the steps of the Buddhist Society premises at 50 Ecclestone Square near Victoria station (see image above). She faltered for a moment, she says, at the threshold, but eventually overcame her shyness, rang the doorbell and was met by Christmas Humphreys, who invited her in. In this manner was Waveney Miller, a young Afro-Caribbean immigrant nurse newly arrived in a strange land and with firmly entenched Christian beliefs, set upon the Noble Eight-Limbed Path, of her own volition. She has never deviated from the Path in fifty years. I owe her so much, but Waveney would never see what she gave so freely as incurring any kind of indebtedness.