Wednesday, April 23, 2008

Compassion (continued)

Although it's only yesterday I started this line of thought, I'm finding it hard to call to mind what I intended to say. This is perhaps true of most of my blogs. Their apparent pointlessness lurks in the middle ground of consciousness.

There were nine of us present at the meeting; I was the only man. We had a reflective exercise, a bit like Scrabble, where we were asked to complete a grid with words we associated with compassion. Mine included humour, mischief. These went down well with the others in the group. Other words that came up (not mine, particularly) were love, acceptance, empathy and courage. To me this sounded like a list of "the usual suspects". My own view is that compassion is neither any of the attributes we put upon it, nor is it anything we do; far less is it something we can conjure forth by trying to be brave, or practising empathy. In this sense, it is reductive and unhelpful to label it. Like the butterfly in the metaphor, if you pin it to the board you destroy it.

At the same time, the exercise was indirectly helpful, and that was its intention. Dialogue flows in any group that enters into open-minded meditativeness, and this one did. We enter a stream of meaning that is not the product of any words exchanged, and in some way the consciousness of each is subtly transformed: this is, of course, an assertion of mine, but it does represent what I experience, and I trust it.

At some point I was aware of the significance of the truth that, if we are to show compassion to others, we need first to show compassion to ourselves. I have often struggled with this injunction. How to do it? Do I say "I love you, Peter"? Who is this "I" that says it? I've tried it, tried to grasp the significance of showing myself compassion, and failed utterly.

Then the penny dropped. While I was away at Nuneham Courtenay last November (on a kind of Brahma Kumaris training weekend-cum-retreat) I had one of those 'find-a-sixpence' moments of personal transcendence that we sometimes get out of the blue and unasked-for.

I was gazing at a green jade jar on a plinth. I can't really recollect what was going on around me, it was a seminar or group discussion of some sort. I was thinking of commitment, I don't remember why. There grew in me a new conviction about commitment that turned the world on its head. When I say "grew in me" it was a bit like a bubble of awareness that expanded in consciousness, I could almost feel its steady expanding pressure. I had always shunned commitment to anything, marriage, Buddhism, everything. Perhaps only nursing had secured a kind of grudging commitment, but only just. I saw commitment as as trap, a prison, something that restricted and bound me.

Looking at the vase, and as the bubble expanded, I knew that commitment was not a prison, but a vast inviting spaciousness, an unboundaried prospect of unspeakably joyous opportunity, a shining Truth that beheld me as the father his prodigal son. I had indeed come home to myself. My "old" long-held proposition about commitment being a prison was a little shrivelled thing, dead, pathetic. I felt a little sorry for it, but no real regret. It had been "mine", but I had no more need of it; I had stepped out of it.

I think, indeed I know that was compassion visiting me. Myself pouring out compassion on myself. Where was I in all this? Nowhere, of course, and everywhere.
The actual vase referred to is pictured above, the nearer vase of the pair.

Monday, April 21, 2008


Staples Corner: a hell-realm interchange in North London (a pathetically over-simplified representation appears to the right). A driver's chance of emerging from the right exit to his destination is the same as a roulette ball's chance of landing on "0". I always allow an extra half an hour's driving-time for being catapulted off the M1 like a roulette ball, careering helplessly around the interchange for an eternity, then - eyes open again - peering over the dashboard to see where the Fates had landed me.

Chance that it might be the Cricklewood Road, 1 in 56. And if it's not Cricklewood Road I might as well go back to Essex and start again from scratch, I'm that lost.

Last Sunday I broke the bank, so to speak. Hole in One. No blind alleys, Mobius strips, and one-way systems took me miles away from my destination. No bladder-bursting sphincter-clenching nightmares over road humps in search of a Sainsbury's or Tescos where I could hobble for the Gents and shuddering relief. I made St Gabriel's Road, Cricklewood with three quarters of an hour to spare and my dignity intact.

This is a house that serves as a residence for members and guests of the Brahma Kumaris and a venue for a monthly meeting of VIHASA facilitators of which I am a newly adopted member. I've written elsewhere about VIHASA: it's a programme designed for health-care staff, allowing them to explore and develop themselves in the 'spiritual dimension', or - if they prefer not to acknowldege spirituality as such - to explore and develop the values that support their caring work, as distinct from their competencies or their professional performance.

Each time we meet - a group of about six to nine of us - we explore a part of the programme experientially, gaining experience as facilitators and as participants in the VIHASA process, through feedback and discussion. The house is very conducive: tranquil, orderly, aesthetically pleasing, yet homely. Because I arrived early I had time to relax into the tranquillity in my soft guest-slippers. I watched a grey squirrel climbing on a shed at the bottom of the garden. It lay outstretched, more cat-like than squirrel-like, on the shed roof, as if it were on a sun-lounger, for about five minutes.

The meeting convenor sat with me, peeling nuts and slicing dates systematically. As she sliced each date she introduced a nut into the the slice, laying the little fruits on a plate. When the plate was full, she stopped slicing more dates. She had a few peeled nuts with nowhere to go, so she popped them into her mouth. The whole process was lovely to watch, like a liturgy. We talked a little, and I asked if I could make myself useful in any way. She asked me to change an exhausted light-bulb in a wall lamp. I did so carefully and with a lot of pleasure in the simple, but never-before-undertaken task in that place.

At the meeting we explored compassion. I had been invited before hand to do the introduction and a warm-up exercise. I suggested we do a sufi body meditation, forming a ring with hands held, bending down in unison and uttering "Ya Huq!", then stretching up to the ceiling and uttering "Ya Hai!". The effect is not unlike a Sea Anemone, opening and closing, except that Sea Anemones are silent (or I think they are). We did this exercise and everyone judged it interesting and effective. It is warming, and can mobilise feelings, thoughts and intuitions that call for some kind of processing and integration afterwards.

to be continued....

Tuesday, April 15, 2008

Dead? You will be...

About five years ago I was approached by two young people looking for a fresh corpse to play a part in a dramatic presentation, to be staged live, and provisionally titled as above. There had been an article in one or more broadsheet newpapers about Jo Dagless and Matthew Scott's search for an individual who, knowing their death was imminent, might agree to participate after their death in the production, their corpse being a central figure in the dramatis personae.

Matthew and Jo, both actors, are the directorial core of the radical performance group 1157, based at Norden Farm Centre for the Arts. There was something about the way they spoke about their plans, bold and at the same time deeply respectful, that made me want to meet them and learn more. They visited me and we talked together for a couple of hours about what they intended, and what lay at the heart of their proposal. I discovered that although they had sent out many tentative requests, the responses had been wholly negative. Respondents either thought they were attention-seeking weirdoes, on the make; or they thought the request was some sort of sick joke. Although Jo and Matthew had approached some hospices as well as our own, none had responded positively, some not at all.

After careful thought, I did in fact invite someone I knew, a Buddhist who was dying of a brain tumour, if he would consider the request. He said he would, I gave him some background stuff to look at, and we discussed the possible practicalities. In the event, he died a few months later, having come to no decision, or having decided not to participate: I never knew.

I've kept in touch with Matthew and Jo since that time, and I did join them and others in a live multimedia production before a theatre audience, at which issues surrounding the quest were explored, including a netcast discussion with the audience.

These two young people embody for me the essence of passion, perseverance and pluckiness, and also something indefinably centred, wise, and engaged. Yesterday we met briefly by arrangement at Liverpool Street Station, all of us up in London on other business, but wanting to get together, as Matthew suggested "for dialogue". They have worked together for twelve years, they told me. I asked them if they were still getting Arts Council funding for their work, and how they managed to secure it year on year. "Because we keep working", was the reply.

It has always been an ill-defined dream of mine that these two have a role to play in the transformation of the Buddhist Hospice Trust, and I sense somehow, sometime, that the role will be played out. What that transformation might turn out to be, I don't know. My sense is that it may not include me, and/or that it may not be transformation in the sense of growth, or dissolution, nothing necessarily 'big'. It may be very small, but I feel it will be significant, because I have never been able to forget them, because I feel they have a significance beyond my imaginings and perhaps theirs, having its basis in the mystery of being that we recognise as shared.

Tuesday, April 8, 2008

Volunteering (2)

A bit tardy about returning to this theme, but reminded of it by meeting someone at Jamyang, the Tibetan Centre in South London, last weekend. She sought me out to ask about our work, saying that she was interested in developing a local resource at Jamyang, something that would help identify people to the sangha, perhaps within the sangha, who needed spiritual support because they were ill - maybe seriously or terminally ill - or dying, or bereaved.

This sort of grass-root, bottom-up awareness of potential need is so wonderfully encouraging, and something we love to support if we can. British Buddhist sangha are not, I think, like sangha in countries where Buddhism is 'native', and the culture is more homogenous and community-based. There may be exceptions, but I'm not aware of them. Most British Buddhist groups I've met are made up largely of white, educated, middle-class people who live distant from each other, although they may be friends and visit. Contact is mostly through weekly or less frequent meetings, classes or at puja.

People who 'drop out' for any reason may well be missed, and their absence commented on, but it's unusual for people to take active steps to check on their welfare, or to sustain a helpful relationship over time at a distance with people who aren't self-propelling or able to say they are lonely or otherwise in need of support. We British, perhaps the English more than the rest, are notoriously prone to "leave well alone", not pry into other people's affairs, and may even "pass by on the other side of the street". Buddhism doesn't confer any immunity in us against old age, decrepitude, failing mental as well as physical powers, social isolation, loneliness, poverty. So many elderly Buddhists go "under the radar" of social and spiritual care provision: I've witnessed this, and it saddens me, although years of dharma-practice grows a resilience and an acceptance in some old Buddhists that inspires us to emulate their example.

So, one of the most valuable contributions you can make to your community may be to get together with a few like-minded individuals to act as an early-warning 'listening post' or 'watch', keeping eyes and ears open for evidence of unsupported need. Perhaps a postcard on your noticeboard advertising the Ananda Network, with the names of two or three contacts who will be ready to respond to a report of someone who has "gone AWOL" from meetings, or hasn't looked herself, or shows signs of infirmity or self-neglect, or has been keeping hospital appointments (maybe going alone), or is facing a scan or an operation, or has a relative who is ailing - you get the picture.

Such a nucleus of concern itself needs support, and you might consider establishing an Ananda Fellowship interest group at which healthcare, hospice-care and social care topics can be explored or discussed. Many professionals from local agencies - a local GP or practice manager, a representative of Macmillan or Marie Curie Nursing, a Hospice Director or a Hospital Chaplain - will gladly come along to meet you to talk about their work, and such face-to-face meetings don't need to be hugely atttended to be worthwhile, and lead to friendship, mutual support and valuable perspectives on supremely important issues around life and death, with wisdom and compassion always at the heart of them, whatever the religion, background or standing of the human beings concerned.

Of course we at the Trust will always do what we can to support your efforts, which don't have to be anything more than human-scale and simple to be powerful and effective. A little goes a very long way. Your heart is indestructible, trust it and its promptings always.

I had a strange and disturbing dream the other morning, just before waking as is the case with most dreams. I dreamed there had been some sort of global nuclear event, a burst or series of bursts of high level radiation had occurred (not as the result of an explosion, there was no devastation). I knew with complete certainty that the result of this was everything, and everyone, must die. I viewed this with some equanimity, although the certainty had some shock value. I visualised the death of everything, myself, my family, all living sentient things (I saw their corpses lying dry like husks - no decomposition because no micro-organisms to cause it - the dream was that real and detailed), and the desiccation of all vegetable matter, trees, crops, flowers, everything brown and dried up, a sort of rustling, silting tide of dead organic material, gradually breaking down to a fine dust like snuff.

To add to the realism I saw my eldest son in the early stages of radiation-sickness, sweating and pale. I don't know what befell him. I knew I was powerless to help him, and that I would suffer the same fate, though I wondered why he was affected before me, yet without anguish.

A strange dream, as I say. Perhaps a portent. We like to believe that life will go on for ever, life as we know it, even after we die, and some of us find consolation in that. But even that consolation should be given up, perhaps, so that we live only in this moment, abandoning our hopes and dreams of eternity to a sterner and more perfect Truth, and living that.
The lovely image of dead leaves above is kindly supplied by Moberg Gallery of Des Moines , Iowa, USA to whom our thanks.

Thursday, April 3, 2008

Flavour of the Day

Some random events from the day:

1. Got up late (0930), half an hour sitting on side of bed (naked) by way of meditation, didn't shower, just a 'body wash', shave, cleaned teeth, dressed, cup of tea, five spirulina tablets and 75 mg soluble aspirin taken straight from the foil (I'm supposed to dissolve them but never do).

2. Said "Good morning" to my eldest son who told me about his 'phone conversation yesterday about a Tax Credit claim for his period of low-wage employment last year. He's out of time to claim so he gets zilch. I congratulated him on his effort in going for a morning run.

3. Went to local shops to buy bananas for my wife's breakfast. She always eats a banana, two apples, two pears and an orange chopped up in a large bowl when she has a morning off, late shift or day off. It takes her almost 45 minutes to eat it; if I'm in the kitchen when she's munching her way through it I find it part endearing and part irritating.

4. Worried and moaned about having no money to pay overdue bills, council tax etc. Money is my Achilles' heel, I am totally neurotic about it and never think I have enough.

5. Postman brought a parcel containing two ink cartridges for obsolescent printer linked to even more obsolescent lap-top, currently the only printer of 3 we have that isn't holed below the water-line. I'm very dubious the printer will even work with these inkjets, but it's last throw of the dice. Try to print a test page, printer creaks, clatters, page comes out blank. Try to clean the print-head after rummaging round old programmes without a mouse. That doesn't work either. Tell my wife, "I knew this was throwing good money after bad, it won't print". Try again, it works. My wife say, "I knew they would". I knew she was right.

6. Drove to post office in my old Land Rover Series III to buy a cardboard box to return useless cartridges bought for useless printer. Land Rover smells wonderful, old upholstery, petrol, oil, tin doors, an undefinable English Land Rover smell (she's 30 years old and behaves like a cart horse, knows it's own mind, needs to be gentled along). Love the engine roar, the transmission whine, the huge metal steering wheel, the big silver gear knob and clunky gear change.

7. Drove to prison in Chelmsford, park in nearby suburban street. Mobile rang "Sister Philomena, the prison's locked down, there's been an incident, they probably won't let you in". Leave a message for Sister P on the chaplaincy 'phone, drive home. I'd been thinking of how the Buddhist meeting might go, no agenda. My sense is that the prisoners expect me to do something religious, apparently the last Buddhist chaplain used to chant the refuges in Pali. I told them last visit I don't do chanting, bowing, or light incense sticks. One of the prisoners asked me if I was a "real Buddhist priest".

8. Drove my youngest son back to his supported lodgings, we had a rather heated exchange in the car en route. He was telling me about another of his deluded 'phone calls to the Passport Office about renewing his passport in one of the many bizarre names he calls himself. I told him stuffily that although I respected his beliefs about his identity I didn't share them. As far as I am concerned I'm his Dad, his Mum is his Mum, and if he needs to believe differently that's OK but don't get me involved in discussions on the matter as it pisses me off and gets us no-where. He looked very stung and upset and I acknowledged that to him, I don't want to hurt him but I sometimes have to tell him what I think so we both know where we stand. I told him when he comes through the door at home I just know it's him coming home and whatever he calls himself makes no difference to that. At home I told my wife and other son about this and they both agreed, sometimes we need to be up front and honest. I think I shall probably be dead twenty years before he's well enough to acknowledge I'm his Dad, if he ever does, but that doesn't matter as long as he's content. Trouble is, he's not. May he know peace, may he know contentment.

9. Ate a piece of "Value" Stilton and a green apple for tea. Read the Guardian, nothing of any real interest.

10. Talked to my elderly neighbour in his front garden. Offered to look at the painful rash on his back and arranged to visit him at 7.00 pm to do so. Visited him, looked at his back, talked about his rash, life, death and loneliness. Left his house at 7.40 pm. I offered to put cream on his back but he said the carers were coming to do it tomorrow, though they didn't care to do it. I said I would do it myself but I work irregular hours and couldn't promise a reliable service three times a week. I felt rotten about this, but he understood.

11. Got a bowl of hot water, bath salts and a towel. Berlina bathed her feet and I applied corn-blade to remove hard skin from soles, this builds up and needs treatment, it's being a nurse and there's something to do with her having been born feet first (a breech delivery, quite rare and supposed to be lucky in Zambia). Massaged her feet for about forty minutes with cream. She said, "My foot has been calling out to be massaged". It's quite a long time since I did them.

12. Read somewhere that we get 80% of value from 20% of our activities (the 80/20 rule or Pareto Principle). That makes sense and is food for thought.

13. Wrote this blog and decided to get to bed soon after 30 minutes meditation, during which I know my back will ache. My posture at this PC is poor, my spectacles unsuitable. I've left a lot of stuff out, some of it not very edifying, and lots I can't remember but no doubt will.