Saturday, June 28, 2008

Nothing Special

I've had a long time away from the keyboard. My wife occasionally complains that I neglect my family responsibilities in favour of my Buddhist interests, and there is a lot of truth in that. Not so long ago I had a thorough telling-off about the hours I spend online. Today I cleared out our garden shed, mowed the grass in the back garden, went shopping for food, cut my son's hair, and helped my wife to clear a border of weeds. A bit of good family karma there, maybe.

My wife and I discussed the situation in Zimbabwe. I am unrepentant about the views I expressed about the situation there, although I don't like the violence. The extent of the violence and intimidation of voters is hard to assess and, having lived in Africa during the "struggles" for independence, I know how the Western media can and do distort news for political ends. I heard a Sky News journalist reporting graphically "live-to-air" in Jo'burg on acts of contemporaneous intimidation of voters by Zanu-PF gangs in Harare, notwithstanding the fact that these two cities are 600 miles apart. But any violence is wrong, and to be condemned, not by me (I am not in a position to throw stones), but as a matter of principle. I should add that my wife agrees with my analysis of the Zimbabwean news, although we tend to disagree about African politics generally.

My posts have also had repercussions for me professionally, in that a few Zimbabweans have taken exception to my views on the situation in their country; moreover, I am charged with racism on the basis of self-disclosures I made some time ago about 'my racist heart', in the context of my marriage, but also - it has to be admitted -more widely. Such is life: I am happy to be judged on my actions, and if it is established that I have acted improperly in any arena out of racist motives I will take the consequences.

Our eldest son, Mwape, has gone to Berlin to visit an East German woman he met in South Africa, with whom he struck up a friendship. I am pleased he has gone to Berlin. As a teenager I had a German pen-friend who lived in that city, close by Unter Den Linden (see image above). We corresponded for a couple of years and eventually arranged for him to visit us in Birmingham. This was about ten years after the end of World War II. Horst, a couple of years my senior, had been a member of the Hitler Jugend, and we had great fun lying in our bedroom in Birmingham, with him teaching me Hitler Jugend songs which we sang together, giggling. Some of them were absolutely awful, I must admit, full of imagery of violence and despair. I have not myself visited Berlin, although I would like to do so.

I've started work on the Trust's newsletter, although I haven't made a lot of progress. The provisional title is Mustard Seed, after the parable of Kisogotami, a moving tale of a girl's enlightenment under the guidance of Gotama, from whom she was directed to seek medicine when her firstborn child died. He directed her to seek a little mustard seed from houses in the town, save that it must be obtained from a house where no-one had died. As she moved from house to house in her quest, it gradually dawned on her that in no house was death a stranger. Her eyes were opened, she buried her child in the forest and returned empty-handed but aware to the Master. A lovely tale, and fitting to our work, I think.

I have not sat in formal meditation for some weeks now. I am too weary, too sad, too...everything, and thoughts of Buddhism 'and all that' are far from me, and me from them. But I feel reassuringly at home with my sadness and weariness. I read a poem my son had fixed on his wall, and I felt a great welling-up of love and admiration for him as I read it. Here it is, by Edgar Allen Poe:


From childhood's hour I have not been
As others were — I have not seen
As others saw — I could not bring
My passions from a common spring
From the same source I have not taken
My sorrow I could not awaken
My heart to joy at the same tone
And all I lov'd — I lov'd alone —
Then — in my childhood — in the dawn
Of a most stormy life — was drawn
From ev'ry depth of good and ill
The mystery which binds me still
From the torrent, or the fountain
From the red cliff of the mountain
From the sun that 'round me roll'd
In its autumn tint of gold
From the lightning in the sky
As it pass'd me flying by
From the thunder, and the storm
And the cloud that took the form
(When the rest of Heaven was blue)
Of a demon in my view —

Monday, June 16, 2008

When the whipping had to stop..

The image is of Friends House, Euston Road (opposite), where the Trustees met about a week ago to debate the aftermath of the cancelled conferences, and to plot the road ahead. That all sounds very organised, but in fact the meeting was very informal (although we were 'quorate', set an agenda, and took minutes in case the Charity Commission is reading this ready to pounce).

We agreed to re-instate the monthly meetings that used to be held as a kind of auxiliary "engine" for the Trust: the 'Inner Work School' (IWS), a kind of rolling, open-to-all get-together of Trust supporters and others, held monthly in various venues across Central London, working to an open (or as I prefered to call it, an 'emergent') agenda. I decided, after Ray's unexpected death in 2000, that the IWS should continue, and so it did until 2007 when I further decided that it had run its course and should be folded. High-handed of me, perhaps, but the decision was taken with general agreement, and some general regret, that it had come to the end of its usefulness.

For many of us, certainly for me, it constituted a 'sangha', and what took place within the membership was a kind of dharma-cultivation, albeit undirected by an evolved teacher of lineage, accreditation and authority, at least after Ray's death. Ray, of course, disavowed any credentials as a dharma teacher, despite his learning, and despite his enormous authenticity and integrity. But I certainly felt I encountered the dharma at the meetings in the presence of men and women, living in the here-and-now, sharing experience in an atmosphere of uncontrived openness; and between meetings in simple friendship here and there, acts of kindness and solidarity, nothing special, just as-it-is-ness.

Over the years there had been about a score of loyal IWS attenders, although few meetings were attended by more than six or seven, and some meetings comprised two or three. The final straw, I think, was being forced by rising room-hire fees and other minor but understandable vexations to the last venue, the YMCA Sports Centre off Tottenham Court Road, where we had to endure a windowless room and line-dancing on the ceiling. The carrot-juice bar was no consolation.

So now the Trust has agreed to fund meetings, at least for ten consecutive months beginning August 2008, on the basis that we do need to offer something to supporters, and the framework of a regular monthly meeting may enable the process of reconnection and renewal for which the conferences were a flawed blueprint. Meetings will take place at Friends House, Euston Road, on the second Saturday of each month, in the afternoon, from 1.30 pm until 5.00 pm. The invitation is "Come if you can and want to". There is no charge, and there is presently no pre-determined programme or modus operandi. As before, it will be a matter of trusting what comes, whatever comes. This permits people to come as invited, and to feel that they haven't lost touch with events, or somehow fallen behind, if they can't come regularly or often.

The Trustees have circulated (to each other, or some of us have) some possible titles to apply to this series of meetings. At present "Sharing Circle" and "Explorations of Awareness" are front-runners, and I like both. Another possible title that popped into my head recently was "The Nothing Special Fellowship". I think Ray Wills had a hand in this, and may have been waiting in the wings for a chance to pop it in.

When the whipping had to stop? I had an anonymous comment on my last post, and this is worth reading, perhaps. I've had several comments as emails from known contributors, one of whom thought I might make a good Roman Catholic as I seemed to get benefit from the confessional. Self-flagellation is a practice too far, I reckon.

Yesterday I attended a rather sparse meeting of the South-East sub-group of interested parties following the progress of the Buddhist Hospital Chaplaincy Group towards the establishment of an 'endorsing body' for Hospital Chaplains, governing the admission of Buddhists to the role, their accreditation, training, support etc. All this is in line with NHS policy, and tied in with the Government's 'diversity agenda', 'social cohesion' and the perceived soul-lessness of the NHS, to judge from accounts from users and other critics one reads and hears. I have some fairly well-developed views on this, informed in part by my experience as a nurse and a some-time denizen of the NHS, by my experience within the Trust, and more recently by my induction into the Hospital chaplaincy as a Buddhist lay officiant. I'll return to this in another post in a few days time.

Thursday, June 12, 2008


I've now had a little time to reflect on the lived experience of my most recent blog, and a handful of comments about it. One comment included the question "why do you wash your dirty linen in public?"

I posted my ex-wife's letter to me on an impulse. I have a tendency to impulsivity: on the one hand it is narcissistic and regressive, on the other it yields insights to me that would otherwise just lurk in the shadows. My impulsivity has always both repelled some and conversely it has sometimes emboldened others to see things as they are, unidealised and stark, in their own lives. It is, perhaps, like all our characteristics of personality, both a gift and an impediment.

I remember my mother telling me as a child (maybe I was 9 or thereabouts) "King George is dead", and I replied, without thinking I'm sure, "Should I lower my trousers to half mast?". My mother was genuinely shocked, and I think it was my first awareness of my capacity to shock others, of my taste for doing so. I've never lost either.

I posted the letter not for compassion, not for absolution, not out of humility I think. But, yes: I did so to put the record of my own life and parenthood straight, and as a response to the charge of hypocrisy. This aspect of what I am, selfish, neglectful, and deviously 'clever' needs to be 'out there' to redress the otherwise impossible projections I attract, and generate through my writings and utterances. I also thought my ex-wife might see it and feel vindicated. She has not been impressed by any claims to compassion I might seem to make, or that might be wrongly inferred by others. Not that compassion is anything to do with the person or his efforts, as I understand it. It is something "in which we live, and move, and have our being", not a product of what we try to do.

I've had email contact with my eldest daughter (aged 42) and her own daughter for about three years, and this has clearly brought things to a head now, as I thought it eventually might. My daughter's messages to me are warm, confiding and intimate. She refers a lot to our temperamental similarities. We have made tentative plans to meet up, although we are both aware of the tension this may cause her in her relations with her Mum and her sisters.

I have been feeling quite wretched for the past few days, and this is the place to be, a place from which I can perhaps touch the experience of my ex-wife and her children, and share in it with thought for them, and not for myself. Even this sounds phoney, but there it is.
I'm grateful for the comments I've received from individuals for whom my post has had some relevance for their own experience of abandonment. These comments have been strangely devoid of any judgement, more a recognition of how things sometimes are. Perversely, this has not 'let me off the hook', so to speak, but has deepened my reflectiveness, and promises more by way of insight as time passes, and barriers fall away.
The image above is a portrayal of "Self-Doubt" published by Endicott Studio.

Tuesday, June 10, 2008

What hypocrisy

I got this letter today from my former wife. It's the first correspondence between us in 25 years, and it speaks for itself. The only deletions I've made are to protect the confidentiality of third parties. I haven't asked permission to publish the letter as no correspondence is possible. I think my former wife's opinions of me, and her truthful account of my neglect of our children, deserve a wider readership:

"I shall not put my address here as I don't want to enter into any correspondence with you."

"However, I have long felt great animosity towards you, for the way in which you shunned your daughters (Yes, you DO have 3 other children, although airbrushed out of your life, apparently) as they grew up."

"No birthday or Christmas cards. No letters asking how they were. No ANYTHING to show them that you, at least, thought of them from time to time."

"When you went back to Zambia, a postcard to say you were going and maybe not coming back was all we got. No address. No good wishes."

"This letter would probably never have been written had I not read some of your Buddhist blogs. Dear me! You seem to have compassion, ask forgiveness from everyone on the planet but your daughters. What hypocrisy!"

"Yes, I am bitter about it. Not about you and Berlina. Glad you're happy, but how could you not have asked your daughters for forgiveness in view of your beliefs is beyond my comprehension."

"In spite of it all, and there have been some VERY hard times, they have grown into very caring and happy women. I could not have wished for better daughters. Not takimg part in their lives is your loss. You are clever and know all about psychology - but did you stop for one moment and ask yourself how hurtful it was for them?"

"History repeats itself (third party references deleted)...has disappeared off the scene after some contact for a year or two. You men are truly a different species. Clever but totally selfish and lacking in insight. Hope this diminishes the anger I feel".
The image at the head of this post is "The Narcissist" by Jon Goebel.