Friday, February 19, 2010

Kalyana Mitra (2)

Last weekend saw the first session in a series of five, at which eight aspiring chaplains met with two trainers, Keith Munnings and Chris Blomley, to set out on the path to accreditation and eventual registration as Buddhist chaplains.

This sounds a very formal process, and in one sense it 'has to be' if Buddhists are to have a recognised role within the many formal institutions where spiritual need is perceived to exist, and deserves a response. Such institutions include the health and welfare services, schools, colleges and universities, the whole range of criminal justice provision, immigration and asylum, and much more besides.

But, despite the implicit seriousness of the undertaking, the session we attended turned out to be great fun, and pervaded by a lightness of tone that was in no small part a product of the preparations made by the two facilitators and - of course - the commitment of the participants, who threw themselves enthusiastically into the work, and clearly enjoyed it.

There was a minimum of necessary expository stuff, scene-setting and putting the programme in a broader context, and we soon got down to some experiential work, exploring the qualities of a 'good' chaplain by testing ourselves out with each other in a variety of challenging and realistic scenarios, and reflecting together with the two trainers on what we experienced, "how we did".

We met in a rather small room in part of the chaplaincy at St Thomas's Hospital in Lambeth, so for our experiential work we spread out into the surrounding hospital premises, and I found myself in the Central Hall on the Northern Wing of the hospital (pictured above top left), where there were benches we could use and we would be neither overlooked not overheard as we worked, and probably looked entirely natural to a casual onlooker.

I had time to take a look at some of the features of the Hall, and my eye was drawn to two glass-fronted cabinets, each full of a montage of nurses' hospital badges, in the famous dark blue enamel of St Thomas's Nightingale School of Nursing (top right). Each badge was identified as having been awarded to a named nurse, and most of the badges had been awarded on completion of training to nurses in the earlier part of the 20th century, 1921, 1933 etc. There must have been 200-300 badges in those cabinets. All presumably returned to the hospital after the nurse's death.

This was a poignant moment for me, as I have recently retired from nursing after 50 years of uninterrupted nursing practice. Unfortunately, my own nursing badges, awarded on completion, were stolen, so they will not survive my death to be returned to my training schools, which - in any case - have not survived themselves. Indeed the hospitals have now been closed, and in part demolished, although the Casualty and Accident Departments of Hackney Hospital where I trained in 1956-1959 are still there in Homerton High Street, E9, and still evoke memories when I occasionally pass.

Hollymoor Hospital and Highcroft Hospital in Birmingham, where I trained as a psychiatric nurse, are now demolished too, nothing remains but memories, and a collection of photographs and reminiscences. Hollymoor was famous during the Second World War for its pioneering approach to therapy for "shell-shocked" officers, out of which were developed modern treatments for 'psychoneurotic' disorders (such as Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, the phobias, Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder, anxiety-states, and many moderate forms of clinical depression).

From the past to the future: the image at the top of the page is of some members of the chaplaincy team to which I belong at Mid-Essex Hospital Services NHS Foundation Trust, dressed up in protective clothing to pay a visit to the newly commissioned Faith Room, installed in the new PFI hospital being developed on the site of Broomfield Hospital near Chelmsford. I am second from right, next to Imam Hafiz Ahmed, our Muslim chaplain. He tells me he gets the name Hafiz because he has managed to memorise the whole Qu'ran. I intended to ask him if he would tell me how we was tested on it, but didn't get the time. Is a candidate allowed to make one or two slips, like in the driving test? I almost certain he would be willing to let me in on this, he is a most accommodating chap, with a very friendly smile, despite his rather stern Abrahamic appearance in the picture.

There will be a multi-faith dedication ceremony in August, by which time the Faith Room will be ready for use on the same floor as the acute medical units and emergency rooms of the new hospital. Most of the planning for the ceremony has been done, and I'm in process of obtaining some Buddhist artefacts for use (as appropriate) by people who want to use the Faith Room for Buddhist purposes at any time. These will generally be stored out of sight when not in use, so that the Faith Room is otherwise featureless in terms of religious symbolism, and available to all for quiet reflection etc at any time.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Describe the fruits.....

"Describe the fruits of your practice......"
Someone in a dharma-group I belong to set this as 'between-meetings' homework for people that wanted to take the assignment on, and with intriguing guidlines for doing it...

"Give the non-dominant hemisphere a walk in the park by responding in fruity terms, staying with a fruity image/metaphor and letting it proliferate without pruning. Let your fruity insights present themselves in their own time and at their own fruity pace.....let there be absolutely no self-imposed pressure, just in playfulness and for playfullness's sake".

I liked the permissiveness of this, and decided to see what happened during the week, by 'not-trying' or contriving, not scratching after a concept or image as a chicken scratches for insects or worms. Difficult to do. As the injunction "Try not to imagine an elephant" proves.

Sure enough, within a couple of days, two images presented themselves. One was of a large dark-skinned avocado pear. It's skin was deep blue-black and shiny, and it was sliced in half so that the creamy flesh exposed a smooth round stone embedded in the lower half, and a correspondingly smooth round concavity in the other. The other image I will keep to myself, and see how that feels, and if it has anything more to reveal to consciousness.

What did this avocado image have to say about my practice? At first I had little to go on. I do enjoy an occasional avocado, eaten from the shell without dressing or anything added. I recollected that there was a large spreading avocado tree in the first house I was assigned when I arrived as an new expatriate employee in the Zambia copper-mining town of Mufulira. I didn't know it was an avocado tree until a local man told me. There were unripe avocados all round it on the grass. I don't think I had ever seen one before, and I didn't know they were edible.

The only connection with practice is that, shortly after I arrived in Zambia - in 1970 a complete innocent abroad - I had an unheralded experience of 'world collapse', lying in bed listening to the sound of drums from a nearby African township. I have sometimes traced my journey to Buddhism back to this experience, but memory is such an unreliable compounded thing.

Another link suggested itself, timidly. On the advice given by the teacher, I hesitated before 'pruning it' away, before dismissing it as irrelevant or far-fetched. And this insight, if that's what it was, came up: I have often felt that I have a frozen lump of unexpressed grief in my heart. I don't know why I should think like this, I am not conscious of anything I might grieve over, any unresolved sadness. But the feeling doesn't go away. I have, somehow, somewhere, an unrequited need to grieve for something lost. There are times, when I'm relaxed and reflective, that a long shuddering sigh escapes my chest, like the shuddering sigh of a small child who has sobbed until he can sob no more.

For a while, the exposed stone of the imagined avocado stood for the exposed grief in my heart, open to my gaze, embedded in its own smooth richness. And I remembered that it is from such a stone as this, properly nurtured, that a huge spreading tree could grow under a warm sun, and fine harvests of beautiful fruit could grow and drop to the earth for others to eat, or admire.

Is this a fruit of my practice? Should I 'accept' this seemingly unbidden image and my own interpretation. Or should I let it go as sentimental guff? Perhaps, and this response has a more comfortable feel to it, I should just leave it where it fell, in its 'is-ness'.

I've been reading a wonderful book, a slim volume by Will Johnson, "Aligned, Relaxed, Resilient" (Shambhala, 2000). It's a primer for meditators on posture, but more than just posture, on gesture, the embodiment of mindfulness. Johnson encourages practitioners of mindfulness, meditators, to 'meditate standing up'. Doing this, he suggests, makes it possible for us to re-engage with the earth, from which we grow, which supports and enlivens us, and which brings us always down to earth through the unceasing power of gravity. And it re-engages is us with the life-force that moves ever upwards through the watery ground of our being. It's a magical book, at least that's the way I've felt it.

Tomorrow I'm embarking on a new venture, it's the beginning of the Kalyana Mitra chaplaincy study-group at St Thomas's Hospital in Lambeth. I'll report on that at some future time.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Kalyana Mitra Launch

Yesterday was the official launch of the Kalyana Mitra - otherwise known as the Buddhist Chaplaincy Support Group (BCSG), at a beautiful and many-layered, day-long, ceremony hosted by London Buddhist Vihara. The Chiswick vihara is itself a vibrant, inimate and homely place, very much a family place, with children scampering about, smiling Sinhalese monks in their robes, many members of the local Sinhalese lay community in attendance on guests and participants, and a delicious smell of cooking from the kitchens.

Kalyana Mitra has been a long time in gestation, and enjoys the support and generous sponsorship of the Buddhist Society; chair of the BCSG is Frederick Hyde-Chambers OBE, who presided over the event. Mr Hyde-Chambers is a former Secretaruy of the Buddhist Society, and currently Secretary-General of the International Association of Business and Parliament.

Kalyana Mitra supports all forms of Buddhist chaplaincy, in hospitals, hospices and emergency healthcare services, in the armed services, with the police and the Courts, in prison, with immigrants and asylum-seekers, in education (from early years to Higher Education), indeed in all areas of public life where spiritual care in the community is of value, and can meet a need.

You can find more information, a host of resources, and an opportunity to get involved (without having to volunteer your services) at which has been launched to coincide with the project launch.

I attended with several Trust supporters, including Netta Wills, one of our trustees, and widow of Ray Wills, co-founder of the Buddhist Hospice Trust. I was particularly glad that Netta was able to be present. She said at the end of the proceedings that it would have been a great joy to Ray to see this development, as he had dedicated himself and his energies for much of his life to a fully collaborative engagement of Buddhists 'from all traditions and from none' - people working together to bring spiritual friendship to people fettered by suffering, caught up in serious illness, dying, death and bereavement.

Monks and ordinands of most traditions offered prayers and chanted offerings of dedication, and representatives of religious sangha and secular Buddhist organisations joined to make offerings of light. The Buddhist Hospice Trust was privileged to be called (unexpectedly) to participate in this, and to offer words of affirmation at the end.

Especially touching were an entrancing puja dance performed by four young women of Sinhalese origin, a short dharma-drama by the same young women and the young children of Chris Blomley and his wife; Chris was master of ceremonies for the day and is one of the principal architects of the BCSG.

Principal speaker was Dr Sarah Shaw, a Buddhist translator, author and scholar. Sarah's talk was a jewel-like exemplar of simplicity, authenticity and wisdom. She spoke a little to the value of the 'Four Immeasurables' in guiding spiritual friendship. Most notable (for me) was the distinction she suggested between loving kindness to myself, and loving kindness to others. It is of immeasurable help to others, she suggested, to know that what might give ease and contentment to us may not be what would give ease and contentment to another. We should take care not to 'prescribe' for the gladness of others, or wish our own happiness on them, however sincerely; better that we should fully intend that, without any reservation on our part, whatever happiness they found should be the happiness that they most sought for themselves.

Other speakers included Dr Sunil Kariyakanawara (Director/BCSG), Mr Robin Field-Smith MBE, Vice-President of the Association of Police Chaplains who sang the Collect from Choral Evensong (Book of Common Prayer), Ven Sochu of Shoboan Zen Centre, Matthew Jee who devised and demonstrated the new Kalyana Mitra web-forum, and Mr Keith Munnings who also led the finishing meditation.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Dangerous Spirituality

Yesterday I was at a training workshop, one of an on-going series offered by Janki Foundation (JF) for Global Healthcare. JF is in my opinion a wonderful organisation, an offshoot of the Brahma Kumari spiritual tradition. JF has developed a training package, used worldwide, to develop healthcare staff in a better understanding of the universal values of whole-person healthcare, within a non-sectarian spiritual framework.

There was an atmosphere of deep attention. We all know each other well, and we have worked together often before. Our work was to test how the training package allowed participants to explore their own experience of spirituality by calling to mind a significant other, to whom a loose 'spiritual' attribution might be made.

My own mind turned at once to a man of my fairly recent acquaintance (about two years or so), an unemployed Scot from Glasgow. I know this man devotes much of his time to campaigning on behalf on beleagured or oppressed minorities, and spends much of what free times remains to him befriending people who 'live on the streets' of a seaside town on the South coast: alcoholics, drug-users and similar marginalised people.

He can't do much to help them materially, but he is always vividly present for them, and a friend. He isn't in any way pious, he's a straight talker, a remarkably poised listener, and in no way a 'bleeding heart do-gooder'. By his own account, which I believe, he has had his own experience of living rough: he was for some years a Forest monk in the jungles on the border of thailand and Burma. Bandit country. And he acknowledges personal brushes with the law.

This man has had an amazing effect on me since we first met. He is, as I know him, entirely without guile. He has an aura of divine innocence about him. Yet I sense that, for me at least, he is dangerous to know.

Not dangerous in the sense that he might murder or rob me, or try to seduce my daughters. Dangerous in the sense that my falsehoods, my vanities, my faithlessness is vulnerable to his presence in my life. Dangerous because, for reasons that leave my understanding and experience behind me like discarded garments, I trust him completely.

I think John the Baptist had the same effect on people who met him, hoarse-voiced and wild-eyed, up to his waist in the River Jordan. They were drawn to him as iron filings to a magnet; they wanted to be held by him and forced into the turbid waters by his mad strength. Certainly, his dangerousness was sufficiently feared by Herod Antipas for him to grant his daughter's wish for the Baptist's head on a platter (Mark 14:8) - that's John's severed head in the Coptic engraving at the top of the blog.

I will write a little more about this chap on another occasion. When I first met him I called him 'Rasputin', for reasons that will be obvious to those who recognise the name - part monk, part witch, Communist and healer (he is pictured above with John the Baptist).

Needless to say, colleagues at the workshop were surprised that I ventured the term "dangerous" as a possible characteristic of spirituality. But I'm sure that many will agree that it's a candidate adjective worth considering.