Thursday, March 4, 2010

Essex Mind-Spirit

Essex Mind-Spirit (EM-S) is an established, county-wide alliance of Government (NHS) health agencies, Higher Education, faith communities including the churches in Essex, and other stakeholders, including the Buddhist Hospice Trust.

EM-S operates via a network of cluster groups based in the four main 'geo-political and administrative quadrants of Essex (see locality map above); each is autonomous and each is constituted according to the mix of stakeholders willing and and able to commit in the particular locality from which the people come, and in accordance with local need.

For several years since EM-S was established, it hasn't been possible to set up a cluster group in South West Essex, and I have now been invited to do this, and have accepted the challenge it involves. South West Essex is a wide area, an urban and rural 'strip' fifteen to twenty miles deep from the North bank of the Thames estuary, and as many miles long along that bank, from Thurrock (whence arises the Dartford Crossing/Queen Elizabeth Bridge and Tunnels), via Tilbury, Shell Haven, Pitsea and Canvey Island; and including several good-sized conurbations: Basildon, Wickford, Billericay, Rayleigh, Hadleigh, South Benfleet, Hockley, South Woodham Ferrers, and many small villages interspersed.

Why is the Buddhist Hospice Trust involved? Several reasons. First, for as long as I have been involved with the Trust, it has been a 'port of call' for people who are suffering mentally, whether the suffering is a consequence of a physical illness, impending death, bereavement, or any other human frailty or breakdown. Indeed, one could characterise all suffering as a mental phenomenon. Buddhist teaching points in that direction, as it points to mind-training (in a very general sense of those words) as the only remedy.

I have also received very many appeals for assistance from people who identify their problems as 'mind-made' or 'mental'. This is what one might expect from Buddhists, after all. A few of these admit to a history of diagnosed mental illness, or of psychiatric treatment and sometimes psychiatric custody. It might be said that the Trust is ill-equipped to respond to such appeals for help, and - if it were the case that the Trust offers professional intervention - this could well be true. If the Trust ill-advisedly took on a case of terminal cancer, needing specialist medical and palliative intervention, the same would be true.

But the Trust offers only to be present, to bear witness, and to befriend people who call upon its services, such as they are. And this formula is as effective (and as limited) as a response to mental suffering in all its forms as it is as a response to the ravaged physical body of an individual with a fatal disease. As an adjunct to properly prescribed medical treatment, the solidarity and support of a spiritual friend is an enormous boon to the mentally, as well as to the physically, ill sufferer; not "half the spiritual life", but the "whole spiritual life, Ananda".

Second, there is no apparant unaffiliated, non-sectarian and inclusive Buddhist organisation that is ready, willing and accessible to pick up the gauntlet of spiritual support and non-judgemental companionship for people who are suffering mentally, and suffering alone. This Trust is ready and willing to do this, and our cooperative venture with Essex Mind-Spirit is an expression of that readiness, and a testing ground for our preparedness, and our capacity to deliver.

It is a small step, but a significant one. And I know you will wish it well.

The new South West Essex Cluster Group will meet on the second and fourth Wednesdays of each month, beginning 10th March 2010, at 7.00 pm for 7.30 pm. Meetings will be held at the Todman Centre (Rayleigh Age Concern) in Castle Road (corner of Daws Health Road), Rayleigh.

These meetings are open to all comers. They will provide a meeting place for people with an interest in mind and spirit, however that interest comes about. You may have personal experience of mental health problems, or know someone who has; you may be a carer, professional or otherwise. You may be a 'person of faith', whether or not a religious faith, and whether or not you belong to a 'faith community' (church, mosque, temple etc). You may just be curious to know more. No experience or prior knowledge is necessary.

Over time we shall aim, together, to build greater understanding and - perhaps - to use that greater understanding to help ourselves, each other, and maybe others. How we shall do that we shall work out amongst ourselves, with the support and guidance of Essex Mind-Spirit. EM-S is a very well-resourced project, with lots of experience and expertise, and is a member of the National Mental Health Forum.

Essex Mind-Spirit doesn't preach, proselytise (aim to convert), and has no hidden agenda. It is funded by Faith In Action, an independent source of funding for social enterprises. You won't be put under any pressure to volunteer, and you can come and go as you want to, whilst always being welcome.

Contact me, Peter, for further information.

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