Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Another 'make-over'?

This evocative image of clinging on is titled "A Study For Self-Doubt" - I can't recall its provenance.

I'm working slowly on a position paper that I hope will have implications for the Trust. There have been informal overtures from 'sources' (not yet to be disclosed as that would be premature) interested in a partnership arrangement with the Trust; a partnership that might lead to some diversification and expansion of the Trust's mission - into the field of mental health. The paper argues for such a partnership, against the background of changing need, of more pervasive social and political change (think "Big Society"); and in the context of the Trust as a 'dying organisation', in several senses of the words, dharmic, demographic, financial and real.

Mental health has long been of interest to me, partly because I have had a long career in mental health work - as a nurse, a nurse teacher, in service development as a manager, in Africa where they do things differently; and in my personal experience of mental illness at home: my own clinical depression and personality problems, the difficulties experienced by others in my immediate family, my interpretation of dukkha, and the remedies of the Noble Eightfold Path. Quite an inventory of interests and concerns.

And it seems to me that these are widely shared by other Buddhists. As long as I can recall, the Buddhist Hospice Trust has been something of a beacon to people in mental distress, not just as a result of serious physical illness, imminent death or bereavement, but often for complex and poorly articulated reasons, of alienation and exclusion, of confusion and anxiety, even of rage and resentment.

Some of these have been people who "bumped into Buddhism and got bruised" (a concept around which the Network of Buddhist Organisations developed under the auspices of the late Dr Sally Masheder), some have been shunned or stigmatised by Buddhist sanghas as 'weirdoes' or 'misfits' or 'malcontents' - people who turn up for meditation classes drunk or stoned, people who are garrulous and argumentative.

Like attracts like, they say, and I have always had both fellow-feeling with and a certain fascination for, such people. Not a few have become firm and wonderful friends, mentors and guides on my own spiritual journey, although both I and they are keenly aware that ours can be, or certainly feel like, an on-going, even a life-long struggle with disadvantage, stigmatisation and poor health.

I have long subscribed to the 'spiritual emergency' theory of mental illness, including psychosis, a proposition which is by no means new, and by no means to be lightly disregarded. Media attention to celebrity like Stephen Fry has given something of a sympathetic gloss to the idea that mental illness (especially bi-polar disorder) is a kind of benign holy madness with a creative spin. But the idea has merit, and is experientially as well as in research-terms, perfectly valid.

So I am serious in believing that Buddhism, and in particular the Buddhist Hospice Trust, has something to offer to the hundreds of thousands of people who suffer alone, struggle unsupported with recovery, and for whom simple fellowship, bearing witness, and presence is likely to be a key ingredient on the road to health. So I am working on the idea, and will publish it here first. If you have ideas on this, let me know.

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