Wednesday, 19 April 2017

My Left Hand

I want it back (stain = beetroot)

The sixth anniversaries of my injury and the subsequent amputation of my left hand passed on the meditation mat in the Dhamma Hall at Splatt's House with a photo on the wall before me of the Mahabodhi Temple, near where it occurred in Bodh-Gaya. I got a little upset. "Anicca!" the teacher told me. Impermanence. "It's in the past." "Not in your past though, is it?" I snapped.

I told him how, during Vipassana instruction, I forgot my hand wasn't there and felt it as vividly as the one that remains. 'Vipassana' means, to see thing as they really are, but I was feeling things that are no longer there. Things like fingers and a thumb. "But it is quite normal," the teacher told me, "phantom limb pain." "In your experience?" I demanded. To which he  gave his usual admonition, "No thinking!"

A kind man and a dutiful teacher, he came and sat with me at lunch. The food served at Splatts House is wonderful. It could see me through any crisis. The teacher reminded me of his expertise, working for the Red Cross with amputees in Afghanistan during the 1980s. They would pick up Russian butterfly bombs found in the fields. 80% of the amputees he worked with had no phantom pain. Their brains are wired differently.

"It's all in the mind," the teacher told me. I had already warned him that amputees - speaking for all of us! - don't generally appreciate being told about our injuries by the able-bodied. I wasn't going to go there again. "Never mind that," I said. "What interests me now is why you're not eating this butternut squash lasagne?"
"Why?" he asked.
"Because it is superb," I told him.
"In that case," he said, "you may have my portion."

At the end of the course, silence lifted, one kindly fellow brought up  a film he'd seen on BBC4 about phantom limb treatment. "This isn't the chat about V.S. Ramachandran's mirrored box tricking your mind into thinking the remaining limb is the missing one, so you can scratch it?" I cautioned him. Able-bodied people, especially those who enjoy the work of Dr. Oliver Sacks, find the phenomenon of phantom limb hallucinations fascinating. Those of us who experience it find it frustrating and tedious.

The best advice I received about phantom limb came from my first prosthetist, himself an amputee. He lost a leg in the Omagh bombing as a seven year old. "I've turned it to my advantage," he told me, making and fitting artificial limbs. Think of one's stump as a telephone exchange box, like those one sees in the street with their doors open, dozens of wires bundled up inside. They are like severed nerves, still trying to complete the call that was so brutally interrupted. As phantom limb pain continuously replays the moment of trauma, never mind anicca, for some amputees the injury exists in the permanent present.

Happily for me, I don't have that problem and I use meditation rather than opioid pain killers to manage the stump pain. I did have pain of the phantom variety for a couple of years, but found it strangely reassuring. I have no memory of the incident and mine host did not want to admit liability, so pretended that I'd done it to myself. However, my body knew better and it told me what had happened. I could feel my missing hand burning onto the shower tap.

Another topic people like to bring up to amputees is whizz-bang prosthetics, such as the Bebionic 3 bionic hand or the Deus Ex, which make Living With Future Prosthetics seem cool, rather than part of a sinister Transhumanist Agenda. The problems from my POV, though, are that they're heavy - functionality adds weight - they cost more than the NHS can afford, and they will never be as good as the real thing. I want my lost left hand to regenerate.

Otherwise, there's hand transplants on the NHS. I qualify and spoke about the possibility to my team at Bowley Close, the amputee rehab. centre in Crystal Palace. I went off the idea of having someone else's hand attached to my body, which will never accept it unless I take immunosuppressant drugs for the rest of my life. I'd delayed the referral by not yet booking a blood test and decided on the mat not to bother.
Regeneration it is, then.

Wednesday, 5 April 2017

Gone Fishin'

Each IMC has a Dhamma Yaung Chi Ceti (Light of the Dhamma Pagoda) like the original in Rangoon.

Sap's rising, Easter is in the air and I'm going meditating. I don't know what the Universal Credit rules are regarding holiday breaks where one has no internet access, but I'll inform my coach tomorrow that my relentless work search shall temporarily cease. I imagine they will suspend payment which, since UC is worth a tenner and change a day to me, will add about a hundred quid to the cost of the 10 day retreat.

I've written before about my powerful experience of Vipassana meditation, when I sat my first course at Dhamma Dipa. The piece was actually commissioned for propaganda purposes as an account of how I, as a meditator, had survived near death in India. What I actually delivered was a psycho-dramatic account of events that led up to My Vipassana Initiation, like a pustule coming to a head, to be squeezed out over ten days of strict silence with up to ten hours of meditation each day.

I got fully onboard with Vipassana and served at the Centre for six months as 'Kitchen Coordinator'. I sat my second course within a few months of my first, during which I received some guidance from the Assistant Teacher (A.T.) that blew my chattering mind. He told me to treat it like a telly I wasn't watching, or trivial background muzak that was distracting, not interesting. "Ignore it," he told me, "and get on with your meditation."

This revelation, that the running commentary in my mind is not necessarily me, combined with an effective technique that enables one to directly experience anicca, as sensation, kept me entrained in that school for seven years. These days, if asked, I would say, 'go back to the breath;' keep striving for unified consciousness before attempting insight meditation. But then, I no longer sit with Goenka; the piece commissioned from me at the end of 2014 was actually a farewell note.

Vipassana, Goenka-style, had served me well and seen me through the most challenging times, although it might also be argued that it led me into them, too. Vipassana was my purpose for visiting Bodh-Gaya six years ago. I meditated in the temple complex, yards from the shrine, where Gautama achieved his enlightenment 2,500 years ago, only hours before I received a massive electric shock in the shower of my newly-built hotel room.

Among many consequences, I went blind with cataracts. For three months, I couldn't see my hand if I held it in front of my nose. The local Buddhists, a couple of streets away, were most helpful. Every day, early, a young initiate I'll call Toby knocked on my door and led me to their shrine room for morning meditation. Seeing how still I sat, Toby asked me about Vipassana and I advised him to gen up on the web site and sign up for a course, if he liked.

A while later, the subject came up again. Toby told me, he had looked at the web site, but he had also asked advice. He did not say who from, but I suppose they were robed. Toby was told, spiritual education is only valid in a religious context. What Goenka teaches is Buddhism, but he's not Buddhist and so is not qualified to teach. Vipassana is, correctly, a Theravada Buddhist meditation practice and, if my young friend wanted to learn it, he should go to Thailand and sit with monks. 'Ri-ight,' I thought to myself, 'religious people say, this is a Cosa Nostra!'

It would not be right to criticise Goenka, after all that he taught me. I won't go into the details of what led me to conclude that my time as his student was over. Ultimately, I did not belong in that sangha. Eventually, I remembered another Vipassana teacher, from the same Burmese school as Goenka, who had split with him. That is where I now sit, at Splatts House in Heddington, Wilts.

Some three years after my exchange with the young man who led me to practice Dhamma every morning while I was blind, I sat my first course under the aegis of Mother Sayamagyi. She was rarely glimpsed then and passed away in January, but her benevolent presence was very much felt throughout the centre and I trust it still is. The courses are conducted by Roger Bischoff. His opening words are, "We have come here together to practise the Theravada Buddhist meditation of Vipassana." Doh!

Wednesday, 29 March 2017

A Pair of Phenomenal Women

This week's blog delves into the recesses of my CV to celebrate two extraordinary women - both now deceased - with whom I had the privilege of being professionally associated. 


Image by Celine Marchbank; Tulip documents her mother's demise.

Sue Miles died back in 2010, aged 66. Not only did she have lung cancer, apparently, but also a brain tumour. How very Sue, to have a second fatal illness as back up, in case the cancer was taking too long.

Leslie Kenton died unexpectedly, but peacefully in her sleep, aged 75, at her home in New Zealand on 13th November last year, of 'natural causes,' appropriately. She was all about natural causes, not to mention effects, was Leslie, with whom I collaborated on a Juice book in 1996.

Sue Miles was a proper caffiene addict: her skin was coffee-tinged. She was the first person I ever met - I struggle to think of the second - who had an espresso machine plumbed into her domestic kitchen. Because she couldn't be forever refilling a reservoir, or farting about with stove top coffee pots. Sue needed her drug of choice to be on tap.

My association with Leslie bought me limited cred. with the raw foodies because of Raw Energy, the truly seminal bestseller that she published with her daughter, Susannah, in 1984, which advocated a 75% raw diet. Still, when I visited Leslie's cottage on the Pembroke coast a decade later to work on our project, the raw food lady served me sausages.

Imagine Sue & Leslie encountering each other, perhaps at some fabulous party in the Seventies, while Leslie was re-inventing Health & Beauty writing in terms of diet & lifestyle in Harpers & Queen magazine and Sue was Time Out's first restaurant critic. Both had residual American accents and alcoholic fathers. Sue's dad was US correspondent for the Daily Mirror and she grew up in Hollywood. Leslie's father was Stan Kenton, the jazz pianist and band leader, who sexually abused her.

On the wall of the loo at Sue's house in Camden was a letter from Albert Goldman, scurrilous and profane biographer of Elvis, fishing for gossip, re:Lennon. Her ex, Pearce Marchbank, had told Goldman that it was actually Sue who had introduced John to Yoko. Did she wish to tell him about it and, if so, could she give him a sign? "Yeah, I'll give you a fucking sign, buddy!" cackled Sue, making the universal FU gesture.

With her first husband, Barry Miles, Sue had run the gallery where Yoko met John and had generally hung out at the groovy, swirling epicentre of swinging London before getting into cookery. As one does. Aged 19 and new in London, through a mutual friend, I got a job washing up in her kitchen at L'Escargot from its opening night in June 1981. Word was, Sue had talked a callow young Commodities Broker, Nick Lander, into buying the gaff!

My favourite Sue story is the one when Alastair cut his finger off. Alastair Little, Sue's co-Chef, was accident prone. One hot night he stood on the hoist to open the heavy trapdoor in the Greek Street pavement, which swung back on its counterbalance and severed the tip of his finger. I was delegated to phone Sue at home, asking her to come in and cover for him. "That bastard," said Sue with characteristic tact and diplomacy, "he's done this deliberately to spoil my night off!"

I met Leslie on the phone early in 1994, when I wrote a weekly 'food gossip column', Gastropod. When some re-packagings of her books were re-marketed in January, I took the chance to tell her that she was a heroine of wagamama where, I informed her, there was a 'Raw Energy' section on the menu. "Actually," she told me when we eventually sat opposite each other at wagamama, "that phrase is my trade mark."

At Glastonbury Festival in 1995, I implemented a juice bar, a pretty radical proposition, which sufficiently impressed Leslie to bring me in as her co-writer on Juice High. I spent a weekend at her Pembrokeshire place planning it and we went on a short tour together to promote it, when published in the Summer of '96. Our Manchester appearance was cancelled by the IRA.

Before Leslie moved down under, we had lost touch. Sue, I introduced to Emily Green, but I rarely saw her; then, not at all. Though hardly friends for life, both these women deeply impressed me. It was my pleasure to have worked with them.