Wednesday, 26 April 2017

Election Torpor


The Prime Minister, having said she would not call an early general election, has done so. Never mind that her predecessor brought in a rule that Parliaments must run for the full five years in order to prevent precisely this kind of cynical opportunism. There is a provision that early elections can be called with the consent of two thirds of MPs. Since politicians are always interested in gaining power, this was no impediment.

This lust for power also means that a pro-EU coalition is unlikely. Since the referendum, I've been of the opinion that the vote should be confirmed by an election in which the two main parties can present their distinctively different (sic) plans for leaving the Union while minority parties who insist that the UK must remain could agree not to compete against each other. Instead, Remainiacs will vote Lib Dem in England and Scots Nat in Hibernia.

Ms May cited Brexit (I dislike that term, but whatever) as her reason for going to the country. She bangs on about strength & stability, but who really believes her? Not Peter Hitchens, the reactionary commentator for whom I nurture a perverse regard.  'Why a snap election? Ask the 30 tories facing criminal charges...' read the headline of his opinion piece in The Daily Mail (I despise that newspaper, but still).

Following a diligent investigation by Channel 4 News of the Conservatives' election expenses, it looks like charges will be brought against enough Tory MPs to significantly erode their Parliamentary majority. By calling an election now, while the Labour opposition under Jeremy Corbyn is apparently in disarray and her party is ahead in opinion polls, May hopes not only to consolidate her power, but to destroy the opposition. But she is deluded.

As Hitchens observed a decade ago, polls are no longer devices for measuring public opinion, but for influencing it. Much like the BBC, polls were perceived as 'impartial oracles of the truth by most people who read them.' No doubt many still pay attention to opinion polls and the BBC, but not me

The final straw came last year, when BBC Political Editor, Laura Keunssberg, ignored the passage of the Housing and Planning Act - effectively ending Council Housing - in favour of more tiresome sniping at Jeremy Corbyn. I complained, but the Beeb had so many similar complaints that they ignored the specifics of mine. So I threw out the telly and obtained a rebate on my license fee.

Whatever opinion polls and the BBC say, Labour under Corbyn can win this election and I hope they do. However, I am unlikely to vote. I plan to be away from home on polling day and getting a postal vote seems like too much effort, just to waste it. Usually, I opt for one of the 'other' candidates. In 2015, I was one of 72 who voted for Lucy Hall, whose big idea was to more directly represent her constituents by polling us electronically before every vote in the House.

One time when I did vote for the eventual winner in my constituency was in 2010. I was persuaded by Nick Clegg that his Liberal Democrats would abolish Trident and introduce proportional representation to make votes matter. Ahem. I feel especially cheated by Sir Simon Hughes because, a year before that election, he said to my face that the Labour Party were Tories in disguise. Then, his party got into bed with actual Tories and enabled their frightful agenda.

Hughes lost in 2015 to Neil Coyle, the ex-Southwark Council Labour candidate who is heavily implicated in the social cleansing of my neighbourhood. An unreformed Blairite, Disloyal Coyle is one of the red Tories to whom Hughes referred and one of Jeremy Corbyn's most vocal critics. I cannot support Corbyn by voting for the odious Coyle,  but I've found another way to express my support for Jezza: at the bookies.

Paddy Power gave me odds of 17/2 on Jeremy Corbyn being the next Prime Minister (at the time of writing, he's come in to 8/1). I opened an online account with a £10 bet and was rewarded with £30 in free bets, all of which I've placed on the same proposition. I stand to win £340 on June 9th and will be laughing all the way to the Job Centre.

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 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!