"Any terrible event in the world caused by human beings happens as a reaction to an emotion.
The world does not need to change. How we relate to emotions does.
To recognise this is the beginning of the end of the horrors in the world and within ourselves."
"(He)was a great friend
Who cared deeply for me in the real sense of friendship, someone who really cared - or
Who did not care. I am not quite sure which it is
Who deeply did not care
About who I was and therefore
Who I was began to wither
The less I was - of who I was the better I felt"
Here a short BBC documentary about the allotment project I have run for Freedom from Torture (formerly Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture): BBC1 - Inside Out (on 28/11/11)
A client came to the allotment very distressed. Something happened that triggered again the underlining fear that at any time everything can be taken away from her. Haunted by a horrific past, experiencing a daily struggle to survive and hardly being able to sustain the hope that one day life could feel safe again, she felt thoroughly hopeless and despondent and so tired. Torture takes away innocence; the innocence that life can be trusted, that the world is not there to harm us, and it is safe just to be. We all lose this innocence one way or another. But survivors of torture lose it in a most brutal, sudden and uncompromising way. This innocence is then replaced by searching and hoping for that illusive day when we can say that we feel safe.
There I was, sitting with her in the middle of her small plot just holding hands, knowing that she is so very right in her despair. It had started raining and the wind got slightly chilly and wet. It was just miserable all around. But then suddenly, without having done anything to make it change, everything changed. When she lifted her head a wet, open and sparkling, almost childlike face looked at me. The whole story of her life seemed to have dropped off from that face for a moment and what was left was only her soul looking through. She looked around, and then announced: "It is so beautiful !" What we were seeing was just that: the rain, the clouds, the trees moving in the wind, the dampness of clothes and the ground turning muddy; nothing else. No thought that it all ought to be different; just looking and embracing the beauty and magic of it all. It was all so simple - and just the idea that something needed to be added to make this moment more perfect would have felt utterly absurd.
I do not believe for a second that an event like this can transform us instantly. Indeed, the next day my client was back calling me, hoping that the next course of action would bring relief. However, something has touched her which is real and undeniable. A spark has been placed inside her which will ignite her fire. The hope that this will happen I call "Radical Hope". "Radical Hope" is not a hope that promises something; it does not give anything. It actually takes something away: it takes away our obsession with our stories and our hope that within these stories any answers can be found. Nature is a wonderful place to experience that.
Imagine watching a TV programme. The story unfolding in front of you will hold your attention, especially when it is intense and shocking.
However, without the screen nothing would show. The screen is absolutely essential, yet so easily overlooked. It is difficult to see the movie and the screen
at the same time. It is much easier to be aware of the screen when there is no programme running. Then we can acknowledge that every single programme
happens on that which is totally still, boundlessly spacious, always present, does not make any choices, has no preferences, is just there to receive.
When we listen to our client's stories - or indeed our own stories - we get drawn into them. The stories can be pleasurable or they can be very difficult.
There is no problem unless we overlook that not the story, but the screen or that on which life is unfolding, is who we really are. Maybe it is nice sometimes
to forget that and to enjoy the illusion and see it all as real. The problem only starts when we cannot get out of it anymore, when we get stuck in the story - especially
when the story is traumatic.
A movie cannot be seen without a screen. It is not possible to live a life without that on which life is unfolding.
We may not be able to name it or even be conscious of it, nevertheless somehow we are always drawn to it.
Prisoners in solitary confinement are kept sane by the small weed growing out of the cell wall, by the little mouse they try to tame,
by watching the fly or seeing even the tiniest bit of sky. What keeps them sane is not the weed, the mouse, the fly, the sky itself. It is life energy, this ever present
force which is not affected by our suffering and, like stillness, is always there underneath even the most unbearable noise.
It cannot really be written about, because it is the blank paper on which the written word appears. It cannot really be talked about,
because it is the silence underlying each word and sound. But it can be experienced. And nature can be the gateway.
we are not who we think we are
The decision to type these words does not come from me, pressing various characters on my iPad is not initiated by my brain either. Neuropsychology is having to get to terms with the discovery, that it is not "I" that makes decisions. MRI scanners can now show that a fraction of a second after (!) any particular action happens, the brain is activated and then claims responsibility. This leads to a deep misunderstanding of our true nature and is the source of all our suffering. Our life then revolves around our physical brain and we believe in its constant chatter. The end of the brain's functioning is then defined as the end of our existence. The "I" therefore is in a state of constant terror. But obviously it is not who I really am.
Patients with dementia or Alzheimer's, shortly before they die, can sometimes "wake up" with an immense clarity. A clarity they never ever had in their life even before the onset of their illness. A clarity which obviously cannot possibly come from their brain.
Neuropsychology is closing in on eastern philosophies and reluctantly has begun to accept that it can only ever say what we are not. We cannot say what or who we are, but paradoxically we can access who we are beyond our limited "I" - and get to truly know ourselves.
I thought I was helping him to die - instead he has helped me to live
Nick was going to die. He told me about his terminal illness more than a year ago while we were walking back from our local grocers. We had lived in the same road for many years and had the occasional conversations. Not that they had ever been superficial. I am a psychotherapist and people tend to be more at ease to dive into subjects they would not do otherwise. But this time it was different. For both of us it became obvious that this was a moment we would start a journey together. Not any journey. It was the beginning of the most important journey we both would ever do in our life.
From now on we met once a week in our local cafe and talked for an hour or so. Our talks felt urgent, to the point and absolute open and honest. Time could not be wasted. It appeared limited - and indeed was - and therefore more pressures. Nick was not holding back in his need to talk about death and dying. And he demanded from me the same openness and engagement. It was at times philosophical and psychological, increasingly became real and more of a direct experience. He obviously was getting weaker and his concerns about what was lying ahead for him and his dearest were growing. I could not be a bystander - even if I wanted to. The fact that he was dying and I am not - at least not yet - became irrelevant. We both were inquiring and investigating the most pressing issue there is.
January this year, abruptly, the times we were meeting in the cafe ended with his increasing fragility. He could not leave his bed anymore and a bit later he had to move to the local hospice. Our weekly meetings turned into daily ones. Talking to each other, however, and sharing our thoughts became less important. We were hanging out with each other. The TV was bringing 24 hour news continuously as a kind of back ground noise. We were watching from time to time, making comments or just smiling about how all these unfolding dramas were becoming so unreal and irrelevant to us in this room. There was more stillness, a peacefulness that became the highlight of my day. I could not wait seeing him. My mind had slowed down. There was nothing anymore I could contribute. Just being together felt more than enough. Time became more a concept rather than something we really would experience. Often we both fell asleep for a moment and smiled at each other when we woke up together.
One afternoon, while I was with him, he asked his doctor, what she thinks would now happen. She told him that he will sleep more and more, and then, at one point, would never wake up again. She suggested it would be less than five weeks - quite accurately - and he should say good bye to everybody and watch the movies he always wanted to watch. We both were left in a state of shock. The doctor had confronted us with the apparent reality of time and with that unleashed intense emotions. However, it took us just about a day to find our footing again. Together we had reached a stage where the idea of "never" and "saying good bye" and "watching movies he always wanted to watch" felt so utterly unreal and insignificant. For a short period these words activated our emotions and our minds, but ultimately could not touch the timelessness and peacefulness we were experiencing. We were not only letting go of the irrelevance of the news, but now also of
concepts like "time", "never", "good bye". We were letting go of mind and emotions. It did not feel like pushing them away. They just slipped away - like the body functions did: Nick had to let go of feeding himself, even raising his arms became impossible. One day he got a bit upset, that he could not be helped to go to the toilet anymore - even that was something Nick had to let go of and quickly accepted.
Then I had to go abroad for a weekend. I told him not "to piss off" while I was gone. He reassured me that he would wait and then said: "Don't worry, Jochen. I will take you with me anyway. Promise!"
This was the moment I felt he had moved miles ahead and I was struggling to catch up with him. I was deeply touched - and also - I had to confess - slightly scared. How scared I was I became aware when the flight the following day was hit by turbulences I have never experienced before. Nick was pulling me with him more than I had bargained for.
When I came back from the weekend away he had softened even more and the peace felt even deeper. On Thursday he was deeply asleep when I arrived. I stayed for an hour watching him. Moments I felt he just has taken his last breath, but then again he inhaled. Shortly before I had to leave I woke him up. I did not want to leave without telling him, that I had been there. When he opened his eyes he obviously was returning from a place so very far away. He glared at me with the most loving and kindest look I have ever been looked at: "Ah, there you are Jochen".... as if saying "good, we both can go now". For a few moments he remained awake and then slipped back again into his deep sleep.
Where he went I could not follow with my mind, words could not reach him anymore. Neither could I share my emotions with him, nor could he feel the touch of my hands. However, suddenly it dawned on me - and that slowly grew and turned into the most life changing revelation I will ever have: Nick has not gone anywhere, he has not left nor passed away, has not fallen into a deep sleep, has not "died". I was witnessing not an event. Death I could not possibly see anymore as an occurrence in time and dying as something that happens to us. Nick could not possibly leave me, not for a moment and especially not forever. He has not gone to a place I cannot go to. It is me, who leaves him when I go back into mind and emotions and identify the body as the essence of being. I leave him, when I get pulled into my dramas, my thoughts, my feelings - when I lose my inner stillness. When I don't I am exactly there where Nick is.
Death is not something that can happen to us. Words cannot describe it. My emotions would merely prevent me to experience this. The need for physical closeness just evaporates with the stillness and love that remains when everything else goes.
Nick's promise to take me with him remained between us as an expression of his love, until it became a promise he intended to fully keep. We both saw how first our intense discussions disappeared, how our minds became less engaged and the words we produced less relevant, then our emotions were increasingly experienced as a distraction, then the body's fragility was accepted - until there was nothing left to hang on to. But instead of Nick becoming less and less, he became more and more. Instead of me feeling left behind I joined him in his stillness and peace.