Wednesday, 5 December 2007

Getting to sleep at night

It's a hell of a wet December day out there so no chance of interesting walks for the foreseeable. But never fear, I just had an email from Craig, a friend in Australia who reminded me of something I wrote a few weeks ago when he asked me how to deal with being wakeful on going to bed.

My first attempt to reply to him got a bit out of hand so I sent him a few quick ideas. However I persevered with the mind clearing exercise he set off in me and sent him the long answer some weeks later.

I've no idea if I answered his question but I got something off my chest and thank him for providing the impetus.

You get the long answer I'm afraid.

Hi Craig

It may surprise you but receiving an email such as yours excites me.
I’ll tell you why. It suggests that there is someone out there who might be responding to what life offers.

This may seem obscure to you but it is my understanding that life is always dropping hints to us. Not many people respond to them other than to bat them away or complain so I’d like to do what I can to encourage you to explore the clues offered. Hints about what you might ask?

Well it is also my understanding that we are here to make the most of ourselves and yet most of us don’t. We get stuck in the troubled and ignorant patterns of childhood and never manage to free ourselves.

That poses another question. What is freedom?

All this and I haven’t got anywhere near addressing your question about getting to sleep at night. That’s the nature of the challenge we have I’m afraid. Getting through all the apparent junk to the heart of the matter. And we all have it. So much so that we don’t even know it’s a problem.

It has never occurred to most people to consider that freedom might be something to aspire to or indeed that they aren’t free. So the first step is to entertain the idea that they might not be.

Not being able to switch off and go to sleep at night is a clear sign of being in the grip of something. It might be indigestion of course but I doubt it☺ Exploring what the real issue might be is the first step towards finding out what is controlling us. Do that with a little determination and a whole new view of life opens up. My whole approach to life is based on wanting to get to the truth of things.

So let’s start with the concept of freedom as I understand it so far.
It seems to me that freedom happens, if it happens at all, bit by bit. You turn a lifelong prisoner out of his habitual jail and he freaks out. Stay in a darkened room for a few hours and run into sunlight and you’re blinded. No, the best option is to be let out for brief trips into the dangerous world of freedom with some kind of easy guidebook. I’ve been assembling my own for years mostly through a process of trial and error.

The first step if you want to be free might well be to begin by examining the nature of the walls and bars surrounding you. At present the indications are that your prison walls emerge most clearly when you lie down at night and try to go to sleep. If you think about it, they appear to be made of thoughts, probably, if they are anything like mine, repeated and never ending. They may turn up as worries about things you feel can’t do much about while lying in bed or plans that grab your imagination. You try to stop them and they wriggle out of your control. I’m only imagining this of course. The experience for you may be different. That’s for you to know and explore.

Let’s leave that thought there for a minute and jump to another idea.

Where do thoughts come from? Somewhere in my mind, seems an obvious answer. But where is that mind? In my head? I wonder about that. But more on that later, perhaps.

Here I can only speak from my own experience of exploring this issue. For me thoughts appear as a narrative accompanying images or scenes. Does that ring true with you? So where do these images come from? What triggers them? I did a lot of wondering about that in my early adult life. When I was unable to stop thinking in my twenties I had a hell of a time getting to sleep and used to ponder a great deal.

There were two factors that I identified as important for me. One was that in my childhood my mother wasn’t very tactile. She never cuddled me to sleep, never read me bedtime stories (she was too busy with my older brothers, the ironing, the washing up etc.) I don’t ever recall having a kiss goodnight when I was tucked up in bed. She never used terms of endearment. I’m sure she loved me but it was never overtly expressed. They say you don’t miss what you don’t know but I know my own kids really enjoyed a story and a goodnight kiss and wouldn’t go to sleep without one. I think my childhood experience left me with emotional heart damage and numbness. I explored all this when I was in my twenties. I'm sure my stuff is totally different from your stuff but you can bet your life you have stuff to explore about your mum. We all do and will never be free until we face it.

The second factor was my dad’s expectations. He was a very reassuring chap to have around and made me feel safe but there were conditions, big conditions and they were never overtly mentioned. The main one was that I knew I had to do well at school. I never questioned this at the time. It seemed like common sense because I went to schools where that kind of hard studying attitude was assumed by all. But when I had achieved all my goals academically, good A levels, the best university, a good degree, after the euphoria, I was left with a total emptiness. I soon realised I’d more or less done it for my dad.

After being confused and without direction or ambition for a while I ended up in a terrible marriage that soon broke up and left me with a baby daughter that I had to leave with a mum I didn’t trust to bring her up. You see how life gets you in the nuts. I felt such an impotent failure and so depressed I could hardly get out of bed let alone get a proper job. I was so burdened it felt like the end.

So what has all this got to do with my dad you may be wondering? Well, one thing just leads to another in that fascinating way life has.

In desperation and needing somehow to support my kid and her mum, I ended up as a bus driver. You could say life drove me to it because it was certainly the last thing on my mind. The bus depot just happened to be less than a hundred yards from the little room I had rented when we split up. I turned up feeling pretty unemployable and wondering if I could get a job as a bus conductor. The guy behind the glass partition took one look at me and said, “You look the sort who’d make a good driver. Come back on Monday morning and we’ll try you out”.

He turned out to be a chap called Fred. Everyday angels like Fred seem to appear in my life from time to time. You may think I’m barmy but it seems to me there are times when we’re invited or directed to do things it would never occur to us to do normally. It was almost as if he’d been expecting me. I could give you further examples but it would take too long. Angels appear when most needed and least expected. People turn up in unlikely places with rather forthright messages and we do well to notice what they say.

At any rate a long stint as a bus driver turned out to be the greatest blessing I could have wished for. Bus drivers have to pay attention but they don’t have to think. It occupies some restless part of the brain and releases energy for other things that are on the mind. At last, after years of studying and striving to pass exams I was suddenly free of all that. I could earn a living in a simple thought free way.

Freedom I hear you say!! Yes it was freedom but freedom of the most circumscribed kind. I certainly never saw it as up to much to start with though, made to work odd hours on different shifts. Unable to do any regular sports. Given the plainest, old maid as a conductress when other blokes seemed to get the dolly birds. Grumble, grumble. But there was a sense of power in driving an old fashioned double-decker and it was so obviously a useful service to the community. It was novel and not unpleasant. An outdoor job in a cosy indoor environment. Oddly satisfying.

However, the real benefit was that I was given the chance to spend time on my own safely enclosed in a bus cab. Unwittingly I’d let life inveigle me into getting to know the content and workings of my mind. Very few people get this chance and no one tells us at school that it’s vitally important if you want to be free. Essential, it seems to me now. In my ignorance I was truly blessed.

Driving a bus became second nature after a few weeks. I enjoyed it. My mind, however, was a revelation. It became a tyrant and there was no escape. I just couldn’t stop the inner dialogue. It was a nightmare, an inescapable nightmare of semi-logical jabbering and argument, philosophising and self-justification, pontificating and imagining. But there was nowhere to hide so eventually I gave up the struggle to control it and went at it with a will. It took a while to make any sense of it because I felt so guilty about my daughter and such a failure.

When that subsided, I started writing thoughts down at the terminus or on breaks, even at traffic lights or when stuck in traffic. I filled several small spiral notebooks. It soon became an amazing adventure, full of discoveries and creation, poetry and memories. There was a darker side to it as well but more of that later.

First I want to mention one book I was reading. This was a book on Zen by D.T.Suzuki. The ideas in Zen fascinated me. They were all about no thing or nothing. What is the nature of reality? What is the mind? What happens when the mind is still? All very theoretical when my mind was whizzing about all over the place, with me feeling euphoric one moment, depressed the next. But it was important to add this new element of possibility. Zen Koans did seem to interrupt the thinking and leave gaps. The gaps were fleeting and soon flooded with thinking but they were there.

Gradually I became aware that a part of me was not completely caught up in this merry go round. That part was just observing. The still point at the centre of the Catherine wheel isn’t the bit that gets all the attention. It didn’t strike me as very important at the time because the rest of me was having fun feeling momentous or anguished and generally making such a din. I think this awareness of an observer was helped, though, by the fact that there was yet another part of me that was driving the bus. After a year the bus driver often did the job without the thinker even noticing him.

So the observer was just one more bit of me. It was just the bit that didn’t seem to do anything at all. It didn’t think, it just noticed. An odd discovery really for someone trained to think for England if not the world. How was it possible to exist without thinking? There’s a question that bears contemplating. Who’s there when the thinking stops? All very Zen. The answer vanishes the moment it appears. Like trying to grab at an eel.

It is often the case that we don’t notice something important in our minds because we are so caught up in old habits. Also the quiet bits tend to attract very little attention. It happens in life everywhere. We get drawn to where the action is, where the crowds are. A key lesson to learn is that the witness only gets caught up in the action when you think about it. It is free until you become conscious of it. Becoming aware of the witness is a massive step. So massive I still get shocked when I notice it and jump into thought.

The mere fact of identifying and describing the witness state tends to limit it and diminish it. It is so much more alive and immediate than thought. Whole philosophies are based on it. Here I just want to brush up against it in passing so to speak and then retreat to the safety of thought before I spoil it. But rest assured it’s there like some huge living presence. By comparison thoughts and even imaginings are pretty secondary.

I clearly remember how a kabbalah teacher I knew before my marriage collapsed used to start his meetings. He would ask us to sit there quietly and feel the presence. I had no idea what he was on about or how to feel such a bizarre thing and plenty of ideas rattling around my head to clutter up the silence. I'd come to hear words and argue the toss not sit about feeling presences. But there was something about the man that drew me back

Well, to return to the topic of thinking, as time passed I grew pretty used to the thoughts in my head and began to identify frequent visitors and sort them out. After a few months I could sort out the confusion and boot them all off into space within an hour or so of beginning my shift. This eventually became so easy that I only had to get in the cab and switch into driving mode for them to dissolve. Except for some core feelings that would go quiet but not go away.

These took centre stage when I finished work, went home and lay down on my bed to rest. Then the deep stuff would eat into me.

What I understood to be happening was that my driving was a bit like the Buddhist concept of sweeping the temple. It gave me a peaceful routine to get my head clear but once that stopped I was faced with deeper stuff. Which brings me again to the second element that was at play, my dad and his expectations.

In all this mental kerfuffle I hadn’t understood just how important my parents still were in my inner world. I was 26 for God’s sake and assumed I’d grown up and left home. I even lived 100 miles away and rarely saw them. I hadn’t lived at home since the age of 19. But while I drove there they were in my head the whole time, indeed, occupying large areas of it.

My mum wasn’t so much a problem as someone I felt sad for. I seemed to want her to love me but it always ended up with me comforting her. A part of me resented that but I couldn’t bear her a grudge because she’d so obviously done her best given the knowledge and upbringing she had. So I just noticed her there.

Slowly I became aware of the image of her that was triggering my thoughts and feelings of her. She was a baby crying for attention, crying her eyes out. I ended up holding her in my arms and singing songs to her. It made me feel better, more relaxed. I didn’t see my real mother during this time nor did I ever tell her any of this. I have no idea whether the nature of my thoughts affected her or not.

What I did gradually come to understand was that the parents we deal with inside our minds are not the people we see on show out there in the "real" world. They may be, to some extent, a product of our childhood suffering and imagining. More perceptively, they may be indicative of our subconscious awareness of their subconscious workings. Our adult discoveries about them may change our view of them and thereby change our reactions to them and theirs to us. All of this may be beneficial in improving peaceful communication but the point of it all is not to change them but to be free of their control.

When push comes to shove, though, not many people want to be totally free of their parents. They want to remain in the child state to some degree because the prospect of freedom is so frightening. Often, of course, they do this by creating a substitute parent out of their life partner. But that’s another very interesting can of worms I don’t want to open here. Suffice to say, it worth a look at some stage.

When exploring the mind it’s important to make this distinction between inner and outer because one is then free to allow feelings to arise that have been suppressed by society’s moral codes. One does not become free by applying moral rules to one’s feelings. In the inner world one has to be free to let the imagination loose. It is my experience that people who bear great resentment of their parents become free once they are allowed to imagine inflicting some very satisfying kind of punishment on them. Having empowered themselves by imagining bashing their brains out they can then see them much more clearly as damaged individuals rather than the tyrants they were when seen through the eyes of a frightened or needy child. Any trip down memory lane is of great value as long as we take our mature self with us and give people and events a new assessment with more mature eyes. It can help us let go of highly debilitating grievances.

Which brings me to my dad. In his quiet way he was a powerful chap for a little lad to grow up with. I used to hear him yelling at my older brothers when they didn’t get their music practice right. I took the hint and never showed any interest in playing a musical instrument. I also must have decided at a very young age that it was best to be a good boy and obey the rules. Only until such time as I could get away from home, of course, but childhood habits die hard.

It never occurred to me to picture him as I drove but he was there all right. I used to spend ages trying to justify myself to him. Trying to get him to approve of all the brilliant ideas I was having about the nature of the mind and the problems of the world. The man in my head never said a word but didn’t seem to accept my explanations however hard I tried.

He just never seemed to get the fact that someone with a Cambridge degree could be leading a useful and even important life as a bus driver. I rationalised and argued the toss with him until I was exhausted. Needless to say the man himself knew nothing of this as he worried about me in his workplace a hundred miles away. While I was at work the driving brought a kind of relaxing counterbalance to the vigorous but one-sided arguing but once I lay on my bed at home I just felt sick and desperate.

At certain times while driving and trying to explain things like the Zen concept of no mind to my dad I would make mental connections and discoveries that seemed positively earth shattering. He was the most challenging and fruitful stumbling block because he never said anything and was impossible to please. Perhaps this is how some people are driven to create whole systems of philosophy, simply to get some dominant parent off their backs. It was all very exciting and gave me a greater sense of self worth I’m sure, but this sense of euphoria collapsed the moment I lay on my bed. The foundations were non-existent. I’d let my dad down.

And this brings me back to a previous question. If thoughts are triggered by images, as I suspect they are, where do images arise? Well, I can only tell you what I experienced regarding my dad.

One afternoon, after work, I sank even more deeply into the depths of despair that awaited me every day. I could almost see it as a black tarry swamp somewhere in my solar plexus. This time instead of fighting to get out some fascination took over and I just sank down and looked into this black, black pit. Looking back now with the benefit of greater experience, I think what happened, and this is the true crux of the matter, was that I simply gave up trying to escape it. I surrendered and finally witnessed the sensation.

What then happened is an indication that there is more to witnessing than just doing nothing. At the time I didn’t understand this but witnessing is more than just looking. It causes something to shift and release the emotion locked up in what is seen. This is the crucial part for me. When we do nothing with full attention we become very powerful but in such a subtle way that we dismiss it as nothing at all. In reality we become life givers or creators of life. Pure attention or pure consciousness is the essence of life.

What happened was that it suddenly occurred to me to look up into my mind and see what was there. This occurring was in some way different from a usual thought. It was a sudden connection from my solar plexus to the front of my brain where the picture show is. There on the screen, right in the middle of my mind was my dad’s face. It was just looking at me with a stony, judgemental look. I knew it had always been there whether I’d noticed it or not. That was why I felt so desperate.

As always the face said nothing but just seeing it caused something to stir in the pit below. They were inextricably connected, the pit and the image. In my whole body there was like the roar of something waking up at last. A pair of hands, my hands rose out of the pit. Reaching up, they took hold of my dad’s head one hand on each side of his face and heaved it out of the way. Their power was irresistible.

Behind the face was a very pale disk of light.

At the time the significance of this was lost on me but I now regard it as one of the most important steps I took on the path to freedom. I shoved my dad out of the way. I had been arguing the toss with him because, as a child, I had unwittingly, though highly understandably, set him up on the throne as my judge. He was blocking my view and interfering with all my thoughts. Up until then, I could do nothing without reference to him for his approval.

From this it has become my understanding that as long as any person or any god image occupies the throne in my mind, I cannot be free. If I detect any person trying to set them selves up as my judge, I have to challenge them and push them aside. No one has the right to judge me.

Of course I still argued the toss with my dad for ages afterwards because you don’t kick a lifelong habit overnight, but now I knew what lay behind it and found myself laughing when it happened. Whenever I saw the judge appear, I took to swiping his head off with an imaginary samurai sword. I never told my dad anything about this because it wasn't about him but about what I'd made of him.

Gradually the chatter in my head diminished and I could think more clearly and concisely rather than rattling around on a treadmill. As far as I know none of this aggression did my dad the least harm and, as time went on his trust in me grew and my freedom to mess up my life as I saw fit was no longer subject to his interference. I had become a man. Dadadaaaaaaa!

As with all such revelations, I spent plenty of time reviewing this inner event and absorbing the message it contained. Even writing about it again now has given me further insight into its ramifications. I’m not a particularly quick learner or dedicated practitioner of meditation techniques. I just mull things over and pay attention as best I can.

So now I’m going to pause and read this lot through after a while and see if it makes sense. Then I’ll answer your question and you’ll know why I’m suggesting what I do. You can then decide whether it has any relevance to your life and if not work out your own solution and approach. That way I won’t feel like a bully.

Back in a bit….

And there the letter ends just as breaks begin to appear in the clouds outside. I'll take the hint and try to deliver some Christmas cards and parcels that have been wrongly addressed. Life goes on....

Tuesday, 4 December 2007

Something a little different from 25 years ago

On a dank December night I thought I'd warm myself up by looking again at stuff I wrote back in the early eighties while working thousands of miles away from my family in the Saudi port of Yanbu . Hot sunshine, dust, warm nights, scruffy surroundings and Arab culture. Glorious empty beaches. I thought I'd change the colour of the text to match the sky.

On the road from Jeddah to Yanbu

Police car flashing ahead
Guarding a dead
Body lying across the middle
Of the village street
Covered in a white sheet
Except for one bare foot

Around the ankle a cut
Red but no blood coming out
The heel of the foot looks cracked and old

Under such burning sun
How can the body grow cold?

A few robed figures look on
No sound of rage or lamentation

I ease by
Then accelerate to full speed
Remembering mostly
The whiteness of the shroud
Holding the stillness
Of the brown foot on the ground

My first evening in Yanbu al Bahar

In downtown Yanbu
We sat in the square
Drinking coke from the bottle
On rickety chairs

We sat in the square
With rubbish all around
Rubble and reinforcing rods
Mangled on the ground
The reek of the hookah pipes
Fouling the air
Reducing the smokers
To a vacant stare

Downtown Yanbu was
Where it's all at

You bent down and greeted
An elegant stray cat

As wild eyed waiters
In Yemeni skirts
Plied the tables
And trampled the dirt
Yelling out orders
In raucous voice

I would think I was crazy
If I had a choice
To be facing such squalor
In the balmy night air

Only the well paid
Stay in Yanbu Sur Mer


First sunlight shatters gold across the sky
Warm mists enfold the crumples
Of giant Radwan's fists
Rough knuckles rapping softly on the town
Tall at our backs he stands
Black glacier in a lake of sand
A crenellated block blown from a sea
Whose silver treasures scintillate the eye
Conceal the teeth that tear intruders down


How cool this air of autumn seems
Compared to molten summer
The breezes balmy now
That stifled breath and violated skin
No longer haste to shrink back into shade
Closed doors and windows, dead conditioned state

Now we can live, now
Gentle loitering hours
Hold charm in this neap season
Restful sleep with windows wide at night
Release for those
Imprisoned by the heat

All alone in the shallows at the Creek

Turning in shallow waters
Not watching, not waiting
Weightless undulating

An end is beginning

Now, unthinking
The sea bird calls

Sun's hand deepening
Under skin

Wonder full mind
Smoothed through sleep

From here
A hundred thousand miles
In only a moment's
Reflection of light
The shore extends

I am the water, the waves, the wind
Intoning a music
No other voice can sing

Local life

Closed shuffling world
Shuttered houses
Keep out the light

Black shapes
Furtive eyes
Keep out of sight

I am the lord and master
Of this house
Pride puffs me up
Like a rotting cat
Inside the maggots
Ignorance and fear
Gorge in darkness

My wife, a simple soul
A slave
Accepts all that
Ashamed to show
Her honest face
In the back
Of my brand new
Air conditioned


There's nothing beautiful in Yanbu al Bahar
That I can tell
Except for the neat horizon of the sea
Between there and me
A jumble of half finished buildings and rubble strewn gaps
A jaggle of concrete and reinforcing rods
Rooftops bristling with uneven crew-cuts
Finished blocks with no windows in
Gardens of dirt

Today is Friday and a sparrow chirps above my balcony
An evening breeze strolls over the scruffy city
Lifting a lazy polythene bag or two
Effortlessly to the skies

Away they sail like liberated souls
Till suddenly over the tarmaced acres of the port
They die, never to reach the sea
Except, with luck, on all fours crawling
At last gasp
Like all the other bits of plastic and paper
And even the odd tin can, blessed with a fortuitous throw and unhindered roll
They drop
Down into the living coral brine

In Yanbu al Bahar the magic of evening time
Billows warm breezes through open doors
Onto sunstained skin
From pale and naked skies
Ruffling the only trees
Huddled in protective frames
At intervals between the cars
Watered once a week, if they don't forget
By two men and the water truck

With luck they may survive a year or two
And then become the victims of some accident
Between a Chevy and a Datsun pick up truck
The trees, I mean
Or perhaps not

Thinking of home

In a room completely mine
Eyes curve
Cascading on the sudden fountain leaves
Of spider plants so full with months of care
Soft breaths slip by the sunlit dreams of home

A lovely woman with our children there
And memories of here today
Alone beside a clear blue pool
Tired limbs remember swimming
And relax

Around these shades of mind a peace enfolds
Like fine net curtains swelling
In the summer evening breeze
About the vase and ornamental boxes on a writing desk

The air subsides
And curtains fall to rest
And through the veil a world
With all that happens there
Alive, unchangeable by me
Spectator, child and yet creator
At the dawn of our long dream

Down deep in time original
I grow with love and pride
And knowledge of the right
Attending like a servant
Near the crucible of light


Who will remember
Yanbu al Bahar
When I have left
And the dream is ended?

Can a dead Mercedes
Or a rusting air conditioner
Lolling in the dirt?

The people will all be gone
Back to Manila, Sri Lanka, Houston or London

The few who remain
Will load up their air conditioned world
Into a truck
And mindlessly move on

How long will it take
For eternity to return
To Yanbu al Bahar?

Flight Home

Dawn's distant lullabies
Soften the dark
And gradually night
Floats down to sleep the day

Under the paling black
Somewhere the sun seeks
The perfect spot in time
To crack the ragged blur
Of sea and sky

I watch

Dull glowing deltas
Seep across
And finally a red blob pops
Much smaller than I'd wanted
Just a spot
Not much to worship
For a waiting heart
Not much at all....

The roundness fills
A clear edged dome of fire
But still just red

The sun all right
But somehow not yet quite....

And breakfast comes at thirty thousand feet
A plastic box of croissant, jam and cheese
Not bad.... I'm hungry and it's good to eat

The window to my right flares up
A blast of yellow to the limit of my sight
Then incandescent white around a pulsing core
The universal might
Perpetual exploding of a nuclear device
Onto the infinite trillion particles
In our molecule of night

The crowning light

A visit to the post office

The other day I received an email from someone who, having read something I had written, assumed that I was a committed spiritual seeker. Something in that assumption jarred. The description didn’t sound right to me. Over the years I’ve known a few people who called themselves spiritual seekers and never felt that I belonged among their number.

What is it about the word spiritual that makes me so uneasy? The ways some of those people led their lives, stuck in dead or barren marriages, stumbling from one failed relationship to the next or living a troubled and angry existence while proclaiming their spirituality has made me think that the word either has no real meaning or is deeply misunderstood.

What on earth is spirituality?

For some of us it seems to mean doing one’s best to be kind to others and look on the bright side however miserable one may feel on the inside. This well-meaning approach is fine but if it doesn’t come from the heart it can so easily lead to all kinds of unnecessary soldiering on, self-sacrifice, suppressed rage and dishonesty. I don’t find it sits well with the term spiritual.

Indeed I sometimes find well-meaning people presumptuous and annoying. They have a tendency to know what’s best for others and occupy a superior position that brings out in me a strong urge to shock them with gratuitous vulgarity. Underlying this is, I’m sure, a longing to thump them. Not a very spiritual approach I agree but an honest one.

Is it a matter of seeking God, whatever that may mean given one’s upbringing? It is quite possible to try to do this in the most dysfunctional and fruitless ways that act as a substitute for or avoidance of addressing the personal issues that daily stare us all in the face. I’m thinking here of the many gurus and pundits on the new age circuit who get up to all kinds of mischief while spreading the good word. I’m sure you know plenty of examples yourself. Child molesting, sexual predation, cupidity, wife beating are the most obvious signs of a lack of integrity. Lesser signs are an inability to make loving parents or genuinely kind friendships.

Once again, my sense of outrage at all this may not be deemed very spiritual but it gets the poison out of my system.

Spirituality is usually very uncomfortable around or totally obsessed with sexuality. One outcome is that unresolved issues to do with childhood abuse, guilt and shame are avoided by seeking to equate spirituality with purity of thought and deed. This purity represents a total denial of the fundamental animal part of our nature and as such is doomed to failure. It has to end up in hypocrisy and condemnation of others who don’t have the same issues.

Alternatively, some kind of spiritual sex is practised with many partners with a view to reaching enlightenment while having an ostensibly guilt-free good time. How often does this end in disappointment, disillusionment and tears?

My response to all of this is to reserve the right to enjoy a woman’s body as a thing of great beauty. Breasts and bums appeal to my man’s eye. This doesn’t mean that I need to do anything about them other than admire and show appreciation where it won’t be felt as unsettling. Is that unspiritual? I don’t know and care very little what others may think about it.

The list of things that might be considered spiritual but aren’t could go on and on. In some ways it might be possible to reach a definition of spirituality by stripping away all that’s misguided and bogus. I’d rather cut to the chase and suggest another way.

This morning I went to the post office to see if there were any forms for Sarah to fill in so as to change the address details in her car registration document. I did it in the spare hour I had before catching the train back to London.

When I got there I found no forms on display except for those selling products like holiday insurance. I was disgruntled and only marginally courteous to the lady on the sales desk. She told me they were kept behind the counters and the queue for them was long. She pointed me to a chap whose job was to help the confused. Regarding myself as one such, I stood next to an old lady who was also in that category.

While we waited for the man to finish dealing with another lady wanting information about setting up some savings account, we somehow got chatting. I wasn’t in the best of tempers after the fruitless search for a form and let the old lady know this. Disgruntled of Mortlake. I was only there to pick up a form. She immediately offered to let me go in front of her because she was there to ask for help getting some passport photos for her new bus pass. It might take him some time to deal with her.

What a kind gesture. That warmed my heart and as a result I immediately lost my disgruntlement and offered to help her with the photo machine as soon as I’d got the form.

She was clearly relieved to hear that and, as we chatted, I discovered that she was almost blind in one eye and that the sight in the other was poor. It had been made worse by the worry she’d had in recent days when there’d been a couple of break-ins at the flats where she lived. Very worrying I’m sure for someone who was getting on and living on her own.

She was a dear soul, a tiny lady with a pale worn face and watery eyes but kind and generous of spirit. She told me the free bus passes would soon be valid all over the country and that pleased me. I said I had one too and how great they were for getting around London. She had family in Bristol and Plymouth and often went there to see her grandchildren. I dared to ask her age. Eighty next birthday, she told me with a proud smile.

Our turn came to talk to the man and I quickly found out Sarah didn’t need a form at all but just had to fill in her new details on the form she already had and send it off. I then said I’d offered to help the lady with her photos and he responded warmly to my offer but told us the machine was out of order. It kept rejecting money and people kept coming upstairs for a refund. It wasn’t the post offices machine so they felt put out by having to help run what should have been an automatic operation.

But my kind offer had given me some power in the matter so I explained that she’d already been to another shop but there’d been a long queue there and in view of her age and disability it would be nice if he could let me have a go to get the machine working.

This awakened his kind heart too and we set off down the stairs to the machine. I complimented the lady on her strong legs as she trotted nimbly downstairs. Once there the man switched the machine on and as we waited for the computer to warm up I told him it was okay to leave me there to help her. He asked me to switch the machine off again after we’d finished.

So we got it sorted out, adjusted the seat height to the sound of her frequent expressions of gratitude. These did my heart no harm at all. What a nice lady! I found the slot and put the money in. All the instructions came up on a screen and a voice told us what to do too but it was very high tech and obviously intimidating for many older people.

I began to understand why they’d had so many requests for refunds. Old people simply got confused by it and needed help from friends. Also a new pass was coming out soon and there must have been a stream of old people turning up for a photo the previous Saturday causing all kinds of confusion. So they’d simply turned the machine off and put an out of order sign on it. Indeed while we were pottering away several people came up and told us it said out of order. I briefly explained the problem and they went off except for another very wrinkled old lady in the same situation as the first one.

She stood by and watched while we got the job done and my first old lady retrieved her photos from the slot and went on her way expressing even more gratitude.

It seemed only fair to help the second lady as she’d been so patient and was obviously baffled by all the various steps involved. It only took a few more minutes to sort her out and she was so grateful she wanted to give me some money. Laughingly I refused saying that it was kindness that made the world go round and I had plenty of time before my train went. She too went off full of gratitude into the big wide world. Who knows how many people benefited from that gratitude as the day proceeded? That’s how to make the world a better place without any effort at all and I don’t give myself enough opportunity to do my share.

By this time there was a third lady. She was slightly less old and soon got the idea of what to do. When she expressed dissatisfaction with the way she looked on her first try and opted for another go and started fiddling about with her hair I realised this was a rather different customer. We laughed and I said cheekily that she was a vain one and left her to it.

It just remained for me to nip back upstairs and explain to the man in charge that it was the people not the machine that were going wrong and he popped back down and turned it off again.

So what’s the point of this tale and why did it come to mind when I was trying to get to grips with spirituality. Well, as must be obvious, it was all about kindness and gratitude. It was the old lady’s initial offer to let me go in front of her that set me free from my grumpiness and allowed me to enjoy being kind to her. It was a joy to be helpful in this small way. There was nothing grand about it, no religious fervour or conscious decision to go out and help someone. It just happened in the moment as one kindness led to another.

All I did was initiate a conversation, be honest about my needs and respond to the needs of the person I was chatting to. It was no big deal and I was no big hero. Just a fairly relaxed person being aware of what was going on around him and naturally kind when he felt moved to help.

As far as I’m concerned at my stage in life, you can keep all your spiritual seeking and high-sounding intentions. Life is at its most real and enjoyable in the little situations that arise when human beings meet and respond to one another with spontaneity, kindness and care.

After this little episode my heart was singing with pleasure and satisfaction. No need for long retreats and hours of meditation or even self-flagellation, just a little kindness and no sacrifice at all. It does the heart good and when the heart is good all else flows with great ease. If you want to call that leading a spiritual life then I’m happy to agree.

I wrote this on the train home and the three-and-a-half hour journey passed in no time at all.

Monday, 3 December 2007

A walk from Mortlake to Hammersmith

There is a part of me here that wants to communicate with you. I’m speaking to you at the moment but that isn’t the part of me that wants to communicate. I can chat on at length but it still won’t get a word in. Indeed the more I rabbit on the less it may be inclined to communicate. It will just lose heart and go back into the recesses of who I am. Somehow I need to shut up and still hold your attention. That’s the challenge.

In the past I’ve tried to explain to people what that part of me would say. It works only imperfectly. Words seem to connect us but in practice they block any direct communication. The need to interpret their meaning creates a barrier because they arouse different images and ideas depending upon background and education. They can only go so far in painting a picture that hints at this reticent part.

It is so reticent indeed that I had no idea it was there until a few years ago and even when it revealed itself I couldn’t understand the full implications of what it signified. I’m not sure that I can even now.

Instead of worrying about it I’ll tell you a story if I may.

In essence it concerns my heart.

Yesterday I walked along the Thames from Mortlake into Hammersmith in order to meet up with my daughter for lunch at her workplace. At first I was pretty half hearted about the walking bit. The route lay along the tree-lined banks but it wasn’t a particularly nice day – a bit dull and dank, autumn winding inexorably down to the shortest day. It was muddy under foot too, and sticky with sodden leaves totally devoid of the colours they’d worn brightly for so long this year.

The river was hardly the mighty Father Thames of world renown either. More like his starving nephew. The tide was so far out it looked a fairly trivial stream with its grubby, muddy beaches stretching far out from the banks.

And then I noticed a bird singing. Probably a robin I thought. Before now on sunnier days I’d been brought to a halt by that most exquisite singing only to have to hunt about for ages with my eyes before locating the neat little source of the sound. This time I accepted that it was a robin and walked on without stopping. But there it was. I’d noticed.

Part of me was still mulling over the events of the past few days - unmistakeable signs that I was waking up from the enforced distraction and worry of serious illness. Hints that I might be able soon to let that silent part out into better view.

I walked along the roadside approaching Barnes and then cut back onto the muddy path. I was getting warmer so I took my woolly hat off. Into my stride more, I was beginning to enjoy myself. Soon I had my jacket undone.

Most of the trees were bare by now and not particularly alive but there were still a few, mostly saplings, holding on to an array of big, pale yellow hands. A common tree I’m sure but not one I know the name of. Every so often there was a movement and a leaf dislodged itself. Usually there was a squirrel nearby busily sorting things out. Not too shy of me but wary and alert.

African grey parrots are indigenous round these parts nowadays but there’s still a delight in seeing a gang go squawking by. They made me smile to myself. African parrots at home by the Thames. What nonsense that was. But they didn’t mind my gentle scorn – far too busy screeching about for that.

Herons too, every few hundred yards and obviously good hunting for them at low tide - plenty of ideal places in the shallows to ply their trade. I didn’t pay much attention to the first few but then a pair caught my eye, standing a dozen or so yards apart. The male, presumably, with a long neat, pencil of a crest stretching down the nape of his neck. Handsome birds these, unlike the scruffy scrounger who begs food from humans on the lawns by Richmond Bridge. He often slumps on a moored boat like an old bag on a hook. No pride.

But, these were a different kettle of fisher-folk, the real thing, sleek, elegant, brimming with life in their gathered stillness. I watched, as still as they, wondering if I’d see a kill. At intervals, the female would very gradually extend her neck towards the mill pond surface. I could sense the small fish cruising in and just out of snatching reach. She extended and then raised her head to the rhythm of the fish. I felt my attention swaying with her.

But this time it was not to be.

As I continued on my way I wondered how I’d have felt at the sight of a kill. Elation probably. And the fish. I nearly said poor fish but stopped myself. Ridiculous sentimentality. Remove that and I felt the moment of shock. Death and silence.
The heart leaps one moment sinks the next. It’s coming alive.

Next on the way, one particular squirrel caught my eye, sitting looking out across the school playing fields. He held me in his right eye but didn’t move. Grey squirrel, how we seek to demean them with that name and blame them for removing our beloved reds. More sentimentality. This chap was up on his hind legs looking lovely with his feathery brown cheeks and hands up at the ready. Tail curled over behind. How could I describe the feeling of that sight? It arrested my attention. Don’t remember using that term before. But it was the one. Arreter in French, to stop. That squirrel stopped my heart with its beauty, shocked it into life As, I soon realised, did the herons, the leaves, and eventually even the muddy path.

On past St Paul’s boat house, a huddle of kids behind the shed in the trees having a sly fag. My dad went to St Paul’s in the mid twenties, presumably before it moved out of the city. Somehow that made me proud. He was a clever chap my dad, a scholarship boy. Not one to make a fuss but he had something about him. My eyes filled with tears. I loved my dad even though it was impossible for such words to be used between us, not with his upbringing or, indeed, mine. Just saying it to myself by the river made me feel richer.

I wanted to say it again. I loved my dad. Typing it now makes me cry. The power of saying those words! What a barricaded heart I must have developed as a child. No longer so locked away now. Those words unlock my heart. My heart says them.

I reached Hammersmith Bridge and cleaned the mud off my shoes on some fresh grass. Walking across the bridge behind a lady in a leather coat. Humans go about their business showing the scars of their upbringing but they walk on all the same often with heads held high despite their chains. My heart hurt as I contemplated that leather clad back and then tears came again. So many unsung heroes. So many songless hearts.

I remembered hearing a pop song of a few years ago on the radio that morning. Love is in the air. I had begun to dance about the flat to the jaunty rhythm. My hips were freer than of late, my back less stiff. On the mend. I wanted that song played at my funeral.

I caught the bus along to Earl’s Court exhibition hall and then met up with Anna outside her offices. We went off to the nearby Tescos to buy some soup for lunch. As we looked for the right aisle we bumped into a baby being pushed in a pram type pushchair. No ordinary baby this one. It was facing towards us standing up, holding the hood and peering eagerly over the back of the seat. Such a bright soul. We smiled at both mother and child and cooed our pleasure.

After spending a few minutes deciding which bunch of flowers to buy for Anna’s colleague who was getting the keys to her new house on Friday, we found the soup and set off in search of rolls. Suddenly there she was again, beaming up from her pushchair. I had to stop this time. “Aren’t you lovely?” I had no idea if it was a girl or boy. Her mum said she was a girl but hadn’t got any hair yet. She told me her name but it was an eastern European variant of one of ours and I forgot it almost immediately. How old? Ten months. Can she walk yet? No but she can stand. I beamed at her again. What a joy to behold!
She beamed back, her tiny teeth shining in her smile. “You are so gorgeous.” I had to say it again. She said it all with her smile. As yet no words to disturb her.

We found the bread and went back to have a happy lunch with some of Anna’s lovely colleagues. I was so full of beans and probably talked too much but they didn’t seem to mind. We had a great time.

On the bus home I relived the moments of my walk and then suddenly remembered that baby. Squirrels and herons are one thing but another person however small is so much more than that. She had more than arrested me, she’d set me free as well, free to adore her without any fear or shame. My heart filled brim full.

So what was I trying to say by recounting this tale? I still can’t quite put my finger on it but my eyes are filling with tears as I write. My heart is brimming over.

Tuesday, 27 November 2007

The Ongoing Cancer Story

What follows is the story up to a few weeks ago. It covers three years so is a bit long. It clears the decks though. I may add reports from time to time as things change.

I've decided to post it because it may be of use to people with or involved with the disease. It may also give people a chance to advise me of anything useful I need to check out. Posting this information was not the impetus for my deciding to have a go at blogging. Cancer isn't the main focus of my life. It was for a while when I was dying and there appeared no escape but that no longer seems to be the case. Death or rather fear of death certainly limits one's horizons dramatically and cancer or conquering cancer seems to obsess many sufferers. I'm not the obsessive type when it comes to health. This story isn't about dealing with death. I was dying but death itself is a vastly different matter. No doubt I'll come to that later but you won't read about it here! But I could be wrong on that too!

I suspect that most of my posts on this blog will turn out to be on matters concerned with life and living it more fully and with greater clarity and integrity. The meaning of life has to do with the heart and honouring the truth of it. This can sometimes be a bit of a challenge for me but it's that kind of thing that really interests me.

But cancer cropped up in a very timely fashion for me to examine and I had no choice but to give it my full attention. That's usually how life works me out. I wander ignorantly along in a hopeful dream and then life catches my attention with more important things.

Here's a rough idea of what happened as far as I can tell.


"Mr Gilson, I’m afraid the results of the biopsy are positive."

Mr Crundwell was a nice enough man, a urologist by trade. He was the second doctor to stick a finger up my bum and have a feel around. The first had been the female locum GP who’d sent me for a blood test. Having your prostate felt doesn’t hurt. It doesn’t do anything as long as you don’t feel embarrassed and that’s one thing I don’t often suffer from.

Doctors don’t like to use the word cancer. They must know from experience they might as well be putting on the black cap and passing the death sentence. I bet some poor old chaps fall down in a faint. My heart sank but I caught it before all the blood drained away.

After seeing him a few weeks before to get the results of the blood test for prostate specific antigens I’d been forewarned and had a couple of weeks to call one or two people and develop a plan of action if the biopsy turned out to be bad news. A normal PSA level in older men is under 3. My PSA was 26.9. I got no direct response when I asked how high it can go. Everyone is different. PSAs vary. It might not be cancer but it didn’t look good. A biopsy would remove all doubt.

So here we are. No doubt now.
How serious is it? 5+4 on the Gleason scale. Almost as high as it gets. Not that the Gleason scale meant anything to me. A poorly differentiated mass of cells rather than a lump you can chop out. Advanced prostate cancer. The aggressive sort that spreads to the bones. Bang! My status on the planet had changed. Only a very temporary resident now with a visa for a two or three year stay at the most.

I was still unfamiliar with any of the jargon and in no fit state to think or take much in. But I knew I was buggered. Stopped in my immortal tracks. Shit, shit, shit.

All I could think was I was damned if I’d let him condemn me to death. He must have had very few like me who wouldn’t play the game but he didn’t show it. He’d seen them come and seen them die. Sooner or later after all the operations and drugs they’d give up the ghost. What a shit job his was. In his experience, based on no research whatsoever I’m sure, alternative approaches didn’t work. He knew of no cure, had nothing to offer in the way of advice on alternative treatment or change of diet, only hormone drugs that worked for a while and then lost effectiveness, operations and radiation, Macmillan nurses and prostate cancer support groups. The thought appalled me.

His advice was that I should have a bone scan to see if it had metastasised (another word I came to know well) and start taking some synthetic chemical to cut the production of testosterone and switch my prostate off. Chemical castration. Depending on the results of the bone scan they might then remove the prostate. That could result in impotence and incontinence with no guarantee that the cancer wouldn’t return. He didn't say all that at the time but a few searches on the internet had soon opened my eyes.

I was polite but said I’d think about it. I said I wanted to try an alternative approach using nutrients. Friends had given me lots of information about changing my diet and the name of a vet who’d developed a cancer treatment that worked for dogs. He smiled knowingly. Not condescendingly, just wanly. In his experience alternative methods didn’t work. But it was my body and my choice. He’d do what he could to help but didn’t recommend my approach in any way.

Another thing I’d picked up was that xrays and bone scans with their radioactive element compromise the weakened immune system even more and encourage the growth and spread of cancer cells. Even the biopsy had been much worse than I’d thought. A tube up my bum and then a needle fired into my prostate eight times. Each one hurt more than the last. How did my sick prostate deserve that?

I asked if I could have an MRI scan instead of a bone scan. He agreed and so I said goodbye and tottered out into the waiting area, walked past the other poor old sods caught up in this death processing plant, out into the long corridor with wards off to left and right, past the odd ghostly looking patient being wheeled about with tubes dripping stuff into their arms. A huge, modern, industrial complex dealing in sickness, radiation, knives and drugs. Dehumanising. Depressing. Depressing. Out of the automatic doors, past the scattering of people, relatives, patients, who could tell, hanging around the bus shelter having a fag. Somehow I had to get to the bottom of this one and this time doing nothing didn’t seem to be an option.

First problem was telling children and friends. The thing you don’t understand till you’re faced with it is that the one with cancer is at the hub of a whole network of those suffering with it despite not actually having it. My kids, my friends, work colleagues. I’m not the sort to keep things secret but explaining isn’t easy especially when you’ve decided to avoid the medical route. Courage or foolhardiness. They want you to take the safe option. But the safe option seemed dangerous and ultimately terminal to me. I couldn’t face living under a death sentence. I had to find a way to cure the cancer. I knew my kids wanted me to stay alive. I was only 60 and far too young for them to let me go. So I had to be positive for all of us and with no special reason why.

The MRI showed an enlarged lymph node in my groin as well as the enlarged prostate but not much else. Part of me didn’t want to be told it had spread to my bones so I rejected the bone scan. I also decided to stay off the chemical castration for as long as possible and explore all the natural options first.

So I went to see the vet, an extraordinarily caring and somewhat eccentric man, and started taking his stuff and following his recommendations on diet. I cut out meat and sugar and ate only organically grown food. This made catering when away working in London a bit difficult but I stuck at it. I also took all the things the alternative people recommend for a healthy prostate, cooked tomatoes, vitamin C by the teaspoonful, vitamin D3, lots of carrot and apple juice, selenium, too much stuff to list here quite frankly. The idea of it all still depresses me.

Having read somewhere that the mercury in tooth fillings can seep into the body and cause damage at the cellular level, I decided to have all my fillings changed for white ones. We are constantly given reassurances that the mercury in fillings is safe but I simply don’t trust the authorities in such matters. The consequences of admitting there is a problem would be so great that the health service couldn’t cope with it. They probably take the view that the poison doesn’t take effect until old age and then who cares. Well that’s their affair. I had over a dozen amalgam fillings and got rid of the lot.

For a while nothing happened. I lost weight but had been a couple of stone overweight before so didn’t mind that. I also consulted a homeopath and took all kinds of potions. I’ve no idea if they were any help but she was a positive lady who shared my view of the dangers of mainstream cancer medicine. Having people who fully supported my approach felt very important. On her recommendation I ordered pots and sachets of herbs from India to be taken every morning. I have no idea what they do but am still taking some of them.

My PSA ticked up gently to about 45 after 4 months. Still no idea how high PSAs could go. On my next visit to the consultant he expressed surprise that it had remained so low. This was encouraging. Something was working somewhere.

As well as homeopathy, very early on I spoke to a chap on the phone who did some kind of distant healing. He tuned in to me and told me an interesting tale. Apparently in a past life I’d been a respectable merchant in Ghent who had sexually abused his three daughters and never owned up to it. My prostate trouble was a residue of the shame he’d taken to his grave. It’s easy to laugh at this kind of thing and tell me I was clutching at straws but my motivation was slightly more mature than that. I didn't want to rule anything out however whacky it might seem to my western educated mind. I was also pleased that the three daughters I have this time around have escaped being victims of my sexual advances.

However, he also told me before my biopsy that I didn’t have cancer but merely precancerous cells. When the result of the biopsy came through I had a friendly and entertaining chat with him. His other worldly sources ended up by saying the whole point of the problem was to give me a chance to explore and sort things out for myself. It sounded a bit convenient and unlikely to me but I don’t dismiss it out of hand. After all what would I have learned or changed in my behaviour and diet if the problem had been fixed by some kind of miracle.

I was reminded of the story told about Dr Usui, the founder of the Reiki school of healing. After he’d sat fasting on top of the mountain for ages he got hit in the head by some balls of light and passed out. When he came round and tottered down the mountain he found that he had amazing healing powers. Naturally enough he went off looking for sick people to heal and worked all manner of miracles. After a while, however, he found that the people he’d healed were returning with the same or similar afflictions. He then understood that the greater need was to teach people the causes of disease and how their behaviour needed to change.

So I was being asked to get to the root of the problem and change my ways. That seemed a very reasonable suggestion to me and that was how I approached my exploration of cancer.

I’ve always been given to getting to the truth of things in life and always felt rather at a loss to know how to go about it. One thing I did come to know was that I was ignorant about most things. Education can fool us into thinking we know something by fostering the illusion that information is king. I fell into that trap for a few years in my twenties until life, by way of a failed marriage, taught me a major lesson. I learned how emotionally ignorant I was and also how much more there is to know than I had the power to see.

Since then I have tended to be more open to apparently strange people with inexplicable gifts. I remain open minded and willing to give them a go. Many of them are deeply flawed in some ways but their gifts have often grown out of the problem caused by the flaw and I needed to suspend judgement a little.

I’ve no idea if the man’s efforts to clear the old damage did me any good but I allowed for the possibility and am grateful to him.

From time to time during that first summer post diagnosis I developed aches and pains in my back, ribs and on the tops of my hipbones. They passed in a few days so I just got on with life. In scanning the internet I heard about different natural medications to try out. There was a magic powder from South America called Graviola. It tasted so disgusting I gave up taking it after a few weeks. Whatever prostate supplement I tried my PSA never came down.

I began to look gaunt and pallid. Even before I had the first blood test my daughter Anna had remarked that I looked a funny colour and that my hands appeared to be shaking. I wasn’t aware of the shaking and dismissed the colour thing. She it was who finally made me go to the doctor’s in the first place to find out why I needed to pee two or three times in the night.

For those at risk of suffering the same experience as me I should say that changes in peeing are important. The first was when I started to do an extra dribble in my pants after peeing. I’m sure there’s some excellent medical term for it but I’ve never learned it. I’d been experiencing that for a few years before I was diagnosed. I’d even mentioned that and peeing twice in the night to another locum GP I saw a year before the first PSA test. She hadn’t mentioned let alone suggested a PSA test (about which I knew nothing by the way, such was my ignorance) or any possible risk of cancer. She just said these things happened as men get older.

With my current knowledge I would say this was nothing short of negligence on her part. On the other hand though, if I’d been diagnosed a year earlier I may have been bullied into having my prostate removed “to solve the problem”. Given my present situation I would have regretted that and probably not have taken any action to sort out the underlying causes of cancer. As a result it may well have returned somewhere else in a more serious form. But more thoughts on that later.

Peeing gradually began to loom large in my life. If I needed a pee I had to have one urgently or I not only dribbled in my pants but wet them. I soon got to know where every public lavatory was in Exeter and would plan my trips with access to them in mind. Once when out with daughter Anna I had to pee behind a bush very near the town centre. She was lovely about it and expressed nothing but kindness. It was like slowly returning to infancy.

When I did pee the flow was poor as if the tube was getting blocked. Indeed this was the case. My prostate was swelling and tightening its grip on my urethra. The deterioration was gradual but more and more noticeable. I would lie in bed at night trying to understand what was happening to me. I felt unable to do anything to stop the process of deterioration.

There are plenty of self-help cancer books from survivors. I was given some and read a few pages. Generally they all agreed on the importance of changing one’s diet and cutting out meat, salt and processed food, especially sugar. The rest was all about positive thinking and fighting the disease. This warlike approach never took my fancy. I could never see the cancer or my prostate as the enemy. I didn’t want to fight cancer. The language of war and battle seemed wrong to me. No! There’s too much attacking and blaming in the world we’ve created for ourselves. What good would it do to blame my prostate or my diet or even fate for that matter?

My deepest desire was, as always in my life when faced with trouble, to find out the cause, to get to the bottom of it, to be honest about what that meant for me and to learn and change. Surely that’s one of our main tasks in life. It seemed to me that my body was trying to tell me that something needed changing and it was up to me to find the answer. As I told any doctor I came across, I regarded my cancerous prostate as a messenger not an enemy. I needed to decipher the message not destroy the messenger.

Part of the thinking behind this came from the fact that many people who had their prostate removed went on to get cancer somewhere else after a few years. Doctors seemed to be able to remove cancers or kill them off but never sought to cure the tendency some people had to produce them. I’d also read somewhere that American doctors who got prostate cancer rarely underwent the treatments they recommended. A telling fact if ever there was one.

The modern school of thought is that our intention is the root of our experience. Had I somehow invited this cancer in? After much pondering I remembered some thoughts I’d had in the autumn before I was diagnosed. I had experienced a sense of lacking purpose in life one evening, something not entirely unusual for me. I was 60 and on my own though I had been living with a close friend for a couple of years. My children were grown up and no longer needed my financial support.

As someone who’d tried to record anything that I’d discovered in life that might be of value to others in their explorations, I now felt I’d written everything down that had been on my mind and there seemed to be nothing left for me to do.

In my head it occurred to me to offer my life up to the next step, whatever that might be. I couldn’t imagine it because I had no idea what to imagine. I was ready to step into the unknown. I actually said “I’m ready whatever it might be.” Sure enough, two months later I was given cancer to work with. So you could say it was the answer to my prayer. People think I’m barmy when I say this, but I’m grateful for the message and never felt angry or cheated by it. Here was the next thing to get my teeth into. It might kill me but at least I’d do my best to get to the bottom of it and also do my best to show that it wasn’t the death sentence doctors want us to believe.

In the meantime though things kept getting worse. Nothing I tried seemed to have any useful effect in stopping let alone reversing the rise in my PSA level. Listing all the products that didn’t work for me might be useful but I can’t bear the thought of doing it. There are some people who seem to revel in keeping diaries of the progress of their disease and in recent times, video blogs on the internet. Not for me I’m afraid. I was simply looking for answers in whatever form they presented themselves. Plenty of time for reporting back once the process was over and I’d emerged alive.

That November, on the train into work from my son’s place in west London, I fainted. I was standing up holding a pole and then slithered to the floor. I couldn’t remember that ever happening before. Though disconcerting, the sensation wasn’t unpleasant. It got me a seat for the rest of the journey and I went to work as usual. Apart from the ever-increasing piddling problem it was the first real sign that I might be getting weaker. It was a year since I’d been diagnosed. My PSA had passed 100 at the end of August. 150 a month later. 250 by the end of October. 354 on 9th December.

Up to then I’d been happily carrying on with my job as a training consultant looking after the teaching skills of a team of computer trainers in a large training company. I only worked three days a week in London and spent the rest of my time with my friend Sarah in Exeter.

The pressure from my kids for me to get more medical help couldn’t be ignored forever. I was open with them about my rising PSA. So, at Christmas, I agreed to a bone scan to find out what was happening. Sure enough, as I suspected, there were dark spots on my pelvis, ribs and spine. Not too many but enough for that nice bogey word “metastasis” to enter the picture. I was fairly sure there had been some bone presence a year before but now it was certain.

Was I just being a fool? I knew I could count on Sarah to understand where I was coming from. At great emotional cost to herself she was a rock. But my ex-wife thought I was mad and probably the kids too when worry got the better of them. They admired me for my determined approach and efforts to find a cure but they had probably looked into the prognosis for themselves and kept their conclusions from me. I know they wanted to support me but felt it was best not to add to my worries by voicing theirs to me. I’m not sure if that approach works. I could sense their fears and would have preferred them to be out in the open where we could have felt them together. A lack of openness lies at the heart of many ills and sometimes makes terminal illness a lonely and disturbing business when it doesn’t need to be.

Once in a while I even felt guilty for what I was putting my family through. Cancer does that to you. Should I have gone the medical route and had knives and chemo with all the slow misery that entails? Do what felt deeply wrong just to please them? Everything in me rejected that victim approach. I’m sorry but I don’t want to die with tubes hanging out of me in a morphine haze. There had to be a better way.

For a few weeks in January I tried something called cesium that was supposed to change the ph balance in the blood and cause the cancer cells to die. It gave me diarrhoea and my PSA was over 1000 by the end of the month. Another trial abandoned.

Things got more serious around then. One day I got to work and just couldn’t do anything. I felt weak, faint and worn out. I went home to my son’s place and never worked again. I managed to drive back to Exeter as best I could, piddling several times in a bottle on the way. Once home at Sarah’s I went to bed and from then on spent most of my time there. There was no hiding the fact that I was really ill. Sleeping became difficult because I had to wake up for a pee so often. In the autumn of the previous year, I’d begun to wet the bed in the night without noticing it. I took to sleeping with a towel round me like a nappy. Soon my ex got me a waterproof mat to lie on. I’d long since stopped getting out of bed to pee. Instead I peed in a plastic bottle.

Unfortunately, the sore places in my back and ribs had got worse too. Turning over or flexing my stomach muscles in any way was excruciatingly painful. I would often spend half an hour willing myself to stand the pain enough to sit up and take a drink. The only comfortable position was lying still on my back. Even that started to hurt after a while as I got ever thinner.

From 16 stone I was now down to well under 12 and still losing weight because my diet was so restricted. The problem was finding things to eat that tasted good. My appetite was poor and the lack of salt in anything made it all so bland and boring. I was still just about mobile enough to make my own food and look after myself but that ability gradually reduced. I came to rely more and more on Sarah’s help. Soon her ex sister in law came up to help too. Another angel!

Another thing I tried in large quantities was Ambrotose, a form of glyco-nutrient that is supposed to have magical powers of rejuvenating cells. It probably does but my PSA continued to rise. I also took to giving myself a coffee enema every morning in two doses. The thinking behind this was that the active detoxifying agents in the coffee bypassed the colon and went straight up to the liver. I learned the interesting fact that all the blood in the body passes through the liver every few (seven?) minutes.

The coffee agents, whose name I’ve forgotten, are supposed to remove the toxins filtered out by the liver. Indeed, when I lay there with the coffee in me, I could feel bubbles gurgling under my ribs. It seemed useful though it was a tricky process tottering unsteadily to the lavatory holding the enema in. There were a few disgusting mistakes along the way. Not a pleasant thought I’m afraid but important to retail as part of this account. My son Will cleared up without a murmur after one episode.

By the end of March I could only walk up stairs one step at a time because my left leg was too weak to lift. As I lay in bed I was either too hot or freezing. I had to have a hot water bottle near my feet most of the time; not touching because that was too painful. The skin on my arms was beginning to hang off the bone. My bum was hollow and empty such that I could have easily passed unnoticed as an inmate in a concentration camp.

My grown up children now regularly came to visit at weekends to see me and help Sarah who was beginning to crack under the strain of being at my beck and call. Looking back I can see they were also gathering for the approaching end. The worry was making it very difficult for them to function effectively in their daily lives.

Sarah and I have discussed this period since and it’s obvious that I became a dreadful petty tyrant in my helplessness. It was so frustrating not being able to do things for myself and having to eat food lovingly prepared but so tasteless it killed my appetite and was greeted with constant complaints. Demanding, intolerant, ungrateful, the words Sarah and I agreed on to describe me at that time are not ones I’m proud to be associated with but I offer exhaustion and pain as my feeble excuses. Certainly I reduced Sarah to a near nervous breakdown.

So it was that I entered the final stages. The district nurse turned up at my daughter’s request, took one look and started talking about Macmillan nurses and hospices. She talked with Sarah and my kids. Things were closing in. I must confess I was totally absorbed in the process of trying to find answers and survive the sheer struggle of moving and eating. I was now permanently attached at night to a catheter that fitted on my penis via a sheath. I had little sensation of piddling at night but did so much of the time. My weight was down to about 11stone, a drop of 70 lbs or more. Nothing I was doing had any effect on my PSA. It was now over 1700.

One day, I received an email from Hank, a kiwi mate of mine living in Italy. He’d been surfing the net wondering how to help me and come up with the name Callebout, a Harley Street doctor who had cured someone of breast cancer using alternative and conventional methods and also had success with prostate cancer. For a week I did nothing about it because I was too weak and Harley Street sounded beyond my finances.

But then I decided I was so ill I needed any help I could get regardless of cost and gave the number a call. His secretary made me an appointment for a couple of weeks later. Somehow I had to get up to London and stay the night. My son and daughter were going to accompany me.

At about this time too I had a strange experience in the dead of night. I was wondering whether to get in touch with a chap I’d known 12 years before who was a healer. I’d just looked up his website to check that it was still active. As I closed the lid on the laptop and lay back eyes closed I suddenly saw a short film playing in my head. I was sitting on a horse stripped to the waist with several others galloping around me. We were American Indians. As I watched, one of the braves drew back his bow and loosed an arrow straight into my prostate where it stayed.

I neither believe nor disbelieve in the past life memory business, but when you’re dying any help is welcome. Perhaps my subconscious was giving me some clue to focus on at last. So I did. For several days I remembered the vision and imagined snapping off the head and pulling the shaft of the arrow back out and letting the prostate mend.

The visit to Dr Callebout was a great success. His first statement was that cancer is not a terminal disease and any doctor who says it is, is not entitled to do so. This was more like it! Just what a man with a PSA of nearly 2,000 needs to hear. No need to fight him off as I’d had to do with all the other consultants I’d come across so far. He listened to my tale at length, examined me (he did not stick his finger up my bum) and commented that I looked anaemic. He asked what I fancied eating and I said meat but I’d heard it fed the cancer. Not a bit of it. As long as it was organic, and New Zealand lamb was, it would do me good. Also salt, not deadly and sea salt even contained useful elements. Only milk was forbidden. He said he’d send me a list of nutrients to take in due course. He didn’t explain what any of the nutrients did but I was in no shape to be curious at that stage.

I limped back to the car feeling a surge of hope, as no doubt my son and daughter did too. Back in Exeter I ate a lot of lamb. Couldn’t get enough of it. I ate organic steak too from a local butcher that was attached to an organic farm. Food with sea salt on became palatable. I started to put on weight.

In the couple of weeks before his first regime arrived I was visited by my GP. He took one look and gave me a couple of months to live. When I asked him what the world record PSA was he told me it was no time for jokes. The district nurse told Sarah in confidence that I was a very selfish man to have put her through what I had. Better to die quietly perhaps??

I sent several blood samples and a urine sample off for detailed analysis to labs recommended by Dr Callebout. He wanted to know exactly what was wrong with my system before settling on a final regime. The tests cost over £2000 but I now had a man with a plan to cure me rather than prolong my life for a year or two.

The regime arrived and I ordered the main pills a few days later. Some of them cost £1 each and I was taking up to 12 a day of several. Just as I started the regime I had a PSA test. On the 7th May it stood at 3,730. What they say about doubling every month was now happening.

Towards the end of May I followed a suggestion of my daughter Anna and called a kinesiologist called Elizabeth Brown. She had helped a friend of a friend of Anna’s with cancer. We had a very interesting three-hour phone conversation during which she dowsed for various things about my illness and general purpose in life. One important thing that came up was that the house I was living in was situated above a water course, which was exposing me to very unhelpful energy. I had never heard of this but it seems that energy emerging from the earth can have a powerful effect especially when you lie still asleep at night. She fixed this problem by remote working and said that my son’s place was OK in case I moved there.

She also said that my body was not absorbing the nutrients that I was pumping in and my immune system was very depleted. From then on she sent me a list of readings every week or so for several months and still does so whenever I feel like a check-up. She recommended a course of homeopathic remedies from a colleague of hers, Sarah Patrick, which I embarked upon as soon as possible.

One final topic that came up was that of my purpose in life. Apparently I had a clear purpose to help mankind but needed to wake up and pay more attention to my guides. This whole area of guides and guardian angels has always been a bit vague to me. I was born to non-religious parents with a father who actively despised the Catholic faith of his Irish mother. I have never regarded myself as psychic or gifted in that area but one or two events in my life have made it abundantly clear to me that there is much more going on than meets the eye, especially the scientific, sceptical eye.

There was a time when I became involved in healing and turned out to be able to help people quite easily. I let it pass because, as mentioned before, I always felt the need to help people get to the root of a problem rather than remove a symptom. It seemed to me that people needed to remedy their ignorance rather than have their messengers attacked or eliminated. You could say that this is exactly what I’ve been engaged in in my recent situation.

As time has gone on and I’ve returned to health, it has become more and more clear to me that my period of dire illness was a watershed in my life. I feel as if I have been refurbished and retuned for what’s required now and henceforth. My sexuality has been toned down a good bit and my awareness turned up. I’ve been having a refit and may now be in the process of returning to the healing arena but with a greater sense of empathy and compassion. To put it simply, I get the feeling that nearly dying was in fact very good for me and in particular, did my heart good. It brought me so much closer to my children and softened my heart to the point where I cried very often at their kindness to me. I also had tearful and possibly healing moments with Sarah.

At any rate, for anyone who is interested in esoteric healing matters I’d recommend they get in touch with Elizabeth; a very interesting woman.

After ten days on Dr Callebout’s regime my PSA had dropped to 1777. At last something was working and that something was mainly a nutrient pill called Prostasol. Callebout had said the most important thing was to crush the PSA and this mixture of plant sterols and prostate nutrients did just that at high speed. But despite being in better spirits, I was still in very bad shape physically with no let up as yet in any of the symptoms and no let up for Sarah.

It was now decided that the only way to save Sarah from a breakdown was for me to move to London to stay with my son, where I’d have to use the local services to look after me if I couldn’t look after myself. I’d end up in a hospice if that was what it eventually came to. Before leaving for London at the end of May I had a blood transfusion, staying overnight, ironically enough, in a local hospice. My blood count was 5.4 when it should have been over 12. They also took blood for another PSA and lo and behold it had dropped to 113. Nearly 4,000 to just over 100 in 35 days. Amazing.

Once in London I signed on at the Charing Cross and saw the consultant there. He took one look and suggested I stopped wasting my money on alternative stuff that doesn’t work and spend quality time with my family. Another narrow minded scientist. I’m sorry but as far as I’m concerned, people like that need a good shaking. I have used a lot of energy explaining to them that they have no right to dismiss what they don’t know anything about and, much more importantly, they have no right to go around from their position of authority condemning people to death. I asked to change to a different consultant and was seen by a woman who has been much more supportive and willing to let me decide what’s in my best interest.

I spent up to £3000 a month on nutrient pills for the first few months but my PSA fell to about 5 by Christmas and I put on all the weight I’d lost. I had one or two crises when my urinary system went into some kind of healing agony. This resulted in a couple of trips to A&E where I had my bum poked again by a couple of young doctors and a catheter inserted in my penis to drain the residual urine out of my bladder. I urge people to avoid having this done at all costs unless it’s vital because it’s one of the most excruciatingly painful experiences I’ve ever had. Those episodes passed with no need for any drugs as, after tests, it turned out that I didn’t have the infection they assumed I had.

For several weeks I had various aches and pains in my knees and hips. I also found it difficult to get about at first because of my wonky left leg and general weakness in both legs. Going shopping and carrying bags was particularly hard work.

Now confident that I had the strength to withstand radiation and such, I had more bone scans and ultrasound scans to check out the kidneys and ureters. There was some damage but it was going away. Thickening of the bladder wall came and went.

One morning when I sat up in bed my back went out and I was in agony for several minutes until I managed to get upright. It has taken nearly a year to get back to stiffness rather than agony. At the last bone scan there were no hotspots and they only commented on some shading in all the bones, leftovers of where the cancer had been as I choose to assume. My legs have regained most of the strength they lost though the left leg is still noticeably weaker than the right. I can run upstairs again.

Following a financial crisis last February I cut the amount of prostasol I was taking quite suddenly to 4 a day from 9 and the PSA went up from 4 to 20 in a month. When I put the dose back up it came down again and in recent months it’s been steady at about 2 while I’ve reduced the prostasol from 9 to 4 a day. The great merit of prostasol is that the plant sterols it contains do not lose effectiveness over time and indeed work on reducing doses. That seems to be the case with me. I am assured by Dr C that they are not steroids as one of my consultants declared, nor are they synthetically oestrogen based.

It seems that the basic drift of Callebout’s approach is to use Prostasol to crush the PSA, Biobran and others to support the immune system, enzymes (mostly lamb pancreas and thymus) to boost the digestive system and take the strain off the immune system. I’m also taking all the various mixtures of the well known prostate support nutrients, anti oxidants like curcumin, and lots of vitamin D3. I stopped taking spoonfuls of vitamin C and now take one pill of it a day just for fun!

I do not know the working details of the regime and it is tailored to my specific needs so I cannot recommend it to anyone. What I can do, based on my personal experience and current state of well-being, is recommend Dr Callebout. He hasn’t charged me more than £800 so far. My monthly outlay on supplements has reduced from £3000 to about £500 and is still falling.

At the end of March this year I was strong enough to fly to New York to visit my nephew for a week. It was tiring but I still managed to visit MOMA and the Metropolitan Museum and to walk the length of Central Park in rather chilly weather. By the end of May I was swimming in the Med when I spent a week visiting my son in Antibes. Not bad for one year after being written off by the doctors.

As far as my original symptoms are concerned, I now pee once in the night. There is no dribbling at the end of a pee. I can go for hours during the day without even thinking of peeing even though I’m drinking much more. I can break off peeing at any point and suffer no dribbling. In short, my peeing is as normal as it ever was. I have some soreness in the breasts from the prostasol though that is reducing as I cut the number of pills. I haven’t lost my sex drive (though me and the meaning of sex is a whole other issue too important to get into here) and can get a healthy erection even though that is not now my main concern in life.

When people ask me about the whole experience they are surprised when I say that it has been hard work but very beneficial. As previously stated, it has brought me even closer to my children and done a lot to soften my heart. It has also taught me to trust the universe a little more and to pay greater attention to signs and clues. It forced me to stop doing a job that was good but not addressing my core desires. It has moved me to London, which had never struck me as being the most interesting and rewarding place I am discovering it to be. It has also alerted me to the need for people to take their health into their own hands and out of the hands of the medical and pharmaceutical industries. It has also taught me to accept help from others including the state, something I had never done before.

Finally, though it’s far too soon to claim that I have fully recovered from aggressive, advanced, prostate cancer, I can happily say that I’m doing fine and feeling well, with none of the symptoms of the disease apparent at this time. It’s now nearly three years since I was diagnosed and two since the first bone scan showed cancer in my bones. Every new doctor I meet says how well I look but none will ever say that my cancer has gone or express any interest in what steps I may have taken to bring this about.

Doctors are a funny lot, very intelligent and analytical but often blinkered and over confident of their powers. They seem to know a great deal about attacking cancer but little about the causes of it and nothing about the cures. Vast sums of money and many careers are devoted to fighting it but still people die in droves having had bits cut off and been through the hell of poisoning and burning with chemotherapy and radiation. It seems to be that the only clear sign of health that doctors will admit to is that I look well. It may not seem much to show for all those years of medical study but it’s good enough for me!

Next month will be the third anniversary of my first PSA test that told me the level was 26.9 The reading a couple of weeks ago was 1.7. It may soon be time to extend my visa!