One turn of the pedal after another, cycling along happily, cocooned in my own contentment, sliding into a meditative state by the repetitive action of the legs, almost zoned out, I was within a mile of home. The afternoon was warm and a caressing breeze was gracefully nullifying the warmth, making it dream-like. Out of the blue, a loud rude honk shattered my trance and sent a shock up my spine. What was the point? If there isn’t enough space for him/her to overtake me, it’s not my fault. What does he/she think he/she’s going to achieve by making a racket?
There was nowhere for him/her to go. He/she had to follow me. This was the perfect opportunity for me to do something I have never done before but wished I could – show him/her the finger! While keeping my attention on the bike ride, I put my right hand out at right angles and stuck a finger out. Oh! That was my thumb. Saying completely the opposite of what I was trying to say. Cancel. Delete. Try again. Out went my arm again and this time it was a finger but it was the index finger! Wrong again! Take it back. This was turning into a joke. I was obviously incapable of doing the simplest of jobs while cycling. I had to give it another try. Got it right this time. Yay! Success at last although I suppose by now, he/she is thoroughly confused – ‘well done’ followed by ‘one’ or ‘don’t you dare’ followed by ‘ I am annoyed with you’.
A few yards ahead, I stopped by the side of the road, letting him/her pass. On the next road, we were met with an almighty traffic jam. I spotted the silver Saab I had interacted with before. I merrily trundled past him on my bike, with a big smile on my face, humming a little tune to myself. There was plenty space for me. Only if honking could help him now.
(Moral of the story: Practical skills get better with practise. I need practise.)
“…the lonelier a person gets, the less adept they become at navigating social currents. Loneliness grows around them, like mould or fur, a prophylactic that inhibits contact, no matter how badly contact is desired. Loneliness is accretive, extending and perpetuating itself. Once it becomes impacted, it is by no means easy to dislodge.” – By Olivia Laing, The Lonely City.
In the summer of 1999 I moved from New Delhi to a little place called Antrim in Northern Ireland. I lived in a tiny room in the accommodation for junior doctors on hospital grounds. I didn’t know a soul there. Slowly I made a few friends at work. Unlike now, there were no mobile phones, whatsapp, skype, facetime or facebook then. Telephone calls costed a bomb. People were friendly but everyone was a stranger. Initially I didn’t get their sense of humour at all. I felt foolish. I longed to speak my own language with someone. Anyone. But there was no one who would understand.
One evening I went to buy some chocolates to a nearby petrol station. There were 2 cashiers but only one of them had a long queue of people waiting their turn. I didn’t understand why. I went up to the cashier without a queue and made my payment. I didn’t get the meaning of the looks on people’s faces. It didn’t help that I was the only coloured person for miles. From some face expressions it was obvious that they had never ever seen a coloured person outside of the television. I felt alone. Very alone.
Urban loneliness is a common phenomenon. Isolation causes inflammation. Inflammation can cause further isolation and depression. The cytokines released as a result suppress the immune system giving rise to more illness.
Frome is a historical town in Somerset. It is known as one of the best places to live in the UK. Dr Helen Kingston, a GP, kept encountering patients who seemed defeated by the medicalisation of their lives. They were treated like a cluster of symptoms rather than a human being with health problems. Staff at her practice were stressed and dejected by what she calls “silo working”.
With the help of the local council and Health connections Mendip, she launched a community initiative in 2013. It main intervention was to create a stronger community. They identified and filled gaps in communications and support in the community. They employed ‘health connectors’ and trained up volunteers to be ‘community connectors’. They helped people with handling debt or housing problems, sometimes joining choirs or lunch clubs or exercise groups or writing workshops or men’s sheds (where men make and mend things together). The aim was to break a familiar cycle of misery.
In the three years that followed, emergency hospital admissions rose by 29% across the whole of Somerset. In Frome they fell by 17%.
No other intervention, drug or procedure on record has reduced emergency admissions across a population.
In difficult times, it’s important to hold on to something sustaining, like a sparkling crystal in the darkness, like the sweetness of stroking a cat or a dog. Take every opportunity to make life easier, lighter.
Let a tragedy be only tragic and not absolute hell. There is a big gap between the two. Like the difference between someone lying on their death bed and someone lying on their death bed surrounded by their family yelling and screaming at each other. If we didn’t make worse the terrible things that there are, if we could just put up with the terrible things that exist, maybe we could make the world a better place.
The motivational speaker and Clinical Psychologist, Jordan B. Peterson speaks about his latest book – “12 rules for life. An antidote to chaos.” He says he wrote it for himself as much as for anyone else.
“You set an ideal and find that there is a long way to go. It is a constant readjustment. There is also something positive about that. It’s not that there isn’t such a thing as a good person. Our idea of what constitutes good isn’t right because a good person is one who is trying to get better. The real goodness is in the attempt to get better. It’s in the process, to use an old cliché.
The central figure of western culture is Christ. He is the dying and resurrecting hero. What does that mean psychologically? Well, it means that you learn things painfully. And when you learn something painfully, a part of you has to die. That’s the pain. When a dream is shattered for example. A huge part of you has to be stripped away and burnt. And so, life is a constant process of death and rebirth and to participate in that fully is to allow yourself to be redeemed by it. So, the good in you is that process of death and rebirth, voluntarily undertaken. You are not as good as you could be. So, you let that part of you die. If someone comes along and says, there’s some dead wood here. It needs to be burned off. You might think, well that’s still got a little bit of life. When that burns it’s gonna hurt. Yes. Well, no kidding. Maybe the thing that emerges in its place is something better and I think this is the secret of human beings. It’s what we’re like. Unlike any other creature, we can let our old selves die and let our new selves be born. That’s what we should do.”
When asked if he falls short anywhere in his book, he says,
“Until the entire world is redeemed, we all fall short.”
When Saagar was ill, he filled out an online form and referred himself to IAPTs – Improving Access to Psychological Therapies. This programme began in 2008 and has transformed treatment of adult anxiety disorders and depression in England. Over 900,000 people now access IAPT services each year. I have used this service in the past and found it useful. I suggested to him to fill out the form a second time and he did. They usually call back within a day or two. He didn’t hear back from them.
I recently found out that IAPTs does not look after suicidal people. I would like to know what they do when they read a self-referral form of this nature.
There is a vacuum in the NHS. There is little face to face support for those who feel life is no longer worth living. Why do most people with physical illnesses ask for help? Possibly because they trust they will receive appropriate help from the system. Why is it that many people with mental anguish don’t approach the medical services for help? Probably due to lack of trust.
The Listening Place works towards filling that vacuum. A few days ago I visited their premises, a short walk from Pimlico station, in the heart of London. This airy, green, warm and welcoming place felt ideal for anyone in need of care, support and understanding. Here, individuals can speak openly about their feelings without being judged. They receive on-going support from trained volunteers over a number of weeks as deemed appropriate. The volunteers help relieve emotional pain and stress and offer opportunities to consider alternatives to suicide. Anyone over 18 can be referred to them by themselves, other charities, NHS as well as health and social care organisations. They try to give continuity by facilitating you to speak with someone who knows you from before. They charge nothing and keep your information confidential. It is remarkable that they are open 9 am to 9 pm, 7 days a week.
Sarah Anderson, who was once director at the largest call centre for the Samaritans, set up The Listening Place in 2016 and the service has since helped hundreds of individuals with its unique approach to care. During our chat, Sarah’s passion and dedication to the cause comes through, loud and clear.
The world needs more people who give a damn about other people.
(PS: Through the grapevine I hear the future funding of IAPTs is in jeopardy. The vacuum grows.)
A mother of a teenager in Molenbeek, a suburb of Brussels got this text message, “Congratulations,” it read. “Be proud of him. He is now a martyr. Be happy he died fighting the unbelievers.” Molenbeek is said to be the jihadist capital of Europe and has lost many of its young to radicalisation.
NATO bombs have been falling on migrant boats, night markets, residential buildings, motels, random vehicles, hospitals, wedding parties filled with innocent people like you and me, in the name of liberty and democracy, killing sons and daughters of many mothers.
Continuous shellings, massacres, occupations and sieges in places like Mosel, Raqqua, Aleppo, Ghouta and Gaza carry on for weeks, months, years and decades, claiming innumerable lives of children of mothers who mourn for the rest of their lives.
Some mothers have everything taken from them. They are unable to provide for the most basic needs of their children due to various reasons, one of them being the blockade to aid, such as the one in Yemen. Some have to exchange sexual favours for minimal aid. Some are forced to watch their kids starve. Some of the realities are unimaginable.
We all are on the same grid of heart-breaking, unconditional love. Today, on Mother’s day, I send my love to mothers all over the world. I salute their tenacity and commitment. I admire their strength. I hope for peace and wisdom for all. I honour their grace and grief. I pray for their healing. I stand with them, their pain and helplessness, their love and longing. Our empathy envelops this burning globe like a silk scarf.
After Saagar’s death, it felt as if a big black boulder had landed in the middle of our living room. There wasn’t much space around it. It occupied the entire room. I had no escape from this uninvited guest. I had to squeeze my way around it to get past. Its roughness abraded my skin. It was stubborn, heavy, ugly, lifeless, crude and unmoving. It had made a home in our house. It was here to stay. I had no choice but to live with it and look at it. It stared right back at me non-stop. Its weight was suffocating. It sat on my chest, jutting its chin out, determined to get me. I pushed with all my might but it didn’t budge an iota.
It’s still there. But I can negotiate my way around it without the jaggedness making me bleed. We can sit and watch each other without wanting to kill each other. It has relaxed and settled into my space and I can breathe. A green shoot has peeped from underneath it. Another slender sapling has appeared out of the crevice near the window. The old sharp corners don’t catch anymore. They have rounded off. Life is happening around it.
If I had remained firmly rooted in the pure physicality of the world, I couldn’t have co-existed with this deeply unpleasant and unwanted occurrence. Spiritual teachings and practices have been a respite from my mind, the generator of pain. I am nowhere near ‘wise’ but I remain open to universal knowledge. I allow it to bring me peace, however momentary.
Amaravati Buddist monestary is one of my refuges. A few months ago I spent 5 days there in Silent retreat. A beautiful plant with asymmetric leaves overflowed from an indoor pot. With permission I brought 3 leaves home, allowed them to root in water and then planted them in soil. They look happy.
In December 2017 we planted an Acer in Saagar’s memory at Amaravati. It’s called ‘Winter flame’ or Acer Palmatum. A friend of a friend is a ceramist. She is making a set of drums and drumming sticks with Saagar’s initials, to be placed at the tree. I have never met her. She has never met me or Saagar. But we are connected. We all are connected.
An excerpt from a Dhamma talk by Ajahn Anando:
“We suffer because we constantly chase pleasure. We run away from pain.
Loose the greed for sensuous things.
See that the letting go of the world is peaceful.
Time is nothing. There is only ‘now’ and ‘change’.
Past and future are ‘thoughts’ in the Now.
Is there any way you can get into the past? Or the future?
Is there any way you can get out of ‘Now’?”
During his holidays, Saagar and his friends would be subjected to Woman’s hour on BBC Radio 4 second hand, as their mothers listened. They would later have amusing/interesting discussions about breast feeding, female education and employment challenges. This station was pre-set on the car-radio and at home. It was designated as the ‘old people’s’ radio-station by him. Invariably, ‘Gardener’s question time’ would come on while we were in the car together, travelling over the weekend. It was quaint by its sheer irrelevance to us as we could barely keep our 4 nameless indoor plants alive. Our urban pre-occupations meant we didn’t have a gardening vocabulary.
‘Just a minute’ was our all-time favourite – a panel of funny people asked to speak for one whole minute on a given topic without repetition, hesitation or deviation. The seemingly innocent topics often held great potential for hilarity, for example, billiards, the best thing about cats, how I spread a little happiness, keeping a straight face, my love of the absurd, garages and such. The correct and incorrect challenges posed by the panellists generated tremendous amount of laughter. Our attempts at giving each other topics resulted in great amusement.
On Thursday evening I was asked if I’d like to be a guest on Woman’s hour to talk about Saagar. It was unbelievable. It made me smile and cry at the same time. What a paradox! Of course I’d love to be on Woman’s hour. Under these circumstances? Meeting Jenni Murray was an honour. She was down to earth and professional, looking just as I imagined, in her trademark glasses sitting just above the tip of her nose.I told her she had my dream job. She said Joan Baez had been in the studio the day before, sitting at the same chair as me. How cool! Oops! Saagar prohibited me from saying ‘cool’ as he thought it sounded all wrong coming from me. I wonder how he would feel about this interview if he knew. Maybe he does.
Despite making notes and preparing as well as I could, I was a bit flummoxed by some of the questions. I didn’t say everything I wanted to. I hope there will be other opportunities. This conversation must grow until everyone is a part of it in a meaningful and constructive way. In a way that saves lives.
A recording of the interview with brilliant and committed Mr Ged Flynn, the CEO of PAPYRUS and I: