Boarding School Survival: Part 1

 

Mental Health has become more prominent on the socio-political agenda in recent years so it feels the right time to write this more personal blog.

Boarding School Survival Syndrome is a recognised psychological condition rarely talked about. It is similar in some ways to Post Traumatic Stress Diagnosis. Here is one comment about it:

[Children] who were sent away to boarding school from their family homes often learnt to endure unacceptably brutal interpersonal practices … When these kinds of trauma emerge in adulthood in the form of stress related disease, inability to sustain meaningful intimate sexual relationships, and mental and emotional breakdowns, adults often don’t even know how to begin to acknowledge their long-hidden pain to themselves, let alone talk to someone else (such as their medical practitioner) about their suffering. This, as we know from the psychological research evidence, often leads to further psychosomatic difficulties in terms of overworking to the point of burnout, multiple serious health problems, and drug and alcohol misuse.”

Petruska Clarkson BMJ, Vol. 322, 31/3/2001, reviewing Nick Duffell (2000) ‘The Making of Them: The British Attitude to Children and the Boarding School System‘.

And, to reiterate some of the common symptoms:

  • problems with relationships

  • fear of emotional intimacy

  • sexual problems

  • substance/alcohol abuse

  • inability to express feelings

  • learning quickly to suppress painful feelings

  • workaholism/career addiction

  • depression and other mental health problems

  • fear of spontaneity/unable to enjoy life

  • fear of authority

Just as not all war combat personnel will experience PTSD not all ex-boarders will experience these symptoms to the extent that their lives are seriously impacted. However, even some of those who don’t have explicit symptoms may well have buried the hurt so deep within themselves that neurosis will possibly surface eventually.

It was not until my late thirties that I recognised, or acknowledged, I had depression and not until much later that I really made the link between my going to a boarding school and my mental ill-health. You are lucky in the UK(and probably financially well-off) if you manage to get psychotherapy; I had to deal with the trauma by myself.

There was no pastoral care, or what today we call safeguarding, at the school I attended from age 12-19yrs. Some of the teachers were sadistic and psychological abuse was common.

I did these paintings when I was 72 and they ‘process’ the emotional damage in a sequence. The first one shows a boy alone – this is the crucial point; on no account did you let on that you were homesick, or sad, to others. It is even the case that you didn’t let on to yourself that you were sad or stressed!

 

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The second shows the anguish and feelings of abandonment: again completely private and suppressed. I was influenced by Munch’s Scream when creating the main figure in the composition and in painting the background.

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The next blog will show the final two paintings and conclude the description.

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Skylark Between Generations

I listened to, and watched, skylarks at Corbridge on Sunday. Along by the River Tyne.

 

I set off with a sack of cares upon my back;

though the sunshine bathed my face with warmth;

and after spotting goosanders in the river

ended walking an inch above a sandy track.

*

I started out in bright sunshine

my mirror-mind besmirched with black.

My mood began to lift when I heard a tune:

a skylark singing a song I knew was mine.

*

My distant uncle heard the self-same sacred word

cut down in youth along with many men;

he answered another’s call but to his cost;

a soldier who sang about a wonder bird.

*

As I watched the dark envoy soar

I made a vow to John there and then:

to live my life in homage to his memory,

and to aspire to reach the other shore.

 

 

 

 

The Visitors

Side view of lonely old woman in wheelchair in front of a glass windows corridor

This piece is based on something that happened to my mother in her old age. This is a stressful time of the year for lots of people especially those who live alone. Our society is dysfuntional in so many ways; the increase in social isolation and the way the elderly are regarded are symptoms of a deep malaise.

 

When you find yourself automatically turning on the television for the six o’clock news, when you become aware once again of the dull throb in the left side of your head, when you stretch your right hand down to rub your aching thigh, when you decide it’s time to shuffle towards the kitchen and see what’s in the fridge, when you scrape off the morning’s coagulated porridge from the saucepan and empty it down the lavatory, when you slowly eat your solitary microwaved meal, when you return to your sofa and continue to watch the television, when you find yourself drifting off to sleep; you come to with a start – then suddenly you feel there is someone standing behind your sofa.

 

The visitors are here again. Although you are not sure if they are the same men as before, you think you recognise the taller one. He has a moustache and black hair. As you get up from the sofa the men turn to face you and edge round the furniture. The smaller of the two, the one with the shaved head, crosses the room to sit in a chair opposite the sofa. You feel agitated and find you cannot focus on the intruders sufficiently. The smaller of the two is speaking and his words sound loudly in your head. You look to see where the tall man is and cannot quite make out a figure in the darkness of the hallway. You decide to speak.

I’m alright you know. You don’t need to worry; I have two sons who visit me and a nurse comes on Fridays.”

The bald man is speaking again in a low voice now. You can only catch some of the words,

Trying to. . worry. .keep the door.. . .safety.”

You have the front door key and can’t understand why the man is talking about the door.

You start to feel anxious and snap,

Get out, get out!”

You see quite clearly the tall man walking past you towards the front door. When you look around for the bald man he is not to be seen. Then you hear a voice but you are not sure who is speaking.

We’ll make sure you are ok.”

This does not make you feel secure and now that the men have left there is an empty silence.

 

You sit down on the sofa with a loud expulsion of breath and notice your right hand is shaking.

Why, why?” you say out loud, and again,

What would Albert think about me talking to strange men?”

You get up with some effort and walk slowly towards the kitchen to put on the kettle. As you fill up the kettle you wonder how the men get inside your flat. You drink the hot tea and wonder if they are from the council, and that you probably forgot that you let them in. You sit down and notice your hand has stopped shaking.

You retire to bed earlier than usual. It is half past nine. You notice you haven’t put the pile of washing in the washer. You tell yourself to do this tomorrow morning and move the pile to the kitchen.

 

It is six o’clock the following evening. You have had your meal of mackerel and mashed potatoes. You are watching the six o’clock news. The body count from Syria doesn’t register and the latest plan for improving the NHS somehow gets mixed up with statistics about prisons. You press the remote control eager to find something less confusing. You find a nature programme about badgers when you hear the doorbell. You get up and see two men in the hall. You wonder if they are from the council. You haven’t seen them before. The tall one has a moustache and black hair. . .

 

 

 

Urizen and Single Vision

I had some valuable feedback on my manuscript recently. I was taken to task on my apparent denunciation of reason. Here, I attempt to put my position, and Blake’s, in a more accurate light.

There is nothing wrong with the faculty of reason; many philosophers have singled it out as the defining attribute which makes us human. The only problem occurs when it is elevated or singled out as the only faculty or as the primary faculty whereby we attempt to find meaning in our lives. Many writers have revolted against this dominance of reason; writers such as Rousseau, Nietzsche, the Romantic poets of the nineteenth century, and, of course, Blake. Blake personified the ‘rationalising faculty’ as Urizen; the word itself is a clever play on ‘your reason’ and ‘your horizon.’ Blake wrote The Book of Urizen in which he shows how Urizen separates himself from the other faculties of Imagination, Sensation, Intuition and Emotion.

One of the characteristics of ‘reasoning’ is that it attempts to create a model of reality and hence there is always a gulf between the model and reality. The model can be very useful, as are maps, but the danger is that we can mistake the model for reality. This abstraction of reality was partly what Blake was getting at, especially in his abhorrence of Locke, Hume and Bacon.

We can more accurately talk of ‘rationalism’ as a paradigm; a way of approaching reality.

Scott Preston, in his brilliant blog, The Chrysalis, talks of perspectivism. When the early Renaissance artists worked out how to represent perspective in two dimensions they also represented a major shift in outlook. The view of reality was now ‘a point of view’ – a view limited to one position in space (and time) and a view presented to the physical eye looking out at the world. Hitherto, in Byzantine art for example, the picture was not a representation of what the eye saw in one time-bound ‘view.’ Painting then was more ‘a composite’ of what the artist knew and felt and was a representation of Christian mythology. Scott Preston uses this analogy of painting to show how linear, logical thinking has dominated western culture for the last 500 years. He relates it to Blake’s Single Vision and Newton’s Sleep.

What, then is the solution; how can we escape from this restricted view? I don’t think there is a single answer to this – Blake’s prophetic books offer a detailed solution where contraries co-exist. On an individual level we can be more self-aware and not believe that we are our thoughts. We can cultivate an aesthetic appreciation of reality and integrate imagination, intuition, feeling, sensation and thought. Meditation is a method whereby the ‘hidden’ rejected parts of the psyche can come into the open; where the Beast can transform into Beauty.

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The image which I have copied in pen is clearly of someone in torment; Blake has different versions; some have the Urizen-figure surrounded by flames. I find this aspect of the suffering Urizen very relevant. Those of us who struggle with mental health issues know how the mind can imprison us with its relentless ‘washing machine’ of churning thoughts. Blake, too, sees us all as being in exile; we have forgotten our original faces. We have fallen into self-division; this manifests in many ways: body-mind dualism, thought-feeling conflicts, individualism-community tensions, right action conundrums and so on.

Looking at this image, say for a few minutes, is itself a way of by-passing, or tricking, our rationalising mind. Its form and colour may speak to you directly – this is the power of art: it is not about words. I invite you do the same with all of Blake’s work which can be found here: http://www.blakearchive.org

Blake’s view of how we use the senses is fundamental. He saw the error of empiricists such as John Locke who thought that truth could be found via the evidence of the senses. This was a too literal and restricted approach. Blake famously wrote that ‘if the doors of perception were cleansed, then everything would appear as it is, infinite.’ This is very similar to the Buddhist idea of observing the contents of the mind and letting the thoughts and feelings settle until the mind becomes like a mirror. Both Blake and Buddhism see our ordinary state of consciousness as being, potentially, problematic. It too readily distorts reality. Both, also, would agree that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with our minds, other than the conditioning (mainly) from parents, teachers and institutions. Blake’s solution is complex and subtle but suffice it to say that he sees us as ‘spiritual beings’ and that we need to use what he terms Imagination or the Poetic Genius to free ourselves from the domination of Urizen.

I don’t want to enlarge on Blake’s mythical-psychological world here; I just invite you to gaze on poor Urizen and ask yourselves, ‘How did he get to be like this?’ and ‘Do I ever feel like this?’

Dogen Festival

throssel hole hall

It was the Festival of Eihei Dogen at Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey last Sunday. Dogen (1200- 1253) is the Japanese founder of the Soto Zen Buddhist Tradition and his writings have been a spiritual revelation here in the west since some of the first translations became available in the 1950s.

When I first went to Throssel in the 1980s I was captivated by the style, subtlety and spiritual depth of Dogen’s talks, then translated by Rev Master Jiyu-Kennett. (I give some extracts later.)

On the first Sunday of every month there is a different festival at Throssel. The altar is adapted to the festival; this Sunday’s had a reproduction of a famous painting of Dogen at the front. During the ceremonial there are bows, a circumambulation of the hall while singing sutras and incense offerings at the altar. A monk weaves in and out of the moving congregation sprinkling water while another throws coloured lotus petals (made from fabric) which float down onto the carpet.

After the ceremonial and tea we had sitting and walking meditation.

During our meditation Reverend Master Leandra gave a talk in which she quoted from Dogen’s Gyoji (translated as Ceaseless Training). I can’t locate the particular extract now but know it had to do with acknowledging our circumstances fully and using them as our ‘training ground.’ This is a familiar theme with Dogen; no separation between training, ordinary life and enlightenment. (A modern-day Buddhist teacher who emphasises how to deal with the, often, ‘messy’ parts of our lives is Pema Chodron.)

In my previous blogs I have not mentioned that I have an ongoing struggle with depression. It is tempting for me to see this as an impediment, and even worse, to regard myself as at a disadvantage to other lay Buddhists who don’t have mental health difficulties. However, this is my particular circumstance; all I can really do is regard it as ‘a given’ and get on with trying to live by the Buddhist Precepts and continue meditation regularly! (At the same time I must be careful not to identify myself as a ‘depressive’ – the whole point of Buddhist practice is to allow us to drop off any fixed ‘identity’ and know the universal truth that the historical Buddha actualised. This deeper Reality is the birthright of every human being.)

Another point that the extract made was that ‘ceaseless training’ includes the times we fell off the straight and narrow or acted wilfully and caused harm to ourselves and others. How all-embracing this teaching is! At heart most of want to do the right thing; most people (whether they think of themselves as spiritual or not) know when they have caused harm and don’t want to repeat the same mistake. (For anyone reading this who feels despair or hopelessness and who isn’t a Buddhist and doesn’t follow any spiritual practice, I would encourage them to find out what spiritual groups may be in their locality. Often we first find a spiritual path when we are at our lowest and all else has failed; in other words, suffering, of one kind or another.)

I am now 70 years old, hence this extract from Gyoji! (It gives a flavour of Dogen’s style for anyone unfamiliar with him.) I should say that although I am in my seventh decade I feel I am only scratching the surface of Buddhist training.

Do not regret your reaching old age. It is difficult to know what this thing called life really is. Is a person ‘really living’ or ‘not really living’? Is a person ‘old’ or ‘not old’? The four perspectives are completely different; all the various types of perspectives are different as well. Just concentrate on your intention and make your utmost effort to pursue the Way. In your pursuit of the Way, train as if you were facing a life-and-death situation: it is not simply your pursuit of the Way within life-and-death. People today have become so foolish as to set aside their pursuit of the Way upon reaching the age of fifty or sixty, or upon reaching seventy or eighty. Although we are naturally aware of how long we have lived, this is simply the human mind energetically engaged in discriminating and has nothing to do with studying the Way. Do not concern yourself with being in the prime of life or having reached old age. Just be single-minded in exploring the Way thoroughly. . .

Elsewhere Dogen says we should train ‘as if out hair were on fire’! This is not to make training appear a grim, tenacious activity, merely to show that we need to make it the centre of our lives if we are serious about it. To not waste time.

Here are two more of my favourite extracts from Great Master Dogen’s writings:

Awakening To The Mind Of The Bodhisattva (From the Shushogi)

When one awakens to True Wisdom it means that one is willing to save all living things before one has actually saved oneself: whether a being is a layman, priest, god or man, enjoying pleasure or suffering pain, he should awaken this desire as quickly as possible. However humble a person may appear to be, if this desire has been awakened, he is already the teacher of all mankind: a little girl of seven even may be the teacher of the four classes of Buddhists and the mother of True Compassion to all living things. One of the greatest teachings of Buddhism is its insistence upon the complete equality of the sexes.
However much one may drift in the six worlds and the four existences even they become a means for realising the desire for Buddhahood once it has been awakened: however much time we may have wasted up to now, there is still time to awaken this desire. Although our own merit for Buddhahood may be full ripe, it is our bounden duty to use all this merit for the purpose of enlightening every living thing: at all times, there have been those who put their own Buddhahood second to the necessity of working for the good of all other living things.

Trans Rev M Jiyu-Kennett

Genjo Koan – Actualising the Fundamental Point

A fish swims in the ocean, and no matter how far it swims there is no end to the

water. A bird flies in the sky, and no matter how far it flies, there is no end to the air.

However, the fish and the bird have never left their elements. When their activity is

large their field is large. When their need is small their field is small. Thus, each of

them totally covers its full range, and each of them totally experiences its· realm. If

the bird leaves the air it will die at once. If the fish leaves the water it will die at once.

Know that water is life and air is life. The bird is life and the fish is life. Life must be

the bird and life must be the fish. It is possible to illustrate this with more analogies.

Practice, enlightenment, and people are like this.

Now if a bird or a fish tries to reach the end of its element before moving in it,

this bird or this fish will not find its way or its place. When you find your place where

you are, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point. When you find your way

at this moment, practice occurs, actualizing the fundamental point; for the place, the

way, is neither large nor small, neither yours nor others’. The place, the way, has not

carried over from the past, and it is not merely arising now. Accordingly, in the

practice-enlightenment of the buddha way, meeting one thing is mastering it; doing

one practice is practising completely.

Trans Robert Aitken and Kazuaki Tanahashi

I hope I have given a taste of Dogen’s teaching here. If you look at my previous posts there is a little more about the nitty-gritty of Zen training.

Throssel Hole Buddhist Abbey (UK) – www.throssel.org.uk

Shasta Abbey (USA) – www.shastaabbey.org