Life on the edge

15 12 2019


Belinda at Beer 1

I have always been drawn to edgy places. Cliff tops, rocky promontories and river banks, inspire me and open my mind to new possibilities. My brother Stefan loved these places, too, and during his life found a form of freedom in living life on the edge. On a still, hot day this summer, we released his ashes from the cliff at Beer Head.

Ashes are not dignified; they fly wherever they want to fly, and on this hot August day, they did not fly across the sea as we had imagined. Each dipping fuelled the wind, which whipped the ashes into clouds that brought to mind tiny specks of birds amassing to migrate. Looking back over the photographs I took that day, etched into the sky was the smoky shape of my brother’s last flight.

That moment of release stayed with me for some time. Later after the ceremony, I went to see the horses and sat in the meadow for a long while, thinking of my brother and the conversations we had shared about death and dying. Stefan told me several times that he was not afraid of dying; in some ways he was almost looking forward to it, of finding out what lies at the ultimate edge. Before his final operation, one of more than thirty surgical procedures in his long struggle with Crohn’s disease, he joked in his usual edgy way that he might not come back this time. He survived the operation, but the strain of many infections and complications, including two serious episodes of sepsis weakened his heart and he finally lost his grip on life in July.

I reflected that day in the meadow that Life and Death are thoughts we can hold simultaneously. After releasing my brother to the cliff winds, I could climb to the top of another landscape and find there two horses who would purposefully come and stand on either side of me in silent support as I gathered myself for what would come next. I could feel the suffering of loss while felt I sustained.

Later in the year, I came across Standing at the Edge by Joan Halifax and found a work that is such a gift of inspiration, I almost can’t believe it exists. The author, a social activist, medical anthropologist and Buddhist teacher, shares wisdom she has gained from working with people at the edge, including her many years running health clinics in remote areas of the Himalayas, time spent volunteering in a maximum-security prison and sitting at the bedsides of dying people.

“The education I have gained through these experiences – especially through my struggles and failures – has given me a perspective I could never have anticipated. I have come to see the profound value of taking in the whole landscape of life and not rejecting or denying what we are given. I have also learned that our waywardness, difficulties and ‘crises,’ might not be terminal obstacles. They can actually be gateways to wider, richer internal and external landscapes. If we willingly investigate our difficulties, we can fold them into a view of reality that is more courageous, inclusive emergent and wise – as have many others who have fallen over the edge.”

I love this idea of living from the widest perspective possible. To live from this position takes courage and an edgy openness. My brother lived in pain for more than half his life and even though he would never have chosen to live with Crohn’s, the suffering he experienced sharpened his appreciation of life. When I look back over this year, it’s been a journey of intense loss and incredible gain and I know, thanks to my reading of Standing on the Edge, that I want to continue to investigate every bit of it.

Why am I living this way?

8 12 2019
horse eye

Photo by Julissa Helmuth on

Sometimes when Jake comes to the farm he spends the first part of the session with his head under a blanket. His comments, delivered with precise comic timing, show us that he is participating. Often, there will come a point when Jake can’t resist joining in fully and he will lift the blanket, fix us with a piercing gaze, and share what is on his mind.

One time Jake wondered why his life had turned out that way it had. Genuinely perplexed, he asked why he had faced so much difficulty, pain and suffering when it wasn’t what he truly wanted.

It was a powerful moment when Jake, who has been institutionalised for most of his life, examined, possibly for the first time, the question that confronts most of us at some point in our lives: ‘why am I living this way?’

What promoted Jake’s existential question was a simple encounter with a Dartmoor pony named Rose. When Jake met Rose he saw himself from her perspective, and it shifted something in the way Jake saw himself. After the encounter he reflected:

‘When I went into the stable, I could see my face in her eyes…I looked at her big eyes and fell in love with her, I could have poured my heart out to her. My heart was with her. They’re beautiful, lovely creatures. I wondered how they feel inside, how they feel about people, so much unknown beauty.’

Jake’s experience was transcendental and put him in touch with something universal. For a brief moment, he forgot his suffering, his situation and his disappointment and he touched something deeper, something that felt like love. And the feeling of connection prompted him to wonder if his life could be different.

The question of why life is the way it is perplexes human beings so much because we have no choice but to ask the question from the point of view of the life we have. Blinkered as we all are by our circumstances, adopting a universal point of view does not come easily. Which is why when we have moments of profound insight, we see things as if we were a different person, a wiser, more elevated version of ourselves, perhaps the mature version we would like to be, but just can’t because we’re too caught up in being who we think we are. Or, who we’re supposed to be.

Every now and again, life takes us by surprise and reminds us of who we could be, and who we have perhaps always been, but have forgotten. This idea of waking up to who we are and remembering our true nature shines through Plato’s ideas and Buddhist teachings. These very ancient ideas have been examined through fresh eyes, and interesting connections have been made, and are still being made, for example in the growth of interest in mindfulness, in the fields of Western Psychology and Psychiatry.

More than twenty years ago a young American psychiatrist Howard C Cutler spent weeks shadowing the Dalai Lama on a speaking tour of Arizona and made frequent visits to the exiled Tibetan leader’s home in Dharamsala, in the Indian Himalayas. Their intense and spirited conversations resulted in a book: The Art of Happiness, A Handbook for Living. Two decades on, the book remains illuminating because it is essentially a conversation between ancient ideas and contemporary Western science. Understandably, there are moments of incomprehension and incredulity on both sides, for example when Cutler discovers that there is no word for ‘guilt’ in Tibetan, and when the Dalai Lama has to patiently explain to the psychiatrist that sometimes there is no obvious reason why people act the way they do.

Reading the book again this week, I’m struck by the psychiatrist’s willingness to expose his own arrogance and shame and rationalist-driven agenda. I’m also struck by the clarity of the Dalai Lama’s thinking on deep philosophical questions, such as the true purpose of life, and his ideas on happiness which mirrors the thinking of Aristotle.

‘Now we are made to seek happiness. And it is clear that feelings of love, affection, closeness and compassion bring happiness. I believe that every one of us has the basis to be happy, to access the warm and compassionate states of mind that bring happiness. In fact, it is one of my fundamental beliefs that not only do we inherently possess the potential for compassion but I believe that the basic or underlying or human beings is gentleness.’

During another session with the horses, when Jake was playfully invited to choose an animal he related to, he chose to our amusement a crocodile. Like the blanket he chooses to sometimes hide under, he wore his crocodile skin for a while, but we were not convinced. We had seen that Jake’s true nature was much more gentle. Rose had simply reminded him of what he already knew.

Note: Names have been changed.

Animals for life

1 12 2019

Paddy was the first horse I cared for and rode entirely on my own. He belonged to a local doctor, who didn’t have time to exercise him regularly due to his commitments as a GP. I’d already learned to ride, taught by a friend who became a professional equestrian, but mostly by galloping up and down green lanes on eager ponies, with the occasional outing to a cross country trial or show. Riding Paddy couldn’t have been more different.

For a start, there was his size. As a 13-year-old, I was just over 5ft, and Paddy was a dinosaur at around 17hh. Most of our time together involved me looking for gates or walls high enough to climb onto his back. Once onboard, though, I loved the feeling of protection he gave me. He lifted his huge feet carefully and glided along as if he were wading through deep water. His rolling rhythm was deeply reassuring and even though I probably would have preferred a perky pony of my own, I came to love Paddy deeply.

Paddy was the first horse I truly considered a friend. I felt Paddy was deeply lonely and that our time together somehow made his life seem a little brighter; I know he certainly brought warmth and reassurance to my own period of teenage anxiety and isolation. When I was with Paddy, I somehow felt less afraid, less churned up inside, and able to relax and enjoy each moment without worry. When I was stressed about something at school, I would think about Paddy’s huge presence and feel calmer.

This week I was privileged to attend a conference organised by the Blue Cross in London, during which the animal welfare charity launched a report on the links between tackling mental health, poverty and loneliness through animal companionship.

The report highlighted the ways that cats, dogs, horses and other animals could improve well-being through providing love and company, motivation and purpose, a sense of trust, distraction from symptoms, increased social interaction, exercise and humour. The report showed how pets bring meaning to lives and help people to maintain a positive view of the self, the world and their future.

During the day, there were many moving stories and films from people who had become homeless or had been in mental health crisis who shared that their pet was their only source of love and support. A poignant 56% of people said they considered their pet their best friend. For some people surveyed, without the need to live for their animals, they might have considered suicide. Animals are literally a lifeline for many. The report also pointed out that ‘shockingly people with severe and prolonged mental illness are on average at risk of dying  15 to 20 years earlier than people without such an illness.’

The Blue Cross supports pet owners in times of need, and their work is inspiring because they understand that looking after the welfare needs of animals means understanding the welfare needs of the people who care for these animals. The Blue Cross report makes many sound recommendations, including investing in more mental health training for their own staff and that NHS mental health trusts commission evaluations on animal assisted therapies, but the one that strikes me most is the recommendation that the mental health service user’s relationship with their pets should be included in any psychological and psychiatric assessments and included in any care or crisis plan by Community Mental Health Teams.

After the conference, I passed many people who will spend their winter on the streets of London with a devoted dog by their side. I remembered the story of Wully. After his girlfriend died and the council refused to pass on the tenancy of the flat they shared, Wully started living on the streets of London with his two dogs, drinking up to four bottles of strong cider a day. He was seen by the staff at Mayhew who persuaded him to put his dogs into their Pet Refuge Programme so that Wully could go into rehab. It took him two tries, but Wully ended up clean and now works as a healthcare advocate for the homeless.

Zoe Edwards, Head of Animal Welfare at Mayhew, said: ‘I remember going to see him a couple of years after, as he was one of my ongoing welfare cases, and he gave me £100 that he had raised for Mayhew, which was so good of him. I am extremely proud of Wully, he is a lovely kind man and it was a privilege to help him and his two lovely Staffies.’

This story inspires me because it shows society operating at its best. When a person has lost their relationship, their home and their livelihood, losing their dog or their cat, is utterly devastating and compounds their sense of loss and loneliness. A truly compassionate society must find ways to sustain the animal friendships that for many isolated and vulnerable people are a vital link to life.

Belinda with Paddy

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