Tuesday, 21 June 2016


This internationally respected peace and reconciliation centre was founded by Ray Davey an army chaplain who, like Kurt Vonnegut, had been a POW and had witnessed the fire-bombing of Dresden in 1945. Both men were profoundly changed by this terrible experience in which the city was destroyed and at least 25,000 people were killed.

Working as a chaplain at QUB, Ray became committed to fostering community as an antidote to violence. He wanted to found a place where people of good will could come together and learn to live in community. In early 1965 he managed to raise £7000 in ten days to buy a site on top of the cliffs near Ballycastle and, with the help of students, Corrymeela was opened in October that year. Since then the centre has been run by a small number of permanent staff and a large community of volunteers, many of whom come from all over the world to support its work.

I stayed there, with T, on a residential organised by Cancer Focus for people living with cancer: patients and their partners or carers. There were about forty people in total, with a wide range of diagnoses: from terminal and untreatable, to people with recent recurrences like myself and many others with initial occurrences of the disease. Three quarters of the people on the residential were female.

The purpose of the residential was well-being. There were many different activities on offer, from Art Therapy and Pilates to Juice-Making and Photography. In the evenings we had a storytelling session, a drumming circle and a sing-along. It was great to get away from our normal surroundings and share in doing something new, with people in the same boat as yourselves. There were also group discussion and reflection sessions which focused on living in the present.

I had never met any of the other participants before. Cancer was the one thing we all had in common. And for me, the informal chats and sharing of experience between people was the best part of the residential. I walked down the beach towards Ballycastle with a woman who had had a recurrence of bowel cancer last year. We discussed how a recurrence is much more threatening than having cancer the first time around. She said that the first time around you oscillate from believing your life is over to a sort of vain hope in which you tell yourself that it can't and won't happen to you. With a recurrence you lose the ability to deny the seriousness of your situation and your ray of hope becomes much more fragile. This made complete sense to me and drew into sharp focus much of what I had been feeling over the past seven months.

The most powerful observation for me came from a man who had a terminal form of a rare blood cancer. He said that the cancer was going to do what it would do and there was nothing that he could do about it. What he had decided to do was to get on with living his life for as long as he could. As he finished speaking it hit me that I had spent a huge amount of my energy and resources trying to control the uncontrollable. A couple of months ago, after I had been categorised as high risk, I challenged my Oncologist with a detailed set of questions about my cancer and the predictability of a further recurrence. She was unable to answer any of my questions. This left me deeply dissatisfied and full of fear.

I realised that, if even the experts didn't know, how could I hope to understand the likely course of the disease. The problem itself was unpredictable, unknowable and unanswerable. Instead of despairing, which is where I had often ended up, there was a way forward. I could do my best to put it all to one side and get on with what I was able to do something about, trying to live my own life as well as I could. I returned from Corrymeela with a lighter step and with a glimpse of a path ahead that I hadn't been able to see before.

The spirit of this place of gathering and the sharing of the participants on this residential had indeed given me something precious.  

Monday, 6 June 2016


I’m learning about mindfulness. I’ve taken a workshop with Padraig O’Morain and I’ve begun an online course. Mindfulness means being aware of what you are doing while you are doing it. This is not as simple as it seems. Often I find I am doing things on some sort of auto-pilot whilst my head is somewhere else, usually worrying about something or other. Then I come out of where my mind had taken me and emerge into the present moment, startled and blinking.

This is completely normal. Our minds constantly impel us to think about the past or the future, rather than being in the here and now, paying attention to what is actually going on with us and around us. Mindfulness is all about learning how to be in and remain in the present moment. Although mindfulness is a practice that is derived from Buddhism, it is not the same as this ancient religion.

During the workshop I sat with my eyes closed with around fifty other people and focused on my breathing for a few minutes. This sounds easy but it was very hard to stay focused on my breathing, my mind kept drifting away to other things. When this happens, Padraig advised, you notice the thought you are having and gently bring yourself back to your breathing. Don’t scold yourself for having odd thoughts or ruminating, he said, this is entirely normal. Just accept that fact and bring your attention back to your breathing.

Later we did some more exercises, including a body scan: a process of paying attention to each part of your body, starting at your toes and finishing with your head. Inbetween the exercises we learnt about the health benefits of mindfulness. These have been particularly marked for people suffering stress, both mental and physical. And mindfulness is now accepted as a therapy by the medical establishment for people suffering from chronic pain, depression and anxiety. As I have suffered from each of these at times over the past decade, I felt that mindfulness was something that I should try. 

The logic of mindfulness is that by noticing the often stressed thoughts that you have about the past and future, as well as the physical effects they produce (raised pulse, impact of stress hormones etc), you are able to recognise that these thoughts and their effects are in fact detached from your actual here and now. Through doing this regularly you become more skilled at remaining in your actual present, you ruminate less and you become calmer. As you spend less time and energy in reaction to a remembered painful past or an imagined painful future, you have more ability to make better choices about what is actually happening to you.

A while ago I got a postcard, out of the blue, from a good friend. The card had just two words emblazoned on it: enjoy now. As a longstanding cancer patient (I am just coming up to my five years anniversary) who has had a recurrence and is at high risk of another, there are plenty of painful past events to recall and some painful futures that are all too easy to imagine. One day at a time has been my mantra since my recurrence last year. But a day is a long time and a night is often longer. Perhaps that should really be one moment at a time. For all we ever have is the present moment. The past has gone and the future is unknown. So let's do our best to mindfully enjoy the here and now.