The Physical Experience of Death in the Mind of Someone Living (or how having cancer made me really fucking angry for no obvious reason)

What follow is a guest post written by a friend, James, which arose out of a discussion we were having about the connection between body and mind. It’s a fascinating account of his experience. I’d like to thank James profusely for allowing me to publish it here.

Abstract – Discussion of the disjunction between mental processes/physical sensations and the resultant emotional states and some thoughts on possible causal links.

The theory advanced is that serious illness produces a physical sub-rational understanding that the body is dying which is manifested directly in pre-rational emotional states and occur as a surprise to the rational reasoning intellect.

Illustrated with examples from living with Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma and with parallels drawn with the character of Walter White/Heisenberg in Breaking Bad, who accurately reflects the otherwise inexplicable rage and will to power of a previously mild mannered individual suffering from Cancer.




I was coughing a lot, which as it turns out was because of the fist sized tumour in my neck constricting my windpipe.[1]   My wife demanded I see the Doctor, partly out of concern and partly because the coughing was annoying her so off to the GP I went. They decided to refer me to the hospital for ‘tests’ and were unhelpfully vague as to the details.

The first sign of what later became fairly frequent outbursts of irrational anger happened as I was standing outside a record shop on my mobile phone. The fact that I wanted to get inside and look for records probably didn’t help my levels of patience and tolerance.

The GP had written me a referral letter. I wanted to know what it said so I phoned to ask for a copy. The receptionist who I spoke to said I couldn’t have a copy as it ‘wasn’t policy’ or some such bullshit. At this point I saw red. I told her in a calm but threatening voice that I was going to have a copy, that she could either put a copy in the post to me right now or I would come and get a copy and I suspected that she would prefer the former option. She agreed to do the former and I immediately hung up on her.

As I type this I can feel a surge of adrenalin pumping through my body, triggered by the memory of this conversation.[2] Combined with the usual large amount of coffee I had this morning I feel quite light headed and am shaking a little. I presume this is the standard ‘fight or flight’ response but it amazes me still that thinking back to a short telephone conversation two years ago can still trigger an immediate physical response which is otherwise unheralded by any present physical stimulus.

It turned out to be Non-Hodgkins Lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes, in my case in the neck, requiring a course of Chemotherapy followed by Radiotherapy. As I am not stupid and can use the internet I worked out what it probably was before I got to the appointment where somebody sat me down and said ‘You have Cancer’. The prognosis was good, they had caught it fairly early and it was eminently treatable. So far so good. At the time I was entirely fine about it and didn’t really feel much at all about the situation other than it was going to be annoying to have to take however many months off work. Or so I thought.

The next incident I recall was over lunch at a local pub. I ordered a sandwich which I was underwhelmed by but because I am English and don’t complain and because it wasn’t actually inedible and I was hungry I ate it anyway. On leaving and paying I was asked by the unsuspecting manager/staff member whether we had enjoyed our meal. So I told her exactly what I thought of it, which was vehemently negative and borderline psychotic in tone, albeit very quiet and without swearing, making it impossible for her to cut the conversation short and have us thrown out. She was shocked to the point of speechlessness and I recall ending the conversation by telling her that the offer of a free meal in future would be entirely useless, because I would never set foot in the place again and that I would be telling everyone I knew to do likewise because their food was unfit for human consumption. I may also have said that I wouldn’t feed it to my dog.[3]

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The Round Up (Miklós Jancsó)

Miklós Jancsó’s The Round Up is a film about  power. It’s set in Hungary in the 1850s but its themes are timeless, thus its inclusion here. More specifically, it’s about how cruel power can be, and how arbitrary, how pointless. Its title  in Hungarian is Szegénylegények which translates as “The Hopeless Ones” is perhaps a better indication of the film’s intentions. The film’s only protagonists are Hungarian soldiers and their prisoners, former revolutionaries now turned bandits (the slippage between the two is never made quite clear). It’s set in a penal stockade on the plains of Hungary. The film’s use of landscape is incredible – these vast, flat spaces dominate, and become oppressive, and humans are reduced in scale. A prisoner runs off into this space at one stage, and it seems a hopeless gesture, a plunge into the void. The actors become ant-like and normal human desires and intentions are similarly reduced. The stockade is utterly startk and bleak, whitewashed, without a single human touch or gesture of comfort anywhere.

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Colin Ward – Everyday Anarchist

I once described Colin Ward to a friend as “an anarchist who builds adventure playgrounds” which seems as good point a starting point as any for talking about his life and ideas (she replied “he’s my new favourite person”). Ward was a self-educated anarchist polymath who spent most of his life working in planning, architecture and social policy. This might seem to be in contradiction with anarchism ,if one thinks of anarchy as solely guys in black hoods breaking Starbucks windows, but perhaps anarchism is a little richer than this? An anarchist perspective allowed Ward to arrive at any number of novel solutions to social problems, some of which I will touch on briefly below. The point about “adventure playgrounds here” is also telling – one to the reasons I am attracted to his work is his ability to place children and their needs for fun, stimulation and exploration of their environments at its centre. Children are often seem as a peripeheral annoyances in urban life, if they’re not outright demonsied. Any vision of social life that puts them back at its centre is worth exploring.

Colin Ward

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Meditation and mindfulness in schools

I’m writing a couple of big posts which seem to be taking forever to finish (not thanks to the beautiful weather), so by way of offering up some new content, this is piece I wrote for an online meditation discussion/support group (“Mind Club” on Facebook). It’s a couple of reflections based on reading about the disruption of Google’s Wisdom 2.0 conference. Wisdom 2.0 is a conference whose aim is to facilitate links between those in the tech sphere (the founders and workers of Facebook, Twitter, Paypal et al) and yoga and mindfulness teachers, presumably with the aim of taking the lessons of mindfulness into the corporate sphere. The disruption was a protest against the hypocrisy of corporations like Google, who are  promoting mindfulness and compassion on one hand yet are huge drivers of gentrification of San Francisco, pushing up rents and changing the character of the area. Where does the buck stop? Has Google actually got the courage to challenge it’s own practices or is this simply “McMindfulness”? (More links and discussion herehere and here). It put me in mind of attempts to bring mindfulness into schools.

I met with a guy last year who was working for a company who were set up to aim to promote mindfulness in schools – they produce lesson plans around mindfulness, other resources and materials and supply training to staff. Laudable in lots of ways – I have read great accounts of the effect of mindfulness on gang violence in schools, the positive effects of meditation on stress is pretty well documented etc. I think it’s definitely a useful life skill to have, and the experience of peace and contentment it can generate is something to be cherished. This guy gave me an account of his attempts to get his classes to practice (13 year olds, if I recall correctly) and said something like “yeah, it’s a struggle, a few of ‘em get it but a lot of them muck around”. I was intrigued enough to discuss some related ideas about stress and well-being with my own tutorial group at the college I work in, as a kind of “warming up” to ideas of mindfulness and meditation practice. I met mostly with indifference. Some were a little bit interested, but for most, it seemed to be another idea flung down on them from on high. It didn’t speak to their experience. Given the choice between this and self-directing their own time, they chose the latter. I try and make my teaching responsive to students’ interests and  ideas, I went with this.

What struck me about my encounter with this guy, was what he was giving an account of was almost meditation by force – it’s not something the students have selected to do because it arises out of their natural interests. It’s an imposition, because we know it’s good for them, ultimately backed up by the coercive power of the institution.

Related to this, this lack of awareness of power dynamics is the fact that there’s no institutional critique of school in itself in the way these practices were presented (this is where I see the parallel with the articles on Google above) – meditation and mindfulness may “adjust” kids to school, but is this something they should be adjusted to? There’s nothing natural about sticking kids together in a building all day, especially if a lot of the time they are sitting still or required to be quiet. It strikes me as a disservice to growing bodies which are going to benefit from activity. This is especially true for younger children but I know from my own experience, older pupils greatly enjoy activities which give them the autonomy to move around, and learning experiences that aren’t based on pen and paper (or keyboard and screen). I can’t help but make parallels with the quiescent nature of mediation with sitting quietly in class, which is the dream of the authoritarian teacher. I have often being struck by the horrible nature of the exam room. Enforced quiet with only stress in the air, all the noise, humour and joy that can be present in education drained away. This is particularly true when basic responses like when fidgeting are being pathologised as ADHD and treated with drugs. See (The Real Reason Children Fidget). I’m much more interested in approaches to education which challenge the whole idea of school itself.

In this sense, enforced meditation then becomes part of the state’s armoury of coercive technologies. It generates a passivity that is ideal for happy consumers, and a tolerance of conditions that maybe should not be tolerated. Perhaps this is a criteria that we should apply to medtiative practices – do they challenge power? Will they make us courageous in taking a stand? Do they reinforce institutional aims? Are these aims in alignment with the needs of those being taught the techniques? Such questions are often left out of the discourse surrounding meditation.

I am perhaps being a little hyperbolic here in my condemnation. As I said, I think mindfulness is a valuable skill and one worth experiencing. However, when powerful interests begin to promote a technique, I am suspicious. I think true mindfulness lies in looking cautiously at the intentions that underlie any practice.

Dossier 51 (Michel Deville, 1978)

Dossier 51 is an obscure lost gem by Michael Deville, adapted from a novel by Gilles Perrault.  It’s could be described as a “spy film” but that’d really be doing it a disservice, as what’s it’s actually about  is surveillance and manipulation. The plot revolves around a nameless organisation who wish to manipulate a political body called ODENS and so therefore target one Dominique Auphal, a newly elected ODENS member (he’s the codenamed “51” of the title). They set to digging into his life, searching for levers of manipulation.

Dossier 51 3

Formally, the film is pretty stunning, it’s shot entirely in first person camera, from the point of view of various agents or their shadowy controllers. These characters remain off screen throughout, bar the occasionally glimpse in a mirror. This has the doubled effect of making the viewer both  complicit in the surveillance, and heightening the anonmyity of these “characters” – in fact, I hesitate to use the word “characters” as so little is given away. The protagonists are an absent presence, defined only by their desire to manipulate Auphal. On screen we see long shots via hidden cameras, CCTV footage, and scattered and fragmented shots of spy paraphernalia and a few soliloquies to camera. It’s these soliloquies that gave the film it’s most powerful moments. The revelations of Auphal’s mother are heart-rending, even more so in the context of false trust that’s been set up by one of the film’s many agents.

Dossier 51 2

As the film builds, “they” begin to pull together a psychic portrait of Auphal, his weak points, obsessions and hidden drivers. In this sense, the film rests exactly on on kind of psychic archaeology that one undergoes in psychoanalysis. What struck me when watching is that the film is emblematic of the moment when psychoanalysis was at its peak of cultural power, when Freud (and others) seemed to have the keys to all existence. However, in a way, this denouement at the end broke some of the film’s magic –  which lies in the evocation of paranoia and furtive observation. The narratives of psychoanalysis, these explanations of the psyche, sometimes seem too contorted, too contrived – unless you are living them. That’s maybe the case here, though I won’t give the end away.

Dossier 51 1

Regardless, it’s a great film, a brilliant 70s curiosity. Psychoanalysis may have lost some of its cultural force but given recent revelations about agents of the State and the ubiquitous nature of surveillance, it’s remarkably prescient.

Christopher Hyatt, Jack Willis & “Undoing Yourself”

The following PDF – Reichian Therapy, the Technique, for Home Use (link to PDF) – was recently sent to me by a friend. It’s a text by Jack Willis which gives a pretty full regime of body work exercises based on Reich’s therapeutic work. Willis was a close colleague of New Falcon publisher and occult author Christopher Hyatt and, in fact, these exercises seem to be a much more comprehensive forms of the exercises that were later published by Hyatt as Undoing Yourself With Energized Meditation.

Undoing Yourself with Eneggized Meditation

“Energized Mediation” is a shorthand for Hyatt’s work (and it seems, Willis’s) but these techniques are rooted in Reichian bodywork.  Published in this way they occupy the grey area between therapy and self-help, but they can be very powerful and the catalyst for major change – as is demonstrated by the following discussion on Dharma Overground with a few people talking about what they experienced when doing the exercises. If you are tempted to embark on this work, this might give you an idea of what to expect. There are some very astute comments here. Here is another account, of how these exercises put a user in touch with feelings of repressed sexuality.This must have been scary to go through but (one hopes) ultimately liberating.

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Wilhelm Reich – talk at Treadwells Books, 1/9/05

The following talk was given Treadwells Bookshop on 1st September, 2005. I’m reposting it here as it’s not a bad intro to Reich and his work. Also, it gives me the chance to finally correct all the bloody typos that have bugged me for the last 8 years! I actually have some proper, much deeper experience of Reichian (orgone) therapy now, so I’m going to alter and correct in light of this experience in footnotes.

Love, work and knowledge are the wellsprings of our life. They should also govern it.
Wilhelm Reich, as the epigraph to all his books.

All systems which liberate rather than delude lead back to the body

Wilhelm Reich is the kind of person whose name a lot of people know, while knowing very little about him. Some might be aware of his crazy reputation as the “sex box” guy, who built a strange devices to give people better orgasms (immortalised in the Hawkwind song Orgone Accumulator)1 . Those of you who know a little more may be aware that he was a radical psychotherapist who was imprisoned in the US in the 1950s, died in prison and had his books burnt by the US govt. There was a resurgence of interest in his work in the sixties and seventies, but he pretty much seems to have disappeared off the cultural map in the UK. This talk will attempt to re-present some of his ideas and explain my interest.

I’m going to talk firstly about his life history and how his psychotherapeutic approach evolved and what it entails, as the potential for working on oneself is what interests most people when they first approach his work (including myself). I’m going to break the theoretical side into “chunks” as I find it easier to handle this way, as well as offering some examples from my own experience to clarify. As I’m speaking in an occult bookstore, I’m then going to offer up some of Reich’s comments and thoughts on mysticism, as he had some very interesting (though critical) things to say. I intend to close with a consideration of the breadth of his work and it’s unity – which I hope will inspire a few people to do some research and reading of their own.

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