Relax, Sammy, the Zen course pays off

by LIAM CLARKE, The Sunday Times, 8 August 2010

Belfast, Northern Ireland (UK) -- When I first became interested in meditation, I attended classes given by Kelsang Drolkar, a Tibetan nun whose previous job was as a consultant psychiatrist at Belfast city hospital.

<< Sammy Wilson, Stormont finance minister who is against the Northern Health Trust  for engaging Zen master Paul Haller to teach meditation on mindfulness to psychiatrists and social workers

Drolkar's original name — she didn't like to call it her real name — was Sheila Guiney and she was London-Irish, born in Drogheda. On one occasion she introduced me to one of her students, saying that I might be interested as a journalist. He turned out to be a member of an RUC mobile support unit — the guys sent in to deal with riots.

He told me that he had a little altar in his locker and that, before going into action, he took time out in front of it to generate feelings of calm, compassion and courage. He believed that it made him a better policeman. Drolkar also felt that teaching meditation and relaxation techniques, whether they were formally called Buddhist or not, helped the trauma victims she had treated as a psychiatrist for most of the Troubles. Tibetan Buddhism wasn't for me, though. It seemed to carry too much cultural baggage, even when secularised into meditation technique. I moved on to Zen meditation, which I found to be a more barebones and dogma-lite version.

That incident came back to me when I read that classes on how to be "happy, calm and content" given by Paul Haller, a Zen master, to staff in the Northern Health Trust had been criticised by Sammy Wilson, the Stormont finance minister.

Wilson, charged with finding spending cuts and finding them quickly, has become a hammer of bureaucracy and political correctness.

He famously described global warming as nonsense when he was environment minister. More recently he has taken aim at Stormont's fleet of three-year-old ministerial Skodas (yes, Skodas) as an example of needless extravagance.

When it came to Haller, Wilson shot from the hip. "If further proof is needed that there are too many managers in the health service, this is it. They clearly have too much time on their hands and have got their priorities wrong if they think that what is needed are sessions such as these", he stormed on his blog. "I am disappointed that there are those who think that it is acceptable to provide such a service to staff" he went on.

It wasn't long before holes started to appear in his argument. The class turned out to be free, although the 50 staff who attend are allowed two hours off work to do so. Those involved in it are mainly psychiatrists and social workers but, far from clamouring for it to be scrapped, as Wilson assumed, other grades are asking for the programme to include them.

In fact, mindfulness meditation — a technique of focus on the immediate — has a respectable record in the therapeutic and stafftraining environment. It is pretty mainstream in America, for instance, and taking law enforcement as an example, military police in southern Brazil are being offered state-funded training in a Zen monastery to help them cope with the stresses of a dangerous job.

Wisconsin and other US states have offered similar courses to law enforcement officers. Zen training has long been used in a business environment in Japan and Korea.

However, it is mainly among health professionals and those working in mind sciences that it has made its impact in the West. A pioneer was Dr Jon Kabat-Zinn of the University of Massachusetts Medical School, who made his name by applying mindfulness techniques to, first, pain relief and then stress. The results are significant enough for programmes to have been rolled out across a large number of US hospitals. The techniques are simple enough for patients to perform at home, and there are none of the adverse sideeffects possible under drug therapies.

The changes produced in meditation can be monitored in terms of brain-wave function, providing evidence that something is happening. Research is now going on into the precise biochemistry so that the techniques can be refined and simplified. In Britain, Professor Mark Williams, who studied with Kabat-Zinn, has introduced courses for health professionals in the universities of Oxford and Wales, some of which are offered in Dublin.

The Mental Health Foundation is campaigning for mindfulness training to be more widely available in conjunction with cognitive therapy. In a survey it carried out last year, 72% of GPs in the UK believed that learning mindfulness meditation skills would be helpful to their patients. This is why psychiatrists, social workers and other staff in Belfast have caused the course to be oversubscribed. It gives them an opportunity to sample what is on offer in an up-and-coming therapeutic field before deciding whether a full-time course at a university would be worth taking. We are not talking reflexology, crystals or Hopi ear candles — this is a serious field of study with acknowledged therapeutic potential.

So Wilson has got the wrong end of the stick on expense and waste. He might even enjoy meeting Haller, who shares his impish and at times irreverent sense of humour. Knowing them both, I think they would get on.

Haller is an interesting man and is, along with Ingen Breen, a Dubliner, one of only two acknowledged Zen masters from Ireland. The organisers of the event may have been mistaken to show Haller in his robes as abbot of San Francisco Zen Center in a flyer for what would be a secular event conducted in casual clothes. That could have given Wilson the wrong impression.

Haller, 63, is originally from Belfast's Lower Falls area. He is, by training, an engineer who worked on the M1 motorway before leaving Belfast in 1972 to visit the Middle East and escape from the Troubles. He kept travelling and ended up in Japan. Haller tells the story of how he was dumped by a girlfriend with him since India after she got a high-powered modelling job in Tokyo. As he wandered through the city, pretty much broke, he found advertising posters of her staring down at him most times he used the subway.

At that emotional low, he fell into conversation in a coffee shop with a man training to be a Zen monk. Haller thought he would try it. At the time Japanese monasteries wouldn't take foreign students so he travelled to Thailand where he joined a forest order, meditating for months in a hut in the mountains.

During a break he spoke to a westerner who told him the first Buddhist training monastery in the West had been set up in San Francisco by the Zen master Shunryu Suzuki.

Haller went there next and has stayed in San Francisco Zen Center ever since. Zen monks aren't necessarily celibate and he has married and raised a family there. The Zen centre is a big set-up, which runs a hospice for the dying as well as an organic farm, a monastery in the mountains and a city-centre headquarters.

Haller has been coming back to Northern Ireland since 2000 and has a considerable following among Zen groups in Belfast, Ballymena, Coleraine and Newcastle. Visiting them, and leading a five-day retreat at the Servite Priory in Benburb, is the main reason he comes over. He has also been giving mindfulness training in a secular context for years. I sat in on one session hosted by the late Brendan Bradley, who ran a victims and survivors group in North Belfast. The techniques were similar to hypnotherapy, designed to bring about a relaxation response. Women's trauma groups recorded another session he did with them and got a grant from the city council to put it on CDs for guided meditation at home.

It can't be easy, making cuts. Perhaps the strain is getting to Wilson, once nicknamed Red Sammy and considered a left-winger in Democratic Unionist circles. He should attend Haller's class. If he hasn't time, maybe someone from the council could send him a CD. He needs to chill a little.