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An Open Letter to Brian Keenan

by Annie Dibble

Dear Brian,

On 8th June I slipped in to Dublin Castle to hear your keynote speech at the ICP Annual General Meeting. I wasn’t able to attend the whole day, however I had read ‘An Evil Cradling’ many years ago, and the story stayed with me long after. In 1990 as you came to the end of your four year long incarceration, my life was also being redefined as my husband struggled to survive a raging cancer. He died 3 days before your release. During that time I was acutely sensitised to a more universal suffering which I perceived through stories such as yours and which deeply and painfully etched themselves onto my psyche. However, your story was also one of transformation, a complete rethinking of who you were and how you related to the world, because your only alternative was to not survive.

It seems that during the intervening years you have explored that painful territory with an objectivity which was conveyed with an honesty, humility and richness in your talk in Dublin Castle, so long after the events.   You described how, when it became clear in your prison cell that you were in for the ‘long haul’, you realised it would be critical to live in the present, in the immediacy of the moment, reasoning that any attempt to allow your mind to voyage into past memories or future dreams would only bring the reality of the situation crashing  thunderously inwards and break you down.

Howard E. Gardner (1991) defined 7 different intelligences; one of them he called ‘Intrapersonal Intelligence’  which he  described  as;

‘involving a correlative understanding  of oneself: one’s strengths, weaknesses, desires, fears and the capacity to use that knowledge to make judicious decisions about how to lead ones life’.

It seems to me that your own innate intrapersonal  ability provided you with the means to seek and recognise what you had to do in order to survive.  As time went by you said you saw the ridiculousness of imagining that life is something that can be planned and ordered and that events could be anticipated and relied upon to come to fruition. You began to perceive the frailty of your sanity, often you questioned the very existence of sanity. You came to know paranoia in full flight, and not be afraid of it. It seemed to me you were saying that in all of this turbulence, what you sometimes experienced was full blown psychosis. You talked of the conversations you had with yourself; long meaty conversations,   and discovered then that there were not just one or two of you, but that there were many, and each of you had a voice, and some of you had voices more unreasonable than others. You described how this community of yourselves argued, harassed and harangued each other, and then in time looked beyond themselves for another target at which to aim the hurt and anger and betrayal. Then, gradually something else began to happen:  they came to see that your captors were also in pain, imprisoned, that they too were struggling and you said that it was then your voices began to quieten, to tame themselves,  to absorb this new  piece of information. You said you felt new power begin to emerge as you started to recognise that your own wish for happiness was also what the jailers wished for themselves, and that you were all in this story together looking for the same thing.

In his exploration of psychotherapy as spiritual awakening John Welwood wrote that;

‘Suffering is nothing more than the observer judging, resisting, struggling with, and attempting to control experiences that seem painful, scary or threatening to it. Without that struggle, difficult feelings can be experienced more simply and directly’. (Welwood 2000).

So with this understanding, what slowly seemed to unfold as you began to let go the fixed responses was  a small miracle, a realisation  which cut through the mental torment and opened the way for something else to happen. You described an inward searching that led you further into previously unimagined places, when insights appeared to drift out of the unconscious depths and with them unfolded feelings which you found difficult to describe to us: you spoke of love, a deep, wide, unimaginably vast and all embracing love.   You spoke of compassion, of being overwhelmed by feelings which really bore no relation to the situation that you were in, they made no sense to your previous experience because, you said, they included feelings of affection towards your captors, without exception, you saw that you and they were no different, that there is no good or bad, just a sense of ‘oneness’, a giant,  all encompassing and loving ‘oneness’.

I am sure you know that much research has been done on compassion based approaches to psychotherapy, and much has been written on the growing awareness that our personal happiness. Is dependant on our ability to be open and compassionate to others. In a recent paper  presented in London  to  the Constructivist Section of UKCP defining Tara Rokpa Therapy   the authors refer to results of research on compassion based therapies  which

‘suggest that our ability to embrace and be with others in a social context and to wish others well is life enhancing both for the individual and for those around them.’  (2007).

I don’t know if you would see the process that you inwardly experienced as therapy or meditation, or  if this particular component  of your experience has made you an entirely new person, but the way  in which you described the profundity of your experience resonates with the following description of satori  and reverberates with Welwood’s words (in sanskrit – sunyata – meaning the open dimension of being that dissolves the tendency to become attached to anything – Welwood 2000 p.18) when he describes what took him into meditation  as a path to peace:

‘When I first encountered Zen, in the 1960s, I found myself especially drawn to the mysterious satori – that moment of seeing one’s own nature, when all the old blinders are said to fall away, so that one became an entirely new person, never to be the same again’.

There was a point, you said, when you were incarcerated in a tiny room, I think you said it may have been under a roof, because you could only stand up at one end, it was perhaps about  6ft long and 4ft wide,  and I think you said there were no windows?  It was here that you related a most bizarre and extraordinary aspect of your experiences. You said that if your jailers were to have opened your door and offer you your freedom, you would have had to say,

no, I am not yet ready, there is still some work I have to do’.

I was particularly struck by the confusion you described, in anticipating   a reconnection with the world and relationships which was no longer possible, because what you had experienced was so universally, amazingly inclusive, an experience for which there were no words. You recounted an understanding that as human beings all of the pain and struggle, all of the suffering that we put ourselves  through,  is simply  a way of affording ourselves a means to make  ‘solid’ a situation created by the mind.   In your preamble for the talk,  you made  clear that you are not a psychotherapist  and would not wish to be seen as such, and yet, the experience or ‘work’ which you described yourself undergoing was truly one of transformation, of turning around your situation and relating to it in a way which provided you with a means to not only bear with your mental suffering, but to end it.

Jack Kornfield describes his re- entry into the material world following many years as a Buddhist monk in extensive meditation retreat:

“Although I arrived back from the monastery clear, spacious, and high… I discovered that my meditation had helped me very little with my human relationships… I was still emotionally immature, acting out of the same painful patterns of blame and fear, acceptance and rejection…only the horror was that now I was beginning to see these patterns  more clearly. I began a long and difficult process of reclaiming my emotions… of learning how to feel my feelings” (1998).

Just because  we  are,  as Kelly (2001) says, the creators of our own reality,  this need not be  only one reality.  The human mind is a treasure trove of variables, and to see that we have the power to create who we are, that that is what we have, is a gift; and once recognised,  we can experiment with our response to whatever we are faced with.  Kelly’s understanding is that we create our future according to our understanding of the past, repeating patterns of behaviour which are outdated and no longer relevant, or in your case they simply had no point of reference.   Once the pattern is recognised, it  leaves room to rethink, to review, to change our way of seeing and responding to things – however this requires that all of our current  fixed sense of knowing and previous understanding be relinquished.

Again to refer to Tara Rokpa’s stated view:

‘In the Buddhist-based model of the mind all we need to do is open, there is nothing to hide or to be hidden.  However there are an infinite number of possible concepts/constructs which keep us from experiencing this luminous  openness  in which the mind is unceasingly self-cognisant.  These concepts/constructs  distort the clarity and manifest as projections  and prevent  the mind from experiencing itself or, for that matter, anything beyond itself, without all the filters of (mis) conception/construal(2007).

In recognising this fundamental truth,  Buddhism goes further to say that not only is mind  in essence pure and empty – that nothing exists as an independent thing, but also that everything  is dependent upon and relational to events, causes and conditions, inner and outer,  mental,  emotional and physical.  In the words of the Dalai Lama (1991):

‘This pristine nature is technically called ‘clear light’. The various afflictive emotions such as desire, hatred, jealousy are products of conditioning. They are not intrinsic qualities of the mind because the mind can be cleansed of them. When this clear light nature of mind is veiled or inhibited from expressing its true essence by the conditioning of the afflictive thoughts and emotions, the person is said to be caught  in the cycle of existence.’

In ‘The Blinding Absence of Light’ Tahar Ben Jelloun opens up further the possibility of contemplating a lack of intrinsic reality, when he describes the destruction of Tazmamim prison as soon as internee Salim is released after 20 years in complete darkness under the desert – thus removing all evidence of his enforced  incarceration,  the only tangible point of reference.

It appears that because of this ultimate lack of intrinsic reality all things are possible.

I would like to share another story with you, of a different kind of inner work which covers similar ground, that of the transformation of suffering into compassionate action, which required of two men and their families a flexibility of mind and an ability to dissolve their attachment to an organised self.  It happened more recently and closer to home, in Derry.  You may know of the organization ‘Children in Crossfire’ which was established 10 years ago by Richard Moore. Richard was blinded by a rubber bullet in 1972 when he was ten years old.  He made a remarkable decision as a young man not to seek revenge, but to try and understand the meaning of what had happened to him. Later he formed a charity (Children in Crossfire) which helps children in Ireland and throughout the world who are caught in situations like his own. It was the 10th Anniversary of the organisation last week and on Wednesday a celebratory conference was held in the Derry Millennium Hall.

In his speech Richard told us that growing up he had  thought often about the Soldier who fired the bullet, wondered what kind of a man he is and what  his life has been like.  He also told us that 8 years ago he met His Holiness the Dalai Lama over lunch in Derry, and that the Dalai Lama had showed an inordinate interest in Richard, his story, and he also wondered about the Soldier.  The Dalai Lama  kept in touch with Richard afterwards and some 3 years later in Belfast, Richard again attended a talk given by His Holiness, although this time, to his amazement, he found himself sitting in the audience and listening as his own story was the subject of the talk. He then made a decision, because if his story was important enough to be the focus of a talk shared publicly by His Holiness, then Richard could find the courage to complete the work he felt that needed to do.

It took him one year to write the letter, to say what he needed to say, to express his feelings and forgiveness to the Soldier in a way which would not be patronising or diminishing.  He asked the soldier if he felt they could meet, as this would not be out of the question for him. One year later Richard received a reply from the Soldier, and they met. One can only imagine the letting go, the releasing of hurt, the radical inner shifting that this task required for both of these men.

‘How much we suffer in the shadow depends on how attached we are to old assumptions about how things are and are supposed to be. Where we identify strongly with the underlying constructs and construe our lives through their consequent anticipations  this limits our freedom.’ (Tara Rokpa  statement.  2007)

The 10th Anniversary Conference required a keynote speaker, and 2 years ago Richard wrote to His Holiness the Dalai Lama as a matter of formality, and invited him to attend. He had also just written his letter to the Soldier, but not yet heard back.  However His Holiness’ reply was instant, and positive. During this introductory talk last week His Holiness had been sitting next to Richard on stage, holding his hand as he spoke, and at this point took over the story, continuing to hold Richards hand. He called Richard his hero, because he said all that he himself does is preach about compassion and wisdom, but that Richard had actualized the transformation. He told us that this is not about Buddhism, but basic humanity, and that it doesn’t require any particular creed or religion to be able to go beyond the stuckness of negativity and the clinging to old patterns of relating. He told us that this morning before the conference he had met the Soldier with Richard and that it was the greatest gift that he could have been given. He spoke for over an hour about the importance of letting go fixed notions of how the world works, and opening to possibilities for new things to happen, for the exquisite lotus flower to blossom out of the mud. We were here witness to the truth that

‘this ability to conceive of and visualize a world beyond duality and thus beyond suffering, even as a possibility,  may influence they way one experiences the world.’ (Tara Rokpa statement.  2007).

As the conference came to a close, there was a small interruption back stage, and a person walked on unannounced. He said that he also had something to say.  He walked up to the Dalai Lama and Richard, they hugged, and he took the microphone. Linking arm in arm with Richard, the Soldier spoke in a loud public school accent, he spoke about his devastation, remorse and guilt at the pain his action as a young man had caused. He said that not a day had gone by when he had not thought about Richard, and he spoke of the incredible mixture of emotions he experienced when the letter arrived two years ago. It took him a further year to organise his own thoughts and feelings and respond in a way which would not seem undermining or slight. He asked Richard if they could meet, and they did, in Edinburgh Airport. They spoke for 5 hours, they had so much to say,  it was, he said, as if they were one person.  Since then they have had further meetings, and included their wives and children.  And he said he has so much to thank Richard for.

The Dalai Lama told us that in previous visits to Northern Ireland he had felt a coldness in some place in his heart,  he felt the sadness,  anger and grief,  he suffering, and was not sure that it would be possible for this to be healed, but that he wanted us to know that on this visit,  it was no longer there,  his heart  was warm,  he felt very optimistic for the future of this island in its entirety.

The conference ended, and the audience of 1000 stood cheering as three men embraced unashamedly before us:  The 14th Dalai Lama of Tibet, the blinded Derry born Richard Moore, and the British Soldier.

‘Karma is a creative process which brings results, which in turn sows seeds of further results. It is like an echo process. You shout and your voice bounces back on you as well as being transmitted to the next wall, and it goes on and on’. Chogyam Trungpa. (1975).

Brian, like you, I am not sure if this is psychotherapy, or even if I am a psychotherapist, but what  matters most is that people can withstand extreme situations and survive and change, and that we each have tools, inner resources available to us so that when the old narrative no longer fits, other things can become possible.

I am not looking to compare your experience with that of Richard Moore, or the Soldier.  I only imagine that perhaps the mental turmoil and emotional readjusting which you described as your experience in captivity was not so very  far from those felt in a different way by Richard and the Soldier as they worked separately and together to rearrange their ‘inner furniture’ to find a  configuration which would be  easier to live with.

And what  also really matters is that you were able and willing to stand before us and  inspire us with your own story .

Thank you

Annie Dibble facilitates groups engaged with the Tara Rokpa Therapy  process  in Ireland and abroad,  and also works in a private psychotherapy  practice in Dublin.   In another life she teaches in 3rd level art and design and is currently working to create supportive links between weavers in India, Nepal and Dublin.  She is a member of IAHIP and EAP.


Welwood,J.  2002.  ‘Toward a Psychology of Awakening’. Shambala. London and Boston.

The Dalai Lama,  Benson, H.,  Thurman,  R.A.F., Gardener, H.E., Goleman, D. 1991. ‘Minscience, an East –West Dialogue’.  Wisdom Books. Boston.

Chogyam Trungpa Rinpoche. 1987. ‘Glimpses of Abhidharma’. Shambala. London and Boston.

Kornfield,  J. & Rothburg,  D. 1998. ‘Ken Wilber in Dialogue’.  Jack Kornfield in dialogue with Donald Rothburg:  The Mandala of Awakening.  Quest Books.

Sweeney,  B., Hensey,  L., Irwin,  E., Gunne, D., ‘Tara Rokpa Statement of Origins and Philosophical Underpinnings’. Paper presented  in London  at  the UKCP Constructivist  Section Meeting in July 2007

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