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Just as any mighty river is made up of the confluence of many small streams, the coming into existence of the Community Health Foundation was the result of the flowing together of many streams of human energy. The source of this “river” arose in Boston in 1965 when Michio and Aveline Kushi established the East West Foundation, an educational centre, in the suburb of Brookline. It was at this point in time that something of a model for a macrobiotic community development began to be grounded. An eclectic group of people, who were already questioning the current social agreement, came together at Kushi’s Boston community.
In 1972 Bill Tara, an influential member of this group, became the manager of Ceres Natural Health Food store on the Portobello Road in London. Founded in the ’60s this was a magical emporium with a bakery, takeaway and bookshop. Peter Bradford was another important “tributary” of the Boston community. In 1974 he and Bill set up Sunwheel Foods, a macrobiotic food company distributing a full range of the staple foods and specialising in the importation of all the highest quality Japanese products. My own little stream, flowing merrily along, bumped into the greater current when I went for the first time to buy some brown rice at Ceres Natural Health Food store. On the day I went there a poster caught my eye and I signed up for the “Natural Foods” Cooking classes run by Renée Tara.
At this time, plans by Tara, Bradford and others to found the Self Health Centre of London were coming to fruition. Before long the Centre was in operation with classes in Cooking, Oki Yoga, Shiatsu, guest lectures and fabulous macrobiotic dinners on Wednesday evenings. I took all of them. By 1976 the group that had grown around the centre felt ready for a major expansion. I put my career as a successful young actor on hold and worked at Sunwheel Foods to be in daily communication with Bill Tara who was the force of nature in leading this new project.
Bill had by now enrolled a body of Trustees and in 1976 The Community Health Foundation was registered as a charitable trust. Its mandate was to provide education to enable people to be in control of their health. In the words of the Mission Statement: “Health is here seen as not merely the absence of symptoms of sickness but as a creative and dynamic relationship between the individual, the family, the community and the greater natural environment.”
The former St Luke’s School building, a disused red brick five storey monster on Old Street, EC1, came up for rent. We jumped at it and focussed fundraising followed rapidly. The lease was signed for 20 years. It was an “Oh my God” moment and all the thoughts that could possibly rush through your head at such a moment went hell for leather through mine. Such as: “What on earth have I let myself in for?” Amazingly, people showed up from all over, sleeves already rolled up. Chris Dawson from New Zealand (now the owner of Clearspring) partnered me in opening the food shop, East West Natural Foods, and Peter Bradford built the shop interior. One day a short Frenchman arrived and announced “I am Jean Torné, this is my wife Linda, I am ‘ere.” Jon Sandifer parked his camper in the yard and took on the role of maintenance manager.
Sites were allocated for the Cooking School, Conference Centre, Administration, a bookshop and a restaurant. Teams assembled around each of these projects and one by one each facility came into being. The educational programme presented classes in Shiatsu, Macrobiotic Cooking, Dö-in, Oriental Diagnosis, Macrobiotic Medicine, Bread Baking and the Order of the Universe. A magazine “The Spiral” was launched and a series of pamphlets “Better Health through Nutrition” hit the streets. Michael Burns, magical Irish storyteller, opened the bookshop. The restaurant, “The Seven Sheaves” opened to critical acclaim from Timeout and The Evening Standard, whose famous critic Fay Maschler included it in her “20 best restaurants of 1977”.
Michio Kushi came to teach high profile seminars and classes and to give consultations. Registration in CHF classes increased and plans were drawn up to hold the first European Congress of Macrobiotic Centres at Old Street. We launched a series of Conferences on Preventative Medicine with speakers from the medical and health professions. Our intent to influence the perception of health was beginning to take shape. A training course for teachers known as “The Kushi Institute”, a collaboration between Michio Kushi and Bill Tara, was created. The students would study, in depth, the Order of the Universe, Cooking, Oriental Diagnosis, Shiatsu, Dö-In, and Macrobiotic Medicine. Well, what could one do but enrol. So I did! The teachers scheduled on that first course included Kushi himself, Bill Tara, Marc von Cawenbergh, Rik Vermeuter (formerly a doctor of Nuclear medicine from Belgium) and the legendary Shiatsu teacher Shisuko Yamamoto.
On the departure of Bill Tara in 1981 Denny Waxman, head of the Philadelphia East West Centre, came to London to replace him. His two years at the CHF saw the transforming of the food store and its sale to Sunwheel Foods, which then became Clearspring. Denny also gave a new focus and challenge to the education, with his wife Judy bringing all her training with Aveline Kushi to fruition in the cooking classes.
The Seven Sheaves became the “East West Restaurant”, a self-service café which became a Mecca for everyone who loved good food. People regularly called from Los Angeles and places equally far flung to make dinner reservations. Yet despite such popularity and the skill and dedication of chef Gerry Dewhurst and manager Anna Makenzie, the operation was gradually losing money.
Following Denny Waxman’s departure in 1983, Jon Sandifer took on the Directorship. I continued with Jon to develop and deliver the work of the Kushi Institute, which attracted students from around the world. In one Summer Intensive we recorded 93 students from 17 different countries. European-wide meetings and conferences were held regularly with other Kushi Institutes, culminating in the founding of a major residential Kushi Institute at Kiental in Switzerland.
Thus the European focus for this programme left our grasp and reappeared in the Alps. Mario Binetti, the Kushi Institute director in Kiental, had a dream location and a dream team of teachers. Jean Torné took up the position as head of cooking. We were left with a very local base of future students and our income from the educational work was drying up. In addition a thriving Shiatsu training course had been sold to one of the students, Ray Ridolphi (giving birth to The British School of Shiatsu).
In 1986 Simon Brown came on board as Director. He had studied with Denny Waxman in Philadelphia and had trained there in centre management. In short order, he set about expanding the programme and soon it featured Holistic Massage, Yoga and Tai Chi. In addition, Bill Spear, a long-time close student and collaborator of Michio Kushi, brought an authentic understanding of Feng Shui to an eager public. We continued to present the world’s finest teachers of Macrobiotics, Shiatsu and the Philosophy of the Far East with teachers such as Shisuko Yamamoto, Wataru Ohashi, Herman and Cornelia Aihara, Michio and Aveline Kushi, Rex Lassalle and others.
Then, following with the world-wide publication of Michio Kushi’s “The Cancer Prevention Diet”, a change of focus in public perception and expectation of macrobiotic education took place. The CHF had always offered private health consultation, by accredited counsellors who had trained under Michio Kushi. By the mid 80s this service had become a focus of the energies of the staff. People travelled far and wide to attend consultations, many of them having passed the last vestiges of hope held out to them by their oncologists. The work of the CHF turned from providing a life-enhancing education to the provision of a life extension programme. The CHF was in deep water.
In 1993 it came to light that the charity was in dire financial trouble and a full disclosure had to be made to the Charities Commission. Their officials came and made a detailed audit. Richard Finchell was a brilliant negotiator and gained their confidence and some time. Jon Sandifer and I were consulted about possible directorship, but neither of us was up for it. In the end it was Bill Spear who suggested that Greg Johnson contact the trustees.
We invited Greg to London to meet the trustees and teachers. From his CV I could see that Greg had considerable experience and training not only in macrobiotics, but also in the world of transformation and education. During early meetings, Greg proposed utilising a very powerful transformational tool to address and deal with the predicament. The three steps were:
1) look to see what your commitment is
2) take a stand for that
3) go to war with the circumstances.
This talk of war scared off several of the teachers right away. After all macrobiotics is dedicated to world peace through world health. War? Surely someone had lost the plot! Greg took up the Directorship in January 1994 and the first thing we did was to declare the CHF dead and then completely reinvent it. The stand I took was to partner Greg to restore the integrity of the CHF, educationally and financially.
The first key project that we undertook together was the creation of a weekend event known as Being-in-Action. It was intended to provide a context for all our future work and empower participants in all aspects of wellbeing, relationships and self-expression. Greg got to work designing the manual, I took on enrolment. This was a hat I would wear for the next five years. Within a short time Greg had assembled a team capable of co-creating programmes such as The Foundation Course, intended to ground the breakthrough of Being-in-Action.
A quantum shift to the level of our newly emerging body of work occurred when Dr. David Norris accepted Greg’s invitation to design and lead a programme. Listening to Life was a total roller-coaster of transformational conversation, which continued under its own evolutionary impetus to form the final three days of JumpStart. This unique programme was researched and designed over a two-year period, by a team consisting of Portia Castor, Andy Jukes, Bob Lloyd (then our Cooking teacher), Greg and myself.
A number of new key players began to appear on the scene. Sheila Parmar walked calmly into the office one day and asked to be registered in (the 2nd ever) Being-in-Action. Damien Gallagher arrived from Ireland with an identical request, as did Gregor Singleton. Greg and I had met up with Evan Root while attending the Kushi Summer Conference in Rhode Island in 1996, and before long Evan was contributing his unique style of education to the curriculum.
Although the CHF debt had been reduced it became apparent in 1999 that it would no longer be practical to remain at Old Street, so in November the CHF became homeless. It was also at this point that a new organisation came into being within the CHF, with a mandate to develop and deliver the educational work, along with a new model of community and business. Its name: Concord Institute.
Sheila Parmar, by now a graduate of every programme available, had been training with me in the area of enrolment and now pitched in at the deep-end to enrol the Autumn Being-in-Action. She was to continue holding that most rigorously challenging space in an inspiring way. Concord Institute’s office was now in somebody’s front room, the network of communication sustained on mobile phones.
It became clear the work we were doing was not bounded by the bricks and mortar of 188 Old Street, but was a living phenomenon in the hearts of a community of people. In their commitment to making it available to others they networked, met, planned and held open evenings in each other’s homes. They created all the structure necessary to have the scheduled events take place. Through the intent of the community new venues at which to run programmes showed up – Canning House in Belgrave Square for Being-in-Action and Oxon Hoath in Kent for JumpStart – through some inspired networking by Stella Kojder. At the end of the year 14 Blackstock Mews in Finsbury Park was discovered by Nicholas Allan and a new home for Concord was established.
By the time the Mews had been settled a unique body of Integral Studies had been created, capable of profound impact on a person’s health. David Norris continued to be closely involved with the community and now brought the mature fruits of his 25 years experience to two new programmes: Strategic Planning and Being in Business. Tom Monte, distinguished author of many books on health and workshop leader in the domain of healing the heart, added his vibrancy and authentic wisdom to the community through his annual workshops. With the opening of the Culinary School in 2003, this dream of a possibility for human beings could enter a new holon. Jean Torné and his students honour the art of Cooking by producing “transformation on a plate.”
But by now the Mews was at bursting-point it was time to move on. Another bricks and mortar home opened up to Concord Institute at Thane Works in Finsbury Park. Sheila Parmar moved on to become Managing Director and enrolment was taken on by Simona Flore and Stella Kjoder.
And how come I am the guy telling the story? Well it never occurred to me that a retrospective on the unfolding of a dream would be of much interest to anyone, but I’ll let you into an important little secret. I did not dream it. It dreamt me just as it is dreaming you. It’s not anybody’s personal dream, so why should it not be of gripping interest to other folks? Silly old me!