This is a talk I gave about 18 years ago when I was very involved in the Friends of the Western Buddhist Order. Looking back over it now I sort of envy the simplicity and certainty of my vision back then. Although all of it is true and most of it is still valid, I am so much more than that today.
This is my first time ever giving a public talk and, do you know, it’s not as bad as I thought. It’s about 10 times worse.
When I first volunteered to give this talk, though in truth I half volunteered and I half was volunteered. When the subject first came up at a team meeting several pairs of eyes swivelled in my direction. I was not quick enough in diverting my eyes to a deep contemplation of, say, the pattern in the carpet. To my horror, reason and sense abandoned me and my lips, with a volition of their own uttered those fateful words “yes, I’ll do it”.
At first I thought it would be a bit of a doddle, just rabbit on for a bit about why you meditate. After al you’ve being doing this for quite a while now. No problem really.
Well, it isn’t that easy. Ever since I was asked I have been asking myself the question “why do I meditate” “What IS meditation” or “do I actually meditate”. What exactly goes on when my bum hits the cushion. I was going to read a few books, make a list of pertinent points and try to mould my experience around them. But this probably wouldn’t work for me. It would probably come across as dry and uninteresting. How can I communicate the passion I feel for meditation.
So, I thought I would give you a series of snapshots of incidences in my life where the seeds of meditation were present, even if dormant. I hope this gives you a flavour of what meditation means to me.
Imagine Ireland I the late 1950s. A country at peace with itself since the end of the civil war 35 years ago. The institutions of state and church well established now. Indeed the two were almost inseparable. Over 95% of the population are practising Catholics. Here and there are small pockets of C of I, Presbyterians, Jewish and other denominations but they are tolerated because they offer no threat and are integrated into the state. The catholic church has a very dominant position in the state. Government ministers routinely run proposed changes in public health, education and welfare policy before the bishops even before parliament is informed. Anything perceived by the bishops to be a threat to their power is crushed.
In this theocratic, autocratic cold-war society I am a young boy with a burning vocation to become a priest, a Franciscan monk, no less. I have a strong devotion to St. Francis of Assisi, the Virgin Mary, St. Patrick and Pope John XX111. I have a small altar or shrine with photos of the 4 of them and make up a sort of Puja where I read something either written by or about them. Then I close my eyes and try to talk or commune with them. They are somewhere out there, I know, up in heaven and connecting with them, communicating with them, allowing myself to be open to them seems to be a very natural thing. Something which arises spontaneously in me as a consequence of my belief in them.
It’s now the mid sixties. I’m still a boy in my early teens. I’m given a microscope for a Christmas present. Near where we live is a large park with ponds and slow flowing streams. I collect samples of water and bring it home to examine. I spend many hours absorbed by the universe I have just discovered in a drop of apparently clean water. Hundreds of different creatures existing, living, dividing, eating each other, dying. I become totally lost in that world, time and space shrinks, my whole focus is through the eyepiece of that microscope. What I remember most is the wonder that things are not as they appear, that new universes can appear by just looking at things differently.
Around the same time I discovered with my brother Cormac an interest in hypnosis. Fortunately, both my parents were great readers and strongly encouraged us kids to love books. So every week I would trot down the local library and get books out on whatever subject I was interested in at the time – biology, microscopes. Radios, lives of the saints, hypnosis etc. I was probably in my early teens when rumbles of discontent began to clank forth from my psyche, an intuitive dissatisfaction with things the way they were. I was fascinated with the unseen, the unheard, the unspoken and what lay just beyond the range of my senses.
Although I was never a genius or even particularly bright at school nevertheless I had an adequate and functioning brain – more ford Escort then BMW it must be said, yet it would get there just the same. I was beginning to question the nature of both outer and inner worlds. What is time and space, what lies beyond the stars, where is god, what wonders and universes lie at the end of my microscope eyepiece etc. Indeed, who am I and what am I. What makes me different from my 4 brothers – we all have the same parents. What is my mind. And so forth.
So hypnosis or mesmerism as it was often referred to seemed a good way to get some answers to these questions. A mental microscope, as it were. As I said before, I read many popular books and my brother Cormac and I tried to hypnotise each other and ourselves. I was yearning to get into a trance, to switch off the outside world and experience things more sharply and deeply, to remember forgotten bits of myself, to enter a world more intense, more crucial, more relevant than the dreamlike quite meaningless existence of everyday life.
Looking back at this now I suppose I was trying to get a deeper more authentic experience of myself and also to change my mind in a positive direction. Meditation, in other words.
However, when a window is opened too wide not only does too much light get in but unwelcome creatures can also enter. Even demons, sometimes.
Around this time I began to look outside myself for an experience, a hit which would change me, make me feel different, alter my feelings of shyness, fearfulness, uncertainty and the like. I began deny my own feelings and look for some external technicolour transcendental cosmic orgasm to blast me out of this dull painful pointless monochrome world. The world of make-believe and fantasy began to become more real than everyday life. The process of alienation had begun.
It’s now my 16th birthday. There’s a strange varnished box, around the size of a hardback book on my bed. In the centre a brass knurled knob, a pair of shiny Bakelite headphones and a coil of electric wire. I know it’s a birthday present from my Da but what can it be. It’s a crystal set, a primitive type of radio that needed no batteries or external power source. It works directly of radio waves. The coil of wire is an aerial and I hang it from my bedroom window to a pole at the end of the garden. It really only worked properly at night when radio signal propagation allowed foreign stations to be received. I spent many hours absorbed in this new world, headphones clamped to my ears, fingers twiddling the tuning knob listening to strange, disturbing and exotic foreign music and languages. Sometimes I would even pick up radio Moscow or Radio Peking broadcasting in English. This would send delighted shivers of fear running up and down my spine. It was like being in communication with the devil himself.
During these sessions I felt as if my body had disappeared and the whole world existed in the space in my head between the two headphones clamped to my ears.
It’s now 1968ish, Sputnik has orbited the earth, the Rolling Stones are played on Radio Luxembourg, free love ‘n peace ‘n flowers in your hair in San Francisco man, civil rights in Northern Ireland and testosterone coursing through my veins. I am 17 and on the brink of manhood. I’m becoming an individual and breaking free from my parents, my past, from monocultural monochromatic Ireland . Strange new feelings are flooding around in my heart. I have these strong unfamiliar feelings for boys in my class in school. I want to look at them intensely and touch them.
Of course, at this time as everyone knew there was no such thing as sex in holy Ireland. It was a strange and foreign notion, probably invented by the BBC, and totally alien to the island of saints and scholars.
So, the love that dared not speak it’s name didn’t even have a vocabulary, let alone a language to express itself. And neither had I .
Then along comes an answer, a solution, a saviour even a messiah – LSD. And the whole world view that went with it: “turn on, tune in and drop out” (I cannot believe I used to say that). Acid was the key to the doorway leading to the age of Aquarius. I wanted to meet god, to hear the truth, know everything, see everything, to transform this frightened shy boy into a confident articulate man. In other words, a stereophonic, technicoloured, multidimensional cosmic orgasm. Ideally with a 6ft bronzed blond, blue-eyed Nordic god with cheekbones you’d just die for to whisk me away in his Mercedes convertible far across the sea to Tír na nÓg, the land of eternal youth and bliss.
Well, against these expectations LSD hadn’t a chance. The gap between fantasy and reality was too great that most of my trips were bad ones. The ground opened up under my feet and I fell straight into the hell realms where I remained for many a long year. I had dropped out alright.
One thing that distinguished me from the friends I dropped acid with was that while they satisfied to just get stoned and have the craic, I wanted a transformation, a religious experience.
A while later I saw a photo essay in Life magazine showing Buddhist monks who set themselves on fire as a protest in Vietnam. This astounded me. The idea of blood sacrifice has been a constant theme in Irish history for many hundreds of years so I was not unfamiliar with the notion. But these monks were different. They say in this strange way and looked very calm and peaceful, even as the flames swirled around them.
In the same article were some photos of statutes or rupas of the Buddha. Although, by this time, I was a fervent god-hating evangelical atheist yet something about those statues struck a very deep chord within me. The Buddha seemed to represent a state of purity and freedom and wholeness I really yearned for with every atom in my being. He also represented a state that was the very opposite, it seemed to me, of where I was now. I wanted what he had, to be where he was.
I read a few books on Buddhism, mainly by D.S. Suzuki, Alan Watts and Christmas Humphries. From these it seemed that meditation was the way to achieve this state of peace and happiness but in my innocence I thought that meditation meant reading about meditation, closing your eyes and then thinking about it. This was particularly suitable if you were a disembodied head with large quantities of alienation, immaturity, confusion and fear thrown in. Of course nothing happened. Indeed it probably made me worse, increased the sense of estrangement.
It’s now a few years down the road, the early seventies and I’m living in Amsterdam, having dropped further out and away, my mind befuddled with various pharmaceutical and herbal substances. Still on the quest for nirvana. I go to an alternative or counter-culture centre called De Kosmos.
I am still fascinated by meditation and still know very little about it. They have meditation sessions there, not classes but sessions. It was assumed that people had an instinctive knowledge of meditation and did not need to be taught. I seem to remember sitar music and clouds of dope smoke. I used to top up on red wine and space cake before I went in. You have to be relaxed before you meditate, man.
I was immersed in the counter culture, squatting with hundreds of others in what was an alternative village in Amsterdam called Nieuwemarkt, a thriving self-sufficient community. It is now a metro station and ring road interchange.
I worked occasionally and also stole from shops and embezzled money. My politics were the politics of hatred envy and resentment. I defined myself by degrees of opposition to and spite for different groups, institutions and individuals. My enemies enemy was my friend. As you can imagine, this was a very unstable and unsatisfactory way to belong not to mention maintaining and sustaining any sort of friendship. I was very often a group of one in opposition to the whole world.
As you may guess I was not a very happy bunny in those days. Yet despite these odd and unhelpful ways of being in the world, my vision for the potential of wholeness and purity stayed bright. The will to enlightenment was still alive.
A few years later, mid 70s, I was in London having been deported from Amsterdam. My sense of estrangement more pronounced and in great fear of the downward spiral my life was taking. Huge feelings of unhappiness and sadness. I felt I was turning into a ghost.
I still read voraciously and eventually came across a book by RD Laing called ‘The Divided Self’. It had a huge effect on me, though not entirely for the good, unfortunately. I decided I was a schizophrenic. I decided that society was insane but that I was really sane, all the craziness I felt was just a response to a crazed world. Crazy stuff really. However this pushed me into the world of therapism where I met people who were actively trying to change themselves.
Through them I heard of a Zen group in N London. People rattled on about existential voids, ontological despair and emptiness. Yes, I’ll have some of that, I thought to myself. So I went along for a sesshin. The abbot was an old, wise, venerable and very solid looking Japanese man. He seemed to be carved from flint and crocodile skin.
We were taught the ‘just sitting’ practice in the traditional manner, but nothing happened. I just sat, my knees and back in agony, my mind screaming with boredom and frustration and time went so slow it seemed to have stopped. So, the cosmic orgasm did not erupt yet again. I went back for a few times more and then drifted away bitterly disappointed that the abbot hadn’t recognised as the new Buddha incarnate.
Fast forward to the early 80s. I have been off drink and drugs since 1st May 1982, I still an, by the way, and working very hard on my physical, mental, emotional and spiritual well-being. I have joined the Buddhist Society and have completed a meditation and Dharma study course. I go along to regulars evenings – meditation and Puja – every now and again and go to Zen sesshins quite a lot.
As my mind was quite frantic and noisy I found meditation fearfully hard work. I was still looking for a hit, a thunderbolt to cauterise the pain and make me ecstatically happy etc. Yet, I persisted and kept hanging around and studying. I became a vegetarian and tried to be friendly and compassionate.
People at the Buddhist Society were very nice and friendly but in a genteel and Church of England sort of a way. Passion wasn’t exactly the dominant feature there. I heard people talk about this strange group of so-called Buddhists in East London, full of hippies and homosexuals. My ears pricked up at this. Aha, my type of people, I thought to myself.
I went along to a lunchtime drop-in class in Summer 1987 (I think). I don’t remember the Order Member who led the class or what he said or what his name was but to this day I remember his voice. It was impossibly and unbelievable calm relaxed and peaceful. He spoke very slowly and musically in a soft Scottish accent and every syllable seemed to rise up slowly from deep in his being and plop gently out of his lips right into my ears.
The Order Member with him had a similar sense of friendly, aware, energetic otherworldliness. I’m sure memory can play tricks, maybe they were both stressed out and dealing with their own mental states but to me they seemed to have something very precious I definitely wanted.
So, I was smitten, in love with the notion of meditation. That one experience altered the course of my life. A dozen years ago was sitting in this shrine room, just where you are now, and it has led me to standing up here actually giving a talk on meditation. Funny old world isn’t it.
However, although the path from down there to up here is only a few yards in the words of the song ‘it’s a long long way from there to here’. For me it was a very long slow and convoluted path. For years I seemed to go around in circles. Attending a 6 week meditation course, dropping away, going to the Tuesday class for a few weeks, dropping away, going on a weekend retreat at Waterhall, dropping way, going on a Dharma study course, dropping away. Though in fairness to myself I had a very busy life then and Buddhism just wasn’t the most important thing in my life at that time. It us now, however.
Although it seemed as if my meditation practice was going in circles in fact it was more a very slow spiral with every circumambulation a bit nearer the centre.
In summer 1994 I went on my first long retreat, a gay men’s retreat in Padmaloka in Norfolk for a week. Something quite significant happened there. It seemed all the hard work I had put in sorting out my life began to bear fruit. I had a strong experience of calmness in meditation for the first time ever. I also for the first time experienced Puja on an emotional and inspirational level. Being with a group of friendly positive people for a week allowed a sense of community or Sangha to evolve. We also had Dharma study every day in small groups.
Something clicked in me and Buddhism or Going For Refuge to the Buddha Dharma and Sangha suddenly moved centre stage in my life. I wanted to devote the rest of my life to Buddhism. So I asked to become a Mitra. This is a Sanskrit word for ‘friend’ and is a formal public declaration that you are a Buddhist trying to live according to Buddhist ethical precepts and also that you have a regular meditation practice.
6 months later I went to Vajraloka the FWBO meditation centre in Wales. We meditated several hours a day and there way silence for 7 or 9 days. This was a very profound experience for me and as a result of this I asked to be accepted for ordination into the WBO. This was February 1995.
Several months later I was back in Vajraloka for another retreat – ‘Just Sitting’. It was dreadful. My mind was all over the place. I was still looking for that cosmic hit. I had this awful image of eventually being invited for ordination, arriving in Guhyaloka in Spain for the 4 month ordination retreat, sitting down on my cushion in the meditation hall for the first time and being smacked in the gob by the awful realisation that I CANNOT MEDITATE. This encouraged me to do something drastic. There was a possibility of becoming a long term retreatant at Vajraloka at reduced rates so I jumped at the chance.
I spent almost 5 months on retreat there in Summer 1996 and finally learned how to meditate or rather I unlearned how to meditate.
On one retreat – a five Buddha mandala retreat – devoted to the 5 jinnas or archetypal representations of the enlightened mind. I was shrine keeper and again something clicked and I began to have a direct personal experience of the Buddhas especially Amitabha, the Buddha of meditation. For a few weeks my mind and my dreams were alive with colour and images of the Buddhas. I felt very happy and positive and my heart was full of joy. This was quite a high point in my life. I began to like myself, quite a bit really and to feel confidence that, yes, I can change myself and really Go For Refuge. This is more than just theory or fanciful thinking. It can happen to me.
So where am I now, meditation practice wise. I have a regular practice though it sometimes is an irregular practice. Because I am a Buddhist and trying to Go For Refuge sincerely meditation means much more than just feeling good or having an experience. That cosmic orgasm fixation is virtually gone now, I’m glad to say. Meditation mainly means mindfulness or awareness of my body feelings or emotions, thoughts and even reality itself. It also means fostering and developing Metta or loving kindness for myself and others.
Some people are natural bliss bunnies. I’m not one of these fortunate people. Meditation for me is work, trying to change my mind, trying to feel love and compassion not negativity and hatred. But mainly I just work with the hindrances. Sloth and torpor and restlessness and anxiety are my favourites.
Meditation is not separate from my life and neither is my life separate from my meditation practice. What goes on in one effects the other. Indeed, what goes on in one is a reflection of the other. My meditation practice is a paradigm for my life.
So, working in meditation positively, constructively and energetically strongly effects how I am in the world, who I am and how I interact with other sentient beings.
It also makes me aware of the importance of being ethical. It’s very difficult to achieve positive mental states when one is engaged in unethical or unskilful actions. Meditation acts like a barometer for me as to how honestly and sincerely I am living my life.
I have recently learned to sit in the cross-legged position. This feels very aesthetically pleasing and occasionally when I have developed a strong positive felt sense of my body, feelings and thoughts I feel as if I’m sitting in the very centre of the universe, in the eye of Buddhism as it were and I can feel a connection with the countless monks and practitioners of meditation and contemplation for the past two and a half thousand years.
I also feel as if I’m sitting at the centre of my own life, at a fulcrum point, strong enough and positive enough to alter my life in accordance with my highest and purest ideals. And also to be master of my own destiny as far as is possible.
So, I hope I have given you a flavour of what meditation is and what it isn’t. It’s a very simple yet profound practice that can take you all the way up to Enlightenment itself. I hope it does so for you.