After a lifetime of searching Alistair finds himself

I have spend four decades (probably more) looking to find myself

There’s a great cartoon I saw recently which shows a man looking under a bed at his double  – same shirt, same trousers, same hair – who’s lying there, hiding. The caption runs: “After a lifetime of searching, Leonard finds himself.”

The more I looked at this picture the more it tickled me and – simultaneously – made me cringe. 

In some shape or form, I have spend four decades (probably more) looking to find myself. From an early age – maybe ten or eleven  – I had this sense that my real life wasn’t to be found in the suburban sameness of the Hampshire town where I grew up. “Real life” shimmered like a mirage on the horizon – perhaps when I became a teenager? or when I went to University? or when I was grown up? 

My true self, sequinned in diamonds

Of course, the closer I got to each of these benchmarks, the further off my real life seemed to dance. At Cambridge, I was happy but there was a sense that when I came out fully and discovered sex and drugs then my real life might start. When I disappeared into the maelstrom of 1990s Berlin, and had a lot of sex and drugs, I always imagined that I was just stretching my wings ready for the real flight. Coming back to London and starting in TV, I imagined that perhaps fame might cut the mustard. And then when I was disillusioned with that, then Buddhism and meditation beckoned. 

Tibetan Buddhism, Thai Forest Buddhism, Ayahuasca, psychotherapy, and then Tibetan Buddhism again. I picked them all up with the unspoken breathlessness that characterised all my searching. Surely all these gold-plated methods would lead me one day round the corner and – boom! – there I would be: my true self, sequinned in diamonds and shining like a star. 

Embarrassment, softly mixed with sorrow

It’s embarrassing really. The desperate search for an alternate Alistair. One that has no pimples, doesn’t wake up feeling tired and feels radiant, gold-hearted love for racist old ladies and ugly children. 

The embarrassment is also softly mixed with sorrow. That all those decades were wasted when I could have just been enjoying the self that I got given when I was born in 1970. Still, I suspect I’m not alone in this, which gives me enormous solace. 

It’s here where it’s always been

There’s a Tibetan story about the poor man who lives his life in a dirt hut unaware that, buried a few inches under the floor, is a pot of immeasurable gold. He dies on top of it, completely unaware of how close he was to its riches. 

Where did I imagine that I was going to find myself? Up a mountain? In the jungle? Anywhere else? 

Gently, gently, I’m letting myself down into the soft, smooshy reality of my body-as-it-is. The practice of somatic sitting is the tool for entry. And when I enter it’s beautifully simple and intensely dense. And it’s absolutely, 100%, here. 

Here, where it’s always been. 

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  • Joanna Baker says:

    I found this very interesting and illuminating. Thank you.

  • Your not alone with this,surely they are part of the lessons of life, and growing older seems to gives us more clarity as we look back on our life. AND sense of humour is essential or I for one would really kick myself for time I could feel was wasted but most probably wasn’t

  • Donna says:

    Parts of this were unsettling and saddening to read and I recognize them all too well-only add about 20 years to the search… People spending lifetimes “searching” for themselves and sometimes even believing that they have “found” themselves. But is this really possible? Who are we actually searching for?
    What I have realized is that we, intelligent beings, are ever learning, ever adapting and ever evolving. Every time we confront a problem or experience something, positive or negative, we learn, adapt and evolve. So really, we are not exactly the same people today as we were yesterday or who we will be tomorrow. When you taught me the Four Reminders , I was in a sorry state and felt both frustrated and afraid when thinking about who or what I would be tomorrow or even if I would be tomorrow.
    After incorporating the four reminders in my practicing I believe that I learned that the key word is acceptance. If I would have the privilege of waking the next morning, I would be able to meditate and remind myself that I have been given the gift of a new day which may not be squandered and I will have a new possibility to be as good a person as I can and touch as many lives as possible if given the chance. Before I go to bed at night I will be able to remind myself that everything may not have been as perfect as I would have wished and I may not even have a tomorrow, but if I do, I will have a possibility to start afresh. A chance to be a “new” me all over again! This may not always bring sublime happiness, but at least a sense of contentment after doing what I have been able to do to make tomorrow’s “me” perhaps a little better.
    In this sense, I do not feel the need to “search” for myself any longer because everything that I am is within me and ever changing. I need to accept me for who and what I am today and incorporate this acceptance in my body, my practice and my life. It is not important for me to ponder on who I was at this or that point in my life because that person does not exist anymore and most likely never will again. That is truly meaningless lamentation. There is no meaning in worrying about who I will be tomorrow because that is an unanswered mystery. All that exists is me in my body and my body in the world…now.
    I will be forever grateful to you, Alistair, for teaching me the Four Reminders as well as somatic meditation, which has made my practicing more fulfilling and my eventual tomorrows so much easier to bear! You have my heartfelt thanks. //Donna

    • alistairappleton says:

      Dear Donna,

      Thanks so much for your kind words. It is a sad shock when we realise that we’ve been ‘squandering’ our precious human lives in searching for a ‘different’ incarnation. I’m so happy that the 4 reminders are helpful. I chant them everyday too. Such a gift.

  • Dearest Alistair
    Thank you for your beautifully open and honest blog. Your words echo so much of my own experience as a gay man who spent so much (wasted) time investing in a false self to avoid the deep wound of shame. I can hear and share your sense of grief for all that was lost and missed and definitely as I have learned more to be kinder and compassionate to and with myself, grief is an emotion that often arrives at my door. But that’s ok – and believe me it has taken me a long time to be able to say that.
    I do hope our paths cross again in the future. I realise we don’t know each other well but you should know that the times I have shared with you (and listening to your podcasts etc.) over the years have definitely helped me find the courage to lean into the wisdom and softness of my body and to learn to let go of much of my own anxious striving.
    Go well Alistair x

    • alistairappleton says:

      Thank you Steve,
      So nice to hear from you and (glancing at your website) to see that you are working so powerfully with meditation yourself. I think that we as gay man have our fair share of ‘false self’ hunting – but I truly believe that this particular grief, the grief of wanting a different self is shared by almost all humans in some shape or form. Perhaps it’s only we seekers who can fall prey to it – but maybe it’s price worth paying for being curious and wanting something better than sleepwalking?


  • John says:

    Aren’t these lessons the same as the ones which have haunted us as man/woman for Millenia? Are they not what poets and writers and artists have pondered since the year dot? Is it not the human condition to be thinking these thoughts and searching for the answers (we’re, only too eager to find?) Perhaps we are in the minority but we’re certainly not alone. I think the beauty of the puzzle is that there is no solution. No magic pill or herb, no crazy diet or yoga with goats is going to get us to enlightenment. If that’s our goal, I think we really have missed the point. We’re here for a very brief time and we have to make every moment count, the good, the bad, and everything in between. Do we die a meditator’s death contemplating the great unknown or, do we live and love until we have no breath?

    • Denise Mahood says:

      Re John’s comment
      Yoga with goats didn’t bring me enlightenment – I didn’t expect it to – but it bring me fun, pleasure and laughter that was shared with my daughter and granddaughter.

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