This is a long essay I wrote back in the Noughties about my path to Buddhism. I think when I wrote it I was still practicing Theravadan Buddhism and had not yet been to Brazil and drunk ayahuasca. Which would explain its rather smug, unruffled tone! But nonetheless it has some interesting stuff. In the interests of readability I’ve divided it in three.
Part 1: The Party Ends…
In a nutshell I came to Buddhism through meditation and I came to meditation through detoxing after a particularly heavy New Year’s Eve. New Years Eve 2000 to be precise, the Mother of all NYEs. I’d been in Cape Town and had behaved with narcotic abandon. So much so that I had barely registered that beautiful corner of the world and the beautiful friends I’d been holidaying with.
I guess I wasn’t alone coming back to Earth after that party with a sour taste in mouth. Starting the Millenium afresh seemed suitably auspicious, so I bought myself a little How to De-tox Your Life book and set to.
No drugs, no booze, no caffeine, no sugar, more raw food, more sprouts, more exercise. It seems I was a Jesuit monk in the past, since I took to it quite easily. After the crushing caffeine-withdrawal headaches and pressure from my party peers had faded, I thought I’d sooth my gym-torn limbs with a little mental moistness and took up point no.88 in the book: Learn to Meditate.
I sat in a comfy chair, turned off the phone and followed the instructions
A firm believer in books being the best teachers (a fallacy I’ve thankfully left behind) I dutifully headed off to Waterstones on Piccadilly and picked up a bulky book/cassette combo, called – descriptively – “How to Meditate”. The rather anondyne East Coast voice on the tape assured me that the methodology used by Dr. Patricia Carrington MD was entirely non-religious and clinically proven to relieve stress and lower ones blood pressure. Since, at that stage, I was slightly chary of religiosity in any shape, that sounded just fine. So I sat down in a comfy chair in my East London bedroom, turned off the phone, warned my flat mate, closed my eyes and followed the instructions.
Dr. Patricia Carrington MD espouses a simple concentration meditation form using a mantra. In essence this is based on the idea that if you focus your mind on one simple, neutral mental object – in this case a 2 syllable sanskrit word – and keep returning to the mantra when your mind wanders, then your mind will quieten and become more spacious.
And it did. Even in that first 10 minute session I felt something loosen and glow.
I meditated in churches across London, on the Tube, in galleries, even in public loos
The fact that I noticed something turned out to be essential. If I’d not seen any benefit then I probably wouldn’t have done it a second time and then a third and fourth. As it was, I began to follow Dr. Pat’s non-religious course religiously. I meditated – and still meditate –for 20 minutes minimum twice a day, every day. I’d meditate in my bedroom in the mornings and then in the evening at around 6 o’clock. The morning was easy to organise, just getting up a tick earlier, but the evenings required a little ingenuity. I’d meditate on the Tube coming home or in churches scattered across London, or in art galleries, museums, parks and even public loos if nowhere else was available.
And I really felt things open up. I felt less constrained by my knotty emotions, less oppressed by moods and – most delightfully – more connected to all the amazing details and delicacies of the world around me. I often experienced snatches of wide-open consciousness that reminded me of being a child, playing out by the beach in Lee-on-Solent for hours at a stretch. My senses of smell, sight and sound became more acute directly after meditation and all these benefits fed into my desire to keep it up.
As this was happening, I turned 30.
A long-haul flight to visit Ann Maurice or something new…?
This chronological milestone seemed as auspicious as the Millenium had been 3 months earlier. Lots of things started to change. The day of my birthday was the first day’s filming I ever did on House Doctor. Effectively the start of my TV career in the UK. And infact, hanging out with the HD herself, Ann Maurice, also added impetus to my meditative motors. Off camera she’s a strikingly intelligent, plugged-in woman with a keen interest in the spiritual. As a young mother back in the Mid West she had spent two year in an ashram following the teaching of a famous Hindu yogi. Meeting her whetted my appetite for the spiritual.
The first series finished filming and I had some time off . I was toying with the idea of flying to California to visit Ann in her San Francisco home.
I remember distinctly sitting in Victoria Park in the East End of London one bright May morning, after a particularly sun-drenched meditation on a bench wreathed with a mass of hawthorn blossom. And I asked myself if I really wanted to pollute the atmosphere with another long haul flight so I could amble around in San Francisco aimlessly shopping. Suddenly, I decided that I’d rather go and learn something completely new. I would go on retreat.
A ramshackle farmhouse, charmingly unshaven builder monks and a twinkly nun
So I went online and started looking for a place to go. A friend of mine had mentioned Holy Island, so I started there and found that they were running a Tai Chi class which sounded lovely and co-incided with my time-off. And then a week later I suddenly found myself standing on the wind-swept, gull-loud, pebbled jetty of Holy Island off the coast of Arran in the Firth of Clyde.
It’s been a holy island since a Christian hermit-saint lived there in the 6th Century but currently it belongs to the Tibetan Buddhist Monastery on the Mainland, Samye Ling. They bought it almost 10 years ago as a meditation island and nature reserve which is what it has become. There are 2 herds of wild horses, several dozen wild goats and sheep scattered across the island. 27,000 trees have been planted. Now there is a long-retreat running in the Lighthouse Keepers’ Cottages at the South End and a large Retreat Centre centre on the North End.
But when I got there in 2000 it was considerably more Wild West than it is now. The North End was home to ramshackle farmhouse which was being re-built by a group of charmingly unshaven builder monks – a South African, a Brummie and a Mancunian – while the course was being given by a twinkly nun, once called Jackie Glass but now the tai-chi teacher Rinchen Khandro.
Coming from neurotic London the idea that people might just be kind seemed incredible
Those 7 days on the island were some of the brightest of my life. We did tai chi every morning and afternoon but we also slotted into the semi-monastic routine of the community: an early morning hour of silent meditation at 6 and then a Tibetan visualization practice called Chenrezig in the evening which was designed to generate compassion.
And somehow that motley crew of monks and nuns really ignited my enthusiasm for Buddhism. While I didn’t really empathize with all the Tibetan ritual, the good effect it produced in these practioners was clear to see. Coming from the tangled neuroses of London, the idea of people living simply, kindly and good-humouredly with each other, seemed almost incredible. No panic about achieving, no money stress, no status anxiety. I had to rethink my ideas of what was possible.
Suddenly, standing on the beach in the evening air, the mountain rising up behind me, the water streching all around, the lights of Lamlash twinkling and the peacefulness of the island deep in my bones, I realised that I’d found some sort of religion.
Part 2: ‘The Bonfire of the Shoulds’ coming next…