This is an interview with Alistair in the September 2019 Issue of “Yoga Scotland Magazine” by Trudy Morrison. Thanks to Trudy for her permission to reproduce it here.
from ashtanga to ayahuasca,
the passionless quest of alistair appleton
by trudy morrison
I live in a small, dark cottage in the middle of nowhere. The only way to pick up the Wi-Fi signal is to squash yourself in amongst the houseplants in the front room, like a surprised burglar. So when there’s no alternative to an online interview, my heart sinks a little as I know I’ll be spending the duration speared in the ear by an overly large ficus and in agonies of tension waiting for the signal to drop out.
Still. Alistair Appleton – amiable television and radio presenter of 20-odd years, psychotherapist, teacher, founder of meditation project Mindsprings, and Buddhist. The name alone is hypotensive.
If you’re a viewer of the property programme Escape to the Country, you will be familiar with his soothing tones, gentle manner and seemingly unending patience in the face of some very, very annoying people. Because of his preternatural people skills, it will come as no surprise to learn that Alistair has trained in the Buddhist tradition. But it may be more surprising to learn that Alistair turned to Buddhism to fill a gap that had previously given elbow room to drugs and alcohol.
“I was pretty unhappy. I was drinking a lot, doing a lot of drugs, going out a lot.”
Nineteen years ago, when he had just turned 30, Appleton returned from Berlin where he had been pursuing a career in television.
“I was pretty unhappy. I was drinking a lot, doing a lot of drugs, going out a lot. And so I think the better part of me just sensed that was not a path I wanted to pursue through my 30s so I gave it all up. I have quite a strong will really.”
This gives me the heads-up on Appleton’s decision-making process, which seems to depend on whether he’s seeking to have control or abandon it. It comes up a few times as we chat. A considered all or nothing, a continuous process of picking up, exploring ideas and experiences, and then discarding them if the fit isn’t right.
“I was drawn to the Theravada school which is quite austere and very pure.”
On his new-found quest to find peace of mind, Appleton took up Ashtanga yoga, finding it useful but admitting it was another way of control. His introduction to Buddhism took place on Holy Isle off the east coast of Arran in the Firth of Clyde – what he terms his “spiritual home” where he now runs successful meditation retreats twice a year – after signing up for a t’ai chi course. At the end of 2001, he took refuge in the Kagyu tradition of Tibetan Buddhism with Lama Yeshe Rinpoche, the Abbot at Samye Ling. However, still searching, he went on to study in the Theravada tradition at Chithurst Monastery in West Sussex.
“Partly because of geography – because I live down South – but also partly because where I was at with my spiritual path,” Appleton explains. “I was very drawn to the Theravada school, the Thai Forest Sangha School, which is quite austere and very pure. Very stripped down.”
A little extreme, I suggest. Appleton pauses. He’s very free and generous with his answers but he likes to make sure his meaning is clear, thinking before he speaks.
“I don’t know if I’d say it was extreme but, you know, it’s very… It’s not about passion. It’s the opposite of passion. It’s about passionlessness.” There’s a brief silence as we both mentally consider whether this is a real word, before he continues. “That’s kind of what I needed at that time. I needed just to calm my mind and work with it in a structured way.
I went to Thailand and was thinking of becoming a monk
“Looking back, I see that it fortified a lot of my more detached and detaching mental patterns. In a way, it allowed me to continue to disassociate from my body my emotions. So I went to Thailand and was thinking of becoming a monk. I was considering it very seriously.”
At this point, an intervention was staged by a straight-talking friend who informed Appleton that he had to stop because he was becoming unbearable. While I’m still laughing at this, Appleton adds by way of an afterthought, “And it was him actually who invited me out to Brazil to drink ayahuasca.”
*sound of needle slipping over vinyl*
For those who don’t know, ayahuasca is a powerful, psychedelic plant brew that affects the central nervous system, leading to an altered state of consciousness that can include hallucinations, out-of-body experiences, and euphoria. It is considered sacred and used in religious and spiritual ceremonies in Brazil and some parts of North America.
Taking ayahuasca seems an odd choice for someone following a Buddhist path – Buddhism takes a dim view of intoxicants after all. Why did he think it a good idea?
I couldn’t feel the wonder of my body, I couldn’t see the beauty of the world
“Because those rules about no intoxicants, no this, no that, no-no-no-no-no-no, they were like a straitjacket to me.” He goes on to clarify. “I could do all that, that wasn’t a problem. What I couldn’t do was feel myself. I couldn’t feel the wonder of my body, I couldn’t see the beauty of the world, I couldn’t experience the joy of sex, I couldn’t… I couldn’t live. I was very boxed in. Everything in my thinking mind was saying ‘No, this [ayahuasca] is against all my beliefs’, but my body – my wisdom body – got on that plane, took me there and drank it.”
a tsunami of aliveness smashed all my Buddhist beliefs out of the way
This happened in 2004 and began a ten-year period of working with ayahuasca, the money from Appleton’s television work funding his flights back and forth to Brazil. He considers his first encounter with ayahuasca – which you can follow in his short film, The Man Who Drank the Universe – was, and still is, the most profound spiritual experience he has ever had.
“I remember thinking that it was like a tsunami, a great tidal wave of aliveness that simply smashed all my Buddhist beliefs out of the way. Because they were getting in the way. They were just more ego stuff, they weren’t actual Buddhism. It took me a long time to actually find what Buddhism really meant.”
It’s so blissful to be broken apart, you’re not in any rush to rebuild the prison
I wonder, in view of Appleton’s apparent need for control, how he went about putting himself back together after such an overwhelming experience. The scaffolding was gone, he was back to square one.
“Yeah, exactly! That’s the point!” There’s a happy glint in his eye, as if reliving the moment. “The thing is, it’s so joyous. It’s so unbelievably blissful to be broken apart that you’re not in any rush to rebuild. Because you realise the rebuilding is a prison; you’re just rebuilding the prison.”
Is it possible to exist in a very unstructured way, with no blueprint just rubble?
“Yeah. I came back and for a good six months I felt, you know, transformed. My sister-in-law said, ‘Whatever you did out there go back and do some more. You’re so much nicer to be around!’”
“I wasn’t a monster. I was just… very buttoned up.”
I demur, unable to imagine Appleton as anything other than a benign presence manifesting as dimples and a genuine enquiry into the state of your health. He’s quick to allay my fears.
“I wasn’t a monster. I was just… very buttoned up. I think that had a lot to do with growing up gay in a very homophobic world. I think it was a lot to do with Western culture and education, a whole concatenation of causes.”
Silently marvelling at how he slid ‘concatenation’ into a casual conversation, I ask if he was able to maintain that sense of openness and aliveness above and beyond six months.
“Well, ayahuasca was very powerful for opening things up but I couldn’t find a way of integrating those insights into an ongoing sense of being, so it was actually therapy that helped me do that.”
“Wanting to be a famous TV presenter was a very dangerous path for me”.
Appleton admits that his work with his “wonderful” therapist of six years was the thing that really transformed him and decided in the mid-Noughties to train as a psychotherapist, finding that the whole ritual of therapy training broke him apart again in a way that revealed things that ayahuasca hadn’t. Interestingly, his therapist recently pointed out to him that he had never mentioned his television career during all the sessions they’d had together. Was this somewhat glaring omission a case of him simply not identifying with “Alistair the Television Presenter”?
“Yeah. You know, in my 20s all I wanted to be was a famous TV presenter, and by the time I turned 30 I was already seeing that was a very dangerous path for me because I knew that it would just mean more anxiety, more laying value on external looks. And also having to deal with some pretty awful people who don’t really give a shit about you but who just want to make money from you.”
“A presenter trying to be present-er”
Alistair quickly became disillusioned and found the dichotomy between the nature of the job – constantly having to present himself a certain way, his personality a commodity – and the call from Buddhism to have no self, no personality, unsustainable.
“It was laughable,” he says. “A presenter trying to be present-er.”
I ask how he feels about the capitalism on display in Escape to the Country, and whether he thinks that too is at odds with his Buddhist principles.
“Buying a home is one of the most profound human things you can do, and the British have a particularly interesting relationship with their homes. So it never feels that it’s a particularly onerous form of materialism. I think there are much worse, destructive forms going on in the world. The show is very ‘nice’; it’s a very warm, celebratory show. I don’t think I would do a show that I felt was actually harming people or contributing to harm in the world.”
“I wouldn’t buy a house on the decision of two 21-year-old TV researchers!”
But, God, some of the people on there are so irritating, fussing over the smallest thing. Appleton laughs.
“It’s a lot of money, I’d be super-picky too! I can tell you right now that I wouldn’t buy a house on the decision of two 21-year-old TV researchers!”
From now on, the sight of Alistair on our screens will become a rarer thing as he seeks to expand his teaching work. Mindsprings has been running for the last 15 years and Appleton is feeling the call to jump to teaching meditation full time. Television always comes with a shelf life anyway, Appleton happily acknowledges. Nothing goes on forever (although it may seem as if Escape to the Country is an outlier to the fact). Further television work isn’t ruled out, he says, but any project would have to have a mental health or therapeutic angle. His focus is on the future direction of Mindsprings and what it offers, which he hopes will include online courses around anxiety and the therapeutic uses of meditation, as well as physical retreats.
I mention the opinion, considered controversial by some, that yoga, mindfulness and meditation can only help people with mental health issues provided therapy is running alongside. He agrees.
“Yes. That’s partly because – with all due respect to the wonders of yoga and mindfulness which I value very much – most instructors are not trained in counselling or psychotherapy. So when trauma comes up, which will be the case, they panic or start to act out something of their own trauma. Then it all becomes very toxic.”
“Yes, this monstrous thing mindfulness!”
Which brings me nicely to a bugbear of mine – the claims and commodification of mindfulness and its sanitation from its Buddhist roots. I present it to Appleton in the form of a somewhat lengthy and heated diatribe, his response to which was to snigger.
“Ah, yes! This monstrous thing, mindfulness!” he says, throwing his hands in the air. “Look, mindfulness is wonderful in many ways but it became so en vogue that it’s now out of vogue. In a way, I feel sorry for those who have spent a lot of money doing the training and now there’s probably too many trainers and not enough people interested in mindfulness.”
Like yoga, I suggest.
“I think though that any of these practices – yoga certainly, but mindfulness too – that point back to their roots are beneficial. My biggest concern is what Chögyam Trungpa Rinpoche calls ‘spiritual consumerism’ where any spiritual practice, be it yoga, be it Buddhism, be it mindfulness, Christianity… simply reinforces the ego’s desire to be comfortable and isolated.
“True mindfulness is kryptonite to all that self-soothing”
“So when mindfulness is taught simply as a way of self-soothing, like running essential oils into your bath water … it’s not Buddhism. It has nothing to do with Buddhism. The First Noble Truth of Buddhism is about suffering. There is stress, there is discomfort, and trying to get rid of it is part of the problem – that’s what causes us to stress more! So the whole project of Buddhism is really about being uncomfortable, tolerating discomfort and dissolving the self in order to help other people.
“That’s true at the core of pretty much all world religions but it totally gets lost when mindfulness is turned into a consumer product, because consumerism is all about making yourself comfortable, never suffering, never feeling distress … The idea that you could tolerate being uncomfortable would completely destroy the motor of consumer capitalism. In some ways, true mindfulness, true Buddhism, is kryptonite to all that.”
I’m delighted at the head of steam gathered, albeit affably, on this – my favourite late-night discussion topic after “chips or mash”.
“I don’t know if it’s right but I’m just going to say ‘yes’ to it”
It took a while for Appleton to be as comfortable in his Buddhist beliefs as he is now. Speaking of the first time he took refuge in 2001: “I had this huge inner struggle. You had to sign up to say you were going to do the refuge and I signed up and then I crossed my name off, then I signed up again and I crossed my name off again. I was like ‘Oh, it’s a cult and I don’t want to be part of that, I don’t want a label’, but then my better self went ‘Oh, fuck it, just do it’, and I signed up and took the refuge. It was a tremendously positive existential step to just go ‘Well, I don’t know if it’s right but I’m going to say yes to it.’”
These days, Appleton is a student of contemporary Vajrayana teacher Reggie Ray, co-founder of the Dharma Ocean Foundation, a non-monastic community based in America “dedicated to the evolution and flowering of the somatic teachings of Tibetan Tantra” with the focus on embodied spirituality and somatic practice. It seems a much better fit in light of Appleton’s gentle antipathy towards rigid rules and regulations, and it brings him full circle, Reggie Ray a former student of Chögyam Trungpa who, together with Akong Rinpoche, established Samye Ling before heading off to introduce Tibetan Buddhism to North America in the early ‘70s (not, it has to be said, without controversy).
“I feel absurdly blessed”
Appleton seems content at this closing of the circle and I ask him how much of his life has been a similarly happy accident.
“Oh, lots,” he says without thinking. “I often feel that I have been absurdly blessed. A lot of people I work with in television are in their 20s and they can’t comprehend that I went to university [Cambridge, where he gained a 2.1 in English Literature] and didn’t have to pay a penny. I feel that was a ridiculous blessing. And just being born in the UK and speaking the language of Shakespeare and all the poets. But also falling into TV when there was a lot of money sloshing around and being able to fund my training and Mindsprings, trips to Brazil … It just feels unfairly blessed.” He pauses. “And consequently thinking ‘Oh, God, something is going to go really tits up and I’ll have to live in a hut’. My husband would like nothing better than to live in a yurt!”
But somehow I don’t think Appleton needs to worry about escaping to the country any time soon. He finally seems perfectly at ease, right where he is, in his own skin.
There’s no place like home, after all.