You are a child of the universe

You are a child of the universe

A blog piece refurbished from the archives. But no one tires of hearing about amazing teenagers and the vast sweep of the future that lies before them. I spoke to the young men and women of St. James back at the time of the Arab Spring. A lot has happened since then. Not least the unavoidable realities of the Climate Catastrophe.

I had the most wonderful afternoon on Friday talking to the young men and women of St. James schools – two independent, sibling schools, who since the 1970s have flavoured their teaching with meditation – hence my invitation.

There were about a hundred or so of the combined six forms and some younger and, after a lovely lunch hosted by the headmistress of the Hammersmith girls school, I stood up and starting talking.

I had actually, in a panic, been up till 4 in the morning making a PowerPoint to illustrate my wayward musings and thankfully the two glasses of white wine, the smiling faces of the students and the great love I have of speaking on the theme of a) myself and b) meditation meant that I filled up the 45 minutes of my speech adequately.

The painful irony being that when you achieve fame it is not the real, flesh-and-blood you that people recognize.

I was talking about my career as a presenter and the fissures in my self-belief that led to my interest in Buddhism, meditation and latterly therapy.

As I was collating my thoughts in the middle of the night, I found myself realising that to talk about my career without addressing the issue of fame would be invidious. And since these were all extremely erudite and open-minded teenagers I stuck with that theme: a desire to be famous is underpinned by a need to be loved. The painful irony being that when you achieve fame (or at least, recognition) it is not the real, flesh-and-blood you that people recognize. There is a dreadful chasm between the you that millions watch and the you that sits twiddling his fingers on the sofa at night. Intimacy is never answered by fame.

I thought that might be a worthwhile theme for a group of youngsters about to launch out into the world.

However, what they found more pertinent was when I started to talk about the perils of the path.

How do you balance a desire for change with an ability to accept who you are?

When I hit my ‘meditation nazi’ stage around 32, then my fixation on the goal of ‘enlightenment’ made me mean and utterly divorced from the florid realities of the here-and-now. But I realized later that it wasn’t enlightenment that I needed but balance.

How do you balance a desire for change with an ability to accept who you are? School-leavers are prominently concerned with ‘becoming something’: they want to become a doctor, or an actor or a politician or an undergraduate. There’s the goal: and yet here I am saying, learn to be yourself, don’t strive after goals to the detriment of the present.

They all got this. They all asked brilliant and searching questions about it. ‘How do we achieve if we are only accepting’. Which is a question I’m asked at least once a month when I’m teaching mediation.

How to rest if you want to get things done?

An acorn doesn’t want to be a 400 year old oak.

I thought (on the spot, it’s amazing how wise my brain gets when I don’t think too much) that the crucial difference is between growing and changing. If you want to change then there is an implied diss to what you are. If you are growing then the present ‘you’ is essential, nay, it’s the only salient fact: you are growing right now. Like a tree grows. An acorn doesn’t want to be a 400 year old oak. It’s getting there anyway – what’s important is where it is now.

You are here.

These young men and women, (we had a long debate over lunch how one addresses 6th formers, they’re clearly not ‘girls and boys’), they are already skilled at being in the here-and-now. Their years of daily meditation have taught them that. They see the benefit. And it made me really excited to see what a wisdom they had amongst them when they thought about growing into the future.

I don’t share the doom-mongering tone of most middle-aged commentators on ‘today’s youth’. From where I was standing they were definitely much more balanced, grown-up, savvy, sensitive and politically aware than I was at that age.

I ended the talk with a bit from Desiderata, which always makes me cry:

You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees & the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.

I’d love to know your thoughts about teenagers. Drop me a message with any thoughts, comments, questions, queries or insights that pop up while reading the blog. I’d love to hear from you!

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  • Jane Bell says:

    Hi Alistair, What a lovely post.
    Having worked with younger children and then seeing them as teenagers and young adults my heart is full of joy! I think they have much to teach me. The media gives them a bad name and of course in some areas you see clusters of them hanging around trying to find a place where they can meet. Sometimes they imitate negative adult behaviour as maybe they think that’s what it means to be grown up!

    It sounds as if you had an amazing day. I used to have reflective time and teach P4C (Philosophy for children )which was just wonderful.
    I hope you can manage to talk to more schools, Alistair.

    • alistairappleton says:

      Thanks Jane. It was actually quite a few years ago. But I share your optimism about young adults.
      Daniel and I treated ourselves to lunch out in Brighton today and were served by two amazingly bright and heart-full youngsters. And then encountered two very troubled and disturbed/disturbing young men in a fight in the carpark when we picked up our car.
      Well-brought-up often economically privileged teenagers are one thing. But we were actually touched by the raw troubled energy of the two boys in the Churchill Centre. Such potential and yet so schooled in strange energy.
      We should never give up on the young. Partly because they’ll be the ones looking after us when we’re old!

  • I love this, Alistair. What a wonderful idea to have meditation as part of the curriculum. An essential, surely, since there are such difficult times ahead for today’s young people. Mental health is one of the biggest worries and so many youngsters suffer , terribly, from it My daughter has been plagued with it for years. How different things might have been, for her, if meditation had been part of school life.
    There are so many wonderfully talented and hard working young people in the world. What a pity that the media seem fixated on the ” bad apples” of youth .They receive lots of press coverage , while the more deserving zillions of “good eggs”get little. Time to redress the balance.
    Great blog.

    • alistairappleton says:

      Thanks Patti. Yes, the world would definitely be a better place if everyone learned meditation at school. Although some simple emotional management / education would also go a long way. I certainly could have benefited from being taught about my emotions as a teenager.
      I share your enthusiasm for the good eggs and I even have time for the bad apples. They are all rather incredible!

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