In 1985 I left the pop band that had formed the stimulating, but mind numbing cocoon in which I had lived for the last ten years.
For what it was, my band had been as successful as it could have been - we'd had a hit record, released three albums, toured all over the place and indulged in all the vices that go with that way of life. And though I’d enjoyed it all immensely, particularly songwriting and recording, in the end the success we'd had only served to demonstrate just how unsatisfying my teenage dreams of fame and success had become. I felt numb, worn out and totally confused. I no longer knew what I wanted anymore and risked wasting the rest of my life pursuing more of the same, simply for lack of vision.
So, though my primary thrust into the unknown was an act of desperation, I eventually found a new path to tread. When I was a kid, I'd always been drawn to the idea of meditation, because my father had a lot of books on Asian religions – especially Zen, which I found particularly fascinating. Over and above its stories of eccentric monks and their strange adventures, I was attracted to Zen’s defiant need for the truth of reality as direct experience, rather than the set of beliefs and laws I had been conditioned with by my culture.
So I could see how meditation might work, but had no idea of what to do about it. So over the next four years after I left the band, I tried as many different forms of meditation as I could find - Zen, Transcendental Meditation, Tibetan meditation, until in 1989, I decided to focus on Vipassana meditation.
After a couple of ten day retreats in Australia, I realized that if I was to learn Vipassana properly, I had to go to the source. So I decided to go to Thailand and find a teacher - put myself into retreat in a monastery.
I wrote to the Thai Buddhist Society for a list of temples in Thailand which might take me, and threw a dart to decide which one to go to. The dart hit upon Sorn Thawee Meditation Centre in Chacheongsao in eastern Thailand.
So, in early 1990 I began the first of what turned into yearly retreats of two to four months per year thereafter.
The teachers at Sorn Thawee, Acharn Thawee Baladhammo and a German monk who assisted him, Phra Manfred, were exactly the teachers I needed. Together with Mae Che Brigitte, an Austrian nun who took care of me on later retreats, they were firm but kind - friendly but detached.
Added to which, unlike most Theravada teachers who will not engage in discussion, these three people recognized my need to understand the theory as much as the practice. Their instructions and insights were always clear and logical, so I was always able to make sense of what was happening as I passed through each stage of my learning.
The training was intensive, entailing continuous mindfulness of every posture and action, and around ten to twelve hours of formal meditation, both walking meditation and sitting.
I was instructed in a method known as ‘mental noting’, a very practical way of helping the attention to let go of the conditioned thought-stuff that mind builds around its experience – to ‘peel the mind like an onion’ so to speak, so it could see how its own processes are its worst enemy, and begin to form new habits as a result.
Inspired by the clarity of Acharn Thawee’s teaching, both Phra Manfred and Brigitte had extremely clear understandings of meditation, both as a spiritual skill and as a science, with or without Buddhist doctrine.
The clarity of what they were showing me was such that I kept having ‘aha!’ moments as they explained yet another facet of what I was experiencing in meditation – and it amazed me that the information I was being given was not covered by the commentary on meditation back home.
It distressed me that for all the coverage of meditation by the commercial media over the last century, most people still don’t understand how simple, practical and essential it is as a life skill. Even now, meditation is either trivialized as a ‘relaxation technique’, or it is obscured behind culturally incompatible spiritual blather, in which words like ‘chakra’s’ and ‘energy’ only serve to confuse and sabotage the true challenge of meditation.
So I began to tell other people about what I’d learnt which morphed into giving lessons and eventually, meditation training eclipsed my other activities.
It rapidly became clear to me, both from my own experiences and from the experiences of my clients, that the western mind has great difficulty finding the mental tranquility that the Oriental mind takes for granted - that is the beginning point of meditation.
And it’s understandable.
We in the West have never in our history been encouraged to be mentally still. Our cultural and social history has been an extraordinary quest for progress, information and acquisition, at the cost of what I would call ‘our internal ecological balance'.
My experiences over the years I have been training people in meditation has shown me that people are keen for someone to explain meditation to them without the usual fog of quasi-spiritual, or metaphysical, or religious contexts that often goes along with it.
In stories I have been told, there have been too many teachers who have had spiritual agenda’s of their own, or who have not enough experience of the mental states they talk so glibly about. Their teaching often reaches far beyond what people are naturally capable of, and in so doing, sets their students up to fail. It is a kind of arrogance that alienates a lot of people from the very idea of meditation - often those most in need of it.
I know when I first began seeking information about meditation when I was in my 20's, it was exactly those kinds of teachers who, with all their enthusiastic talk about enlightenment and 'god-head', made me feel as if I was un-suited to meditation. All I wanted was someone who could explain things clearly, and help me to understand the true nature of something that seemed all too arcane.
So now, from my own experiences, I know that people need to understand the why and how of what they’re doing before they do it, and they want it explained simply and concisely. They want someone who can guide them, knowing that this person has been where they were going, and can help them to deal with whatever happens.
It’s exactly this that kind of training I wished I had’ve had when I first began – so that is that kind of trainer I try to be.
In 1994, I wrote a book about my understanding and experience of meditation, including instruction in meditation - the book was entitled ‘Happy to Burn’. It was published in Australia by Lothian Books in early 1997.
When the rights eventually reverted to me, I decided to give it away as a free downloadable E book from my web-site. Over 20,000 EBooks have been given away since.
It is available from the bookshop as a free download.
My new book, ‘Love & Imagination', which extends and expands upon the methods I described in 'Happy to Burn', is finished and will be published shortly.