Learning to Meditate
When just reading books about meditation is no longer enough
It is often said that we live in a society in which everyone is ‘searching for something.’ More specifically, they are searching, we are to infer, for some kind of ‘spiritual’ fulfilment. Sometimes my naturally sceptical disposition makes me think this is just one of those lazy platitudes that we’ve all just taken for granted without really thinking about it. But it might be true. Because, even if it would be going too far to suggest that everyone is consciously searching for spiritual fulfilment, I do believe everyone is seeking fulfilment, and that this – by definition – is a spiritual concern, even when only expressed as an instinctive feeling that there must be ‘something more’ to life than this. If by ‘spirituality’ we mean such reflections on the experience of being human as are concerned with what really matters – the meaning and purpose of our lives – then I have to admit it’s certainly true for me. So yes, I recognise in myself the hunger for spirituality, for meaning and fulfilment, that people often talk about. Whether this hunger was placed there by an advertising agency or God I cannot say, but either way it seems I’ve been ‘searching for something’ for as long as I can remember.
For me the defining moment was seeing the Buddhist truth of impermanence and suffering. I started to read avidly – philosophy, literature, psychology, mysticism – in search of a deeper understanding of life. Although I had rejected Christianity, I was somehow attracted to Eastern religions, perhaps because – like many people in modern western societies who find themselves unconvinced by the merits of Christianity – it seemed that Buddhism offered some of the positive aspects of religion without the bits that are impossible to believe. But reading is an essentially private enterprise. Consequently my engagement with spiritual matters was entirely conditioned by the modern assumption that religion belongs to a realm of purely personal experience. Eventually, however, I reached a point in my life where just reading about it wasn’t enough. I had to learn how to do it.
I was twenty-seven, and living – in somewhat primitive conditions – on a small sailing boat on the Isle of Wight. I had been drinking heavily for about ten years and my life was going nowhere fast. Looking back I can see that I was profoundly miserable, though I wasn’t fully aware of it at the time. After leaving school I had just drifted aimlessly, living in different parts of the country, always moving on after a year or so. I worked intermittently – as a porter, cleaner or handyman – but couldn’t hold down a job for more than a few months, and inevitably got fired from a few of them because of my drinking. At the same time I was trying to follow my dream of being an artist. Or a writer. Or a musician. Or whatever. But because the dreams I chased remained beyond my grasp, I drank ever more heavily to avoid facing my demons of frustration and despair.
There were, no doubt, a whole host of text-book psychological reasons for all this, but in simple terms I think I was just disappointed – as many of us are – that life wasn’t living up to my expectations. It probably didn’t help that I also had a strong self-destructive streak, and was lacking in confidence. Slowly it began to dawn on me that I was drinking myself into oblivion, perhaps even deliberately. More or less permanently wasted, by the time I hit rock-bottom I had essentially given up on life. Eventually, the wake-up call came when a close friend drowned somewhere between leaving the pub and going back to his boat. That, a few drunken accidents of my own, and the inexorable disintegration of a long-term relationship, finally made it clear that all was not quite as it should be. The combination of my growing desire to learn more about meditation, and the realisation that I needed to get my head together, sort my life out, and address the problem of my drinking forced me to do something decisive. I gave away everything I owned – books, paintings, and a much-cherished record collection – and went to India, like so many before and since, in search of enlightenment.
I had my last drink on the plane.
As it happens it was the beginning of Lent, though I don’t think I was aware of that at the time. I visited Bodhgaya, site of the Buddha’s enlightenment, and sat under the famous Bodhi tree. I watched as pilgrims came to pray at the shrine, do their prostrations, or just playfully try to catch the falling leaves for good luck. After a few days spent listening to the mournful drone of Tibetan trumpets, and fending off the ‘assistance’ of entrepreneurial children offering guided tours, I headed to Varanasi, checked into a guesthouse on the Ghats, and started to look for a guru. A sign in a narrow back street advertised meditation classes, so I signed up.
On a little raised dais at one end of a dimly lit room sat a middle-aged Indian man. The teacher. There were half a dozen westerners. He told us to touch our toes, stand on our heads, and sit cross-legged. I couldn’t help but notice that he didn’t actually demonstrate any of these exercises himself. I don’t believe he could have even if he’d wanted to. At the end of the session we all reverently deposited fifty rupees at his feet and solemnly departed. To be honest I found the whole thing rather odd, but still, I’d come a long way for this, so I went back for more the following day. At the end of the second class I complained that I wanted to learn how to meditate, not to do a shoulder-stand. He said that I needed to discipline the body in order to train the mind. After giving it some thought I had to agree that he might have a point, even if he didn’t seem to be a particularly good example of his own philosophy. As many people will know from all too painful experience, it’s hard to sit still for any length of time: our bodies just aren’t used to it. After a couple of weeks in Kathmandu – where I found a rather more dynamic teacher – I went to Rishikesh, checked into an ashram, and applied myself to the training in earnest.
Once I’d taken the rather drastic step of leaving the UK, giving up alcohol was surprisingly easy. It took a lot longer, however, for my body to regain some sort of physiological equilibrium. A few months after I stopped drinking I noticed that I was constantly craving sweet things – cake, chocolate, ice cream, biscuits, pastries, doughnuts – anything, as long as it contained sugar. Initially I thought this was just a consequence of my monastic lifestyle, a reaction against being unable to eat whatever I wanted. Later I learned that it is quite common, when people give up alcohol, for the body to compensate by demanding sugar. At times I would be so obsessed by these cravings that I could think of little else; even when supposedly meditating I would actually be fantasising about chocolate cake. Sometimes my desperation would become so unbearable that I would guiltily sneak off on some spurious pretext to gorge myself on sweets and chocolate in a vain attempt to appease the yearning. What really amazed me, however, was just how much chocolate I was capable of eating without feeling sick, or indeed satisfied. It took at least a year to get back to normal.
Other than that, the whole process was relatively straightforward. Cutting myself off from my previous lifestyle, acquaintances and familiar haunts undoubtedly helped – as did the fact that India is not a drinking culture – but more importantly I had better things to do with myself than getting wasted all the time. I had, very simply, flicked a mental switch, changing my attitude to life from negative and self-destructive to positive and engaged. I no longer wanted to drink because I had a new sense of direction and purpose that was more compelling than being drunk: I had a reason to be sober. One spring morning, about six weeks after leaving England, I was sitting on the banks of the river Ganges at Rishikesh. With growing excitement it suddenly dawned on me that I had made a life-changing discovery. I had found something that felt really worthwhile and fulfilling, something that my life had previously lacked. I decided that I would give up drink, drugs, and all my old ways for good, and – as corny as it may sound – from that moment onwards dedicate myself to the spiritual path, wherever it might lead, and whatever it might involve. It was essentially a conversion experience – death of the old self, and birth of the new – and I was filled with a profound joy, for I knew that I had made the momentous decision to embark upon the only journey that was ever worth making.
A version of this story appears in my book Tantalus and the Pelican: Exploring monastic spirituality today, Continuum, 2009.