“The most fundamental aggression to ourselves, the most fundamental harm we can do to ourselves, is to remain ignorant by not having the courage and the respect to look at ourselves honestly and gently.” ― Pema Chödrön, When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times
It’s been a hard lesson but I now accept that most people don’t want to examine their life, let alone journey within.
I’m not suggesting they don’t want to find a way to battle their inner demons — e.g. I’m not good enough — but, at the slightest hint of the unknown, they abandon the journey in favour of a life lived out there; namely, chasing down another day, mostly to blot out the angst that comes from trying to understand what’s really going on.
If I look back on my exploration, it was a little different, but I understand how that sense of resignation can turn into rock hard acceptance of the status quo.
Like most people, I started off life with lots of questions about the meaning of life and how to be (constantly) happy. This led me down a path of trying to manage my thoughts. I know, as ridiculous as it sounds, and having read “Think and Grow Rich” by Napoleon Hill, I thought the way to ‘manage’ my situation was to take the most outlandish statements, write them on 5 x 3 cards and repeat them three times a day. I kept it up for about a year, but if I had reservations about the childish nature of the exercise, by year end, I’d seen off the process and couldn’t bear to go anywhere near the cards. As a matter of interest, I still have them; god knows why. Perhaps I’ve kept them to remind me how immature I was, believing that positive affirmation (alone) could override my endless, negative thoughts.
After I put down the cards, I decided the best way to battle Black Dog (and other emotions) was to lose myself in work. I figured, the busier I was, the less energy my unhinged emotions would have. And so, I started to routinely clock up 100-hour work weeks. Trust me, there’s nothing fun about going to work in the dark and coming home in the dark and doing that for six or seven days straight. For a while it worked, but my busyness soon gave rise to a whole heap of other problems, not least a deep sense of resentment. I had three existential battles on my plate: the outer ‘me’, the original inner ‘me’ (that wanted to manage his emotions) and the Dick Head workaholic who drove the other two ‘mes’ to exhaustion. Frankly, I’m not sure how I coped; but I gave myself no choice by dint of using the survival of my business to drive me on. (My first business was in recruitment, which I started aged 19.)
Unfortunately, and much to my astonishment, the business failed. It’s a long story but my partner, Bill, lost his nerve and decided that the only option, in the face of rising expenses and static sales, was to liquidate the business. I got off lightly, with all the creditors being paid off, but, emotionally, I was a wreck. I was taken to the edge. If it hadn’t been for Allison’s love and support, I shudder to think what would have happened.
Anyhow, I pulled myself together — how very British — and got back into the recruitment game. But it wasn’t long before the old thoughts started up. Not so much “Who am I?”, but more along the lines, “What’s my purpose?”, “Why am I here?” and “What do I want to do for the rest of my life?”.
I’ll spare you the minutia, but I decided that law was to be the rest of my life.
And so, in 1992, I arrived at Plymouth University, studied my proverbial arse off, got my Law degree, did the Legal Practice Course and found myself a training contract with a local law firm. By now, it’s 1996 and again by dint of working hard both during my degree and for my father-in-law (during the week and weekends), I didn’t give myself any breathing space to ‘look within’. I also got married in 1992 and my eldest daughter, Evie, arrived into the world in October 1996, about a month after my training contract started.
Don’t worry I’ll cut to the chase, but the reason I’m telling you all this, is because, during this time, there was little need for deep, existential enquiry when life was unfolding at an increasingly rapid pace. I mean let’s face it, with all that was going on, any navel gazing wouldn’t have even crossed my mind.
If there was a turning point though it came on the death of my uncle, Adrian, in September 2000. Ours wasn’t what I’d describe as a close relationship but I’ve very fond memories of the times we spent together. Two, in particular, stand out. The first, when he let me sit on his Suzuki 250 GT, which I’m sure looks nothing now compared to the bling-bling superbikes but to a kid of five, it howled like a fierce pack of wolves, smelt like it was about to burst into flames; and with Adrian riding it, he looked like someone out of Easy Rider. In fact, for a long time I was convinced he was Jack Nicholson in Easy Rider, largely as a result of a huge poster in his room and him telling me repeatedly that he was said character. The other incident was when he decided to allow me to let off some big fat detonators — think industrial size caps — with a stumpy little hammer (I was probably no more than five years old). As you can imagine, this being the early 70s, there was no suggestion of me wearing ear defenders, glasses or for that matter any protection. And no, I didn’t lose any eye, but instead a piece of shrapnel flew off and embedded itself in my inner thigh. I cried like a baby, and even though it was a fairly superficial wound, it was still one hell of shock that left a nice little scar. I didn’t hold it against him. In fact, I thought it was kids should be doing!
But the connection ran deeper than the superficial shenanigans. It was the fact that I felt this brotherly bond that, even now, I find hard to explain. Don’t get me wrong, I love my brother to bits, but Adrian, being only nine years older than me, and being more representative of me, felt much less like an uncle and more like a long lost elder brother.
Anyhow, not long before he died of a brain tumour, I went to see him at his home in Paignton; he’d never moved away. It was probably three or four years since I’d last seen him and even though I knew he was undertaking prolonged bouts of chemotherapy, I was still incredibly shocked to see what cancer had done to him. (Here was a guy who stood over six foot tall, an excellent rower and was always in good shape.) He was a shadow of his former self: he’d lost weight, lost the sight in one eye and was unsteady on his feet. I knew, as I’m sure did Adrian, he was living on borrowed time. We sat and talked about the old times and he shared with me his various experimental cancer treatments. I remember that Evie had come with me and she was running around the garden which was pretty muddy but she was having a wonderful time. Adrian had a daughter, Sophie, who was a few years older, and there was a sense of him being lost in the reverie of Evie’s play. I left eventually and that was the last time I saw him alive.
As you can imagine, for a man of 44, who’d never left his home town and was heavily involved in the rowing/boating scene, his funeral service attracted over 150 people. It could have been more. I don’t remember much about the service save the look on his young daughter’s face when witnessing her dad being carried out of the church by the pallbearers.
The reason why I’m giving you the background to my relationship with Adrian and his untimely death, is because, apart from anything else, it’s his ‘spirit’ that’s helped me to deal with my own mortality and understand the philosophy (if you can call it that) of non-dualism.
I hope this won’t sound too woo woo, but I still remember the first experience when I felt Adrian’s spirit. I was driving from Paignton to Torquay along the coast road. At a point just past the old gas works — if you know the area — I felt him very close to me. I didn’t have any visualisation or conversation, but just this strong sense of his presence. It was like he was sitting next to me enjoying the drive across the bay, a place he’d rowed and taken his boat on many times and where his ashes were scattered. I wasn’t scared. If anything, I filled up with a deep love for all the things we’d done together. This encounter stayed with me for a long time. In fact, I couldn’t get it out of my head. It wasn’t that I’d ever expressed a non-belief in the spirit world but here was something that had come out of the blue in such a beautiful way why wouldn’t I want to experience it fully, deeply and completely? I’ve had many more of these encounters but never as strong. I suppose the best way I can put it is that I get this sense of Adrian’s presence not when I’m overtly looking to make the connection but at time when perhaps I need to gain perspective on my life.
The other thing that Adrian’s passing has had on me is the need to live. No, I don’t mean with my eyes shut, but with an open, loving heart. In case you need reminding — sorry, I know that I’ve talked about this many times — in March 2010 I was admitted to hospital for six days with a subarachnoid hemorrhage. I was 42 at the time. I recovered — thankfully. But thereafter, one of the strongest emotions that filled me was the need not to live with regret. I suppose that and my dislike for the way I’d allowed myself to be consumed by the practice of law was the reason I left in August 2010. But as soon as I left I was faced with the possibility, given my diagnosis, that I could have another bleed or worse still be killed by a major stroke. This didn’t mean I lived life walking on eggshells but I was acutely aware of the fragility of life. I also had Adrian’s death hanging over me. In my mind I reconciled that if I lived beyond 44 then everything thereafter would be a bonus.
I did survive my 44th birthday and to this day, if anyone asks me about the way I live my life — which is very ordinary, I promise you — I tell them that each day I’m here is a blessing.
But back to the point in hand, namely self-enquiry. With Adrian’s death always with me and my own brush with the other side, you won’t be surprised that the previous questioning returned with a vengeance; but the main line of enquiry without doubt was always, “Who am I?”
At the time I was being coached by Kashyapi and in one of our online sessions — she’s very Zen in her approach, i.e. there’s no messing about — she invited me to read the book by Sri Ramana Maharshi, “Who am I?” — if you follow the link it will take you to a free copy. I read it, and much like the time I read the Heart Sutra, I was left reeling by the sense that I’d never properly — if at all! — investigated the mind/body connection beyond a bunch of personal development labels, e.g. success, happiness and greatness. This was different. It cut to the core of my being. And left me not with any sense of knowing — oh how the ‘me’ loves to know and outwit everyone else — but, instead, a deep sense of unknowing. From there, things really began to tumble. I started to appreciate that ‘I am’ was much more than a series of thoughts, feeling and sensations. It was…everything and no-thing, meaning, if you like, I was one with everything and everything was one with me.
Now, at this stage, I’m not expecting you to get any of what I’m saying. It’s way out there but all I can tell you, if it needs any explanation, is that life was not as I’d assumed it. Not just my thoughts — I think I knew that — but something much vaster, more mysterious but, at the same, grounded in this moment, this wondrous moment, being all there ever is.
Of course, running alongside the mystical experience was life. The ordinariness of life: get up, work, eat, clean, spend time with the family, walk the dogs, defecate and sleep. I was no different but I knew that my experience of life had changed. Everything felt much bigger, less benign and I had a sense that I wasn’t really in charge of anything. And no, in case you’re thinking the obvious question, this is not me claiming that I’m awakened, liberated or out of touch with what I see, feel, touch, smell and think. I’m just me. The same Julian that was born of my mother but with an open heart to the ineffable and not stuck in my character’s plethora of stories that I’ve got to be this, that or any other variant.
Does this mean I’m ‘different’? I can’t answer that. Sure, I talk more openly about subjects that were previously out of sight or off the agenda but all I know is that I’ve this deep appreciation for everything. There’s no separateness, no division and I’m more comfortable with everything that comes, even when it’s seemingly cruel and shitty.
You might think from all my writing and podcasts I’m on a mission to convert you to my non-duality cause. I’m not. In fact, that’s as preposterous to write as it is to effect. For a start, as Schopenhauer said, “You cannot will your will”, meaning unless you are drawn to self-enquiry there’s zero chance of you exploring the inner terrain, let alone seeking enlightenment. If I do have a cause it’s to highlight that social conditioning has denuded so many people of their true self. In fact, they’re subsumed beneath so many layers of self-loathing that they’ve forgotten what it’s like to live with an open mind to everything that life has to offer. Again, I don’t expect you to leap and leave everything behind but I’d like to think you’d do more than read a personal development book wishing for a miracle.
In case you need reminding, life is the best teacher of all. Sit in silence for an hour and soon enough all those angst-ridden thoughts will mellow to the point where you might begin to move out of the realm of the superficial ‘me’ and towards something richer in experience.
If you think that my life is different, then I’m bound to say it’s no different. If there’s anything, it’s a lightness, an acceptance of everything and a deep connection with something bigger than the ego. But actually, I’m still trying to make sense of life but this time not by virtue of what I might do out there but to continue to narrow the gap between true and false self. If this sounds a bit hackneyed, I simply mean that I need to find a settled place that I’m not blown off course too often. This is no different to most people I’m sure, absent any discussion of non-duality, but I’m not invested now in building a persona that’s as faux as the notion of accreting anything outwith my true self.
If I can sum this up, all I’m trying to do is live without contradiction. This means approaching life with an open heart without trying to fix anything…simply because there’s nothing to fix.
But what about you?
What does the journey look like?