I grew up in Yorkshire in a village between Leeds and Ilkley. It’s hard to remember anything of particular note in my childhood. I was mostly happy, though I often preferred my own company to that of other people of my age. I had no awareness of religion or meditation.
When I was very young my only ambition was to be a professional football player. When I found myself struggling to get in the local village Under 11 team, my parents gently suggested that a career as a professional footballer might be a little bit on the optimistic side. With a little reality check, I turned to more realistic goals. As a teenager, I tried working at a local stockbroker’s office. This held quite a strong fascination, so after university I planned to go and work in the City of London.
From my early teens, I had a strong desire to go to Oxford University. Fortunately, I passed the exams and was accepted to study Politics, Philosophy and Economics at Lady Margaret Hall College. I really enjoyed the subject (except Western philosophy, which left me feeling guilty for being unable to get to the end of the philosophers’ sentences). I also loved visiting the different libraries and colleges within the beautiful city of Oxford.
University life gives you the opportunity to have an unparalleled freedom with a stream of different social/cultural events to attend. But, it was also quite a turbulent time. After two years, the attractions of parties and a hectic social life diminished. At the same time, the lure of earning a lot of money in the city also dissipated. It seemed all the attractions and comforts of the world were as nothing, if you weren't inwardly happy. For good or ill, I was seeking something different, something deeper.
During this period, I wrote a controversial letter to a national newspaper. I never thought it would actually get published. Anyway, it did get published, and it seemed the whole world decided to read the Guardian letters page on that day. It created quite a stir, and it got blown out of proportion. I hated the attention and criticism, but ironically it became a (seemingly unimportant) trigger, which led me to question many things in life. It also left a profound distaste of politics that never left.
In response to my depressed state of mind, I drifted into a spiritual bookshop – the kind of place I would never have considered a few months earlier. I picked up a few spiritual books and became fascinated with this whole new approach to life. It gave a vague insight into another world which gave a tantalising promise of real bliss and delight. It was perhaps a little intangible, but it was enough to make me want to explore more. At the same time, things that used to give me joy now appeared quite lacklustre.
Out of habit, you can cling to certain things, especially when it is the most prevalent choice of society; but I found an inner change pushing my life in a certain direction. I just no longer felt any kind of enthusiasm for the passing pleasures of life.
At that time, quite a few books made a deep impression on me. One book was by an Englishman, Paul Brunton, who travelled through India meeting sages, fakirs and fortunetellers, before meeting his own Guru, the great Ramana Maharshi at Arunachala in South India. It was in Arunachala that he experienced a particularly powerful meditation. Somehow his description of meditation touched a chord. That was it – I, too, wanted to experience that meditation.
I made a few tentative efforts, but I soon realised that meditation was much more difficult than I first hoped, especially when it feels that the world is running in the opposite direction.
I did a little meditation, but most of my time was spent reading spiritual books, following a range of different paths and teachers. I was like a greedy kid in a sweet shop, trying to eat as much knowledge as possible. I thought the more wisdom I read, the better it would be. But, the variety of paths became a bit confusing, leaving a mild feeling of indigestion.
It was at this time that I became fascinated with the I Ching – tossing coins to answer questions about life. The I Ching is a great book of spiritual wisdom, but I wasn't using it in the right way. I was using it to avoid making decisions, which was quite detrimental. I was almost becoming dependent on the toss of coins for every decision. It was during this time in my last year at university that, for various reasons, I became very ill, and was forced to take a year off university.
The physical illness led to a deep mental depression. I was very confused and despairing of ever seeing a way out of the void I had fallen into. I remember hopelessly crying to God, but I never seemed to hear anything in return. You could say it was a dark night of the soul. It certainly was a very painful period, which even now is very hard to recall because it feels like a different lifetime and a different person experiencing it.
But, as quickly as I got ill, I also got better, and within nine months had returned to Oxford with a much greater sense of mental balance and equanimity. It felt like being given a second chance; away from the desperate clutches of depression my outlook changed, with a sense of great newness and possibilities. Despite going through much difficulty, the aspiration for a spiritual life was, if anything, intensified. I couldn't face any more a life of shallow predictability. I had experienced the depths of the mind, now I wanted to experience the heights of the soul. The old longing for experiencing that intangible and ineffable consciousness returned, intensified.
It was back in Oxford, in 1999, that I saw posters for meditation classes offered by the Sri Chinmoy Centre. It wasn't the first time I had seen their posters. I remember seeing some posters for a Peace Concert given by Sri Chinmoy a few years previously. I remember being struck by the picture of Sri Chinmoy and really wanting to go and see it. But, a friend somehow persuaded me that a few pints in a jazz club would be more fun, so it was not to be. But, that was three years ago; now the pull of meditation was far greater than anything else.
The meditations were encouraging, though I found that to still the mind seemed much more difficult in practice than in theory. I think in the beginning I was impatient to experience some grand trance which never materialized. But, the simple and clear philosophy of Sri Chinmoy appealed to me and I felt I was making real progress, even if it was not quite how I anticipated. I also got a very good impression from those students of Sri Chinmoy giving the class. They seemed quite humble and cheerful. You could tell they were getting a lot from what they were practising. There was no sense of duty, just a cheerful offering; the classes were also given free, which I thought very kind. Despite how much they obviously valued their experiences of meditation, there was never any pressure or expectation that I would actually join. They were just very happy to talk of Sri Chinmoy’s path and how much they had got from it.
During the meditation classes, some young musicians came up from another Sri Chinmoy Centre and played the most delightful, heavenly music. The music composed by Sri Chinmoy was something that I had never heard before; it was really like finding a new world of soulful music.
The other thing that really struck me were the photos of Sri Chinmoy. The image of Sri Chinmoy in meditation was very arresting, other-worldly. I somehow felt that this was someone who really had attained the highest consciousness. It was quite exciting, as I had always expected I would have to travel to India to find a real Guru, but here was a real yogi living in the West. When I read Sri Chinmoy’s writings, it appeared in great harmony with all the other spiritual teachings I had been reading, but with an added directness and simplicity. There was no mental speculation. Sri Chinmoy wrote with the authority and confidence of someone who had experienced exactly what he had written about. Yet, though there was great authority, you didn't feel any distance. Sri Chinmoy had this capacity to write and at the same time identify with the seeker. At times you felt you had written what Sir Chinmoy wrote. It may sound strange, but this is how it felt.
Sri Chinmoy only accepts students ready to give his path a certain commitment. He asks his disciples to refrain from drugs, alcohol, and adopt a vegetarian diet. On his path, if they are already single, he also asks people to remain single and not look for partners. After reading ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’ by Paramahansa Yogananda and other books, this is what I expected from a spiritual Master. From one perspective, it was a challenge to adopt such a celibate lifestyle, but deep down, I knew this was what I wanted. I knew I wouldn’t ever be happy following a more conventional lifestyle. I felt no attraction to getting the best-paying job and settling down to family life. I really wanted the full freedom to see what meditation could offer.
The funny thing is that, at the last moment before applying, I felt I wasn't good enough to have such a great spiritual Master. My meditation felt quite weak and I was far from perfect. I thought I ought to go away and meditate for a few years on my own so I would be worthy of such a great spiritual Master. Looking back, that all sounds absurd now. Though Sri Chinmoy does make certain requirements, he is also willing to accept students at all levels of development – so long as the sincere aspiration is there. In fact, Sri Chinmoy says the only fee he asks of a seeker is the fee of their sincere aspiration.
I applied to be his student and had a photograph taken. I was later told that Sri Chinmoy briefly meditated on my photo and accepted me as a student of his. When Sri Chinmoy meditates on a photo, he concentrates on the seeker’s soul. If the soul is meant for his path then he will give the soul his blessing and accept the student. This is like a moment of initiation. To Sri Chinmoy, an outer initiation is unnecessary because the connection is made on an inner, spiritual level. Sri Chinmoy says that when he accepts students, he makes a promise to the Supreme to lead that seeker to God – no matter how long and how many incarnations it may take. In everyday life, we are apt to make promises lightly, but even from the beginning I felt it was a very sacred moment. Occasionally, people would apply who were meant for another path. In that case, Sri Chinmoy would not accept them but inwardly guide them to another path or Master.
When I heard I was accepted, 31st March, 1999, I was really happy – probably relieved, as I feared I may not be good enough to be accepted. Since I had been very ill just a year ago, I thought it best not to tell my parents the full implications of the new chapter in my life. I worried they might not understand what it meant to me. After seeing me so physically ill a few months earlier, my mother was quite sensitive. Anyway, they were already used to my vegetarianism and giving up alcohol, so outwardly, there wasn’t a huge change. However, becoming a disciple and living a spiritual life does lead to profound changes in both your outer and inner life. You may not notice them yourself, because it is very much a gradual process – and never in a straight line.
I have never been able to fool my mother. If I am unhappy, she can always pick up on it. But, the thing my parents did notice was that I was genuinely happy with this lifestyle, even if it was a somewhat unorthodox choice. Over time, my mother expressed a little interest in meditation and went to see Sri Chinmoy in concert at the Royal Albert Hall in London. She later came to a meditation class I was giving, and was very surprised that I had learnt to sing. Apparently, as a child I was a very poor singer, but sometimes meditation can help develop unexpected capacities.
After being accepted as a disciple of Sri Chinmoy, I felt a lot of mental anxieties and worries dissipate. I used to struggle to make decisions, worrying about the best thing to do. I would get annoyed if I felt I had made the wrong decision, but the thing I learnt on Sri Chinmoy's path is that it is not so much what we do, but how we do it. If we can be inwardly happy, sincerely happy, then the circumstances we face are of less importance. But, more than anything, I felt like I had returned home. I had found the path that I had been looking for, consciously and unconsciously, for many years.
At certain times of meditation, unsought tears spontaneously came to my eyes. These were not the tears of sorrow, but the sweetest feeling of re-finding what was once lost and gratitude for finally remembering the real purpose of life. Outwardly it was embarrassing, but I just couldn’t help it, nor did I particularly care; it was such a sweet moment; you temporarily lose your ego and feel like a helpless child – but feeling that at last, someone is taking care of you. Life was beautiful being free of your own ego. You just didn’t want it to end; if only you could feel this all the time.
photo top: Bolton Abbey, West Yorkshire
part 2 - Religion and Spirituality