This is Part 2 of an old blog post I’ve exhumed and reposted. It’s probably more than 15 years old – but expresses in detail my early interest in the spiritual. Enjoy!
Part 2: The bonfire of the “shoulds”
As a child, I’d had a very vivid sense of religiosity. I’d sung in the village choir and found the aura surrounding the big redbrick Queen Ann style church in its grove of pine trees gently intoxicating. The exquisite pastoral of Anglican Evensong, choral Magnificats and Nunc Dimittuses in the fading summer light, the incense, the robes, the smell of the sacristy, the taste of the Communion wine: they all left a very visceral aesthetic of the Holy.
In Berlin adulthood crashed into me at 100 mph and my pact with God became parchment thin
And as a young gay teenager, I’d made a pact with God. I remember writing out on a piece of parchment in my best calligraphic handwriting an oath that I’d always believe in God if he would look after me. Unconsciously I guess what I meant was that if he allowed me to be gay, I’d stick to my side of the bargain.
As I got older went to University filled with agnostics and questioners, I never really tested my beliefs very hard. I continued singing in the chapel choir and let the exquisite sweetness of choral Christianity flow over me.
But when adulthood crashed into me at 100 mph when I left the UK and moved to Berlin, then suddenly my pact with God seemed parchment-thin. Amidst the crunching, lacerating stresses and strains of being a young man far from home, with no money, no language and few friends, I felt bleakly unsupported and became brutally self-sufficient.
Starting to meditate was like opening a window in my brain and letting in air
And that self-sufficiency became the controlling feature of my psychology. And although I had a wonderfully colourful time in Berlin, I left it at the end of my 20s very tightly enmeshed in the bonds of self-centred living: it was all about my possessions, my fancy clothes, my nice apartment, my dazzling career, my successful sex life, my witty friends, my great thoughts. It was a life not without grandness but tightly wrapped in the clingfilm of My-ness.
Being sealed up in your own world without the fresh air of some bigger framework becomes very claustrophobic. I was gasping by the time I got to the UK. And when I started to meditate, it was like opening a window in my brain and letting in some air. Or stretching cramped, twisted mental limbs that had been squeezed into a tiny box for too long.
“Life is always going to be the way it is. So why not rely on that fact?”
Before I visited Holy Island – after just a few weeks of meditation – I started looking at some Buddhist books to compare notes as it were. Buddhism does make meditation one of the central planks of its philosophy, so it seemed a natural step.
Charlotte Joko Beck’s Everyday Zen was one of the first and most influential books I read. Tough as her tone often is, what she was saying seemed crystal clear and very commonsensical. There was no religious cant, very little reference to Buddha or the traditions of Buddhism but a whole lot of rock-solid psychological insight.
One sentence in Beck’s book struck home with particular power:
One thing in life you can rely on : life being as it is. We can’t count on anything else. Life is always going to be the way it is. So why not rely on that fact?
When you think about it, life is never reliable. Things go wrong. Trains are cancelled. Boyfriends leave you. You get ill. Your cat dies. Ultimately, you’ll die. If you sit down and think about it, nothing in life can be fixed and held firm. Everything is arising and falling in a ceaseless circulation of change.
Living in a state of radical realism
This can be very upsetting. We like to have certainty in our life. We like to know money’s coming in. To feel immortal. We like to depend on our friends, our health, and our income. But that needy optimism – “I’ll be alright”, “She’ll love me forever”, “It’ll be sunny all weekend” – builds us up for a fall. How much better it would be to live in a state of radical realism. If we looked at our partner every day and thought: “How wonderful that you’re still there. Because tomorrow you might be gone” Then we’d have a much more effulgent appreciation of life, from moment to moment. It’s our smug, fearful desire for everything to be fixed the way we want it that stops us from living.
As Charlotte Joko Beck also says: “The energy of life seeks rapid transformation. If we can see life this way and not cling to anything, life simply comes and goes.”
This less sticky, less clingy attitude to life seemed wonderfully refreshing to me.
That cute boy I met was sweet but shouldn’t he be more handsome?
Up until the moment I read those words, my life had been completely clogged up by the word “should”.
There was this gaping maw of dissatisfaction between what my life was and what it “should” be. I lived in a nice flat in the East End but shouldn’t I have bought my own house? House Doctor was a good show but I should be doing something more challenging. More intellectual. That sweet boy I met was very cute but shouldn’t I be looking for someone more handsome? And shouldn’t his eyebrows be less bushy? Should I be worried about my career? What should I do? What should I wear? Who should I be?
Idealism breeds discontent. It’s the No.1 killer of human happiness.
The prevailing Western philosophy of life is Idealism. We compare ourselves to ideals that we necessarily fall short of. We imagine a perfect God and feel flawed and sinful next to Him. We imagine a perfect society and feel depressed about the crappy one we live in. We’re told to imagine that the perfect bodies that shine down from billboards are achievable ideals and hate ourselves for being shaped the way we are.
In other words, Idealism breeds discontent. It is the number one killer of human happiness. It diverts attention and awareness from how things are and drags them into unachievable, non-existent fantasies. The brilliant shock that Buddhism delivered to me was that this Idealism was neither necessary nor desirable.
I was selfish, sexually uptight. I was vain and I was going to die.
In place of misery-breeding Idealism, Buddhism offered a radical form of realism. As in Charlotte Joko Beck’s book, the one thing you can count on in life is the beautiful facts of the moment, the kaleidoscopic non-sticky reality of right now. Even if right now was difficult and complicated, at least it was real.
And so meditation became the way I started to move from an Ideal view of myself to a more Real one.
It was – and still is – pretty hard. It involves some pretty up-front and honest self-analysis. It meant accepting not-so-pretty facts about myself. I was selfish, sexually uptight. I was vain and I was going to die. I was getting older, and my looks would fade.
But somehow, when I brought those things into the floodlight, they didn’t seem as nasty and threatening as when they were lurking in the shadows.
When I dropped the “shoulds” I could be kinder to the real Alistair
In essence, this is the relief that Buddhism offers me. In my mind, all those “shoulds” bred a host of vague, spider-like anxieties, festering in the shadows. Bringing them into the daylight of meditation made them much more manageable, even laughable. It’s no wonder that most Buddhists are so chuckly. There’s quite a lot of humour to be had when you see how silly some of our fears and foibles are.
And when I started to drop all the “shoulds” and ideals about myself, I found I could be much kinder to the real Alistair who was sitting there on the cushion. Suddenly all my failures and feebleness were no longer badges of shame or inadequacy; they were something I shared with everyone else on the Planet. From being cruelly judgemental of myself and others, I found myself smiling indulgently when I messed up and forgiving others when they did so too. I saw that we were all part of the same gang of imperfect animals, muddling through the moment.
‘Part 3: Finding my Religion’ is coming next… I’d love to know your thoughts about dropping the ‘should’ and if you’ve ever considered becoming a Buddhist. 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!