As a young child I was in love with “nature”. My love was the trees and the fields and the sea and the cliffs and the skies of England and Wales. I loved to wander and explore – I was “ a little lad who worshipped by the sea”. As a teenager I became a rather serious and earnest young man, unhappy with a highly disciplined and authoritarian, but academically high-powered, schooling. I was precociously intelligent and extraordinarily busy. I ran the debating society at school and organised the “community service” activities. I also became a rebel, sympathising with CND, and at one point was suspended from school for what were seen as “subversive” activities.
I was confirmed into the Church of England at the age of 13 by my own choice. I read a great deal, and at the age of about 16 was much influenced by “existentialist” Christian theologians like Soren Kierkegaard, Paul Tillich, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer ( executed by the Nazis in 1945). I also read some Gurdjieff at about this time, and developed an interest in Zen Buddhism. My formal attachment to the Christian church ceased for some years, but I remained intensely concerned with debates about spirituality, even during the years of my 20s and 30s when my main interest, and belief, was in Marxism.
I remember discussing with a friend as a teenager the meaning of Christ’s command to “love thy neighbour as thyself”, realising that this implied that it was first necessary to “love yourself”. I did not feel much love for myself through those years, and frequently suffered from depression. Later, as a (not very orthodox!) Marxist, I remember defending those who said that “God is love”, understanding it to mean that “love” was the most powerful force in the universe, and that therefore “love” must be “God”.
For several years I was enamoured of the ancient Chinese oracular text the “I Ching” or Book of Changes, which is a mixture of Taoism and Confucianism. I became addicted to consulting this “oracle” until I realised that I would repeat my consultations over and over again until I came up with the answer I wanted in the first place!
Apart from my reading of Gurdjieff (who “borrowed” various ideas and practices from Sufism) I had no conscious contact with Sufis until, when I was about 22, an old acquaintance from my student days at Oxford told me he had become the pupil of a Sufi sheikh from Algeria. What impressed me was that this man had renounced all his previous drug-taking habits ( which I hadn’t!) but that he didn’t seem at all “pious” or self-congratulatory about that fact.
My own life’s journey then became somewhat perilous. I was reckless in experimentation with drugs or drink, I was careless of my own life, and I ended up seeing the inside of a psychiatric hospital. The latter experience brought me “down to earth” with a bump, and certain strangers showed me great love and concern, which revived my spirit.
In my late 20s I “settled down” at least a little bit, and had a child. I did many different jobs, but remained quite hard and cold and argumentative. I lost many friends. When my son was 1 year old I stayed home and looked after him for a year whilst his mother went to work. This experience began to soften me. I then worked as a playleader with children under five, for five years. This softened me further.
During this time an interest in things spiritual was gradually reviving in me. I was drawn to a bookshop one day where I discovered a book by Rajneesh (later known as “Osho”). I devoured dozens of his books, one of which was about Sufism and was called “Straight to freedom”. I was then attracted to the books of Reshad Field – in particular one called “The Invisible Way”- I was drawn by the beautiful photo on its cover, of coastline, sea, and rooks (the old nature mystic in me was still present!).
At some point in those years I made the conscious decision that I needed to make contact with some Sufis. I didn’t know where to look ( I didn’t realise I could have looked in “Time Out”!) At that time I was living in a house in Dalston, East London, which almost backed on to a large house that was clearly occupied as a sort of “commune”. But I couldn’t work out who these people were. I had lived in various types of commune myself, usually fairly chaotic, but I couldn’t place what sort of house this was. There always seemed to be women doing the washing up, and every now and again various men would be climbing up ladders, often at night, as if they were practising the art of balance. Occasionally a character looking like a Scottish laird would appear in the garden and sniff the roses. Then I remembered some newspaper reference to “whirling dervishes” in Dalston, and went and knocked on the door of this house. “Are you Sufis?” I asked. “Yes, but how did you know?” was the reply. I explained, and was invited to the weekly talks given by their teacher (the one who looked like a Scottish laird). I attended these talks for several years, and undertook various recitations prescribed by this teacher, though I was wary of making personal contact with him. He appeared however, to be clairvoyant, and on a number of occasions appeared to direct his thoughts or attention directly to certain individuals in his audience, including myself.
After some years the talks ceased and I gathered the teacher had gone overseas, taking many of his pupils with him. Foolishly (I now see in retrospect) I carried on doing the prescribed exercises and recitations, without any kind of guidance or contact with a teacher. After a couple of years of this I was in states of more or less continuous high anxiety, with frequent panic attacks. I realised I needed some help, but didn’t know where to turn. I wrote a letter to Reshad Field ( in Switzerland). As I went to post the letter I happened to see one of the old pupils of the Scottish teacher walking down the road. I didn’t speak to him, then returned home cursing my foolishness . “That was obviously meant to help you, you fool!” I said to myself, “why didn’t you speak to him?” A week later I saw the same man’s partner in the street (they had just moved to that locality). This time I called out, and explained my predicament, and the friend explained that they were now in contact with a new teacher, called Hazrat, and I was invited to their weekly meetings.
What a relief that was! When I first went to the meetings of Hazrat’s group in London as it was at that time (1989) I was so tense and anxious I had to literally clutch my legs together in order to try and sit still. But my presence was tolerated (!) and gradually I relaxed.
I started doing Hazrat’s meditation, and the initial effect certainly had a calming and steadying influence on me. About six months later Hazrat came to England, but I kept putting off going to see him. Eventually the friend I had seen in the street rang me, saying: “opportunities like this don’t come every day, why don’t you come and meet Hazrat?”
I set out across London, from Dalston to Brixton. But the tubes weren’t running, for some reason. I got a bus from Oxford Circus which seemed to take forever. I got talking to a drunken man beside me, thinking “Oh God, I’ll end up in the pub with this guy, I know I will!” But I didn’t, and I did meet Hazrat, and I was apprehensive, but as soon as I sat with him I felt OK. I felt this was someone I could trust. It also seemed to me (and I don’t know whether this was reality or my nerves) that Hazrat seemed to keep going in and out of focus, as if he was in this reality and in other realities as well. From that moment I have seen Hazrat as this remarkable combination of the very ordinary and down to earth and the very extraordinary and spiritual. Both at once. Both equally important. Both being what makes him the teacher that he is. That is how I see it anyway.
Since that time I have stayed with the group in London, and most years Hazrat has come over to stay with us in the autumn. I have continued with the practices, sometimes with regularity and sometimes not, and I have attended the weekly meetings, sometimes regularly and sometimes not. In recent years we have had a number of retreats lasting a few days. The composition of the group has kept on changing, though there are a few familiar faces from 12 or 13 years ago. Despite the changes, the essence of what we do, or are trying to do, remains the same.
When I first attended the group I had no formal religious practice. After some years I became aware, again, of what seemed to me to be the spiritual reality of Jesus, and returned for a while to the Church of England. I spoke to Hazrat with some trepidation about this, but he smiled and said to me “I am glad you have returned to some religion!” Since then I have made contact with the Quakers, and sometimes attend local Quaker meetings for worship. A couple of years back the School of Sufi Teaching ran a weekend introduction to Sufism for Quaker friends at Charney Manor in Oxfordshire, where we also sometimes conduct our own retreats. I personally feel that there are many affinities between Quakerism and Sufism. At present most of the group who meet in London are Muslim, but I have never felt under any pressure to become Muslim, and Hazrat has always said to me “my concern is only that people become closer to God”.
My experience of doing the practices is that one is taken on a journey which is sometimes easy and sometimes hard, part of which seems to involve a gradually growing awareness of who one really is, and a gradual burning away of parts of oneself that are too hard or cold or useless. It is at once an easy road and a very hard one. It is both – I cannot explain that paradox.