I had the most wonderful afternoon on Friday talking to the young men and women of St. James schools – two independent, sibling schools, who since the 1970s have flavoured their teaching with meditation – hence my invitation.
There were about a hundred or so of the combined six forms and some younger and, after a lovely lunch hosted by the headmistress of the Hammersmith girls school, I stood up and starting talking.
I had actually, in a panic, been up till 4 in the morning making a powerpoint to illustrate my wayward musings and thankfully the two glasses of white wine, the smiling faces of the students and the great love I have of speaking on the theme of a) myself and b) meditation meant that I filled up the 45 minutes of my speech adequately.
I was talking about my career as a presenter and the fissures in my self-belief that led to my interest in Buddhism, meditation and latterly therapy.
As I was collating my thoughts in the middle of the night, I found myself realising that to talk about my career without addressing the issue of fame would be invidious. And since these were all extremely erudite and open-minded teenagers I stuck with that theme: a desire to be famous is underpinned by a need to be loved. The painful irony being that when you achieve fame (or at least, recognition) it is not the real, flesh-and-blood you that people recognize. There is a dreadful chasm between the you that millions watch and the you that sits twiddling his fingers on the sofa at night. Intimacy is never answered by fame.
I thought that might be a worthwhile theme for a group of youngsters about to launch out into the world.
However, what they found more pertinent was when I started to talk about the perils of the path.
When I hit my ‘meditation nazi’ stage around 32, then my fixation on the goal of ‘enlightenment’ made me mean and utterly divorced from the florid realities of the here-and-now. But I realized later that it wasn’t enlightenment that I needed but balance.
How do you balance a desire for change with an ability to accept who you are? School-leavers are prominently concerned with ‘becoming something’: they want to become a doctor, or an actor or a politician or an undergraduate. There’s the goal: and yet here I am saying, learn to be yourself, don’t strive after goals to the detriment of the present.
They all got this. They all asked brilliant and searching questions about it. ‘How do we achieve if we are only accepting’. Which is a question I’m asked at least once a month when I’m teaching mediation.
How to rest if you want to get things done?
I thought (on the spot, it’s amazing how wise my brain gets when I don’t think too much) that the crucial difference is between growing and changing. If you want to change then there is an implied diss to what you are. If you are growing then the present ‘you’ is essential, nay, it’s the only salient fact: you are growing right now. Like a tree grows. An acorn doesn’t want to be a 400 year old oak. It’s getting there anyway – what’s important is where it is now.
You are here.
These young men and women, (we had a long debate over lunch how one addresses 6th formers, they’re clearly not ‘girls and boys’), they are already skilled at being in the here-and-now. Their years of daily meditation have taught them that. They see the benefit. And it made me really excited to see what a wisdom they had amongst them when they thought about growing into the future.
I don’t share the doom-mongering tone of most middle-aged commentators on ‘today’s youth’. From where I was standing they were definitely much more balanced, grown-up, savvy, sensitive and politically aware than I was at that age.
I ended the talk with a bit from Desiderata, which always makes me cry:
You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees & the stars; you have a right to be here. And whether or not it is clear to you, no doubt the universe is unfolding as it should.