To grow as a tree grows. Presently.

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.


  1. Juliano

    February 6, 2011 at 2:40 pm

    I could never do talks because I am a hopeless giggler, always was—at school (which I hated SO much. The bane of my growing childhood…Where does one go for compensation for damage done…?)But I am not ashamed of it. I am reminded always of magic mushrooms and how the coming trip is always heralded by gigglings that could kill you. It is like te whole universe is giggling. SUDDENLY the absurdities of it all hits you. Authority hates that doesn’t it? So I encourage it.
    I would also be banned from giving talks at schools because I would slag off the ‘education’ system off so much and give out leaflets to checkout John Talor Gattto, and to NOT ALLOW YOUR CHILDREN TO COME TO THESE PLACES!

    They would drag me off, but knowin the English would smile and then like the Mafia kill me by making sure I never spoke in a school again.

    I would tell the children the MUST be aware of entheogens and deeply respect them and that THEY will bring you to the sacred

  2. Valerie W.

    February 7, 2011 at 11:09 pm

    That was a great “essay”. I think that your audience has realized that you can’t lose site of your self in the search for an occupation and future. It sounds that these young people already have a leg up on getting through life.

  3. Michael

    February 10, 2011 at 11:04 pm

    What an insightful share, thank you. You really nailed it about youth, meditation and the ego.
    The ending quote was the chery on the top to your blog entry. Always nice to discover something new. Yummm!

  4. Di

    February 11, 2011 at 1:02 pm

    Sorry I can’t resist showing Desiderata in all it’s Glory. I have this stunning poem beside my bed – it’s truly truly beautiful….

    “Go placidly amid the noise and haste, and remember what peace there may be in silence.

    As far as possible, without surrender, be on good terms with all persons. Speak your truth quietly and clearly; and listen to others, even to the dull and the ignorant, they too have their story. Avoid loud and aggressive persons, they are vexations to the spirit.

    If you compare yourself with others, you may become vain and bitter; for always there will be greater and lesser persons than yourself. Enjoy your achievements as well as your plans. Keep interested in your own career, however humble; it is a real possession in the changing fortunes of time.

    Exercise caution in your business affairs, for the world is full of trickery. But let this not blind you to what virtue there is; many persons strive for high ideals, and everywhere life is full of heroism. Be yourself. Especially, do not feign affection. Neither be cynical about love, for in the face of all aridity and disenchantment it is perennial as the grass.

    Take kindly to the counsel of the years, gracefully surrendering the things of youth. Nurture strength of spirit to shield you in sudden misfortune. But do not distress yourself with imaginings. Many fears are born of fatigue and loneliness.

    Beyond a wholesome discipline, be gentle with yourself. You are a child of the universe, no less than the trees and 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.

    Therefore be at peace with God, whatever you conceive Him to be, and whatever your labours and aspirations, in the noisy confusion of life, keep peace in your soul.
    With all its sham, drudgery and broken dreams, it is still a beautiful world. Be cheerful. Strive to be happy.

  5. Rod

    February 11, 2011 at 4:16 pm

    Desiderata has always had such powerful and relevant words. Being a nurse I pass it on to many of my patients who are able to find peace in the words.

  6. picklesb

    February 12, 2011 at 8:27 pm

    Great quote. And thank you for sharing your experience. I hate to admit it but I never heard of Desiderata before this blog. So thanks for opening that to my awareness (and to the comments on it).

  7. Kevin O'Neill

    February 13, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    Alistair – been following you via RSS for ages; but just had to visit the site to read this entry + comments.

    Your point about ‘change’ implying something is wrong is very pertinent. It can be exhausting to be permanently waiting for what we will be after the next transformation.

    ‘Growth’ – now that I like. Keep posting ! Kevin

    May you be well, may you be happy, may you be free from all suffering.

  8. Jodie

    February 14, 2011 at 1:38 pm

    Thank you for this, Alistair – very inspiring.

  9. Abby

    February 14, 2011 at 9:48 pm

    Great posting. Thank you. And nice to be reminded of the Desiderata poem – in brief and in full….I had a copy of this on my wall as a teenager and it was helpful then, as it is now.

  10. Shankar

    February 17, 2011 at 7:32 pm

    What a piece !!!!! I identify a similarity with my life..Running for acceptance, becoming something I have stopped growing… Change is absolutely a diss for me…Why I missed it out I dont know. But thanks to your piece which I just discovered out the the billions of websites on internet I realised what I should be doing. The universe brought me to you.. Thanks Alistair

  11. Daniel David

    March 20, 2011 at 7:34 pm

    Beautiful essay — your fluid agility with the written word is always fun to join you on as you approach thoughts and questions. The whole topic of meditation is never willed with must-dos or have-tos or “this is how you must do it” maxims. Unlike a scholastic exam, one can’t fail at meditation. I’ve been doing them for over two decades, and what I’ve found is that I meditate more and judge less — at “how I’m doing” when I’m doing one. There’s a joyous freedom in that. In fact, I do quite a few guided meditations, and I love to hear “you went deeper than you thought — because your way of calculating things when you are out of meditation don’t work so well when you are in one” (paraphrasing a bit). I loved realizing that — freed me up enormously

  12. the fremen from iriki

    April 8, 2011 at 10:10 am

    OMG Alistair, what were you doing in Marrakech one month ago????

  13. Alicia

    May 2, 2011 at 3:10 pm

    Thanks for reminding me of Desiderata, I had completely forgotten about it but it brought back so much peace when I saw it on your blog :o) xxx

  14. Grant

    May 6, 2011 at 6:18 am

    Wow…You certtainly have a fantastic insight into all things that make, break & create.
    I applaud your aptitude and attitude towards life. Your acceptance of who you are.
    Being a gay 40 somthing man as well, I find it comforting to know there are people, just like me, fulfilling dreams and living life just how they want to, and not by how someone else expects them to.
    I live by the quote:-
    “I would rather be hated for what I am, than loved for what I’m not”

  15. Katherine

    September 1, 2011 at 7:29 am

    What you are saying makes sense.

    But, why do the people you are always talking about change (I am only referring to the circle of people I know), never change.

    Fundamentally, deep deep down – who really changes?
    You give the facade of being a chenged person, yet you’re not. It’s perhaps because of circumstances, other people , whatever, and you revert back to your deep down seeded self?

    Perhaps, it’s safety????

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