Starting to Breathe, Part II

a rambling five-part exploration of how spiritual healing must complement lifestyle changes that will facilitate spiritual healing – Part I is here

After Southeast Asia

In 2011 i went to Southeast Asia for the same reason millions of other seekers have left the West, disillusioned from a culture that promises meaning in the meaningless: possessions, wealth, material well-being … all of it ephemeral in that mundane way – fleeting, impermanent. I am seeking the everlasting, our spirit.

I went on the uncertain hope that i would be awarded an arts grant that would support me to continue my career while i investigated Buddhism on the side. The grant came through, and i spent eighteen months in Thailand and Cambodia, three months teaching creative writing in Phnom Penh, the rest of the time writing a novel manuscript when i wasn’t struggling against the pull of my old self to escape into the above-mentioned external sources of so-called succour.

I feel like i’ve told this story a thousand and one times, to others and to myself. I don’t want to be my story anymore.

I came back from Thailand an alcoholic, stoned out of my brain. I had done all that i could to make the grant project a success in unfavourable conditions and, by the time i was leaving i finally made my way to a five-day stay in a Chiang Mai monastery.

There, i touched a sense of peace and calm that i hadn’t known existed within me, and that was a start.

On the way home i had the immense fortune of being invited to the 2012 total solar eclipse celebration in Arnhem Land, an Aboriginal reserve in the heart of Australia’s Northern Territory.

This was the single-most spiritual experience of my life as i sat there on the cliffs above the swamps, meditating on this most remarkable phenomenon of the sun and the moon seeming to become one. I cried as i recollected my estrangement from my brother, hoping that such a meditation on reconciliation might encourage the universe to bring us back together. I cried from the feeling of separation in general, but felt hope for Oneness.

The celebration was a moving expression of reconciliation extended to us white fella, an invitation to experience a cosmic phenomenon that had not occurred at that site for more than six-hundred years, long before we came and took their land. We were invited to witness the event by the indigenous people we so brutally suppress, and it was impossible to not be effected by hope for the new humankind we are emerging into as the consciousness revolution gains momentum.

While some of the world’s most marginalised victims of colonial expansion can extend a hand of forgiveness, there is still hope that we will escape the shit we do to each other.

I got home and continued abusing myself for some reason, lost and adrift again, drinking my dole cheque and, when that ran out, smoking whatever i had left until the next pay day. I was suffering acute anxiety and despair, and one day i had a breakdown with a friend, who then put me onto holotropic breathwork therapy, a revolutionary form of transpersonal psychotherapy aimed at self-healing by facilitating our innate capacity for accessing alternate states of consciousness.

In conversations with my mother and another dear friend, i finally conceded that i needed to get help – help with what, i didn’t know. All i knew was that there was something deeply wrong, something fundamental missing. In those breathwork sessions i wept and wept, howled and howled … years of repressed sadness welling up from inside where they had been trapped. Each session left me feeling somewhat more freed from conditioning, somehow renewed. But i was still floundering, unsure what to do with myself as my passion for my career continued to wane.

Now i see that my ego was breaking down – that part of consciousness that witnesses the ego saw that i am no longer so desperately attached to Ryan the Suburban Highschool Stoner who Made Good as a Book Editor and Critic.

Around this time i had the freedom to faff about somewhat as i decided what i would do with myself and pined for the spiritual experience i had touched in the monastery and Arnhem Land. I spent some time in the Riverland with Mum’s family, and entertained the idea of becoming a trucker to earn some quick cash and head back East.

I had been a labourer after high school and while i was at uni for a while, and i knew i needed to be doing something less cerebral than my career had been. My interest in my career was dying as i came to understand the limitations of language, literature and the intellect for penetrating the mysteries i am trying to access, some answer to the question ‘What else is there?’ in the far reaches of consciousness.

But i had experimented again with a working-class life in 2009, working on a fishing boat between publishing jobs, and i knew that i would not be able to withstand, for long, the boredom that comes with working among such highly incurious people as the Australian working class. [No offence, Dean – you’re a delightful exception.]

So i looked into NEIS, a welfare program designed to support aspiring small-business owners. I had long wondered if i could turn my experience with and knowledge of literature into a social enterprise for disadvantaged youth, and i was still somewhat attached to the idea i could improve the world by exerting force in the same realm of external mechanisms where i had sought meaning and found only oblivion.

I was not yet aware that change must come from within.

So i embarked on a kind of social enterprise called Birdwords, delivering workshops in literary literacy to young people, supported by the NEIS program, knowing i would need to pour my all into it, which meant giving up all (drugs, primarily) that pulls me away from full involvement in everything.

I had in mind the story of a friend who received an arts grant to complete a comic book, and out of fear that he would drink the money away and not actually do the work, gave up drinking and went into a sort of year-long hibernation. In the end he published this. So i gave up drinking and everything, and replaced many of my consumption behaviours with spiritual practice.

I remember thinking at the time, What will i do with myself if i’m not getting stoned all the time? I thought, I know: i’ll investigate spirituality, and it started as a sort of hobby, a light-hearted research interest, partly inspired by my longtime interest in mythology, fairies and spirits and whatnot.

That was another start.

The social enterprise turned into a freelance typesetting business, far more mechanical and less cerebral than if i had pursued a pure editing business, and requiring far less extroversion than getting up in front of a class of kids and saying, I have some things you might need to know about. I needed to be introverted, and i went into a deep hibernation at a sharehouse in Eden Hills in the foothills of Adelaide. The business was a roaring success, and so were the spiritual practices.

In that time i tapped into resources i hadn’t known i have. I had moments of connection with Being, moments of luminous clarity, and series of moments when i laughed with joy about the beauty of existence. It was a transcendent time: i began to rise away from my old, conditioned self, and rejoiced in the new.

And then i went to Turkey.

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