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The inner and outer, Svengali!

Traveling in my van I continued experimenting with my day, my ‘what happens if …‘,  sitting in silence to reflect and writing in the early morning. My physical journey was also an inner pilgrimage.

I wasn’t unique in doing such a journey. A number of the 60s generation had chosen in the 70s to join overland expeditions and go East: Afghanistan and India. Yet, there I was in my old green Renault Traffic van going overland in Britain! Maybe not so adventurous, glamorous or risky but no jabs, no malaria tablets, no Delhi belly or Dengue fever! (My eldest son Simon had the former and I the latter when we went for a month traveling through India in 1989). 

Why do we do it, take off? Is it a restless spirit, a need to find a physically safe place as well as an inner one, dissatisfaction with our surroundings, head full of dreams, a breaking fee of social constraints?  Most probably it may be more than one of those things or possibly even none just a hedonistic adventure. My reason was to find my name and in doing so, I hoped myself.

I set off in my van emotionally very vulnerable (a new clay pot shaped but not yet fired). Because of this and having given up all forms of drugs both legal and illegal I had decided, for my own protection, especially after some of things I had seen and experienced in my pre-breakdown  hedonistic life, to avoid many of the ‘New Age’ packages on offer. I was especially wary of visiting places where New Age philosophies were expounded and further adapted by a single strong charismatic figure, generally a man, and used to build communes or communities. If I was to visit communities I tried to stick to ones based on more traditional practices and beliefs such as Buddhist Monasteries. 

On my way to one such Monastery, another Theravada Monastery in Northumberland, I also visited a group of Quakers who lived as a community in Derbyshire. If I recall correctly, I spent a couple of days there, sleeping in my van but helping in the garden and chatting to some members who lived there about their faith and if what I’d heard – that some Quakers used Buddhist meditation – was correct. As it turned out it was, for some Quakers not all, as they found it an additional tool to ‘recharge their inner spiritual ‘batteries’ ’. 

This inner and outer picture of faith was a curiosity to me. I was beginning to feel quite strongly that for my own life to improve and, if I may be very bold, for the world to also improve, that there  had first to be an individual inner change/growth/healing which then had to be reflected out into the world through love. But, what was and is love? That, I wasn’t sure about at all. That was where my confusion and if you like my pain, my brokenness was rooted.

I knew how much Quakers had done, and still do, to create peace in the world. In very crude terms, I saw the Quakers as ‘those who put their faith into action’ – the outer reflection of faith.  In comparison I saw Buddhism as developing practices which focused on developing the inner ‘self‘.  But I couldn’t see where I completely fitted in either. If you’re wondering why I chose to be a Buddhist and not a Quaker; it was because I felt I was not good or clever enough to be a Quaker. Also, I was a late child of the 60s so Buddhism seemed more attractive, different, at that time, than any of the traditional Christian Faiths. But something was to happen that made being a Buddhist questionable for me personally.

I continued to Northumberland, to the Monastery via Yorkshire where even the road signs had a Yorkshire accent – ‘Mile’ not ‘1 mile’! 

After leaving the retreat in Wales, my van and the gear box worked well.  I thought at last the van troubles were behind me, I could relax and enjoy the journey for its own sake.

I had decided from the beginning to avoid motorways, to take the longer routes between an A and B, or C and maybe a D! The world was my oyster. It has been said many times how lovely the English country side is and it is true, especially if you have the time to take it in.

I meandered along and eventually arrived at the Buddhist monastery by which time I had also collected my WWOOF list of ‘Hosts’ and their newsletter with general advertisements, from a post office ‘en route’. As it was a Monastery with Monks and no Nuns I continued to live in my van just joining the community for their meditations, meals and chores. I planned for the next stage of my journey to go over the border and into Scotland. The search for my name was on!

Looking through the WWOOF advertisements I came across one from a woman who lived alone on her Croft right up near the top of Scotland in Sutherland. She explained she had a disability and needed assistance with her sheep and the Croft. ‘Food and a bed supplied in return for labour’. There was a phone number.

I asked a monk if I could use their phone after clearing away the breakfast things and completing my chores. I called her.

“I’m calling about your advert in WWOOF, I have my own accommodation as I’m travelling and living in a van and I’m willing to come up there and help”

“I’m sorry I’ve just taken in someone to help”

“How long are they staying, I could come up later as I’m travelling around?”

“All right, give me your name and phone number, you never know”

I then explained my situation about having no phone but that I called my brother weekly.

“Well, what’s his number”

I gave her the number

“What about your name?”

“Johan”

“How are you spelling that?”

“J.O.H.A.N”

“Well, that’s funny, were you from here originally?”

“Why?”

“Well, you see, its a very old name, used to be very popular here a-bouts, not so popular now with the younger folk, mainly find Johans in the graveyards now!”

So there it was, my first communication into Scotland and I had found where my name came from! I told her my reason for going to Scotland and we chatted for a while. Our conversation ended with her inviting me up to visit, WWOOF or no WWOOF.

Can you imagine my utter excitement, shock even. Surely that was a small miracle. One phone call!  My first attempt! And bingo! I was buzzing with happiness. I had to tell someone. I accosted the first monk I saw: “Guess what has just happened …blah blah…” I ranted on. “Isn’t it amazing, a miracle even!” Looking at me as if I was child in need of calming down he replied: “No, it is just what it is and nothing more” and walked away. Bump! Surely, Buddhists believe in miracles, blessings, the mystery that is in the world which can’t be explained, that I was convinced existed and I was out to find the truth of? A crack had appeared in my love of Buddhism.

I tidied up my van and pointed it North. I had my destination but decided to take my time and re-visit places in Scotland I had been to as a child. My first stepfather was a Scot and each summer we would go to the East of Scotland for our holidays either staying in a caravan or a cottage. I also had found another WWOOF host up above Loch Ness near to Inverness, no phone but WWOOFers welcome. So it was settled – I was on my way!

Going over the border felt significant at the time. A combination of happier childhood memories and a sense of purpose. I revisited Kingussie, Newtonmore, Aviemore in the Cairngorms and stopped at lovely quiet peaceful places overnight. I slowly made my way up the infamous A9 towards Inverness where I also stopped briefly for supplies and a shower. I left Inverness and drove down the A83 along Loch Ness towards Drumnadrochit to find my WWOOF host. Finding my Host was no easy task. I seemed to drive up and up, the road ever steeper turning from a road into a track. I’d lost all views of the loch and was travelling through woods of pine trees. The going was rough and I feared if my van make it.

Eventually the track ended and turned into an opening in which stood a large Tepee, a series of sheds and a large partially derelict house. Pieces of machinery lay around but there was not a person in sight. I found a suitable space, parked and turned off the engine. Through my open window not a sound passed through, not even the chirping of birds. I admit, I was suspicious there were ‘symbols’ of what I associated with my past and ‘New Age’ things lying around, so I was on edge.

I decided to get out and see if I could find anyone. As I walked around the sheds I was intrigued by all the art work and crafts I saw, there was much to admire.

“Hello” 

I turned around and standing there greeting me was a woman with a beautiful smile, dressed in a long skirt, a blouse with her hair flowing.

“Can I help you?“ she asked.

I explained why I was there so I was directed to a more permanent parking space behind the house.

“When you’ve parked up come into the house for a chat and tea”. She was so welcoming I was instantly reassured. 

It transpired she was one of 3 very lovely women who lived there. All talented, all stunningly beautiful. They were in their late 20s early 30s, and one had a small child. The house was chaotic, and colourful, but mainly used as an eating space as there were holes in the walls and ceiling. There was an upstairs, reached via a makeshift ladder, where they slept. It was also where ‘the man’ of the house slept too. I was told I’d meet him later when it was suppertime.

She told me her story of how she came to be living there, much of it resonated with my own. Broken childhood, running away, men, drugs and festivals. She was on her way to a festival on one of the Hebridean Islands when she met ‘the man’. He was older and charismatic and they paired up for the festival. He had apparently been one of original founders of the famous Findhorn Community but had left due to a disagreement. She decided to stay with him and then in a similar manner two more women with similar backgrounds joined them. They did most of the work as he was older but in return they felt he had taught them many things. He let them be free and encouraged their creativity. 

She and the other two women were intoxicating. They talked with such enthusiasm about how he, ‘the man’, had ‘saved’ them. I began to envy them. Hadn’t I spent years trying find such a man and a place to be creative. I loved their enthusiasm – it didn’t matter there was no hot running water or proper bathroom or toilet, that the house leaked and was cold, that they did everything. They were wonderful! There were a sisterhood! And, they liked me too!

I was shown where I would be working the next day, weeding a patch of ground. I helped make the supper, laughing with them and feeling I may have actually found my perfect place!

As we sat at the table, only joined by one of the other women, ‘the man’ descended the stairs. He was tall, pot-bellied, peppered should length hair, disheveled,  wearing baggy jeans, shirt and no shoes. He must have been very handsome in his younger days and was still striking even then. To look at he was my type!

He didn’t look in my direction, spoke to the woman making the meal, walked over to the table and sat down next to me without a word!

Once we were all seated he started to tuck into his food. The 2 women lovingly serving him. There was no please or thank you. 

I started to feel uncomfortable as knowing looks are exchanged between the women and himself, but the silence continued. I felt I was being tested. “Why are you here, what’s your story?” He suddenly said without looking in my direction. I looked at the women, they nodded, encouraging me to speak. So I did. I told him why I had left London, what I was looking for, my experience of God up to that point, and so on. I was off guard and in fact told him far too much! He then turned pinned me with a sharp piercing look, with his face a few inches from mine and told me: “You’re kidding yourself, you don’t love God you’d never surrender to him”.

I was stunned and felt as if I had been struck in the chest. The women could see my reaction and tried to offer some diversion by asking him to tell me how they had come to their understanding of God and their creativity. Never looking at me again, he spoke of his philosophies and explained that they used Ketamine, a drug used on horses, to enhance their experience.

I had actually landed in my worst nightmare! Suddenly, all beauty of the women and place slid  away and I felt very insecure and unsafe. 

We finished the meal in silence and it was time, thank goodness to escape to my van. I was invited to take some ketamine which I declined. That was a big thing for me to do as I had previously been willing to try any drug!

I locked my van that night and as soon as it was light drove away. I can’t deny it was a battle not to turn back. A strong male, lovely creative women, freedom and space to be creative myself. Had I become a prude? Was I being stupid leaving that opportunity? Wouldn’t my friends think I was mad not giving it a go and staying longer? …

I did call a friend to tell him about it and he felt I had done the right thing to leave. I just kept driving until I found somewhere quiet, to be alone, to reflect and write, till I felt settled internally again.

I never did get told his name.

Next time Sutherland and beyond.

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