Just an introduction
Unlike many, I have very clear memories of childhood (and later life). My recollections are detailed and multi-sensory. I have come to understand that this is a rare thing, that many people have only fleeting memories of their childhood and early life.
Born and raised in a beach side suburb, I was a gentle, contemplative child with a placid temperament. I learnt to read by the time I was four, so my early years at school were not very challenging, and I spent a lot of time daydreaming in class, or reading a book under the desk when I was supposed to be doing something else. I was plagued by severe asthma as a child, and spent a lot of time off school, at home with my mother, reading, sitting contemplating, and meditating when moved to do so.
I had learned to meditate at the age of six, initiating this practice in response to a brief article in a British children’s magazine which pictured a Swami sitting in the ‘lotus position’, (padmāsana), and a brief ‘who, where, what’ description of the swami and his meditation upon the syllable ‘Om’. I immediately tried this, and found that I could sit in the lotus seat with no problem. I then began to meditate, by sitting in lotus seat and focussing on the voiced, and then silent, repetition of ‘Om’.
Serendipitously, that same year I was taught to do diaphragmatic breathing by a physiotherapist who was an old friend of my mother’s. Bette was also involved in Hatha Yoga, and though I had no knowledge of that at the time, I do remember that she was complimentary about how rapidly I learnt the diaphragm breathing techniques she taught me.
I had not much notion of what I was doing, or any conscious purpose or awareness that meditation was a very significant practice. I was simply attracted to it and meditated whenever I felt the impulse to do so. So my practice was intermittent, though I did regularly return to it and meditate at least daily for long periods of time.
After we moved house for the third time in our idyllic seaside town, my health worsened significantly. I spent my nights up battling the asthma. I was pathetically thin and always struggling to breathe. Any exertion triggered worse asthma. It was decided mountain air would be good for me. After testing this theory with a couple of mountain holidays, it was decided, and we moved to a small town in the mountains when I was 9 years old. It worked, I got up to normal weight and started to enjoy much improved health and mobility.
As I got older, I experienced some strange and interesting phenomena as a result of my meditation practice, and had a growing awareness of my own interior being and of the dimensions beyond material existence. I remember the evening of my tenth birthday, I stood outside under an apple tree and made some serious vows to myself, about my ethics and conduct in the world. I have kept those vows.
Without understanding the connection, I also developed an interest in, and attraction to, all things Indian. In my final year of primary school, at age 12, we were given a free choice of a final project to complete before going on to High School the following year. I chose India as my topic. My father organised for a friend to obtain many brochures and booklets from Air India for me to use as a resource. They contained very interesting and attractive pictures of India, but were a little short on information. The final product wasn’t the best work, I was grappling with trying to reconcile patchy information on thousands of years of history, so many languages, and various spiritual traditions. At this point, my father went to a bookshop and asked for something more in depth about India. The sales assistant very helpfully suggested the Penguin edition of Upanishads in translation, by Juan Mascaro. This book set me on this life course. I started to learn about the possible traditions of my Swami from 6 years before, and my fascination deepened. This book lit a fire in my mind and life.
Approximately 1 month before my 14th birthday, I suffered a very severe acute asthma attack. The usal treatments did not work so I was taken by ambulance to the emergency department of a large hospital 20 miles away. I was in a bad way when I arrived, barely able to breathe at all. I do not remember arriving there, I came to in a large room lined with beds. It was late on a Sunday night, and inexplicably the emergency ward was empty of other patients. I had an intravenous drip in my arm and an oxygen mask over my face. There was an old man polishing the floors down the far end of the room, with one of those huge electric polishing machines with rotating pads. I was aware that my breathing was worsening again. The old cleaner came up to my bed, and asked me something in words iI could not make sense of. He had bright sparkling brown eyes that overflowed with kindness and compassion. I drifted into unconsciousness.
I was now floating about 20 feet above a bed, where a thin brown body was lying, for all the world like an empty cicada shell. I looked and saw that it was me. There were a couple of doctors and nurses at either side of the bed. Away from that body, I was being held in the purest most blissful state, by the most amazing loving being, and I was given a choice, stay in this bliss or return to your body and that life. I knew my mother would need me, so I chose to return to my body. I awoke the following day in physical agony, as of every part of my body had beenstretched and beaten.
I became a student of various traditions of Indian Sanatana Dharma (aka known as ‘Hinduism’) from my early teens. The next written sources I chanced on were booklets and pamphlets published by the Theosophical Society’s Adyar Publications, including excerpts from key Sanskrit texts, the Vedas, Upanishads and Bhagavad Gita, the writings of Krishnamurti and Aurobindo.
After a while other things came my way, and I read voraciously various translations of these principal texts, and many books including Yogananda’s ‘Autobiography of a Yogi’, which led me at age 15, to other yogic texts, including the Yoga Sutras of Patañjali.
In 1970 I moved to Sydney and became a semi-regular at the ISKCON (Hare Krishna) temple. Though I was not attracted to the form of Bhakti Yoga promoted by ISKNON’s Guru, A.C. Bhaktivedanta Swami Prabhupada, I resided in the Hereford Street temple’s dormitory for some months in 1973, and attended early morning classes on Sanskrit texts, primarily the Bhagavad Gita, the Isha Upanishad and Shrimad Bhagavatam.
I attempted to study Sanskrit by myself for several years before I had the opportunities to study Sanskrit with Mr Alan Treloar at the University of New England 1975 and 1979, and Professor Godfrey Tanner at Newcastle University 1980-1981.
The two professors I was originally taught by are both now deceased so I will do not want to malign their reputations, but both had been taught in British Universities, and both carried forward the constructs of western cultural imperialism. At the time of commencing my studies I had been studying Sanskrit texts for more than a decade. I had read Upanishads from age 12 in translation, the penguin edition by Juan Mascaro.
I read some of Aurobindo’s work at age 14 and at age 17 I began decoding what I could from some helpful books, some of which included transliteration, word for word translations, glossaries etc.
In my four years of academic study, I studied and did translations of several Vedic hymns, a few of the Upanishads, the Bhagavad Gita, the texts in Lanman’s reader etc.
The textbooks used by my professors were 80 – 100 years old, by European indologists. These professors espoused ideas about India, Hinduism and Sanskrit which I recognised as ethnocentric and Eurocentric, based on slight knowledge and poor understanding of other academic disciplines. Frankly, I found many of their theories very half baked and their conclusions rather ridiculous, certainly not in accord with what I had gleaned from the texts and commentaries I had studied.