About Eric Harrison

Director — Perth Meditation Centre

Biography

Eric Harrison was born in Wellington, New Zealand in 1949. He graduated from Victoria University with a B.A. in English Literature and Music, and started his working life as a school teacher and journalist. Between 1974 and 1985 he spent a total of 18 months doing retreats in the Burmese, Tibetan, Zen and Yoga traditions. He found he had a vast capacity for navel-gazing but also realised that he was ‘spiritually tone-deaf’. He appreciated the opportunities that Buddhist organisations provided for retreat work, but he had no appetite for Buddhism itself.

When he started teaching in Perth, he chose to use entirely secular, rational and science-based language to explain meditation. He later supplemented his knowledge with three years of study into biology and cognitive science. This deliberately non-spiritual approach has made his work acceptable to the many doctors and psychologists who referred clients to him, and to organisations that have employed him since.

Eric opened the Perth Meditation Centre (PMC) in Kings Park Rd, West Perth in 1987. In the following two decades he taught around one thousand people annually. Each year, he typically taught forty 6-week courses and twenty one-day workshops at PMC. In addition he led around forty 3-7 day retreats over this period. He has also delivered literally hundreds of short courses and one-hour seminars to major corporations, government departments, hospitals, schools and universities. This has included trips to the oil-rigs offshore from Karratha, and workshops in many towns in Western Australia and interstate.

Eric is the author of six books (in fifteen editions) and several guided meditation CDs. His first book was published in London in 1994, and has now been translated into thirteen languages throughout Europe, Asia and the Americas. Unfortunately his British publisher, Piatkus Books, has refused to bring out revised editions of this book, because it would cost money to reformat it. As a result, Eric choses to self-publish in Australia so that he can retain the right to bring out updated editions of his work. The latest edition of his most recent book ‘The Foundations of Mindfulness’ will be published in New York in March 2017. This book maps out how mindfulness developed from the original Buddhist texts to the abundance of techniques and approaches that we see today. Eric is one of very few people in Perth who has this broad understanding of the whole field.

In his early years of teaching, Eric felt there could be a beneficial interchange between the Buddhist tradition and the evolving secular uses of meditation. Although he was unwilling to teach Buddhism itself, he sponsored the visits to Perth of six non-monastic teachers, male and female, from the USA.  He also attended three huge conferences in California for Western meditation teachers. He finally realised that any attempt to bridge the chasm between religion and rational thought is doomed to failure.  In 1998, he wrote ‘The Naked Buddha’, to sift out what he felt was and wasn’t useful from the tradition. He lost many friends by writing this book, and has since cut all ties with Buddhism.

Eric Harrison has always pioneered the use of very short ‘spot-meditations’ throughout the working day. This is reflected in the title of his popular book ‘The Five Minute Meditator’. He promotes the concept of being able to rapidly relax the body, and calm the mind, wherever you happen to be and in any activity. He regards this as the expanded application of the concept of ‘meditation’. He also promotes ‘mindfulness’ however, as the skill of deliberate attention, in the service of clearer thought and action. This combination of rapid relaxation and immediate cognitive control makes his approach very suitable for time-poor people. Even little children can understand it.

In the last decade, Eric has gradually reduced his workload. In 2009, he gave up his rental premises and has since done all his courses and workshops at the Subiaco Community Hall. This freed up his time to for further study, writing and the production of CDs. Over this time, he has also trained nearly one hundred people to become mindfulness instructors in their own professional situations, ranging from pre-school teachers to end-of-life care.

And the future?  Retirement or at least a long sabbatical is approaching. Since 1987, Eric has delivered nearly a thousand courses of four to eight weeks duration. In March 2017, he will give them up completely. He will however, continue to do one-day workshops for the next few years, train people as mindfulness instructors, and do some corporate work. He hoped that ‘The Foundations of Mindfulness’ would be his very last book, but he has unfortunately been invited to write another one…

And now for a very long footnote…..

I was recently asked to write the biography above in lieu of a CV. A colleague who read it over commented: “You have had a successful and rich working life” and I think he is right. Since it is a CV, I naturally wrote the biography in the third person, but this format seems a bit cold and distant to me. For years, my biography on this website was written in the first person. This gives a very different, but equally accurate picture, of whom I am, so I’ve included it below.

Biography (in the first person)

I was born in New Zealand in 1949. From the age of six, I would spend all weekend roaming the streets, forests, mountains and beaches near my home. Wellington had it all within walking distance, and I am amazed at how much freedom I had to explore at such an early age. Ever since, I’ve always needed to spend at least an hour or two outside and alone every day.

When I was 15, my high school teacher lent me three banned books from his own collection to read. They were Joyce’s ‘Ulysses’, Nabokov’s ‘Lolita’ and Henry Miller’s ‘Tropic of Cancer’. Just recently, I tracked that teacher down to thank him, 50 years later. Soon afterward I also found the Beat writers, Jack Kerouac and William Burroughs. My literary direction was set for life.

My father was an educational administrator. He encouraged me to follow my passions at university rather than think about a job. I studied literature and music, but read more extensively in psychology and philosophy. I think I was too young to understand any of it (I graduated when I was 19). In the penniless years to come I often regretted not having learnt a profession or a trade instead.

For most of the next five years, I travelled the hippie trail through Australia, Asia and Europe. I soon became a good self-taught meditator. I still don’t know how it happened. No one trained me and I hadn’t read anything about it. I always seemed to know it. This has convinced me that meditation is an instinctive ability that just needs the right circumstances, such as solitude or a retreat, to bring forth. Conversely, when I later became involved with Buddhism and Yoga, I couldn’t take seriously their claims of esoteric wisdom.

In those days of travelling, I had three reasons for meditating. Firstly, I meditated to settle down when my mind was going haywire. At a party, I would withdraw to a corner, close my eyes and focus on my body to escape what was happening in my head. Secondly, I meditated to deliberately enjoy music (Hendrix, Led Zeppelin) and the beauty of my surroundings. When I was in Bali or Japan or the Himalayas, I wanted to truly be there.

Finally meditation helped me to make better decisions. When I was in Penang in 1971, I couldn’t decide whether to go north to Thailand or west to Madras, so I camped out on a remote beach to meditate. A day later, without words or much actual thought the answer was obvious. Meditation had led me to the kind of gut-thinking that is now called ‘embodied cognition.’

By 1975 my vagabond life was over. For the next decade I worked as a schoolteacher, a freelance journalist and a wildlife researcher while living in the remote north of New Zealand. In 1974, I did my first silent 10-day Vipassana retreat. The schedule was punishing (10 hour-long meditations each day), the lectures were childish and patronising, but the benefits of a supportive environment without distractions were remarkable. Despite my prior years of meditating, I’d never enjoyed such clarity of mind before.

On the third day of my second Vipassana retreat, I had an epiphany. It happened at 10.30 in the morning, in the shower cubicle of the shabby Catholic retreat centre in Auckland. I knew in a flash that meditation would be my passion and path through life, and so it turned out to be. Over the next decade I spend a total of 18 months in retreat. This culminated in a seven-month solitary retreat in 1984 in the Wangapeka Valley in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. My life story now hinges into two parts – before Wangapeka and after Wangapeka. I didn’t realise it then, but nothing would be the same again.

For most of that time I lived in a tiny unheated hut high up on a mountainside. I saw no one all week except for Wednesdays. On that day I would collect my next week’s food and spend the evening with my girlfriend, who was doing her own retreat in a hut 100 yards away. I finally enjoyed all the solitude and stillness I had always craved. I meditated for 8 hours a day, starting about 3 am. I also did two hours of yoga, two hours of walking, a little writing and the housework. Despite the inner dramas and occasional horrible patches, I was not bored for a minute. It seems that my character is well suited to endless navel-gazing. I found that my mind was profoundly interesting and surprisingly intelligent if I stopped trying to manipulate it. Despite my affinity for that introspective way of life I also saw its limitations: no income, not much love and none of the satisfaction that comes from purposeful action in the world.

Two insights arose from that retreat. The first was that I could never become a monk. That would have been the logical next step in my life’s trajectory. The second was that I could never be a Buddhist. I appreciated the Buddha’s technical instructions and the way the institutions gave so much support to meditators. Conversely, I found Buddhism itself to be totally antagonistic to my Western liberal humanist, sceptical, science-based values. When I opened the Perth Meditation Centre in 1987, I described my approach as ‘meditation only, not Buddhism’ and my work rapidly increased. As the only prominent non-spiritual teacher in town I had little competition. I was soon teaching a thousand people a year through courses, workshops and retreats.

I came to Perth because there was a centre here that was affiliated to my NZ group. My girlfriend and I soon found that it was moribund, but we were active participants throughout its temporary revival in the ‘90s. In that decade I also attended three huge conferences of Western Meditation Teachers in California. I still had some hopes that a liberalised non-monastic form of Buddhism which emphasised meditation rather than spirituality might work in the West.

By 1997 I realised that my days as a vacillating fellow-traveller of Buddhism were over. Buddhism is a faith like any other religion. No matter how much we dilute and sentimentalise it, it remains close-minded and hostile to rational thought. My experience with Buddhism had a mostly toxic effect on my life, and none of my more committed friends seemed to get any genuine benefit from it. It seemed to make people narrow-minded, stagnant and unduly passive. From then on I deliberately turned myself to learning about the best of Western culture. I spent three years systematically learning the basics of science from physics through biology to cognitive psychology. After the semantic smoke and mirrors of Buddhism, it was a revelation and a total joy to be inducted into the world of science and rational thought. I am currently involved in an equally thorough study of Western philosophy.

I’ve had a second career as a writer. In 1991, I wrote the first edition of my book ‘Do You Want to Meditate?’ I also produced ‘Meditation and Health’ for my many sick students to explain how meditation is helpful for specific ailments. In 1998 I wrote ‘The Naked Buddha’ in an attempt to sift out the good from the bad. In 2005, I wrote my book ‘The 5-Minute Meditator’ in the belief that integrating many short meditations into the day is more valuable than doing occasional long ones.

Between them, these books are now translated into thirteen languages. They’ve even been pirated into Hebrew and Chinese. All this gives me enormous satisfaction and a sense of amazement. Forty years ago, I doubt if 100 people would have even known me by sight. Now I estimate that probably over a million people worldwide have read my work.

Over the years, I’ve try to demythologise meditation so it can become more useful in our complex lives. This has been quite a battle if only because meditation is invariably associated with the monastic virtues of stillness, mental silence and withdrawal. The Zen model of ‘Just sitting, not thinking’ is still the archetypal paradigm for meditation.

I’ve now trained about a hundred people as meditation teachers. There are thousands of fine meditators who could easily teach, but who are reluctant to do so because the spiritual mystique and the unspoken religious copyright. I see encouraging others to teach as my legacy.  I take great pride in seeing what my students are now doing in Perth and in other cities around Australia. Meditation is a simple natural skill and it is remarkably easy to share with others. With a little commonsense, it is very hard to go wrong with it. Buddhism and Yoga don’t have exclusive rights to relaxation, mental discipline and self-awareness. I am delighted to see health professionals and educators are now taking it up so enthusiastically.

Meditation and the cultivating of attention remains the core of my life. I can’t imagine a day without them. I’m constantly working on those mental skills. Mindfulness feels like the source of all beauty, intelligence and sanity in my life. I only wish I could persuade my students to take it more seriously.

Eric Harrison