Eric Harrison

Eric HarrisonI 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 was a pioneer in the development of trades teaching (the equivalent of TAFE) in NZ, England and the Pacific. 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 regretted not having learnt a profession or a trade instead.

Like many young New Zealanders, I travelled. King’s Cross in Sydney, my first stop, was Australia’s Mecca of wickedness. For me it was a paradise of drugs, booze, rock music, parties and trips to the vast National Parks that surround this remarkable city. 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, 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 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 in complex situations. For example, when I was in Penang, 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 ‘thought,' the answer was obvious. Meditation had led me to the kind of gut-thinking that is now called ‘embodied cognition.’

By 1975 I had abandoned the hippie lifestyle. For the next decade I worked variously as a schoolteacher, a freelance writer and a wildlife researcher while living in the remote north of New Zealand.

In 1975, I came across the text, ‘The Foundations of Mindfulness’ that unlocked Buddhist meditation for me. Shortly afterwards, 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 (no distractions) were remarkable. Despite 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 in life, and so it turned out to be. Over the next decade I spend a total of 18 months in retreat, and from 1987 it became my full-time profession.

Back in 1975 I was seriously tempted to drop everything and wholeheartedly pursue meditation. I persuaded myself that leading a more balanced life was better, but I now think that was the second worst decision I ever made. I continued to do retreats periodically but it was not until 1983 that I started three years training with Western teachers in the Kagyu lineage of Tibetan Buddhism.

This resulted 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 now had all the solitude and stillness I had always craved. I meditated for 9 hours a day, starting about 3 am. I also did two hours of yoga, two hours of walking, a little writing and the housework. I also did elaborate visualisation of Tibetan deities and what is called Foundation Work. This included doing 100,000 full length prostrations while saying mantra and doing visualisations. At my peak, I was doing 7 hours of prostrations a day, and 20,000 in a week.

So what exactly was I doing as I sat there with my eyes closed? It can be crudely described as ‘Watching the play of consciousness’, but it was far more subtle than that. In Tibetan, it is called ‘Mahamudra.' In original Buddhism, it is called ‘Satipatthana’ (or mindfulness). I could feel the old self dying and a new one emerging. It was an unstoppable process and all I had to do was watch.

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 my mind was profoundly interesting and surprisingly intelligent if I stopped trying to manipulate it. I had a deep affinity for that introspective way of life but I also saw its limitations: no income and no love, for example.

Two insights arose from that retreat. The first was that I could never become a monk. The second was that I could never be a Buddhist. I found Buddhism to be totally antagonistic to my Western liberal humanist, sceptical, science-based values. At the same time, I appreciated the Buddha’s technical instructions and the way the institutions gave so much support to meditators.

In 1987 I returned to Australia and opened the Perth Meditation Centre. 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 over 1000 people a year through courses, workshops and retreats. The big mining companies also used my services and I spent a lot of time on the oil-rigs offshore from Karratha.

I chose to come 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. Now matter how we dilute and sentimentalise it, it remains close-minded and hostile to rational thought. My experience with it had a mostly toxic effect on my life, and none of my more commited friends seemed to get any genuine benefit from it. From then on I deliberately turned myself to learning about the best of Western culture: the science, philosophy and the arts.

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.

I prefer to self-publish in Australia because it gives me the freedom to bring out revised editions when I want to. Internationally, I’m obliged to sell my books to overseas publishers. 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. Thirty years ago, I doubt if 100 people would have even known me by sight. Now I estimate that about two million people worldwide have probably 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. People also assume that as a meditation teacher I must be a Buddhist and a vegetarian, and always contented!

I’ve now trained about a hundred people as meditation teachers. I resisted the temptation to franchise or to build the pyramid structures of subordinate teachers that is so common in yoga schools. It doesn’t suit my rather solitary temperament and I’d never make a good guru. There are thousands of fine meditators who could easily teach, but who are reluctant to do so because the spiritual mystique. I see encouraging others to teach as my legacy.

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 any copyright on 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.