“Be in this world as if you are a traveller, a passer by…for this is not home.”
The Prophet Mohammed
From an early age, my family had a holiday home on the south coast of England and we enjoyed travelling there throughout my childhood. Time away seemed to balance my parents commitment to work and the community and these holidays created my first experience of ‘retreat’ as an instinctive choice. Travel has always felt very natural, and over the years this has evolved into my love of pilgrimage to sacred places, which has shaped my vocation.
The significance of travel
My father once called me a gypsy and it inspired me to understand the deeper meaning behind my travels. I realised they were interwoven with my spiritual quest and there is both an inner and an outer journey. My fascination for the different countries of the world, the varying landscapes, the contrasting ways of life and systems of belief, all so closely linked with the culture of each place, inspired my travel as I searched for a deeper understanding of life.
I grew up in England and both home and school created a very structured environment. I ventured away from this at the age of 18 to experience life on a kibbutz in Israel, instinctively drawn by the freedom of being and the connection found in community life. I then lived and worked in London for just over a year, and felt that a career in the city and a lifestyle of commuting wasn’t a path I believed in enough to follow.
Drawn to the vast expanse of Africa instead, I travelled overland for several months wanting to ‘strip away the props of society’ and feel at ease in any situation. I returned to Africa on numerous occasions and now understand it was the search for inner peace. I have always felt so at home with a simple way of life. Many years later, I felt drawn to walking the Camino for similar reasons, yet in a more conscious way.
Exploring the spiritual path
I discovered yoga and the stillness that could be reached through practicing asana, soon after arriving in Australia at the age of 21. The relaxed lifestyle, the spaciousness of living near the ocean and the incredible light down under, in such contrast to the colours of England, were a strong attraction for me. I studied Travel and Tourism and worked in the industry for ten years in corporate, retail, wholesale and online travel, still following a mainstream way of life.
A few years later I discovered meditation and the Buddhist teachings into the nature of the mind felt an invaluable life skill. I then understood why I had been touched by the words of Shakespeare, “There is nothing neither good nor bad but thinking makes it so” during my school years.
By this time I felt ready for a new focus and following the words of Thoreau – “Go confidently in the direction of your dreams! Live the life you’ve imagined” – created an internet-based business that combined my passion for travel, writing and spirituality.
The experience of my first Buddhist retreat created the idea of organising small group journeys with my Buddhist meditation teacher. We planned a journey through Thailand, a country he hadn’t re-visited since being a Buddhist Monk there many years prior, and this laid the foundation for my future work with retreats. I covered the practical side and my teacher covered the spiritual side of daily meditation, discourse and discussion.
In 2003 I moved from Sydney to Byron Bay and suggested planning a retreat there. I loved organising each one and ‘being of service’ during the retreat itself. Sharing the sacred space with others created the possibility for the understanding and transformation I yearned for, as well as deep friendships and connection with other participants drawn to the spiritual path.
Organising yoga and meditation retreats continued on a regular basis over the years, developing my practice of mindfulness, enhanced by discovering one of my favourite books, Eckart Tolle’s “The Power of Now.” In hindsight, this was great preparation for one day walking the Camino.
Travel as a way of life
During my first round the world journey in 2005, I experienced sensations of oneness and surrendering to life, feeling “the giant safety net of trust below the high wire.” Trekking to remote Buddhist monasteries in Ladakh, sharing the path with lumbering yaks in Nepal and hiking up to the mysterious city of Machu Picchu in Peru I was, unbeknown at the time, slowly walking in my boots for the Camino, a much longer walk and one that needed me to be far more self sufficient.
Living in South Africa the following year, I connected with the heart-opening Sufi path. The words of the Sufi mystic Llewellyn Vaughan-Lee, resonated with me deeply – “the spiritual path is the journey home, back where we belong” and there is a “a deep homesickness of the soul.” I was yearning for this with all my being, still searching around in the dark for something I was ‘missing.’
In 2007 I completed my Yoga Teacher Training in Byron Bay, deepening my understanding of yoga philosophy through the Eight Limbs of Yoga and fuelling my fascination for the connections between different spiritual paths. I eventually understood this to be the ‘perennial philosophy’ that links all major spiritual paths; the universal truths on the nature of reality or consciousness.
A born traveller, I haven’t felt a strong desire to create a home environment and over the years have understood ‘home’ to be a peaceful state of being, rather than a fixed place of abode. I was full of enthusiasm upon discovering Joseph Campbell’s work in ‘The Hero’s Journey’ – “the heroic life is living the individual adventure” which helped me understand many of the decisions I’ve made in life.
Travel has offered me many opportunities to explore my deepest sense of being and in May 2008 I attended a week of tantric yoga in New York, with my lover of four years. On the first day the teacher gave everyone ‘a new identity’. I was given the name ‘Already There’ for the duration of the retreat and this became a Zen-like koan for me as I wondered, Already Where?
Walking the Camino
I’d gone into the workshop silently asking to be stripped bare, not realising what this could mean. Six weeks later my relationship ended and an intense healing journey began. Twelve months later, I decided to walk the Camino de Santiago, the ancient pilgrimage route across Northern Spain, to walk ‘out of the old and into the new’ and create a new chapter in my life.
I had read that a pilgrimage is to free oneself of all attachments and this felt the natural next step for me, what I needed to do. The experience became an extended walking meditation, a way to practice gratitude for the simplest things in life, bring greater awareness to the nature of impermanence, listen to my body, process thoughts and emotions and trust my inner compass.
The pilgrimage was an incredible experience of camaraderie, culture and contemplation. Walking for 40 days, I carried only the bare essentials and shared basic meals and accommodation with fellow pilgrims along the way. It was very much about the walk rather than the destination and after the activity of the outer journey, I knew I’d made great progress yet the healing on a deep soul level was incomplete.
Awakening the Heart
It was time for the inner journey of stillness when I returned to Australia and I attended a silent retreat themed ‘Awakening the Heart Mind.’ Through the discipline of continual sitting in silence, I experienced a profound sensation of letting go and an underlying sadness transformed into joy and freedom.
It was my most profound experience of retreat. The week of silent meditation connected me with the deepest sense of love, which felt the most natural state of being, and helped me integrate the experience of the pilgrimage, of walking ‘home to the self’, to the consciousness within, to love.
In November 2009, 20 years after I first swung a backpack over my shoulders, I did this once again and flew to India to co-ordinate a retreat in Goa. The journey continued on to the feet of a teacher of Vedanta, the Science of Self Knowledge, who shared his understanding of these ancient teachings. I felt that my previous teachers had prepared me for meeting James Swartz also called Ram. Sharing the wisdom of Jnana Yoga, he expressed, “Maybe knowledge is enough for you?”
Absorbing the Knowledge
Only after all these travels did I feel ready to absorb the knowledge he shared. Listening to the teachings in Southern India, I felt closer to the understanding that we are beyond the physical body, the thoughts of the mind and the ever-changing emotions, there is an intuitive knowledge of pure spirit, pure consciousness, deep beneath the accumulated layers of perception.
I remember thinking clearly one day along the Camino in Spain, “If my soul is happy, then all is well.” The Vedanta teacher helped me understand we are whole, complete and eternal. A belief I’d come into this lifetime with, a belief he called, ‘my personal mantra’, something I had never shared with another being before or really understood.
Somehow, after 20 years of exploration all these teachings and experiences came together. I could connect the name, ‘Already There’ given to me by the teacher in New York with the words of the Sufi teacher in Cape Town, “There is a light in the part of us that is already at home, we don’t go anywhere else but to our self, somewhere within us we are already there.”
After a life time of travelling, the Camino de Santiago played an integral role in my journey of understanding the words of the poet Rainer Maria Rilke, ‘The only journey is the one within’. This is a journey that continues to deepen for me every day. If you feel drawn to the pilgrimage too, I recommend it deeply. Who knows what unique and mysterious journey may unfold.
If you’d like to read about the pilgrimage, the journal begins here.
Living in Community
After the Camino I returned to my home in Byron Bay in time to co-ordinate the next yoga retreat. A year and several retreats later I knew deep down that my role and my life was changing, yet the next stage was unclear and I entered a challenging stage of transition.
I felt intuitively drawn to a Retreats Conference in Hawaii where I met many of my peers involved in similar work. One friend shared about living in the Findhorn Community in Scotland many years earlier. I felt a yearning to continue my Findhorn journey beyond ‘Experience Week’ there the previous year, and further inspired by hearing about the life of friends in other communities.
A few months after the conference I returned to Findhorn to join the ‘Life Purpose’ programme, twelve months later I am still here in Scotland living and working in community, exploring the spiritual life and sharing the journey with others.
If you’d like to read about life in the community, the journal will begin here soon.