A few years ago I attended a ten-day silent meditation retreat in the Blue Mountains west of Sydney. At the end of the seventh day I concluded that to spend another minute with myself, when I could otherwise be surrounded by friends and family - was at best absurd, at worst it demonstrated a pathological urge to prioritise my own spiritual seeking over the love of those who love me.
It was midnight when I knocked on the door of my teacher. “I’m done,” I said. “There are more important things in life than meditating for my own good.”
My teacher showed no signs of surprise nor was he taken aback. “So,” he replied, “You’re dealing with doubt?”
Caught off guard I dug in my heels. “No,” I spat. “Not doubt. I know exactly what I need to do. I need to go home and be with my friends and family. I’m wasting my time.”
“In my experience,” he said calmly, apparently indifferent to my defensive urgency, “Your friends and family will be right where you left them. But you have an opportunity now to take advantage of the rare gift of time alone. I suggest you spend the next three days cultivating a state of mind that once returned to your family and friends will be more capable of giving and receiving love.”
I looked at him. What kind of cult is this? I thought.
Nevertheless for each of the next three days I sat silently in a room two metres by one metre for stretches of two to three hours at a time, ten hours in total per day. I desperately observed the manifest contents of my mind and body, praying for some conclusion to rush in and explain the mess of wandering thoughts and physical discomfort.
No such conclusion arrived. When it was over I felt proud for having seen it through, but no more certain as to whether it was the right thing to do. My family and friends were as I’d left them. As to whether I was more capable of giving and receiving love, I was not. It took me many months to reconcile myself with the world of giving and receiving, so stark was its contrast to the undisturbed solitude of hermetic life.
Now, three weeks before the end of my time in Arnhem, again I feel desperate for conclusions. Where is the secret wisdom to heal my wounds? What solution have I found for the intractable problems of life in remote communities? I want a cause to fight for. But I haven’t one.
Yesterday began the funeral of a twelve year old boy who died sniffing petrol. His body was carried into a temporary shelter for a ceremony of songs and dances, in his wake women threw themselves repeatedly on the ground. One man struck himself in the head with a machete. Others drew close to dress his wound and provide comfort. They didn't panic. He’d simply been moved by grief.
Meanwhile last week I took eight kids to the Gold Coast on a surf camp, generously sponsored by Surfing Australia. For four days we lived and played in a state of the art facility, helped by phenomenal coaches who celebrated the kids’ every attempt to have a go. There was none of the usual teasing or shaming that so often levels the barren playing fields in community. The kids went to bed early. They ate three meals a day. By the end they were glowing. On the last day a local group of Indigenous kids visited and performed a traditional dance to welcome us to their country. Then everyone hung out and surfed together. The local kids were polite and well adjusted teenagers. In the wash of the ocean they had found some common ground on which to stand in both worlds.
That night our kids curled up on couches together. Instead of rap music and scary movies they watched YouTube videos of traditional songs and dances from their homeland communities. A few stood up to dance along. There were tears in my eyes.
When we returned I felt convinced that the only way for kids in remote communities to improve their lot is to leave. To find their place in a global market of sub-cultures where every interest is catered for. Is that not the unprecedented gift to humanity of the free world stumbled upon in the West?
Then came another voice. Who are you to presume to advise a person to set aside the past for the promise of a future with no guarantees? You cannot speak for that which knows by what criteria to demand certain destinies of the hearts of human beings, let alone know what substance is safeguarded by those committed to the preservation of ahistoric traditions. Look around! Somewhere in the mess between an ancient way of life that no longer sustains itself and a way of life that doesn’t fully understand, a bunch of beautiful people are growing old together!
Over the past five months I’ve come to know something of the breadth and depth of human suffering. I’ve glimpsed behind the eyes of every child what is also behind my own, a spark, occasionally buried so deep. I’ve come to see that trying to understand is helpful in and of itself. But trying to understand is not the same as drawing conclusions. Its merely a way. A path guided by fragments of stories scrawled in forgotten languages on scraps of paper.