About me – Just a few facts, like a CV. Serious niggling focuses in on a challenge – ‘Who is the me that can write a bushspirit blog’ Whoops that is a different sort of, ‘about me’. I ask a friend, ‘what do you want to know?’ she answers ‘how did you get to here?’ A call to write my spirit journey, not a résumé. Feels scary and vulnerable, yet my experience, is just my experience. I remember another mans question, ‘Why am I afraid to say who I am?’ the title of a book by John Powell, priest psychologist.
……………. 67, happily on the end stages of life’s journey. My passion is exploring and expressing the mysteries of life.
It is also the time of passing on stories, the role of elder or Kamatua as the Māori would say. Elder, in its traditional sense is the keeper of knowledge, holder and teller of stories, one who honours the spirit traditions and is available as mentor. The role calls for integrity, wisdom humility and boldness. A big challenge and I accept.
Telling our story is part of our humanity. In the ancient Finnish epic, ‘ The Kalevala’, we are told to sing our song. In our Australian Indigenous history of around 40,000 years, telling of story was of high importance.
It is a long story that I wrote. So I provide an abstract here and then offer the long story if you are tempted.
I have just finished writing an article on ‘Soul food – men’s spirit journey’ and designing a workshop around that. I work in and write for the men’s movement in Australia with an emphasis on men’s groups and spirituality. The production of a resource-training manual for facilitators of men’s groups is my most recent work.
Learning and practicing Buddhism for the last 20 years has been a strong focus and I have just finished six years work, one day a week as a Buddhist chaplain in maximum security prison.
Trained as a counsellor 22 years ago and worked in general and relationship counselling, and ended up specialising in running violence prevention and anger management groups with men and war veterans.
Prior to that I spent ten years practicing and learning Yoga and teaching introductory classes in it. After benefitting from massage for a back injury, I learnt to be a masseur and work professionally at it for 3 years.
Creating and managing large social welfare projects and working as an advisor in them was my work for 7 years. Before that I learnt a number of manual trades, welding, blacksmithing and rural contracting and ran my own business using them.
My first training was as an economist and market researcher. I worked in that field mainly as a consultant for ten years. And before that and how all this became part of my soul and spirit journey you will need to read the longer version below.
Longer About Me – Paddys soul and spirit journey
………………………..seven years old, a budding bookworm. Luckily, my father had a small library of great books. Starting with the likes of ‘Treasure Island’ and such like then growing into Jack London, Upton Sinclair, Emile Zola. All writers of stories about the lives of real people, working class people, their trials and tribulations, dramas suffering and oppression by the powerful. It drew me into a rich and wonderful world, invoking a strong sense of compassion and an urge to become the heroic protector.
They displayed a diversity of human experience with great dollops of risk taking, daring exploits and tragedy. Not the middle class affluent society that surrounded me. They instilled the wish to be a keen observer of life – being outside the bottle looking in, not inside the bottle looking out.
I continued to acquire and read these writers – Nikos Kazantzakis, Balzac, George Orwell, A.J. Cronin, Isaac Babel, hundreds of books well into midlife. They were throwing crumbs for me to follow; they knew I was hungry and searching. They formed and shaped me as I sat before them entranced.
They tutored me in critical analysis and thinking. At an early age, I had a strong critical faculty – a sensitive bullshit detector. It squashed any respect for religion and my association of spirit with religion at an early age.
Catholic schooling was my whole school experience, twelve years of it. I would hear about Jesus’s sense of love and priority for the poor. What I would experience was a strong discrimination and punishment of poor kids and blatant sucking up to the rich. Near 11, the brother of a classmate of mine, from a working class family, committed suicide. The cause was discrimination and continual caning by the Marist brothers at school. I remember the image of a Marist brother beating this boy and another boy jumping on to the brothers back to try to stop him – shortly after the boy killed himself.
A deal breaker as they say. I knew that my many heroes, Jack London, Emile Zola etc. would not tolerate this stuff and neither did I – a sham, a fraud and gross hypocrisy. From then on, I ignored all attempts at religious indoctrination and actively subverted it when I could. Yet one priest and lay teacher sensed my spirit self and tried to get me to return to the fold. I was not having any of it. I was caned regularly – bright, impulsive and active – to be discouraged.
Memories flood in. Around 11years old, a strange and dramatic incident occurred with my mother. I was sitting in the lounge with her opposite me. I cannot remember why I was there, just what she said
‘When I was pregnant with you I wanted to have an abortion, I did not want another child, but your father stopped me, he wanted you’.
I was stunned, that moment burnt in my memory. I replied ‘Well If I was not here I would not know about it’. I buried that deep down, in my toes I think. It was not until I was 45 and doing a counselling graduate diploma at the University of Canberra that I started to understand the deep impact it had on my relationships with women, a fear of termination.
It was a two edged sword, the other side being the positive aspect, the sacred wound. There are heaps of references to ‘sacred wound’ on the net. My experience is that it lifts the lid on Pandora’s Box. All the dangerous things flew out when Pandora lifted the lid, but often forgotten is that if you survive the demons, then at the bottom of the box is the gold of the liberated soul. It starts a journey through a minefield and not all survive. It gave me the experience of dealing with the journey at times in darkness and pain while acquiring the skills and insights necessary to survive. The wound, pain, learning and journey is unique for each of us.
This experience was the driver for some of my poems, written between 40 and 50 yrs. old. ( Paddys Reconstructing Humpty Poetry )
digging and polishing
a lifetime’s work
Pain, you visit
Join me awhile
do you bring?
to belong, enmesh
is a gift then?
let it be
just lovers then
share the moment
and be content
Shadows and ghosts,
chipping and nagging.
Gargoyle miners’ work
under the cover of darkness,
in the nooks and crannies,
of our soul.
The incident was also a sharp reminder of death and mortality a great gift for someone so young.
In my mid-thirties, I had learnt blacksmithing from a great bush blacksmith Jim Radburn, and had my own blacksmiths workshop. While working at the forge an image of an iron sculpture of a women giving birth to a child on the top of a coffin, beginning its life journey and death journey. This led to me building my own coffin at 60 and developing the challenge of embracing mortality as a door to embracing life. I run a number of workshops around that, called ‘Dancing with the Angel of Death’
…………………………..I lived on a peninsula in middle harbour, Sydney till I was 19. As a kid I was either swimming on one side, being a porpoise, or in the forest on the other being bush boy. The sea, trees, cliffs, streams are where I was at home – connected to the energies of it all, they became part of me and evolved as conduits to spirit.
…………………………… Naïve young man at university studying commerce – Vietnam war starts. Swimming coach at the local pool holds his hands as if working a machine gun, rat-tat-tat, shoot the commie bastards, just as we did in Korea. I read an article in a popular magazine by historian Arnold Toynbee who put the broader picture on the war and maintained it was morally wrong and that the USA should not be there. I realised that Australia should not be as well. A powerful awakening– we were being conned by a bunch of warmongers. I joined the antiwar campaign full on. It was a chance to follow the urgings of my great authors and take on the first heroic campaign, many to follow. I was soon drafted, conscripted to go to war. I was not going even if that meant prison. My politics and a knee injury led to the government rejecting me.
What does this have to do with spirit? It was learning to stand on my own, making ethical decisions regardless of mainstream or government policy and to take the consequences. My spirit guides were not violent killers, defence if necessary yes but no, to everything else.
A major teaching passed down to us is ‘“All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing.” I have often been challenged on the journey to respond as a good man acting. I think to consistently fail that challenge is to dampen the soul.
I had nothing but compassion for all the soldiers and civilians on both sides. Soldiers and civilian casualties are the pawns of the powerful – always have been.
Later in life, I worked as a government contractor, facilitating therapy groups for Vietnam veterans. The outcomes were positive, as were reactions to the meditation work I introduced. The government asked me to produce a cd of the meditations and it has had four production runs since.
I was inspired to write a prose poetry epic based on war veterans, a couple of verses are:
Like it or not,
you’re on the killing fields
The only things that grow fat here are:
Scavengers, weapons manufactures
and the Angels of Death.
It’s a fucking nightmare
choppers exploding in flame,
mortars thumping in,
land mines tearing limbs apart
bodies twitching and screaming
in Napalm infernos.
Become a fighting animal
killing to survive,
eyes bonding tribal warriors.
Adrenalin always pumping, alert,
awake at slightest sound
gun or knife in hand ready to kill or run.
……………………….Dad died when I was 28, a heart attack while jogging. I respected and loved my father even though he was a tough old coot. He was a very successful top public servant. On retiring, he found those who drank with him at the golf club were just businessmen wanting government contracts. They stopped hanging around with him. He had almost no friends, He wanted to run a boatshed on the coast but his wife refused to go. Then he built a beautiful 28 ft. yacht and had no one to sail with, and then died. It was about loneliness, I thought.
The week before his death, the grim reaper visited me as energy and dream. I got drunk at his wake -went home and vomited and felt a huge sense of liberation, as if a question mark was removed from my forehead?
My father’s path of successful career and loneliness was not looking attractive. Success as a business professional was a given for me by then. Looking forward, I saw fat, 50 and owning a yacht – reaction – get out of here. ‘Getting off the tram to pick the daisies’ was my choice, to the applause of my favourite writers. Go bush get out of the city.
……………….. remembering earlier, I was working as a labourer/jackhammer operator, between office jobs. Two messengers turned up, like characters in a novel – maybe life is a novel and as we explore – the characters turn up.
Character 1: An artist’s model, needing money during the art school break turned up. Did lots of drugs, dope and opium while he was modelling. He talked about labouring on the train line in the Nullarbor desert growing dope in the kitchens drainage ditch -working as a lone caretaker of a remote water pumping station, polishing the engine, getting stoned and playing his trumpet. Can’t remember this being in the young man’s career guide. We got stoned at work, in the ditch working the jackhammer becoming one with it. He suggested that I go with him, out bush. After giving the offer some consideration I decided that being a bohemian drop out, was not my path, but appreciated the offer.
Character 2: also a labourer an older guy who had been doing manual work all his life. He had a terrace house nearby and rented the top story. We chatted away at lunch and morning teas. He displayed wonderful insights about life, and had hardly any schooling. Being a part time house thief was his other job. He shared his technique with me.
‘Always wear a suit and carry a reasonable large suitcase, so that when you leave the job you just look like an early morning worker. When you break in, usually a window that can be opened, first secure your exit by opening doors for escape. Then find the bedrooms and put milk bottles in the door way so that if they came out you will hear them. Then put what you can in the suitcase and leave becoming the early morning worker.’
He had never been caught. The insight for me was that there was a whole world outside of Universities, they had no mortgage on knowledge and insight. I realised that I responsible for my own learning on the journey, and could not rely solely on our so-called institutions of learning, often purveyors of indoctrination programmes for the mainstream.
Going bush was five years in a country town Bungendore outside Canberra. Learnt welding, blacksmithing and started my own small business. My next-door neighbour, Ted, passed on rural fencing skills and I contracted with him. Did some stock work on nearby rural properties and worked in a few shearing sheds. Builders labouring in Canberra filled the gaps. Ended up running my own small team building log structures, barns, retaining walls and playgrounds. Lots of storytelling. Many smokos (morning tea) and lunch, in the bush, shearing sheds and construction sites – Men, local and overseas, passing on their stories.
Bad Billy’s story was about being an enforcer, kicking people out of moving cars. I was up in the air erecting scaffolding, working next to Bad Billy. He was working up a head of steam about something, a real bad hair day was looming. I quietly climbed down from the scaffolding and did something else for the afternoon.
I was on a big road interchange contract with crews all around me, bridges, stone walls, fences and roads. The economy had crashed and many knew that this would be the last work for a while. Standing in a field, looking at men laying stone in the distance, a strong sensation/vision came over me. It was of the suffering and struggles in the world around me – a powerful and strange sensation, a mystery that remains with me. Mystic moments – the universe whispering, I was later to call such phenomena.
Not long after, I lifted one log too many on a cold morning and damaged my back. Manual work was not an option for the near future. I started a course of massage and volunteered in an organisation called Jobless Action working with the unemployed, product of a crashed economy.
An opportunity came up to get hold of an old, mostly disused, large migrant hostel to provide accommodation to the growing homeless in the region. I took on the role of project manager in both negotiating a free lease of the hostel from the government and setting up a management body. After six months submission writing, lobbying and negotiation we secured the lease.
It was a commonwealth government minister Justice Ellicott, also a lay Methodist preacher who made the decision to grant us the lease, against his department’s advice. He interviewed me and my then project partner Tom Brennan, sensed our commitment and with his strong sense of Christian compassion, said go ahead. Looking back, Ellicott was a real elder.
Another heroic venture ticked all the boxes of my authors. We looked after 150 men at a time, alcoholics, drug addicts, ex-prisoners, run away teenagers, mentally ill and displaced men from previous and current wars and conflicts. We had one major rule and that was, no violence, all were to be safe in their rooms.
I managed the project, now called Ainslie Village, along with Tom for 3 years. A wild and testing time, compassion, integrity and courage. They were all weird and wonderful characters from a novel, it became my world.
In the meantime, a long course of massage was fixing my back as well as revealing a whole new world of bodily energies and feelings a magic key to the hidden cave of self – layers of the onion peeling away. My masseur suggested that I see her acupuncture colleague to finish off the back healing.
Most of the acupuncture was on the lower back, in Yoga the base of our spiritual energies, where the coiled serpent of the kundalini (link to wiki) resides. When awakened it rises up through the spine and creates the sensation of an electric charge. It can be a powerful catalyst for the spirit journey.
One day after acupuncture I was lying on the grass, back naked, using the suns healing rays. I was visualising my spine healing, and felt it come alive with a warm bright yellow charge moving up. It was only looking back years later that I realised it may have been something like the kundalini energy rising. Somewhat strange maybe, yet just my experience.
I decided to take up Yoga as a way of looking after my back, seeing it as just a physical practice, a common association. Yet Yoga’s origins can be traced back to 3000 BC when the Sumerians were inventing written language. Yoga means union, the union of mental physical and spiritual. As I practiced physically, the spiritual energy made itself known and immense curiosity arose. I added meditation to my practice and started to read widely on all the great spiritual traditions including the Sufi’s, Buddhists and the contemporary Christian philosophers such as Thomas Merton and John Powell. The soul journey became more focussed, a priority.
I left the role of manager at Ainslie Village, as burn out became a reality. Moving back into the real world was awkward and I was feeling lost. Looking back I realise it been like returning home from war -my life would never be the same.
Along came a new heroic venture, the warrior was not done. Helping the sisters of Mercy establish a large community project in Western Sydney helping unemployed people and women re-entering the workforce. I helped negotiate the use of Samuel Marsden’s historic property ‘Mamre’ for the Mercys’ for a long-term peppercorn rent lease.
O the sisters of mercy they are not
Departed or gone,
They were waiting for me when I thought
That I just can’t go on,
And they brought me their comfort
And later they brought me this song.
O I hope you run into them
You who’ve been traveling so long.
I stayed on as co-manager with a Mercy sister for 3 years until it was on its feet. It is still going and now does a lot of work with African refugees.
All this warrior like tilting at windmills was taking its toll. I had become a difficult person to be around – driven and focussed on project achievements. It cost me my marriage and work friendships. Looking back in many ways just like my father. Lately I keep hearing ‘the apple does not fall very far from the tree’. The failed marriage, detonated the bomb, the fear of termination buried deep down at age 11. The armour I had built around that wound cracked and started to shatter. Just like the egg Humpty:-
Humpty Dumpty sat on a wall
Humpty Dumpty had a great fall
All the kings horses and all the kings men
Could not put Humpty together again
Thank goodness, I did not want to put me back together, I wanted a reconstruction and what a journey. Poetry was my way of marking the journey, 18 years’ worth of writing I put together in an e-book, ‘Reconstructing Humpty’ finished on my 60th birthday. At first, my goal was getting rid of all traces of the wound. I later realised these things become part of our essential character. However, I have made friends with it, and know when it is in play and can speak it. It was no longer the impenetrable barrier on the journey.
I returned to Canberra, learnt and practised as a masseur and did a graduate diploma in counselling at University. Loved the course especially things like body therapy and psychodrama. I was fulfilling a goal of uniting, yoga, massage and modern counselling theory and techniques another union – east and west.
Prison, then issued an invite. Looking back, the invitation first arrived at age 12. My dad had been associated in government with the building of a major new wing at Bathurst prison. He invited me to the opening an exciting prospect for a 12 year old. There was a big hall with lots of prisoner’s paintings on the wall, tables laden with food and people serving. I asked my father ‘where are the prisoners?’ I was expecting demon like people. He said ‘they are the people serving the food’ my response ‘but they look normal’. The seed was sown.
I was now living in Bundanoon, and 24 years on still live there. The next invitation arrived, I was offered the job of being a trauma counsellor for South East NSW, mainly prisons and some betting agencies banks and supermarkets, and armed hold ups. Most of my work was with prisons and mainly Goulburn maximum security prison where I later went on to work part time as a drug and alcohol counsellor, running groups and then more recently as a Buddhist chaplain.
The prison warder trauma work involved working with incidents like – hostage taking during prison escapes, prisoner suicide, assaults and death – a tragic jig saw puzzle of soul journeys.
One incident wishes to speak. A warder was attempting to save a prisoner who had hung himself. He was alone in the cell with the prisoner barely alive. Resuscitation failed and the prisoner died in his arms. The warder a young man was very distressed and was not getting over the incident despite a number of counselling sessions. Senior warders were, saying ‘he needs to toughen up or get out’.
I was reflecting on what might be happening for him. An incident from the writing of Teilhard de Chardin, French philosopher and Jesuit, came to mind. He was for a while a war chaplain. I remembered him talking about his experience on a battlefield working as an army chaplain. He wrote ‘I saw Christ through the eyes of a dying soldier’. A penetrating statement that stayed with me and now mysteriously resurfaced. It is a version of the old saying ‘the eyes are the window of the soul’.
I rang the warder up and asked ‘were you looking into the eyes of the prisoner as he died?’ he said yes. I talked him through the meaning of that and how profound an experience that was to see a soul passing and how it was a powerful reminder of our own mortality. His disturbance around the event eased. I do not know whether he remained a warder. Many prison trauma incidents involved stark reminders of mortality, dangerous territory for the untutored soul and not often acknowledged in counselling work.
After that, I did some group work among prisoners as part of the drug and alcohol programme. I got permission to do a yoga class and 8 prisoners turned up. I did some physical yoga, relaxation and meditation. The prisoners were very blissed out, demanding more sessions. There was a hunger for the work. As often happened the prison schedule changed so no more yoga classes were held. I knew the demand was there if another invitation were to arrive.
I was associated with the local Bundanoon Santi Buddhist Monastery and six years after the prison yoga class the Abbot gave me a call saying that there was a request for Buddhist Chaplain at Goulburn prison – was I interested – I said yes. After completing a prison security course, I started and worked there one day a week for six years ending in 2011.
In parallel with the prison work my counselling work had evolved to running courses for men around anger and domestic violence. I had also become involved with the men’s movement (mytho-poetic) participating in men’s gathering events, men’s groups and writing around the topic of men in contemporary Australia.
The prison work involved running meditation groups followed by discussion plus some one on one counselling work – more men’s groups with meditation than specifically Buddhist. It was a period of intense engagement with men from all walks of life and a wide range of offending, sex offenders, murderers, bank robbers, drug dealers etc. It was a privilege to provide some relief, hope, skills and loving kindness. It was intensive training for me- refining my skills in guiding meditation and facilitating groups. It was learning on the go and I made my share of mistakes. At times, I really struggled. I tried to find a mentor supervisor in the work, but failed. It was sink or swim.
Childhood wounding was common among the men I met. Experiences of physical, emotional and sexual abuse, for which they had little or no help with, earlier in life or while in prison.
While there I became to sense the lingering spirits of the dead – those who had been executed in the prisons early days and those that died there over the years due to suicide and murder. We began to include loving kindness to all those ancient spirits, in particular those spirit souls having trouble leaving this world. This was not strange for the prisoners, as many reported sensing spirits roaming at night and sometimes visiting them.
Indigenous prisoners started coming to my groups. They were interested in dream interpretation often related to their personal totems. I started to do guided meditations connection them with their ancestors and seeking wisdom and guidance from them. It was wonderful experience for them and it seemed was not available elsewhere. They too were hungry for soul spirit work. One guy asked ‘how do you know this stuff?’ I paused and thought, was a bit puzzled myself – then answered ‘the spirits told me’. He responded, ‘that makes sense’
A change of government was coming up and I started organising religious groups to lobby for change in the prison system, where over 50% of prisoners return after release. It was dicey as I was working in the system, campaigning for change. The mainstream Christian lobby that controlled the three million dollar-chaplaincy budget had me shut down. The Muslims, Buddhists, Jews, Hindus and Catholics supported change but no one was very interested. I was suggesting that cultural change among warders was a critical ingredient of change -not popular.
Shortly after that I was walking through the prison and a feeling came over me, it said ‘you don’t have to be here anymore’ It felt liberating, and soon after I left. It was a deep journey, one that defies words.
During that time, an invitation came to explore the Shamans journey. Shaman covers much of the pre Christian world’s spiritual traditions, Pagan, Animist and Indigenous. In modern times, it still exists among indigenous peoples of Australia, Siberia, Lapland, Africa and South America. Its common theme is the connection with the broad spirit realm through ritual, trance and ceremony. Bradford Keeney’s exploring the spiritual traditions of the Kalahari Bushmen is a great discussion of one of the world’s oldest Shamanic spiritual traditions, stretching over some 60,000 years somewhat parallel to that of indigenous Australians. His book ‘Bushman Shaman: Awakening the Spirit through Ecstatic Dance’ had a great impact on me.
Shamanism involves an intimate connection with landscape, land and animals. Most indigenous peoples regard themselves as part of the world they walk in, not separate from it. All things seen and unseen were a natural part of their world. Indigenous peoples do not see themselves as controllers and owners of the land rather more owned by it. In relationship with, not separate from is the message from that tradition.
Although there is some crazy stuff in Shamanism in both ancient and modern times, there is also incredible beauty and utility. It shows us how to become fully part of our natural world and explore all the wonders of beauty of that connection. In 2012, I ended up in Mongolia for a few days. Unexpectedly as soon as I arrived, I was taken to a shaman’s yurt in a shantytown to witness a traditional trance ritual and healing. I then went on to visit a Shamans village on the steppes outside Ulan Bator – Another invitation from the spirits?
I remember a quote by Teilhard de Chardin.
‘We are not human beings having a spiritual experience but spiritual beings having a human experience’
An invitation to explore our universe fully and without barriers perhaps.
I have always loved wandering in forests and have for 20 years have been exploring and walking in the nearby forests and gorges of the vast Morton National Park. I get a great sense of peace, inspiration and connection with all things in the forest – a great teacher.
I have become more and more disenchanted with all forms of institutionalised religion, particularly the pitfalls and failings of Buddhist monasteries and organisations that I have been associated with over the last 20 years.
I like the philosophy of the mystic Bauls of Bangladesh. There are a fruity mixture of Hinduism, Yoga, Sufi, Islam and Buddhism and have no priests, clergy or institutions. They say ‘When did painting an apple make it ripe!’ referring to monastic donning robes and claiming to represent some special qualities and knowledge.
Watching the local Buddhist monastics inspired a verse:
Paint no apples
painting an apple
makes it ripe?
donning monastic robles
As I engage with stage of my journey, T.S. Elliot words, from his four ‘Four Quartets’ speak to me:
‘We shall not cease from exploration
And at the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And know the place for the first time’
And my knowing of that place speaks loudly and clearly, ‘To own my spirit journey, to accept it as my responsibility and no one else’s’. The bushspirit.org blog is my spirit travel log. I enjoy expressing that and sharing it. Use whatever is useful for you. The greatest journey of all is that of the soul and spirit. Tickets are free and available from the intergalactic travel agency and all local forests.
As I finish two incidents on the journey pop up. Then Prime Minister Bob Hawke was walking with me through an old tram, now office at the Mamre project I was co-managing with the Sisters of Mercy. He was on a pre-election tour. He asked ‘why are you doing this, what motivates you?’ I was surprised at the question. I felt rather alien, and mumbled something in response. I little while later, Nick Whitlam, CEO of a bank and son of ex-Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, asked me much the same question. I have pondered on this question and many clever responses arise. The only one that rings true is:
‘ I have a choice’