I was born in Wellington, 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.
In 1969, I graduated from Victoria University with a B.A. in English Literature and Music, and started my working life as a school teacher and journalist. For 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 special wisdom.
Between 1974 and 1985 I spent a total of 18 months doing retreats in the Burmese, Tibetan, Zen and Yoga traditions. I soon found I had a vast capacity for navel-gazing but I also realised that I was ‘spiritually tone-deaf’. I appreciated the opportunities that Buddhist organisations provided for retreat work, but I had no appetite for Buddhism itself. When I started teaching mindfulness, I chose to use entirely secular, rational and science-based language to explain it. I later supplemented my knowledge with three years of study into biology and cognitive science.
I opened the Perth Meditation Centre in Western Australia in 1987. In the following three decades I taught around one thousand people annually. Each year, I typically taught forty 6-week courses and twenty whole-day workshops. In addition, I led around forty 3-7 day retreats over this period and have also delivered literally hundreds of short courses and seminars to major corporations, government departments, hospitals, schools and universities. My other work is as an author. I’ve now written six books, some of which have been translated into thirteen languages throughout the world.
In my early years of teaching, I felt there could be a beneficial interchange between the Buddhist tradition and the evolving secular uses of meditation. Although I was unwilling to teach Buddhism itself, I sponsored the visits to Perth of six non-monastic teachers, male and female, from the USA. I also attended three huge conferences in California for Western meditation teachers. I finally realised that any attempt to bridge the chasm between religion and rational thought is doomed to failure. In 1998, I wrote my book ‘The Naked Buddha’, to sift out what he felt was and wasn’t useful from the tradition.
In Perth, I have pioneered the use of very short ‘spot-meditations’ throughout the working day. This is reflected in the title of my most popular book ‘The Five Minute Meditator’. I promote the concept of being able to rapidly relax the body, and calm the mind in any situation. I regard mindfulness, however, as something more than just ‘meditation’. It is the skill of deliberate attention, in the service of clearer thought and action, at any moment during the day. This emphasis on the skills of rapid relaxation and immediate cognitive control made my approach very suitable for time-poor people.
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.
In the last decade, I have gradually reduced my workload. This has freed up my time for further writing and the study of classical philosophy. A colleague who read over this CV commented: “You have had a successful and rich working life”. I think he is right, but I can’t take all the credit. I know that I have also been very fortunate. Meditation and the cultivating of discriminating 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 more of my students to take it more seriously.