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I was born and raised in a quaint seaside town, surrounded by the glorious rolling hills of southern England. Despite the idyllic setting, I proved a “handful” as a child, a “bright spark” with a wild and reckless spirit in need of structure. Thus, at the age of 11, I found myself at a private boarding school for boys, one of the best in the south, wearing a blazer and tie and signed up for rugby and cricket. Think Harry Potter without the spells.
Not surprisingly, the additional structure of a traditional British boarding school did little to reform me. I remained a “charming but deviant young man” who persistently challenged authority and disturbed the status quo. I broke the rules that didn’t make any sense to me as often as most of my peers handed in their homework. I got more detentions and spent more time in the head master’s office than any other kid in the school and quickly got a reputation as the school prankster and troublemaker.
Being the rule breaker became the prevailing face of Ben; an image I rarely shook off. Despite showing promise in theatre, my creativity went largely unnoticed and was channeled–in its entirety– into mischievous pranks and random acts of disobedience. But somewhere in the middle of this period of happy delinquency, the universe began to spin differently. Shadows loomed on the horizon that I was ill-equipped to meet.
At 14, my parents divorced suddenly and then, tragically, within 18 months my mother died of cancer. I was utterly devastated. I felt as if my world had been torn apart and I was completely unequipped to deal with my emotions. I was no longer simply dealing with ADHD (undiagnosed) and an inability to concentrate and conform; I was now desperately trying to survive in an ocean of anger and grief. Mr Deviant became Mr Dark and my exploits escalated rapidly, leading to my expulsion from school at 16.
Emboldened by anger and a reckless disregard for life, I began a war I simply couldn’t win. Suddenly, it was me versus Life. Or God. Anything really. Nothing mattered anymore except that I couldn’t allow myself to feel and I rapidly descended into a permanent state of highs and anesthesia. Every high I survived was a miracle. Relationships fell apart and now, more alone than ever, Mr Dark became Mr Dangerous as stolen cars went up in flames and pharmacies, homes and bank accounts were emptied. I raged against life in a desperate mission to avoid my grief.
Hospitals and jail cells replaced the Head Master’s office and by the age of twenty Mr Dangerous was burnt out, bankrupt and very nearly dead. I found myself living in the shadows–armed, tweaking, terrified and with my mind and body in ruins.
Some time in 1993, I found myself in a local Magistrates Court facing charges. I was given a 3-year suspended sentence and offered an ultimatum: rehab or jail. I chose rehab and “graduated” about ten months later. I’m prouder of my graduation from that clinic than any other “school” I have ever attended.
I remember my arrival on the clinic grounds. I was about 40 lbs (almost 20kg) underweight and scared witless. Three weeks later my detox was ending and I found myself in a counselor’s office smoking a cigarette.
The counselor saw my potential. We connected and for the first time in my life I had a mentor. I felt safe and over the ensuing weeks, my rage subsided and was surpassed by a broader, deeper range of emotions, all of which terrified me and erupted in wild unmanageable bursts. But it was time to get real and with help from my mentor and my newly found community, I began a journey into the truth about Ben.
After nine and a half months of intensive therapy, I left the rehabilitation center and returned to the “real world”, clean for the first time in years. I was 21 years old and back from the dead. I felt inspired and ready for a lifelong journey of recovery that was only just beginning.
Ultimately, rehabilitation was an opportunity to get the kind of education I’d so badly needed as a young child. I learned how to feel and process emotion which included, perhaps most importantly, the utterly terrifying and profound process of grieving. I learned techniques for stilling my mind, re-discovered the great outdoors and ignited my long-abandoned spirituality. For the first time in years, I felt excited about life and began to appreciate my own potential.
At the age of 23, I finally graduated from high school. I trained as a youth counselor and worked in front line drop-in centers. I discovered a passion for rock climbing, an activity that took me on expeditions around the world and formed a natural precursor to the yoga I practice today.
My early experience of grief and addiction fostered a deep curiosity about life and a thirst for adventure. I was drawn to Tibetan Buddhism and stories from the Himalayas and shortly after finishing high school (at the age of 23), I joined an aid expedition to Mustang (a region of Himalayan Nepal) where we delivered medical supplies to Tibetan refugees. I fell in love with the mountains and the people and returned every year for almost 15 years. I became an aid worker and anthropologist and lived in the monasteries and remote villages of Nepal and Sikkim seeking wisdom, refuge and companionship. I felt a particular affinity with the communities of displaced Tibetan monks who became like an extended family of brothers that reminded me of long-past school days.
No single place on earth held more mystery (and thus more answers) for me. Here, amidst the biggest hills on earth, I sensed infinite potential for adventure and self-discovery. I was enraptured by the magnitude of the mountains and moved by the carnage of poverty and the extraordinary tenacity of the people who welcomed strangers with their familiar “namaste”.
On one fateful visit in the late 1990s, I went to Nepal with the intention of taking my vows and becoming a Buddhist monk. I sat with my friend, Tenzin Jampa, a respected monk in the local community. We drank salty tea and discussed my intentions. He said he would speak to the Rinpoche (the revered incarnate monk and head of the monastery). The next day Tenzin and I met again. With his arm around me and half a dozen random young monks squashed into our room in close attendance, Tenzin explained to me with a huge grin on his face, “Rinpoche says you have monkey mind!” and then, as if to clarify, “in here, monkey mind no good!” Monkey mind is a commonly used expression in Tibetan Buddhist monastic circles to describe the western mindset. It refers to our endless curiosity: always tinkering, analytical and –most importantly–eternally busy.
As I looked into the round, grinning face of my shaven- headed friend in his maroon colored robes it dawned on me–with almost a sense of embarrassment– that my attraction to Tibetan Buddhism was in part an attempt to transcend that which I had not yet mastered–or even fully appreciated. In short, sat there amidst the flurrying robes and incense and itchy carpets I realized that my monkey mind was something to cherish and embrace, a tool with which to do good in the world.
I saw the folly, for me, of committing to a monastic life and vowed there and then–metaphorically speaking-to swing from limb to limb indefinitely in the name of service, adventure and recovery. I wasn’t to run from life and my monkey mind, I was to embrace it and understand my purpose.
I realized that I would recover by learning and that I needed to learn through carefully selected experiences that honored my passions and curiosity. I understood that this was going to take the rest of my life. I began to understand the delicate interplay between my virtues and shadows and to foster a sense of value for the critically thinking risk-taker within. Today, this flows from me daily in my work as an entrepreneur and educator.
It is unfortunate that it took early drug addiction to lead me to a point where I was ready to start living the life I was meant to live. But I am incredibly grateful to have found it. It is a great pity to see so many of us stray so far from our callings. Sadly, without mentorship and holistic learning opportunities, many of us miss the boats that were built for us. In hindsight, trauma has been an incredible blessing and recovery is simply an ongoing process of self-discovery.