The World as My Back Garden

- journey of a lifetime -

Christopher Titmuss


I had the itch to travel at an early age.

We lived in Croydon on the edge of south London. The war was over. Hitler’s rain of bombs had stopped and life in and around the capital, and the rest of the country, gradually moved into a genuine semblance of normality. Every morning, Tom the local milkman, sat aloft his cart holding the reins to a slow plodding horse carrying crates of milk. Tom delivered a bottle or two to his customers around the streets. As a four year old, I regularly sat alongside him for a short ride along St. Peter’ Street, where we lived. My mother would hoist me up into Tom’s arms who plonked me down besides him. I even held the reins. What an adventure! It was my first taste of being ‘on the road.’

One morning, I came downstairs with a bag full of clothes and a determination to leave home. “I’m going to join Tom. I’m not coming back’ I told my mother. I spoke with an adamant conviction. I had tasted freedom.

In those days, my parents, grandparents and other relatives asked me with mantra like enthusiasm: “What do you want to be when you grow up? A pilot? A train driver? A doctor? An absurd question. How many of us as adults know what we shall be doing in 15 or 20 years time? Three years later, around the age of seven, I knew exactly what I wanted to do when I grew up. I wanted to be a journalist. Except I misunderstood the meaning of the word ‘journalist.’ In my innocence, I thought the word was ‘journeylist’ – one who made journeys and wrote about them. As a small boy, I attended the nearby St. Antony’s Roman Catholic Primary School in Annerly, south London. I had to wait for years to quit the JohnFisherGrammar School in Purley, Surrey.

More years drifted by. I finished my education there at the age of 15 years, joined a Catholic newspaper remarkably titled The Universe, as a messenger boy (daily journeys around London to deliver and collect messages, press releases etc). The following year, the newspaper organised a pilgrimage for the staff to Lourdes in the foothills of the French Pyrenees, where Bernadette, a peasant girl, received a ‘visitation’ from the Virgin Mary in 1858 telling her to bring pilgrims to the grotto there, where miraculous cures would occur. As our coach party travelled through the French countryside, I spent pleasant hours imagining what it would like to hitchhike around continental Europe.christopher

Three years later, now aged 18 years, I set off at dazzling speed to hitchhike through as many countries on the continent as possible in the space of two weeks – the length of time of my annual holiday. France. Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Austria, Lithuania and Luxemburg. I set off the same again the following year and hitched north to include Denmark and Sweden.

At the age of 22, I had enough working as newspaper reporter for the Irish Independent newspaper in London. I resigned. Much to the dismay of my parents. I set off to travel around the world with £50 in my pocket, an old army rucksack bought in an ex-army clothes store, a spare set of clothes, and a couple of books. I headed for Greece, Turkey, Lebanon, Israel, Jordan, Iraq, Afghanistan, Pakistan, India and onwards. The Six Day War in June 1967 meant a change in route. Instead, I travelled through Turkey, Iran, Afghanistan, Pakistan and India. Exceptional Islamic hospitality and kindness prevailed as I journeyed across the Arab world despite centuries of crude political interference, summary dismissal of Islamic governments and wars, both Holy Wars and colonial wars, made by the British and French upon the Arab nations. I recall I had wondered whether England and France would offer a Muslim from the Arab world the same warm hospitality.

It was 1967 – the Summer of Love. I, and others, had broken away from the stifling world of conformity and development of a career and opted instead for the alternative culture of ‘tune in, turn on and drop out’ and the language of love, peace and harmony. We smoked dope, took tabs of acid, read Alan Watts on Zen and Jack Kerouac’s On the Road,’ and took seriously contemporary music, especially from The Beatles and Bob Dylan. Those of us on the hippy trail to the East aimed to spend Christmas, 1967 together in Kathmandu nestling in a valley of the Himalayas. Perhaps around 200 – 250 of us maximum reached this ancient city, a veritable Shangri-la for dedicated hippies. Most travellers turned around and went back to Europe, North America or Australia. I had been on the road for nine months. There was no sign of a cure for my itch.

By 1970, and having wandered extensively through Laos, Malaysia, Singapore, Sumatra, Java, Bali, Portuguese East Timor and Australia, I took the next stage in my travels. I made the transition from the outer journey to the inner journey - full of fresh landscapes, beautiful and challenging terrains, hills and valleys, deserts and oceans. Following ordination as a Buddhist monk in Thailand, I planted myself in a tough Vipassana (Insight Meditation) monastery established in a former cemetery on the edge of the town of Nakornsridhammaraj in southern Thailand - under the guidance of Ajahn Dhammadaro. We meditated outdoors in all four postures – sitting, walking, standing and reclining. We were told not to read books and only engage in the minimum of communication. Monks lived on one side of the dharma hall and nuns living on the other side. Austere? Yes. Disciplined? Yes. Transforming? Yes. 4 am to 10 pm. Seven days a week. Around 80 to 100 monks and novices and more nuns. Apart from the occasional visitor, I remained the only Western resident for the first year or two. The Vipassana teacher, the monks and nuns treated me like an adopted son during my three years of daily practice there.

On an impulse, the Ajahn would invite some monks and nuns, including myself, to join him on Yatras – walks through villages, canoe trips down river to remote villages and open air talks. Single file, we skirted around the edges of rice paddies, along sandy tracks, through forests and rolling hills with mindfulness and meditation given much priority. The sun burnt down on our shaved heads while our bare feet endured the hot tarmac when walking along the roads. The mind learns to stop complaining both verbally and mentally.

I have long since realised that there is no end to the journey, both inner and outer. The slow walking meditation up and down on the path outside my cave, after I left the monastery, revealed a journey as much as hitchhiking, bussing, training, boating across 30 countries. The beginning, middle and end of the journey belong to the same event, the same seamless process serving as the basis for life as a kind of Magical Mystery Tour. The noble path and the noble destination remain inseparably intertwined. We abide as innocents abroad exposed to a world of sentient beings and diverse elements that we can never make total sense of, never quite get a handle on. The Buddha told us to abandon the raft once we have crossed to the other shore but he also reminded us that there is neither this shore nor another shore. He did not leave us anything, including concepts, to grasp onto so that we see and know whatever has become in an untroubled emancipation.

Today, we may look aghast at developments since the early 1990’s of American Buddhism that has substituted the raft for an ocean going liner with a high percentage of baby boomers , the ex hippy generation, now setting the daily rates and comfort zone in retreat centres. American Buddhism has opted for the upper middle way. Mercifully, there are plenty of exceptions there. We may have to dive overboard and swim to the nearest raft or even take our chances with dolphins and the sharks.

The Buddha takes no interest in bourgeois comforts and the pursuit of personal security. He stripped away the mask of persona, clinging to identity and religious rituals and forms. Truth and reality does not come wrapped in Christmas paper.

There is a core question. “What am I prepared to give up to experience deeply the Noble Truth?”

An authentic journey across the waters of contentment and discontent shows clearly a shore ahead emerging out of the rolling mists. It is for some the joy and pressing satisfaction of the glimpse of an infinite that informs us of the sheer relativity of our ordinary perceptions as our tiny rafts bobs up and down. We have the potential to sense a deep truth, an unshakeable reality that finds real favour in our being. Truth reveals a signless mark of authenticity that seems remarkably obscure when we rely narrowly upon the interpretation of our senses to know reality. We live on the edge of the Infinite amidst the finite. To know the former is to know the sheer relativity of the latter.

Incidentally, I completed that form of my journey, inner and outer, in May 1977 – 10 years and 10 days after setting off from Croydon, I arrived back at the same house, I had left in April 1967. A man planting flowers in his back garden looked up at me waking briskly up my street and commented. ‘Been on ‘oliday?

I laughed. ‘Yeah.’ I replied.

I have only managed to spend a total of two months in once place in the past 32 years. In 1975, I spent a few months in Dalhousie, in the foothills of the Himalayas offering teachings to Western travellers. Since then I have journeyed to three or four continents annually. The world is my back garden full of flowers and weeds.

As I wrote at the beginning of this article, I have a lifelong itch. The itch is my earliest memory. I have only succeeded in spending a matter of a few consecutive weeks in my home in Totnes, Devon in the west of England. I have lived in the same house for 25 years. Neither my home, nor my partners over the years, nor my precious daughter, two grandchildren, nor standing twice for Parliament for the Green Party, nor writing books, nor countless hours on the meditation cushion have dissolved the itch.

There is no cure for it. I have no interest in a cure. Tom, the milkman, invited me to make the journey with him around the local streets. I climbed aboard. If I may say, it gave me the opportunity to experience a rather clear view of the street. I never got tired of it.