Spring 1970, Age 18
The night ferry sailed to Dublin from Holyhead and I landed once again at the boys hostel on Lord Edward Street. There was no welcome just as there’d been no farewell. My bedroom was familiar, my roommates distant and the big green-baize table in the billiard table stood waiting for me to push the colored balls around. The hostel was the same, but everything else had changed: no mother, no vomit in the urinals, no access to drugs—and a job profoundly different from anything I’d ever imagined.
Each morning I dressed in a natty three-piece suit and silk paisley tie (a present from Dad), stepped out the front entrance and turned right. The Metal Box office on Abbey Street was a 15-minute stroll past the cathedral, down the hill and across the river Liffey via the narrow Ha’penny Bridge. The river still stank, the city still bustled noisily, but with a new sense of purpose, the sky looked clearer, the architecture loomed dramatic and people smiled.
The actual company premises were in an old building on the fourth floor, accessed by a clanking snail-paced, two-person elevator. Building, office and furnishings were antique shabby, straight out of a Dickens novel, all except the shining cabinet-sized Telex machine that rattled away, relaying messages from management and factories far across the sea in England.
I shared a big bright office with the main salesman who was almost always away. Under a window looking over the street, my wooden desk was cluttered with trays stacked with letters, memos and telexes; nestled among the papers was the dreaded telephone, a machine I was hardly on speaking terms with. The two secretaries clacking away at their typewriters were sequestered in the smaller room next door. Down the hallway, Christopher Morsehead, Sales Manager for Metal Box Ireland, shared an office suite with his secretary, Olive.
The first weeks were overwhelming. I tried to absorb the names of the cans and containers, their sizes, specifications and finishes and then the numerous Metal Box factories, customers, invoices and required paperwork. The intricacy of putting dog food—chopped up waste meat and gravy—into a cylindrical metal container and sealing the lid was absolutely dumbfounding. Who’d have thought manufacturing and marketing pull-tab pop cans, condensed milk tins and printed tea caddies could be so byzantine?
Working in Metal Box was like pulling back the curtain on the Wizard of Oz and finding not one, but dozens of hands pulling levers, each one frantically trying to stave off impending chaos.
Aideen Kelly, my secretary, helped me survive. After she’d got over being miffed at having an 18-year-old boss, we got along famously and became close friends. Aideen was unique. Her wide smiling face was surrounded by masses of dark curly hair. Only when you looked closer did you see her tiny crumpled body with one hunched shoulder and a spine twisted by childhood polio. In her early 40’s, she had an impish sense of humor, constantly ready for a smutty innuendo or clever quip—but behind that smile was a formidable intelligence. She knew everything about the company; I knew nothing. Her help was crucial if I wasn’t to flunk the trial month.
“Aideen, could you take a letter, please,” I called through the open door.
She looked up from her women’s magazine. “I have to finish this fascinating article—and can’t you see I’m crippled? Come out here and I’ll write it for you.”
I dutifully got up from my desk and went into the secretaries’ domain. “OK. Send a letter to Mr. O’Donnell at Seymours. Tell him he can’t have his biscuit tins for two weeks. They got stuck in customs. Try and be tactful.”
She gave me one of her winning smiles. “I’m always tactful, aren’t I?”
Aideen loved to gossip. “D’yer hear the latest? They’re making them print the dog-food labels in English. Seems they’ve been exporting cans to Africa with all the writing in Gaelic. No wonder the sales were so good—no one knew it was dog food!” She rolled her eyes and laughed.
That first overwhelming month flew by. One morning Mr. Morsehead popped his disheveled head around the office door and called out in his plummy English accent: “Busy, Owen? Come on down to my office when you have a moment.”
I knew my boss was trying to be friendly but those odd conversations with Mr. Morsehead were unnerving. If Aideen was a unique personality, Christopher Morsehead was decidedly eccentric. A brilliant Oxford graduate, he gave the impression of a cross between Groucho Marx and the Duke of Edinburgh: odd mannerisms and outlandish costumes with an aristocratic disregard for conventionality.
I’d just sat down in his office, when Mr. Morsehead exclaimed, “Just a moment, Owen.” He shouted to his secretary next door, “Olive! Take a memo.”
He leaned back in his heavy captain’s chair; it made a clunk as it settled onto one shortened rear leg. Without pause, gazing up into the heavens, Mr. Morsehead began a lyrical soliloquy while Olive bustled into the room, frantically writing shorthand in her notebook.
Morsehead memos were famous: page after page of beautifully crafted prose complete with classical references, often in Greek or Latin. I heard that some were pinned on office walls in England. With his obscure monologue complete and Olive dismissed to her typewriter, he turned to me. “Owen. Been with us a month already? Good job—hope you’re settling in.”
I wasn’t certain, but I gathered I’d completed the trial month successfully. Now I was a genuine employee: Owen Evans, Internal Liaison Officer of Metal Box, Ireland.
Mr. Morsehead continued, “There’s a problem with Schweppes—leaky seams. Haven’t seen their factory yet? We should visit—after lunch.” He spoke a kind of staccato shorthand in contrast to his loquacious memos.
These random outings evoked a kind of fascinated dread. On visits to our customers, he was both mesmerizing and embarrassing. All too often, he dressed in old-fashioned riding jodhpurs with puffed out thighs (think Groucho Marx as Captain Spaulding in “Animal Crackers”). Sometimes his riding pants came complete with puttees (a cloth wrapped around the leg from ankle to knee) and a green army greatcoat, part of his officer uniform in World War II. A faint smell of horse manure hovered around him and it was not unusual to see a wisp of hay stuck in his thinning hair. Instead of a leather briefcase, he carried his papers in a small blue cardboard suitcase with worn edges and a broken lock.
Was Mr. Morsehead’s eccentricity a conscious strategy? I wasn’t sure, but it worked. From the welcome of our customers, everyone—managers and workers alike—looked forward to his visits. He remembered people’s names, asked how their families were doing and listened to their complaints and suggestions. He exuded an aura of disheveled goodwill that brought a smile to people’s faces and made meetings a little less serious. The Irish had a deep affection for the extraordinary, the outlandish and the mythic—and he fitted the bill. Everyone liked and respected him.
After lunch, he cleared the passenger seat of various pieces of horse tack so I could get into his enormous car. As we drove to the industrial area of Dublin, he explained why the car was so big: “Only drive this beast because it can pull a horse box.” He looked at me over his glasses and passed on a nugget of wisdom. “That’s why I do this job—pays for what I love—horses, you know.”
His comment resonated deep inside me. Here was a man who was totally himself; he never pretended to be someone he wasn’t. Unlike Dad, he was confident, socially adept and, when necessary, intimidating. He knew what he wanted from the world and went out and got it. I desperately needed to learn how to be effective in the world.
That wasn’t easy. My mission as liaison officer was to smooth over every crisis and keep everyone happy. Most days I was crushed between the demands of customers and the inconsistencies of Metal Box factories: labels badly printed, cans stuck on trucks or ships, unrealistic rush orders. Communication by mail took a couple of days so urgent problems came in by phone. In general, Irish customers were polite and considerate, but a few, like the English asshole from Cadburys, screamed at me over the phone whenever anything went wrong—and things went wrong constantly.
Worst of all, was the endless paperwork—the dockets, forms, memos, orders and change orders. I soon got behind and knew I would never catch up. Without Aideen, I would have drowned in a sea of paper, but she kept me afloat with a smile and a casual unflappable attitude, making it clear than none of it was fundamentally important. Every afternoon at 5.00 sharp, the workday ended. I tidied my desk, the secretaries collected their coats and handbags and we descended the clanking lift together; I was done for the day.
Evenings at the boys hostel were bleak: no regular social life, no close pals and no idea of how to find a girlfriend. I was in a holding pattern, going round and round the same thoughts and activities. My spare-time centered on playing billiards, exploring Dublin and reading spiritual books in the National Library. The one bright spot was the sporadic meetings with Raymond and Oriana Conner. They were my contact point for an obscure spiritual group called Subud.
As ever, I’d learned about Subud from a book shelved in the esoteric section of Cardiff library. One Welsh rainy day, I’d borrowed two books: The Lost Continent of Mu by James Churchward and Towards Subud by J. P. Barter. The first was a fascinating exposition of a lost continent similar to Atlantis. The second was a bland description of the author’s experiences in an Indonesian spiritual movement founded by a man named Pak Subuh, or Bapak.
I didn’t finish Towards Subud; it was poorly written and not at all engaging, but the word ‘Subud’ and Barter’s descriptions of the spiritual practice struck an inner chord, resonating long after I returned the book. He described how instead of unremitting mental effort, you could experience a spiritual contact by surrendering to God or a Higher Power. This surrendering practice was called the latihan kejiwaan, an Indonesian term for spiritual exercise. Struggling with meditation, unable to reach even an instant of inner quiet, I knew I needed some sort of inspired assistance.
There was a telephone number in the back of Towards Subud. The Whitchurch Road phone box was distant, yet I made multiple calls and left multiple messages for nameless strangers. Eventually, I reached a man in Cardiff called Stanley and arranged to meet. He drove round one evening and we chatted in his small blue car parked across the road from our house—a banal and uninspiring setting.
Stanley was a nice bloke: friendly, talkative and cheerful with a strong Welsh singsong accent. He appeared ordinary and unassuming, nothing special or mystical. Sitting side by side in his darkened car made for a disjointed, relaxed conversation. He related his experiences in Subud with no talk of hard spiritual practice or promises of enlightenment—and best of all, no requests for money. To my mind, spirituality and money inhabited different domains, never to be entangled.
Stanley obviously loved Subud. It settled his feelings, supported his marriage and guided his daily decisions. He emphasized that you didn’t have to believe in anything in particular, certainly not a formal religion. The practice of the latihan didn’t interfere with ordinary day-to-day life, just made it better. Yet despite Stanley’s enthusiasm, he didn’t seem to be pushing Subud onto me—quite the opposite.
“I’m going to Dublin in a few weeks,” I said. “Can I come to a meeting before I leave?”
He laughed. “No, no, it doesn’t work like that. You have to wait three months before being opened.” He thought a moment. “It’s probably best you do the three-month applicant period in Ireland anyway. There’s a group in Dublin; I’ll give you the number. You can contact them when you get there.”
My heart sank—over three months waiting! Stanley must have picked up my disappointment and tried to reassure me: “Oh, it’s not too bad, the three months. It gives you time to decide if it’s right for you and to get a sense of Subud. You need to be certain; it’s an important decision.”
Soon after I arrived in Dublin, I called the number Stanley gave me and Oriana and Raymond Conner invited me to their elegant Georgian house in a superior part of Dublin. Over tea and biscuits, we talked about joining Subud and their experiences of the Subud practice.
I found the Conner’s gracious upper-class manner familiar and comfortable. Raymond worked as a commercial photographer but was heir to the Conner estate in County Cork. Unlike his wife, he didn’t seem particularly enthusiastic about Subud but that may have been his personality. He was a quiet, inward man with a dark beard and brooding air. Oriana, on the other hand was blond, bright and articulate.
She suggested I read some of the periodicals and books in her library, so I immersed myself in the writings of Bapak, the founder and spiritual figurehead. Bapak himself was an unusual spiritual guide. Unlike many gurus, he dressed in a suit and lived an ordinary life with his wife and family when not traveling and giving talks. Although a Muslim, he emphasized that members should follow their own religion or no religion at all.
Bapak’s wandering talks were difficult to follow; they tended to stress the same message again and again: do the spiritual practice, the latihan, regularly and don’t think about it too much. What you thought or believed was not as important as your own experience. After a period of time, you would receive confirmation of what was true and right for you. I found this pragmatic approach reassuring.
The three months waiting period seemed unnecessarily long. On a whim, I contacted the English Buddhist Society founded by the judge, Christmas Humphreys. The society offered a correspondence course on Theravada Buddhism, a good fallback in case Subud did not deliver the spiritual goods.
The program was similar to my A-Levels course with lessons printed on orange paper coming regularly through the mail. Unlike the elaborate symbolic style of Mahayana Buddhism, Theravada was plain and precise—more Puritan than Catholic. Its concepts were organized, articulated and numbered: Four Noble Truths, Eightfold Path, Five Hindrances. Accustomed to the wild wanderings of Zen and Tibetan texts, Theravada came across as somewhat dry and rational—but the ideas were easy to follow.
To compensate for the course’s unexciting approach, my Dharma teacher, Freda Wint was a treasure: receptive, compassionate and wise. At first, our regular correspondence was centered on the finer points of Buddhist thinking: What was the meaning of attachment and clinging? Why did it cause suffering? Did Ahimsa (no harm) mean I should be a vegetarian?
With no one else to confide in, my letters to Freda strayed into the thorny emotional thickets in which I was entangled. Mother sent me long rambling letters about her miserable life, begging me to save her before she snuffed it. That last part was unspoken but it lurked between the lines.
I was not going to give up my newfound freedom, but Mother’s demands unsettled me. I explained the situation to Freda and burdened her with my personal dilemma: If we need to practice compassion, what should my responsibility be to my Mother? Where does my duty as a son end?
Freda’s responses were a model of cool clarity: I had to be both compassionate and firm. There was a duty to my mother and a Karmic bond, but it took second place to my responsibility to my spiritual path and to myself. I had to seek a middle way, one that was balanced and practical.
We entered into an intense twice-weekly exchange of letters. Seeing her as more than just a teacher, I told her about my life and struggle to find something to believe in. Should I become a monk? Didn’t the Buddha say only renunciates could attain enlightenment? I eagerly awaited her orange letters, enjoyed posing thorny questions and most of all, appreciated Freda’s calm, considered replies that gave me pause and helped me settle.
One thing Freda and I disagreed about was my interest in Subud. I’d signed up with the Conners to be opened in Subud after three months but felt little pressure to belong or believe. Oriana’s welcoming presence calmed me; I felt comfortable with her and attracted to whatever the latihan might bring. Freda’s Buddhism was a path of clear thinking, meditation and right action—gazing into a pool of clear water reflecting the sky. In contrast, Oriana’s Subud required surrender and intense inner purification—diving into mysterious ocean depths.
Freda did her best to dissuade me from joining. She believed Subud was a fringe cult—at best a spiritual dead-end, at worst a fanatical sect. For her, Buddhism was the path; it required intellectual commitment and unremitting effort. There were no easy shortcuts to enlightenment and Subud sounded far too seductive and irrational. But Subud stuck like a burr and I couldn’t shake it loose. No matter how much I respected Freda, her wisdom and compassion, she could not stop me from giving Subud a try. I had to taste it for myself, not be swayed by her opinions; in fact, her dismissal of other spiritual paths raised my hackles.
The days progressed and the long waiting period finally came to an end. In the last weeks, I found the tenets of Theravada Buddhism increasingly tedious and my correspondence with Freda waned. She’d done her best to deter me but it had made my interest in Subud’s mystical path more robust. While I felt deep gratitude and respect for her support and clarity, her attitude to other spiritual paths was too narrow and constricted. Sadly, with my decreased interest in Buddhism, her illuminating letters ceased. There was nothing to detract from my decision to be opened in Subud.
Work and Talents
I worked at Metal Box for 18 months, the minimum time commitment Chris Morsehead requested. The job paid adequately, the company treated me well and outwardly it could have been a successful career. But it was not for me: the work was tedious and trivial—and it certainly did not fit my nature or aspirations. Like wearing shoes two sizes too small, my inner self felt pinched and constrained. Every day was a mini-torment.
Thoreau wrote in his classic Walden: “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation, and go to the grave with the song still in them.” Much of that desperation is the subtle torture of working an unfilling job, an occupation that fails to sustain our inner nature and inherent talents. Without a suitable outlet to voice who we are, our soul-song can never be expressed; we trudge through the work week frustrated and mutely disappointed. Sadly, as Thoreau tells us, this is the fate of the majority of women and men, particularly those with no choice in the tasks they do to survive.
To engage with and influence the world is core to our humanity. We learn who we are—and who we are meant to be—in the friction between our actions and the constraints of our work environment. Work demands intention and effort. Writing this sentence, planting a seed, providing a service, selling a piece of jewellery, making a meal, even reading these words, every act entails intention and exertion to reach some outcome. Every act alters the world in some small way and in every moment our deeds create the unfolding future.
But what kind of future? That depends on the quality of our work, on how we bring ourselves to the task in hand. If we are not present, if our work is half-hearted and mindless, how can that be of benefit to anyone or anything? A job performed with desperation and indifference damages us and degrades humanity as a whole. Mechanical drudgery brutalizes Nature, our own and the environment. Thoughtlessly, we contribute to exploitation and abuse of the natural world and take one more shuffling step towards mental enslavement.
Happy as I was to have a job, who benefited from my Metal Box toil and trials? Not my true Self, certainly not humankind. Trapped in a musty office, bombarded by unrealistic demands, creating profit for faceless and worthless shareholders—how could that enrich my soul or enhance humanity? The only bright sparks in the suffocating gloom were Aileen and Chris Morsehead.
If I’d been aware, I might have recognized it was real people and real relationships that illuminated to my life. I knew only that I had to get out of there fast and find work that was personally sustaining. I needed a suitable worldly container for my embryonic talents.
Talents are expressions of our inner nature, a reflection of who we are beyond personality and ego. Our natures are unique and inexplicable, irrepressible and untamed; each of us has to discover outlets for our nature. Through articulation of our talents—caring for children, manipulating numbers, making music, tilling the soil, creating an enterprise, work of art or scientific innovation—we reconnect with our natures, our fundamental essence.
Unless expressed within a suitable vessel, inner forces tend to fester. Like the slippery metal mercury, talents need a container to hold them and provide shape for their formless energy. Passions, predilections and capacities flow into the different doing receptacles of our lives. Some bring joy and satisfaction, others are a tedious grind; some inspire us to spread our wings, others suck the life out of our bones. Deep and enduring fulfillment emerges from a good-enough fit between our talents and our work—a round peg in a round hole. Then our talent reverberates out into the world and echoes back from everything and everyone around us.
How do we find voice to our calling, discover a fitting channel for our inner nature? With difficulty and with trial and error. At every life crossroad, every occupational decision, we tend to be misinformed and misguided by the mindlessness of parental advice, the banality of schooling, the demands of society, the need for money—but mainly by the doubts and hesitations beclouding our own minds. We are taught to be fearful, programmed to follow the herd. We barter inner joy for security and a pot of gold; hypnotized by the glitter of worldly success it is all too easy to neglect the true treasure within.
To realize our nature—to know our talents and express them fully—we pay attention to inner promptings and a subtle sense of unease. When we’re offtrack, there is a sense that something is missing, that our outer experiences conceal a void within. The true Self reminds us our unique voice has to be uttered or there will be consequences. We have particular reasons for being in this world; our task is to discover those reasons.
Purpose reveals itself in the employment of our talents in suitable life tasks. One woman invents, another shepherds inventions to market; one loves accounting, another can’t count but grows nutritious vegetables. One man is a consumate father and home-body, another explores uncharted territories. In an ideal world, we would do the work that suits us best, that resonates with our nature and talents. Our differences would fit together like a jigsaw intimately devised to fashion a perfect wholeness.
We recognize our talents through a sense of profound satisfaction and rightness as we work. Challenges are exciting; the doings is as important as the result. Who or what would I’ve become if I’d kept working for Metal Box? Certainly not myself. My soul would have withered, suffocated in a shrinking tin can. Fortunately, through destiny and inner guidance, I found the best container for my talents in psychology.
Fourty plus years as a psychotherapist and I am still gripped by the work. It fulfills me in a way I cannot fathom or fully articulate. My fervent wish is that each person discovers the true expression of their inner nature and talents. Then the world would resonate in harmony as each gives voice to their soul-song.
Seeking a Spiritual Path
Within each of us is a yearning to transcend, to rise beyond the limitations of our small self and become a fully human being. The spiritual urge is deep and mysterious. Like a moon behind dark clouds, we catch glimpses of its numinous aura now and then. Most often it’s eclipsed and obscured by mundane necessities and dismissive thoughts.
Soul and materialistic culture constantly battle. We live in a world of distraction, programmed to respond to every mundane magnet of attention. Spirituality has become a dirty word, besmirched by commercialism. Psychotherapy, meditation, yoga and religion are hitched to the materialistic train—products to monetize, boosters for egos, twisted from their original intent of inner exploration and transformation. Toys, money and media are society’s currency; simplicity, inner quiet and contentment are drowned out in the clamor. Little wonder so many cannot hear the whisper of their souls.
Some of us cannot ignore that whisper; if we do, it becomes a howling in the ears and an ache in the heart. The urgency to walk a spiritual path—to find a deeper meaning and purpose to life—is a driving force that keeps pulsing and prodding. I cannot imagine a day without tapping into stillness, without connecting to Life itself.
The banal materialistic world-view is so bleak, so lonely, so unloved, so ungrounded. In contrast, a life of spirit is fascinating, enriching and immensely practical. True spirituality is never wishy-washy, airy-fairy or namby-pamby; it is hard no-nonsense transformational work that generates tangible and useful effects.
I am lucky to have connected with a number of spiritually inspired people: Mother Columba, Winifred Rushforth, Reb Zalman, Dom Aengus, Father Theophane and others. Each of them radiated a kind of inner joy, loving engagement with life and a lively sense of humor; all made a profound and lasting imprint on those around them, including me. Imperfect like every one of us, they embraced their unique spiritual paths and metamorphosed beyond the ordinary into the extra-ordinary.
What is a spiritual path, a life of the soul? Essentially, it is the cultivation of inner-quiet and open-heartedness. Letting go of outer distraction, setting aside the constant clatter of thoughts and desires, we connect to a tranquil mystery beyond all images and preconceptions. Call it God, Emptiness, Buddha Nature, Higher Power, Tao—it matters not a jot what label you use. I like the tag, Unknown and Unknowable as it carries the least conceptual baggage.
Imagine an ant in my garden as I walk by and disturb its pheromone trail with my footstep. Does it know what just happened? Can it understand what kind of being I am? Is it able to comprehend my thoughts and intentions? Surely, this is comparable to our relationship with God. Whatever It is, our understanding is ant-like. It has to be far beyond anything our tiny minds can grasp, far beyond what our arrogant egos can ensnare.
A spiritual path requires we set aside preconceptions and selfish demands. That is the problem: egos hate to let go of control. Our ‘I’ clings to the spotlight of selfness, uses every stratagem to distract us from silence, is terrified of yielding to something greater than itself. To relinquish our thoughts and desires is a mini ego-death. Like a fish out of water, our small self writhes and squirms, frantic to return to the familiar swim of ordinary consciousness.
Seeking and treading a spiritual path requires dedication and persistent intent. The path has to resonate with our inner natures. Not everyone can be a follower of Jesus—I learned that when I let go of Catholicism. Much as I appreciate Buddhist meditation, it is not for me. Because my intellect is strong, my way cannot be intellectual. Against all reason, I am drawn to the devotional and mystical. As Ram Dass tells us, “The spiritual journey is individual, highly personal. It can’t be organized or regulated. It isn’t true that everyone should follow one path. Listen to your own truth.”
A true spiritual practice is who we are as much as what we do. Helping the mind get still and the heart blossom, this is the essence of all spiritual aspirations. There are infinite ways to be quiet and open, infinite ways to shape our paths to our own souls. Some people need the structure and beliefs of religion to guide their way. Others, such as the growing minority of SBNRs (Spiritual But Not Religious) seek it in Yoga, meditation, immersion in nature or different contemplative activities. The intention to transcend the small self, to be open to something greater and more selfless than the ego, this is what unveils the path and guides our footsteps.
A spiritual life is a life unexpected; there is only the beginning and the beginning is always now. Believing we go somewhere is a soothing illusion. When I was 18, I was certain I’d be enlightened by age 21! Maybe I needed to fool my ego, throwing it a bone to chew on. Whatever the reason, it kept me going until I realized the idea of progress or a spiritual goal is also an illusion. All I know is my path is who I am, not something I do.
Ideas about spirituality can be helpful rungs on a ladder but we inevitably have to let them go. Every step of the path is itself the whole path; all our seeking leads us back to the beginning without end. The Unknown beckons us towards unknowing, towards letting go of striving and seeking. We seek a path in order to stop seeking.
 Thoreau, Henry D. (1995). Walden. Houghton Mifflin Co. NY.
 Ram Dass (2004). Paths to God. Random House, NY.