The Black Buddha Years

By the time I went to Uni I was beginning to believe my dad was dead. I was reaching for whatever I could to make sense of tragedy.

This is part three of my core story. Here is part one and part two is here.

I left my home in Scotland when I was 19 years old to study an undergraduate degree in Equine Science. I went as far south as I could without getting my feet wet in the English Channel.

By this time, I was beginning to believe that my dad was dead. But sometimes I still thought he was walking around, perhaps a little greyer and more tired from the stress that comes from abandoning your family and making everyone believe you’re dead.

For the first year of my degree, I stayed in the halls of residence of my college, Imperial College at Wye in Kent. It was the first time I had my own space as I’d always shared a room with my brother. Let loose with a space to decorate I created what looked like a science lab rammed inside an Indian guru’s boudoir.

On the east wall of my room, above my bed, I hung some fabric printed with a yellow elephant surrounded by Celtic knotwork. Across the ceiling, I draped some dark green cloth with an intricate black mandala in the centre. I spread woven, colourful mats over the college’s standard-issue coarse carpet tiles. I didn’t smoke weed, but I appreciated the shape of the marijuana plant’s leaves. I made plaster-cast leaves, the size of dinner plates, painted them green and fixed them on the wall next to the elephant drape.

On the west side of my room, my desk was covered in textbooks, papers, a short measuring cylinder and a glass beaker full of pens. The books included the subjects I was studying: biochemistry, microbiology, molecular biology, psychology and evolutionary theory. I hung a chart depicting biological cycles and mindmaps as study aids. I loved learning about gram-positive bacteria, the replication rate of different viruses, the Milgram social psychology/torture experiment, and how to dissect a horse’s lower leg.

Among all the fabric and books, I studied hard and meditated by the soft light of candles. My room was my sanctuary. Outside the room, I was anxious and self-conscious.

Like my room, I was a mess of oppositions. I loved learning but rarely sat in a lecture hall. I always had a short, tidy haircut but dyed it black. I dressed smart but invariably in dark colours. I listened to Marilyn Manson, Slayer, Black Sabbath and Cradle Of Filth but never played my music loud enough to bother my neighbours. I followed all the rules of our building, except I would often break through a door at the top of the staircase and climb on the roof at night to watch the stars.

My well-read copy of The Art of Happiness

I continued to read about the Buddhist approach to life and death. A year before I went to college the His Holiness Dalai Lama published a book with Dr Howard C. Cutler, a psychiatrist from Phoenix, Arizona called The Art of Happiness. It’s a dialogue that brings together eastern and western philosophy. This book lay next to my bed, and I read it each night after a day of burying my head inside textbooks.

In The Art of Happiness, I learnt that I could cultivate fundamental spiritual happiness without the doctrine and dogma of a religion. As a burgeoning scientist, I appreciated this.

I learnt that suffering is a natural part of life; however, I was increasing suffering unnecessarily by creating an elaborate story to keep my dad alive.

In The Art of Happiness, I learnt that I could eliminate negative attitudes and feelings with sustained effort, by shifting perspectives and finding the good in every situation.

I learnt that happiness does not exist in external objects or circumstances but with the right state of mind.

Most importantly, I learnt to combat my anxiety and low self-confidence by examining my thoughts, motives and capabilities honestly.

The Art of Happiness was the first book where I realised that my scientific and spiritual sides could not only rest peacefully inside me but could complement each other. However, it would take many more years until I was totally comfortable with this.

In the final year of University, I left behind my Black Buddha years and finally accepted that my dad was dead – although I have still not visited his grave and it’s over 25 years since he died.

The scientist in me started asking why he died young at only 43 years old. Did he have a weak heart? Was a weak heart hereditary? Was I likely to die early too? It didn’t take long for my anxiety to roll back in.