A few years ago I interviewed a guy called Swami Balendu who deliberately went to live in an underground cave in the Himalayas for three and a half years with no laptop, no tablet, not even a mobile phone. He stayed there in the darkness and people passed food to him every day through a hole.
He didn't see their faces and he didn't speak to them. (I assume that some waste matter was passed out of the cave as well, but he didn't mention it).
The swami left strict instructions that even if a member of his family died, he was not to be interrupted. He wanted to get closer to God, he said. To hear God's voice, uninterrupted by outward distractions.
"In India," he explained to me, "Spiritual people do this practice of living in silence. If you want to meditate, then you don't want to get disturbed."
His mother died while he was in the cave, but he refused to come out for the funeral. His commitment to lockdown was unshakeable. And when the three years were up, he didn't want to come out because he had been in "total bliss".
OK, I am not one of those annoying Pollyanna types who want to convince you that the lockdown was brilliant because you could hear the birds. I get that the swami is possibly a tad eccentric, and of course he did it out of choice, he wasn't forced to do it. We resist deprivations just because we are human beings and we are programmed to want more stuff, not less of it.
The swamis are not the only ones who deliberately deprive themselves of unnecessary 'stuff'. Greta Thunberg didn't invent eco-activism. In the 1960s, a youth movement in America known as the 'hippies' spread the notion of 'dropping out' of the consumerist, greed-driven and anti-nature way of life that the post-war boom created, and living simple, uncluttered lives, close to nature in small communities.
Like Greta, they were young and idealistic, and committed to not polluting the earth with chemicals, so they grew organic vegetables and milked goats. They were often vegetarian, or vegan. They eschewed toxic grooming products like deodorant, shaving foam, shampoo and hairspray, and also things like nylons and high heels for women and short hair and suits for men.
They were often sexually fluid, and they challenged gender stereotypes; men and women had long, flowing hair and long, colourful, clothes that were vintage velvet, lace and silk or handmade and crocheted and embroidered. They didn't shop in supermarkets (which were just becoming popular with the Baby Boomers); instead they baked their own bread and boiled a lot of lentils and brown rice.
My parents were part of this counter-culture, and when I was small we lived off the grid, first in an old schoolhouse in rural Wicklow with no telly, no phone, no running water and no electricity, and then in a series of farmhouses, usually with a bunch of people, some American, some English, some Irish, some German and Dutch.
For entertainment, people philosophised, played acoustic guitar and sang folk songs, or discussed in great detail things like growing vegetables or what the chickens were doing, instead of watching Netflix. Some of their friends were in trippy bands like Dr Strangely Strange, or The Incredible String Band, who were very glamorous and hung out with the aristocracy, but glamour and class distinctions were disapproved of.
My memories of this are a mish-mash, as childhood memories usually are, and are charged with the thrill of endless new discoveries. The bits that stand out for me are the excitement of seeing water come out of a well; the frogs and the frogspawn in the pond; talking to fairies in the garden (as real to me as any humans); getting lost for hours in enormous ferns and running through soggy bogs, with the intensity of the scent of gorse and wet turf; the smell of soda bread being baked in a cast-iron pot on an open fire; the cats which ran wild around the house and the endless excitement of exotic new people arriving to hang out with my parents. It was like camping at the Electric Picnic all year round.
People were always making things with their hands. My uncle had carved me a wooden farm, which I adored, and I had handmade dolls, but my favourite things to play with were all outdoor things. Because it was a schoolhouse, there were broken-down loos for boys and girls, and a rundown house where the master had lived. When we moved to various other parts of the countryside, to live with other people, there were more things to explore. One place had outbuildings that had been a forge and a dairy and sheds for animals in which I opened a cafe, a shop and a gallery. I built roads with stones and grew flowers.
I loved school. We were sent to a tiny, Protestant school in the village. We were not in any way religious and religion mystified me with its weird prejudices, but I liked the hymns. I was lucky enough to have started reading very early and enthusiastically, and to be a very quick learner, so the lessons were a breeze and school was an opportunity to have a bit of fun and play games with other kids. I was sociable and a natural initiator, and I was inventive and playful, so I made lots of little friends in the neighbourhood, all of whom had normal houses with central heating and televisions, which I desired with a passion. The girls had neatly brushed hair, and smart dresses, which I also envied, and things like sausages and sliced white bread which I devoured unashamedly when they invited me for tea.
As a teenager, I suddenly became ferociously opposed to the hippie lifestyle. I had discovered pop music, and magazines and clothes, and I was desperate for everything toxic, capitalist and synthetic. Central heating, traffic fumes, synthesiser pop, lipstick and hairspray, processed packet foods, daytime television. I devoured anything artificial, nihilistic and nasty and I was allergic to even a whiff of compost. So I emigrated to Central London, to live in a block of flats with a lift and a microwave.
It was as if my mind and my body were controlled by two different people.
The hippies were vehemently opposed to the pursuit of money, success, fame and career. You were a 'bread head' if you were materialistic and wanted to own stuff - even your clothes and your lovers were supposed to be shared. People were contemptuous of things like pensions and mortgages, and the only jobs that were cool were ones in health food shops or market stalls. So, naturally, I wanted to be a stockbroker and make millions and drive a Merc. Margaret Thatcher was my role model.
But I had a fatal flaw. I was conflicted. I tried and tried and couldn't get myself motivated to actually work. All I could bring myself to do was sell vintage clothes and hang out with boys in bands. And the boys played folk music.
It is beyond frustrating to have no clear idea what you want to do with your life. I experimented with a lot of things, but I somehow got sucked into meditation, yoga, Eastern philosophy, and energy healing. It was hideous, because I absolutely despised the people who were doing these things - they were all floaty and covered in crystals and they smelled of patchouli. But I couldn't stop myself. It was like having amazing sex with someone you're embarrassed to be seen with.
The first step was just wanting to be fit, and going to the Pineapple Dance Studio, off Oxford Street, to do a fitness class. The class was full, so they put me in the yoga class instead, and it was like going home. It felt so familiar. I began furtively eating at a place called Cranks, in Covent Garden, which served lentil burgers to old hippies. I would be walking down Oxford Street in my pinstripe power suit and heels, and I would see the Hare Krishna temple and be mesmerised by the chanting and find myself joining in. It was as if my mind and my body were controlled by two different people.
The absolute worst was the ashram in India - it was advertised as a meditation holiday camp, and I went because I had become totally addicted to meditation, mainly because it was the most perfect form of escapism ever invented. You literally absconded from the confusion of your life entirely while you were doing it, and there were no side effects; it was better than heroin. But at the ashram they made you wear maroon robes and hug total strangers and gaze into their eyes and tell them that you loved them. You actually did love them in the moment, but you squirmed like a teenager when you thought about it.
I still wanted to be rich and famous, but I had absolutely no idea how this was going to happen, especially if I spent all my money on healing retreats. Then one day I discovered Deepak Chopra, and everything made sense. Deepak is an Indian guru/best-selling author and he had done exactly what I wanted to do - he had made millions by meditating. Or so he seemed to suggest. I bought his book The Seven Spiritual Laws of Success: A Practical Guide to the Fulfilment of your Dreams. I may have misread it, but I got from it that all you had to do was meditate and you could get really rich. So that's what I did. I meditated all day. And I tried to write a best-selling book like Eat, Pray Love, documenting my spiritual journey, which I fully intended would be a New York Times best-seller and get me on with Oprah.
You have no idea how happy I was to finally have a plan and a totally fail-proof strategy. And you have no idea how crushed I was when it didn't work. Nobody wanted to publish my book and Oprah wasn't interested. It triggered a nervous breakdown and a trip to The Priory and a suicidal depression from which I didn't see any possible recovery. This was around the end of 2000. I began seeing a counsellor on a daily basis and telling her that I wanted to die, and actually begging to be institutionalised so as not have to be in charge of my own life, which I had given up on because nothing I wanted ever seemed to materialise, especially not success in my writing career.
As part of my spiritual explorations, I had learned to talk to angels. At first, I only wanted to do it as a way to get famous, but when I got out of The Priory, I turned to the angels as a last-ditch attempt to get help.
I honestly believed that all you needed to be happy was to be rich and successful and skinny. Love was for wimps, and maybe for hippies.
I was totally and utterly desperate by this stage. I had left Shane, my life-long partner, partly because of his addictions, but also partly because his fame and success made me feel even more useless and inadequate. I was completely broke, and living in a tiny, filthy bedsit. I didn't have the energy to kill myself, so I wrote to the angels and demanded that they help me.
Luckily they answered immediately. They actually moved the pen on the page and the words started to appear. The words said: "All you need to do is write down whatever is bothering you and wait for the answers." I gave them a long list of things that were wrong: I was not rich, I was not famous, I was not a supermodel. Everything was wrong.
They started to guide me, and to give me advice on what to do. Mainly, they showed me a new way to look at my life. They got me to see that I had some good things going for me, including perfect health and an ability to write, and they got me working and feeling good about this for the first time in my life. They also got me to start helping other people with my gifts. They taught me some stuff about love - how important it is to love each other and to love yourself. That can sound corny and trite, but apart from falling in love with Shane and loving my family, I hadn't made any kind of connection between spirituality and love, or success and love, or happiness and love. You are probably a very kind, compassionate, loving person yourself, and you might find this hard to understand. But the idea of unconditional love for humanity was not in my repertoire. I was critical of humanity and I was not particularly interested in the rest of the world. I honestly believed that all you needed to be happy was to be rich and successful and skinny. Love was for wimps, and maybe for hippies.
The angels changed all of that. I liked talking to them because they made me feel everything I had ever wanted to feel: gloriously happy, peaceful, content, beautiful, blissful, creative, connected. When I channelled them, everything in my life took off, not without work on my part, but the work that I did was exciting and I felt passion for it, writing books and teaching workshops. I began getting guidance to try stuff like painting pictures of angels, which I never would have considered (too New Age-y) and I actually liked the pictures. They guided me to make the pictures into things like silk scarves and yoga mats and shower curtains.
But the weirdest part was the feeling I got when people read my angel book, or had a reading or bought a scarf, and told me how they felt about it, how it helped them.
I felt real, genuine gratitude coming from these people, and I felt real, genuine gratitude for them, for having had the experience of giving them something that made them happy.
It took me until I was nearly 40, but I began to grasp the concept of success. I had always thought success was being on the cover of Vogue, or winning an Oscar - stuff that proved that people liked you in a big and obvious way. But this feeling of sharing yourself with someone in a positive way was like nothing I had imagined. It was visceral, and it was cumulative. I had been published in Vogue. And I had been on television and in magazines myself and I had even starred in a pop video with Johnny Depp. But all of those things were like sugar - the excitement lasted about five minutes and then there was emptiness and a craving for more. The angel work gave me a warm, fuzzy feeling that never goes away. Even now as I am writing this, all I have to do is think about the angels and I feel warm and happy.
I absolutely hate being told what I can and cannot do. I feel like there is a part of me that has been dragged screaming into just staying in one place and not jumping on a plane, but as a result of the Covid restrictions, I am spending more time painting angels and talking to them. And it has been very relaxing and and uplifting. Life has got simpler.
The hippies moved to the countryside to connect with nature and get away from the distractions and the material things, so that they could discover their inner selves, and their creativity. They also wanted to live in small communities where people had time for each other and talked to each other. One positive thing that I have noticed about the restrictions is that people are being a lot more friendly and patient, and perhaps more caring about each other. Maybe the hippies were on to something.
Oh, and it has been kind of nice that you can hear the birds.
Sunday Indo Life Magazine