It’s years since I last saw Tony Parsons. He was about to board a flight to Amsterdam with his wife Claire. I hadn’t noticed him in the throngs of people. With a broad smile, he suddenly seemed to manifest directly in front of me from the back of a stranger exclaiming: ‘Hey, I know you!’
Indeed he did, years before, I was thinking of purchasing a publication called ‘The South West Connection’. It was a guide to alternative therapies published quarterly, not unlike ‘Cahoots’ a magazine created by a co-operative in Manchester, and to which I had been part of the editorial team.
Of course, this wasn’t entirely what he meant.
At the time I was without funds, but Tony had the necessary finances to make the purchase. Even though he had no experience in publishing he, and Claire, had settled on a deal with the owner and they invited me up a cottage they rented in the south of Wiltshire. We exchanged stories, and other information. I gave him some advice about publishing, although I’m unsure to what extent he took any of it. Soon we seemed firm friends.
As time passed, Tony and Claire moved to a smaller property in North Dorset. As someone pretty much rooted in a materialistic world-view I thought this a step backward, even though Tony and Claire had purchased the new cottage. The day they moved in their nearest neighbour brought them a bottle Premier Cru as a housewarming gift. Tony told me, with a twinkle in his eye: ‘He told me to open the bottle and let it breathe for a while before consuming it – as if we might be peasants and know nothing of wine’.
It was at that moment that I realized that, like his condescending neighbour, I really knew very little about Tony at all. He had apparently been a builder, but that could mean anything from a property developer to a plumber. Apparently he had done time in Poona in the orange fatigues of Bhagwan Shree Rajneesh, but that too wasn’t unusual for people showing up around me back then. I was practicing as a psychotherapist and many members of extant, or past, sects seemed to come through my door seeking ways out of, what seemed to me like, self-imposed misery.
Tony told me that the Bhagwan was a great guy, intelligent, but nothing more. Like so many of his words this sentence has come to have different meanings with the passage of time.
In the autumn, hay was harvested in the field beyond Tony and Claire’s garden wall. Tony seemed to relish in describing the round bales, which a machine had wrapped in black polythene, as ‘huge black condoms’. I loved the way he could be so irreverent about everything.
I continued to advertise my practice in ‘The South West Connection’, which after a while was expanded into another version for the south East of England and the Home Counties. This was the ‘The South East Connection’, and together both were referred to as simply ‘The Connections’.
Usually, I delivered my advertisement in person to Tony and Claire’s home. It was not simply an excuse to see them, Claire would sort out all the dyslexic mistakes in my copy.
After a while it became clear that Tony was absent more times when I called than previously. I asked Claire about this and she told me that he was ‘playing golf’. Tony played a lot of golf that year.
I missed him, but more than that I fretted because I felt he knew something that I had yet to learn and hoped that a book he was supposed to be working on would reveal it to me.
One day I called, because I was in the vicinity, and Tony and Claire were both at home. The ambiance was energetically relaxed, as it can be on the start of a journey when the suitcases are packed yet there are several minutes in hand before the boat departs. Cake and tea were available in abundance and Tony happily informed me that he had abandoned ‘the book’.
Life, for me, had not been going as I had expected. After some glorious years playing impecuniously I was now more than stony broke and in danger of going to the dogs. I discovered that I might earn some much-needed cash by working for a London agency as social-worker. The prospect didn’t appeal to me, because I had just spent several years attempting to leave the social work profession and in the process had forfeited some pension rights, and other security. To return to such work seemed like a step backward.
When I told Tony about this he responded enthusiastically ‘That’s all right’, disappeared upstairs and upon coming down presented me with a copy of his book ‘The Open Secret’.
It was a thin self-published edition, nevertheless I held it preciously, and indeed I could hardly wait to get away so that I could read it. When I did so it was neither what I expected, nor what I thought I needed, yet something within its covers, together with Tony’s optimistic words about working in London, provided me with reassurance.
London proved to be a great adventure. While I was working there Tony and Claire moved to Cornwall, and although they continued to produce The Connections I no longer saw them.
I spent half of the week in London and the remainder of my time in Dorset attending to my practice, recovered from my debts. After some relationships with extraordinary women I was discovered in a lecture theatre at The Institute of Psychiatry by the psychologist whom I was to marry.
One day, whilst my wife was visiting her parents abroad, I went to one of Tony’s presentations at The Friend’s Meeting House in Hampstead, which wasn’t far from where I was based.
He met me warmly at the door and kissed me gently upon the cheek. He did this with everyone back then. The room was packed. At the start of the meeting he announced, to my delight, ‘I am known as Tony Parsons and I am not enlightened’. The room filled with laughter, mine included.
Tony had come up from Cornwall. He insisted, however that he was ‘not a person’ and ‘Tony Parsons did not exist’. Everything within the room was a magnificent, ‘hypnotic dream’, he claimed.
When a woman challenged him about this, asserting: ‘Come now Tony, you came here today on a train’, he retorted, ‘Did I? I did not’.
There were mixed reactions to this, even though the room was silent. I understood something of what Tony claimed because since working in London I had spent considerable time travelling in trains. Frequently, whilst waiting in a carriage, an adjacent train would begin to move – yet in my perception, including my feelings, it would be my carriage that seemed to move. Suddenly the illusion would collapse, and it became obvious that I was sitting still and the movement seemingly external.
Later, when I began commuting between London and Istanbul, something similar occurred for me in the sky. Even in turbulence, it seemed as if I were sitting completely still as both land and clouds ambled slowly by.
At such moments it was impossible to limit myself to a specific identity, with a name, destination and personal history. This huge magnificent world simply surrendered itself within the infinite vastness without personality that absorbed any sense of a separate me.
So Tony had been right when he told me a few years before that going to work in London would be all right. My experience reminded me of the Zen parable about the farmer whose son was conscripted into the military.
This farmer had only one horse, and one day the horse ran away. The neighbours came to condole over his loss. The farmer said, “What makes you think it is so terrible?”
A month later, the horse came home–this time bringing with her two beautiful wild horses. The neighbours became excited at the farmer’s good fortune. Such lovely strong horses! The farmer said, “What makes you think this is good fortune?”
The farmer’s son was thrown from one of the wild horses and broke his leg. All the neighbours were very distressed. Such bad luck! The farmer said, “What makes you think it is bad?”
A war came, and every able-bodied man was conscripted and sent into battle. Only the farmer’s son, because he had a broken leg, remained. The neighbours congratulated the farmer. “What makes you think this is good?” said the farmer.
It is one thing, however, to read such a story, and quite another to live out of unbounded possibility. You cannot simply as an act of faith, indeed to do so, whilst living out of a relative perspective is foolhardy because, it seems to lead to unnecessary suffering.
This reminds me, somewhat, of the woman from a sect who went to a Neuro-linguistic Programming, (NLP) workshop. In an exercise she attempted to program lots of illness and other disasters into her life because she believed that if she could go through all this suffering in one lifetime, then she would not need to be reincarnated in the future.
Tony, of course,tolerates nothing of the relative in his meetings, (although I have only ever attended the one). His words are like an eraser that removes the dichotomies of, both written and spoken, language through which we are wont to filter Beingness.
Critics pillory him for this, claiming his message to be nihilistic. From my reading of Tony, however, what he claims isn’t that life is, or isn’t, without meaning, but rather that what ‘Is’ arises regardless of any values, or meanings we may choose to ascribe to our experience, as such. Sometimes he errs on the side of ‘meaninglessness’, no doubt because he is keen to discourage people from turning his words into a prescribed path to liberation.
My own contribution to that meeting, so many years ago, was to ask Tony: ‘If everything arises ‘As It Is’, then why do we need ‘Intensives’ to help us get there?’
‘Intensive’ was the word used to describe the residential events Tony had begun to offer in Wales. He replied that perhaps ‘Intensive’ was not a good description, and perhaps ‘Residential’ might be more appropriate.
Tony was on his way to a ‘Residential’ when I last met him. His presence, like his books, has spread across the globe. Frequently criticised, for proscribing meditation practices lasting years, as well as ritual purification, his message isn’t without precedent.
‘An athlete … sometimes awakens suddenly to an understanding of the fine points of the game and to a real enjoyment of it, just as the convert awakens to an appreciation of religion. If he keeps on engaging in the sport, there may come a day when all at once the game plays itself through him—when he loses himself in some great contest. In the same way, a musician may suddenly reach a point at which pleasure in the technique of the art entirely falls away, and in some moment of inspiration he becomes the instrument through which music flows. The writer has chanced to hear two different married persons, both of whose wedded lives had been beautiful from the beginning, relate that not until a year or more after marriage did they awake to the full blessedness of married life. So it is with the religious experience of these persons we are studying.’
E.D. Starbuck. An Empirical Study of the Growth of Religious Consciousness, 1911
My own experience shares something of Starbuck’s description. Prior to ‘simply being’ I experienced life, mostly, as ‘a person’. Intellectually I understood the parable to the Taoist farmer, the horse, and his son. Sometimes, I could make sense of the story of my life as a result of knowing about the farmer’s story.
I think of this today as psychological understanding.
One day, however, I was standing in the kitchen drying dishes when I became underwhelmed with a euphoric knowing that nothing could be different from how it is. The doer, acting upon the world, dropped away. I continued to dry the dishes, of course, and continue to answer to my name, recognize my wife and others when they appear before me, and act upon what needs to be done. I may appear to others to make choices about the colour of my new shoes, and when to replace my wallet – yet for me there is no doer choosing but simply preferences arising.
I cannot explain this change as being a result of meeting Tony Parsons, in isolation to arrays of many other experiences. To do so would be like him claiming that ‘The Open Secret’ had nothing to do with his throwing away the original book he was attempting to write and going to play golf for a year. These events, like my realization, simply occurred without any reason.
N.B. This is simply a story appearing before you. It claims neither substance, nor intent. Tony and Claire have not endorsed it. If it connects where you read it then well and good. If not, it can’t be helped!