Fergus Harlow - Duffus 2002
There is a problem with Gordonstoun.
It gets under your skin.
It gets under your skin and it works it's way right to the marrow of what it means to be a citizen in today's world. It does this and it settles there, right in the core, in the heart, of your sense of responsibility and purpose, nestled away as a little voice that that is insistent in it's simple message: “For the love of God, do something meaningful!”.
Those years spent running around with fire houses, shedding pounds in heavy firefighter suits, letting the meaning of service slowly sink in and kindle those first glimpses of something 'more in me'; standing in front of a sold out auditorium during the Edinburgh Fringe festival, dashing all over the city to perform three different productions a day, wild eyed in the exuberance that comes from moving beyond ones expectations and comfort; bracing a wild sea in the dead of night, waves pounding against faces gritted but alight with that same joy as we make out St Kilda on the horizon; these things set a high standard.
Please don't misunderstand – this article isn't a marketing strategy, it's not an attempt to paint an aggrandising portrait of this venerable institution. Far from it! This article is a confession.
You see, if it was peace of mind, security and an easy ride where what I wanted, perhaps I should have thought twice about attending a school whose motto is “Plus Est En Vous”. The confession I make is that, after years with such an education, going through the motions just doesn't cut it anymore. I need to believe in what I do. I need to make a difference. And this has caused no end of trouble.
Even attending one of the country’s best social science departments, at The University of York, I was still hungry for a more rounded education. For more experience. To propel myself, by any means necessary, into the thick of some significant, meaningful and, most importantly, timely project, to find myself in medias res charting some unknown narrative in the unfolding story of our global community.
I sought out teachers and groups that would satisfy my need to engage with the cultivation of world citizenship, of democracy and the continuing evolution of our shared humanitarian concern. I began to develop networks, to take course outside of uni that explored dharma, politics, culture and religion on a global scale, to write for small blogs, to seek out charities that I could volunteer with. Soon I was talking with Hip Hop artists in New York, independent film producers in San Francisco, Doctors of psychology, journalists, and even Jabba the Hut's left arm (long story). Uni work suffered and I spent years on a starvation diet of pasta and cheese when finances dwindled as my reluctance to surrender my time on the concept of World Dharma put the kibosh on bar work or stacking shelves in Tesco's.
Gordonstoun will do that too. It will have you thinking outside of the box, and while it can't prepare you for the real world – who can? - it can enable you to prepare yourself, and to hit the ground running.
Since then I've worked on a project that cared for 14 residents with severe learning difficulties, spent Christmases in homeless shelters, and the last three years working for the Rokpa Trust at their Holy Isle project, conserving one of Britain's official sacred sites and helping to fund their charitable work all over the globe. By far the greatest highlight of this last decade, born of this slightly reckless misadventure, has been taking up a mentorship with the author, journalist and activist Alan Clements.
Over the last eight years Alan has been providing me with coaching in writing, guidance in matters of personal development, and encouragement to continue my mad quest for a little dignity in a sometimes hostile world. While currently working on my first book, which will broadly concern the politics of religion, we are also running a fund-raising project for which I am the campaign ambassador in Europe.
Alan's story is a remarkable one. Suffering a serious car accident in his late teens, Alan's face had to be entirely reconstructed. Looking into the mirror each morning and seeing a stranger ignited a compelling need to explore the nature of identity and self. Witnessing the self-immolation of Thích Quảng Đức on the news in 1963, Alan was gripped by a realisation that this this degree of self-sacrifice had been born of a training in meditation and compassion that could potentially answer his questions. A few years later he was ordained as one of the first American monks in Burma.
During his time there, civil war broke out and Alan found himself one of a number of monks forced by grim necessity into the theatre of war. It wasn't long, however, before he was forced by the Junta to leave the country and banned from ever returning. Unperturbed, Alan broke back into the country on several occasions in order to document, at great personal risk, the human rights abuses happening there.
A testament to his courageous spirit and his commitment to helping where help is needed, Alan managed to clandestinely write a book with the imprisoned Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi while she was under house arrest in 1995. The book, The Voice of Hope, won critical acclaim from the New York Times, Newsweek International and many other publications, as well as receiving testimonials from former President Jimmy Carter and the author of 'The Color Purple', Alice Walker.
It remains one of the seminal works on Burma's “non-violent revolution of the spirit”, on it's transition to democracy, and on the nature of freedom itself.
As Alan recently said,
Many of the revolutionaries in Burma embraced a form of freedom that included the freedom of their oppressors as equal to their own.
In today’s world that is not only rare, it’s unthinkable. Moreover, it offers us an opportunity to gain insight into the mind-set of active non-aggression as a way leading towards the end of violence. The documentation of that inner shift is the very heart of this Project.
It’s the reason we wish to speak with these activists. How did you turn your daily struggles into liberating states of consciousness?
After 16 years of being blacklisted, Alan's name has been removed from the banned list by the President of Burma. We immediately began working on a project to return to Burma and interview 25 former political prisoners, activists, political leaders, monks, nuns, film-makers, writers and students about their revolution of the heart.
We have reached the remaining two weeks of our campaign and, despite being honoured with match funding as well as a place on the Indiegogo.com homepage, are still $4,100 away from our target.
This is my final confession: I'm writing this today in the hope that sharing the campaign link on the Gordonstoun Association website will enable this message of freedom, hope and democracy to reach those that will be moved to support it.
I am glad that such a request has afforded me a moment to thank Gordonstoun for teaching me to find a way to work with what's important to me; in the service of the community, for the good of our shared future, outside of the box and inside the gilded throne room of social responsibility.
My deepest gratitude to you for your time in reading this,