Derek Greenbury in Japan, 2014

Derek Greenbury in Japan, 2014

My Life’s Adventure so far

I suppose for me a first awareness of life occurred with my first memory, from when I was about a year old. I was walking on a flat space at the top of some stairs, listening to voices in the distance below. The next moment the world started spinning and I found myself tumbling down towards shrieking voices that came closer and closer until suddenly I was being held by loving, friendly hands which were no doubt my mother’s. (I could say I was bump started to life!)

I was born into a dual religious-cultured family, mother being of Christian background and father Jewish. I remember from an early age visiting at weekends my mother’s expansive family, dotted around various parts of central England.

My parents lived in the village of West Knighton, Dorset, and in 1951 I was born there at home, at a time when the old-fashioned midwife came to people’s houses to deliver the new souls to the earth, and hospitals were reserved for emergencies and operations. I arrived on my sister’s fifth birthday; she always said I was the best birthday treat she ever had! Her disparaging grin however with each repetition portrays another story, and even now in our 60s we laugh about it. To me she will always remain the ‘old girl’ of the family!

As a family we moved when I was four to Haverhill in Suffolk due to my father’s promotion. He worked for the Admiralty inspecting various contracts placed by the government with local electronic companies making sure, I suppose, that everything was ‘ship shape’. Even when we moved he was always travelling to different regions in the area with his work and together with visiting family at weekends, driving was a lifestyle that continued into driving holidays abroad, as early as 1960. This seemed to filter down to me in some way as my life has been full of travel, driving or flying, and I have never been afraid to follow my dream or vision at any given time.

I remember growing up in quite a jovial household. My father had a great sense of humour although mother would not always see the joke but it was of course hilarious for us kids. My parents were generous in heart and spirit. My mother made welcome anyone I brought home without restrictions of how or how not to be, without any English dreaded class distinction, and treating all with kindness and affection. She was one of six children and her father died only a few months after she was born at the end of the First World War. I suppose owing to their hardships the family was very close; I certainly remember nothing but kindness from everyone, all following true Christian ethics. I can never remember anything religious being talked about or practised at home and even though my parents were of completely different backgrounds and religious upbringing, there was no dogma to our lives; spiritual ways alone seemed to be their guide. The only remotely religious input came from our wonderful granny, who regularly sang ‘Count Your Many Blessings’ on her occasional visits. Her performances, with her illumined radiant face and heartfelt enthusiasm, were a joy to behold, and are my lasting memories of her.

Around my early teens I remember asking my father one day about religion. His answer, on reflection, not only laid a foundation for openness to my religious thinking and way of being, but showed me how different he was from the generality of the people of his time. He said “You can choose whatever you like!” There was no pressure or expectation to follow anything, to think in any fashion, but I was to go with what I felt was right. He could have said many things with reference to his own life or what he thought but he didn’t, leaving the spiritual and religious path completely open to me. What freedom! I began making my spiritual journey some years later.

My father came from a poor Jewish Lancashire family and didn’t have life easy. He grew up in Salford where at the time, the usual local villains might confront you with the old-fashioned cut-throat razor, but he was definitely tough and a survivor. He adapted his interest in radios and electronics to become his profession in later life. Although quite fascinated with what he did, I had no feeling to follow in his footsteps, but I always have a memory of large radios and receivers being his constant companions in the kitchen area while I was growing up.

From an early age I enjoyed nature and from about nine was always out discovering the local woodlands and what they contained. Later, in my teens, I kept and bred canaries. Academically I was an average student but with a creative side, good with art/pottery but not knowing it could be used as a profession, so it was put aside for many years. I loved sport and took part in rugby, football, table-tennis, athletics and badminton, which forged strong links with social activities through team events, but which became less important later in life when I travelled widely. My first job was with a bank, then civil service, then post office, spread over a nine year period, all ‘secure’ environments leading on to more of an idealistic and entirely different way of life, another new beginning!

Moving in with my girlfriend when I was about twenty-one suddenly changed my life in many ways – more communal, hippy style with many friends coming and going, I learned transcendental meditation, which I took to naturally, and also became very interested in Buddhism. I didn’t really involve myself with the drug scene which attracted many of my friends. My girlfriend was quite intuitive and sensed I had a healing gift after curing her head pains by touch, but what do you do with something like that? Even when trying it out on others and seeing their relief, I never understood it but it was all incredibly exciting. Life was fun, full of new things, and continued in that vein for five years, although sadly both my parents died within that period.

Eventually I drifted off abroad with a wanderlust to satisfy, seeking much wider horizons. The next five or six years were another intense period of different learning, living and working, in France, Norway, Israel, Australia, India and Nepal, doing pretty much anything to travel, survive, and earn money. The biggest difficulty I ever had was trying to get used to saying goodbye to close friends met during my travels; these were the most bitter of experiences. Relationships are strong and intense when travelling like this; then people move on.

When in Norway during my late twenties and working in landscaping, I noticed an ambulance outside a friend’s house. After it had gone I went to see if I could be of any help. Apparently the household had some personal problems. A developing argument had become overheated and one of the family members had been taken to hospital. Two Bahá’ís, innocent bystanders, happened to be visiting and I stayed to help calm the situation. Little did I know that four years later I would marry one of the girls there!

This strange happenstance introduced me to the Bahá’í Faith. That evening the Bahá’í friends showed me some passages from the book Gleanings from the Writings of Bahá’u’lláh. I remarked that He was a good man, but my Buddhist ideas were not to be supplanted until my search for ‘The Truth’ navigated me to Nepal and a Tibetan monastery, where meditation, dreams and an eventual train ride to Oslo led me to find my mind enlightened.

However, before those experiences, and not long after my introduction in Norway to the Bahá’í faith, I was in Israel for a year experiencing kibbutz life, and visited the Shrine of the Báb where I knew intuitively something special awaited me. I reverently stepped into the Shrine and was quietly looking around the sparse room, remaining still within myself. I saw the prayer on the wall and began to read. There it was! Those two words that encapsulated the whole meaning of what the prayer was saying; ‘Be Thou’ said it all to me, an essence of understanding, and in a way those two words have never left me – they were the direction towards the ‘Greatest Being’.

Buddhists believe that we have many lives here on Earth and promote reincarnation, whereas Bahá’u’lláh states we have only one life on this planet. Many years ago I had experiences of these ‘previous lives’ in vivid visionary form, but I was curious about the Bahá’í standpoint. To me, ‘Truth cannot be in conflict with itself’, an obvious notion to a puritan’s thought processes and needing an answer, which I somehow had to find for myself.

To my way of thinking this meant a trip to North Asia, the home of Tibetan Buddhist teachings. Fortunately there were still many active Tibetan Monasteries dotted around that I hoped could assist me in my quest, and of course it was an exciting proposition to visit such colourful new lands. Some months later, without knowing where I was headed or where I was going to find answers, I found my way to ‘Kopan’, just outside Kathmandu, a tiny monastery with basic cell-like accommodation, where I stayed for three months.

Meditation and dreams began picking their way through acquired knowledge to eventually leave me with more of an uncluttered perspective of truth, and I began to pose mysterious questions such as “Can a spider catch a Phoenix in its web?” (quoted from Bahá’u’lláh’s Seven Valleys).

In one dream I was walking down a path in the mountains when a very tall man joined me on my way. I felt he was of importance, knowledgeable. I walked with him not speaking, just followed, and the path led towards a long old-fashioned barn, much longer than an average barn in Europe. It was dark, dry and old but right down the other end was a beam of golden light shining through the rafters on to the far end wall. We walked together towards its illumined centre and approached where the living beam hit the wall. My companion stood where the ray hit the surface. He turned towards me, the ray shone piercingly into his opening mouth and the golden light seemed to say “you have too many preconceived ideas”. The dream ended with me shouting ‘What!, which abruptly brought me to wakefulness. After recovering from this intellectual insult, shortly after, I connected with the fact that maybe I needed to be more open and allow new knowledge to filter through. Buddhist thinkers tend to have so many logical intellectual reasonings that ‘restrict’, without realising that through knowledge comes complacency, contentment, a wheel within a wheel, which I believe can happen to all believers of any religion who follow traditions and dogma, or even people who just believe in their own individual concepts of life.

I then wandered around India for a further three months, taking in Hindu culture and history, such marvellous experiences, but still the main answer was elusive, although I knew my Buddhist understandings were at the end of their usefulness. There was only one thing stopping me – the matter of reincarnation.

When I returned to the UK I weighed less than nine stones (126 pounds), rather thin and emaciated looking after a dose of amoebic dysentery. At the airport I was frisked by police thinking I was smuggling drugs. To confirm I didn’t still have any remaining illness, I ended up having tests at the London Hospital for Tropical Diseases, as it was known then, but the tablets I had taken in India seemed to have driven out the disease, although there were signs in the blood that it had been there. Being at the hospital was an eye-opening experience among such interesting people, all travellers one way or another like myself, most suffering from malaria, some river blindness, others, former prisoners of war, an ordeal that had left them suffering from worms infesting the gut.

After a while I ended up in Norway, staying with friends around Haugesund and Stavanger, then left for Oslo on the night train, unaware that my early morning meditation would not only produce the main abstract answer I was searching for but anything and everything I could actually think of; my mind was so clear, the answer-process evanescent. My spirit spoke so clearly that the answer left no room for doubt or vacillation. I remember it as being one of the most remarkable inner conversations of my life, the profoundness of the meditative faculty was made so abundantly clear. The world within revealed its answer. On 1st January 1985 at the Oslo winter school several months later, I declared my belief in the Bahá’í revelation.

From then on, my religious journey began in earnest, together with an inspired meditation technique that I still teach after thirty years, specifically to have that conversation with the higher self. I became a member of the newly-formed Local Spiritual Assembly in Sandnes, which comprised five nationalities, and was thrown in at the deep end, being voted chairman. If I remember correctly, I was there for six years. One year the assembly consisted of nine nationalities from four continents; the LSA’s meetings were ‘electric’ to say the least. As well as marrying, I began to turn to creativity, found a small studio, and my art seemed to evolve towards stained glass. Our son Jake (Sverre) was born in January 1988 but owing to my wife’s mental health condition, I became a single parent when he was four so another new chapter began.

My art then became marginalised for a while when my son and I linked up with an elderly pioneer to Norway, Berdyne, from Clear Lake, South Dakota, who pioneered when she was eighty-six and was struggling on her own. The new situation certainly wasn’t a burden. Berdyne and I got on really well and became good friends and companions, for eleven years in all. I accompanied her on her last pilgrimage when she was ninety; later, in November 1992, I went to the World Congress in New York.

While we were on pilgrimage Berdyne told me of an experience she had had on her first pilgrimage which took place about two years after the Guardian’s passing. At that time there were only about a dozen pilgrims and Rúhíyyih Khánum, the Guardian’s wife, was their guide. Berdyne was quite a new Bahá’í, although she had known about the Faith for a long time. However, as she said herself, her respectful attitude was ‘wanting’ and she was taught a sharp lesson in a very strange way. Not long after her arrival, a trip to the Shrine of the Báb on Mount Carmel was scheduled and expectantly the newly-arrived pilgrims were ushered to the Shrine. Before entering the Shrines of the Báb and ‘Abdu’l-Bahá everyone was informed about the respectful attitude required when entering or leaving the Shrines, which included the custom of walking out backwards after prayers had been said. Everyone left reverently but Berdyne didn’t like the idea of having to walk out backwards, feeling it was unnecessary and a bit beneath her dignity. She wondered why she should have to do such a thing! Consequently she decided to walk out in the normal way, facing the exit. As soon as she turned around ready to walk out, a force from nowhere picked her up and spun her around so that she was facing the front of the Shrine with her back to the door! Shocked with amazement she was speechless and overwhelmed by the experience and she left the Shrine white as a sheet with everyone wondering if she had seen a ghost or had had some sort of extraordinarily profound experience! I’m not sure of her reply to those around her but the lesson was well learned and exiting backwards was certainly something she always remembered to do on later visits.

When Berdyne was admitted into a nursing home, I moved to Notoddon and joined the Bahá’í community there in 1996, renting a small studio and continuing with a mind focused on art. After a year however, I felt the need to move on to learn about techniques such as firing glass, which needed expensive equipment and specialist knowledge that I didn’t possess, so I decided to return to the UK with Jake.

After researching universities I found one of only two in the UK that still taught hands-on stained glass art with design, so my choice was either Swansea or Edinburgh. Eventually, South Wales appeared to be the better choice and I began a degree course at Swansea University in 1997, remaining in the Swansea area for most of the time since and serving on the Spiritual Assembly for many years.

As soon as we arrived in Swansea, Jake quickly felt at home in his new environment surrounded by the warm-hearted Bahá’í community. One of the members, Joan Phillips, wholeheartedly took over the role of being granny. This not only helped Jake feel part of a family unit but she assisted me in having more freedom to forge ahead with my university education, by baby-sitting and such, so in many ways everything fell into place quite naturally. From age nine to his mid teens, Jake thrived within his adopted community and was full of life with many friends. But he found teenage life a struggle, as with so many others of his age, and eventually decided to seek out his own lifestyle on his own. I could see his friends were an important addition to his learning process and he embraced life in all its wonder. He kept in touch and I was always there when he needed me. Towards Jake’s nineteenth birthday I could sense a strong need that prayer was necessary for his well-being as the road he was choosing wasn’t the most healthy. The direction of my prayer was for Jake not to waste his precious life in this world and I asked for Bahá’u’lláh’s aid and assistance.

As money was short I began working in the care industry, which lasted for ten years in all, and the creative side of my life was mostly put into teaching meditation, with some stained glass work when commissioned. During the time I was working, there was a knock on the door and the worst nightmare for any parent presented itself with the police informing me of my son’s tragic death at eighteen years old. The world carried on as usual, but mine didn’t. Suddenly my love had no outlet in which to express itself, and although close family members had left this world earlier, a child’s place in one’s heart has a deeper resonance and the loss is much greater. There is no solace except what the Faith imbues and only those that have lost in the same way can empathise in an eye-contact silence that says I ‘know’ how you feel.

I hadn’t realised that such a dreadful day in life could ever exist until I went with the police to the morgue to officially identify a body. They left me with the comforting words “Being Christmas this is quite a common occurrence for this time of year. We’ve had to inform six families this week already of their losses”! No doubt in their thinking, statistics would of course help and I wasn’t the only one to suffer such trauma. As they left me alone, I thanked them whilst they waited outside the room where he lay, without life; and standing, I watched with muffled, tearful words in never-ending flow. Eventually I stretched out my hand to his forehead, above closed eyes that asked for nothing. My loss touched his emptiness and reality welcomed me to death’s terms and conditions.

I pondered. My prayer brought me thus! Usually I could bring relief with a touch but on this occasion I carefully withdrew to accept the Will of God. At this moment I dared not even think of any kind of intercession. Only days, only weeks ago, I had prayed for God to take care of my son so I felt my prayer had to be accepted in its entirety, its lifeless finality. I didn’t realise the power of Faith, all I knew was that I must accept without complaint or blame. Sorrow, however, needed its release and it took me a while to catch hold of life again. While on pilgrimage nine years later, an event (which is related to a paragraph a bit further on) added to my understanding of the expression of loss, and left my senses quite dumbfounded. Quite some time elapsed before I came to comprehend its meaning.

I took a while to catch hold of life again but I decided to put all my efforts into a project I was again ‘inspired’ to begin, involving an old house I recently bought in Bulgaria. I decided it would be in Jake’s name, a place where meditation and spiritual learning could be practised under the banner of a Philanthropic Spiritual Enterprise. As funds were limited and my work poorly paid, I had to put in an average of eighty hours a week while working in Wales in order to meet UK living costs and the continuation of my project in Bulgaria. I did some of the work myself when visiting Hotnitsa during the summer holiday period in Bulgaria and I also hired others when needed. I accomplished my goals on reaching the age of sixty-two, covering a period of six years.

After listening to a talk on China four years ago in Porthcawl, I was inspired to take a short break to ‘up and go’! Although I couldn’t pioneer owing to commitments, I decided to go for six weeks and fortunately managed to rent a flat in Chengdu in September 2011 from one of the Cardiff friends who was visiting elsewhere. Although with no plan in mind, after two weeks of literally walking the streets I was inspired after repeating the Tablet of Ahmad to place an advertisement in the local English magazine to teach meditation. The very next day, China seemed to come to me, including the granddaughter of a famous artist. Sixteen students attended over the remaining four weeks and most of them returned many times to visit socially as well as to study; it was an amazing experience. Meditation leads very naturally to spiritual conversations about the Faith, and the students became aware of the Bahá’í principles.

After eight years of hard work towards my project, the first course was held in Bulgaria on the Seven Valleys in 2014, assisted by meditation. The experiences gained by all, Bahá’ís and others, were profound and unifying, bringing about a special bond that we still share. Since then I have experimented travelling through the Seven Valleys, utilising meditation via Skype, again with both Bahá’ís and non-Bahá’ís, finding it equally rewarding for all participants on this wondrous journey to the higher realms within – an adventure in itself, without even leaving home.

Nearly a year before this course took place I had visited Bulgaria and invited Ellie, who has since become my wife, to come out with me for six weeks as she had expressed an interest in seeing and assisting with the project. Although we were only work colleagues and we didn’t know each other very well, a voice within her said she should go, so with a fully loaded van we started off on an uncomfortable four day journey (which I was accustomed to) towards Bulgaria. Ellie suffered stoically, with someone she didn’t really know, and without, I might add, too much grumbling!

She was introduced to the place and soon after our arrival we not only started doing some practical work but embarked on quite an intensive study with visual meditation to search for answers to an unresolved ‘jigsaw puzzle’ within Ellie’s life. Although she didn’t have so much positive feeling towards any mainstream religion, generally seeing it as an unnecessary lead-in towards God, she didn’t reject the prayers or spiritual writings of any Prophet and easily felt spiritually moved by any profound text that she read.

We split each day between work, meditation sessions, writing, and with reflection periods of Bahá’u’lláh’s words, and a bond started to grow between us. A friend of mine to whom I had taught meditation, lived two minutes walk away. He had beliefs similar to Ellie’s so I invited him to our sessions too, as larger group dynamics have a much stronger effect on learning. He was a staunch atheist, disliking even the mention of the word God! However, I managed to persuade him to volunteer to go with us through the Seven Valleys as a practice for my next year’s courses that I wanted to begin. I knew full well that this would be challenging for all of us but to give the group their due, as they ploughed through to the end of the seventh valley, their attitudes changed and some of their experiences were quite profound. Ellie researched the Bahá’í faith some more and appeared to come to the decision that she would like to become a Bahá’í. She declared her faith later in the year back in Swansea and not long afterwards we went on a three day pilgrimage, resulting in our marriage a month later in Wales.

Our pilgrimage

Of course, when reading the history of the Faith, I knew Baha’u’llah’s loss of a son through tragedy, and so I felt I shared this human loss with my own son, Jake. I thought deeply about this when we visited Haifa and decided to say a few prayers in respect of Jake beside Mirza Midhí’s resting place, asking for his assistance to aid Jake’s progress in the next world.

The day following our arrival in Haifa, Ellie and I visited the Shrines of both the Báb and ‘Abdul-Bahá and later, after walking through the beautiful gardens on Mount Carmel, we duly stood beside the graveside of Mirza Midhí on Mount Carmel. I said the prayers given to us at the pilgrims’ meeting area and they flowed from me quite easily in both speech and feeling. I stood there for a while with Ellie beside me, quiet within myself, and I saw in my mind’s eye a figure taking Jake by the hand from beside me and felt it was Bahá’u’lláh’s son Mirza Mihdí leading Jake away. At that moment I felt instantly and quietly pleased BUT the next instant a hand touched my shoulder to bring a sound out of my mouth I had never heard or could ever even have contemplated! His touch brought forth something deep within nature that ‘loss’ can only describe in sound which words and the mind cannot comprehend. Ellie withdrew from my side as she knew this was for me only; she felt impelled to leave. The sound emerged as a match ‘striking the rough’ – burning its fluorescent end – to settle in fire when meeting its wooden, willing companion! It was overwhelming! My mind fought to understand these nerves which pulsated instantly in motion throughout my being, which then continued up through my mouth. It was horror-filled in expression, new, unresisted by its recipient – but knowingly, essential!

Eventually I departed the area as other individuals wished to pray and take my space. I left bewildered, with Ellie on my arm together with her loving nature to aid in some way the owner of such an experience. I walked, and just sat in the gardens, perplexed, staring across the bay towards anywhere until I was reminded that perhaps we should leave.

A while later I understood something of this personal experience, from a quote from the Seven Valleys, in the Valley of Love:

For the infidel, error – for the faithful, faith;

For Attar’s heart, an atom of Thy pain.

It seems that a final letting go from this world had to be expressed – without borders where feelings for my child was concerned and the final pitch of sounds cut the tie of earthly love, to allow the steed of this Valley (pain) its on-rushing call to freedom.

_________________

Derek Greenbury

Swansea, August 2015

Derek and Ellie at Bahjí

Derek and Ellie at Bahjí

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