The #autistic buddha: my uncoventional path to enlightenment

The Autistic Buddha Cover

During my years, I had been stuck in a cycle of isolation and of desire. I’d wanted things I couldn’t have. I was invariably failing to search for things I couldn’t attain. But now, I had a means to break free from this habit. The key to liberation was within me and the first step was to accept who I was.

By Tom Clements aka The Autistic Buddha

According to Buddhism, enlightenment is not so much a destination but a life’s work. It is process of constant self-scrutiny, of looking deep within at one’s thoughts, of eliminating the mental toxins of anger, greed and jealousy, of seeing the ephemeral nature of all phenomena and of cultivating compassion for all sentient beings. Unlike our Western Abrahamic traditions which focus on right belief and ritual, the dharmic spiritual path emphasizes above all right action, the kind which has the potential to transform your mind to ultimately transform the world around you.

At the age of 26, after years of floundering in the squalid depths of a debilitating depression and trapped in an endless cycle of isolation, envy and desire, I decided to seek inner-freedom and happiness by treading the Buddhist spiritual path. After reading a book entitled ‘Happiness’ by the French Buddhist and neuroscientist Matthieu Ricard, I was able to extricate myself from an insidious web of destructive emotions that were threatening to tear apart the very fabric of my being. The sincerity with which Matthieu wrote the book touched me deeply and the simplicity with which he articulated the otherwise esoteric teachings of the Tibetan sages was truly remarkable, so much so that I vowed to follow the very path he outlined until I attained some sort of inner-peace myself.

Thankfully, following this path did not necessitate shaving my head, throwing on an orange robe or absconding to a remote hilltop in the Himalayas. Instead, I learnt to engage with the world rather than retreat from it and to transform myself for the better in the process. After just a few months, the Buddhist path began to facilitate in me a change of gears in me that would allow me to come to terms with my many foibles and to live nobly with a disability that had long prevented me from living a balanced and joyful life that had passed me by for most of my youth. Unlike certain other faith traditions, Buddhism has no doctrine and doesn’t seek to fit its practitioners into a mould. Rather, it gives them the courage to lead a compassionate life in a manner distinctive to their unique characters. Indeed, I have Asperger Syndrome and certainly have a personality many would consider unique.

My Asperger’s has long been something I consider to be both a blessing and a curse. I was gifted in languages and humanities at school, but would obsess over my assignments, agonizing over my choice of words and would spend far, far too long on one paper to the detriment of  another. I struggled with moderation and become far too fixated on one thing which, over time, became a problem that would blight much of my life. While I somehow made it to college, albeit through the backdoor, I remained, much as I had done at school, very much a loner and preferred my own company to that of my fellow freshmen.

That said, I still yearned for friendships but felt unable to initiate any for fear of gatherings and social events, which to me were potential minefields of anxiety-inducing scenarios that threatened to expose my awkward disposition, my tendency to be didactic, my lack of concentration during moments of idle chatter and my inability to cope with the sensory overload of being in a room full of people. The usual social venues like pubs and bars terrified me: the non-stop chatter, the thumping bass and blaring synths of the background music, the clinking of beer bottles, the sight of beads of sweat forming on people’s foreheads. It all seemed too much. Such an amount of information was sure to tip me over the edge and provoke the mother lode of panic attacks. Panic disorder became chronic and disabling in my early twenties, around the same time I descended into a severe depression.

After several unbelievably tough years of receiving psychiatric help, I eventually became disillusioned with Western methods of healing the wounded psyche. Drugs such as Citalopram did little for me other than take the edge off, while Cognitive Behavioral Therapy proved about as useful as a chocolate fireguard. Just as I had reached my lowest ebb, I looked to the East for a solution to my suffering and found Buddhism. Buddhism in a sense, is more psychology than religion. It doesn’t have a doctrine. It doesn’t have a creed. The concept of ‘dharma’ isn’t an inviolable law, so much as a method. It’s a discussion and a dialectic that encourages skepticism and probes the nature of things. It lends itself to a conquest of the mind more than our religions. Dharma isn’t ordained by superiors like vicars or priests and Buddhism itself has no formal clergy. The religion is essentially non-theistic; it doesn’t concern itself with the Abrahamic concept of a stern, capricious and omnipresent grandfather figure watching over his little creations. Previously I’d never have been able to throw in with a particular ideology or religion, but with Buddhism I found a way to preserve my individuality whilst finding freedom from being myself. Indeed, it was a way to retain the strengths my obsessive compulsive disorder and autistic traits conferred like excellent concentration on one particular subject and use it to cultivate positive mind-frames instead of the negative ones that were threatening to destroy me.

What I needed, in my train wreck of a life that had seen so many ups and downs, was something like ‘The Middle Way’, a path that gave me a practical way to cope with suffering and the personal dissatisfaction I have experienced through what I feel I have missed out on and messed up in my life. Becoming a monk definitely wasn’t the answer. Besides, I wasn’t going to renounce myself, my twice-daily espresso, my laptop and beloved YouTube. I wasn’t going to deny my Western roots or my Western conditioning either. A superficial attraction to the exotic patina of Eastern mystical tradition is something the estimable Dalai Lama himself warns his Western followers against. Asceticism didn’t make much sense and neither did mindless self-indulgence and pleasure-seeking on the other hand. Both are forms of suffering. A radical solution was not what I needed.

Balance is what I required most and the Buddhist path is one of perfect balance and moderation. It gives up the quest of taking the world by storm. It gives up finding an answer to life’s unsolvable questions and unraveling the mystery of our universe. There’s also no holier-than-thou attitude like in my native Christianity. Calling yourself a Buddhist is in and of itself vain and problematic. Rather than call myself ‘Buddhist’, I choose instead to put my belief in that simplest of things common to all human beings and central to the dharmic traditions: compassion. The sort of compassion not compelled by a need to please deities, but done purely out of love and without giving a thought to religious or social conventions.

The story of Sujata, the simple milk maid who offered the then bony and starving ascetic Siddhartha Gautama a bowl of rice which the soon-to-be Buddha graciously accepted, resonated with me. Sujata eventually nursed Siddhartha back to good health by feeding and nourishing him. This simple act of compassion by a maid who demanded nothing in return, either from him or from the Gods she was supposed to worship at the time, touched the young Siddhartha. This simple act led him to take a different path from the ascetics around him practicing a kind of mortification of the flesh. He realized that happiness in and of itself, resided in simple acts of kindness.

To me, such a simple philosophy for living made sense and I vowed to be kinder to those around me. Indeed, altruistic behavior is one of the best remedies to self-inflicted ills. It leads to a humbler, calmer self more able to connect with what is truly important. In my case, I had rarely been an altruist. Asperger’s had made me prone to routine bouts of self-absorption and it was about  time I changed this, or at least attempted to.

It all started with my grandmother, who lacked basic house-cleaning equipment, so it seemed logical to buy her a hand-hoover. That was my first act of altruism. Buying a hand-hoover that enabled my dear nana to vacuum up the dust on her stairs. I also cleaned her house from top-to-toe (it desperately needed it), made her the classic English staple ‘bubble and squeak’ most nights and bought her back custard tarts from the Portuguese café down our road every day. It was a relief from being myself, concentrating solely on looking after my grandmother and not exacerbating the negative thoughts inside of me. This altruistic component of our mental health, I came to realize, is something modern Western psychology fails to emphasize. Buddhism on the other hand, recognizes it as fundamental to optimal well being.

The naivety of the ego can be a especially pronounced in people like me with Asperger’s. Autism itself stems from the Greek ‘autos’ meaning ‘self’, and our sense of self is far greater than the average human being. That doesn’t mean we necessarily want to stand out but very often we do because of our inherent separateness. Because of our failure to at times show empathy (not that we necessarily don’t feel it), to be physically and emotionally intimate with others, we tend to stand out more in terms of our separateness.

Buddhism’s ethos is about trying not to desire and therefore not feeding this illusion of self. During my years, I had been stuck in a cycle of isolation and of desire. I’d wanted things I couldn’t have. I was invariably failing to search for things I couldn’t attain. But now, I had a means to break free from this habit. The key to liberation was within me and the first step was to accept who I was. Learning to accept my idiosyncrasies, the ones that lead me to suffer in the past, they no longer bothered me. It no longer mattered to me if others thought I was a bit odd. Ultimately thoughts are irrelevant and illusory in nature. They don’t define us. They aren’t us. Once thoughts fail to deceive you, you only begin to accept who you really are, leading you to an inner-freedom and a freedom to be able to stop thinking.

Autism is often a heavy burden. It’s a barrier to life, to being instinctive, free and spontaneous. It’s at the extreme end of the human predicament of being an isolated individual, of feeling like a separate self from others. People with Asperger’s have to go on a much more tortuous and far less accommodating road than most before they can discover their place, their own personal nirvana, and breathe that great sigh of relief they call ‘enlightenment’, but with much persistence, I believe I can achieve such a state. I feel in my bones that I am finally on the right path.

After I finish writing this blog post, I will spend an hour meditating on compassion for my dear brother, Jack who is non-verbal autistic and severely disabled. His angelic face is one of pure innocence, free from worry and neuroses that I’d been plagued by as a high-functioning Aspie. In many ways, I aspire to be more like him, more gentle and more childlike, through my practice of Buddhism.

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Tom Clements

Tom is a 27-year-old writer from the UK. He grew up on the outskirts of London and was diagnosed in his early twenties with Asperger Syndrome. His younger brother Jack has severe autism and has limited language. After two years teaching English in China, Tom now plans to work in education in his native Britain. He is seeking a publisher for his memoir The Autistic Buddha: An Unconventional Path to Enlightenment.

3 Comments

  • Fiona says:

    I’m so interested in what you have written! I have been on the Buddhist path for a while now but wonder how my autistic traits prevent me from accessing the depth to the teachings.
    I’d love to read your book.

    • Tom Clements says:

      Thank you; it has been an incredible journey for me these past few years reconciling myself to the world and cultivating positive emotions through Buddhist practice. The book will be available as soon as I can find a publisher willing to give it a go!

  • Toni says:

    Really enjoyed this! Much of it resonated for me. Thanks for sharing.

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