my Time in Australia
[00:45] Early Contact with Australians
Jai Guru Deva.
From my earliest years as an American boy traveling around the world with my father who was an Officer in the United States Air Force, I would always perk up my ears whenever I heard an Australian accent. And there were a lot of Australians associated with the US Air Force because the Royal Australian Air Force had many connections with the United States Air Force, particularly during the time of the Southeast Asian conflicts, they were allies in that conflict.
The United States Air Force shared a tremendous amount of intelligence with, and camaraderie with the Royal Australian Air Force, the RAAF. And one of the consequences of that was that when my father held combat flight training programs, a combat training program known as Top Gun, my father was the founder of the United States Air Force school which became known as Top Gun.
Australians came and partook in exercises and flight training with the American pilots and at the end of the day, Australians would come home to have a drink or to have dinner with the Commander of the Top Gun school, who was my father. And I would hear tales about Australia and Australians had a very particular way they had a very particular sense of humor. Not that they were all stereotyped, they were certainly real characters and of a type that was very memorable to a young, impressionable mind.
[02:51] The Art and Sport of Surfing
When the time came for me to enter my adult years and decide on a place where I would go and grow, I had traveled all over the world; mostly Europe, Asia, Southeast Asia and United States, but hadn’t yet been to Australia, and I had to choose a place where at least English was spoken. Australians do speak a form of English, with a very strong accent and a lot of slang.
I made a choice to emigrate to the wide brown land, as Australians sometimes referred to their country. Australia had an additional attraction, as a young man when my father was stationed in Hawaii, I took up the art and sport of surfing. And surfing had a great, great appeal to me, as it does to anyone who regularly participates in that magnificent sport of kings.
Australia had already become known as one of the meccas of the surfing world, and some of the world champions were Australians. Plus Australia has 14,000 miles of coastline and large bustling cities that sit right on these surf-laden coastlines.
I was always attracted to Sydney because, from a surfing perspective, Sydney has about 70 beaches, each of which receives a particular kind of wave from different directions, different beaches facing in every direction except west. Sydney can catch the swell in almost any direction. And so when it came time for me to choose a place where I could go teach my art, yoga and meditation, I was also a yoga teacher in those days, I decided on Sydney.
[05:13] One-Way Airfare
And in the time when I first moved there, 1969, ’70, Australia was a place that was looking for people. I believe, if I have the numbers correct, the entire population of Australia coast to coast, at the time that I moved there in ’69, ’70 was about 9 million people. And Australia had a program, typical of Australian English, the government used the word scheme. When the Australian government has particular kinds of programs, they refer to it as a scheme.
And this was the Assisted Passage Scheme. The idea being, that you could cast the net out to the whole world and say, “We need people, whoever would like to come, we’ll give you a lifetime permanent residence visa. We’ll give you airfare,” that was specific to Americans.
If you were European, you got a boat fare, a boat ride from, usually from London. Americans got a one-way airfare. The only catch being that you had to hand in your passport when you arrived and your passport was bonded, held in bondage for two years.
If at the end of two years, you decided you didn’t like Australia then you were free to take your passport and leave. If within that two years you decided you wanted to leave the country for any reason, you had to post a bond to get your passport back, a certain amount of money, which represented pretty much what the Australian government had spent on bringing you there.
[07:08] 10 Jobs for Every One Person
You could have your passport and if you returned within the two-year period, then the bond would be returned to you. But after two years, you were free to decide. The idea was that Australia would have such an attraction and an appeal for you, that anyone who lived there for at least a couple of years and gave it a go, would have a really good reason to want to stay, for multiple reasons.
I found Australia a very interesting place when I first went there. Very much in contrast with how it has evolved today. Australia was really a land of, it was still figuring itself out, still figuring out what its culture actually was. There were tens of thousands of Europeans, notably Greeks, and Italians, but also a lot of British, who came into Australia on the Assisted Passage Scheme.
And I believe by about 1971, the population of Australia, mostly from immigration, had increased to about 12 million, and so it looked as though the program was working.
The Australia into which I arrived was a country with 100% employment, and there were 10 jobs for every one person seeking a job. And one of the consequences of that was that Australians would take a job if they didn’t like it, they would just chuck it in and go on to the next job that was waiting for them. They didn’t like that they would chuck it in and go on to the next job, because there were so many jobs to be had.
[08:56] An Immigrant in Australia
When I arrived in Australia as an immigrant, I had it offered to me by the government, and I was a teenager, I was in my late teens, that I could go and work on State Rail. State Rail was the railway system of the state of New South Wales, the state in which Sydney finds itself on the coast of New South Wales.
You could go out to the outback and you rode in a train with a whole bunch of other laborers and the job paid an enormous amount of money, a hundred dollars a day. In those days you could buy a cappuccino for about 5 cents. That gives you some context for earning a hundred dollars a day.
Your tax was already paid, so that hundred dollars included your taxation and it was simply given to you in a little yellow envelope with some tax stamps on it, showing your tax had been paid and there was inside there, five crisp $20 banknotes as your pay, that was given to you each day because of job turnover being such a big thing, people would get paid sometimes at the end of a day and walk off the job.
Some of us decided to stay. I decided to go out and work on the rails for a period of time until I could find my footing. I needed to have a little bit of capital to work with, prior to setting up my meditation teaching operation there in Australia. And it was when I went out to the outback of New South Wales, out beyond a town called Broken Hill.
[10:47] “What Do You Do for a Crust Mate?”
The job was that what Americans call ties, Australians and British called sleepers. These are the chunks of wood onto which tracks are bolted for the train tracks. And these chunks of wood had been eaten up by termites, which Australians call white ants, they’d been white anted.
And so we had to build an alternate rail to go around the work we were doing and dig up these old white-anted sleepers and the rails that went with them, and then those would burn overnight, out in the middle of the desert in the middle of winter.
It was very cold out there at night, hot by day, but very cold by night. And many a tale was told under the burning fire of the white-anted sleepers, as we built a new rail mile by mile. Back in those days, Australia was still using imperial measurements. It didn’t change to the metric system until about 1976 or so.
And I found myself a very unusual character. There were not very many Americans who took up the Australian government on its Assisted Passage Scheme.
And there certainly were not very many Americans or people of any kind who, when asked, “And what do you do for a crust mate?”
A crust meant, you know, “What do you do for a living?” A crust means like a crust of bread, right? So “what do you do for a crust” means how do you buy your bread? What do you do for a living?
[12:30] Rhyming Slang of Outback Australians
And my answer was, “Well, I, I teach meditation,” to which many an Aussie would say, “Oh, that’s different.” Different was a way of saying, a more polite way of saying, very weird and I haven’t heard of that before.
I came across Australian slang in my first few weeks working on the rails in New South Wales, out in the outback. One night while the fire was burning, a guy named Michael, Mick, looked over at me and he said “Stone the flamin crows mate. The dog just scoffed a bar of bobby.”
And I didn’t know what stone the flamin crows meant, and I didn’t know what scoffing a bar of bobby meant, but he pointed out that there was a dog chewing on a bar of soap.
The old Bob Hope. Bob Hope, soap, rhyming slang. And a bar of bobby, bobby is short for Bob Hope, which rhymes with soap. And I found my way through the rhyming slang language of the outback Australians with whom I was working, I began to realize there was a real charm in living and working with Australian people.
My very first exposure to Australians besides the fighter pilots who came home with my father on certain occasions when I was very young, was outback Australians. And it didn’t take me long to develop quite a credible Australian accent.
The last thing you wanted to be was a yank. Yank rhymes with septic tank and septic is abbreviated as seppo. And so to be a seppo is to be a septic tank, yank. And you didn’t want to be a seppo.
[14:30] Yoga and Meditation Studio in Sylvania
Although I was not shy about being an American, I learned very quickly how to blend in. And after several weeks of working in the outback, I came back to Sydney and set up my yoga and meditation studio nearby a little bridge that went over the Port Hacking River in a township called Sylvania close to the surfing town of Cronulla, and had my operation there.
I also knew how to do retail of surfboards and clothing, and so I taught meditation and yoga by night, and sold surfboards and board shorts and surfboard wax and other kinds of things by day. And this was how I started to gain my footing in Australian society.
This all dates back to about 1970, as I said, and thus began my first 30 years of being domiciled in Australia. My relationship with Maharishi was primary to me, and even though I married and raised beautiful children in Australia, many children, nonetheless, I maintained my contact with Maharishi, largely by flying to wherever he was at a given time.
[16:09] Maharishi Domicile in Switzerland
During most of the 1970s, Maharishi was domiciled in Switzerland. He had lived in India for quite a number of years, and based himself there. While traveling around the world on his world tours, he would always come home to India. And then, starting around 1970, ’71, he changed his plan because one of the problems with India was that it was a long way away from his European devotees and his American devotees.
But also in those times when Americans and other Europeans went to India, they’d spend a little bit of time getting used to the local bacteria, and there was some downtime from that. And Maharshi thought, well, rather than having downtime, why not, Instead of, you know, if the mountain won’t come to Mohammed, then Mohammed can go to the mountain.
He decided to move himself, the main attraction involved in his worldwide teaching of his meditation technique, to Europe and to commence teacher training programs there. And there wasn’t a year that went by while I was domiciled in Sydney, Australia, where I didn’t go to wherever Maharishi was, either for several months or entire years or beyond a year, on some occasions, 18 months and more, I would spend wherever he was.
In the 1970s that was Switzerland, so my travel between Sydney and Switzerland was regular. In the 1980s, he returned back to India and began building an enormous ashram just to the north of Delhi.
[18:08] Relatively Close to India
India is relatively close to Australia. Australians tend to think of distances a little differently to most people in the world. To an Australian, it means almost nothing to hop in your car and to drive 500 miles all the way south to Melbourne, spend the weekend in Melbourne, and drive all the way back again to Sydney, it doesn’t mean that much to the average Australian.
Australians are used to airtime, air flight times, in excess of 12 hours, and back in the days when airplanes had to land more frequently for refueling, you could have 20-hour flights quite frequently. It was a 20-hour flight from Los Angeles via Honolulu to Sydney.
There were 20 hours of airtime and the idea of traveling from Sydney to Switzerland was daunting. You usually had to stop somewhere in Hong Kong or in Bahrain or somewhere to come down for fuel and oftentimes spend the night.
But when it was India, it was just one hop because Australia’s west coast is graced by the Indian Ocean. On the other side of the Indian Ocean from Australia is India itself. So it was a very relatively short trip from Australia to India.
[19:39] A Tremendous Amount of Hospitality
Australia presented me with a tremendous amount of hospitality. When I first went to Australia, if you were an American, you had to prove yourself to be a bad person before anybody would believe it.
Being an American was considered to be an advantage, even though they teased you with names like “Yyank” or “Septic Tank” and all of that. Nonetheless, Americans were very much appreciated by Australians. Australia in those times, in the 1970s, was still trying to find its own very distinct identity.
Not quite British, but a lot of British baselines. After all, a Commonwealth country, of which the Queen of the United Kingdom was the head of state. And her face, just in case you needed some verification of that, her face was on every coin and on the $1 note, and when the Queen would come to Australia, it would be a very, very big deal. Everything would stop.
People would come out in the thousands. Even the people who were anti-monarchists nonetheless came out to see the Queen. Very interesting phenomenon.
Australia was not British, very distinctly not, but also not American, but nonetheless, somewhat inspired by America. You know, taking a few notes from America, coming from a British Commonwealth baseline, Australia was in the process of forging a new identity for itself on the world scene.
[21:24] 10,000 Students
Australia was a very open place. I found it very easy to introduce meditation there. Over a period of some 30 years of being resident in Sydney, I taught somewhere in the region of 10,000 people to meditate. And also many, many of the meditators came on teacher training and were trained by Maharishi to teach.
By the time I left Australia in 1999-2000, around that time, I believe there were about 130 teachers of Maharishi’s technique of meditation on that continent. During my time there I found it very easy to get through the doors of the corporate sector. To teach meditation in companies was not considered to be an odd concept at all.
One only had to give a talk about the deleterious effects of stress and how stress was causing job turnover, was causing low job satisfaction, it was causing a reduction in productivity, it was causing coworker relations to deteriorate, and absenteeism.
Using concepts like that and showing how meditation with its capacity to remove stress, the doors of the corporate sector flew wide open. And I was invited into many large companies, large and small, to teach meditation from the executive level all the way down to the level of management and workers.
[23:29] Prisoners and Politicians
I also began my program of teaching in prisons in Australia. Again, it was a relatively easy thing to receive acknowledgment that a major component of the problems in law, justice and rehabilitation, as seen in the prison populations in Australia, was an accumulation of stress, not just in the inmates, but also in the prison officer population.
Starting programs for prison officers, teaching them meditation, it very quickly became apparent that inmates should also be learning, and quite a comprehensive program began of regularly teaching in prisons.
Through these processes, I started to become more and more familiar with politicians and with the high-level public servants, and I would say that by the end of the 1980s, I’d already met and taught meditation to at least two Premiers.
A Premier in Australia, for those who don’t live there, is the equivalent in the US as a Governor. The Governor of a state is known as a Premier in Australia. And also two Prime Ministers had become students of mine and many, many high-level public servants, both at the state levels and also at the federal levels.
By the time it was time for me to contemplate moving to the United States to live in the late nineties, meditation had really become a very normal idea in Australia.
Long gone were the days when a taxi driver would say, “And what do you do for a crust?” And for you to say, “Oh, I teach meditation.” For them to say, “Oh, that’s different.” Long gone were those days.
Now it would be, “That’s very interesting. Where do I look it up? How do I get involved?” You know, “Sign me up.”
[26:01] Drawing People from Across Sydney
Thousands upon thousands upon thousands of people came and learned to meditate. It was a very interesting era for me, and my meetings were always packed, wall to wall. I had a meditation center for many years in the Sydney suburb of Woollahra.
Woollahra is a kind of upper-middle-class suburb, but had graduated to that status from its being a working-class suburb. When I first went to Wollahra, right across the street from Woollahra, was the working-class suburb of Paddington.
Literally across the street. I was on a road called Jersey Road and the western half of Jersey Road was in the municipality of Woollahra, and the eastern curb of Jersey Road was in the municipality of Paddington.
Paddington was a working-class neighborhood in the days when I first began teaching there, in the very early 1970s, and like many urban and inner-city suburbs of major cities in the world, gradually became more and more gentrified until eventually, it was upper-middle class.
And irrespective of the class of people in my neighborhood, my meditation center drew upon the entire range of Sydney.
[27:38] Australia – the Crucible that Formed and Forged Thom Knoles
Sydney has grown into a very large city, and Australia has grown into a country with, and I’m guessing, somewhere around 25 million, perhaps more than that by now.
And so a very rapid growth of population in a relatively short time means a tremendous amount of change. A tremendous amount of cultural change, a tremendous amount of economic change, and a tremendous amount of change in every arena.
And Australia has always been a place that’s very close to my heart. The extreme beauty of the cities of Brisbane and Sydney and Melbourne, and on the west coast, Perth. All these places are places where I taught meditation many times.
Hobart and Tasmania, and going all the way up in the far north into Queensland and Northern Territory at northern western Australia, all over Australia. Adelaide was a favorite place of mine. I lived in Adelaide for about 18 months during the late 1970s and became very fond of that place.
Moving around Australia teaching, trying different environments, and bringing my family with me, which was an ever-growing family. And very often bringing family with me to meet and spend time with Maharishi, wherever he happened to be at the time.
Australia really is in many very major ways, the crucible that forged and formed that phenomenon that you know today as Thom Knoles.
[29:30] Australia’s Great Naturalness
I look forward every time I know that I’m returning to Australia, to my return, just because as soon as I look out the window and see the coastline of Australia looming in the morning horizon with the morning sun shining on it, I began to reel into nostalgia, remembering all of the many, many thousands of happy days I spent in Australia enjoying its great naturalness.
The naturalness of its people, the candor of its people, the intelligence, and wit of the Australian people, the unique sense of humor of the Australian people. All of these things go to make a country whose culture is extremely appealing, once you get used to it and I’m very used to it.
I absolutely adore the country and every aspect of it. I’ve been all over Australia.
Australia is a population, which, even from the time of my first moving there, has been highly urbanized. 86% of all Australians live in cities.
The world at large looks at Australia and remembers, you know, decades-old movies like Crocodile Dundee and things, and thinks of Australians as being somewhat of a rural population where you can look out your window and see kangaroos bounding by in the local park and things. Although that may be true of some suburbs, the vast number of Australians in fact, have hardly been to the countryside or to the outback.
[31:14] Robustness and Willingness to Take on a Challenge
Only a tiny percentage of Australians live there. 14%, currently, of all Australians live in rural areas, 86% live in big cities, not the kind of image that the rest of the world has for Australia.
But Australians are a very citified population. But since most of the large cities also sit right on the coastline, or certainly within an hour or two drive of the coastline, Australians are also very familiar with swimming, body surfing, surfboard riding, and moving around freely in the ocean. Something that is a hallmark of the Australian way of life.
I think in the total population of Australia, something like 90% of all Australians are proficient swimmers and, indeed, probably proficient ocean swimmers. This is a big contrast with other countries like America, where only 10% of the entire population of the United States would ever venture into the ocean and swim around freely. 90% of Australians do it.
This is a very interesting contrast of percentages. So Australians are, by and large, quite an adventurous population and they typify that attitude of robustness and willingness to take on a challenge. It’s one of the things that I’ve always found very appealing about the culture of Australia and the way that Australians view themselves and view their role in the world.
[32:59] 20,000 Vedic Meditators in Sydney Region
I look forward every time I return there, and I look forward to re-meeting and re-greeting the tens of thousands, I believe by now there are about 20,000 meditators of Vedic Meditation in the Sydney region alone. Not to even count Melbourne and Brisbane and Perth and Adelaide, and all the large regional centers.
Once I get started telling tales of Australia, I could go on for hours, but I think it’s best if I bring a close to my memory of living in that wonderful place and leave it at that. I look very much forward to returning and to awakening and reawakening the interest in Vedic Meditation there.
Jai Guru Deva.