Sunday evening in January 2011. I’m sitting with 6 strangers in a house in Paddington. There’s an uneasy silence. We’re waiting to get started.
I’d wanted to learn about meditation. I’d tried guided meditation online. Now I was ready to commit to something more serious. I found a local course that looked reputable. I registered my interest and waited.
A few weeks later the meditation teacher, Will Dalton, emailed an invitation to a free Introduction to Meditation evening. I could then decide if I wanted to sign up for the course, or not. That sounded reasonable. I had only one reservation: there was no mention of the course fee. But what the hell. The intro was free. No obligation. I’d decided to go along.
The address was a terraced house in Paddington. A swanky suburb of Sydney. Once a down-at-heel, working class, the gentrification wave swept through long ago. Bringing the middle classes. Enticed by the central location, proximity to the harbour, and beautiful period architecture. Walk the streets now, you’ll see impossibly pretty houses with iron lace balconies and landscaped gardens. Paddington is one of the best preserved Victorian suburbs in the world. One of those affluent areas where kids are dropped at school, around the corner, in big SUVs. Regular shops supplanted by art galleries, designer boutiques, wedding couturiers and artisan delis. If you’re looking for Organic Heirloom Carrots or quality truffle oil, this is the place to come.
According to his website, Will is Australian but mostly teaches in Los Angeles and New York. He runs courses on short return visits to Sydney too. His self-published book is endorsed by the likes of Tatum Channing’s wife.
At the venue, I completed a simple form, removed my shoes and went upstairs. Silence. 2 people were already seated. We half-smiled. Nodding hello.
The room was small. Seven chairs faced one chair at the front. A few more people arrived, taking the last empty seats.
Will, tanned and fit-looking, joined us. Closing the door gently, he took his seat at the front. He was confident, strong on eye contact, but with a kind, calming voice. He introduced himself. We were asked to do the same. He told the story of his ‘journey’. How he’d had a corporate life in real estate, but was stressed and unfulfilled. He took a trip to Rishikesh, in India, where he spent 12 months learning about meditation from his ‘master’.
He was a charismatic speaker but none of this was news to me. I’d read it on the website. He spoke for an hour, then asked for questions. A moments silence. A woman said ‘Sorry I’m an interloper here. This isn’t a question. It’s just. I’m here to support my friend’, gestures to woman sat next to her, ‘I’ve done Will’s course myself. it changed my life. It’s really great’. Thanks from Will. Impressed nods from the group.
We’re asked to meet with Will one-on-one downstairs. He asks what I do for a job, why I want to learn meditation, where I’m from. After a long preamble, we get onto the cost of the course. It’s important, he said, that people pay a fee appropriate to their means. Emphasising, he wouldn’t want cost to be a barrier for anyone. So how does that work? I was curious to hear where this was going. There’d been no details online. He’s not a meditation teacher to make money, he said. His mission is to help people experience the benefits of meditation. ‘For fairness’ he said ‘the cost is the equivalent of one week if your salary’.
Walking home, I roughly calculated what that figure would be. Will’s credentials were plausible, but my spidey senses were tingling. The evening reminded me of the techniques of timeshare selling (or pyramid schemes in Australia). The excessive fee divulged after a long emotive pitch. I felt pressured. And guilty, for feeling suspicious. The atmosphere in the room was kind. Loving even. Buddhists believe in reincarnation. Could there be karmic consequences of turning Will down? Reincarnated as a Dung Beetle?
Was this a setup? An elaborate scam? Were some, or all, of the strangers in that room playing a part? Was I the only victim? That seemed too fantastical. But thrilling too if I’m honest.
And the woman supporting her friend? Her unsolicited endorsement of Will’s course? At the time it seemed innocent, genuine. If the whole thing was a scam, I applaud the creativity.
I admit my response was feeble. I emailed Will. The course was four consecutive nights. I had a cold so couldn’t make it. The cold wasn’t so bad. I could have hauled my ass there. It was an excuse. I didn’t want to express my real reservations about the course, and cost. That would invite a confrontation. I’m English. We don’t do that.
It didn’t work.
Will offered to run a course at the weekend – just for me – at his rented apartment. More pressure. More guilt. His overly accommodating response cranked my scepticism even higher. His apartment, with harbour views, was in Potts Point. Another upmarket area of Sydney. Will was not a man of modest tastes.
I declined. This time more firmly.
So dear reader (yes, you), to this day I don’t know if Will and the course were legitimate. I have no firm evidence either way. I have only the events I’ve described and my instincts.
Poirot style, I did some digging. I sent an email to the Australian Meditation Society describing my experience and concerns. An extract of their reply:
I have not heard of Will before, but I like you, am especially concerned when people charge a lot of money for meditation courses. It makes the whole field seem so dodgy, as there is no real certification or any other way to know if a teacher is any good. This one in particular looks very dodgy, as there is nothing offered of any substance in so far as testimonials or even of the philosophy behind the teachers.
Will’s website is defunct but there are plenty of his videos available on the internet. His introductory talk is on Vimeo.