Russel Williams died on April 9th 2018, at the age of 96. He was a remarkable man, who lived a remarkable life. Although he was a spiritual teacher for sixty years, he remained largely unknown until three years ago, when the book Not I, Not Other than I was published. Up till then, Russel had worked quietly with small groups, guiding them gently towards the inner peace and sense of oneness that he experienced. He never went out of his way to promote his teachings, or to attract followers, believing that people would come to him when they were ready, and find him if they were meant to. For decades, he held twice weekly meetings – on Monday and Wednesday evenings – at the premises of the Buddhist Society of Manchester. Anyone was free to come, and there was no charge.
Russel had no ambition or desire. He was a pure channel of spirit without any ego-activity standing in the way. On the surface, he seemed completely ordinary, which made the effect of his presence and his teachings even more extraordinary.
It’s impossible to separate Russel’s teachings from his life because, without the intense suffering and turmoil which filled his early years, it’s doubtful that he would have become a spiritual teacher.
Russel was an orphan from the age of 11, which was also when he left school. After a series of hard manual and menial jobs. he became a soldier during the Second World War. In 1940, he was at Dunkirk, helping to ferry soldiers back across the sea to England. His experience at Dunkirk was intensely traumatic – he described seeing parts of dead bodies floating in the water all around him, and being swiped in the face by an arm that had been blown off.
Later in the war, Russel had his first major spiritual experience, when he was electrocuted while working at an airfield. He suddenly found himself out in space, looking down on his body, and felt tremendously serene and peaceful. But he had a strong feeling that he had to get back into his body, a feeling that there was something that needed to be done, a role for him to fulfil.
At the end of the war, Russel was an emotional and physical wreck, and spent weeks wandering the countryside, sleeping rough and doing odd jobs for food. He ended up working for a travelling circus, looking after the horses. He quickly began to feel a strong bond with the horses, and after a few months, he noticed that his mind had become quieter. He began to live more spontaneously, in the present moment. He realised later that, through caring for the horses and observing them so intently, he was practicing a kind of mindfulness meditation. And finally, after about three years of this spontaneous spiritual practice, at the age of 29, Russel underwent a sudden spiritual awakening – the most significant event of his life. As he described it himself,
I woke up one morning and looked across at the horses, watching the steam rise out of their nostrils the way it does on a cold morning. The next thing I knew I wasn’t just observing the horse, from the outside. I was the horse. I was looking inside it. I was it. I could look through its eyes and mind. I was aware of its true nature. I was aware that all things are one. There was a sense of profound peace.
After that, everything changed for Russel. This state of oneness and inner peace became normal to him. He said that it was like being born all over again, living a new life.
After a few years of learning to understand and integrate his new state, Russel began his true calling as a spiritual teacher. However, it’s important to point that Russel himself wasn’t fond of the term ‘spiritual teacher,’He said that he had nothing to teach and nothing to give. He felt that everyone has their own ‘inner teacher’ and that his role was to help this inner guide to emerge. Once it had arisen, it would inevitably lead a person to state of well-being and awareness. If pressed, Russel would say that he taught through silence. And anyone who spent time in his presence will understand this, because to sit in satsangwith Russel was always a powerful and beautiful experience.
To Russel, experience was everything. He would sometimes tell a story from the Buddha’s Kalama Sutta, when an old man asked the Buddha why he should believe his teachings rather than those of the other teachers who had passed through his village. The Buddha advised him not to believe anything, but to test the teachings against his own experience, and discard those that do not show themselves to be true. Whenever he gave guidance, Russel would similarly say ‘Don’t take my word for it – ponder over it, and find out whether it is true.’ He would often use the phrase ‘Play with it,’ encouraging a light and gentle approach.
Russel advised us to move away from thinking and studying and to return to awareness – to direct experience of things as they are, together with metta (the Buddhist term for loving-kindness and well-being). He explained that direct experience and metta are one and the same, since abiding in awareness brings a great sense of well-being, together with an impulse to nurture other living beings. This insight stemmed from Russel’s own experience, particularly the years he spent caring for horses. Through loving the horses and only being concerned for their well-being, he turned his attention away from his own mental activity, until he found himself full of nothing but direct experience.
To Russel, abiding in awareness didn’t mean having a blank or empty mind, but was a full body experience, which included every single aspect of our lives, no matter how small or trivial. Russel placed a great emphasis on the ‘small things’ – doing chores, picking up objects, opening doors or cupboards. All of these should be done with care and attention. As he said, ‘In this way gradually it will be seen that everything is One and not separate.’ He also taught this this awareness and clarity should be used to explore our own being. He encouraged us to look deeply but gently into the nature of our own experience.
Some years ago, Russel met with another spiritual teacher, who said of him, ‘The thing about Russel is that he knows, in his deepest, deepest bones, that death does not matter.’ Like other spiritual awakened individuals, Russel sensed that consciousness does not come from the body or the brain, and therefore doesn’t end with the death of the body and the brain. That is why he was able to meet his own death with such equanimity – and also why his presence will continue to be felt by everyone who encountered him, and perhaps many more people besides.
By Steve Taylor and Paul Shambrook
Steve Taylor is the author of a number of books on psychology and spirituality, including The Fall, and The Leap. He helped Russel to write his book Not I, Not other than I: The Life and Teachings of Russel Williams.
Paul Shambrook is chairman of the Buddhist Society of Manchester. Russel was the president of the society from 1974.