My Journey through Meditation
My meditation journey began when I was around twenty-three. I was sitting outside my local country pub in Devon with my best friend one evening. He told me that there was a Buddhist monastery nearby and that he had been attending pujas (meditation sessions) there for some time. My initial reaction was to laugh as it was so out of character for him. I immediately realised he was not joking and so I asked him questions about his experience there. He was overwhelmingly positive and so without hesitation I decided I would go there myself.
In preparation for my visit my friend gave me a book on meditation. It was the teachings of the Thai monk Ajahn Chah in the Theravada Buddhist tradition. I found just reading about meditation uplifting. Perhaps just imagining the peace induced by meditation helped me to be drawn to its potential. I cannot remember my first time going to Hartridge Monastery but safe to say I found sitting in silence in a dark room of strangers without instruction extremely challenging. I was musclebound and inflexible through weight lifting and cycling so I found sitting cross legged on the floor uncomfortable. I struggled acutely with depression and anxiety in my twenties which was not helped by my proclivity for hedonistic behaviour. My twenties were a strange juxtaposition of an overriding urge to meditate but conversely punishing my body through extreme athletic challenges and partying. The three unsurprisingly were not conducive to a state of physical and mental equilibrium.
I did not know why at the time I had such an urge to meditate but I soon had experiences of joy and bliss through my irregular practice. I had glimpses of my individual consciousness expanding. It was a relaxing of my sense of every day, thinking self. Thoughts, worries, identifications, plans all become less concrete as I started to see through them for what they were, namely impermanent and the passing phenomena of a chaotic mind. I would sometimes feel as if I was dissolving in an ocean of emptiness. For every experience such as this there were many of its opposite. I would experience self-loathing, a sense of hopeless pointlessness and despair. The deep silence at Hartridge and being surrounded by people who I could not reach out to during the hour-long periods of quiet often exacerbated these feelings of isolation. I often felt I was pretending to be someone I wasn’t in the company of the devout monks.
My personal practice was erratic throughout the rest of my twenties. I would go a few weeks of meditating every morning and visiting Hartridge Monastery but then I would go weeks and months without practising at all. Even then I recognised the benefits of meditation to my sense of wellbeing and mental health were manifold. I felt though overly attached to the positive results which in turn could add to a sense of pressure. Unfortunately I would sabotage the benefits through self-destructive behaviour and excess. The consequent depression and anxiety would cause me to stop meditating which became a vicious cycle of personal boom and bust.
Catching Lyme Disease and moving to Brighton whilst still extremely ill when I was 27 was an incredibly formative experience. This severely exacerbated my issues with mental health. My depression and anxiety were intensified by the brain altering Lyme Disease bacteria. At one point I experienced schizophrenic like symptoms with voices in my head telling me to kill myself. I had to deal with receiving no constructive medical help as I experienced the wrong end of the NHS’s inadequate testing. I often lost all sense of hope. Eventually I realised I would have to teach myself how to treat this complicated and debilitating disease which caused excruciating pain (nerve neuropathy), arthritis, immunodeficiency and chronic fatigue syndrome. Otherwise a lifetime of permanent disability awaited. Fortunately, I was able to draw on my last remaining reserves of willpower to seek out the information and people I needed to help me regain my health.
Obviously meditating when in the throes of an extreme illness was not possible but in the dips of symptom severity I would try to meditate. It enabled me to experience brief rest bites of stillness from the negative chatter in my head. The experiences of occasional physical bliss represented welcome diversions from the pain in my body. My body had turned extremely sour on me and had changed from a source of ego driven pleasure to one of constant discomfort and despair. Meditating when I was well enough reminded me that my current state of ill health was transitory and that I was capable of transcending my current predicament (at least for a little while). I was able to bear witness instead of being the illness. The development of that third person, witnessing state of being has been one of the most incredibly beneficial developments in my psychological tool box for which I have meditation to thank for.
Unfortunately intense suffering was not yet done with me. I split up with my girlfriend, my Lyme Disease symptoms kept returning, I loathed my wage slave, corporate job and superficial lifestyle of partying and over consumption. My meditation practise disintegrated. I fell as low as a person can. I contemplated suicide. It was my dark night of the soul. The strange upshot was that after a few weeks I lost my fear. I felt so low that I did not care anymore. I thought “screw it, I’m going to sell most of my possessions and go to India”. It sounds cliched but something incredibly strong drew me there. I could not articulate it at the time but it was a soul calling. The poverty, chaos and unpredictable environment of India seemed an unlikely fit for someone who at the time had obsessive, compulsive tendencies concerning cleanliness and order.
I spent most of 2016 in India. To describe it as the best year of my life does not do it justice. It recalibrated me. I went on the stereotypical, archetypal hero’s journey of the neophyte ‘fool’ into the ‘underworld’ which represented a voyage of personal discovery and new possibilities. I spent most of my time wandering from one ashram or monastery to the next. Magical things happened to me seemingly every day. I have never experienced so much luck, adventure, generosity and synchronicities. The universe was intent on showing my how magical life could be. I spent a lot of time meditating and went deeper into myself than I had ever gone before. I was incredibly disciplined in maintaining my practice even when on the road and when working on farms. I learnt how to chant, perform mantra meditation, Zazen and Yoga Nidra.
Four months spent in a Zen monastery was the happiest time of my life. Meditating from three to six hours a day sounds austere but it was actually incredibly joyful. Whether I felt like it or not, skipping a meditation session was not an option in a Zen monastery. Meditating with so many people had the upshot of holding me up both physically and spiritually. I regularly had profound transcendental experiences such as a Bodhisattva repeatedly revealing herself and ‘working’ on me. My sense of individual self regularly dissolved to the extent that I felt I had united with the totality of universal consciousness. I remember weeping uncontrollably as I experienced feelings of intense joy, love and compassion. Being surrounded by such beautiful people on the same journey inwards I was on added to the joyous feelings of contentment and fellowship. I went on to travel in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Cambodia before spending two years teaching English in Taiwan. Safe to say I returned a very different person.
My twenties were all about experimentation, pushing the boundaries and self-discovery. I realised myself (as in the capitalised Self of Carl Jung’s concept of individuation) in that Zen monastery. I experienced the first step on the way to enlightenment, the peeling off of the layers of the psyche and the repeated dissolution of my ordinary, everyday thinking self, the part of you which it seems to me is truly eternal. I used meditation to journey inwards to that place of pure, aware consciousness that is all our essential natures. It is said that when you achieve self-realisation you are bullet-proofed. That was true for me but it was intensified when I learnt Japa meditation otherwise known as mantra meditation in Sanskrit. I experienced the divinity of the ‘Self’ as well as aspects of our Source or what might be known as Divinity, God or the Absolute. It is through meditating on higher, divine aspects and personalities of the Absolute that I have felt truly bullet-proofed.
I am pleased to say that I have not experienced non-causal anxiety or depression in more than four years. I am more stoical, grounded and harder to throw off my centre. I am thankfully cured of Lyme Disease. I have developed a healthier sense of detachment from externals but paradoxically my sense of compassion and engagement has grown. I am no longer consumed by thoughts, feelings and worries because I no longer associate myself with that part of myself that these play out. They come and they go. I know they are fleeting, finite and that they will pass away. They are not me. They are not eternal unlike my core essence which I can now tap into nearly at will. I like the analogy of the mind as a chariot. We are the driver. The horses are our desires, impulses and worries. We need to reign them in and keep them under control if we are not be overwhelmed by their potentially destructive power. It is difficult for me to overstate the benefits of meditation. It would not be an understatement to say that it has been a major factor in my personal transformation. It has put me onto a life fulfilling path of spiritual unfoldment and individuation. I hope I can help others to realise what I have through their own meditation practise gaining the same psychological anchor and spiritual realisations I have.