Because I am presenting myself as a teacher of meditation and there are no widely accepted qualifications for that role, I believe you deserve to know more about how I came to believe and teach what I do.
As with most of us, my journey started with my parents. They were wonderful, and I felt loved and supported throughout their lives.
They were devout Catholics and they raised me to be Catholic as well. Naturally, I believed as I was taught.
One day at mass, age 16, as I stood up to go receive communion, there was a sudden realization that I believed only because that was what I had been taught. But that didn’t mean it was true. And with that, my faith simply collapsed. This took place in the time it took me to stand up and then sit down without moving from my spot.
In an instant, my faith had been replaced with: “I don’t know”. It wasn’t that I was suddenly an atheist or questioned any particular aspect of Catholicism. I simply didn’t know.
I spent that night in deep fear. What if there was no God, no one to forgive or help me, and if I died – nothing? I tried praying: ”God, if you really exist, now would be a good time to show up.” No response. Have you ever had the experience of coming home to an empty house, where you can just feel no one else is there? That was my experience – no one else was there.
That night I became painfully aware of several things.
First, whatever happened was real, and I couldn’t hide from it. In my fear, I would have crawled into any rabbit hole I found, but there was nowhere to go. I couldn’t hide from the fact that my faith was gone.
Second, I had no choice in this. It is now my understanding that we have little choice in what we believe. Belief is like our weight. At any given point in time, it is what it is as a result of our past, and the experiences and understanding our past has brought to us. It is possible beliefs will change in the future (new experiences and understandings, etc.) but if we are being honest with ourselves, at any point in time our beliefs just are what they are. On a given topic our beliefs may range from absolutely yes to absolutely no and any degree of doubt in between, but we cannot arbitrarily change them by simply choosing to believe something else.
Although I didn’t know the word at the time, I was, through no choice of my own, agnostic.
Because I wanted to believe in God, I started looking for philosophical reasons to do so, but nothing changed. That particular journey ended when I discovered the Incompleteness Theorem of Gödel. This is a mathematical proof that, in everyday terms, shows it is possible for things to be true that cannot be proven to be true. With that understanding, any attempt to use reasoning to justify belief in God stopped.
Immediately after high school I entered university and obtained a degree in mechanical engineering. The education and resulting career have been a good fit. I have a deep respect for the ability of science to shed light on the nature of our universe. I stand in awe of the story science tells and the way it has transformed human life for the better (despite some glitches). However, I also learned its limits and the ability of scientists, like all of us, to fool themselves.
Shortly after graduation from university, I read a magazine article on meditation. It was positive, so I decided to investigate it more. I found a simple meditation technique along with the promise, backed by research, that meditating would put me in contact with an inner resource that would reduce stress and help me to be healthier and more functional. I figured it was worth the gamble and tried it. And it worked. Some amazing, spontaneous changes soon occurred.
About 2 weeks after starting, I suddenly noticed that I had stopped chewing on the sides of my fingers (i.e., for years I had been chewing the sides of my fingernails, rather than my fingernails). No intention – it just stopped.
Next, I noticed that I stopped getting canker sores. I used to get one every month or so, but they simply stopped occurring.
The big event happened about 5 months after starting to meditate. I had been drinking since I was 18. Like many students, I drank every week or so all the way through university. What I noticed by the time I graduated was that if I went more than several weeks without drinking, I had a physical desire to do so. After the first drink the desire for the second was stronger, and so on. It was not uncommon for me to have 6 drinks in an evening. Although I did not see it at the time, I may have been at risk for alcoholism.
I was at a party and had just finished my first drink. I was talking with someone, waving my empty glass. The host walked by and attempted to take the glass from me to refill it. Without thinking, I pulled the glass away.
Both the host and I stopped short. What had just happened was not the Barry either of us knew. I simply did not want another drink. No intention, no discipline, the desire was just gone.
I was left with the question – what happened? The effect of alcohol was the same – why didn’t I want it anymore?
The answer I came up with then, and still believe today, is as follows.
We all want to feel “good”. And regardless of how we feel, we want to feel better. We all also have a “normal”, that is, how we typically feel. We naturally avoid anything that pulls us down from that normal and want anything that lifts us up from it.
My normal had been such that the high from drinking was an improvement, so naturally I enjoyed the feeling. However, after starting to meditate, my normal started to slowly move up. It is like when a child is growing; they don’t feel taller one day to the next. But something will surprise them (e.g., putting on clothing they haven’t worn in months) and show them that they have grown. Similarly, my normal moved up slowly enough that I couldn’t feel it happening, but by a significant amount over time. Then, when drinking for the first time in a while, suddenly the high (which was a function of chemistry that hadn’t changed, just like the child’s clothes) was a pull down, not a lift up. The high was the same, but it felt worse than my normal, not better.
I will still occasionally have a cold beer on a hot day, or a glass of wine with a meal, but the minute I feel the alcohol, I’m done. Meditation made that change, possibly saving me from becoming an alcoholic.
Shortly after the incident at the party, I realized one more thing. I got back something I hadn’t noticed I’d lost.
When I was 6, I couldn’t wait to be 12 because a 12-year-old knew and could do things that a 6-year-old can’t. And when I was 12, I wanted to be 16 for the same reason. And at 16, I wanted to be 22.
But at 22 – why be older? That feeling of looking forward to being older and better had disappeared without me noticing. But now, it was back. There was a fundamental confidence that if I kept meditating, older would continue to mean better. It continues to this day. Each year I can look back at the person I was a year ago and be glad and grateful for what I am now, compared to then. These changes happen spontaneously, not through effort and determination.
I cannot compare myself to anyone else or any external standard. But I can compare myself to what I was last year. I continue to become more patient, less judgemental, a little wiser, and less likely to shoot myself in the foot.
Meditation became a fundamental part of my daily routine, just like eating or sleeping, because it made my life better.
About 5 years after starting to meditate, I noticed that the “empty house” feeling was gone. I can’t tell what or who is there, but I sense a presence where before there was nothing.
About 10 years after starting to meditate my life turned extremely stressful and stayed that way for about 5 years. A friend once described my life as “a daily knife fight in a phone booth.” Most mornings I would drive to work feeling sick to my stomach. Most nights I would wake up in the middle of the night, mind racing and unable to go back to sleep. Once I learned that being jarred awake was a stress reaction, I began meditating at that time and then I could go back to sleep. So ultimately this only changed my sleep pattern rather than robbing me of sleep. At one point, I took a magazine stress test which predicted I was due for a major health breakdown. A subsequent medical exam showed I was in good health, and my blood pressure was as low as ever.
My firm conviction is that whereas meditation did not eliminate the stressors from my life, it did save my mental and physical health by providing relief from the stress.
I now have spent over 30,000 hours in meditation and have accumulated more than 1,000 hours of training regarding meditation, including the ways it changes our physiology and how our mind works. I have verified those teachings through my own experience.
I have been through divorce, came close to bankruptcy, experienced career changes and other various challenges and problems that most of us face. My external life has had failures as well as successes. Through it all, the connection to the source of inner joy and peace (that we all have) has provided a stable foundation from which to deal with life’s challenges.
After about 25 years of using the same meditation technique, I started learning about the techniques and teachings of other organizations, participated in various large group meditations, and found all of them helpful. I have continued to explore and learn about other traditions and techniques.
Of course there are differences; however, all these traditions and teachings point to a place of inner peace, silence, and wisdom. You can even find it in the scriptures of many religions if you know what to look for.
I see this as similar to the variation in food around the world. Different ingredients, preparation and tastes. But at a biological level, they all provide the same nutrients needed to sustain life.
So, at a deep, practical level, the commonality about this inner resource makes sense, and that is the basis of what I teach.