The Transformative Power of Meditation

A former football player struggling with addiction found his way with meditation.

There are no mistakes, just happy accidents.

— Bob Ross.

You are holding a bar of soap. If you want to keep this bar of soap in your hand, you must allow it to just be there. The moment that you squeeze it, it is going to shoot out of your hand. This metaphor can be rather counterintuitive when applied in life. For example, if someone decides that they want to become a famous painter, then intense dedication, sacrifice, and practice seem inevitable. Letting life unfold organically can be an easier task when you confidently know what you want but becomes harder when the end goal  is particularly emphasized.

Take Bob Ross for instance, it is evident that he did not dedicate his life to painting just to become famous, he just simply loved painting from one moment to the next. The quality of an intention is the greatest determinant in whether human satisfaction is sincere and enduring or superficial and short-lived. For Forrest, watching Bob Ross’ live paintings made him wonder what he, in his life, could approach with such gentleness and compassion.

Forrest was born in Mobile, Alabama where he lived a conventional southern life. While playing football in high school, he broke his back, which left him bed-bound and eventually led to a pain medication dependency. During this sedentary decline, he was also diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Adderall — his dosage quickly escalated to three pills a day. This toxic routine led Forrest to exist in a constant drug-induced state which soon became unmanageable. The medication was providing a temporary fix, but Forrest was compelled to seek a solution to treat the underlying problem.

In life, hitting rock-bottom can present the opportunity for significant growth. Forrest was unhappy with his situation and was determined to find a more sustainable solution. That’s when he stumbled upon meditation, grew curious about its benefits, and started researching the practice. Forrest came across a local meditation center, the Meditation Center of Alabama, and decided to give the center a visit.

Meditating
Forrest and Nena practicing daily meditation at the Meditation Center of Alabama. Photo: Audrey Stewart

Doctor Nena Nimit was the first person Forrest met at the Meditation Center. At that point, Forrest was attempting to ween himself off of his medication, and Nena, being a psychiatrist, was qualified to help. The support and instruction Forrest received from Nena helped him learn simple meditation exercises that, over time, gave him the same relief as his prescribed medicine. With meditation, Forrest noticed that his conscious state was not being artificially altered and he no longer felt ‘chemically charged.’ After Forrest was entirely off his medication, he rejoiced in his newfound clarity and ability to navigate his emotions. Life problems became increasingly easy to solve and mindfulness seemed to be a natural byproduct of his consistent meditation practice.

Like Bob Ross, Forrest is now able to see life’s misfortunes as a series of happy accidents. He had no control over breaking his back, but it was this incident that provided him with the courage to start questioning the reality he had accepted for himself. He recognized that he had become a product of his environment, which inspired further self-reflection.

Forrest meditated on the events that lead to his life spiraling out of control. People unconsciously pick up on messages from their environment. Forrest explains, “We feel the only option is to keep up with the momentum at all costs. Because if we stop, then people will pass us, we will miss opportunities, and we will fail. This is what we’re told. Work harder than the next person.” While the world is moving at a faster pace, it seems illogical to practice being still, even for a few minutes. Wouldn’t that detract from the time spent getting ahead? Forrest would argue no. According to him, meditation is profound and has the power to radically change your life. This truth held enough merit for Forrest to dedicate his life to being a meditation instructor so he could guide others through similar transformations.

A new fascination developed: people who approach life by simply allowing things to happen. His definition of success shifted as he observed the people in the meditation community as having honest intentions. Forrest saw this in Nena. Every word she spoke in conversation had a genuine loving intention behind it — in every moment. To Forrest, that is success. He recalled, “I had never met anybody like that until I met Nena. People like her possess a quality and perspective of life that is such a gift you just have to be around it. They are willing to sacrifice things that we are not willing to sacrifice so they can just be as helpful or good at what they are doing.”

As his practice deepened, he gained further understanding of himself and began a journey inward. It started with the realization that he could be still, notice what was naturally arising within, and question why it was happening. This allowed Forrest to look backward at all the events in his life that lead to the moment he felt a certain way.

Meditating in Noisy Area
Forrest Neal outside of the Meditation Center of Alabama meditating in a noisy median during rush hour traffic. Photo: Audrey Stewart

The Meditation Center of Alabama teaches the Middle Way Meditation Method, which is a teaching of the Dhammakaya Foundation, headquartered in Thailand. The Center also frequently invites their meditation instructors and Buddhist monks to teach. According to the Middle Way Meditation Institute, Dhammakaya stands for, “a state of purity and a path to wisdom within,” and the Middle Way Meditation technique is a reflection of this. The Meditation Center of Alabama’s mission statement reads as follows:

The knowledge of Buddhist philosophy and meditation is universally applicable to all regardless of race, religion, or background. Our members are largely Christian, proving that the truths discovered by the Buddha are universally applicable to all in cultivating peace, harmony, and loving-kindness in the world. It is our belief that sustainable world peace will be achieved when each person is able to find inner peace.

The Meditation Center of Alabama.

Although it is a Buddhist organization, due to the open nature of the meditation center, Forrest did not feel pressured to convert to a new religion. The atmosphere was inclusive, genuine, and accepting. Being there was the first time Forrest had attended anything other than a Christian event, and he grew more comfortable being around people of a different religion. He then realized that there were individuals who care about one another despite having different belief systems. Opportunities arose that allowed Forrest to observe what Buddhism was like without feeling coerced into signing up for anything.

Venerable Nicholas Thanissaro Giving Lecture
Venerable Dr. Nicholas Thanissaro during his presentation on meditation at the University of South Alabama. Photo: Audrey Stewart

Many ordained monks or laypeople from the Dhammakaya Temple donate their time to the Meditation Center of Alabama to teach classes, retreats, and lead meditation sessions. Venerable Dr. Nicholas Thanissaro, originally from the UK, was one of the head monks at the temple and made regular visits to the Alabama Center to teach. Forrest was intrigued by Venerable Nicholas’ story, and due to his welcoming nature, Forrest was compelled to learn more from him about the world of meditation and Buddhism.

Subsequently, Forrest was invited on a lengthy retreat to be taught by Venerable Nicholas and essentially live like a monk. This was a rare circumstance — Forrest was able to dip into the reality of monks, but without meeting all the requirements like shaving your head and eyebrows or following certain dietary restrictions. Forrest had the chance to immerse himself in this alternative existence, which he holds immeasurable gratitude for. Venerable Nicholas saw how persistent, transparent, and genuine Forrest was. Forrest reflects on that time and remembers, “I just wanted to know the answers, and he felt that.”

A few months later, Venerable Nicholas was scheduled to transfer to his monastery in Los Angeles, to act as the head monk there. He offered Forrest the opportunity to drive him across the country, from Alabama to L.A., to drop him off at his new temple — which was an honor. At that point, Forrest had never been west of Louisiana or north of South Carolina, and despite only having five days to prepare for the cross-country road trip, he couldn’t wait to get on the road.

Forrest and Venerable Nicholas Thanissaro
Forrest Neal and Venerable Dr. Nicholas Thanissaro en route to Los Angeles. Photo: Forrest Neal

It was a spiritual journey. The whole trip was planned by Venerable Nicholas and paid for by his temple. He chose the most extraordinary places to see along the way — Cadillac Ranch and the Grand Canyon were among a few. Forrest attempts to describe the trip:

“To go on a journey with someone like that… it is hard to put into words. It changed the way I viewed my life and the world around me. The whole time we didn’t listen to any music or radio. Just silence, enjoying each other’s company or having a conversation. Anything else was a distraction.”

Forrest Neal.

Forrest had the chance to see parts of the U.S. that he didn’t know existed, and experience this alongside someone who was pursuing their own inner journey to a level of extreme dedication. He had never met anyone with a commitment to that degree — someone who was willing to make monumental sacrifices in the modern world to focus on their purpose.

Acknowledging someone’s innate gifts can have a profound impact on them. We can all recall that moment years ago when a teacher told us we were talented or a significant other made us feel heard and seen for the first time. There was a special reason why Venerable Nicholas chose Forrest to accompany him on the trip. Forrest explains, “I was a new person to the temple. I’m not a monk and I had not been practicing meditation for a long time. It seemed like he had seen a lot of potential in me.”

Forrest giving lecture at University of Southern California
Forrest with the meditation club at the University of Southern California after a lecture he gave. Photo: Forrest Neal

A connection to L.A. was established. Forrest has been invited to speak multiple times at the University of Southern California. He collaborates with medical professionals to ensure his presentations are accurate and clear. After routinely traveling to L.A. and pursuing a mindful meditation certification program there, Forrest packed up his bags in Mobile, Alabama, and relocated to California for good.

It is easy for spiritual seekers to be drawn into a guru’s mystical promises of permanent bliss. It is evident that many modern gurus who preach new age doctrines succumb to dishonesty and lack integrity. This unfortunate truth reinforces how Forrest approaches meditation and spirituality; with a dedication to truth and ethics. He is influenced by the core virtues of Buddhism and is committed to the accessibility of his instructions. Forrest wants to help people come into their own truth. He explains:

I am in a position to help people who are teetering on the edge of wanting to have an experience in meditation but don’t know how to articulate what they want to experience. They may be in a spot where they are being enticed by new ageism — like looking at a new shiny object that inevitably catches their attention. The more I meditate, the more I realize my purpose for doing it. I gain insight into how to help those who are having trouble connecting with the practice.

Forrest Neal.

Meditation is very difficult for some people. This can be attributed to uncontrollable circumstances like the conditions we are born into, how we were raised, and certain life experiences. We are each programmed and conditioned by our external environment to some extent. That being said, meditation can appear to be a less rational tool for some. Forrest clarifies, “I am still a programmed person, even though I meditate regularly. The only difference is, now I have the tools to steer my programming in a more effective way.” This newfound resource is self-awareness, and it gave Forrest the power to change his life by identifying what he could control and then restructuring his environment. No, we can’t prevent our brains from processing information. However, we can slow down momentarily, and drop into a space that is limitless. In this space, we are the version of ourselves prior to the experiences that shaped us. It is here that all superficial worries fall away, grudges become futile, and the sense of Oneness is recognized.

Newcomers to meditation sometimes aren’t aware of how their physical environment influences them. This technological age comes with side effects. We are glued to our screens and inundated with information. Our minds coexist with an unrelenting white noise, an incessant scramble of inner dialogue. What if we could compartmentalize or remove this? If we take some time to just be in the moment, it substantially increases our capacity and potential when performing any task.

You can do more and do it better. For instance, imagine someone is worried about acing an interview, but during their frantic preparation, they have negative chatter looping in their mind. These subliminal thoughts are focused on fears and insecurities. The ability to switch your mind over to positive thoughts can’t be accomplished by force. That would be comparable to practicing self-love by staring at yourself in the mirror and repeating “I love you” until your whole self-perception magically changes. Meditation takes dedication and discipline, but the payoff is monumental. Unnecessary and harmful thoughts fall away while you inch closer to truth and clarity.

Forrest Neal outside the Meditation Center of Alabama. Photo by: Audrey Stewart

Even after a few years of teaching meditation, Forrest never encountered somebody that was able to pick it up instantly. It is a sensitive exercise and takes a lot of practice to find the meditative state. Forrest explains that on one end of the spectrum is a wakened state of mind where your brain is processing information, and on the other end is a sleeping state where you are in a daze or about to sleep. It is the zone in the middle of the two that is the meditative state. Forrest grew curious about how the practice of meditation began and found it hard to imagine cavemen having the ability to zone in on that one little spot.

Forrest began studying the history of how meditation was discovered. Meditation is the skill of returning your wandering mind back to its original point of focus over and over again. There was a person who discovered that and was able to share it with others. Who is that person? While this fact is largely unknown, Forrest found that the most interesting answer points to the story of Siddhartha Gautama, Buddha.

Royalty and wealth shielded Siddhartha from the suffering beyond his kingdom walls. Despite being tended to his entire life, the search for truth drew him to the outside world. After discovering peasants burdened with sickness, old age, and death, Siddhartha gave up all luxuries to be of service to others.

We are all faced with the dilemma of how to spend our time on earth. Will we chase sensory pleasures or look to the less fortunate and offer our help? Forrest elaborates:

The story of the Buddha is like the story of us coming into our awakening. It is about discovering yourself in this world as a cog in the machine and the liberation that accompanies that realization. Continue to participate in it — or don’t. You have freedom of choice. This is the process of becoming aware.

Forrest Neal.

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