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Published on: Cross-Cultural

The Transformative Power of Meditation

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

Forrest lived a conventional southern life in Mobile, Alabama…. until football broke his back, he was confined to his bed, and became addicted to painkillers. 

As if that wasn’t enough, while bed-bound, Forrest was diagnosed with ADHD and prescribed Adderall.  He quickly escalated to taking three doses a day. The combination of pain medication and stimulants trapped him in a constant drug-induced haze which soon became unmanageable. 

For the determined, hitting rock-bottom is an opportunity to grow: rather than relying on temporary fixes, Forrest began searching for more sustainable solutions to his health issues.

In his search, he eventually stumbled upon meditation. Curious about its benefits, Forrest started researching meditation practices, and decided to stop by the local Meditation Center of Alabama. Thanks to Dr. Nena Nimit, he was instantly hooked.

Dr. Nena Nimit was Forrest’s introduction to the Meditation Center. A psychiatrist by training, Dr. Nena was well-equipped to help Forrest in his attempts to wean himself off of his medication. Over time, she taught him simple meditation exercises that eventually gave him the same relief as any of his prescriptions.

After months of being bombarded with medications, Forrest no longer felt “chemically charged”. Meditation enabled Forrest to alter his conscious state without external stimulants. He eventually stopped taking his medications entirely, rejoicing in his newfound clarity and ability to navigate emotions. Previously overwhelming life problems became increasingly easy to solve; mindfulness was a natural byproduct of his consistent meditation practice.

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

Taking control by sitting still

Like one of his idols, the painter Bob Ross, Forrest began viewing his life’s misfortunes as a series of happy accidents. Though breaking his back was beyond his control, it gave him the courage to question the reality he had previously accepted for himself without question. He was a product of his environment, but did that have to be the case?

His meditation practice deepened, and he journeyed further inward. Forrest realized he could be still, notice what was naturally arising within, and question why it was happening. Rather than accept reality without question, he could now look back at all the past events in his life that led to specific emotions in the present.

“There are no mistakes, just happy accidents.”
— Bob Ross

Forrest began meditating on the events that led to his life spiraling out of control, contemplating how people take cues from their environment. “We feel the only option is to keep up with the momentum at all costs,” he explained. “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.”

As the world moves ever faster, it might seem illogical to practice stillness, even if just for a few minutes. Doesn’t time spent doing nothing detract from time spent getting ahead?

Forrest doesn’t think so: he believes meditation is profound, and his experience demonstrated its power to radically change lives as much as any drug or fast-moving mindset. So strong is his belief in the power of meditation that he decided to dedicate his life to guiding others through similar meditative transformations.

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 simple success of good intentions

While training to become an instructor, Forrest found a new fascination: people who live life by simply allowing things to happen. 

American views of success are often married with money or power, but Forrest’s definition of success shifted as he observed people in Alabama’s meditation community. People like Dr. Nena had such honest intentions; every word she spoke in every moment of conversation had genuine, loving intention behind it . To Forrest, that is success. 

“I had never met anybody like that until I met Nena,” he recalled. “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.”

The dedication and open-mindedness of others at the Meditation Center of Alabama were similarly inspiring. Although it’s a Buddhist organization, the purposefully open nature of the meditation center meant Forrest could explore Buddhist philosophy without being pressured to convert to a new religion. The center was Forrest’s first experience with non-Christian events, and he grew comfortable being around people of different religions. The community showed him there are individuals who care about one another despite any differing beliefs.

Eventually, one of those individuals changed Forrest’s life forever.

A glimpse of a different world

The Meditation Center of Alabama teaches the Middle Way Meditation Method, based on the teachings of the Dhammakaya Foundation in Thailand. Many ordained monks or laypeople from the Dhammakaya Temple donate their time to teach classes, retreats, and lead meditation sessions at the Meditation Center of Alabama. Venerable Dr. Nicholas Thanissaro was one such monk.

Originally from the UK, Venerable Nicholas was one of Dhammakaya’s head monks, and made regular visits to the Alabama Center. Intrigued by his story and encouraged by his welcoming nature, Forrest was compelled to learn more from Venerable Nicholas about the world of meditation and Buddhism.

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

Soon Forrest was invited to a retreat taught by Venerable Nicholas, giving him a chance to essentially live like a monk. This was a rare opportunity — Forrest could dip into the reality of life as a Buddhist monk without needing to fulfill requirements like shaving his head or changing his diet. Immeasurably grateful for the chance, Forrest immersed himself in the alternative existence, and Venerable Nicholas saw how persistent, transparent, and genuine he was. “I just wanted to know the answers,” Forrest recalled, “and he felt that.”

A few months later, Venerable Nicholas was scheduled to transfer to act as head monk in his monastery in Los Angeles. Five days before he was scheduled to leave, he offered Forrest the opportunity to drive him from Alabama to California: a big cross-country road trip, and an even bigger honor. 

Forrest had never been west of Louisiana nor north of South Carolina, but he jumped at the opportunity; 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

Road trip to a new life

It was a definitively spiritual journey.

Venerable Nicholas planned the whole trip, and his temple covered the bills. He showed Forrest places like Cadillac Ranch and the Grand Canyon, and took him to other parts of the U.S. Forrest never knew existed. Spectacular as the sights were, the true value of the trip came from traveling his country alongside someone so dedicated to their own inner journey.

Forrest had never met anyone so committed ,  someone who was willing to make monumental sacrifices in the modern world to focus on their own purpose. “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.”

We can all recall moments when a teacher first told us we were talented, or a significant other made us finally feel heard and seen. Acknowledging someone’s innate gifts can have a profound impact on them; there was a reason why Venerable Nicholas chose Forrest to accompany him. “I was a new person to the temple,” Forrest explained, “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.”

That road trip connected Forrest to Los Angeles. For a time, he regularly traveled to L.A. to become certified in mindful meditation. As he became more established, he began collaborating with medical professionals to ensure his teachings are scientifically sound. Soon, the University of Southern California invited him to speak… multiple times. 

Eventually, Forrest packed up his bags in Mobile, Alabama, and relocated to California for good.

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

Commitment to truth

It is easy for spiritual seekers to be drawn into a guru’s mystical promises of permanent bliss. Many modern gurus who preach new age doctrines lack integrity and succumb to dishonesty. The unfortunate truth only reinforces Forrest’s dedication to truth and ethics as he teaches others. 

His approach to meditation and spirituality is influenced by the core virtues of Buddhism: he’s committed to the accessibility of his instruction. Forrest wants to help people come into their own truth.

“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,” Forrest explained. “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.”

Meditation is very difficult for some people, he cautioned. The conditions we are born into, how we were raised, certain life experiences—all of these uncontrollable circumstances condition us and program us some extent. External environmental factors also play a key role: in this technological age, we’re glued to our screens and inundated with information. Our minds coexist with an unrelenting white noise, an incessant scramble of inner dialogue. But what if we could compartmentalize or remove this noise entirely?

“I am still a programmed person, even though I meditate regularly,” Forrest clarified, “The only difference is, now I have the tools to steer my programming in a more effective way.” 

Self-awareness through meditation gave Forrest the power to change his life. He uses his awareness to identify what he can control, then restructure his environment as needed. We can’t prevent our brains from processing information, he explained, but we can slow down momentarily, and drop into a space of limitless possibilities. In this space, we are the version of ourselves prior to the experiences that shaped us. In this space, all superficial worries fall away, grudges become futile, and our sense of interconnectedness is recognized.

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

We all grapple with negative thoughts and overwhelming emotions. We are all faced with the dilemma of how to spend our time on earth.  Will we chase sensory pleasures and chemical solutions? Are we willing to look inwards to find answers, to look to the less fortunate and offer our help? To Forrest, the story of Buddha holds the answers:

“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.”


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