Stephen is full time meditation teacher and founder of the MIDL Mindfulness Meditation System: a systematic way of practicing traditional Buddhist Insight Meditation within daily life. Stephen began meditating at the age of 12, and was a live-in manager with his wife Linda at Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre. After years of intensive meditation, and 12 years of self-study in an abusive workplace, Stephen developed the Online MIDL Meditation Classroom which he shares freely today.
Since a very young age I had a fascination with meditation, I was attracted to the idea that we had the potential to better ourselves, to mold the type of person that we could become. To my young mind the idea that we had the power to shape ourselves served as a strong attraction and led to the starting of my study. It has been a long and enjoyable journey, now spanning over 40 years, one that I look forward to continuing each day. When I was about 12, I came across a book on meditation that I bought at a school fete, the book pointed towards the potential to enter into heightened states of consciousness through very deep relaxation techniques. I can remember being impressed when the author spoke about being able to have teeth extracted without any pain killers and without feeling pain, all he used was the meditation techniques. This fascinated me and I started to practice it, I can still remember spending many hours laying in my parents back yard and also sitting on a rock down in the bush behind their home, experimenting with these techniques. I can remember entering into some quite deep relaxing states and felt them to be a refuge from my day to day life, I continued these techniques for many years but started searching in the direction of discipline in martial arts. This was being driven by intense bullying at school, at the time it felt like a bad thing, but now looking back I can see that it created the drive that got me to the point I am at today. Discomfort in life is often the first manifestation of the chance for something new and beautiful to arise, though I could not see that at the time.
I started practicing Buddhist meditation at the age of 26, after I was given Mahasi Sayadaw's book Practical Insight Meditation by a Burmese man at my work. After reading the book I felt strongly that this was a real meditation path, one that I could follow. He was an advanced meditator and offered to teach to meditate using the Mahasi method. We spent each lunch time for a number of years meditating together.
I felt like I had come home, and before long my wife and myself were attending nine day meditation retreats every chance we got. I devoted my life to this internal study and at the age of 29, my wife and I left everything and started working at Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre, west of Sydney, as live in managers running intensive Mahasi meditation retreats. In this environment, even while working, we managed to meditate at least eight hours a day, and this allowed our meditation practice to progress and become ingrained.
We had a wonderful life there but three and a half years later we decided we wanted to do more intensive practice then we could get in Australia. So we left BMIMC and went to a monastery in Myanmar (Burma) on a meditation visa and studied under Sayadaw U Kundala, a high level Monk in the Mahasi tradition, and did intensive silent meditation under his guidance.
Every moment we were awake was spent meditating, studying the mind, it was a wonderful opportunity and one I will always be grateful for. After four months we had to leave because my body became ill due to malnutrition, so we returned back to Australia and worked at the Blue Mountains Insight Meditation Centre for a while. But things had changed since we were away and my parents were getting older, so we decided it would be best if we moved back to Sydney.
We settled into normal lives again, it took a while after the four years living monastery style life and it was a bumpy road settling back into the day to day grind where internal culture and mental health was not valued. It was at this time that I came in contact with tai chi, I wanted something that I could continue my meditation and mindfulness in daily life but also a way I could get my body physically fit again.
The tai chi helped me return to health and practice some mindfulness in movement, but during this period I found it difficult to sustain my formal Mindfulness practice during my everyday life. The difference was that in the monastery style of life people were genuinely trying to be nice people: kindness, generosity, gentleness, mindfulness of action and speech were valued.
Here I was back in Sydney, the focus was more on excitement, money and "what is in it for me?". This was a turbulent time, my meditation practice fell apart, I tried very hard to sustain it in the middle of this craziness’, but using the retreat style Mahasi form of Meditation, was not possible in daily life.
During this time the greatest gift I have ever received came into my life, in the workplace that I now worked there was an office sociopath, someone intent on creating suffering and finding fault in others while making themselves look good. All my meditation practice at this stage collapsed, daily I was going to work and daily I was being shouted at, abused, belittled and daily I found myself feeling sick, anxious and depressed.
It reached the stage where I was sick to the stomach every single day, my body was shaking, I was breaking down in tears, the unpleasant feelings filled every cell of my body. The owner of the company ignored this abusive behaviour, they did not want to acknowledge it, other people had already left in tears and at this time I didn’t realise there would be many more.
This left me with two choices, I could also run away and leave this job, or I could stay, my tendency throughout my life had been to run away, this was another bully, it seemed like an obvious choice. During my years of formal meditation practice I did learn one thing, when I was restless with the discomfort of intensive practice my teacher said to me, "take one seat", this means to not try to change but to be with and accept whatever you are experiencing, sit still on the cushion without moving.
Could I use this same principal in the workplace, in my daily life? I am also grateful to one of my main meditation teachers, John Hale, John told me to "Embrace all experience as you would a suffering child", he taught me this not only in words but in action as he was quite ill at the time yet not showing any suffering. This inspired me, I decided if I cannot find the right conditions to practice meditation, why not make my life my meditation practice.
It all became very clear to me at this time, a path started to open and I felt compelled to walk it. I could see clearly that there was no difference between sitting on an intensive meditation retreat and everyday life: isn't there only one thing happening at a time, regardless of whether our eyes are open or closed, whether we are changing a nappy or being abused in a workplace?
Suddenly my purpose became very clear, I would not run anymore, the pain in my life would become my teacher, I would study it, come to understand it, I started to understand that seated meditation was the way of training Mindfulness and concentration for every day the practice. Every day I still woke up sick, woke up with fear of what was to come but my relationship to it had changed.
Why did I feel this way?
What is this feeling of sickness in my stomach?
What is anxiety, what is depression?
Instead of running away I started to investigate, when i woke up feeling sick I turned the strength of the Mindfulness and concentration I developed towards these feelings. Where were they located, how was I experiencing them, why do they feel unpleasant? Why don't I like them?
No longer taking pleasant and unpleasant feeling for granted - Investigate, investigate, investigate, soften, soften, soften, ...take one seat. While I was being abused in the workplace, I looked the person in the eyes, smiled, while internally my attention was on my feelings, on the anger, the fear, the frustration. The abuse became my practice, this person became my teacher.
At first I struggled, I fell many times, my habitual tendencies were to run, to react, when the feeling arose this felt like the easiest path, after all, this is what I had practiced throughout my life. But running away from the pain did not work and what I had been taught by my meditation teachers once again came to mind. During intensive retreat I was taught to sit with physical and mental pain, to not run away from but investigate it. Would it be possible to do this while being treated this way, while being abused?
I decided to follow the path of taking one seat and day by day I could see the path of meditation in daily life opened before me, day by day I started to change. I was still being abused, put down, belittled, but the buttons that used to get a response started to weaken until I could stand quite comfortably in the face of the abuse with very little pain. At this stage I could stop being concerned with my pain and started to observe theirs. This person was in pain, they were screaming in pain, I no longer saw them as bad but as ill, confused, living a false reality inside their head. I began to feel their pain and compassion for their suffering started to arise within me.
I then could stand and take the abuse without experiencing the pain they wanted me to feel, instead I stood and spoke quietly, smiling, internally wishing for their happiness and welfare. Aggression needs either a victim or another aggressor to exist; I was now providing neither, I now observed the effect this had. This person became more abusive, more malicious - for a while, until the pain became too great. I started to notice that this path of love and caring, of balanced mindfulness caused them to feel pain, since I was no longer providing a victim or aggressor to feed their anger it reflected back to them, it was their gift to keep, and gradually the pain became too great and so they started to avoid me.
They still treated others badly but avoided treating me in this way, eventually we could work together without the abuse. At this stage I could see a very clear path, I could practice in everyday life, my practice could progress, I started to rejoice in this opportunity to learn more about myself, to continue self study.
I stayed in this workplace for 12 years, helped nearly as many people leave, often in tears, my practice had turned away from my own concerns and I was able to use the protection it provided to help others. The interesting part is that this person didn't change for the better, they were still a not a nice person, but I had changed or should I say my relationship had changed to the external situation and more importantly to my internal situation, allowing me to sit in peace in this turmoil. I learnt so much in this time, I am so grateful for the opportunity, it helped me refine the path of mindfulness in daily life.
During this time my mother was very ill, I felt that I had nothing more to gain in this workplace, I had made my peace and learnt a valuable lesson, I handed in my resignation to leave in 2 weeks time with no regrets so that I could spend time with my mother during her last days. The morning of my last day at work I was called to my mother, she passed away that morning.
Holding her hand through the dying process tested my practice, during this time of grief it continued and deepened, I could clearly see the progression that had been made, this practice could be continued regardless of the external situation. I went to work and finished my last day, unpacking a container, continuously protected from negative people by this beautiful path.
I was now without my beautiful mother and unemployed with no idea of what to do, I continued to practice both my Mindfulness meditation and tai chi and a new path opened up to me. People came to me to learn and I offered myself as a teacher. It was at this time I taught myself html and built my first instructional website - Tai Chi Health for Life.
My role as a teacher in both tai chi and meditation grew, my business model based on the understanding I had gained - be generous and kind to others, give all you have and it will return, - take one seat. I had seen this again and again throughout the years, I knew if I treated others well, if I gave all I had to them selflessly it would return, in one form or another. This is the basis my business still exists on today.
Six months later I noticed an advertisement in the local paper, for a Buddhist meditation teacher, the first add I didn't respond to but the second one described me in every way other than using my name. It was placed by Venerable Yangchen, she had started Meditation in The Shire 10 years ago and due to illness needed someone to teach the classes and eventually take over. We were a natural fit, I feel very blessed getting the opportunity, it also turned out that she had lost her father a couple days earlier to me losing my mother, our paths were destined to cross as the loss of a parent was a big turning point in both our lives.
Ten years later brings us to this point, I continue to practice, teach and share my knowledge of MIDL (Mindfulness in Daily Life). I am truly blessed to be able to make a living from it and I am also very grateful to Venerable Yangchen for all the work she put into building up Meditation in The Shire as well as her trust in me to take over her project. Teaching meditation to me is like coming home again, this is where I am meant to be, everything has once again come full circle.
MIDL is now a worldwide practice, I am blessed and grateful to have many dedicated students throughout the world who have matured within themselves through MIDL and are bringing this maturity into their homes and community. This was always my goal - to help to heal the world from within.
Linda and I are still living together happily and healthily after 34 years in our beautiful home in Mylestom, NSW, Australia. We like to spend what time we can together swimming, walking and riding our bikes - exploring new places. Every morning we wake up and look out the window and say "How lucky are we?". Linda has now moved from intensive retreat practice to MIDL and applies it within her work as a career, my dream to one day be able to travel and teach MIDL with her throughout the world.