In person, Sarah McLean literally shines. It is part elegant and statuesque good looks, with her blonde hair and golden complexion. But it is the kindness and compassion she emits that makes her exactly what you would hope for in a meditation teacher.
When she begins speaking about the early years of her life, the shine literally dulls and the residue of the deep dysfunction of her family takes over like a cloud moving across the sky. Raised in a wealthy suburb of Boston by a violent father and an alcoholic mother, Sarah escaped on a regular basis by cutting school to take the trolley to Harvard Square where she spent hours exploring old book stores for works on mysticism and spirituality. She sat on the back seat of the trolley, legs crossed underneath her, eyes closed, pretending to meditate. Even though she had no idea of what she was actually doing, just assuming the position somehow felt right.
Determined to escape her dangerous home environment, Sarah dropped out of high school, ran away to Florida and lived on the beach, broke and homeless. It was there she met a man who perpetuated the cycle of violence she had known her entire life. They eloped before Sarah learned that he was a convicted felon and unimaginably cruel. Enduring physical beatings and days of confinement at a time, Sarah escaped to the Army where she hoped to become a spy. But the Army had different plans for her and trained her as a medic. She was assigned to working with soldiers with post-traumatic stress disorder, her first exposure to the connection between mind and body.
Throughout her life, Sarah had been seeking, always searching for something unknown. Even though she had no conscious understanding of what she was seeking, she already had a deep commitment to the process. She completed her GED in the service, transferred from active duty to reserve status, worked her way through college and availed herself of a free legal service to facilitate a divorce. Finally ready to begin her search in earnest, Sarah McLean set out to explore the world by bicycle, exposing herself to cultures and religions that influenced her deeply.
Upon her return, she was enthralled by an article she read about a new book by Dr. Deepak Chopra in which he promoted Ayurveda, the ancient Indian approach to natural healing. After reading the book, Sarah phoned the number on the book jacket and offered her services to the Ayurveda Health Center run by Dr. Chopra. Given room and board along with the opportunity to immerse herself in Ayurveda teachings, Sarah thrived. For the first time in her life, she felt a sense of belonging as a member of a community. Dr. Chopra was affiliated with the Transcendental Meditation movement at the time and Sarah learned to meditate. She described that first experience as a "moment of spectacular peace."
As Dr. Chopra's work became well known, a number of celebrity clients drew attention to the work by visiting the Center, including Barbra Streisand, Louise Hay, Queen Noor, Michael Jackson and George Harrison. The doctor accepted an invitation to set up a new center in southern California against the wishes of the Maharishi Mahesh Yogi, head of the TM movement and most famously known as guru to the Beatles, and Sarah accompanied him. Banished from the TM community, Dr. Chopra introduced his methods to California and the world. In the years that followed, he became "Deepak."
Enriched by the amazing education she had received after eight years with the Ayurveda Health Center, Sarah once again took to the world, moving to a Hindu ashram in India to see where the practices she had come to love were born. Despite living and working in very primitive conditions that included sleeping pillow-less on a concrete floor, eating meals with only her hands, and using a hole in the ground for a toilet, she was happy there, meditating four to five hours per day. Upon her return home, she resided in a California Buddhist monastery, ultimately becoming the head cook. It was there that she wore black robes, took Buddhist vows and continued her meditation practice up to eight hours per day.
Today Sarah is busy teaching meditation based out of her studio in Sedona, Arizona, often to high profile clients from the world of sports, politics, entertainment, and the corporate world. And she is writing a follow up to her popular book Soul Centered. But she is particularly dedicated to training teachers to go out into the world and help people develop a meditation practice because of her unwavering belief that by doing so, the world becomes a better place with happier inhabitants. When I ask her if she is aware of how she lights up when mention is made of her time at the monastery or even when she half jokingly says that she would like to live on a mountaintop, her eyes fill with tears. Yes, she says she deeply misses the privilege of living in a community that is dedicated to the practice of meditation for a good part of every day. But she is keenly aware that her calling is to take meditation "out of the halls of monasteries and free it from the barriers of mystery." She describes her work as "service leadership" and her prayer is to be of service until she is used up.
According to Thich Nhat Hanh in Old Path White Clouds, the Buddha taught the following:
Practice loving kindness to overcome anger. Loving kindness has the capacity to bring happiness to others without demanding anything in return.
Practice compassion to overcome cruelty. Compassion has the capacity to remove the suffering of others without expecting anything in return.
Practice sympathetic joy to overcome hatred. Sympathetic joy arises when one rejoices over the happiness of others and wishes others well-being and success.
I cannot speak for Sarah McLean, but it seems to me that she practices loving kindness, compassion and sympathetic joy every day. And by so doing, she has overcome anger, cruelty and hatred. And the path that she was seeking was found in what she teaches today. Close your eyes, feel your breath, explore your inner realm, enjoy the silence and notice how you feel after.