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Sally Lewis: The modern-day monk teaching meditation to prisoners

Sally Lewis. Photo/Sue White/Listener

Could an ancient form of meditation change the lives of prisoners for better? Sally Lewis says it can.

Sally Lewis appeared to have it all: marriage, career, financial security, frequent overseas holidays and good friends. The Christchurch-born businesswoman and her husband, Paul Davenport, were missing only one thing – and it was something money couldn’t buy.

Turning 40 was a milestone for Lewis in more ways than one – she and Davenport parted amicably to sort out “what next?”. Davenport married again and found happiness before dying, aged just 54. Lewis is now an Ishaya monk of the Bright Path, a non-religious order that practises Ascension meditation. Ishaya is a Sanskrit word that means “for higher consciousness”. Lewis, whose monk name is Aditi, has found contentment and love, and has dedicated her life to helping to bring peace to people and the planet.

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Her early childhood memories are of “magical times” in various parts of New Zealand with her two brothers and sister. Her father, Gwyn, was a headmaster, and he, her mother, June, and the children moved to follow his job. But a family tragedy when Lewis was a child would affect her for years to come in ways she couldn’t identify.

After leaving school, she studied sciences, worked in merchant banking and currency trading and was one of the founders of Astrolabe Wines in Marlborough. Today, she and her partner, fellow monk Greg Hopkinson, known as Hop, are spreading the practice of Ascension meditation.

The 2016 movie A Mindful Choice, produced by the couple, showed the calming and transformative effects of Ascension meditation, including at Apodaca Prison in Mexico. Notorious for violence among prisoners, there has not been a serious incident since meditation was introduced. New Zealand authorities took note, and six New Zealand prisons now make Ascension meditation available to inmates.

Meditation classes at Apodaca Prison in Mexico have quelled serious violence among prisoners. Photo/Sally Lewis Collection

You loved being in business and did well at it, so what went wrong in those earlier days?

I love projects and have never been afraid to try new careers, so I changed my job quite regularly as opportunities came up. There were long hours and a lot of work but I really felt alive. But predictably, I was burnt out by the time I was 30. It was crazy. I decided then that I really wanted to have my own businesses rather than work for someone else, and that I would no longer work 14-hour days. Paul was doing quite well at that point, too. In my thirties, I loved being my own boss and making my own money, but by the time I was 40, I still wasn’t getting joy or satisfaction.

Did Paul feel that too?

Something was missing in our lives – Paul and I were not making each other happy. We could have coexisted the rest of our days, but we didn’t have children and that made it easier to recognise that there had to be more to life. Far from failure, parting was the greatest gift we could have given each other.

Apodaca Prison. Photo/Sally Lewis collection

What did you do in this quest to find happiness?

I started reading a lot of self-help books and The Power of Now: A Guide to Spiritual Enlightenment, by Eckhart Tolle, made an impact. I wanted to understand my past more so I could live into a new future. I felt like there was another woman living inside me and I never lived up to her expectations. She was always criticising and judging me and everything else around me. The more self-help books I read, and the more self-help courses I did, the more of a contrast she became. I felt myself thinking, “My God, how do I get rid of this woman?” I wondered if I was actually schizophrenic and needed help. But really, what I needed was a way to quieten my mind and not actually believe what she was saying. It was those voices that had driven me all my life to succeed.

What was Hop’s role in this?

Two years after my marriage ended, I went on a blind date with him. It was hilarious. I walked into this bar in Wellington and, in my head, the voice was saying, “He doesn’t wear the right shoes, he is not tall enough” – this incessant chatter about “the perfect man”. But there was something that resonated, not a head thing, but a heart thing – that old saying that you have found a soulmate. We went out for a year and both realised we were dysfunctional in relationships. We knew we would have to go off and find ourselves separately, and I thought, “Yes, this is not about him, it is about me.”

The Lewis family: back row, David, Gwyn and June, in front, Barry, Sally and Christine. Photo/Sally Lewis collection

And the next move?

I went off to a psychologist and I got to understand that I couldn’t really give and receive love very openly. One of the reasons was that my oldest brother, David, died in a car accident when I was about 10. He was only 20. Until then, living in Ngaruawahia, I had felt really safe in the world. When he died, I didn’t feel safe any more and I tended to push people away. I had a great facade but, inside, I wasn’t in a comfortable place.

When you and Hop got together again, what was different, and what led you two to becoming monks?

Hop had done an Ascension course, and although I was sceptical, he was sure it was what we had been looking for. I said, “I don’t meditate.” But, when I saw the change in him, I decided I wanted that, too. When I learnt these meditation techniques, it was all about me – I got a taste for being present, resting in that pure consciousness. But towards the end of my six-month retreat, I realised that it wasn’t just about me anymore – it was actually about how I could serve that consciousness and help other people to transcend the thoughts that tend to lead to behaviour patterns that are very limiting. There is so much more to life than that.

How do you go about helping people?

It is through projects again, consciousness projects. We are part of our communities, we wear normal clothes, we don’t set ourselves apart. We teach Ascension to groups, and we are now teaching in six New Zealand prisons as a result of the film. We’ve got a number of teachers and we also have some charitable funds to be able to do that. Everyone’s entitled to experience peace. We know some of these guys in prison have come from pretty horrific backgrounds, but we are giving them tools so that, if they are ready, they can choose to let go of their past, be present and live into a new future. A lot of them are doing it for their families; they want a different life for their kids.

Sally Lewis today. Photo/Sue White/Listener

How do you measure the result and demonstrate that difference?

The prisoners themselves are noticing a difference and so are the prison staff in their day-to-day interactions with them – that’s the best proof for us. One person choosing peace can have a huge effect on the people around them. Wouldn’t it be wonderful if our prisons could be calmer and safer and really help people to make a change?

Are you still looking for something else, or are you leading exactly the life you want?

Yes, my life is as I want it to be. I used to seek ways to stop, and by that I mean not just physically, but in my head. I’d come home and have a glass of wine. For about 30 seconds maybe, I would have peace and then my head would kick in again. But once I had a tool that I could choose to use any moment of the day, I could be peaceful no matter what was going on. Stuff still happens – it is not like you start living a magical life, although in some ways you do – but you don’t get stressed by work or by family relationships, you just sit back and you are present to it. Freedom from judgment is a joyful life. I remember reading You Can Heal Your Life, by Louise Hay, and in it she said, “You are responsible for your own happiness.” That was a massive turnaround for me.

What’s your next project?

I am coming up to 59 and, for the first time, I am projectless. What I’m really passionate about now is teaching. A couple of years ago, I spent about two weeks just writing; it was enjoyable and fascinating. I think I’ll take a leaf from what Hop did with his book, Boundless, giving people tips to help them find their missing piece. I’ll make the book autobiographical and accessible, because there is so much stuff out there that is intellectual. Ascension isn’t like that; it is a mechanical tool, not a religion. People just need a way of doing it rather than having to understand it or analyse it. Life is a lot simpler than that.

This article was first published in the December 1, 2018 issue of the New Zealand Listener.