Joe Mieloch first discovered meditation—the Buddhist kind, anyway—in 1993, a year before his divorce.
He was 40 years old, juggling a day job in engineering, graduate school at night, a successful band that he ran with his wife on the weekends, and two young sons.
“I was in a transitional period in my spiritual and ethical life,” he recalls. Raised in a traditional Polish Catholic household, he had practiced meditative prayer since childhood, but as he puts it, “I didn’t feel that I was putting my understanding into the practical realm—my relationships, my actions.”
“I took a business class on the relationship between religion and business cultures around the world. That was the first time that I read about Buddhism, and it immediately struck a chord within me. There wasn’t a new deity to worship. One did not need to throw away one’s past, but could integrate it into the new practice.”
He saw an ad for Zen Mountain Monastery in a local newspaper and decided to try it out: “I went for an introductory weekend at their monastery in the Catskills Mountains. I really enjoyed it and when I came home I started meditating—or as it is said in the Zen tradition, ‘sitting’—mostly irregularly.”
“The basic approach is getting into a solid, seated position (a chair is fine too), breathing and counting each breath—one, in—two out, and so forth, until you get to 10. If you have a thought about something—anything—you become aware of it, acknowledge it, and go back to counting. It’s often surprising how hard it is to get to ‘two’ or ‘three’ before something comes up.”
Something big did come up—but not during meditation. Later that year, his wife told him she was seeing someone else.
What followed was a blur of shock, anger, sadness, confusion, and self-pity. Despite his pain, Joe made time to meditate. “Through meditation one hopes to see things more clearly and openly, although not necessarily more comfortably,” he explains. “My practice wasn’t as mature as it is now, but it helped me access the deepest parts of myself—even if somewhat unevenly. I had less skill in processing my anger, and entered into some interactions shall we say, unproductively.” He doesn’t remember the exact moment when his perspective began to change, but he does remember that meditation helped open up space for the clarity he was seeking. He spent time sitting with the Zen precepts—which “aren’t commandments, more like guidelines,” he says. The ones he focused on most?
“See the perfection; do not speak of others’ errors and faults.”
“Realize self and other as one; do not elevate the self and blame others.”
“Actualize harmony; do not be angry.”
Doing his best to honor these precepts, he considered his own actions carefully. “It’s often said that there is no difference between what you do and what happens to you. There was a complex dynamic that led to the breakup. And I was part of it. My actions were a part of it. That realization was a big part of letting go of my anger.”
When he thinks back on how his practice affected his behavior during this difficult period, there is one memory in particular that stands out: “We were having a lot of back and forth in the legal space, talking about splitting up all the money—typically it’s 50-50. Another one of the precepts is to give generously, and not be withholding. So one day as I’m looking down the spreadsheet, I said let’s just split it 40-60. And she was kind of blown away. We had a deal right there, which saved us both a lot of time and heartache. Without my practice, I might have held on to getting ‘my fair share’ because I was hurting. But I was able to let go and say okay, this is what I should do. I’m not sure I was doing it consciously at the time, but it did come out of my practice.”
At first, meditation did not come naturally. “I was physically uncomfortable and squirmy. Sitting still and focusing on my breath was difficult, and to some extent I enjoyed letting my mind wander instead of counting my breath.” Gradually, he found solace in sitting more regularly and, with practice, has became more skilled at simultaneously counting breaths and building awareness: “I practice examining thoughts without judging them, try to see the emotion separately from the event, then let go and resume the counting.” Music is another pathway to contemplation. “Art practice,” as it’s called at Zen Mountain Monastery, is one of eight tangible ways to pursue spiritual path. “I’m a musician—a drummer—and music helps me express the ineffable and fosters introspection,” he explains.
About a year after his split, he met his now wife, and though he calls his relationship with her “healing in and of itself,” it wasn’t something he jumped into quickly. “At the beginning of our relationship I was very mindful about where the relationship was going to go. I wanted to be sure that I wouldn’t be hurtful in any way. We were very careful about developing a friendship first. I was still processing the ways in which I was hurtful to my first wife and I didn’t want to repeat that.” Today, they’ve been happily married for 16 years and have an 8-year-old son together.
Along with time, music, and love, meditation has clearly been an important source of healing and growth for Joe, but he is quick to explain that meditation in itself isn’t necessarily a solution. “It’s not like, well, I had this infection and I took this medicine and the infection got better. It’s all in the context of one’s life. It is the process of creating space for insight, openess, and clarity, not necessarily less pain.”
“I got divorced over 20 years ago and had just started meditating. As I have continued to practice, I’ve learned that mediation was key; but it was fed by mindfulness in my everyday life. If I felt that I was ‘stuck’ in my meditation experience, I learned that I often needed to reflect on my how I was living my life, and how I was relating to others.”
“A well-known quote from the great 13th Century Zen Master Dogen Zenji about meditation is, ‘To study the way is to study the self. To study the self is to forget the self. To forget the self is to be enlightened by all things of the universe,’” he says. “That is what I aim to practice.”
In 2006, Joe became a formal Zen student in the Mountains & Rivers Order, and in 2013 he took the Buddhist Precepts—a serious commitment that requires a minimum of two years of training—in a public ceremony called Jukai. While some 60-year-olds might be thinking of retirement, he’s busy as ever, working and trying to keep up with his 8-year old son. He also attends several weeklong meditation retreats each year and meditates for 30 minutes in his home almost every day. Even so, he is careful to point out that he is only a student, not a teacher.
“Just to let you know we’re all beginners,” he says.