Healing the World With Meditation:
How Ben Decker and The Providence Project Are Solving the World’s Biggest Problems From the Inside Out
BY JUSTIN FAERMAN & MEGHAN MCDONALD
ben decker is one of the world’s leading meditation teachers and executive director of the providence project, an LA-based non-profit dedicated to improving the health, quality of life and overall wellbeing of communities worldwide through the power of meditation and mindfulness. photo: ian bailey
A wise mentor of mine used to say that to understand where life is leading you, connect the dots between where you have been. Following this logic, it becomes quite clear why Ben Decker would undertake the incrediblychallenging, but infinitely rewarding path that he has of dedicating his life to transforming our society’s most bureaucratic and underserved institutions through meditation and mindfulness. Having experienced its massively transformational power firsthand and witnessing its impact on the lives of others, it became clear that life was indeed leading him somewhere profound.
“There have been many moments in my life where, in meditation, I experienced a direct transition—from addiction to freedom from addiction; from dysfunctional relationships to seeing the way out of dysfunctional relationships; from bearing witness to my own suffering, my own childhood traumas and being able to process through and ultimately overcome them,” Ben shared with us during an interview about his burgeoning nonprofit, The Providence Project, which offers meditation and mindfulness training to various institutions and communities, including schools, rehabilitation centers, detention centers, hospitals, and law enforcement officers.
His fascination with the life-altering power of meditation came not just from personal experiences with the practice but from witnessing firsthand its effects on others. “There is one unforgettable incident that I experienced where I was able to bear witness to the immense transformation of others through the power of meditation.” He shifted nervously in his seat as he opened up to us: “I’ve never shared this story publicly until now… When I was on a trip to the Philippines with an anti-human trafficking organization I‘d become very involved with, Unlikely Heroes, we were spending a few days working with a group of girls that had been rescued from sex trafficking. Each girl had their own individual story; but, they were all under 18, most under the age of 15, and had been raped countless times.”
The mood in the room grew tense as the story unfolded. Ben recalled that one of the girls had been strangled and left for dead, but was fortunately found and resuscitated. “Encountering these girls, and seeing their social dynamic with each other, it was unmistakably obvious: they were very guarded, they had walls up against each other; they didn’t even want to look me in the eye. They had walls up against all of the people that were there to help them, especially the men that were there, myself included.”
Ben paused to take a sip of water and collect himself, clearly still moved by his experience many years later. “They had been through very serious, very extreme trauma,” he murmured before continuing. After being moved to a safe place, the girls were fed, given gifts, and reassured, but there wasn’t much of a change in their demeanor.
“After a series of different activities, we actually sat down and had them close their eyes. We said a prayer with them. We had them just sit there in silence, taking a few deep breaths. In those moments, we let them know that they were in a safe place; that we were there specifically for them and to help them… that they mattered; that their lives mattered; that things that had already happened to them were irrelevant to what was going to happen to them in the future, and that they are powerful; that they could overcome anything. The energy in the room became very still as we sat there in silence. We saw all of the girls—the demeanor of each of these very hard, very tough girls—became very soft and they all suddenly became very vulnerable.”
meditation has been a powerful transformational force both in ben’s own life and the lives of the people he works with—from people like presidential hopeful bernie sanders to police offers, inmates and underserved children worldwide.
Ben described the scene after the meditation as one of great transformation—the girls were crying and hugging each other—later that day they were playing and singing as if all of that trauma had suddenly evaporated. “It was like a miracle had been performed,” he choked. “Even just for that day, they were allowed to just be teenagers again, they were allowed to just be young girls rather than having to live through the horror of what had happened to them.”
Although reluctant to admit it, it’s clear this experience left an indelible mark on his soul.
“It was emotional for me also. It was one of the most magical moments I have ever experienced. I was crying; I had tears in my eyes. All the other adults that were with me, we were all really speechless. It was something very divine; it was so much bigger than we ever could have imagined that moment to be. It was as though something truly divine, truly powerful, had passed through that room. My immediate thoughts were relating that moment to my own life, how I could overcome anything in my own life.”Experiences like these shape our lives in unexpected ways, instantly transforming the way we see ourselves and the world around us. Ben remembers seeing a female police officer a few days later while still in the Philippines, whose demeanor was also characteristic of the same tough exterior and a similar underlying hurt and trauma. “I just started to see it. And, I thought, wow; what if we could provide that moment to police officers? And let them know: Hey, you’ve got this! You’re awesome! We so appreciate what you’re doing. And you, as an individual, matter no matter what, if you decided to not be a police officer or if you decide to continue being a police officer.”
Swept up in the zeitgeist of his experiences, Ben began to see the pressing need for similar interventions throughout society’s most troubled institutions.
“I thought: what if we could provide that healing, transformational moment to people who are in prison, who believe that they’re bad and believe that they should be judged for the things that they’ve done? What if we could start to bring those transformational moments into those places? Would they cry? Would they hug each other after? Would they start laughing with each other after the way these girls did?”
“In the months after that, all these other ideas started to come through,” remembers Ben. “I started to meet people: cancer patients, AIDS patients, mental health patients—and even just children living their normal lives, with normal upbringings. What if we could provide that moment to children who just feel insecure on their first day of school? They don’t even need to have experienced extreme trauma; everyone experiences anxiety and suffering in their own way. What if we were able to just provide that in areas where it could be needed? The transformational potential in that was really inspiring.”
Upon his return to the U.S., the inspiration continued to avalanche in. What would happen if everyone could experience something like this? How would society change? What would happen if world leaders and politicians had this same experience? Would wars end? Would major issues find peaceful resolution? Would it trickle down to the masses? “Giving myself that time to dream about that—it was a few months of dreaming—a few months of just, what can I do? I don’t know where to begin with this; it was just such a big, lofty dream. And I realized you just kind of start where you are.”
What you don’t know about Ben is that he knows how to hustle—how to make things happen. The intoxicating dream of becoming an actor lured him out west as a teenager, leaving behind everything that couldn’t fit in his car—family, friends and the only life he knew up to that point. Like so many before him, he soon found himself stranded in Los Angeles without a cent to his name. But there was no turning back. It was all or nothing, a proverbial right of passage to discover who he truly was.
When the acting failed to pan out, he quickly discovered he was good at public relations. Really good. Within a few years, he was running a well-staffed PR agency that he had built from scratch, working with some of the world’s most well-known brands and a number of burgeoning nonprofits, including Unlikely Heroes, to raise awareness about humanitarian causes closer to his heart. But despite the fame, glamour and success, the unrelenting pressure to perform and the toll it was taking on his life was slowly eating away at his conscience.“It was a lot of stress—it was a really high stress environment,” Ben reflected on his life running the agency. “Everyone around me was constantly having anxiety attacks, and there was a really serious issue with depression. It was constant chaos. My health was deteriorating, my anxiety was off the charts.”
“Before I knew it, I had been in LA. for six years and my entire life had been co-opted by the PR industry. I was gaining a lot of weight and aging really rapidly. I had all kinds of health issues coming up left and right. Doctors were shoving medication in my face… I eventually realized that my life wasn’t working, and so I began the process of unraveling everything I had spent the last half decade building.”
And as is so often the case in these moments of defeat, we find great clarity. Ben’s story was no exception. “I was feeling really disconnected and disinterested with life. I was broke and depressed and cynical… even suicidal at times… and then I started meditating. And it changed everything.” His face lit up as he recounted the moment, clearly still feeling the emotional ethers of the experience. “I woke up to the reality of my life and realized that it wasn’t at all what I wanted, and I just started purging everything negative from my life. Meditation and a handful of close friends saved me from a massively self-destructive trajectory.”
And yet, in an ironic twist of fate, it would ultimately be his PR skills, coupled with a newfound self-awareness and meditation practice, that led to the transformational experiences that were his salvation from the unrelenting stress of the entertainment industry.
“After I got back from the Phillipines, I got involved with Marianne Williamson, serving on her campaign for Congress, and through relationships developed by working with her, I began teaching meditation publicly. It was really through that experience of teaching publicly that I started to see how this vision could become something that could pragmatically begin and actually, effectively, be implemented now, right away. So, I decided to create The Providence Project from that place of inspiration to just begin something now.” It didn’t take long before Ben had developed and implemented free meditation and mindfulness classes across the city. Building on his early successes, he began developing relationships with mental health facilities and other organizations as The Providence Project grew.
His background working closely with charities during his PR days suddenly came into greater focus and found a new form of expression. Instead of raising money for other nonprofits, he’s now running his own.
From the very beginning, The Providence Project was different—the ethos was about far more than just raising money for a good cause, it was about transforming society from the roots up—giving the often-marginalized people who need it most a direct experience of the transformation, joy and peace that meditation could bring… just like he experienced with the girls from the Phillipines.
The Beginnings of a Movement
Two years in he’s off to a great start. Ben and the project have worked tirelessly to set up regular classes across Los Angeles and are making inroads into many underserved areas of society. Their model is twofold: provide free community classes to anyone looking to learn meditation and mindfulness and serve specific communities by partnering with existing organizations and acting as a social service-enhancement program. By operating in this manner, the classes can be tailored to meet the specific needs of the communities being served.
But despite initial success, it’s hardly a walk in the park. Transforming bureaucratic organizations and marginalized communities takes time, patience and fine tuning to meet the specific needs of the people being served.
“We’re working with the case managers and everything; hearing what the needs are. Sometimes, for example, if you think it’s going to be encouragement these people need, it’s not always the case; sometimes you’re surprised to find out it’s actually anger management; and then we tailor the meditations to really fit what the case managers tell us about the population. And then, once we work with the population, we receive real-time feedback in tailoring that specifically for them,” he explained about the intricacies of developing effective programs.
ben teaching one of many regular meditation classes he leads in the los angeles area. photo: ian bailey
One of his favorite projects to date offers meditation classes to survivors of sex-trafficking in Los Angeles county by working with Saving Innocence—a nonprofit that rescues and advocates for sex-trafficking survivors. As of this writing, Ben and The Providence Project have set up or are in the process of implementing free programs working with police departments, prisons, mental health facilities, rehabilitation centers, school teachers, HIV/AIDS and cancer patients, and virtually everyone in between.
Although the programs have generally been well-received, they face unique challenges with people who don’t understand meditation or have preconceived notions about what it is. “There’s some people that believe it’s a religious practice—there are people who are misinformed about the different types of meditation, and there’s also a members-only-club mentality about this type of meditation is better than that type of meditation.” On top of this, there’s the ingrained belief in our society that doing more is better, and slowing down is a sign of weakness. “Convincing someone like a police officer or politician to sit quietly for a session can take some finesse. There’s not only overcoming some of the ignorance and confusion surrounding what the actual work is but also being able to calmly and effectively communicate what the clinically proven benefits are to get someone to the point where they say: OK; I understand meditation; I understand what this is, and I’m open to trying it.”
Which is why The Providence Project has adopted a hybrid, science-backed form of meditation that transcends traditional definitions and stereotypes of the practice: “The method that we use in The Providence Project is based on what has been clinically proven to be effective. So, it has its roots in both Vedic and Buddhist mindfulness meditation, which have a lot of similarities with Kabbalistic meditation and other forms of meditation; but, primarily, it is a mindfulness-based practice.”
While The Providence Project doesn’t use traditional mantra in the meditations, they still teach about them, along with the various types and styles of meditation. “I really like to teach about the different kinds of meditation, so people can find out what really resonates for them and learn more about that. What we are teaching directly is a totally secular, non-spiritual exercise to connect with your body, take inventory of your body and become aware of the thoughts that are coming through your mind. It’s very similar to mindfulness in that way, and it’s technically based on mindfulness, but we also use very foundational, fundamental techniques that are not considered to be part of any specific lineage exclusively.”
And Ben should know. In addition to running The Providence Project full time, he currently teaches meditation at various locales in Los Angeles, including Wanderlust Hollywood and Unplug Meditation, and works with a number of private clients looking to go deeper in their own practice. His intimacy with the art is a big part of the organization’s success, encoding the entire project with deep roots in an experiential, non-dogmatic model. A model that is also designed to be highly scalable—perhaps a reflection of the open-source ethos characteristic of Ben’s generation. “The programs are organized in such a way that they are easy to duplicate; the model was created to be reproducible,” he chimed when asked about the project’s evolution and development.
In order to restructure the fabric of society and have the widest possible impact, The Providence Project will eventually take on a life of its own, meaning that volunteers around the world will be able to form their own spinoff groups based on a shared common methodology and system currently being developed by Ben and his colleagues. “I think that what the world needs and what The Providence Project needs is really committed people,” says Ben. “The best way to contribute is to take an inventory of what you do with your life; everyone can help in their own way. You are helping because you have the magazine; you’re helping by getting the word out there.” In addition to spreading awareness, The Providence Project is particularly focused on finding and training facilitators across the country and world and connecting them with groups in their area that can benefit from meditation. “We can provide the training for how to teach meditation. We can even connect you with groups in your area that need the work and coordinate all of that,” he explained. “More than anything, I just want to see the programs grow and thrive with a team of really committed people.”
When asked about the future of the Project, Ben is optimistic. “I’ve already seen so much transformation that my hopes and my vision are very high. In fact, my expectations are really high. There’s no limit to what one individual can create and experience. Knowing that and then providing a tool that can actually help an individual recognize that in themselves, we open ourselves up to a world where anything actually is possible.”
And in the end, like everything, it all comes full circle.
To learn more about The Providence Project visit their website: theprovidenceproject.org
All photographs shot on location at Wanderlust Hollywood and the Four Seasons Hotel, Beverly Hills.
About The Authors
Justin Faerman & Meghan McDonald are the co-founders of Conscious Lifestyle Magazine.