• Question: How did you become involved with mindfulness? How has this topic changed over the past ten years?

    Asked by tyrrellt to Katherine on 13 Apr 2015.
    • Photo: Katherine Weare

      Katherine Weare answered on 13 Apr 2015:

      I wrote an autobiographical piece on this a while back. Its a bit long but you might like it.

      As for how mindfulness has changed since then, to become much better known, found in more contexts, more evidence based.
      In 2002, the middle of a successful academic career and a thriving social and personal life I hit the buffers – as so many people do. My husband and I had adopted a family of three children who were 8,7 and 3 – blithely imagining our competent personas would enable us to rise above the gloomy prognostications and produce a happy, balanced family of (possibly grateful!) children. Laughable in retrospect, and the stress of the reality of dealing with early trauma and the sequelae of attachment disorder and mental health problems (in all five of us) was almost certainly what led to the development of a mysterious and barely understood auto immune condition. This condition, complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is pretty well impervious to any treatment or even painkillers, prevented me from walking, was constantly and excruciatingly painful, and spreading. In the depths of suicidal despair in the face of a problem no-one could ‘fix’ I was directed to mindfulness by a pain specialist, who himself had no experience of it but had heard it was helpful. I tracked down a local and wonderful patient, calm teacher, Mark Bowden, and began the journey into mindfulness – starting with one to one sessions – which saved my life, and did so much else.

      My day one discovery was the extraordinary ball of physical tension that constituted my body, followed by the dawning realisation I had been driving myself and the rest of my family into the ground with unsurfaced neuroses from my catholic childhood and deep rooted mindstates of shame, guilt, self dislike and striving. In the face of gentle mindfulness practice, the pain and the CRPS condition started subsiding fairly quickly to become manageable, and have diminished steadily since so now they are hardly present. I experienced the ‘8 week course’ several times over, and resigned from my post at the University to focus on my personal life as all this was far more compelling than becoming Dean of the Faculty. I enrolled in the University of Exeter’s postgraduate diploma in Mindfulness-based approaches to train as a mindfulness teacher.

      Since then I have taught and practised mindfulness ‘as best I can’ in a wide variety of settings. My professional life has revived but now with mindfulness integrated into it (my speciality is child wellbeing and social and emotional learning so the links are pretty obvious). Based at the University of Exeter I am working to develop teaching and research on mindfulness in schools in various contexts and move it into public consciousness. In the course of this work I have been fortunate to work alongside with some extraordinary people, in academia, in schools and the contemplative world. They include my fellow Exeter students, now colleagues, and particularly the redoubtable Willem Kuyken, Professor at the University of Exeter and role model of the mindful approach to a huge workload and the longed for ability to write cryptic emails. The phenomenal minds and authentic presence behind the UK mindfulness programme, .b who are Chris Cullen and Richard Burnett. Thicht Nhat Hanh’s Plum Village monastics who are the sanest people I have met. The quiet wisdom of the staff from Mind and Life such as Arthur Zajonc and the talented people their meetings attract such as the brilliantly gritty Guy Claxton. I sit with the effort to find them all inspirational, but noting my ‘imposter complex’ arising constantly.

      It is not all nirvana. I struggle with deep aspects of my own shame and guilt, which come to greet me on the cushion especially during lengthy retreats, my impulsiveness, and my ingrained tendency to turn everything into smart ass words. I try to use mindfulness myself, to help my children and I arrive in a state of calmness and mostly I manage it in the face of some extraordinary difficulties, although sometimes the attunment and openness of mindfulness brings goes the other way and I find myself being drawn into their trauma, self dislike and brain fog with which my mind can easily resonate. I remind myself that writing about and talking about mindfulness do not in themselves constitute mindfulness, and you do actually have to do the daily practice if you are to be able to live it. I remind myself that mindfulness is not the universal panacea, that it will not in itself make you thinner, fitter and on top of your workload, that it can alienate friends if it turns to smugness, and that it works best if part of a balanced life. The best single advice I have is from the calligraphy from Thich Nhat Hanh on the wall over my bed – smile and breathe – and if I do nothing else in the day that is at least the way it starts.