How To Develop Mindfulness
I was recently interviewed by Authority Magazine. Here is a copy of the article.
Cat was originally born in Scotland and found Mindfulness and Meditation after her marriage of 14yrs ended. She has sat 18 Vipassana Courses and now teaches the gifts that she has gained from mindfulness and meditation over the years in the hope that it will inspires others. Cat is a Coach, Accredited CPD teacher and she has written several e-books. Cat is also the Meditation Editor for BellaOnline.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Our readers would love to “get to know you” a bit better. Can you share with us the backstory about what brought you to your specific career path?
It is my pleasure to be here and thank you so much for choosing to interview me.
Somehow, through my life I have always known that I had a mission of some kind. Probably sounds odd, but I felt I had a calling to be of service to others but I was just not ‘getting to it’, and wasn’t sure what or how this mission would be fulfilled.
I was enjoying my twenties, with the thought of “I’ll get to that later”. However, life decided to intervene! My appendix burst on my 27th birthday, and I woke up with the surgeon standing next to my bed holding my hand, telling me they ‘nearly lost me’, and with my son being just over 3 months old, I saw this as a wake-up call and decided it was time to sort my life out and get myself on track.
I started to take courses in college and to do voluntary work within Social Services. I trained as a counsellor and worked with people experiencing drug and alcohol challenges. I then secured a job as the manager of a hostel for teenagers in care. Life became full on, however I knew I was making a difference and the sense of what I had previously felt around empowering others kept me going.
It all came to a head when my marriage of 14years broke down. I decided to leave the Hostel job and focus my time and energy on my own family. I retrained and started a new complementary health business in 2001. This was the start of discovering meditation and mindfulness for me. I joined a local Buddhist group and learned about Mindfulness of Breathing and quickly integrated it into my life.
I then met someone who had sat Vipassana Meditation courses. He explained to me how you hand over your keys, stay silent for the duration of the course, agree to stay for the full 10 days and to follow the instructions given by the teachers. I knew when he was telling me about it that it was something I would do eventually - I wasn’t ready for it just then…
By 2004 the time came for me to sit my first Vipassana Course. Vipassana is insight meditation. You learn how to observe the sensations in your body without reacting to them. When you are sitting in meditation for hours on end your body and mind are in pain.
Throughout the course you learn to observe the pain moving and ‘allow it to be’ without moving your body or reacting to it otherwise. You build an equanimity within that allows you to be steady and present no matter the situation. Easier said than done! The discomfort in the mind and the tension of not moving can build up a lot of resistance within.
Once you realise that everything changes and nothing is permanent it becomes easier to watch the pain move, and to observe the reactions in the body and mind without resistance to them. I learned so much about myself and my psychology through this, I always say it is the best thing I’ve ever done. It was life changing for me.
Can you share the most interesting story that happened to you since you started your career?
I think the most interesting thing that happened to me is that my intuition and sense of being connected to everything got heightened. I became more in tune with life. I started to become deeply curious about life and the nature of ‘reality’.
I understood confirmation bias, and how we are always looking to get confirmation that our way of thinking is right. I started to see more clearly how we are all making up our own version of life and reality, and believing our version to be true. I became more aware of how we are all having different experiences depending on where our minds are, and the question of what ‘reality’ is became more pertinent. I always question everything, and I try to stay as objective as possible. Mindfulness seemed to really heighten this awareness in me.
By shutting out the noise of the outside world, I became more aware of my inner guidance, which helps me to trust my gut and to always listen to my intuition. This has served me well and keeps me aware of my thought process’s, biases and agendas.
What advice would you give to other leaders about how to create a fantastic work culture?
Treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. I feel that a more universal bottom-up approach is needed now and that the top-down dominating systems are no longer the way to go. The more conscious and considerate of others the leaders are, the better it is all round.
I feel that they should act as role models for what is expected and acceptable in the work- place and if they respect and look after their staff, they will work harder for them because they feel valued. When people feel they have a choice, they work better than those being told what to do without any consideration for them as people. The more conscious our leaders are, be that in the workplace or otherwise, the more collaborative the work culture is in return.
People are more educated now and have higher emotional intelligence and awareness of equal rights, so they can see through the old dictatorial ways, and soon reject them or even rebel against them.
Is there a particular book that made a significant impact on you? Can you share a story or explain why it resonated with you so much?
I would say Eckart Tolle’s book The Power Of Now had a big impact on me. I listened to the audio version as I drove to sit my first Vipassana Course and it was as if it was a pre-curser to the course. It couldn’t have been more perfect. It put me in the right frame of mind for what was to come.
Vipassana is a meditation technique that is learned over 10 days in silence. It brings you into your body and the present moment, and the book helped me to stay present with the experiences of pain and discomfort I was having through sitting in meditation for hours a day.
Ok, thank you for all that. Now let’s move to the main focus of our interview. From your experience or research, how would you define and describe the state of being mindful?
Being mindful is a state of ‘being’. It is cultivated through regular practise to help you to be present in the moment no matter what the circumstances. Mindfulness can help you to detach, and experience situations you are in instead of reacting and resisting what is happening.
During my first Vipassana, I remember feeling like I wanted to leave on the first day. Since the day starts at 4am and ends at 9pm it felt like 2 days in one. Endless hours sitting in pain and silence feeling the effects physically, mentally, and emotionally is exhausting.
By the middle of the first day, I was in so much pain in my body from the constant sitting cross-legged on the floor that I didn’t think I could carry on. I spoke to one of the teachers to ask if I could have a chair or lean against a wall, he informed me that it was due to my mind being weak and to carry on as I am. What!!!!!
To be honest, although I didn’t want to hear that, it was the best thing I could have been told as it helped me to relax and detach from the experience more. From then on I was able to watch the pain instead of resist it. When I realised I was creating and magnifying my own problems, I was able to experience them differently.
This might be intuitive to you, but it will be instructive to spell this out. Can you share with our readers a few of the physical, mental, and emotional benefits of becoming mindful?
Of course. For me mindfulness is key to living a conscious and productive life. It opens the doors to self-awareness and more curious awareness of others. Through sitting several Vipassana courses where you are constantly aware of your breath and the sensations in the body, I found that I became more resilient and able to endure (if that is the right word) more than I thought possible.
Sitting on the floor with pins and needles in my legs and feet, lower back pain and sore knees would have been hell if I hadn’t become mindful of myself and observed the situation instead of reacting to it. By detaching and watching the pain move, I could see that nothing is permanent. This helped me become stronger in myself. Also the realisation of how powerful my mind had been to lock me into the moment helped me to allow instead of resist how things were transpiring.
Rather than give in to things that I may have before, I now respond to them differently. For example, if I am walking home from the shop and I’ve bought too much to carry easily, rather than becoming defeatist I will become very present to my breathing and to each step, and maybe say over and over ‘one more step, one more step’ and just keep walking until I get home.
Mindfulness can also help when in stressful situations and with noticing feelings of anxiety. When you bring your attention to the present moment, there is usually nothing happening except for thoughts that are contributing to the anxious feelings and being mindful can help you to come back to a more natural baseline and the realisation that it is only the thoughts that are causing the problems in that moment.
Eckart Tolle says in ‘The Power Of Now’ something along the lines of anxiety being caused by having our thoughts focused too much in the past and that depression is the result of having our thoughts projected too much in the future.
Ok. Here is the main question of our discussion. The past 5 years have been filled with upheaval and political uncertainty. Many people have become anxious from the dramatic jolts of the news cycle. From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to develop mindfulness during such uncertain times? Can you please share a story or example for each.
Of course. It’s easy to tell someone just do this and that. However, for me, something has to have tangible results and work in real-life situations for me to consider it valuable. The thing with mindfulness, and of course anything, the more you do it the better you become at it until it is your natural way of being. The results speak for themselves.
The 5 steps I would suggest are as follows -
Be kind to yourself - It takes time to undo habits of a lifetime and you are not going to get it right straight away. Be gentle with yourself and allow yourself time to instil this new way of being. Treat yourself like you would a friend who is struggling and speak kindly to yourself. If you haven’t got your own back then who does?
Start small - You don’t have to rush off to do a 10-day silent retreat. Take time to introduce mindfulness practises into your daily life. Start by noticing the things around you. Slow down your breathing and your walking. Take things in more and start to notice your surroundings as if it’s the first time you’ve seen them. Take breath breaks. Slow down your breathing while waiting for the kettle to boil, while driving or during any time you feel you have started to feel anxious or overwhelmed. This trains your body to relax and helps to make it your most natural response in stressful situations. You can find a guided meditation and 14-day Mindfulness Challenge on my website, along with 3 free e-books to download that can help you get started. The number one block to having a successful meditation or mindfulness practice is treating it like it is something you have to fit into your day instead of it being integrated into your life. Make way for it to become a natural way of being, like brushing your teeth. You do it every day. In the same way, you can do mindfulness exercises in the same time it takes to brush your teeth or boil the kettle. There are always opportunities to be more mindful throughout your day.
Notice how you interact with others - Become aware of how you are with your friends and family. Do you listen to them? Do you try to fix things? Are you comfortable or anxious around them? Are you ready to jump in with your response? When you start to see yourself as an observer you can become acutely aware of yourself and to your reactions to life. You might start to see other people you meet as reflecting yourself back to you. This can help us to take responsibility for ourselves and our actions and to not blame or project onto others.
Become aware of your thoughts - Our thoughts can cause us the most problems of all. We tend to have a thought about something, change our behaviours according to the thought and then live as if it were true. However, it was only a thought. It was one interpretation among many that we decided was the truth. By becoming aware of our thoughts, we can start to uncover our beliefs and whether they are supporting or limiting us, and then start to challenge and change them to more supportive ones.
Limit your time watching the news - Whatever you are putting into your consciousness is going to be impacting how you feel and the thoughts and beliefs you are developing and nurturing - whether they are helpful or not. Keep in mind that we are only ever shown someone else’s opinion from their agenda and that everything is open to interpretation. Talk to friends, find things that you are grateful for and find the positives in everything. After all life is a gift and we are always being given what we need to grow and evolve. As Tony Robbins said “Life is happening for us and not to us…” Remembering this can help us to take the challenges as they come. Research has shown that the more grateful we are for what we have the more we find to be grateful for. This is going to make you feel much better than focusing on the negatives in life.
From your experience or research, what are five steps that each of us can take to effectively offer support to those around us who are feeling anxious? Can you explain?
It feels like it is more important than ever to look out for those around us. After COVID there are still some people struggling to get back to normal, especially the elderly. That’s not to say that others haven’t been affected as well.
We are all very good at telling others - and ourselves - that we are ‘fine’ but actually most of us are just holding it together. When we become more mindful of ourselves and our day- to-day situations, we start to also be more aware of others and start to notice when they may be struggling and not asking for help.
One of the biggest lessons I have learned through mindfulness and meditation practises is that everything is impermanent, and we can only deal with what is happening in the present moment. Everything else is a construct of the mind. Helping others to understand this can make all the difference to their experiences.
My 5 steps would be -
Be a good neighbour - Check in on your elderly neighbours and those living alone. Many people are working from home now, and it has been shown that there is a risk of becoming more insular without actual face-to-face human interactions. Sometimes it’s nice to have a friendly face or to know that there is someone around who is willing to help if necessary. At the same time, it’s not your duty so don’t over-commit or agree to do more than is manageable and comfortable for you. I know some areas where the streets have their own what’s app groups to keep in touch with each other.
Introduce them to mindfulness - People may start to notice changes in you and ask what you’ve been doing. This is a great opportunity to tell them about mindfulness and what you have done to help yourself. It may be that some of you can come together - either online or in person - and meditate together or just to share your experiences and get support from each other. You can also put them in touch with a mindfulness teacher who could support them further if need be.
Tell others about your experiences with mindfulness - Most people love getting referrals or hearing about things that worked for someone else. By sharing how much mindfulness has helped you, you can inspire them to take the journey themselves. Start sharing website links that helped you, tell them about books that you found inspiring and useful and tell them some of the techniques you’ve been using that helped you become more mindful. By pointing others in the right direction, you are giving them tools that can also start to colour their future well-being.
Talk about noticing and challenging thoughts - When you notice someone over- generalising and seeing the worst-case scenario all the time you can talk to them about thought biases. Thoughts biases are recognised in CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy) and Mindfulness-Based CBT and are helpful to find where we are potentially limiting ourselves. They can be all-or-nothing thinking, mind reading or fortune telling. They are patterns of thinking that can limit our ability to see another way. If you can talk to others about thoughts and how destructive they can be when held rigidly, you can maybe introduce the idea of seeing a Cognitive Behavioural Therapist as a way of helping them navigate potential challenges to their mental fitness and well-being if it has become too overwhelming to do alone.
Actively listen to what others have to say - being heard is so important. As a Coach, it is incredible how often I hear people tell me how good it feels to have been heard. Most of the time we can be half listening while framing our answer or telling them what we want to say. Listening and asking questions about what is being said really shows that you care and are interested in them. This not only makes them feel better, it also creates deeper bonds and friendships because they feel safe around you and free to be able to express what is going on for them. I’m not saying become everyone’s therapist, what I am saying is respect the person in front of you and really listen to what they are saying. If it comes to it, you can direct others to further support where necessary.
By being more mindful yourself, you are more able to ‘be there’ for others. Mindfulness can also show you how to respect your boundaries, not over give, and to live more authentically and truthfully because you have learned your limitations and know what you are willing and able to give to others.
I love what Brene Brown said in her book ‘The Power Of Vulnerability’ - “Feel the discomfort over the resentment’ Feel the discomfort in the moment of saying ‘no’ to someone if they are asking too much of you, over the resentment of saying ‘yes’ and complaining about it.
What are the best resources you would suggest for someone to learn how to be more mindful and serene in their everyday life?
The internet is full of resources. TedTalks, YouTube videos and free online summits can be invaluable. The internet gives us more access to resources than ever before. Finding groups through MeetUp, or starting your own group can bring other people together who are also interested in learning mindfulness and sharing experiences. It feels like it’s time to create more community and so finding ways to connect with others is going to be a great way to bring mindfulness and serenity into your day-to-day life.
Can you please give us your favourite "Life Lesson Quote"? Do you have a story about how that was relevant in your life?
‘You can’t change a problem with the same mind that created it’ by Albert Einstein. We can go around in circles doing the same thing over and over while expecting different results, apparently this is the first sign of madness, but we are all guilty of it.
Trying to have different results from doing the same thing over and over is something I got caught up in. When I was younger and I wanted my relationship to be different, I would do what I thought would show him how much I cared and the more I gave in to him, the more I gave myself away the worse it got. When you are in it you don’t always realise that you are perpetuating the same behaviours while expecting different results. Valuable lesson.
You are a person of great influence. If you could start a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I would love to see a space created for Meditation in every community, village, city and town. A place that is non-denominational and free for others to gather and sit together any time of the day. I would also have meditation sessions in community cinemas and colleges at certain times of the day so that everyone knew there would be other people there sitting at the same time.
In these times of increasing mental health challenges, I think it is important to feel accepted and that it is normal for our mental health to fluctuate. We don’t have to lead with our mental health as defining us. We are so much more, and when we all accept and acknowledge that life always brings us challenges then we can come together without judgment and grow our consciousness together.
Churches don’t have the power over the masses any more and more community oriented versions like Meditation Halls can help to bring about changes within communities all over the world at a deeper level than before. When all the fear is taken away, we are more empowered to be better versions of ourselves.
What is the best way our readers can follow you online?
You can find me through my Linktree which takes you to all my online presences -
Thank you for these fantastic insights. We wish you only continued success in your great work!