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Vidyamala Burch, the founder and co-director of Breathworks (an organization dedicated to helping others through the teaching of mindfulness), is an ordained member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, and has authored three books. Her story is an inspiring example of how working through life-changing trauma has a strong impact in benefiting others. Windhorse Publications features her newest title this month (Mindfulness for Women). In this interview with Giulietta Spudich, she explores her incredible life journey and how her exploration of Buddhist Dharma and mindfulness helps many others. (The first half is posted here; keep your eye on our blog for the second half to come later this week.) You can listen to the full interview in a 40-minute audio file on Soundcloud.
In your books, you describe being in hospital with acute pain, and the realization that you could relate to it in a different way. Can you comment on how this realization led you on a path to founding Breathworks?
That’s a great question, thank you. I was in hospital when I was 25 years old, in 1985, a long time ago. Medically there was nothing that could be done to help me; I had two major operations when I was 17 on my spine, and then a car crash when I was 23, and I fractured another part of my spine. The prognosis was quite bleak and medically there wasn’t anything that could help me with my situation. So I had this one night when I was in the intensive care ward, and I was in extreme pain, and I was very very frightened because of the circumstances I was in; I had never been in that kind of situation before. I had this night where I think I probably did go to the brink of madness. I had this whole big intense inner conflict around getting through to the morning. So it became the thing I was obsessing about: ‘How can I get through to the morning?’ It was like I had two different voices in my head. One voice was saying, ‘I can’t cope, I’m going to go crazy,’ and the other was saying ‘You have to.’ ‘I can’t cope, you have to ….’ This was building in intensity as I lay in the hospital bed. Out of nowhere, seemingly, a third voice came into my head, saying, ‘You don’t have to make it to morning, you just have to live the present moment. You just have to live this moment, and this moment, and this one.’
My situation changed, my subjective experience changed, from one of fear and terror to one of a much quieter confidence. ‘I can live in this moment, and this one, and this one.’ The morning came around and I felt profoundly changed. It was as if all my perspective on life had unravelled. I got through to the morning with very deep questions like, what is time? What is the past, what is the future? What is space? If you start to unravel time, you start to unravel space. Who am I?
That was a long time ago. That was 31 years ago, and I feel like I’m still making sense of the experience. It was that experience which got me on the spiritual path, and that experience that led me to a profoundly different relationship to my pain. Knowing in the core of my being that we only ever live life one moment at a time, and that the pain was bearable, and that I could cope with my pain in each moment.
A lot of my anxiety, terror and fear was future-oriented. I saw very directly that was mind-created. It was something I was adding to my direct experience.
A few days later, the hospital chaplain came to see me. I wasn’t religious. He was very lovely and gentle, took my hand, and asked me to remember a time and place when I was happy. I took my mind back to New Zealand, tramping and climbing mountains. He did a guided visualization, and then he brought me back to the present. It might have been only 10-15 minutes, but I felt completely different. My subjective experience had changed.
I had this realization that here I was, a girl with a serious spine injury and a lot of pain, and I could change how I felt, I could change my subjective experience through what I did with my mind.
I had a strong sense that although my body was broken, my mind potentially was healthy. Those were the two big experiences in hospital that changed my life, really. This idea that we live life one moment at a time, and this idea that as a human being we have the capacity for awareness that we can use to transform our experience of life.
So I came away from hospital, I never went back to my job as a film editor, I read loads of books on meditation, the mind, time and space, and it was all very intense but amazing. I had the gift of time, because I was basically bedridden for months, so I had months where I could just investigate my mind. That led me to explore yoga and I encountered what was the FWBO, back in the ’80s. I encountered that tradition on a weekend retreat and I knew very clearly I had found a place where I would find the answers, and that was through the teaching of the Buddha, and through what is now the Triratna Community. I dived in; I threw myself into the Movement, and three years later I moved to England from New Zealand to live at Taraloka. I lived there for five years.
About five years later, I decided to see if I could offer anything to others who had pain and illness. Was there anything useful that I’d learned through my study and my experience, and the teachings I received, that I could offer to others? I started leading courses in 2000 in Manchester; I had a very small government grant that was aimed at disabled people who wanted to contribute to the community. I thought, ‘That’s me’, so I applied for the grant and I got it.
I started running courses, found they were useful and effective, and incredibly rewarding for me. In 2003 I was joined by Sona and Ratnaguna, very senior members of the Order, and we went on to found Breathworks as a company.
Now we’ve got teachers in 25 countries, we’ve got a big community of teachers, and I think we’re serious leaders in the field of mindfulness for pain and illness in particular.
You describe ‘opening to your own pain’ as a ‘radical shift in perspective’. Do you find that these mindfulness techniques usually lead to this change in perspective in others?
Yes, I would say that they do, because one way of describing mindfulness in the way that we teach it is it’s turning towards direct experience. So that’s the heart of mindfulness – it’s using awareness to turn towards direct experience and feel what is happening rather than what you think or fear is happening, and we have a model when investigating suffering, that by turning towards direct experience, you can then divide your suffering into two components. One component is primary suffering, and that’s the basic unpleasant sensations in the body. And usually if we’re not aware, we automatically resist that. We push that away. And then we pile upon ourselves what we call secondary suffering, which is all the extra suffering that arises because of the resistance. So that might be catastrophic thinking patterns like ‘Oh my God, it’s going to go on forever, my life is ruined, I’ll never have any friends, I’ll never work again’ and so on. Emotion might be anxiety, fear, depression. Physically, it’s secondary physical tension. So you’ve got your unpleasant sensations, you resist them, you resent them, you push them away, and that causes extra tension. So I would say that opening to your own pain, which IS a radical shift in perspective, is at the very heart of what we’re doing. It’s one of the things that people find so liberating.
What led you to condense your teaching practices into a book, Living Well with Pain and Illness especially?
I wrote Living Well with Pain and Illness and it was published in 2008. The reason I wrote that is because I discovered through my own research of the pain field that about one out of five people in the developed world experience chronic pain. And that’s pain that you’ve had daily for at least three months. So, 20% of people, that’s an awful lot of people that have got pain. And I realized that me, Sona and Ratnaguna, three people teaching maybe three courses a year in Manchester, were in no way going to address that need. I felt that what we had was gold – the teachings of the Buddha – it is really like finding the jewel in the dung heap. We had this method that I knew worked with people. I knew experientially, I knew anecdotally, and I knew theoretically, because it was based on what the Buddha taught – and the Dharma is seen to be the medicine for the sick, the way to end suffering.
So I knew that what we had was amazing, and I knew that teaching primarily through face-to-face courses, teaching people one-to-one or in small groups – that was fantastic, I absolutely loved it, but it was not going to be reaching out to the number of people we could reach. So, really I wrote Living Well with Pain and Illness for a very simple premise, which was I wanted to help people, and I felt a book would be quite a good way of communicating all the things I’d learned over the previous years into a package that anyone anywhere could read and hopefully benefit from and hopefully ease their suffering.
And you’ve recently written another book, Mindfulness for Health. Can you compare these two books, and who can benefit from them?
Yes, very interesting question, so you would think if you wrote one book, why write another book on essentially the same material. So, I wrote the first book and I felt very happy with it; it’s quite a subtle book. I worked with Vishvapani, and I really tried to figure out how to communicate the Dharma in a very accessible way. But it requires a reasonable degree of literacy. Really it’s a book aimed at educated, middle class readers. And again, as I did my research, I realized it would not be reaching people who needed it most. There’s loads of books for middle class, educated readers. In a way, they were the people who needed it least. And the prevalence of poor health is quite closely associated with lower socio-economic status. So the most people with chronic health conditions and long-term health conditions, chronic pain, are the people with a lower reading age and less education. Apparently the average reading age in England is 12. So I’d written this book for a very high reading age, and the people I really wanted to speak to were people with a less high level of literacy, and I don’t mean that in any pejorative sense, I’m just being quite objectively factual.
Then I thought, I want to reach these people, how do I do that? Mark Williams who is a real leader in the mindfulness field in this country, he’d written a book with a Daily Mail journalist, Danny Penman. And their book is called Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World, and is a massive bestseller. So I talked to Mark and I asked him why he’d done it, and if it was a good thing to do. And apparently Danny had approached him, because Mark had written some other books more like my first book, subtle, more purist, and Danny had contacted Mark and said, ‘Look, your book’s really good, but I wouldn’t be caught dead reading your book on the Tube because it’s got “Depression” in the title. Let’s write a book that people will read on the Tube.’
So Mark, who’s very pragmatic and visionary, thought, I want to write a book that people will read on the Tube because loads of people have depression. So let’s package it a little differently so people won’t have that stigma around depression. They wrote this book and it is a very good book. So I asked Mark, what do you think about me working with Danny? And he thought it was a good idea, and recommended me to Danny, and to the literary agent that they’d used. I think that’s why Danny agreed to work with me.
So I contacted Danny and said I want to write this book, I want to articulate these ideas in a very clear and simple language. And I want to write a book that people will read, will gain benefit from, and they will do the practices. So we decided to write the second book, and called it Mindfulness for Health. And in fact a lot of material came from an online class I already had devised. This came about because I had been contacted by a GP in Sweden who designed an online mindfulness platform, and he asked me to write a course for chronic pain for his platform. His platform required ten-minute meditations. So I had already done a lot of work to repackage my ideas into this online course with short meditations. So I just used that as a template for the Mindfulness for Health book.
Danny is very good at writing in a very engaging, accessible, readable way. We got loads of case studies from people who had done the Breathworks course. So that’s why I’ve written the second book. If I compare the books, I always say the first book is the better book in the sense that it is theoretically more subtle, and the second book is the more accessible book. And the second book also has a very clear eight-week course that you can do from the book, and it has a CD at the back with led meditations. The second book allows you to take yourself through a programme very easily. The first book is a little bit less obvious, how you would actually use the book as a programme.
Ideally, people would read both, because there is different material, and sufficient difference to make it valuable. So the first one is if you want the more philosophical underpinnings, relationship with Buddhism, that kind of stuff, and the second one is really immediate, really accessible, really practical and you can do an eight-week course.
Would either or both of these books be useful to someone who does not have chronic or acute pain?
Definitely. I have had loads of feedback that they have been useful to anybody. We all have difficult experience in our lives. So, really, both books are how we relate to the difficult, be that mental, emotional or physical. How do we unwind our habitual habits of resisting and fighting with the difficult, or getting really overwhelmed? Those seem to be the two habits most of us have. We either block, deny, push away or fall into despair and overwhelm when we encounter anything difficult. Both my books are teaching a way to stop those reactive behaviour patterns, and just be with your experience with kindness, gentleness and with much greater ease.
Both books are now in 12 languages, which is very gratifying. Mindfulness for Health also won first prize in the British Medical Association book awards in 2014 in the popular medicine category, which is an amazing endorsement from the medical profession.
Thank you, Vidyamala Burch. This is the first half of the interview. Find the second half here.