We return with the second half of an interview with Vidyamala Burch, the founder and co-director of Breathworks, an ordained member of the Triratna Buddhist Order, and author of three books. Windhorse Publications features her newest title this month (Mindfulness for Women). You can listen to the full interview in a 40-minute audio file on Soundcloud.
Your new book Mindfulness for Women was just released. Can you talk a little bit about how women and men might need a different approach to mindfulness?
The way that book came about is quite interesting. I now have a literary agent, and apparently when you’ve got a literary agent, they think their job is to get you more work. So my agent came to me and said, I’ve got a great idea for a book, why don’t you do mindfulness for women, with a journalist again (but obviously not Danny, ’cause he’s a guy.) My agent Sheila Crowley had this idea of me working with a woman called Claire Irvin, who’s early thirties, has two children, and is high up in the magazine business in London. So she’s a super-busy, pretty full-on, highly stressed, highly productive woman. And the idea was that Claire and I would do this book, and through this book I would teach Claire how to meditate. So part of this book is Claire’s diary of how she learned to meditate, which is great.
There are loads of women in our culture who are very busy. Many of us are mothers, daughters, working, wives, etc. As women we seem to be good at taking on a lot of these responsibilities and then ending up like a hamster in a wheel. My sense, and I don’t know if this is really true, but it’s my sense, is that when I was growing up in the ’70s with early feminism, one of the messages I feel lucky to have got was ‘You can do anything.’ It was a very optimistic, strong message. And I wonder if what’s happened is it morphed over 30, 40 years from ‘You can do anything’, to ‘You should do everything’. So that’s pressure we put on ourselves to be the best. So I found it interesting to delve into some of the stats, to look at feminism, and to write a book that is very practical for the modern woman.
In terms of men and women, personally I think the book that really needs to be written is Mindfulness for Men. Most of the language used in the secular mindfulness field is quite feminine. It’s quite soft, a lot about love, about tenderness, acceptance, not giving yourself a hard time, and most mindfulness courses are heavily weighted towards women in terms of who attends. On most Breathworks courses, we get 70-80% women, and that’s very typical. So, the mindfulness field is already heavily reaching women far more than men, and I think it would be a very interesting project for somebody, and it would have to be a guy, to say how would we package this stuff so it’s attractive to men? Sona, who’s my partner, and also a very senior Order member and founded Breathworks with me, he’s very interested in this project. So he’s thinking about how to come up with an approach to mindfulness that is more male.
In our society these days you could argue men are in more trouble than women. We’ve had decades of feminism now, although there’s still loads of inequality in the world, like pay – we don’t really have equal pay yet – terrible sexual violence – in developing worlds, appalling situations for women … but in the West, you could argue that young women are in fact doing better than young men. Suicide is high in young men, in fact, the biggest killer of young men is suicide.
So although I’m pleased with Mindfulness for Women, and I’ve developed my thinking around mindfulness with that book, and I think it will reach loads of women, my own personal feeling is what the world needs is Mindfulness for Men.
So, any men listening to or reading this, I’m throwing down the gauntlet to you. Men need help, they are struggling, and men have minds to work with, just like women. It probably needs to be a bit more bold, maybe a bit more challenging, provocative. In fact, Sona might call the mindfulness for men course something like ‘Active Awareness’, so the title says ‘This is something you can get your hands on, you can really do’. Even the word ‘mindfulness’ is not something that I think really works for men.
So in terms of your question, I do think men and women probably need a different approach to mindfulness, but no one’s cracked that yet.
Can you comment on the concept of secular mindfulness? Do you think such a classification is helpful, and would you class your work in this way?
It’s quite a hot topic. It seems to be that Buddhists are the group that have the biggest concern about secular mindfulness. It seems like the fear is that it’s watering the Dharma down, that it’s not the proper Dharma, that it’s turning the Dharma into a technique, and I share many of those concerns, but as a person, I’m very pragmatic. The fact is, a lot of people benefit from my books who would not even read it if it were a Buddhist book. So we have Muslims, Christians, all kinds of people that will benefit from the books. So I’m trying to write books that will reach out to a very wide demographic. That’s my entire motivation: to help people. I don’t want to only help Buddhists; I want to help everybody.
There’s quite a nice story: Jon Kabat-Zinn is a professor in America who kind of started the secular mindfulness movement in the late ’70s. He was on a Buddhist retreat in America, and he had a kind of vision that lasted about 10 seconds, this was way back in the ’70s, and the vision was, wouldn’t it be amazing to take the Dharma into healthcare, and he saw how it might unfold in an idealistic and visionary way.
He says that most of what he saw in that vision has come to pass now, which is quite incredible. When he started, some people in America saw even yoga as the work of the devil, so there was no way he could go into a hospital and say ‘Hi, guys, I’m a Buddhist, and I want to teach your patients.’ He would never have got anywhere. He’s a very charismatic, pragmatic person. So he called it ‘mindfulness’. It’s mind training, it’s meditation – he packaged it in a way that was acceptable. He started to get very good results, and 30 years on we now have got this booming mindfulness scene.
He talked to the Dalai Lama around that time, because he had concerns about integrity, so he asked the Dalai Lama words to this effect: ‘Is it alright to take what’s essentially Buddhism, and bring it to healthcare, and not call it Buddhism? Is that just poaching or something?’
So he talked to the Dalai Lama, who said something like, ‘There’s one million Buddhists in the world, and seven billion suffering beings. Of course it’s alright.’ And I find that really inspiring. I’m a committed Buddhist; I believe in Buddhism. But if we only offer the pure gold of the Dharma to people who call themselves Buddhists, then we’re missing out on really impacting on society in a very big way. So I don’t really have a problem with the ‘secular mindfulness’ label – I think it’s a pragmatic way of reaching lots of people. And I’m very happy to be in that kind of group as it were.
However, for me personally, it’s very important for me that I also do full-on Buddhist teaching. So I have no doubt in my own mind that Buddhism as we know it in Triratna is way more effective than secular mindfulness. Secular mindfulness is effective, but the full path of the Buddha-Dharma is more effective and more deeply transformative. Subhuti puts it well. He says the secular mindfulness field is addressing the level of the karma-niyama. We’re helping people to work with their minds, to change their behaviour, to be happier, healthier, more positive, etc. That’s a great thing to do. But we’re not really offering the perspective of the full path to Enlightenment and liberation, the perspective offered by the dhamma-niyama processes. There’s no ritual in secular mindfulness, we don’t talk about faith, we don’t talk about ethics explicitly, although it’s certainly implicit. We don’t talk about the possibility of completely and utterly liberating your mind from any identification with the conditioned. So I think the concern would be if people like me were saying, ‘You don’t need Buddhism. Just come to us. We’re just as good as Buddhism.’ And then we give people half the path. That would obviously be of concern. So in my own mind, I’m very clear that the full Buddhist path is better, and I also do loads of teaching around that, I lead retreats, I’m an active member of the Order, etc.
But I also have no doubts that secular mindfulness is an extremely effective way of reaching a lot of people and helping them deal with the suffering of daily life. So I have some concerns when I hear some Buddhists talking disparagingly about the secular mindfulness scene and worry that they are throwing the baby out with the bath water. I’m being a bit provocative here, but you could even argue that to think that secular mindfulness is ‘a bad thing’ is a bit elitist, as the implication is that we’re only interested in teaching the people who call themselves Buddhists …. I kind of doubt that the Buddha would have been very happy with that. My own sense when I read the scriptures is that, at root, the Buddha just wanted to help people and he met them where they were at. Somewhere in the scriptures it says there are 84,000 gateways to the Dharma, which means that he always taught uniquely to the person in front of him – he connected. He taught all kinds of people.
But, I do think in the secular mindfulness field we have to continually guard against the commercialization of the field, diluting it, dumbing it down, like people who go on a weekend course who decide to set themselves up as a Mindfulness teacher, who really don’t know anything. That’s a risk. But we just need to be aware of the risks, and those of us who are committed Buddhists and use secular mindfulness as a vehicle to teach do so with integrity and depth. I also increasingly want to signpost people to Triratna. I want to make that more explicit so they have the offer of going deeper into Buddhism if they want to.
You must see lives change when people who are suffering find Breathworks or read your books. Can you relay one of the most inspiring stories you’ve witnessed?
There are many inspiring stories, and I get letters from people all over the world, which is deeply moving. But I thought I’d talk about a woman called Anu, who is a woman I met many years ago in Manchester, who’d been a very high achiever, a young woman who’d been a banker. And then she’d been diagnosed with advanced lymphoma in her twenties. She’d had all sorts of horrible treatments, including a stem cell transplant, and she’d made a reasonable recovery, but was left with Chronic Fatigue, and the after-effects of cancer treatment. And she came on our programme, a beautiful person, she did very well and she got a lot from it.
And then she found out that the chemotherapy she had had damaged her bone marrow. So she was definitely going to get acute myeloid leukemia, which is the worst sort of leukemia you can get. And then she had a choice, would she accept that, or get a bone marrow transplant to increase her chance of survival. She dwelt on that very deeply, and decided to go ahead with the bone marrow transplant, and it was very interesting because she’d already had a stem cell transplant years before, which involves weeks of isolation, and the bone marrow transplant is quite similar: highly invasive, deeply unpleasant and painful. And weeks of isolation.
So she was able to compare how she dealt with those two very intense treatments before learning mindfulness and after learning mindfulness. And she said that the second experience was completely and utterly different. She had learned how to work with her mind, be soft and gentle with herself, and take it one moment at a time.
So that’s really inspiring, that she’d gone from fighting the stem cell transplant, this really appalling, difficult treatment, frightening, terrifying and stressful, and then she sailed through the bone marrow transplant with such dignity, such beauty, such grace. And she made a very good recovery, which was some years ago. The cancer came back a year ago, and she’s getting treatment for it, and she’s doing very well. So she’s someone who shines. She just shines like the sun, even though she’s had such awful treatments. It is as if mindfulness has reached into the very heart of her and deeply, deeply changed her.
So that’s a very moving story.
It does resonate with me, I feel a kindred spirit with Anu. But there are many many stories that are deeply moving. I find it fascinating because what we’re teaching, I always say it’s not rocket science. It’s basic kindness, basic awareness, anyone can do it. And I love that. It isn’t like you have to be able to understand very complex concepts, it’s just coming back to the present moment, what you are actually feeling, and then learning that you have a choice in how you respond to that experience. You don’t have to be propelled through reactivity.
One of the things I’ve really tried to do with all my work at Breathworks is to make it as simple as possible. That’s been a lovely journey. I’ve learned that when you deeply understand something, the simpler it becomes. And you only make things really complicated when you don’t really understand them. The Buddhadharma, for example, is really very simple. Hard to practice, but conceptually very simple. And I think I’ve done a reasonable job in explaining these things in clear terms.
Thank you, Vidyamala Burch.