Interview with Barbara Wilkinson – A Mindfulness Meditation Guru
A short while ago, I had the pleasure of interviewing Barbara Wilkinson, a renowned counsellor, educator, and mindfulness meditation practitioner and teacher. I met Barbara last fall when I participated in her eight week Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program, a challenging, but exceptionally rewarding experience. My participation in this program has, as you may have noticed, inspired a number of blog posts and more importantly, altered my life significantly.
Mindfulness is a practice, and a difficult one at that. Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of the MBSR program summarizes, quite succinctly, what mindfulness is – “mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, without judgement”. For more information on Kabat-Zinn and the MBSR program, I encourage you to visit his site.
Barbara holds a number of degrees including a Master’s in International Relations and a Master’s in Education in Counselling. She is a certified Trauma Therapist and a certified member of the Ontario Association of Consultants, Counsellors, Psychometrists and Psychotherapist. Impressive, I know.
During the eight week MBSR program, our group discussed a number of tough and thought-provoking topics. And while we answered a number of questions together, I still had more. Questions that I am still working on answering, but also questions for Barbara. I wanted to know about her journey with mindfulness. I wanted to know about her struggles – were they the same as mine? Did she too, struggle with letting go of judgements? Was she able to meditate daily?
And, as you can see, my questions for Barbara and her willingness to answer them have brought us to this moment, to this blog post. So let’s get to it.
Live It Active (LIA): How long have you been practicing mindfulness?
Barbara Wilkinson (BW): A really long time. Even as a child I experienced tension as an uncomfortable body sensation and this judgement led me to explore techniques for coping. Remember too, I was coming of age in the ’60s, a time of a great deal of research and mind exploration. By the late ’60s and early ’70s I was working with children with special needs and if anyone needed help with stress reduction, they did! And so did their teachers and their families. This led me to Hans Selye’s groundbreaking research on stress and the Relaxation Response. One thing led to another and eventually I found the work of Jon Kabat-Zinn. His work resonated with me more than any other because it was so practical – such common sense. It was being researched by reliable sources. It was started in the hospital environment. It felt right and I have never looked back.
LIA: How often do you practice?
LIA: How long have you been teaching the Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction (MBSR) program?
BW: I have been teaching the MBSR program in some form or other since the early ’90s where I used it in classrooms with children for whom it came quite naturally. I, and the kids could see the benefits immediately.
LIA: Do you have an estimate of how many students you have taught?
BW: Interesting question…I would have to say thousands of clients and/or students have been exposed to “Barbara’s mindfulness” in one form or another. This number may seem fairly high, but you must remember, I have presented a number of Lunch & Learn sessions to corporations, offices and hospitals. I have also been invited to conferences to introduce this work – the farthest one being in the Philippines in 2006.
LIA: What is the greatest challenge that you face when practicing mindfulness meditation?
BW: Ha!! My greatest challenge would be ME!! Being attached to my thoughts, my time, my life, my patterns, my discomfort, you name it! Ironically mindfulness teaches us to let go of ME and mine, yes? But we have to remember, we are all human and this is part of the human condition.
LIA: What do you believe is the greatest barrier that your students face when it comes to mindfulness? How can we work to get around this barrier?
BW: My answer is similar to the previous – perhaps there is no getting around the human condition. Perhaps there is only starting again in this moment…
LIA: Are there downsides to becoming more mindful?
BW: Absolutely! It takes time and hard work – big downsides in a world that wants comfort and solutions handed to them in a ‘quick fix’ instantly. Plus, as we begin to see what is in front of our face or in ourselves (i.e. our patterns) then it becomes our responsibility to take control of ourselves, yes?
For example, I may not want to admit to anyone that I drink hot chocolate and snack on doughnuts every night before I go to bed. But even more, I may not want to look at it myself and admit I am doing it three times a week when I tell myself I do it only once a week. I may not want to take responsibility for my spending habits or my lack of exercise or my procrastination or my hoarding. For many, it is easier to analyse and seek out helpers, even medications, rather than to look our fears and patterns in the eye.
LIA: Is there a minimum time that one should practice mindfulness? Does one need to perform a body scan or the Mountain meditation (or some form of guided meditation) to experience benefit? What if 10 minutes is the maximum amount of time an individual can allocate to mindful meditation?
BW: If a person has 3 minutes a day to start paying attention in a formal, focused, on-purpose way, this is better than nothing. Obviously, the more we do it, the more we benefit. In the messiness of the lay life there is not the time to sit and meditate for hours, but when we look at our schedules (another item to take charge of ) most of us can find quite a bit of time in our days that we can use differently.
LIA: What has been your most powerful meditative or mindful moment?
BW: Oh my goodness this is a hard question. There have been many, but I see it more as a process of growth and becoming as opposed to specific moments. I could site my time at Spirit Rock Meditation Center where I was doing a 10 day retreat with Jon Kabat-Zinn, John Teasdale and Christina Feldman. After struggling through the first several days, believing perhaps I should have been someplace else, like home in my bed, I became aware of pure bliss. This is the only way I can describe the feelings of joy and peace which filled me up. It was so seductive that I was ready to join a monastery! I felt all of life more vividly, whether the taste of food or the colour of a leaf. I felt truly awakened and alive. However, I know life in the monastery gets real too and there are everyday problems to solve. I also know that my own individual work is in Guelph right now.
LIA: In Buddhism, the ultimate goal is to achieve enlightenment and thus, to end suffering. Does mindfulness have an ultimate goal? Is it too, enlightenment?
I believe that the first Buddha was looking to end suffering. This would be what most of us strive for, yes? It sure keeps my counselling business booming.
Mindfulness is a way of life that I have found can help. I don’t see it as a tool or a strategy with an end goal as much as “a way of being”, though there are strategies involved.
What is your definition of enlightenment? Just like so many folks see meditation as the stereotypical yogi person on the cushion saying “om”, I think we have many ideas about enlightenment. Perhaps I am enlightened when I am awake to one moment – and then it goes… but isn’t everything changing constantly so how could my awakening moments not change too? I think walking around waiting to be “enlightened” could set anyone up for failure – instantly.
LIA: Has mindfulness brought you peace in certain areas of your life? Or is the journey towards finding peace ongoing? Is finding peace the point of mindfulness?
BW: Peace is good. Many practitioners report feeling more peace in their lives. Sometimes I find it when I am practicing, sometimes for longer periods, sometimes for moments. Again the human condition comes with challenges and mine are pretty big like everyone else’s. Sometimes my challenges feel too big for me. This is life.
Mindfulness isn’t like winning the lottery. The research shows the positive side effects include memory improvement, focus, concentration in addition to many health benefits such as reduced risk of cancer, heart attacks, high blood pressure, strokes, and psoriasis. The list is endless. Connecting with the peace inside of us is one of the many side effects and benefits.
LIA: One of the main tenets of mindfulness is to view your thoughts without judgement. While reducing the amount of time spent judging others and the self is beneficial, can’t judgement be a good thing? Can it not motivate us to do better, contribute more, challenge ourselves and push past our fears? Is judgement all bad?
BW: I guess I would prefer to use the word discernment in general day to day life. This to me implies a gentle and wise sort of judgement as opposed to a good /bad separation.
I find it remarkable to just play with taking the judgements out of decisions on occasion. It is so powerful. If I am judging my son’s behaviour as bad, I will never get to know who this young man is. If I set that same judgement aside and look for the needs under the behaviour, if I am open and curious, everything becomes flooded with compassion, understanding and clarity. We could do with more of this in our world today.
This marks the end of my interview with Barbara. I would like to thank Barbara for participating in this interview – your wisdom and constant questioning is so very appreciated. To learn more about Barbara please visit her website.
To my readers, I hope this answered some of your questions regarding the discipline of mindfulness, but it is my hope that it provoked more than it answered. To remind, mindfulness means paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, without judgement. At first, the practice of mindfulness may seem daunting (I’ve been there), but with time and practice it becomes easier. It becomes more natural; it becomes a way of being.
A large number of us seem to spend a lot of time searching for the”solution” or the “answer” to our individual challenges. Yet, there will never be one perfect answer or solution as we are all unique in thought, pattern and problem. That is the beauty and the crux of the human condition. But the more we practice and the more aware (i.e. mindful) we become of our mind and its meanderings, the more control we gain over our thoughts, patterns and problems; the more options we have. And the more options we have, the greater our opportunity for freedom.