Yeah. And so what was the impetus for you to finally put your butt on your meditation cushion? What was it that brought you to actually sit down and start meditating yourself?
It’s a great question, and I think there’s a similarity for everyone in that. And that is, as Eckhart Tolle says, sometimes we just need a bit more suffering before we can wake up. So for me, it was a combination of a sense that I was on a particular path, in my career, and there was a lot of value there. I valued learning, and learning about the human body and brain and being of service, and it was sort of right. But there was something that was kind of missing. I think it was that internal searching. I knew there was something that I was supposed to be doing and that I wasn’t quite fully aligned, and that created an internal friction, and a dis-ease. Then I happened upon Richie Davidson, who is one of the leaders in the space of mindfulness in the brain, and I heard him at a conference. It was probably nearly 15 or 20 years ago. And his talk, it was one of those moments. You know, he had the brain scans. It was all the science that is much more commonly known now around how the brain changes and the very real, transformative capacity that meditation has on the mind and the body. And it was kind of a combination of those two things: the science that really lit me up, and a sense — just an intuition I had that I needed to turn my attention inwards to kind of listen and just be with myself and trust that that might help guide me. Which it turned out it did.
That’s beautiful. And when you started to delve more deeply into meditation, was there anything that you needed to unlearn from your background of psychiatry? Was there anything that conflicted, or was it mostly complementary?
I wouldn’t say that it conflicted. It was more that this whole education was just not a part of psychiatry. It was like this huge missing piece. I wouldn’t say that it was in contradiction, and I still don’t. I think that they can work really well together. And I think in fact what I’m noticing is that as mindfulness and meditation become more popular, there’s a problem that when you teach people to meditate, it’s a pretty safe practice, but you do need to have an understanding of psychology and trauma and stuff like that. So I think that that education has really supported my ability to teach and hold people in that space. Having said that, when I left psychiatry to pursue my interest in meditation, there was definitely not as much interest in mindfulness as there is now. Whereas now there are a lot more psychiatrists that are actually open to mindfulness and these kind of practices.
But I think one thing maybe that I had to unlearn, not necessarily from psychiatry, was just — I went on this retreat with Jon Kabat-Zinn when he came to Australia many, many years ago — and it was something about unlearning my belief about how important thoughts are. It was about unlearning everything I’d ever known about thinking and thoughts, which was essentially that thoughts are correct and true and the authority on the matter. And I think mindfulness helped me discover a completely new way of understanding and relating to thoughts, which I think is very transformative.
Mm. And understanding yourself holistically, as an entire human, not just being dominated by your mind, but understanding this kind of broader intelligence, not just putting all of the importance on the mind. As you probably had had to do for a long time, through all your studies and everything. There would have been this huge weightedness on the mind.
A heavy head. [Laughs]
A heavy head! [Laughs]
A big head on the body. That’s right. You mentioned the word intuition and I think for me, that was a huge gift. I was living a lot from my shoulders up. And I think I really learnt about the importance of becoming embodied, which to me was a word that was a bit abstract or esoteric for a long time.
Yeah. And you were talking about how mindfulness and meditation have become a lot more popular in recent years. But it has been around, as a practice, for thousands and thousands of years. Why do you think these more ancient practices have started to become important in our lives?
I think it’s a combination of the greater need — we’re thirsty for this. You know, you just meet anyone these days and everyone’s just running around hectic, and I think there’s a really great need that there wasn’t in the past, with the hyper-connection, social media, greater global threats and climate change. All of it. We’re really struggling. And so we need something to help us stay centred and present with our families, in our workplaces. And then I think, the way that science has evolved, technology is increasing so it gives us greater ability to see what’s actually going on in the brain. If you put the word “mindfulness” into Google Trends or Google Scholar, it’s just exponential what’s going on in the research field. And I think as the research grows, it becomes more accessible to the mainstream. People who may not have listened before are paying attention. And then finally, we’re living in a world where ideas spread so fast. We’re in this moment of Coronavirus, and we can see what happens when a few people share a post about toilet paper. And so I think it’s a need, it’s the science that’s come out that’s pretty compelling, and it’s the connection and the speed at which ideas spread at the moment.
Yeah. And I read in your book, The Happiness Plan, that the word “mindful”, or “mindfulness”, in Pali is sati. And how when we translate that word literally, it means “to familiarise”, or “to remember”. Which I guess speaks to Thích Nhất Hạnh’s definition of remembering to come back to the present moment. But it also made me think of this idea that collectively there’s this longing to return to the way things were in the past. To ancient wisdoms, and picking up on those ancient ways of doing things — or even returning to our own childhood selves. I wondered if you had any thoughts on that concept. Maybe it’s about recovering something that we’ve lost, and I’m wondering what it is that we’ve lost as a society.
So on that definition that you just pulled up, I think it’s a really clear and pertinent one: “to remember”. And I think in its purest form, we spend so much of our lives just not connected to the miraculousness of everything. And I’ve got a young child now. I’ve got two children, but one is a baby, and she’s starting to play, and you know, everything captures her attention. So that’s my reminder to just notice. To connect with how beautiful a flower is when I’m walking her down the street, or just the simple things that we’re missing, that pass us by. And we end up disconnected. I think the coming back to the ancient practices is also a kind of reflection of this inner longing that we have to resist the force that’s taking us — all of us — which is technology, and speed, and losing touch with ourselves. And so some of these practices are helping us to slow down and reconnect.
Yeah. I love that you mentioned that. So, obviously there are things happening in the world that we don’t have control over, and those things are causing anxiety and a whole range of issues, which is why we need more mindfulness. But I also wonder if you think there are systemic changes that need to be made in the way we do things. For example, in our work lives. Do you think we need to make changes on that level, or do you think that if enough of us are practicing mindfulness, those changes are going to naturally start to unfold?
I think mindfulness is one ingredient that is very helpful in increasing awareness, which I think is what’s required. I would never say mindfulness is the thing that’s going to wake us all up. I think that would be naïve. I think it requires a lot more than mindfulness. Like, for example, there’s a great quote that I love from the book, Antifragile, which was written by Nassim Nicholas Taleb, that says, “The difference between technology and slavery is that slaves are fully aware that they are not free”. The reason I bring this quote up is because I just think we really need to learn boundaries. Now more than ever we need to be consciously creating the boundaries in our lives around how we use technology. In terms of coming back to this idea of systemic change, I think it requires more than mindfulness because there are ways that we’re being in the world that are pulling us into bad habits. It’s much bigger than just mindfulness.
Yeah. I was reading an interview with Eckhart Tolle this week and he was talking about how this change has been coming for the last hundred years, how we’ve been sort of gearing up to have this big shift in consciousness. And he was saying that we have an opportunity now to make this quantum leap in consciousness. And I suppose the sense is that if we’re going to make these changes that we need to make as a community and as a society, some of that is going to start with our own inner work, and being mindful of our own inner environments. How does that land with you — the idea that we need to do the work in the microcosm to affect the macrocosm?
Yeah. I mean, it’s a hundred percent what I believe, and what’s driven my shift in career path, from psychiatry to running a global mindfulness campaign. I believe that we need to do the inner work to understand our own motivations, what drives us. And also see our reactivity and develop skills for managing our reactivity. Otherwise we’ve got no hope.
And, gosh, you look at the leaders in the world at the moment, it’s like… [laughs] if they could just come and do a Vipassana retreat!
[Laughs] It should be mandatory for all world leaders.