With Kindly Curiosity: Professor Katherine Weare
Professor Katherine Weare is co-leading the Sustaining Our Teachers retreat in Sharpham House.
She is internationally-known for her work on mindfulness and compassion for children, young people and those who care for them, teaches 8-week mindfulness for health and well-being courses and 1-day Introduction to Mindfulness courses at Sharpham House and is a dharma teacher at The Barn retreat centre here.
As well as teaching at Sharpham, she is helping her fellow teachers to cultivate mindfulness in education, with a book she co-authored with Thich Nhat Hanh: Happy Teachers Change The World. The book is stocked in Sharpham's bookshop. Read more about Katherine and the book here
Here she shares some of her inspirations.
How did you come to practice mindfulness?
I had practised yoga regularly for most of my adult life, mostly as a form of physical exercise, and had meditation on my bucket list, aware that my driven, perfectionist personality would benefit from some kind of antidote, one day, not yet.
Then in 2002, the middle of a successful academic career and a thriving social and personal life I hit the buffers - as so many people do. My husband and I had adopted a family of three children who were 8, 7 and 3 – blithely imagining our competent personas would enable us to rise above the gloomy prognostications and produce a happy, balanced family of (possibly grateful!) children.
Laughable in retrospect, and the stress of the reality of dealing with early trauma and the sequelae of attachment disorder and mental health problems (in all five of us) was almost certainly what led to the development of a mysterious and barely understood auto immune condition. This condition, complex regional pain syndrome (CRPS) is pretty well impervious to any treatment or even painkillers, prevented me from walking, was constantly and excruciatingly painful, and spreading.
In the depths of suicidal despair in the face of a problem no-one could ‘fix’ I was directed to mindfulness by a pain specialist, who himself had no experience of it but had heard it was helpful. I tracked down a local and wonderful patient, calm teacher, Mark Bowden, and began the journey into mindfulness - starting with one-to-one sessions - which saved my life, and did so much else.
My Day One discovery was the extraordinary ball of physical tension that constituted my body, followed by the dawning realisation I had been driving myself and the rest of my family into the ground with unsurfaced neuroses from my Catholic childhood and deep rooted mindstates of shame, guilt, self dislike and striving.
In the face of gentle mindfulness practice, the pain and the CRPS condition started subsiding fairly quickly to become manageable, and have diminished steadily since so now they are hardly present. I experienced the '8-week course' several times over, and resigned from my post at the University of Southampton to focus on my personal life as all this was far more compelling than becoming Dean of the Faculty. I enrolled in the University of Exeter’s postgraduate diploma in mindfulness-based approaches to train as a mindfulness teacher - I am now the course lead for this course.
Since then I have taught and practised mindfulness ‘as best I can’ in a wide variety of settings. My professional life has revived but now with mindfulness integrated into it (my speciality is child wellbeing and social and emotional learning so the links are pretty obvious). Based at the University of Exeter I am working to develop teaching and research on mindfulness in schools in various contexts and with various organisations, such as Mind and Life Europe and the Plum Village community, and move it into public consciousness.
What does your daily practice look like?
The best single advice I have is from the calligraphy from Thich Nhat Hanh on the wall over my bed – smile and breathe –so that’s the way the day starts.
Most days I get up early and after the vital Earl Grey, also delivered to my sleeping husband, get to my study, or garden in the summer, for 40 mins to an hour of meditation and yoga. That’s if I’m home.
If not I may have to meditate on the train. I try to make it the first priority or it never gets ‘done’. After that I try to stay as mindful as I can all day. I have a singing bowl on my desk I sound from time to time. I will pause regularly (if alone!) on the twice-a-day dog walk by the River Dart for a short breathing space to keep me in the now of the sounds, smells and sights around me.
I have a range of ‘mindfulness bells’ in my life, such as the phone ringing, going through a doorway or up stairs which I use as a regular reminder to stay present. At the end of the day, before sleeping, I do a gratitude practice reminding myself of all I have to be thankful for.
Who or what is inspiring you currently?
In the course of my work I have been fortunate to work alongside with some extraordinary people, in academia, in schools and the contemplative world.
I was privileged to write a book (pictured) with Thich Nhat Hanh and his simple, wise words continue to permeate my spirit.
I undertook an inspirational course with Bodhi College on early Buddhism for a secular world and the solid sense of the elders and teachers who work there, and the early teachings of the Buddha they have transmitted to us, are, to me, a foundation for a sensible and fulfilling life, free of dogma and religion.
I am currently engaging with the teaching of the self-compassion movement, including Chris Germer and Kristin Neff, and intend to sit a course on this as soon as I can to enhance my own practice and my teaching.
I love nature and the outdoors, so the connected world of Sharpham and the wonderful gentle people there always make me feel I have come home - indeed my family and I have moved to the nearby village so I can get to Sharpham as easily as possible and benefit from its ethos and atmosphere, as well absorb the quirky vibe of the wonderful little Totnes.
I very much enjoy contributing to Sharpham's activities, and the simple little dharma talks I give at the Barn retreat centre always make me at least feel better about life!
Tell us about a book/film/story/artwork that's inspired you
I love Monet, and last summer I visited, with family, the village of Giverny in northern France where his house, gardens and many paintings have been preserved, and saw for myself the tranquil water lily ponds, the complex kaleidoscope of colour in the gardens that we all know so well.
The surprise was his modest but quite extraordinary house: with rooms washed completely in the kind of vibrant colours he so loved to use in his paintings, especially a luminous blue sitting room and a buttercup yellow kitchen.
Creating his glowing house and garden and creating his glowing art were, he said, one enterprise, that fed one another in a continuous loop of beauty. Being immersed, even if just for a few hours, in such a wrap-around way of living was truly inspirational to someone who strives to bring things together in her own life in a coherent way.