I was recently interviewed for the ‘meditation freedom’ podcast. It was a wonderful conversation that evolved and I really enjoyed speaking with Sicco Rood.
In the podcast below, I speak about my own personal path into mindful living. The challenges I’ve faced and the deep insights I’ve learned. Also the results I’ve experienced along the way. I also speak about why my approach to teaching has been to draw the essential teachings out of all the world’s wisdom traditions rather than to ‘hunker down’ with only one.
I share my top tips for making mindfulness practice more easeful and light and how to overcome some of the most common difficulties people have when beginning meditation. I hope you enjoy it and please let me know your thoughts in the comments section below.
Press play to listen to the audio or you can read the transcript below.
Here is a transcript of the interview:
Episode 19 with Mellissa O’Brien
Thank you so much Melli. Can I call you that by the way?
Okay. Well thanks so much for joining me on this podcast all the way from Australia.
My pleasure. I’m so glad that you invited me. It’s a pleasure to be here.
What brought you to a mindfulness path?
You know I think when I think back, when I reflect on the real key moments that really made the biggest difference…actually I think way back to when I was a kid. I grew up around a lot of nature. I spent a lot of the time in a very contemplative way. So i think there was a natural tendency towards being mindful.
But I have this memory from when I was eight years old and I was watching the news. And I think it was when one of the wars was on it, maybe the Gulf War…and I remember having this moment of feeling…I guess a realization that the adults of this world, the people I looked up to for strength and support, the people I was going to become like, were in some degree insane.
I saw that the world was not functioning harmoniously at all. And it really, really deeply upset me. It really… something hit home on that day and it really changed my life. Because I think it started a kind of what I would say was an existential crisis as a child. You know, coming to terms with my place in the world. It became a bit of a slipperly slope, to be honest with you, towards a kind of depression and despair.
As I began to get older, this question kept repeating in my mind, “I wonder if there are people living in the world that are in harmony with the planet, each other and themselves?” So I started looking for the answer to that question.
That lead me to the school library where I started looking at books on comparative religion and books on self improvement and all these kinds of things. And I started to look to those sources for the answer. And I did find some answers. Perhaps not the answers I was looking for at that time but I started, that curiosity began to be opened towards the path.
And at this point you’re now a teenager. So this is already a few years down the road, right?
Yeah. At the time the depression and despair was getting deeper and deeper and at the same time I was opening to these wisdom traditions of the world. So it was probably in my mid-teens when I started to get into comparative religion and personal development, that kind of thing.
And so at some point you probably decided you needed to practice something, right? So how did that development go?
Yeah. I did, with my best friend, I did a course on meditation when I was in my late teens which I found really helpful. Started to do a little bit of yoga. I was also reading a lot of stuff on Buddhism, on yogic culture, on Eastern wisdom traditions. I started to get it. I started to get that I could investigate my mind and free myself from the kind of patterns that were causing me a lot of depression and distress.
Interesting. Was there a particular meditation practice that you got into or did that change over the years too?
I was really doing very simple breath meditation back then. And although my practice has evolved in many ways over the years, I think that is a practice I could do forever. So I still do a lot of simple breath meditation (as well as other practices), but I think it’s not necessarily any particular technique thats changed over the years, but the way I practice thats changed.
The orientation of my attitude during the practice and the ability to just simply be in my practice has developed. So the quality of my practice has evolved a lot rather than any particular technique.
Interesting. So did you start noticing some of that depression that you were talking about earlier, was that now dissolving a little bit or de-escalating?
Yeah. It made a huge difference actually, and rather quickly, because I think what happened quite quickly for me is that I realized that I am not my mind. And that was liberating. That was unbelievably liberating.
I realized that I am separate from those things that I had been so tangled with and so identified with (thoughts and emotions) that had caused me so much suffering. That realization was incredible. Because of this I was really enthusiastic about utilising that realisation to my best ability.
I proceeded to put a lot of work and effort into watching my mind, almost like sitting at the banks of a river watching the current go by and seeing how it reacts. I had some simple insights like noticing when I think bad thoughts it makes me feel bad. And then having the capacity to choose to drop those thoughts I found it were not serving me. That was just absolutely incredible. Absolutely life-changing.
So there was an element of slowing down and what some religions would call witnessing instead of being the story, you’re just now seeing something that comes and goes like clouds in the sky.
Right. Exactly. Exactly. And then two thing happen there.
The first thing that happens is you have this incredible opportunity for liberation and seeing the ways you get caught up…and you can again and again let go and you can choose to have more and more liberation.
But the other one good thing that happens, that happened for me, is the noticing of the fact that when I’m not caught up, when I’m witnnessing as you say, I felt so at home. I felt in a natural state of connectedness. As the witness I had a very deep sense of connectedness with all life… and it just felt like home.
So the noticing that what really actually made me happy was not the things my culture was telling me was going to make me happy…You know, what they say – the white picket fence, the perfect relationship, the achievements, all that stuff.
I noticed that What actually really made me happy was just being the witness, just actually sitting in my own beingness was enough. And that was a really wonderful realization as well to have at a very young age. I avoided getting caught up in lot of things that I probably would’ve gotten caught up in as well.
Yes, so you avoided a whole bunch of struggles that way. You got into this early, investigating why you were unhappy. It sounds like you got started with that very early.
Yeah and part of the reason for that, if you want to talk about how I got into this, something that I speak in my retreats about, is that when I was 19, I was working in a nursing home. So I was working with people who were coming to the end of their life. And they were sharing their wisdom with me about what truly makes a wonderful life and what doesn’t.
That was also a huge catalyst for me to focus on embodying the present moment, living the present moments of my life. So when I got to the end and looked back, I wouldn’t have regrets so to speak. Because the message they would tell me over and over was that it’s not the things that your culture is promoting that will make you fulfilled.
It’s just being alive to the moment that’s what really matters. And I was told that over and over and over again. So that was a real catalyst for not getting caught up as well.
And also it sounds like the more awareness you have of death, the more you also start realizing how important it is to make choices on each moment, on what attitude and how you’re going to live your life, right?
Yeah. Yeah. It’s very true. I think the avoidance of that, it’s just the simple facts that we are mortal and that life is always changing and that there’s quite a bit of uncertainty in life and that this body that we’re in doesn’t last forever. It’s confronting and really freeing at the same time. It’s living with that in mind that puts everything in perspective.
Right. And have you seen any other changes or results or benefits from it that you didn’t think of when you started the practice.
Yeah! I think one really wonderful thing is not taking it all so seriously. You know I think I went through a phase, typical phase that I think a lot of people experience, of taking it all a little too seriously.
So I’m much more gentle and light and kind to myself than I was when I was younger, much less serious about everything. I laugh a lot more. And my gosh, I plenty of mistakes and I stuff up all the time and I’m very human and I do get caught up a lot of the times as well.
I get caught up and I catch myself. In the past I might have been really critical about that. You know, oh especially if you’re a mindfulness teacher you can’t stuff up! I was being really hard on myself and those days. I’ve lightened up a whole lot.
I treat myself a lot more kindly….and you know the wonderful thing about that is that I have so much of a deeper connection and kindness with others from treating myself with much more kindness.
This lightness and kindness, that’s been not I guess a huge surprise, but it’s been a delightful unfolding that has sort of just arisen by itself.
That’s great. And so do you sense part of that is because you didn’t go with one singular religion or institution? I’m wondering about that because it’s kind of interesting because you mentioned on your website that you teach without the dogma and maybe you can explain a little bit more what you mean by that too?
Sure. It seems like my path, for whatever reason, was to…I think this was partially something to do with my personality. I really enjoyed, in those younger years, looking at all of these different religions, different ways. I was curious about every single one of them. I wanted to know every single one of them. You know, no matter what people’s opinion of them was.
I noticed very quickly that there were absolutely similarities and I began to clue on to the fact that there seemed to be one perennial philosophy, one universal teaching but they were using different words.
The more I looked, the more it became 100% absolutely apparent that it really is not just a Buddhist thing. Mindfulness is not a Buddhist thing (sometimes I get into trouble with Buddhists when I say that). But it’s not a Buddhist thing. Mindfulness is a Buddhist word, but the actual practice of mindfulness (which is stepping out of autopilot mode and switching attention to being fully embodied in the present moment and disidentify from the mind) that is in every wisdom tradition around the world.
People have used different words for it but it’s the same teaching. What I love about this approach is that you can draw down from the essential teachings of all these different wisdom traditions and not get dogmatic about ‘this is my way’ or ‘this is the only way’ or ‘you’re doing it wrong’.
It’s very open and spacious and kind and accommodating of everybody’s path. Because we are all doing the same thing but may go in a different ways with it. So when I teach my retreats and courses, I quote probably from every different wisdom tradition around the world, different teachers, different time periods. But there’s no dogma. As in I’m not teaching you Buddhism, I’m not teaching you what to believe or think. I’ve got no secret motive to kind of sign you up for anything. It’s just this one teaching. This is how you end suffering.
Essentially the wisdom traditions of the world can be broken down into two core teachings.
Teaching Number 1 is that the normal state of human consciousness has a tendency to create towards suffering.
The second teaching is that there is a way to wake up out of that suffering.
So teaching Number 1 is kind of like a diagnosis that the normal state of human consciousness seems to have some kind of dysfunction in it when it’s untrained. And it normally it does have a tendency to lead to suffering. And teaching Number 2 is simply there is a way to wake up out of dysfunction and come back to clarity, back to harmony.
And really, the essential way to do that, I may be accused if over-simplifying thing here… but the essential way to do that is through practicing mindfulness. When it all comes down to it, the reason why I have boiled down my teaching to just ‘mindfulness is what reallly matters’ is because mindfulness is the means by which we come home to ourselves. It’s also the means by which we dis-identify from the mind. And that really, that is the key to the ending of suffering.
And the mind kind of tells you that you’re separate. That’s what human history, a lot of it, is about — you know feeling separate. And when you feel separate, you’re more likely to run astray and get involved with being discontent or wanting something other than what you already are, and things like that right?
Yeah. I think you’re exactly right there. Basicaly, when you’re identified with the mind it creates a sense of separateness from the world. It creates a strong sense of ‘me,’ ‘ ‘I need,’ ‘I want.’
Even in one moment of mindfulness, if you pay attention, can melt that feeling, There’s a dis-identification from the mind right away.
So there’s a mind, and here you are as the witness. Immediately, if you pay attention to what’s going on in that moment, that sense of separation fades into the background quite quickly.
That sense of being a separate self that has all these complex needs and wants and fears. It fades into the background. Yeah, so those are the two core teachings. And to answer your first part of that question, I think that the sense of warmth and compassion and gentleness and kindness towards myself, I think that’s something that’s unfolded as part of the practice but also I do think this very open and accommodating attitude towards the world’s wisdom traditions, it definitely makes me feel a lot more warmth and connection to everbody, but also those that may feel differently to me about what the right way is to find home.
Yeah, it sounds like there’s a lot of letting go as part of that. Letting go of a certain kind of conditioning. When things get institutionalized, they seem to involve all kinds of agendas and things that kind of remove, that are removed from the heart of the teaching, the wisdom tradition.
Yeah. You know I think that there was a resistance in me to hunkering down with any one way because there’s something in me maybe, I don’t know if it’s my personality or the observation of what you’re saying.
I’ve seen this over and over again in people from different types of teachings – that we many of us can get stuck in the tendency to think that ‘our way’ is best…we can get a little rigid.
So I didn’t want to hunker down with any one way. I love them all. I love, love Buddhism. I love mystical Christianity. I love Sufism. I love them all. They all have so much beauty and wisdom and so much to offer. And there’s wonderful teachers who have absolutely embodied the teaching and embodied the practice a hundred percent in every wisdom tradition around the world.
They all have so much to share. So how could I hunker down with one when there’s so much beauty in all of them to draw from?
Right. And in a sense, once you get past the clothes and the traditional ceremonies and all, you see that you’re all naked and brothers and sisters. So there isn’t all that where there you just see the form of a religion but you see behind the heart that is the root of the religion. It seems like you’re getting more in touch with that and that’s very beneficial. Because sometimes people get discouraged cause, you know, they may have had a run in with the form of a religion and they may have gotten disillusioned about it. And so it’s really nice to hear you talk about going back to the heart of religions as a prescription for suffering and looking at the root causes rather than the symptoms.
Yeah. Yeah. And I think you said it really nicely there, you know, when you said it feels just like there is a surface differences and ceremonies you know, essentially what a wisdom tradition or a religion is made up of is 1. practices 2.teachings and 3. stories.
So you have these three elements. You know, some parables that Jesus used to tell,or some stories, teachings in the Bible that are mystic stories, and certain practices or ethics. And interestingly, you know, if you look at the ethical component, the ethics of all the worlds religions and wisdom teachings…they’re all similar.
I think those ethics are handy because they create a foundation which makes waking up easier. If you live your life with this foundation, with this foundation of ethical behaviour and health then it’s going to be much easier for you to be aware and awake and to feel what is there in the depths of your being which is the essence of who you are.
And when you’re able to feel that, you can live your life in harmony. You can live your life from a place feeling really a part of the evolving dance of evolution in this universe, part of something really wonderful. I think that the reason why there are ethical codes there is because if they’re not there and you just want to go straight to practicing mindfulness and feeling the depths of your being, you’re really making it difficult for yourself.
You’re making it really hard if you’re having affairs and stealing and having people go after you and you’re going to try to practice mindfulness. It’s going to be really difficult for you.
So I think that even those ethical things that have the same suggestions in all the world’s wisdom traditions, you know, let your life be fairly simple, be around nature, keep fit and healthy.
You’re going to make it difficult for yourself if you create a life which is convoluted and complex. Keep things really simple. Give yourself some spaciousness. Then you’re setting up good conditions for waking up.
However, I don’t believe that ethics were meant to be rules. I don’t believe they were meant to be these dogmatic rigid things, that if you stray from that you are a bad person and that you’ve sinned. I think it was more like “if you want to touch into the essence of who you are then these are the things that can be very helpful ways of living for you”.
And the mindfulness will eventually help people become more conscious and see how their behaviour can either harm or help others and themselves and that’s probably encouraging too on the path.
Absolutely. Yeah. One thing that’s really important to know about mindfulness is that it creates insight. So you watch your mind and you have these insights about the way you get caught up and then that gives you the opportunity to make intelligent, wise action that alleviates suffering.
So for example I might notice that when I am criticising myself really harshly it doesn’t help. It’s actually futile. It doesn’t make me a better person. It doesn’t stop the behaviour I’m trying to stop by beating myself up mentally. You just see the futility of it…and you go, Oh actually compassion is something that actually works a lot better. I treat myself with kindness and that’s actually a more intelligent approach to doing what I was trying to do, the result that I was trying to get. Does that make sense?
Yes, definitely. Yeah. For sure. And as a teacher, have you noticed that people come for all kinds of reasons and do people struggle, your students, what particular struggles do they have or do you see any? Maybe you can just give some idea of what you’ve seen people struggle with and how they then overcome those struggles or work with those struggles through their practice?
I think one of the things that we all face is the challenge of noticing that the mind has wandered and then, at the moment that you noticed the mind has wandered, many of us have a tendency to be quite self-critical.
What’s not realized is actually in that moment when you had a momentary awareness and woken up from the dream of thought, so to speak….that self-criticism comes in the back door and says, “Oh my God, I’m so hopeless. I can’t even be awake for two seconds” Or whatever it is. Or “I cant do this.” Or ‘I’m really bad at this”…What we don’t notice is that’s the same voice coming straight back in the back door again.
So it can be quite seductive the ways with our mind lures us back into autopilot again. So one of the things I always tell my students and practice myself is that the moment that you wake up to really have a moment of congratulating yourself for waking up and noticing how it feels to be awake.
So to notice “I’m awake.” Just come out of mind wandering and to notice that it’s really a joy to be awake. And then with a warm, gentle, very kind attitude drawing the mind back to the breath or whatever it was that was the focus of attention.
So I think that, especially in the beginning, our minds can be so wild (And not even in the beginning, I have been practicing for a very long time and I have days when I sit down on the cushion and it’s just crazy. It’s not like I never have those moments.) But in the beginning especially, the mind can seem really unruly and it can be really frustrating.
In the moment you wake up you get frustrated and your practice can get a tension and a tightness in it. So the act of congratulating and being really kind in the way that you come back, it immediately makes the whole practice much more rejuvenating and much more easeful.
I would say that that’s one of the biggest things.
And the other thing, that I think again for all of us, is encountering negative, difficult emotions during the practice. They can have quite a gravitational pull. And so the way we tend to react when that happens is we want to avoid or suppress, we want to make it go away. Not realizing that avoidance actually perpetuates the state.
So it’s that old saying, “Whatever you fight, you strengthen. What you resist, persists.” So with mindfulness, you do something that’s quite courageous and really wise. It’s actually to stop the. running.
To stop and gently, kindly, turn towards exactly what it is we’re feeling at that moment. So if you were doing a breath meditation, and then something like anxiety comes up or even boredom, agitation which comes up a lot for a lot of people, then you can leave the breath for that moment and actually focus completely on what it feels like right in that moment.
You just feel what you’re feeling. What is it anxiety when you feel what you’re feeling directly? It might actually boil down to just being a strange feeling in the tummy and laboured breathing, maybe some tension…and so all of a sudden (without all the mental dialouge about it) anxiety’s not as big and scary a thing as it was before.
So we gently turn towards it and you can even say to yourself if it’s helpful, I find it helpful to say “Ah, There’s anxiety in me.” “Ah, there’s embarrassment in me.”
Accepting that it’s there and knowing that all emotions come and go. Being with it and noticing its changing qualities as part of the meditation practice. It’s wonderful because it immediately dis-identifies you from the emotion.
So again… here you are as the awareness and there’s the emotion. So it’s quite liberating in itself to see that. And then if needed, you can investigate what’s going on from there and choose some wise action. If it’s needed. But most of the time in our practice, it’s really just being with it and allowing it to be without struggling, without fighting and allowing it to come and go as it does.
That’s great. And so you find that people who come to your retreats and practices, do they sit on their own at home first but then they find benefit by sitting in a group and maybe having some encouragement from the teacher, like yourself?
Yeah. Absolutely. That includes myself. I go on retreats, at least two retreats every year with teachers that I really respect. And community is very very helpful. I mean mindfulness, like any other skill – meditation, you benefit a lot from someone whose walked the path before you.
If you want to learn golf, you can practice a lot on your own and then go to someone who’s played a lot of golf and is the golf teacher to get some pointers. That can be really, really helpful and then go off and practice again. You have that support there of somebody who can have your back. You can ask questions to if things get troublesome in any way. That can be really helpful. And I still utilise that myself. I find that really helpful myself.
And then it also helps, in turn, when you do practice on your own because most people do have their seven days in a week and if they go once a week or once a month to a group then there’s still all those other days in between where they practice on their own.
Yeah. There’s no substitute for practicing. There really isn’t. It seems to me and I have experimented with so many years the kind of thinking you don’t really have to practice, you just embody the present moment in everyday life. You know, I tried that. And I found that, after trying that for a couple of months, I really just wanted to go back to my practice because it’s like a fitness, it’s like a muscle, that time of your day when you take out to just tune into just being.
In a world that’s so obsessed with doing, taking some time just to be every single morning is like an oasis. It’s such a special, precious thing. I really don’t think there’s a substitute for practicing everyday and practicing in the morning especially. I mean we’re all different, some people are night owls and it suitss them better to practice at night. But practicing in the morning, wow! That energy just really carries you through the day.
And it’s easier to be present, fully present, for the rest of the day.
That’s my experience. I also acknowledge that we’re all different. We have different personality types and inclinations, so again I don’t believe there’s any right way or any one way. But I find that when I practice everyday, that energy of being-ness just carries through my day.
Wonderful. Any final thoughts on anything that was said, maybe what you want to say a little more on?
Gosh. You know there’s so many beautiful teachings in this world and I feel really privileged to have been able to touch in with so many different ways of becoming present, but as I am speaking to you right now I am looking at my window on our 8-acre property, just surrounded by nature and it occurs to me if someone would ask me, “Do you have a guru? Do you have a favourite teacher?”
I would say my greatest teacher has always been nature…and were a part of it. We’re a part of this incredible evolving, unbelievably mysterious universe. And I think nature is a great teacher in the way that it ebbs and flows in the way of things without any resistance.
I would say nature is my greatest teacher. The close observation of nature – natural wildlife, trees or even cloud watching is a wonderful, wonderful teacher. Watching how things come and go with such grace and ease .
That’s wonderful. Yeah, I agree with that. For me that’s huge in terms of teaching and feeling at home in all of nature. Thank you so much and do you have any websites that you want to share with the audience in case somebody wants to follow up with you and learn more about you?
Sure. Well I have my website, www.mrsmindfulness.com. There I list upcoming events, mostly in Australia. I specialize in immersion learning, so multi-day immersion mindfulness retreats.
I also blog about mindfulness on that website once a month or twice a month. I’ll send out a really good piece of content, I hope, that will be helpful to anyone practicing mindfulness out there. And there also some free audios and that kind of thing on the website. So you can check out the website and stay in touch. That’ll be wonderful.
Thanks again so much Melli.