Vidyamala Burch Of Breathworks: “The resilience of nature”

…How it’s possible to bring about radical change, quickly. In a matter of weeks, the busy doings of our lives literally stopped. I looked up at a sky clear of vapor trails, construction noises silenced, no cars on the road. CO2 emissions suddenly reduced. Just. Like. That. The impossible suddenly became possible. Prior to the pandemic, […]

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…How it’s possible to bring about radical change, quickly. In a matter of weeks, the busy doings of our lives literally stopped. I looked up at a sky clear of vapor trails, construction noises silenced, no cars on the road. CO2 emissions suddenly reduced. Just. Like. That. The impossible suddenly became possible. 
Prior to the pandemic, many had called for radical behavior change for our species and it seemed totally impossible. And ye the pandemic showed we can do it if it is literally a matter of life and death. Anything is possible after all. Personally, I will be heartbroken if we collectively just sleepwalk back into our pre-pandemic ways.

With the success of the vaccines, we are beginning to see the light at the end of the tunnel of this difficult period in our history. But before we jump back into the routine of the normal life that we lived in 2019, it would be a shame not to pause to reflect on what we have learned during this time. The social isolation caused by the pandemic really was an opportunity for a collective pause, and a global self-assessment about who we really are, and what we really want in life.

As a part of this series called “5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic”, I had the pleasure to interviewVidyamala Burch.

Vidyamala Burch is a mindfulness and compassion teacher, author, disability spokesperson, and Co-founder of the leading mindfulness organization Breathworks. Her work for the past 25+ years has been dedicated to helping people who struggle with pain, illness and stress live fuller lives. Vidyamala developed the world’s first Mindfulness-based Pain Management Programme and is a leading contributor to the field of chronic pain; she has provided expertise and guidance to public health advisory boards, academia, and mindfulness teaching globally. She was awarded an honorary membership by The British Pain Society and was named one of the 100 most influential disabled individuals in the UK in 2019 and 2020.

Thank you so much for joining us in this interview series! Our readers like to get an idea of who you are and where you came from. Can you tell us a bit about your background? Where do you come from? What are the life experiences that most shaped your current self?

I was born in New Zealand and was very influenced by the wild beauty of that country. In my youth, my happiest times were spent roaming the mountains with family and friends. I also enjoyed the freedom and safety of growing up in New Zealand in the sixties and seventies — a time of ease and abundance. I now know what an immense privilege that was compared to most people in the world. It was also a time of increasing opportunities for women and the message I got from my education was that I could go on to do anything with my life.

From these promising beginnings, I had the great misfortune to seriously injure my spine when I was 16. I had two major surgeries in my 17th year, which left me with chronic pain. Then when I was 23, I was in a car accident and fractured another part of my spine that led to partial paraplegia. These injuries have obviously had an enormous impact on my whole adult life. I went from being very active and fit, feeling the world was quite literally at my feet when at the top of a mountain in my beloved Southern Alps of NZ, to being disabled with all the physical, emotional, and financial struggles that come with that.

After a physical collapse at 25, I went on to learn mindfulness and meditation and have dedicated the last 35 years to learn how to make the most of my life, despite my challenges, and how to offer these skills to others. I founded Breathworks in 2001 and it has been deeply rewarding to develop a pragmatic program of mind training for others living with pain, illness, or other difficulties. Now I am in my early 60s and feel quiet contentment with how things have turned out, even though it has been a life journey I would never have chosen when I was young.

Are you currently working from home? If so, what has been the biggest adjustment from your previous workplace? Can you please share a story or example?

I am currently working from home and I was based at home before the pandemic in my office-garage conversion, but I did a lot of international travel to teach mindfulness on courses, conferences, and retreats. I was away from home perhaps 50% of the time.

Fortunately, I was already used to joining some of my work meetings on Zoom as the Breathworks team has a number of remote members which meant it wasn’t such a shock to have to work that way when the pandemic struck. This made it easier for us as a business compared with some others.

The biggest adjustment has been delivering teaching online rather than in person. But after an initial period of figuring out how best to deliver on Zoom, it was a fairly smooth adjustment.

My first experience of rapid adjustment was at the very start of the pandemic. I was in NZ visiting family and was due to deliver an in-person lecture on mindfulness to students at Singapore Management University (SMU) on the way home in late March 2020. I vividly remember a weekend away with my family in mid-March when the impact of the pandemic was slowly dawning. We were watching the news in our little corner of paradise and seeing the rapidly unfolding implications. My husband and I suddenly realized we needed to get back to the UK, fast, if we were to get back at all. It was very intense!

On the one hand, we were in holiday mode not really wanting to engage with anything and yet here we were on a Saturday night trying to get through to Emirates for information with the lines all being engaged and the website crashing. We were sleuthing our travel insurance to see what options we had and I was writing to the Dean of SMU letting him know I wouldn’t be able to deliver the lecture as planned. The Dean was understanding thankfully and agreed we shouldn’t stopover for several days in Singapore as planned. After a lot of stress, we eventually managed to re-route our flights. On Sunday we drove back to Wellington and on Monday flew out. It was surreal with a sense of borders crashing closed behind us and packed flights with all sorts of people rushing to various parts of the globe.

Once home I re-arranged the lecture and managed to deliver it online on the planned day. It went well and this was the first really graphic example for me of how I could move a lot of my teaching work online. In retrospect, it is a bit shocking to consider the cost in terms of flights, time, and planetary destruction to go all the way to Singapore to deliver a lecture when I probably had as big an effect doing it online. This gave me a template to take into the rest of the pandemic and into my future. I wouldn’t fly to Singapore or any other far-flung place to deliver a lecture now.

What do you miss most about your pre-COVID lifestyle?

Hugging people! I still find it disconcerting to see a dear friend and have to stand 2 m apart and have no physical contact. It feels all wrong. We are social creatures and we need physical contact for our health and wellbeing. I’m lucky in that I live with my husband so have not been completely deprived, but I still long for that easy physicality with friends that I used to consider completely normal.

The pandemic was really a time for collective self-reflection. What social changes would you like to see as a result of the COVID pandemic?

I’d like to see much more awareness of the impact our lifestyles have on the planet. Covid has shown us we can make rapid, colossal individual and collective changes if we have to; and I hope we don’t just drift back to casual over-consumption and automatic greed once things calm down. I will be full of despair if we even consider the ‘old normal’ as the best template going forwards.

As we come out of the pandemic in the UK, climate change is moving up the agenda with the COP26 taking place in Glasgow this year. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could see the lifestyle changes forced upon us by the pandemic as a kind of ‘pilot scheme’ for lasting ‘climate aware’ change? We now know we are capable of rapid, radical change and I hope leaders and activists, indeed all of us, can seize upon this knowledge to maintain a sense of agency, hope, and empowerment.

I’d like to see more people working from home or hybrid working (lessening the environmental destruction of the commute) and inner-city office blocks being re-purposed to meet the housing crisis.

I’d like to see our inner cities becoming hubs for learning and socializing, rather than just shopping.

I’d like to see the qualities of care, compassion, and connection that we tasted during the darkest times in 2020 being brought up the agenda in a lasting way. I found it deeply heartening when we ‘clapped for carers’, volunteered, and engaged with our neighbors. It showed me that we can care about one another and that this can become the default setting when times are tough.

I’d like to see the focus on mental health maintained and for the stigmatizing of mental health issues to be thoroughly a thing of the past. Mental health problems wreck huge amounts of suffering on many people’s lives and they deserve to be helped just as much as people with physical suffering (and of course the two aren’t ultimately distinct and demarcated anyway — we are all complex beings where the physical and mental are finely woven). Mental health has been in the spotlight with all the stresses of the pandemic and lockdowns and I’d like to see it kept firmly on the agenda.

Novelist and activist Arundhati Roy described the pandemic as a “portal between one world and the next”; I’d like to see us all walk through this gateway that has been presented to us to create a better world.

What if anything, do you think are the unexpected positives of the COVID response? We’d love to hear some stories or examples.

I think an unexpected positive is the humbling of human beings. We have been lavish in our arrogance for generations as the dominant species on the planet, especially in the developed world. This is understandable when life seemed to roll on with certainty and stability; but the cost was terrible for all the other creatures and the precious, fragile, beautiful planet we call home.

I hope that we can learn some humility as a species and stop being so loud and destructive. I do get inklings that this is possible. We have learned new ways of living, which are perhaps a little quieter and kind.

Human connections and kindness became the currency for a while, rather than our usual capitalist currency of financial wealth. I hope this continues.

For me, there have been many positives. I have loved being home-based for the first time in decades and learning to slow down and listen to life much more deeply. I feel it has changed me for the better. I have stopped pushing and striving so much and learned how to rest more deeply within the rhythms of life. More in harmony perhaps with life. I feel it has definitely offered a portal for me personally to re-vision how I live going forwards. I also know it is a fragile portal that will quickly slam closed if I am not attentive, bold, and proactive in the changes I want to make. Now is the time to be brave and to stand up for my values, of that I am certain.

How did you deal with the tedium of being locked up indefinitely during the pandemic? Can you share with us a few things you have done to keep your mood up?

Learning to love routine has been a lifesaver! The lockdown days have rolled on and on and on with what I have come to relish as a gentle rhythm and routine to rest within. I am not a natural routine-loving person and many years ago would have considered routine to be synonymous with boredom and predictability. I wanted spontaneity and variety and I would have assumed being trapped at home in lockdown would be catastrophic.

But over the years I have come to value routine and the lockdown has only heightened this appreciation. I have enjoyed being ‘stuck at home! Having the predictable rhythm of the lockdown life means I have been able to relax more into that routine which has been good for my physical and mental health. I’ve learned that spontaneity is more enjoyable when set within a backdrop of routine and rhythm rather than a more chaotic approach to life.

Each day my husband and I would start with some exercise and then meditate. This time to calibrate my body/heart/mind for the day ahead has helped enormously. Then we’d have breakfast before I’d go out to my garage office to work.

At some point, I’d do some hand cycling and/or go for a short walk with my crutches (forms of exercise I can manage). Initially, I was devastated when the swimming pool closed as that was my main form of exercise pre-pandemic, but I got used to that loss and found other ways to keep moderately fit. I’d also make sure I did stretches regularly. In the evenings we’d relax.

I have had LOTS of zoom engagement both for work meetings and teaching meditation. This has been very helpful to keep me connected with a broad sense of community. This has been important to work against my life from becoming too narrow and self-absorbed. I’ve loved teaching people from around the world in ways that I didn’t even know were possible. Lockdown opened new horizons in that way.

I learned to work with the inevitable waxing and waning of energy over each day. I came to know when the slumps were most likely to occur (after lunch) and to recognize them as just part of the overall shape of the day rather than something to fight. I would sometimes rest and surrender to the energy slumps and sometimes I would do some exercise to rouse energy. Both strategies worked in their own ways.

Aside from what we said above, what has been the source of your greatest pain, discomfort, or suffering during this time? How did you cope with it?

The main challenge of the pandemic is not being able to plan anything and living with a sense of endless uncertainty and unpredictability. It seemed that everything I planned was soon blown to the winds of change. This was especially the case early on in the pandemic when I still assumed it would soon pass and everything would go back to normal and I’d be able to fulfill my various commitments in my usual ways — leading residential events, being with people in face-to-face meetings, etc. For a while, I hung on to my diary and schedule in all the old ways.

As the early months passed I quite consciously changed my attitude. I deleted most things from my diary and relished the space that opened up. It was the first time in years if not decades when my diary was acres of blank pages! I consciously decided to rest much more deeply in the truth of uncertainty. Life IS unpredictable. I could see how it was my pre-pandemic life that was delusional — expecting things to happen as planned — rather than the pandemic being an aberration. This pandemic life is probably closer to the nature of things. I decided it would be much wiser to use the pandemic as an opportunity to practice consciously living with uncertainty and embracing it. I knew that this would prepare me for whatever life has in store in the future in the deepest way.

This was recently tested when I was finally able to get away on a long-awaited trip to Scotland for a long personal retreat. My plans coincided with the lifting of lockdown and I was overjoyed that, at last, something I planned was actually going to happen! It had taken a lot of organizing and I had a lot emotionally invested in this time away in the wilds of Scotland. Then, a couple of weeks ago some unexpected health issues arose and I needed to cancel. Over a matter of hours, the whole thing dissolved into dust. I’ve been closely watching my responses expecting a loss and even devastation. Instead, there is more equanimity than I would have expected, certainly before the lessons of the last year. My response has been one of “of course, this is the way of things in this strange and unpredictable world” rather than “it’s an outrage and it’s not fair”. I feel quite peaceful as I turn around to face what is unfolding, taking it one day at a time. This unexpected equanimity is definitely one of the fruits of the past year.

Okay, wonderful. Here is the main question of our interview. What are your “5 Things I Learned From The Social Isolation of the COVID19 Pandemic? (Please share a story or example for each.)

  1. The resilience of nature. This became immediately apparent as plunged into Lockdown 1.0 in the UK back in March 2020. All of nature seemed happier with the brakes slammed on human activity. Here in the UK, we also had freakishly good weather and it was Spring, always a bountiful season. Nature literally exploded into color and life while we sheltered at home. Some species quite quickly thrived, and it showed me there was hope for a re-balancing of life if only we humans could learn to share this planet and be less dominant, dominating, and destructive. I was surprised at how other creatures bounded back from submission in short order given half a chance. This seemed nothing short of miraculous and it gives me hope.
  2. How it’s possible to bring about radical change, quickly. In a matter of weeks, the busy doings of our lives literally stopped. I looked up at a sky clear of vapor trails, construction noises silenced, no cars on the road. CO2 emissions suddenly reduced. Just. Like. That. The impossible suddenly became possible. 
    Prior to the pandemic, many had called for radical behavior change for our species and it seemed totally impossible. And ye the pandemic showed we can do it if it is literally a matter of life and death. Anything is possible after all. Personally, I will be heartbroken if we collectively just sleepwalk back into our pre-pandemic ways.
  3. I’ve had a chance to re-vision my life and I’m determined to seize the day and carve out a saner ‘new normal’ post-pandemic. The poet Martha Postlewaite writes, “… create a clearing in the dense forest of your life ….” The pandemic has given me this opportunity. Before I did a lot of traveling both nationally and internationally. I look back and I wonder at that busy little bee and ask myself what on earth I was doing. The old me seemed restless and rather hectic and I have no desire at all to slide back into those old habits.
    I’ve discovered that I thrive on a simple life. I’ve been home long enough to rest in the rhythms of all four seasons. I’ve planted seeds in my garden. Watched them grow to maturity. Eaten the crops and seen them wither back into the winter earth again. I’ve learned the peace that comes from resting in rhythms and discovered I am a rhythmical creature deep down. The ebbs and flows of each breath mirrored in the cycles of the day, the month, the waves, the tides, the seasons.
    Right now, I am aware of the urgency of being clear about how I want my life to be once lock-down ends and we are all free to ‘go back to normal and to make some firm decisions before the seduction of habit drags me back. The old normal horrifies me and I am determined to carve out a ‘new normal’ that is quieter, home-based, listening to the calls and rhythms of nature and the whispers of all the other creatures that also call this planet home.
  4. Humans are essentially kind. Amidst all the horrors of the pandemic, I have been moved and amazed countless times by the spirit of solidarity and kindness that sprang up alongside all the loss and tragedy. Here in the UK people sewed scrubs, volunteered, drove people to appointments, shopped, cared, and loved. We stood on our doorsteps at 8 pm on a Thursday and clapped to say thank you to all the frontline workers. I met people in my street I’d never talked to before. My neighbor died during the pandemic and on the day of his funeral, we all lined the street to say our farewell as the hearse drove slowly by. It was almost unbearably moving. The healthcare staff have worked and worked and worked to save their patients. And then they’ve worked some more. It seems that, despite our obvious capacity for meanness and cruelty and stupidity, we are, when it comes down to it, a kind and caring species and this also gives me hope and heart.
  5. That connecting over Zoom can really work. Who’d have thought that we’d spend a year connecting over zoom and that it would be OK? I’ve learned the tricks of the trade: take time, in the beginning, to scroll through the screens and imaginatively identify with all those little faces. This can be remarkably connecting. Ask people to say where they are and how they are in the chatbox. Read this out and it’s like hearing a kaleidoscope of humanity right there. Like a poem. 
    Sometimes zoom almost feels more connecting than meeting in person because I get to see into others’ homes, meet their pets and kids and we traverse time and space in some deeply mysterious way. Rather than sharing a room with a few people, I get to share an imaginative global community with lots of people. I’ve led meditations every week for people in many different countries and I have loved sitting quietly, breathing together, and feeling into our shared human experience.

Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you during the pandemic?

“Take life seriously; hold it lightly”

This slogan came to me after a few months of pandemic life. I’ve used it as my compass ever since. It reminds me to engage with life as fully and deeply as possible — recognizing and empathizing with the huge suffering the pandemic has caused for so many people. And at the same time, I have made it a practice to hold everything with the lightest of touch in the knowledge that life is fragile, fleeting, and mysterious. I’ve seen more deeply than ever before how trying to control life is like trying to grab hold of a handful of clouds or water. You will always come away empty-handed. It is much better to relish each moment as it arrives… and let it go — resting in a beautiful ebbing and flowing of things.

“Take life seriously, hold it lightly” seems to sum up this approach very well and it has served me well over the pandemic and hopefully into whatever comes next.

We are very blessed that some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them.

Annie Lennox. I get the sense we have a lot in common in our outlook on life. I admire her activism and of course, I am a great admirer of her music. I have also read she experiences back pain so that is another thing we share and she clearly manages it very well.

How can our readers further follow your work online?

You can read about my work, books, and the latest events on my website. You can meditate with me on meditation apps Insight Timer, Simple Habit, and I’m also on Twitter where I share updates about my live, guided meditations.

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