A few weeks ago, I had the great pleasure of chatting with Karen Atkinson about her first book ‘Compassionate Mindful Inquiry in Therapeutic Practice’ which was released in January 2020. In addition to being an author, Karen is the Senior Partner and Co-Founder of MindfulnessUK and Director for Mindfulness UK @Work and her teacher training courses and current Virtual Wellbeing offers can be found at http://www.mindfulnessuk.com.
This post is part of a charity initiative which reaches out to many communities worldwide in the hope of sharing key information, education materials and discussion points for groups of women and girls to come together to spend time in a safe, empowering space. Some of these communities are ones where I have lived and worked over the years and consider many to be my family and friends. It is therefore a personal honour for me to be able to share with them the authors and books which I know will provide thought-provoking material and value at the same time. My thanks and appreciation for Karen, her time and openness to the questions are all contained and offered up within this interview. The book review will follow soon as normal and will no doubt provide another area of discussion points. With the above in mind, permission to share this with any women groups or any communities you feel will benefit from this interview and the book review, is not only granted but encouraged. Let’s meet Karen.
AL: What led you to writing this book?
KA: The main thing was my own personal experience of the power of inquiry. Having used inquiry for about 20 years clinically as well as personally for about 30 years, I recognised just how important it was and lots of people weren’t using it as part of their therapeutic work or as a result of their teaching. It transformed my life and I wanted to support people, who are training and doing lots of self-reflection and also newly trained teachers in mindfulness and compassion, in how to use this skill to benefit everyone else.
AL: Was this the book you always wanted to write?
KA: It was a book I felt I needed to write in order to support my students and new teachers. Someone asked me the other day if I would like to write another book on inquiry that had other elements. I had to pull back some of the time as I had to think of the level I was writing it at and my prospective audience and readers. It’s a book I felt really driven to write and I’m pleased it’s turned out at the level that it has.
AL: Who is the book aimed at?
KA: It’s aimed at people who meditate and haven’t got the opportunity to be able to sit with a teacher and go through inquiry. So they are doing their practice but haven’t got the support for self-reflection. It’s also for students who are doing mindfulness training in any way and new and relatively inexperienced mindfulness teachers.
AL: Is there an assumption that those reading the book will already have a certain level of self-awareness and/or self-compassion?
KA: It’s that paradox, isn’t it, of you’ve got to have a certain level of awareness to know you need mindfulness and mindfulness creates awareness. There will be a certain level and also an appreciation of what inquiry adds to their practice and how it supports their practice and their growth and development.
AL: What were the easiest and hardest parts of the book to write?
KA: The hardest part that took me the longest was actually developing the model, I spent about 2 years getting that model together and it’s the best I can do in 2D in a conceptual way. So it had to be clear and concise and at the level at which I was writing it and the people who were reading it could completely understand. For me, that was the hardest.
The easiest was around the things I teach all the time in my teacher trainings and the things you have to consider when becoming a new teacher. You know the assessment and things. A lot of the material I knew from a depth and also, it’s all so familiar to me. That was easy and just flowed completely.
AL: How long did it take you to write the book from having the first thought to it being finished?
KA: It went through a 3 year process from having a thought to it going from one publisher who then recommended it to another publisher and then as a concept and me putting the model together. So yeah, 3 years from the start to pressing the send button to submit it.
AL: What was your writing/ creative process?
KA: I was quite disciplined. I usually have Sunday and Monday off and every Monday, I wrote for 6-8 hours and some evenings if I could. So yes, I was relatively disciplined for about 6 months and got quite a lot under my belt and the last 2 or 3 months were quite a rush as we went into editing. It’s not a book where I had to do a lot of research, it really came from my own personal and professional experience so that preliminary time wasn’t there of me having to gather research or quotes.
Initially when you send it to the publisher, it’s really clearly laid out and you work with the proposal before you actually get to writing to be honest so it’s really clearly set out. So, I knew what was coming and had a really good framework to work with and yes it was on my mind all the time wherever I was. Also a lot when I was supervising, I was really hyper sensitive to wherever I was in the book and thinking ‘oh that is a really good point and I need to put that in’. So yes, there is that hyper sensitivity in all that I did related to where I was in the book.
AL: What did you learn about yourself whilst writing the book?
KA: I learnt that I was able to put together my thoughts in a very cohesive way for people who weren’t connected to me on a personal or professional level and who didn’t know me. So, I’ve had some really good feedback from people I’ve never heard of before so that’s really reassuring for me. I learnt I can write with clarity and I sort of found my style.
I’ve written teacher training packs and this is a development, an extension really of a teacher training programme so I learnt a lot about myself when I was writing the Integrated Mindfulness and Compassion course and that’s just spilled out into the book process I think.
AL: You mention becoming truly authentic, bringing mindfulness and compassion fully into your life, do you think you would have come to this point without fully surrendering through your cancer diagnosis?
KA: My cancer diagnosis and what was to follow was catastrophic for me at the time. Not only because I had an aggressive, life-threatening, very rare cancer for someone in their 40’s but also because it threw my life and most especially who I was, as a result of my upbringing, into the harsh light of reality. All the deeply buried suffering from the past, particularly with my maternal relationship, slapped me around the face and I fully and painfully woke up. Ultimately cancer gave me the opportunity to explore self-compassion in a way that has totally transformed me and my life and I am grateful that I’m no longer in the trance of delusion.
AL: What does self-awareness mean to you and when did you start that process?
KA: I started off really, really young. I can remember when I was 11 or 12, lying on my bed listening to radio 4 and playing around with hypnosis. I was hypnotising myself, lifting up my arm and then not being able to put it back and recognising the power of the mind over the body and vice versa. So, I got in touch with that very early and part of that was very much that I had a very challenging upbringing and so I had a hyper sensitivity, a hyper alertness to my physical body and also how that related to my mind and my emotions. When I became an adult, in my early 20s, I started turning towards meditation practices, my yoga practices in particular and the meditations within my yoga. That’s when I really started to hone my awareness skills in a healthy way if you like, whereas before they were more a defence mechanism.
For me, self-awareness means life enhancement, self-regulation, choices, deep choices based on what supports me and what doesn’t and who supports me and who doesn’t. So many things, life enrichment really and dealing with the rubbish that I’ve experienced and helping other people do that too.
AL: What are you most proud of?
KA: Proud isn’t a word that I necessarily associate a lot with the things that I do. What I feel the deepest emotions about I suppose, is that I’m not the person I was destined to be and that is through my practice, my self-awareness and my self-compassion. My upbringing really was setting me up on a path and I chose to change my path personally and through the support I got from other people who really helped me to do that. So that’s the thing I feel most moved about, that when I reflect back on who I was destined to be, I’m not that person.
AL: What’s your greatest achievement?
KA: Achievement for me implies doing and what I’ve just said is being. I suppose one of them, if I’m talking about doing, is taking a huge step away from the NHS and the work I was doing for someone else as a boss and setting up a centre of my own. I re-mortgaged my home, my children were at home, they were young, I put things on the line to do it and it wasn’t easy. I’ve worked my socks off and had cancer in the middle of it and I’m sure that’s because I was working so hard and the stress I was under as well as other things. I had a choice as to whether to stop, I was 3 years in and I decided to carry on because I’d really laid the foundations of the work that I wanted to do.
Achievement wise, as I sit here in the middle of this pandemic, 10 years in to setting up MindfulnessUK, I do think that if I never go back to MindfulnessUK then I’ve really done some fantastic work with people. I’ve really supported thousands of people through my own 1-1 work but mainly the teacher training I’ve done and how I do it. So, yes that’s my best achievement I think.
AL: Is there another book you would like to write?
KA: Yes there is. It’s completely different and whether I ever get to write it or not, I don’t know. It’s about my upbringing and I would have to be in the right place mentally and emotionally to write it. I would also have to maybe wait for a couple of other events within my family to happen before it was actually published. I feel like I’ve learnt so much in my life and it would be good to share that learning.
AL: Do you have any favourite books or authors you would recommend or have influenced your writing?
KA: The most recent book is ‘The Book of Joy’ by Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu, which I just loved. I’ve read so many books by Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, I love the way Vidyamala Burch writes as it’s so accessible and Pema Chödrön. I’ve always got a book on the go and really enjoy reading Rick Hanson, Jack Kornfield, Saki Santorelli and Jon Kabat-Zinn.
AL: Anything else you wish to share?
KA: A really important thing for me was the connection and the support I was given around the material. I found it really heartening and unexpected that the people I was writing to like Vidyamala Burch and Vanessa Hope, people that I hold in high respect and high esteem and was expecting to get knock backs from, every single person that I asked for help gave me that support. That was a good lesson in that we all need support in whatever we are doing and it’s hard to ask for help. It was really interesting for me to see that I was setting myself up to think that actually they are going to say no, they are too busy and I completely understand that but actually they didn’t say that, not one person said no. That can be rippled out across to many other areas of life, where when we really connect in with what we need and the support that we need and we can really articulate that well enough then the support is usually there whether we think it’s going to be or not. That’s something that’s really quite important to me, the connectivity and the support that’s out there.
I would also like to add that being genuinely self-compassionate has given me choices and freedom in my life, in ways I could only previously have dreamt about. Awareness, supported by self-compassion is a truly powerful and transformative combination.