Sunday, October 18, 2015

How to Cultivate a Joyful Mind (interview)

photo courtesy Shakti Burke
Shakti Burke trained as a yoga instructor at Bihar School of Yoga in India and at Satyananda Yoga Academy in Australia in the 1980s and early 90s. She has more recently pursued studies in Tibetan Buddhism with Dzongsar Khyentse Rinpoche and Siddhartha’s Intent.

She’s been teaching components of mindfulness since 1987, via yoga and meditation classes, and began delivering stand-alone mindfulness courses in 2011.  Ms. Burke offers classes and workshops in New South Wales and publishes a monthly mindfulness blog:

I love this statement from your blog:  “A joyful mind needs to be cultivated: It doesn't happen by itself. Mindfulness is the soil, the manure, the sunshine and the shower of rain for growing a more balanced and satisfied mind.” 

In popular culture, the “sunshine” side of mindfulness tends to be emphasized.  Can you explain the “manure” and “rain” aspects of mindfulness, and how they ultimately lead to joy?

That’s a great question, Catharine. The old Tibetan saying goes “What good is manure, if not to fertilise sugarcane crops?” In other words, manure has a role. It’s a key ingredient of the compost that gives rise to our joy.

Working with mind’s manure means mindfully embracing difficult circumstances. Mindfulness is not a “you will be happy from here on” scenario. It is a powerful method for dealing with emotions. 

The eight pillars of mindfulness facilitate the process:  acceptance, non-judgement, non-striving, patience, letting go, trust, beginner's mind and self-empathy. With practice, the pillar-inspired mindful attitude becomes second nature.

The eight pillars are brilliant supports for transforming the gunk that life inevitably shovels up into something workable, malleable, instructive and informative. Button-pressing emotions can be seen as messengers. When we decipher the code via the mindfulness tools of body sensing, breath sensing, observing mind, self-empathy, etc., we reap a harvest. That harvest is joy, relief, liberation. It is freedom from what previously entrapped us.

The manure has served a purpose: we get sugarcane. (No wonder mindfulness has been popular for so many centuries!) The rain is the effort we bring to the process. We supply the necessary moisture by means of our commitment.

There’s been an enormous increase in yoga instruction in the past 30 years.  What do you see as the pros and cons of this popularization?

I think it’s mainly all good. It’s well documented that people come to yoga initially for fitness, but stay because they have discovered peace of mind. 

To be a yoga teacher, you inherently have a personal inkling of the mental and emotional benefits. Otherwise, you would simply teach other forms of fitness such as pilates, salsa, or kick-boxing. 

The sculpted body-beautiful image is used commercially to attract clients and sell magazines. It gets people inspired, and once they are in the door, they discover the true meaning of yoga for themselves. That’s a win-win.

You teach yoga and mindfulness to children, teens, adults, and seniors.  How do you adapt instruction for students of different ages and abilities?

My intention is to get into the headspace of each group. Kids just want to have fun: that’s their main priority, so games feature large in my classes. Teens are open to exploration and new ideas; they love interactive group activities and along the way discover the ease and benefit of connecting with the breath.

This video clip shows a mindfulness class I taught in a primary school last year with Bobbi Allan of Mindfulness in Education:

Adults and seniors are a vast and diverse group, but ultimately, everyone’s nervous system works the same way.

Here's a clip of a seated Yoga For Pain Relief class I taught to seniors:

No matter the age of the students, the breath is the starting point, the midpoint and the end point.  (And I love coming up with creative ways to pursue it!) 

In between I introduce info about the brain, autonomic nervous system, positive psychology, international mindfulness scene, etc. These factors give an understanding of how and why breath awareness works, which is reassuring and validating.

The paradox is that mindfulness is too easy: that’s what makes it hard to remember to do.

You also offer workshops for teachers and for carers (caregivers).  How can mindfulness help with burnout and compassion fatigue?

First-port-of-call mindfulness medicine for burnout and compassion fatigue is self-empathy. We have been busy taking care of others, but what about the care-giver?

The power of self-empathy cannot be over-rated. It works on many levels. It’s bringing love, kindness and patience to ourself. It’s about scheduling me-time. It’s seeing where there are gaps in our self-care and applying the required mindful balms: breath and body sensing; relaxation; fun time-out; or mindfulness of the senses as a way of staying present.

Self- empathy will reveal ingrained habits of being hard on oneself. Knowledge is power. Mindfulness fuels positive change.  

What does “mindful teaching” mean to you?

Mindful teaching means being a mindful teacher. Anyone is a mindful teacher when they make a point of being fully present, whether intentionally or not. For example, a music teacher fully engaged in their work is doing mindful teaching.

I watched a brilliant doco the other day called Outback Choir, chronicling the work of the vibrant Michelle Leonard, a choir director who goes out to primary schools in remote outback areas of Australia: 

Michelle teaches the basics of musical composition to the whole class, while gently discovering hidden talent for a specialist choir. Keeping kids engaged and interested is no mean feat, and this amazing lady has the kids eating out of the palm of her hand. They are fully engaged and present because she is so passionately engaged, authentic and present. 

What do you do in your own personal mindfulness practice, and how does it help you with your work?

Now that’s a big question! When I’m present during my daily yoga stretches, it’s a mindfulness practice. Ditto for meditation. But when I’m slack and my mind is elsewhere, it’s not. It can be a deceitful process, and that’s the snare.

Which gives another angle on the manure and the sugar cane crop.

Mindfulness is busting the deceit, sneaking up on inattentiveness/rumination/inner zombie. Gleefully, mindfulness slaps distraction awake and the world comes into fresh focus. It’s a palpable experience.

Additionally, deliberately pausing to see what is right in front of me is a favourite informal mindfulness practice. I do that when I’m out walking or enjoying a break on the veranda. It amazes me how habitually the mind strays into distraction.

Being truly present to hear/see the person I’m conversing with is another delightful practice that benefits both me and the other person.

And then there’s mindfulness at the work station. Striding away from the laptop regularly to the mantra of 'walk away, walk away!' is a favourite. Switching on a happy authentic smile (especially when feeling lousy) while I wait for a new tab or page to load is a favourite. Looking out the window at the garden, instead of staring at a blank screen, that’s a good one.

Over the decades (reveals my age!) I’ve clocked up massive amounts of hours on my cushion. It helps. But transforming one's experience through joyful mindful engagement in daily life is the clincher.

Bringing the mind back home again and again in formal meditation practice cannot help but spill into enhanced presence in everyday life. Being in the habit of being present is the gift you bring to your students and your class.

Meanwhile, the clarity of mind sourced through sitting practice certainly brings creativity, depth and freshness to one's work.

Sitting practice can seem intimidating at first; here are a couple of my blog posts about meditation that should help to demystify the process:


  1. Thanks for the opportunity to have a rave, Catharine. It’s lovely to have someone out there who is giving so much care to the important field of mindful teachers. Your resources are first-class, as is your blog. You go girl!

    1. My pleasure. Thanks so much for sharing your expertise!