Ondy Willson is a UK-based, internationally-acclaimed mindfulness trainer, writer and Buddhist teacher.
Ondy has been studying mind-training techniques since the 1970s. Her commitment to good psychology is based on her own training, for over 30 years, from experts in the field of meditation and mindfulness. She was Head of Belief, Philosophy and Ethics in a large comprehensive school, and contributed to primary and secondary school educational books on moral issues. She delivers Mind Training focusing on Mindfulness, Emotional Intelligence and Ethics both nationally and internationally.
Journey Towards Mindfulness
From Ondy’s upcoming book on the day-to-day practice of mindful awareness
My past seems, on reflection, to be about navigating a series of stepping stones across a river whose other side is hidden in mist. But like a nasty video game, as I step out, the stone behind me disappears. So that I have to move forward, and the beginning is somewhere I am no more able to return to. Like the past, you can’t go back. That life is a journey is a common enough metaphor, but it seems one that is driven by necessity rather than the wish to get anywhere. This is because we don’t have a map or a destination in mind but merely the experience of being alive and having to get on with it.
This book is a result of my life so far and after I have written it no doubt another stepping stone will appear to take me further across the river. I have had varied experience in life, and can offer up some little wisdom and advice like anyone whose life has spanned six decades, but the wisdom that has stabilised the slippery stones of my grown up years feel more like rocks beneath my feet. There is a map and a destination. I am now landscaping as opposed to being lost in the wilds, you might say.
In 1980, at the appropriate adult age of 29, I landed on a rock that changed the course of my journey. That I had been dogged by misfortune and lost dreams sounds self-pitying in a world as volatile and as full of suffering as ours is, but never the less, it was enough to make me wonder again and again, why, what and how is it all happening and where am I going and what is it all about.
In that year, just leaving behind the assassination of John Lennon and a haphazard career in teaching, I sold my house, gave up my job and moved into a community of Buddhists to be near a Tibetan Lama I had fallen in love with. This asexual exotic monastic appeared to me to be unlike any other human being I had ever met. It wasn’t a romantic kind of love although it delivered as many blows to my ego as any marriage. Yet these smacks and kicks and sound bashing and beating of an image I had spent a lifetime creating, paradoxically left me wanting more, and I’m no masochist. After a session of meditation and teachings about the nature of our minds, I felt the ecstasy time and time again of self-discovery that I can only liken to giving birth after a tough labour. Was I born again? Or had I just woken up from a confusing dream? Whatever it was, I finally felt that this was where I wanted to be, had to be.
We spend a lot of time feeling like we should be somewhere, but we’re not there yet. As if we’re moving towards a goal that will bring us happiness. At that time in my life I can honestly say I felt I was at the centre of the universe and I had arrived. Mindfulness had kicked in and I was so present my past problems and future ambitions melted, like washing froth on a clean dish.
I spent 13 years in the company of around 80 other people, misfits and some mentally infirm as well as the dispossessed and confused, serious students and those who inevitably wear their religion like jewellery – many of them were hippies who had gone to the East to search for meaning and then, unable to bear being parted from these beings who had given them such peace of mind, brought them back to the West, like lucky souvenirs. The fact that these Tibetan refugees had been kicked out of their culture and were intent on finding their place in an unknown culture that seemed so hungry for their wisdom, made them happy immigrants to our well- padded and peaceful shores. Studying and practising the profound teachings of Buddhism – all wrapped up in the exotic rituals of this mystical and mysterious religious culture, I began my education into what it means to be human, and how to live life meaningfully.
During my time spent at that unusual centre for learning, I continued to live life relatively much the same as other human beings. I divorced, fell in love again, got pregnant, lost babies, and then driven by poverty and despair of my womb, went back into teaching. Fired with the evangelism of my own findings, I learned how to teach without preaching and continued my own philosophical and psychological journey whenever I could find the time between work and family – yes, I finally succeeded in having live children.
The marriage of a religion with a culture is perhaps one of humanity’s more egotistic mistakes. Throughout history we lose sight of the teachings of wisdom beings and see only the personalities of the cultures in which they have become embedded. So it was inevitable that eventually we realised that the Tibetan culture itself had become confused with the pure teachings of the Buddha. In 1992 my partner drove our family away from the centre, with two toddlers, a van with bits and sticks of furniture, and a potty and a broken Buddha statue resting rather symbolically in my hands.
Later I would appear in a BBC documentary called “An Unholy Row” which tried to tell the saddest story of a community divided by Tibetan politics. How this could happen amongst our saintly heroes is still a mystery, and to have lived through such a schism, still impossible to describe, explain, understand, make sense of. The fact that I still found the teachings of the Buddha perfect is testimony to how we as rational humans can extract the essence from the chaff of human experience.
Life back in the world took a little getting used to. But we were fortunate in finding a house of rest and refuge and a village community that welcomed this slightly unconventional family. Room for the artist to paint buddhas and space for a family, and a woman who juggled work and responsibilities with the energy of one possessed.
While my toddlers grew into school children, I flirted with my creativity, storytelling via colourful characters, writing stories and running INSET courses in education. In need of stability and at least one of us with the regular wage of the employed, I then settled more or less to teaching in a large comprehensive school a succession of subjects that seem random now remembered, but clearly I had need of, even if the students didn’t. Drama, English, Religious Studies and Personal, Social & Health Education, culminating in Head of Department of Belief, Philosophy and Ethics. Weave in a tribunal against sex discrimination, (which I won), moonlighting as a backing singer in a soul band and writing published work on Buddhism and Spirituality, and you have the ingredients of a woman who liked the challenge of the next stepping stone, and was rather partial to leaping with her eyes only half open. These years were about me processing what I had learned and testing how ancient wisdom fitted into modern life.
By 2001, I had begun to create a form of personal development with the intention that it had all the wisdom of Buddhism but without the religious clothing. Like the purity of an undressed salad. Experimenting in my classes I found that the word religion immediately set up mental barriers that were difficult to overcome. Supported by teachers who were themselves skilled practitioners in communication, we set about incorporating the religious teachings into our lessons without the dogma, the insights without the outer rituals and rules. We gave our students opportunities to develop self-knowledge as well as finding out about the knowledge of others. Our department was successful, and the name we gave it, progressive.
By 2003 I had become self-employed, obsessed with the successes of secular training, I had run courses and residentials for individuals in holistic centres and my living room on “Inner Management”. This was the name I gave to the training I offered which incorporated the threads found in all religions – life has meaning, goodness brings rewards and there is more than this life. This label served me through the next 10 years of developing courses addressing stress management, emotional intelligence and spirituality v religion. Motivated by my inspirational Tibetan teachers, and a few other committed and talented western teachers who were emerging as credible teachers, my aim was to bring the wisdom of the Buddha to the secular world. I wove in these teachings where appropriate and no-one was any the wiser (so to speak).
What people respond to is what is real and has relevance in their lives. The teachings of Buddhist philosophy and psychology (no religious add-ons of ritual and rules) speak to everyone. The only people in all my years of teaching and training who have not responded favourably to these teachings, and there have been a small few, are those whose egos are blocking them from self-realisation. Everyone else gets it. I am also guessing that I pissed off some people along the way as I developed my own communication skills.
Tibetan Buddhism has developed a profound path of learning, designed by practitioners, who have developed themselves to a very high degree. They aspire to pure ethics, grounded in the Buddha’s interpretation of the Golden Rule, found in all the world’s ethical systems, “Hurt not others in ways that you yourself would find hurtful”. Developing empathy and overcoming their egos is their life’s work. This leads to highly developed compassion and wisdom.
By 2012, I had experienced a lot of successes, but a lot of struggle, and some failures. One stepping stone in particular proved to be covered in moss, and I was wearing sandals with no grip. I failed to keep a most beautiful venue open that fortune and others kindness and belief in me had helped create. The Core Centre opened in 2003 and closed in 2005. The aftermath left me physically and soul destroyed, and I returned to teaching only to be laid flat by glandular fever. A slow recovery led to a few more work experiences within the world of education, some of them edifying, others excruciating. Sometimes, I just did not fulfil their expectations, and they certainly were not fulfilling mine. It was the humbling experience of returning to an institution of learning as a teaching assistant, when I hit some personal all-time lows, but was grateful for any work at all. I had been running Buddhist classes alongside my Inner Management since 2001, so, returning to my roots, I showed willing to travel to other Buddhist centres within our umbrella organisation. My children had wings that worked now, and I was in serious need of stretching mine.
Isn’t it just when you feel you can’t go on that life sends you a tiny glimmer of hope? If I didn’t believe in cause and effect so strongly and be convinced of the absence of a paternalistic God, I would swear that God was a comedian with a vicious sense of humour. As it is, I take responsibility for everything that happens to me, and so appraised my situation and tried to transform it. This usually means stepping out of our comfort zones, and so it was for me. I travelled to a meditation centre in the foothills of the Himalayas, the refugee seat of the Dalai Lama and home to many Tibetans. There I ran intensive 10 day meditation retreats, supported by a committed band of volunteers and dedicated practitioners. These were very popular with travellers, and I gained irnvaluable experience in working with people from all over the world.
Since 2012, I have still been juggling. But with my family matured, and my partner and I secure in our independence, this has been as an international teacher of meditation and Buddhism, and as a Mindfulness Trainer. My Inner management morphed into Mindfulness, when I was offered work by an organisation that was delivered to me on my doorstep. Inner Management meant nothing as a label. Of course, it is Mindfulness and more. MindfulnessPLUS you might say. A bigger size for a bigger appetite. And so Mindfulness Based Mind Training was born. It’s birth canal has been as painful as any birth. But like my live and kicking children, survived all challenges to become recognised and experienced as a form of mental training that has all the wisdom and compassion of Buddhism. Is it for everyone? Yes. Does it tick all the boxes of corporate requirements? Yes. Is it for healthy minds? No, because according to the Buddha, we are all mentally ill, so I’ll just say that it increases our wellbeing and you can take it as far as you wish. He is said to have taken it to his final enlightenment, so, as they say, the sky is the limit.