Hilary is my mindfulness teacher. She has such a gentle and compassionate energy for her students and clients. I took Hilary’s Mindfulness Based Cognitive Therapy (MBCT) course in 2015 whilst pregnant with my daughter. My son bought me a singing bowl for Christmas that year because I loved how Hilary used hers to mark the beginning and end of the meditations. I didn’t even know it could ‘sing’ for years!
I loved the MBCT course and experienced many of the benefits of mindfulness but did not go on to practise what I had learnt. Yet, Hilary’s teachings planted many important seeds that I now cultivate mainly through Tai chi (mindfulness in motion). I am grateful to have learnt from Hilary, to be in her loop for her follow-up workshops and for her agreeing to this interview…
Hilary studied at Exeter university before moving to South-East London for many years. She has lived in St. Albans for more than twenty years.
Hilary started her family fairly young. Her elder daughter came first, just after graduation, so she didn’t really focus on a career for several years. In her early thirties she trained as a social worker and focused on mental health related social work. Hilary feels this carved out a natural path to training as a counsellor. She learned many forms of counselling but says the person-centred approach is her foundation and her first love. Later in the early 2000’s, Hilary came across mindfulness.
So, you’ve always been a helper?
“I guess yes. My dad was a nurse so when I was a little girl, I thought I would be a nurse. I went off that idea quite quickly when I worked as a nursing assistant during my vacations from university, for three summers. I think at the end of that I thought, no nursing’s not for me”. Hilary had already taken interest in social work at university.
Hilary began her meditation journey a long time ago with reiki workshops and other approaches underpinned by eastern philosophy. She learned meditations that were focused on an object or a word.
“I tried that but somehow I didn’t relate to it, so I didn’t continue with it”. She later heard about a colleague in North London who was starting to teach the Mindfulness-Based in Stress Reduction (MBSR) course. Hilary read up on it and thought it sounded like it could be very interesting and valuable for both her and her clients.
Why did mindfulness resonate more than other forms of meditation?
“I could see how it worked. I could relate it to me and the work I did. I could see how it fitted with life. I was curious and felt drawn to it“.
“Great! Curiosity”, I said enthusiastically.
Curiosity! As you know that’s one of the basic tenets of being mindful isn’t it, the curious mind
Mindfulness was originally, by Jon Kabat-Zinn in America, aimed at clinical groups like people with chronic pain. It was found to be so beneficial that it was offered more widely. Mark Williams developed mindfulness training for non-clinical groups in the U.K. who perhaps don’t need a two-hour class each week or forty minutes practise each day.
Hilary currently teaches a slightly different version called Finding Peace in a Frantic World. It’s a short course which she teaches to individuals or groups, one hour a week. The practise is about twenty minutes a day.
We discussed some of the common difficulties of meditating (i.e., self-expectations to empty the mind or sit still, being hard on ourselves or maybe the underpinning philosophy not resonating or fitting with our uniqueness. There’s something about our wellbeing being a personal journey. It’s not one thing, one group or one type of therapy or practise. We almost must connect the dots.
Hilary agreed. She said, “that’s very healthy isn’t it”.
Reflective meditations are not recommended for people struggling with anxiety or depression. Going to the roots of pain can make them feel worse if they lack the skill of letting go. Mindfulness practices like mindful eating can help people practice other aspects of meditation without having to revisit their past.
“Yes, to just sit and focus on the breath” but saying that Hilary recalled a client she taught very early on in her teaching journey who found focusing on her breath very frightening. Hilary said she really needed her supervisor then.
It was the first time I had come across the concept that we can focus on anything that grounds us, for example, our feet on the ground. That has become generally accepted in mindfulness teaching now, that it doesn’t have to be the breath
“When we begin, we tend to be a bit rigid don’t we, thinking ‘this is the way things have to be done’. Fortunately, many of us realise quickly that doesn’t work for everybody”.
Hilary began practising meditation daily when she did the MBSR course. “Like everybody doing the MBSR or MBCT course I really struggled with the homework and the demands of it”.
“Yet, I’ve never been someone who had difficulty taking time for herself. I know so many people do have difficulty with that. That taking time for myself might just be reading a magazine. Or I’ve always been great at just staring into space. Of course, there’s something a bit meditative about that but not really because the mind just wanders. Mindfulness practise develops awareness of the thought and feelings in the present moment”.
Did anything help with the transition from the struggle to habitual daily practice?
“Yes a few things helped. First it was feeling results, feeling the difference it was making. Secondly, at the end of the course I had the freedom to choose my time, the length of time I spent practicing, which practice I was going to do each day, whether it was guided, or I practiced on my own. This is my practice now and I choose what’s going to be best for me and my wellbeing. That kind of freedom …but I think with freedom there is also the danger that you will stop and give up. Follow up workshops are for me still very important”.
Does practising daily versus when you feel you need it (in moments of stress) make a difference?
Hilary thinks ‘ideally’, as many people recommend, that it is good to find a time each day that’s ‘my meditation time’ or ‘my mindfulness time’. However, Hilary called herself “a bit of a rogue” as she has never stuck to a specific time herself. “Yet it’s seldom any day goes by, and I don’t do formal practice. It’s about recognising mindfulness every day, the presence of mindfulness and just being able to come back to it… And the breathing”.
I said Tai Chi has given me that recognition. The more time I spend feeling calm and centered, the faster I recognise when I am not there.
“That’s it isn’t it; I think you put that really well”.
Also, I think daily practice (whether tai chi, mindfulness meditation or something else), filters into everyday life, even if the practice is just five minutes a day.
“Exactly”, Hilary agreed. She reminded me that at the end of the MBCT course there was a teaching about letting things in your life act as little alarms to be mindful. Like hearing a phone ringing or a bird singing… Cues to just tune in“.
During my own MBCT training, Hilary gave us the raisin task (she giggled when I reminded her). It’s about focusing only on eating a single raisin (eating it very slowly and mindfully tuning into the smell, texture, taste etc.) Over the years I’ve heard many great practical suggestions for everyday mindful moments. For example:
Yoga teacher Lucy McDonald said in a workshop, “If you are going to practice mindfulness on one thing why not practice it on brushing your teeth. There is no worth in rushing it. Clean them properly!“.
Ex monk Jai Kith who suggested trying mindfulness on washing up dishes.
Hilary said “It can be anything we do daily. Two minutes or so of brushing our teeth can feel like a really long time for some people“.
“I do walking practise in the garden a lot. I feel lucky to have a garden and I’ve got a little room at the top of the house that I use for my sitting practise. If I only have ten minutes, I don’t always go up there. I might just use an armchair or just sit on the sofa downstairs. It could be anywhere really”.
If Hilary is out and about or in company and feels she needs it she, “…might just take a pause yes, a mindful pause definitely. I can feel my feet in contact with the floor and take a few breaths“.
Hilary and I agreed that frequent reminders or encouragement to take 5 minutes when we need it would be very useful, even for us!
Can Mindfulness Calm the Mind?
I absolutely believe it can calm the mind, but there is that difficulty with it of having that expectation. I must, I must calm my mind, or stop thinking. …but while we are alive, we will never stop thinking. Thoughts will always come and go
We can learn the skill for calmness (i.e., Tai chi, mindfulness meditations etc.) but practising it is how we undo the perfectionism, self-judgement & rigid thinking (I need to do it this way, get it right’ etc.) that will otherwise prevent us from being able to effectively use the skill! It’s about learning how to truly let go and relax.
“How to be, how to just be“, Hilary added.
How does mindfulness calm the mind?
“There is a lot in the MBCT course about noticing thoughts and developing the ability to just notice them, without getting caught up in them. I think that helps to calm the mind“.
Hilary’s teachings really did set me up for Tai chi! Tai chi teachers praise noticing. It’s the first step to changing anything.
“Isn’t it just”, she agreed.
Do you feel calmer?
“I am calmer generally yes, not always but generally”.
Did you ever have issues with not being calm?
“Oh, absolutely and I still can! I haven’t mentioned anger but yes, I used to be on a very short fuse! It’s still a go to place for me to feel very angry very quickly about things but I can press that pause button and say ‘stop, I’m not going to say that angry thing. I’m not going to flare up. Let me just breathe’… and again, it’s not always, I will flare up but yeah, I am a lot less angry“.
I told Hilary that my teacher Kevin tells me (because his teacher told him), ‘it’s okay to be ‘yang’ sometimes, to show your fire energy’.
“Yes, there are things where anger is absolutely justified”, she replied.
The goal is not to be a passive person who doesn’t react to anything. It’s about learning how to respond effectively.
Absolutely, that’s the difference isn’t it. It’s the reactiveness that so often isn’t good. It isn’t good for us or for the people we are with, but there is a lot of energy in anger. It’s a wonderful emotion for giving us energy and purpose. There is so much in the world that needs our anger
In the five-elements theory underpinning Acupuncture and Tai Chi, if we can balance our anger, it becomes assertiveness, and we can move forward in this world. Before Tai chi, I was missing the power of retreating. I would move forward in anger, blasting the person who was asking for it, only wasting it’s energy.
Now I notice and accept negative feelings and retreat to a quiet space to figure out what I need to do to change it.
“Well, I don’t know if it’s true for you but for me I’ve always thought that was part of my Irish heritage, that when I’m angry I really go for it and don’t think about it and I expect other people to be the same, but of course that’s not true for everyone so anger needs to be tempered with wisdom”.
Mind Like Still Water
Hilary thinks this visualisation can be helpful because some people work well with images, but other people don’t. She reminded me of the lake meditation that she guided us through during the course.
“It is similar, but the surface of the water is always getting disturbed by different things but underneath the water is always calm“.
A great way of looking at it because there is always the danger of thinking the lake MUST be still and being hard on ourselves instead of noticing and addressing what’s in there.
“In terms of the rocks it can be absolutely anything, from the smallest everyday thing to really big things. So, there are the different sizes of the rocks”.
As we are sensory beings, could it be all sounds and sights etc.? Can we even declutter the rocks without silence?
“I have worked with people who have become quite depressed and anxious about world events. They often over-consuming negative information. To simply cut down on that can make a big difference. So sometimes it’s very simple practical things like that isn’t it”.
Is it taking responsibility for what’s going in, how much of it and where it’s coming from?
“Absolutely and knowing it can be controlled to quite a large extent. Some things can’t be, but a lot of things can be, and we can choose”.
Other than meditation, what helps you stay calm?
Hilary has tried Tai chi in the past. “I’ve tried it on spa breaks actually. Places like Champneys and Ragdale Hall have Tai chi classes as part of the offer, and I’ve done the occasional Tai chi class”.
I felt enlightened and the need to get myself to these Spas.
Hilary said she had been to the Champneys in Tring and more recently the one in Henlow. “I love spas“, she smiled. “Just being there and the atmosphere and vibe“.
Hilary went to yoga class for years and is currently doing Pilates. She said, “All of these things can help us get to know our bodies“.
Walking? “I do walk, yes.” Hilary has taught me and many others walking meditation as part of her MBCT course.
Art? “When the mindfulness colouring revolution came I bought a colouring book, but I never used it and recently gave it to a charity shop. Not my thing!”
Craft? “No I’m not good at those things. I lack manual dexterity quite badly, but I do write poetry sometimes”.
We reminisced about some of my favourite poems from the course. Hilary let me know two of the poets have passed away since I did the course. RIP Mary Oliver who wrote “Wild Geese” and Derek Walcott who wrote “Love After Love”.
Tea? I let Hilary know I still have the mug she gave to us at the end of the course and the invitation to use it mindfully i.e., in the making or at least in the drinking of the tea.
Retreats by Vietnamese Buddhist monk Thich Nhat Hanh is where Hilary learned about drinking tea mindfully. “He has a retreat in France called Plum Village that I’ve actually never been to. He used to come to the UK every year to do a five-day retreat, but he died last year”.
Rest in peace.
Gardening? “No, I’m not a gardener. It’s a bit of a ‘should‘ in my life. I should be interested in gardening because I can see how therapeutic it is. I can really see the appeal of it. Touching the earth and seeing things grow. I love appreciating a garden, but I’ve never been drawn to gardening”.
Decluttering/Minimalism? “I rather like buying clothes, yet if it comes to asking myself ‘what do I really NEED?’, it’s very, very little isn’t it? A very small amount”.
Hilary believes exercise calms us “Almost any kind of exercise that is safe. Movement!” …and “Being close to nature... Noticing… Oh and laughing“.
Have you ever tried one of those laughter clubs?
“No, I’m not drawn to that, but it does sound funny”, she laughed!
Benefits of calmness
“I think calmness helps with making decisions and solving problems. It’s kind of a no brainer, isn’t it?”
You might hear and read about these things but until you do something that calms you and those benefits are things you FEEL, it’s hard to image the huge differences calmness can bring.
“Yes, and you HAVE TO FEEL IT don’t you”.
“In recent years I started to develop osteoarthritis. I’ve got it in quite a few joints, and it requires a lot of patience and a lot of sitting with discomfort. Although I don’t know what I might have been like without my mindfulness practise, I am feeling like it is helping me a lot, to just live with that really”.
I’ve become much less judgemental of myself and more patient. These are all lifelong works in progress… and a little more compassionate towards myself and others
“I’ve always been an anxious person. That’s a trait. I am getting much more in touch with where I feel that in my body and I soften those parts of my body“.
Is anxiety your main issue to balance?
“Yes, that’s my thing”, Hilary laughed.
I admitted I only recently accepted my own anxiousness. I hated the label, so refused to see it in myself. I dismissed ‘clammy hands’ as some weird thing unconnected to my mind because I didn’t feel worried. Fear was well buried under defence mechanisms. I wasn’t in tune with my own fight, flight or freeze responses but in my first “sensing hands” course in Tai chi there was no hiding from them. They cried more than ever before!
So, I used my new powers and accepted my crying hands as part of me. We are all different. The worst that ever happened was the person pulled away, wiped their hand and said “Urghh why are you so clammy?” Why was I so afraid of that? Who cares?! Accept and let go!
“For a short one I would go to the traditional Breathing Space. Just to centre myself and check in. To see what I am thinking and feeling and sensing right now. Let me just breathe with that for a couple of minutes”.
I mentioned the body scan meditations I learnt from Hilary and how my mum taught me one in bed when I was young, to help me fall asleep. It was different in that you tense each part of your body and let it go to connect to the relaxation. When teaching Hilary would sometimes say during body scans ‘If you don’t feel something there that’s ok too!”. We didn’t add tension. Instead, Hilary guided us to tune in to each part of the body and accept the sensory experience just as it was. In those moments I was able to let go of doing something to my body. I was able to just be, to just notice what was happening in my little toe not what I thought should (or what I wished to) happen.
“Yes, because otherwise there is that danger of thinking ‘I MUST, I SHOULD, I OUGHT! One of the things I’ve always thought is a wonder of the body scan, is the wonderful ability of my mind to be directed to my big left toe and move on to my ankle and focus on parts of the body in turn. It’s almost a discipline of the mind, knowing it can do this”.
In Tai chi there is this impossible goal of bringing your attention to your ‘Tan Tien’ (your centre, below your navel) and keeping it there as you move. What a challenge! Almost everything can de-centre us!
It’s like trying to empty the mind and not having any thoughts. It’s just not possible
My teachers say so often, ‘just relax and enjoy it or it’s not Tai chi. It’s become a bit of a joke with senior students ‘oh just relax’. We all know more and more that it’s not easy even when you have been practising for years!
“No and in fact getting an instruction to relax almost has the opposite effect’.
This is the book for the course Hilary is teaching currently.
Williams, J. M. G., & Penman, D. (2011). Mindfulness: A practical guide to finding peace in a frantic world. Piatkus.
“It’s a beautiful book. I highly recommend it. It’s a great place to start for anyone completely new to mindfulness”.
This book was used in Hilary’s MBCT course.
Williams, J. M. G., Teasdale, J. D., Segal, Z. V. & Kabat-Zinn, J. (2007). The Mindful Way Through Depression. Guilford Press.
Hilary has done some of Mark’s online training and has trained at the Oxford Centre of Mindfulness with Chris Cullen. The centre now offers free mediation practise, Monday to Friday at 7pm (UK)
Any other teachers?
Thich Nhat Hanh “Although he was a Buddhist teacher, all his work is incredibly accessible”.
Are they your main influences?
“Yes very, very much so but of course I must not forget Jon Kabat-Zinn, he was my influence before Mark Williams. Mindfulness comes from Buddhism. John Kabat-Zinn had been doing Buddhist meditation for many years before he thought of using it in a clinical setting. He wrote the formal course and devised the MBSR program. So, it seems almost an inevitable path for teachers of mindfulness to be drawn to Buddhism. That has certainly happened with me, my interest in Buddhism has really developed”.
Local Quiet Place
Highfield Park “It’s nearly always quiet and there’s the maze there and the rose garden. I think unless you live near it, you don’t know about it“.
We are blessed with so many stunning parks in St. Albans 🙂
Hilary is happy to be contacted about this article
Email: [email protected]