What could have been a passing interest at age 17 has turned into a thriving practice called Insight Meditation South Bay. Teaching what she calls Vippassana Insight meditation, the non-profit has grown to have more than 1,400 students, and sometimes over 50 at each session. Events, classes and even a monthly day-long meditation are held in several churches, often St. Timothy's on Grant Road in Mountain View. She says Insight Meditation South Bay has become so successful that they're looking to expand into a dedicated space soon and will raise funds to enter a long term lease or a buy a building in Mountain View.
A friend's mention of his mother's meditation practice sparked her interest in it when she was 17, and after attending her first class with her own mother she's been doing it ever since. "I really felt drawn to it," she said. "I really felt this was way to explore the mind, a way to live authentically, more fully alive."
During the 1980s, Catherine spurned a regular job and took breaks in college to meditate with teachers she found in India and the jungles of Thailand, including the same teachers who trained renowned author and teacher John Kabat Zinn, known as the father of mindfulness, a meditation practice stripped of its Buddhist overtones and used in hospitals to treat those in serious pain. Catherine began her own practice in hospitals as well and still sees those who want to continue their meditation learned at El Camino Hospital or who want to know more about the Buddhist philosophies that gave rise to meditation as a practice, she said.
"There has been a lot of research verifying the effectiveness of meditation for stress reduction for health, for concentration and clarity of mind, for overcoming anxiety and depression, for a whole rang of mental and physical difficulties," Catherine said. "Basically, people are happier when they meditate. Although everybody who meditates knew that long before there were any scientific studies."
Having people around you to support the practice is important to encourage it in today's busy world, she says.
"I think it is really hard for people to carve out the time and protect the time to meditate," Catherine said. "People can very easily get swept up in the business of life and the responsibilities, which basically are their life pattern. Interestingly, when people retire it doesn't get easier," indicating that being busy becomes habit.
"What people realize when they sit down to meditate is how out of control their minds are, it's a real wake up call," Catherine said. People realize, "I can't even sit down and feel three breaths."
"We always know what's good for us," Catherine says. "It doesn't mean we're encouraged or able to bring that into our lives. We need to keep re-inspiring ourselves, re-interesting ourselves. That's why meditation groups and centers are so important."
Catherine says the goal of mediation isn't just to improve oneself, but also to improve a person's relationship to the world. If a person can learn to see and face the "greed, hate and delusion" in oneself, then that person will be able to better deal with it in the world, she says.
She's written two books about meditation, one of which is about concentration, called " Focused and Fearless, A Meditator's Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm and Clarity." She says she sees herself as an authority on the subject.
Catherine says mediation has definitely entered the mainstream. There's even a meditation group at Mountain View's Google campus. Local Googler Chade Meng-Tan has written a book, called "Search Inside Yourself" with a forward by John Kabat-Zin.
"As it's entering the mainstream, some of the things people feared about it have been disproved," Catherine said. People have said "it's some kind of cult" or that it will make you lazy, for example.
"When somebody does take care of their presence and quality of mind, they become much more effective at what they are trying to do," she said. "It helps them to maintain perseverance, to finish something they start."
Meditation also allows people "to pause and make more skillful life decisions," Catherine said. "I'm so grateful I learned when I was young. I made decisions when I was young that spared me suffering."
One of her students, Mary-Leigh Burke, wrote in an email, "I'm fascinated by how she has managed to make these choices work — so many of us envy those very few who have the sheer guts to follow their hearts."
She says she never thought of herself as a teacher, and was never really taught to be one.
"The teachings come out of the depth of one's practice," she said. "That's really what a teacher has to offer. The insights they've seen, the clarity they've seen in their own minds from doing the meditation themselves."
It took a long time to build a group large enough to support her financially, especially since she relies entirely on the generosity of her students who donate to her whatever they can spare.
"I think these teachings are so precious I'm happy to be able to offer them widely. Whether somebody gives a lot or a little, I give the same teachings for everybody. There are not special teachings for the rich," she laughs.
For those who are interested, Catherine recommends an introductory meditation session set for Tuesday, Oct. 2 at 6:30 p.m. at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church. More information is at imsb.org.
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