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Exploring the Path of Recovery and Teaching Mindfulness

Updated: Jul 11

In this episode, Valerie Mason-John speaks with Prison Mindfulness Institute's Executive Director, Vita Pires, Ph.D., about navigating recovery and trauma with mindfulness, utilizing compassionate inquiry processes, transforming conflicts through mindfulness, and practicing culturally sensitive mindfulness techniques.


  • Journey with Recovery, Trauma, and Mindfulness

  • Compassionate Inquiry Process

  • Conflict Transformation and Mindfulness

  • Culturally Sensitive Mindfulness Practices

  • First Aid Kit for the Mind - Upcoming Book


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Poet, author, and public speaker Dr. Valerie Mason-John (Vimalasara) is the award-winning author/editor of ten books. Their debut novel, Borrowed Body, won the 2006 Mind Book of the Year Award. They co-authored the award-winning book Eight Step Recovery: Using the Buddha’s Teachings to Overcome Addiction. And authored Detox Your Heart Meditations for Emotional Trauma. They worked as the writer in residence at a women's UK prison. Their most recent book, published in 2020, I Am Still Your Negro: An Homage to James Baldwin, has won critical acclaim. They are a senior teacher in the Triratna Buddhist Community and one of the leading voices of African descent in the field of mindfulness for addiction. And was part of a BIPOC group that created Freedom Together, a Mindfulness program by and for the BIPOC community. In 2024, A First Aid Kit for The Mind: Working with Habitual Behaviors will be published. They live on the Sunshine Coast, British Columbia, and can be found online at valeriemason-john.com


Podcast Transcript


00:03 

Vita Pires, Ph.D.  

I'm happy to be here today with Valerie Mason John. Also known by her Buddhist name Vimalasara, Valerie is not only a poet and author of many books but also a public speaker and a teacher in mindfulness and addiction recovery. She co-founded the mindfulness-based addiction recovery MBAR program and has written extensively on how mindfulness techniques can be used to manage addiction, stress, and trauma. So, Valerie, can you tell us a bit about how you got started in this field working with trauma and mindfulness recovery?  


00:44 

Valerie Mason-John 

I started working in trauma, as you say, once upon a time. I was a poet, I wrote plays, etcetera. This was when I was living in the UK. The Ogle House Theatre had a call for them to create an educational program for children with challenging behavior, and they selected six of their artists. So, we created this program to work with challenging behavior. And I always remember my friend, my friend Denny. I remember we were going into schools working with challenging behavior, and we looked at each other and said, we don't know what we've got ourselves into, do we? And I think that influenced the direction of my life.  


01:42 

Valerie Mason-John 

I worked for the leading organization in conflict in the education system. Lead confronting conflict. And we worked with gangs, we worked with incarcerated people, and I've worked with Streets Alive, which was a theatre program, working with the homeless and trauma. So back in that day, the word wasn't trauma, challenging behavior, or conflict resolution. Now we're talking about trauma. And I suppose really what's put me in the heart seat of all of that is I co-wrote a book called Eight Step Recovery, Using the Buddha's Teachings to Overcome Addiction. Which is a compliment, I would say, to the twelve-step movement. And there are meetings all over the world, three meetings, just like twelve-step meetings. Gabor Mate wrote the foreword for that book because I live in the same area as Gabor.  


02:43

Valerie Mason-John 

And that brought Gabor into my life, and I started following him and being inspired by inquiry because I had been doing inquiry for years. But I watched Gabor, and it was like I had met the maestro of inquiry and the story's history. I became one of the founding facilitators of his work, Compassionate  Inquiry. I worked with him, Sat Dharam, and many others to help create this thing that's gone into the world: Compassionate Inquiry. So that's how my journey into trauma, addiction, etcetera,  is explicit. I think I was working with trauma for years, but I was kind of explicit with addiction, etcetera,  definitely in the last 15 years.  


03:39 

Vita Pires, Ph.D.  

Can you describe the actual process of inquiry you use with this compassionate inquiry? I haven't heard much about it, and I know many mindfulness teachers struggle with how to do inquiry.  


03:51 

Valerie Mason-John 

That surprises me because inquiry is part of the Buddhist teachings and part of mindfulness. So, in a way,  rather than saying what the process of Compassionate Inquiry is, I would say inquiry is about getting curious about somebody's experience. And so it might be, I might say, I noticed that you turned your head. What's going on for you? So rather than interpret, you see somebody's turned ahead, and you're clocking in your head. This is what's happened. It's about letting go of the entire agenda, you know? So it's like,  yeah, I noticed you turned your head. What's going on for you? You know, I notice that you're rocking at the moment. What's going on for you in the body? What are you feeling in the body right now? And then it might be somebody might say anxiety.  


04:56 

Valerie Mason-John 

And where do you feel that anxiety? What does that anxiety feel like? And then the person might say, well, I'm arguing with somebody, and I would say, I hear that's what you're thinking, that actually, what are you feeling? So, separate thinking from feeling or thoughts from feeling so people can get some empowerment. And then again, with the Compassionate  Inquiry, it'd be like, I'm feeling frustrated, which isn't a feeling, but it would be like, when was the first time you experienced frustration? And so we're continuing inquiry in terms of inquiry in the Buddhist teaching; it's about letting go of the self and letting go of the stories. And that's what we're doing with inquiry all the time: letting go of stories so that you can become lighter. Lighter within.  


05:59 

Valerie Mason-John 

Within your heart and mind, let go of some of those. What the internal family system says is letting go of some of those legacy burdens passed down to us.

  

06:12 

Vita Pires, Ph.D.  

Well, that's beautiful. I know you talk about it on your website, and you said earlier that you've worked a lot with what you call Conflict Transformation. So, what part of your Buddhist training and mindfulness play in that? What practices do you recommend for Conflict Transformation?  


06:33 

Valerie Mason-John 

Well, Vita, it's really interesting because when I think of the teachings, the dharma, the teachings, I  want to take it out of Buddhism. After all, it's almost like, oh, I'm not Buddhist. I can't access these.  What I'd always say is that these teachings, for me, are the oldest modality around working with the mind, working with addiction. We know that when the prince wakes up to the truth and becomes a Buddha, a Buddha means awake. When the prince became awake, their first sermon was that there is an addiction to hedonism that is lowly, coarse, and unpredictable. And there was an addiction to self-mortification, which is lowly, coarse, and unpredictable. And what we need is this middle way. And so, in a way, when you ask, how does that work with conflict?  


07:51 

Valerie Mason-John 

Well, you know, if we're addicted to hedonism or self-mortification, that's going to create conflict in our lives. And then again, we can go to the teachings of the four noble truths, which for me was important because that first truth says that there's suffering. And some people often think something's wrong with them because they're in so much pain. Yeah. And, as we know, there's nothing wrong with somebody more; the inquiry is what happened to you rather than what's wrong with you. And yet, with this first noble truth that there is suffering, I know it was like, oh, nothing is wrong with me. This is a human condition in which there is suffering. Yeah, this is a human condition that there is suffering. There is going to be some conflict.  


08:45 

Valerie Mason-John 

Then, there is the second truth of realizing that a path leads to more suffering, and part of that path is craving, hatred, and delusion. And how do we begin to unpack all of that and that reminder that there is an end to this and that the way out within that particular teaching is a noble, Eightfold Path? An important part of the teachings is a way to unfetter ourselves and let go of some of those mental states that create conflict in our lives. 


09:32 

Vita Pires, Ph.D.  

Absolutely. So probably your answer is about the same for working with recovery, people in recovery, not just addressing the symptoms, but the underlying causes of addiction. Is mindfulness supportive of that?  


09:52 

Valerie Mason-John 

For me, my thinking has changed so much over the years of working in the field of addiction because all of us have some addictive and compulsive behaviors. And the reality is, for some people, it's a matter of life and death. So it is on that continuum that I think we're all somewhere there. Even for myself, I think when I was able to let go of what I would say, my gross addictive behaviors, I became aware that my biggest addiction was my stinking thinking and how that could be so addictive and get us into problems. And I think, in a way, when I say my thinking has changed, it's so much that these addictive behaviors are adaptations, aren't they? They are ways to help us survive in the world.


11:04 

Valerie Mason-John 

We get lost. Gabor has a beautiful quote. I may not be quoting it verbatim, but it's something like that.  It's a gift to be able to hide a tragedy when nobody can find you. And this is what happens in addiction, that often people are hiding, which is a gift to protect, but nobody can find you. It gets so lost.  It's like, how can we find you and help pull yourself out? And that is the tragedy. And again,  remembering that again, when I say my thinking has changed, often it's like there are the bad drugs and there are the good drugs. Do you know what I mean? The bad drugs, you know, fentanyl, heroin,  whatever. 

 

11:55 

Valerie Mason-John 

Now, the good drugs of all the pharmaceuticals, the ones who are making money, or it's like even in the psychedelic world, well, there are bad drugs, but psychedelics, if you think MDMA. So MDMA is good, but fentanyl or heroin or whatever, or crack is bad, but why are some bad, and why are some good? It's all about people. Some people want to take agency for their recovery and don't want to go to an institution. They want to try and do it themselves, you know? So, yeah, I'm not sure if that answers your question.  


12:40 

Vita Pires, Ph.D.  

Yeah, I think it makes it a lot clearer. So, in your book, I also liked how you made a vivid case for addictions because sometimes people think there's a spectrum and that food is really on the light side of addiction. And your story was kind of a harrowing one that portrayed that food is, if you look around the world, or America per se, you'll see this is a huge health crisis, an epidemic scale lately, the kind of which, in Buddhist terms would be the aversion and the craving. So I guess, you know, I want to thank you for your book. It was really beautiful, and I think the writing and storytelling were beautiful.  


14:02 

Valerie Mason-John 

I wanted to say something about the allergy because, in a way, sometimes an allergic reaction is addictive, compulsive behavior. I know for myself that I would say that I have an allergy to sugar. If I  have processed sugar in my system, I can't stop, so I don't have it. So, it's not an intolerance that I have. That's a reaction. And before, I didn't know that. When I was in the frozen or hell realm of disordered eating, I would go into a trance. When I was on a binge, I would be in a trance. And definitely,  I'm going like this because balance would change and alter states.  


14:59 

Valerie Mason-John 

And then, when you purge, you're into another dimension. You know, people aren't aware of doing that to go into trance-like states. And again, realizing,  knowing within that there were certain things where I couldn't stop. I had an allergy. I had an allergic reaction.  


15:24 

Vita Pires, Ph.D.  

So, what are your suggestions for ensuring mindfulness practice? It says you've worked in all kinds of environments. You've done all kinds of things with a lot of diverse and varied audiences and students.  What are your suggestions for ensuring mindfulness practices are culturally sensitive and appropriate for various populations?  


15:50 

Valerie Mason-John 

That is a great question. And where do we begin? It's a conversation that will take many weeks, months, and years. I think, firstly, what's important is that when we think of mindfulness in North  America, we have to remember that the people who brought mindfulness to the US were the Chinese in the 1800s. And I think this is important. And, again, when the gold rush happened in the US, more  Chinese people came and brought mindfulness and Buddhism to North America. Because, you know, we can go online and see who's credited for bringing mindfulness and Buddhism. The Chinese population isn't credited for that. If we go back, it's really important to remember the roots of mindfulness.  


16:53 

Valerie Mason-John 

The roots of, and I know people talk about, okay, there's secular mindfulness, blah, blah, whatever, but,  you know, the reality is that the roots in history go back to India, okay, where the prince Siddhartha popularised or brought these teachings back. I think also what's important is remembering that it said that the Buddha rediscovered the way. So, if something was rediscovered, we know these teachings probably existed before the Buddha rediscovered the way. I think what's important is that it's really important to reference history. Also, my teacher, the late, venerable Sangharakshita, asks, where does mindfulness come from? And, of course, mindfulness comes from India. It was first discovered there. What was the prince doing?  


18:02 

Valerie Mason-John 

What was the prince doing when he discovered the dharma, the teachings? He wasn't listening to some great talk, he wasn't listening to a podcast, he wasn't reading a book. He was meditating. And so in a way, mindfulness is our birthright. And then again, we have to think about how we teach it. You know,  mindfulness is so much about the breath. And definitely for BLAIPOC communities, Black, Latinx, Asian, and Indigenous people of color, the breath has been so weaponized in our communities. You know, so many of my siblings have died, you know, calling for the breath. Yeah. At the hands of the police. And so again,  we have to think about that. Again, people often think mindfulness is just sitting on a cushion. The first book on mindfulness I ever read was by Thich Nhat Han, The Miracle of  Mindfulness.  


19:12 

Valerie Mason-John 

And if you go back to that book, The Miracle of Mindfulness, it's not about just sitting on the cushion.  You know, are you washing the dishes to wash the dishes, or are you washing the dishes? You know, that it's everything that we do. So again, there is so much we can do, and talking about that, I was part of a group that brought together a mindfulness course called Freedom Together. And Freedom Together was designed by BLAIPOC people for BLAIPOC people. And we're looking at how we begin to decolonize mindfulness. And so that's a course if people are, you know, interested. If you're BLAIPOC, you could do a year-long course with that. I think the next course is going to run in January.  


20:05 

Vita Pires, Ph.D.  

So, where did you learn mindfulness? Was it from Thich Nhat Hanh?  


20:09 

Valerie Mason-John 

Yeah, Thich Nhat Hanh was one of the first books I read about mindfulness. It's really interesting when I  think about that question because I grew up in orphanages, and I can remember that if we were caught talking in the dorms, we used to get dragged out and we had to stand with our faces to the wall with our heads on the hand like this, and we just had to stand there. And you didn't know, like when, you know,  when you could go back into your room, and often it was when the adults would come up to bed because they forgot about you. Do you know what I mean? They were doing their stuff. And definitely, I  can remember finding pleasantness after a while that, after what happened, finding pleasantness.  


21:04 

Valerie Mason-John 

And then, I would say I came into touch with mindfulness in two places. And the first place was as a kid, I was incarcerated at the age of 15 to 17, you know, for shoplifting, that kind of stuff. Once you're in the system, you know, in orphanage group homes, it's very easy to end up being incarcerated. I did a lot of solitary confinement. I thought it was another group home and got myself into trouble. And you work in the prison, so you know what solitary confinement is like. You know, your food is served through to your in a hatch, you have one piece of clothing you can't tear, and you're sleeping on just a concrete slab, etcetera. And I should pause a moment. Doing that to kids who do petty stuff is ridiculous.  


22:04 

Valerie Mason-John 

But just let's take a moment to pause. Often, you didn't know when you would go back up. It was called Live Away. And you didn't know when you would go back up, and you were in your cell 24  hours. You're lucky if you had half an hour or not half an hour or 15 minutes to walk around the quad if you were lucky. And I naturally went into a meditative state. Yeah. And I didn't know then that was mindfulness. And what's so interesting is that when I came out of children, borstal, its called borstal in  England, I said, I want to learn to meditate. I want to learn to meditate. And yet that's what I was doing,  you know, I want to learn to meditate formally. And then I hung out in the clubs.  


23:04 

Valerie Mason-John 

I wasn't doing drugs, but just very much a street dancer. And then it was these altered states of just the self. That's where I experienced no self that you could do when you were completely present and without ego. You could do anything on the dance floor. Absolutely anything. And without the drugs,  without whatever I used to drink that was called jungle juice, blackcurrant, and lemonade. And so it was those places where I accessed mindfulness, which is why I wanted to and thought I needed to learn to meditate. And so in my early twenties, well, again, the other place actually, I worked as an international correspondent covering aboriginal deaths in custody.  


23:56 

Valerie Mason-John 

I had the privilege of living traditionally in Yirrkala, the tip of Australia, with the Yolngu tribe, and I experienced a dream time. Again, this was a form of mindfulness, and I knew I couldn't appropriate that culture. And when I returned, I lived in Australia for two years. So I came back when I was 27, and that was it. I was surrounded by people who meditated and started meditating. I realized, wow, this is what I had been doing, but I was just really learning it more formally and taking it on as a dedicated practice.  


24:41 

Vita Pires, Ph.D.  

Wow, that's beautiful. So tell me about your upcoming book. What's the name of your upcoming book?  


24:50 

Valerie Mason-John 

Yeah, my upcoming book is. I'd say it's a pocketbook. This is the thing of. There's so much out there; people, even myself, have such short bandwidth. I've got these books, and it's like, oh, I'm trying to read. It's an achievement. When I get to read a whole book, I'm like, yay, I finished the book. You know, you start reading it, there's achievement. I don't know. I'm trying to read two books at the moment. A book called Awake and a book called Decolonising Therapy. And I will get there. So it's a pocketbook for people who want something quick but can have something longer; it's called A First Aid Kit for the Mind, Breaking the Cycle of Habitual Behaviours.  


25:32 

Valerie Mason-John 

Its just looking at how we have a first aid kit for the body, why don't we have a first aid kit for the mind?  And actually, what I'm saying is that we've got everything we need. You don't have to buy anything in this first aid kit. So, we are exploring what we've got within us. And, of course, the breath, coming back to mindfulness. The breath is medicine. You know, we talk about medicine, and we talk about psychedelics, and we talk about meditation. We talk about whatever, all these different modalities, and I think all these modalities, psychedelics, etcetera, are helpful. And we have the breath. The breath is medicine, and the breath is with us 24/7. We know that when we're angry, we have temporary brain damage because the breath, we're not breathing properly.  


26:35 

Valerie Mason-John 

You know, it's like when a car cuts across you, and the next minute, we're fuming, and we're raging; it’s temporary brain damage. So, the breath is just one of those things. Also, if we think of the Anapanasati,  the mindfulness of breathing, where the Buddha was teaching us to learn to breathe again through the experience of the body, through the experience of feelings, through the experience of perceptions and mental formations, and breathing through the experience of the dharmas, of aging sickness and death.  So in a way, it's just really making some of these ancient teachings explicit and, you know, sometimes it might be just lifting your head or turning your head side to side, but looking at ways to interrupt the flow of constant thinking or to interrupt the flow of some of our compulsive behaviors. 

 

27:39 

Valerie Mason-John 

So, yeah, it's a first aid kit for the mind. You can also open a book and get a nugget of wisdom on one page. So you can open a book like a pack of cards and see what you get, in a way. So, hopefully, people will get something from it. I always say it's nothing new, and yet it is new. Because everything that we write has been said before, it's trying to make it accessible to people. It's a book that you can put in your pocket. Hopefully, it will feel nice in your hand. Let me open up this page and see what's happening. And there's a 1-minute meditation for those people who say they can't meditate.  


28:26 

Valerie Mason-John 

There's a 1-minute meditation for those people who want to kind of dip their, you know, dip their toes or feet in a bit more. There's a five-minute one. And if people want something a bit longer, there's 20  minutes. And there is audio as well. So again, you can click on the audio as well.


28:48 

Vita Pires, Ph.D.  

Wow, that sounds fabulous. I look forward to seeing that. When's it coming out?  


28:54 

Valerie Mason-John 

May, next month.  


28:55 

Vita Pires, Ph.D.  

Oh, great. Okay. So we can announce that to our prison mindfulness group.  


29:01 

Valerie Mason-John 

Sure. I'll send you promos to it.


29:04 

Vita Pires, Ph.D.  

Okay, great. Thank you so much for talking today, Valerie. It was really beautiful, and I really enjoyed meeting you.  


29:11 

Valerie Mason-John 

Thank you for having me. 

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