Mindfulness practitioner Bridgeen Rea-Kaya, who trained under Thích Nhất Hạnh, on why we all need to be more self-compassionate and who is the blessing in her life
For Bridgeen Rea-Kaya mindfulness is a lifestyle choice; a way of “living and being in the world”, and while she admits it’s not always easy to be mindful all the time, she believes the rewards are worth any effort. The 47-year-old Belfast woman teaches mindfulness, self-compassion and happiness practices to the general public and companies, charities and other organisations who are interested in improving wellbeing.
“There are innumerable benefits to practising mindfulness. In the past 30 years the research on it has grown exponentially, there are new studies on its effects all the time,” Bridgeen says.
“What is clear is that it improves our mood, increases positive emotions, decreases anxiety and stress reactivity, and it helps us to stay young and healthy, boosting our immune system and lowering blood pressure.
“When we practice mindfulness, we are more compassionate, less reactive and more responsive, more able to have better relationships and enjoy our life. It’s pretty amazing; if there was a pill that did all this and more, we’d all be on it.”
People can start to be more mindful, by taking small steps in the right direction, Bridgeen says.
“Get out into nature without ear pods or other distractions, experience natural mindfulness by paying attention to your surroundings, preferably a park, beach, riverside, mountain or a forest, but even the hub of the city will repay you for your kind attention.
“Pay attention to your feet as you take each step, pay attention to your breath, and smile at the wonder of being able to walk and breathe freely. As best you can, keep you mind in the present, not on your job or worries or concerns. If you can do this for 10 minutes a day, it will help.
“Another popular simple and easy practice is that of stopping. We use the bell in class to signal it’s time to stop all the thinking, planning and worrying. Stop and come back to your body and breathe in and breathe out three times mindfully.
“Out in the world we can listen for church bells, or the sound of the phone ringing or the chime of a text message, to remind us to stop. Instead of jumping to see who wants your attention, stop and have three breaths. We can train ourselves to do this many times a day. Or every time you see a red traffic light stop, relax, and take three mindful breaths. How much more pleasant is this than cursing the traffic?”
Bridgeen also recommends meditating.
“Beginning a meditation practice is free and can be integrated into any of our daily activities like cooking, cleaning, walking or gardening. The simple act of being present with what you are doing can give relief from the tyranny of the thinking mind right away. Meditation will benefit your mind, your body, and your brain. It is only with awareness can we effectively manage our thoughts, feelings and behaviours to consciously move toward our goals.”
She directs readers to the free app Insight Timer. Download it, search Bridgeen Rea-Kaya, and you’ll have access to 12 free guided mediations, including Less Than Five Minute to Reduce Stress and Breathe, and Introduction to Walking Mediation.
Another mindfulness practice involves actively focusing on feeling grateful for the good things in your life – big and small.
“If you do nothing else, even writing down three things you are grateful for every day, will change your life,” Bridgeen says. She also advocates being more self-compassionate.
“Self-compassion is about treating yourself the way you would treat your best friend or someone you really love. Ask yourself the question: What would I say to my best friend if she was experiencing this?
“Research shows that 70% of people are nicer to others than they are to themselves. It’s a crazy statistic, it really is strange that in our culture it is thought to be a good thing to sacrifice yourself for others. The bible says: ‘Love your neighbour as yourself’, not more than yourself but equal to yourself, and yet the majority of us find it so hard to love ourselves.
“This is why we need specific practices to learn how to be self-compassionate, it’s not something most of us do naturally.
“People who are more self-compassionate have greater happiness, life satisfaction and motivation, better relationships and physical health, and less anxiety and depression. They also have the resilience needed to cope with stressful life events such as divorce, health crises, and failures. All of us experience stressful life events. Experiencing suffering is part of our humanness, our common humanity. All of us will suffer, so all of us need to learn self-compassion to support ourselves through the suffering.”
The Belfast woman’s personal journey towards mindfulness, self-compassion and meditation, began more than two decades ago following an accident and a three-week stint in hospital.
“Since being knocked down by a car at age 21, I’d always known there’s more important aspects to life than work and career,” Bridgeen says.
“When I was 29, I left my best ever job as Internal Comms Manager at easyJet and I went travelling around the world staying at yoga and meditation centres.
“When I came back to Northern Ireland, I tried to ensure whatever job I had would give me time to explore my extracurricular activities. This meant leaving some high-powered jobs so I could teach yoga and mindfulness part-time.
“I did this because I loved it, I never thought meditation would be a full-time career for me, but by 2014 there was increasing demand for quality training and I was uniquely qualified to deliver it, so I found myself in a position that I could get paid for doing what I loved.
“It is a precarious career, I’m never going to be rich teaching meditation, but the rewards make me rich in other ways like friendship and community.”
Between 2005 and 2019, Bridgeen visited Plum Village annually; a Buddhist monastery in southern France that was founded by two Vietnamese monastics, Thích Nhất Hạnh (Thay) and Chân Không. It was here that she learned mindfulness, “the way a child learns to walk naturally and without great effort; I just picked it up from the environment around me.”
“Plum Village is a Buddhist Monastery or a more accurately ‘mindfulness practice centre’ because it’s not a monastery that we in the Christian traditions are familiar with. It’s not one big building where the monks and nuns live in silence.
“It’s a vibrant beautiful place, a kind of Shangri-La set in the most beautiful countryside in Southwest France. There are rolling fields of vineyards and sunflowers all around. The centre is actually three hamlets with plenty of land for walking meditation, each with its own meditation hall, forest, residences and lotus pond.
“The nature around is so beautiful and for me unusual; I mean have you ever seen hazelnut trees, vineyards and pink lotuses in full bloom? Just to go to that part of the world for the natural beauty is enough, but then there are the 600 monks and nuns that live there in sisterhood and brotherhood practising 24 hours a day.
“The peace and love they generate with their mindfulness practice is palpable.” In 2012 Bridgeen organised Thích Nhất Hạnh’s visit to Northern Ireland, when he delivered a talk and led a mindful walk at Stormont.
“At the time it felt like the greatest achievement of my life,” she recalls.
Following Thích Nhất Hạnh’s passing last month, Bridgeen feels extremely grateful to have known the man.
“It is not an exaggeration to say that my life changed completely from the time I met Thay. Maybe not overnight and maybe not that you could necessarily see, but since meeting Thay I found the path of mindfulness, I found my path in life. I found a guide, a support, a community.
“I spent weeks every year for 14 years studying with Thay in France and all over the world. I ordained as a lay practitioner into the Order of Interbeing with the name True Profound Happiness. His impact on my life was and is profound. I am always grateful.
“I would be lost without the practice and the sangha [community]. Thay wrote over 100 books and there are loads of his teachings online, so his legacy is very much alive.
“I was prepared for Thay’s passing because he suffered a huge stroke in November 2014 and had frequently taught poetically about impermanence and death, so I had expected his death for some time. In June 2014 I attended the 21-day retreat in Plum Village ‘what happens when we die’.
“Thay very carefully advised his global students not to mourn him because he like all of us never really dies. Yes, his physically body is no longer here but for sure his presence is still felt. He continues in every one of his students who practice in his tradition. In fact, his tradition and practice are now stronger than ever.
“His death prompted a huge outpouring of love from around the world and a resurgence of interest in his teachings. His impact is immeasurable.”
For now, Bridgeen continues her classes and workshops online, and after becoming a mother last June, she has no plans to return to teaching in venues across Belfast four nights per week.
Bridgeen and her husband Muhutin, who is from Turkey, suffered the heartbreak of miscarriages in 2017, 2018 and 2019, and were absolutely overjoyed at the birth of their baby girl Bediha eight months ago.
“I am so happy to be a mummy and so delighted to have such a brilliant little girl. We have been to all the baby classes, baby sensory, baby yoga, water babies; it’s just cuteness overload, but I have to say it is hard,” Bridgeen admits.
“I had 47 years of doing exactly what I wanted and feeling free, to now being at the beck and call of a tiny human, the worst bit being the nightshift. I really need my sleep to function well. Though my happiest moment is all of us in bed together and Beddy and Buddy (our cockapoo) sleeping peacefully, it’s such a cosy safe feeling.
“I always had a lot of sympathy for the stressed-out mums who came to my classes, but now I really know and emphasis with just how hard it can be. It’s all new to me and every stage is a challenge, it’s just as well we got the best one, every little thing she does we feel so proud of her. I know she is a huge blessing. I never take a moment for granted, it is the privilege of my lifetime to look after her, what great good fortune – at last.”
For more from Bridgeen, see www.immeasurableminds.co.uk