Updated: Aug 3, 2020
[Repost of my March, 12, 2020 Interview with WITHIN Meditation]
We sat down with WITHIN teacher Preetum Shenoy to find out how she got started meditating, and how her path has influenced her teaching style. Here’s what she shared with us.
How did you get started with meditation?
I have 3 catalysts to thank for my passion for and dedication to meditation: my mother, my workaholism, plus a long journey with chronic illness.
My mom gets credit for first exposing me to yoga and meditation during my childhood. But, as a first-generation immigrant here, I was sadly too quick to dismiss it as too “old school” and therefore “not cool” for the little Indian-American girl that was desperately trying to fit into the “modern American world.”
It would take two more decades (and quite a bit of “adulting” and suffering) before I would willingly turn to and adopt yoga and meditation as my own healing practices.
As an adult living on my own after business school and trying to survive the cutthroat world of consulting and corporate life, I was on the verge of burnout and desperately seeking ways to manage my stress and incorporate more work/life balance. A co-worker of mine invited me to join her for a yoga class at a nearby studio, and the rest is history.
Yoga became my “gateway drug” towards adopting my own meditation practice, because I found that although my body enjoyed the physical conditioning of the yoga asanas, it was the “savasana” period at the end where I would find myself feeling truly peaceful even if for a few short minutes each day. Craving more of it, I sought out meditation techniques in a variety of contemplative traditions, but my work and travel schedules prevented me from making it a regular part of my day.
A few years later, it took a medical emergency (what would become the beginning of my now 10-year chronic illness journey) to force me out of my workaholic ways and motivate me to prioritize my own personal sustainability above all else. While on medical leave, and unable to move or function as I normally would, I realized that even though I may not be able to control my body, I could turn to meditation to help me better manage how I was perceiving and responding to my circumstances. And so began my dedicated meditation practice, now more rooted in the Vipassana, or Insight Meditation, tradition.
While I’m grateful to my amazing team of doctors and other practitioners for working to heal my physical body, I credit my regular meditation and mindfulness practices with elevating my healing on a much more holistic mind-body-spirit level.
Though I am not cured of my condition and may never be, I’ve gained something far more priceless: tools to cultivate resilience to navigate the inevitable plot twists of life with greater balance, ease and lightheartedness. And a much deeper appreciation for my Indian roots and ancient wisdom and healing traditions.
Moral of the story? Listen to your mothers. Moms really do know best.
What led you to begin teaching meditation? Based on my own experience, seeing how instrumental mindfulness and meditation have been to my own healing journey from burnout and chronic illness, I felt moved to be able to share these learnings and stories with others in my shoes – whether employees on the verge of burnout, patients battling complex, chronic disease – or anyone else wanting to navigate the pressures and plots twists of life with greater skill and ease.
I have so many teachers and mentors to credit for helping me to get where I am, but feel most influenced and inspired by Jack Kornfield, Tara Brach, Jon Kabat-Zinn, Thich Nhat Hanh, Mark Coleman, Martin Aylward, Oren Jay Sofer, Linda Graham, Jill Satterfield, Teja Bell and Suzannah Stason.
What do you love about teaching at WITHIN? I love that WITHIN Meditation – with its many locations throughout downtown, and class times throughout the day and evening, plus online offerings – makes it really accessible for the busy working professional to integrate mindfulness into their day, whether to help kick things off on a clear note, to get a mindful mid-day pause, or unwind in the evening after a long day.
I love that it’s also helping to build a sense of community around meditation, in which I hear and see students engaging with the regularity, accountability and enjoyability of meditation practice! Sure, anyone can meditate on their own at home or with the help of an app, which is great. But I enjoy hearing from WITHIN students how sitting together with teachers and other students live — getting customized tips and techniques and learning from the experience of others — helps deepen their practice, by making it relatable and enjoyable, encouraging them to be more regular and stick with it, even when it gets challenging.
What has been your favorite meditation retreat so far? My favorite so far was a 7-day silent retreat that I did last year at Spirit Rock in Woodacre, CA, called “Awakening to the River of Life.” It combined various forms of meditation, along with gentle restorative yoga and QiGong. Given that yoga was my entry point into meditation, I love being able to pair meditation with more mindful movement practices like yoga and QiGong, which help me really imprint the learnings and teachings and embody the practices on a much deeper level than just seated meditation alone.
This has been a big inspiration and influence for the style of “Embodied Mindfulness” that I like to offer my students, which I believe helps reach people on whichever levels they best learn and process information – whether from their mind, heart, or body, or some combination of those three.
The hardest part for me wasn't having to be in silence for 7 days, which is what others most commonly cite as the biggest challenge. That was actually blissful for me! The biggest challenge for me (of any retreat, really), is leaving the safe, nourishing container of the retreat and the sense of community you’ve built and having to reintegrate back into daily life on the grid, which can feel really overwhelming and overstimulating once you’ve stepped away from it. Upon your return, you’re instantly reminded that the real world operates at a much different pace and set of rules than the retreat world does, and it can be challenging to try to figure out ways to keep the retreat experience and learnings alive in a sustained way, while resisting the pull to get sucked back into the usual grind.
What’s your favorite way to incorporate mindfulness into your day? A few different ways I like to sprinkle mindfulness into my day, off the cushion:
Making every meal an “eating meditation” – taking the opportunity to slow down, really reflect on and savor every bite of my meal, taste every texture and flavor, and express gratitude for all that it took throughout the entire supply / value chain to enable me to enjoy this nourishing meal.
When transitioning from one activity to another (whether beginning / ending a meeting or appointment before jumping to another one), taking an intentional pause – a mindful minute of silence – to focus my thoughts, intention and attention on the moment at hand, before jumping right into the next moment of “doing.”
What advice would you give someone who’s just getting started with meditation? Many beginners often worry about whether they’re “doing it right” if they “just can’t get their minds to sit still” or can’t sit in silence for at least 30 minutes.
To me, mindfulness meditation, in the Insight Meditation tradition, is less about “doing” than it is about “being.”
Being willing to let go of all the “doing” and “busyness” of life, to just observe what the present moment is like without the veils and distractions.
Being aware of where your attention is at any given moment, with full presence, kindness and compassion. And being willing to bring it back into the present moment if it has strayed. Not worrying so much about what the “doing” looks like in the beginning. You’ll get there.