Our most popular book through the Christmas season and to begin the new year is local author Wendy O’Leary’s Breathing Makes It Better. I conducted the following interview with Wendy to shed some insight into her motivation for writing the children’s book.
R&P: What is your academic background and how has your education led you down the path of mental wellbeing?
Wendy: I have a M. Ed. with a focus in Health and Wellness. Much of my undergraduate and graduate studies also crossed over into Psychology, which has also been an area of interest. Following my formal education, I continued to educate myself by taking classes, workshops and participating in multiple certification programs which supported a career direction focused on children and youth wellness.
Though my academic background and formal education is connected to my current work, in truth it is my personal experience and, in particular, my own mindfulness practice that converged with my desire to help children that put me on this particular path. I saw in my own life, the power and possibilities available through the practice of mindfulness. Having worked with young people I knew how beneficial it could be if we only tailored these skills to met the needs and learning styles of young people. I began reading everything I could on this topic and taking courses and programs to support my learning. I researched mental health modalities that utilize mindfulness, investigated and looked at research behind yoga and mindfulness for children and took classes to support a deep dive into this field.
I was training myself to learn about ways to support individuals (children, families and even adults) by teaching tools and skills and helping individuals access their own capacity for well being based on my own personal experience as well as post graduate classes and programs. I believe the potential for well being and happiness resides in each of us and finding age appropriate ways to support the development of these skills in children has been a passion ever since.
R&P: At the store, you have told me you have less interest in being known as an author than in exposing others to the book as a “tool” for children. Have you had any incidents where these two agendas conflict?
I remember that conversation and the context. First I would be remiss if I didn’t confess that I am very excited about the publication of my first book and being an author. That said, being an author wasn’t really ever on my radar. My passion has been teaching and specifically teaching skills and strategies that could be of benefit to others, especially children and their families.
I began writing when I was teaching many years ago and wrote “stories” as teaching tools that were tied to the concepts and skills I was sharing with children and the people who care for them. These stories gave me another vehicle to share my message with children. Now having the book published has added the possibility of spreading that message and teaching beyond my personal reach in the community and that is very exciting. I recently saw that a woman in Australia posted about the benefits of my book and that meant so much to me!
For me this is about intention. My intention is to get these skills and tools into the hands of individuals who could benefit by using them. So my focus isn’t necessarily to write books but to have books as a vehicle to help children. I am passionate about the possibilities inherent in this way of being in the world and think it is so important in our society and we need to start with the children. What better way to do this then through the reach of a book.
So far these two perspectives haven’t conflicted. In fact, I have found that being focused on my intention has helped me to be clear on what I do and how I do it. For example, I confess that I struggle with social media both personally and from a technology aspect. Just ask my adult children who have been recruited to help me! However, when I frame my need to be on social media as a way to get this book in more hands and get more people to experience the benefits of mindfulness then it helps me to get on board. More generally, I am uncomfortable with the self-promotion aspect of being an author. However, when I am able to be really clear that what I am promoting isn’t myself as an author but is this book and these teachings that I know can be useful to so many, it no longer feels like self promotion.
R&P: Besides writing, do you offer the community any other services?
Yes! I am so passionate about the benefits of mindfulness and love having the opportunities to share with others.
My work with young people includes direct instruction with children as well as professional development for staff on strategies for emotional regulation Pre K – high school. Most of what I teach is mindfulness based strategies and I do that in schools and non profit organizations. I also do workshops and programs for parents on mindfulness as well as workshops for professional organizations. I am excited to be working with prospective teachers at a local college so that these tools and skills can be integrated into their professional training which I feel is essential to make access to these practices sustainable and systemic.
In addition, I work with adults and facilitate several weekly mindfulness groups and run programs tied to mindfulness. I am facilitating a monthly book group where we read a book connected to mindfulness and support each other in integrating the practices into our lives. My most popular program has been a workshop series on happiness!
For more information on my work people can check out my website at www.wendyoleary.com
R&P: What is the best way to support children’s happiness?
Love this question!! Please see my blog on this very topic.
R&P: We often hear that breathing is an art – how does the breath help people who are angry or sad?
I like to teach about attention to breathing as an anchor to the present moment. Paying attention to the breath gives us the ability to drop our story that is fueling the feeling and also helps us to come back to what is actually happening in the moment. It supports the calming of the nervous system and creates a pause between the stimulus (what is happening to lead to the feelings) and the response (how we typically react to those feelings). Though our focus and practice is on paying attention to the breathing, slower breathing it is worth mentioning that diaphragmatic breathing (belly breathing) and a longer exhale is especially beneficial to bring the parasympathetic nervous system online and support the calming of body and mind.
R&P: In the book, you say that the book was inspired by Zen teacher Thich Nhat Hanh. His library is extensive – what in particular struck you about his work?
Thich Nhat Hanh is an amazing teacher and his books have been an inspiration to me in many ways. I feel so grateful that I was able to see him teach in person many years ago. In fact, the first book on mindfulness that I read was given to me by a dear friend and was a Thich Nhat Hanh book called Peace Is Every Step.
One of the practices that he teaches is using the breath and imagery for the cultivation of well being.
Breathing in I am a mountain, breathing out I am secure
in mountain, out secure
in mountain, out secure
As you see in our book we also use the idea of tapping into our capacity for imagery to cultivate states of well being and in particular imagery tied to nature. Just yesterday a kindergartener in one of my classes said when “I am in nature it helps me feel calm.” We want to teach children how to tap into that inner resource. Even if they aren’t in nature, they can cultivate that sense of how it feels. The other skills integrated into this book include, naming the feeling, which we know is incredibly powerful to bring the prefrontal cortex back on line (or the wise librarian as I tell the children). We also encourage children to pay attention to where they feel the emotion in their body. Finally of course, using your breath as an anchor to calm the nervous system (alarm as I call it for little ones) is the key focus throughout the book. More information about these strategies and additional practices are included in the blog I wrote in connection with the book.
R&P: To parents that buy the book, you included a practice section to help children. How can parents encourage their children to do this breathing? Forcing them seems counter-productive.
This is such an important question! Please, do not force this or make it yet another thing on the to do list! Mindfulness has certain attitudinal factors which make it useful and among them is curiosity, patience and acceptance. I do an entire session on tips for adults who want to teach mindfulness to children which addresses this issue. Briefly some suggestions would include not starting to practice in the midst of a problem. You want to give your child a chance to learn the skill so it is accessible when needed. You wouldn’t practice a piano piece for the first time at the music recital. Start slow and support your child being curious about how they are feeling and what they can do about it. Make it fun and connecting…..there are lots of practices that support connection between adults and children and it is great to get a morning and/or bedtime routine that includes mindfulness and the calming and collecting of the mind and body. I am actually beginning to post on my instagram account a weekly practice or tip for practice with children so if people want to follow me they can learn more….this really could be an entire workshop!
R&P: Any final words?
I would like to express my gratitude to my co-author Dr. Christopher Willard who is an incredibly talented individual and is an equally kind person and to our illustrator Alea Marley for her incredible illustrations, which brought the story to life.
I also want to share the Educators Guide, which has some “book specific” information and also has some additional mindfulness tools.