A Gift for Young Minds
A Q&A with Brian Despard, author of You Are Not Your Thoughts, a story that originated with a newfound awareness and a newborn granddaughter.
When Brian Despard discovered the gift of mindfulness, he decided to share his newfound awareness with his newborn granddaughter. But a lack of literature for young minds forced him to take matters into his own hands. The then 47-year-old plumber put his tools down, and took up his pen to write a children’s book on mindfulness called You Are Not Your Thoughts. The book has been described by Myla and Jon Kabat-Zinn as, "a playful and wise picture book that gives young children simple ways to be more in touch with that is most essential and beautiful in themselves." Adorned with photos taken by Brian’s wife Joanne, the book explains mindfulness using simple language and Dr. Seussian rhyme.
Mindful.org spoke to Despard about his journey from plumbing to publishing.
How did you discover mindfulness?
I read Wherever You Go, There You Are by Jon Kabat-Zinn. In that book Jon describes an exercise where you sit on the floor or a chair in a dignified posture, then gently close your eyes and bring your attention to the fact that you are breathing. So I gave it a try. I positioned a chair in the middle of my living room, sat down and tried focusing on my breathing. The next thing I knew I was in the fridge looking for a snack! I began a largely unsuccessful daily formal mindfulness practice.
But you persisted. Why?
I was looking for more conscious awareness in my daily life, but I found it extremely difficult to sit for even two or three minutes. Eventually things changed. I found myself noticing my unawareness more and more. Out of this grew a robust informal practice. So, I began reading all I could on the subject starting with Jon’s other books, Full Catastrophe Living and Coming to Our Senses then eventually books by Thich Nhat Hanh, Eckhart Tolle, Pema Chödrön and many others. I even purchased the audiobooks so I could listen while driving or while on the job.
What prompted you to make the switch from plumber to author?
After my first granddaughter, Eva, was born I felt I had to find a way to provide her with some tools for understanding mindfulness, so I looked for books on the subject. Although there are some really good ones out there for children, they didn’t convey the mindfulness messages in a straightforward, accessible way. When my second granddaughter, Erika, came along I now had twice the desire to arm them with awareness concepts. I took matters into my own hands and began to write, all the while continuing my daily practice. Though I’ve never written professionally before, the words I penned just felt right. After finishing the text my wife, Joanne, who has a background in graphic design, created the book and took pictures of children from diverse populations to grace its pages.
Why did you decide on the title You Are Not Your Thoughts?
Because, my life changed in so many amazing ways on the day I discovered I was not my thoughts. It dawned on me that I had spent much of my life reacting to situations on autopilot instead of responding to life with compassionate awareness.
Has your book received a warm reception?
Extremely warm. After finishing the book I decided to contact Jon Kabat-Zinn by phone for advice. I fully expected to get a machine but he actually answered! I introduced myself and told him I'd written a book on mindfulness. After talking for a while he asked to see a copy. He was surprised that I am plumber; plumbers apparently don’t often write such books. He actually said, “You mean you sweat pipes, and you wrote a book on mindfulness?” After answering in the affirmative, we laughed.
Once he received the copy of the book he called to say he would provide an endorsement. His wife, Myla, who co-authored a book with him entitled Everyday Blessings: The Inner Work of Mindful Parenting, offered her support as well. When I told Jon that I basically just wrote the book for my granddaughters, he said it should be shared with the world saying, “You never know what will happen when you put a wonderful book like this out there.”
After dozens of rejection letters from literary agents and publishers (they’re wary of first-time authors) my wife and I decided to publish the book ourselves. I learned that those who do self-publish only sell an average of 100-125 copies, mostly to friends and family, but we’ve been lucky.
Without advertising, we’ve sold over 700 copies around the world and received some amazing feedback. A 90-year-old woman recently told me she purchased a copy and reads it daily. It has also inspired her to meditate every day. “It’s never too late,” she told me.
Do your granddaughters like the book? Have they taken some of its concepts to heart?
Yes, my granddaughters do like the book. They’ve both read it with their parents at bedtime. One evening Eva, my five year old granddaughter (on the cover) was having trouble getting to sleep because she was afraid there were monsters in her room, she looked at her mother and said, "Mommy, are the monsters just thoughts and will they go away like the clouds in the book if I don't think about them?". Her mother (my daughter) was amazed and had to call me right away. Eva will turned six on July 2. She has always enjoyed the book the most. Erika is four and until about three months ago, she didn't care one way or the other but now she likes to copy her big sister.
Eva takes three to five mindful breaths each night in bed and Erika follows suit. I couldn't be more pleased with how well they’re doing at such a young age. To hear a four or five year old using words like mindful (and its not even in the book) and aware, is really beautiful.
Do you think that children have the discipline to be mindful?
I believe some children have the discipline to be mindful, just as some adults do. I believe the earlier children learn compassionate awareness, the closer we’ll get to a more peaceful and joyful planet.
If children are able to experience their thoughts, feelings and sensations without being overwhelmed, they will be less prone to the unhealthy effects of stress. By learning to trust their own inner wisdom, they will be less susceptible to harmful peer pressures. Children have the minds of true beginners, but this state fades as they grow. They begin life living in the moment and are slowly taught that doing is more important than being. In the sacred place of loving-kindness between adult and child a new level of consciousness can emerge.
How would you sum up this experience?
Traveling this incredible path towards awareness, I have discovered my true passion; helping children lead happier lives. My wife and I have been visiting local pre-K through Grade 5 classrooms introducing mindfulness concepts to students using You Are Not Your Thoughts. We have even developed a lesson plan for its use. It’s been much more rewarding than sweating pipes.