Living mindfully – the Irwin Way

Howick-based therapists Chris and Glenda Irwin from Mindfulness Matters: committed to helping people achieve respite from the struggles and strains of living busy, time-poor lives.

This is a story about mindfulness, a meditation technique based on being present and aware from moment to moment. While it may appear faddish to some, the technique is ancient, based on the 2600-year-old teachings of Buddha. But this is a love story too, one of serendipity and shared passions leading to lifetime careers and community commitment, as JES MAGILL discovered.

It seems the stars really did align in August, 2005 when Chris Irwin and Glenda Irwin met in a bar in Parnell, Auckland. They arrived as strangers – the fact that they shared the same
surname was pure coincidence – and they left several hours later as firm new friends and eventually, life and work partners.

But their journey together came after both had been on seemingly circuitous, though in hindsight, complementary paths. Chris’s early CV looks a tad unorthodox – a psychology major from Otago University, was followed by years as a Buddhist monk, the latter coming after he set out on an OE in his early 20s.

Stopping off in Thailand, Chris became so fascinated with Buddhism he stayed, spending many years learning, practising and teaching mindfulness and meditation throughout the country and in Europe. Eventually, though, monastic life lost its sense of meaning for him and in 1996 Chris returned to New Zealand where he re-entered lay life.

Postgraduate study followed, as well as Gestalt Therapy training and, through his work as a therapist, he has counselled individuals, couples and families, using mindfulness as a tool for more than 20 years. Chris shares his definition of mindfulness: “That in becoming more aware, people are less reactive, which in turn gives more choices and options in dealing with people and issues every day.”

Successfully straddling several worlds – the psychological, the spiritual and the commercial – he established a corporate niche too, working as an organisational psychologist supporting culture and organisational change.

Glenda’s background story seems tantalisingly surreal as well. She grew up Manurewa and worked as a banker and a kiwi fruit grower before heading to London. “I worked as an art director on movies such as Star Wars and on famous music videos about U2 and the
Rolling Stones – those were exciting times.”

But here’s the clincher: before returning home in 2001 with her young son Cameron and eventually settling in Half Moon Bay, Glenda became interested in Buddhism. This went down very well a few years later when she and Chris met and it’s fair to say Glenda’s commitment to mindfulness and meditation was turbo-charged pretty promptly.

Her career also underwent a transformation when she trained as an acceptance & commitment therapy practitioner and started teaching mindfulness to children. The Irwins’ personal lives moved along nicely, too, when Chris joined Glenda and Cameron in their Half Moon Bay cottage.

Their careers also merged when Chris’ reputation as a Buddhist, therapist, mindfulness practitioner and teacher, saw him approached by Karl Baker from Mindfulness Works three years ago to roll out Karl’s Introduction to Mindfulness courses across Auckland.

A New Zealand-born social entrepreneur, Karl devised the four one-hour sessions which are held weekly for four weeks throughout the country. They offer attendees the chance to learn techniques that reduce stress, anxiety and depression, and in the process increase self-awareness and self-love.

Chris and Glenda formed Mindfulness Matters and for the first six months, presented the courses together. When demand quickly grew, extra teachers and venues were found.

They now teach separate classes as well as train and supervise six further presenters Auckland-wide. The introductory courses are held locally at Te Tuhi in Pakuranga.

It’s everywhere these days

Asking Chris Irwin whether mindfulness and meditation are today’s psycho-spiritual IT
buzzwords, he agrees and explains: “I think that people are under a lot of pressure. There’s a lot of stress and they’re looking for balance based on taking their own authority in their
lives, being ‘respons-able’, rather than relying on medication or, worse still, self-medicating with alcohol and other distractions.

“People in our courses say they have very busy minds; that they’re caught up in a lot of thinking. These are challenging times for people, who are trying to balance demands of work
with family life and getting some ‘me’ time.

“Mindfulness ties in nicely with interests such as yoga and going to the gym where people are addressing the physical side of things because it [mindfulness] addresses the
emotional/mental side, so people can make effective changes in their lives,” says Chris.

Wanting to raise their young son in the best way possible, Glenda quickly realised the benefits of teaching mindfulness to children, giving them tools to help focus more effectively
and to deal with anxiety issues.

Another realisation soon followed – that teaching mindfulness skills to parents, made the effects for children more powerful and lasting. Now, in her counselling work, Glenda asks that parents learn mindfulness before she teaches their children.

The Irwins believe children nowadays have fantastic learning opportunities but also pressures that are unique. “The pressure of social media is big,” Chris says. “Children are more
connected and informed but there are downsides to that, too.” Glenda adds: “Children are much more knowledgeable in a factual way, which presents a problem for parents
who have charge of guidance and providing boundaries.

“Much of what parents’ need is the support to worry less and feel contentment in their parenting experience.

“What is it Mark Twain said – “My life has been full of terrible misfortunes most of which never happened.”

In summing up what motivates them, Chris and Glenda want to be really supportive of people; to provide a community for them to experience mindfulness whether in an online
forum, in their classes, or in their Howick home.

“We believe it’s really important, and the skills it teaches are so relevant. Modern neuro-science measures the effects of mindfulness on the brain – it’s definitely not a fad,” Glenda says.

“People think because our careers are sorted and we’ve had our families, we don’t have to work on our minds, but we still have to put the work in. We use mindfulness as a powerful tool for people to feel more in charge of their lives, and ultimately, become the best version
of themselves they possibly can.”