Here’s my latest interview with someone that I find personally inspiring. Today’s interviewee is Mary Pearson who runs a company called Stress Solutions. Mary teaches meditation – but saying that doesn’t do justice to all the things she’s done in her life. Here’s our conversation:
So, Mary, would you like to tell me about yourself? Tell me what’s happened and what’s got you to the life that you’re living now.
How long have you got?
However long you want. We have an hour before the tape runs out!
Okay. In 1997 a whole series of events happened, even one of which would have been traumatic, but there were several one after another. The head of the school I worked in, who had been an inspiration to me and also given me my job and promoted me, died very suddenly of a virulent form of lung cancer. That threw everything with regard to my work, well everybody, we were thrown into turmoil in the school for quite a long time. Three weeks later my mother died, she had a heart attack and died. She was watching Countdown; it was the conundrum that got her.
Tricky, those are!
So that was bad, and my dad had already passed away three years before. And then my husband said he was going to leave me. So, I had all of those things…
That’s quite a shock in one go, isn’t it?
Yes. It was a very difficult year. I tried to persuade him to go for marriage guidance counselling and we did go, we did start going but whilst he was physically present he was…
He’d already made his mind up
Yes, he’d made his mind up. It was just a sop to me. And he is one of those people who’s like, ‘this is it, this is what I’m going to do’. So, I kept going to work and I think I had a bit of a breakdown, and I started drinking very heavily. I’d already been drinking quite a lot with Bob, because he was a bit of a drinker, but I was drinking on my own and it wasn’t good.
I’d been going for counselling, and when Bob stopped going, I carried on going and one day the counsellor said to me, and it seemed to be completely out of the blue, she said, ‘Have you ever thought about being a counsellor, Mary. You’d be very good.’ And I just looked at her as if she had two heads. I was grovelling around, looking for a tissue, just in pieces, and she’s saying this. Anyway, that was the nicest thing anyone said to me in 1997! So, I went away and I thought about it and I thought ‘hmmm’, and then I thought about it a bit more and then I embarked on some courses and I started doing loads and loads of training. I really enjoyed it and I really got into it.
Then in 1998 I met Chris, who sort of suggested very nicely to me that there was a better way for me to live my life than inside a bottle of wine, and suggested that meditation might be the answer. It’s all in the book. Chapter one of the book, Meditation the Stress Solution – published January 2011
Available at all good book shops, and on Amazon.
And on my website. So, I went off and I learned to meditate and I carried on with the training. I trained in all sorts of things and just thought that this would be a new life away from… Well, teaching had changed beyond all recognition. It was no longer a job to enjoy; it was a job to endure. My heart wasn’t in it and the sort of person I am, once my heart isn’t in something then I want an exit, I want to get out and do something else. Although, I didn’t realise that at the time.
So, I decided to see if I could set up my own business and worked with a Life Coach, called Blaire Palmer, who was absolutely brilliant. Life Coaching was a brand new thing, then. Fiona Harrold, do you know her? I read an article she wrote in some magazine and they offered a free coaching session to anyone who rang up, so I thought ‘what have I got to lose?’ So, I rang up and I wasn’t coached by her, although I did speak to her and she said I’d be better with this person. So, I started working with Blaire and we worked out a plan to get me from being a teacher in a school to someone running their own business. It was an organic thing, really. It took me four years from 1997, when my world just collapsed, to 2001 when I left teaching and left the job I had and moved down to Cheltenham.
You said that Chris suggested to you that there was a better way of living and the meditation might be the answer. What was it about meditation that attracted you? I presume people had suggested other routes to you?
Well, I’d been going to the counsellor, and most people didn’t know about the drinking. I never became an alcoholic; it wasn’t that bad a problem. I would stay at home and have two or three glasses of wine, but I was drinking every day. I was having the counselling and when you are training as a counsellor, you have counselling, and I’d done all that inner child stuff and, you know, forgiven my parents and all the stuff that you do. As the saying goes ‘When the student is ready, the teacher appears.’ That was the situation. I met this guy in a pub and he was drinking water and I thought ‘how boring’, but just talking to him, he seemed so centred and peaceful. Although, he did have big challenges in his life; he’d just lost his wife to cancer and was bringing up their two children. I thought, ‘If he can be that calm and centred in the midst of all of this tragedy and loss, then I’ll give it a go.’
I did know quite a lot about meditation because I’d been teaching it at school to the kids because I was the Head of RE. Which is another long story that I won’t go into, it’s for another time – how I became Head of RE. So, I was teaching meditation and I’d done lots of contemplation and lots of Christian type meditative practices in my time. But this was transcendental meditation. I went off and I learned, and then I started practising. Then I came across the work of Paul Wilson, you know, The Little Book of Calm?
One of his books was Calm at Work and that had a big influence on me as well and I started looking at different forms of meditation as well as the TM and the sort of Catholic stuff I’d been doing. Then I started doing a stress management diploma. I don’t know if you know about Jon Kabat Zinn and the work that he’s done? He’s an American psychiatrist, I think, and he was the person who devised the Stress Management Mindfulness Programme. It started in America and now, if you go and tell the doctors you’re stressed out of your mind and they offer you counselling, they offer you CBT (Cognitive Behavioural Therapy), which is based on his programme. So, I did his programme, I did a Stress Management Programme and most of it is teaching people how to cope better with the stressors in their life. It’s about teaching them how to meditate and how to be calm. And I thought that this is a great way of people learning to meditate, but we won’t call it meditation, we’ll call it ‘stress management’.
Because ‘meditation’ puts people off
Exactly, we’ll call it ‘stress management’. So, my little brain was thinking, ‘I could do this. I could teach stress management and I can teach people meditation techniques as part of the stress management thing.’ So, that’s how meditation seemed… I diverged a bit there, sorry.
That’s okay. So, you said you had a four year plan, almost, to get out of teaching and starting your own business.
I wouldn’t call it a plan. No, it wasn’t a plan at all. It was more like: ‘Let’s do this bit of training and see where that goes.’
Oh, I see. And you don’t even want to glorify it with that name from this end of the telescope?
Oh, no. It was just ‘I’m fed up with teaching. Let’s do some courses.’
Do you remember the point at which you thought ‘I’m going to run my own business’?
I think that happened when I started working with Blaire. There must have been some part of me that said, ‘You’ve done all these training, you’ve spent all this money – it was thousands and thousands of pounds – you’re fed up of being a teacher. What can you do now?’ But, because I’d been to school, gone to uni, gone back to school, I knew nothing about the business world at all. I read Nick Williams’ book, The Work We Were Born to Do, and that had a big influence on me and he said about having coaching. So, it was working with Blaire, who was excellent. She was a really, really excellent coach. As you know, I’m the sort of person who needs to be pinned down to do things so working with a coach works for me, because I’ve got to report back so I do something! I’ve worked with some coaches who let you get away with murder and I don’t have a lot of time for those. But, ones where I respect them and I’ve got to pick up the phone and report back and they’ll ask what you’ve done.
It’s that accountability.
Accountability, yes. That really works for me. Working with Blaire, the idea of putting together something called a business plan which developed organically. It involved deciding where I was going to live, where would be the best place to do the sort of work I was suggesting. I was living on the outskirts of Manchester and I thought ‘no’, but I had family in Cheltenham so I put my house on the market and started my ‘Get Stuffed’ fund.
A ‘Get Stuffed’ fund! What a fabulous name!
Isn’t it great? It’s not my own, I read it in a book. But I started this ‘Get Stuffed’ fund and, how long was I doing it? It must have been about two years; I worked with Blaire for about two years. So, what I did was build up some savings, stopped going out and spending money and I was drinking a lot less wine by this time as well! It’s expensive stuff! I was hardly drinking at all by this time and any money that I got, from any source… I just paid my bills, lived as cheaply as possible and saved all the rest of the money. The idea was, when I gave in my notice in May 2001, I could move down to Cheltenham, having sold my house and found somewhere to live, and launch myself at the world!
What was your vision for this business? Where did you see it going?
I didn’t actually have much of a vision to start with. I think it was the idea of being my own boss and not having to be answerable to people, particularly people I didn’t respect. That was a factor – definitely. But also, my father had been self-employed and I’d seen the freedom it gave him compared to my mum who worked 9 to 5. The flexibility of running your own business really did appeal to me. So, the vision was the freedom that came from it, really. Freedom to run my own life.
Freedom, being able to work for someone you respected i.e. yourself, flexibility and autonomy. What about a mission? What was it that you wanted to do for your clients?
When I was a teacher, I was very aware of just how stressful teaching was and as part of my stress management diploma I did my dissertation on the teaching profession and the amount of stress. As I gathered all the information together about stress at work it became very clear to me that stress isn’t peculiar to teaching. It exists in all walks of life, in all jobs. So, the name Stress Solutions came to me and my mission was, ‘Come and work with me and I will support you to feel less stressed and help you to develop coping strategies so that you can carry on working, or perhaps look at what you’re doing, but do it in a much more calm and rational way.’ So to say to people that they could, that there was a solution, that they didn’t have to stay on the treadmill, that they could look at it from a different perspective.
And why is that important to you?
Well, I think the whole thing about service is really important to me. I became a teacher and, with one exception, I always worked in pretty tough, inner city schools and I’ve always wanted to help people. I trained as a marriage guidance counsellor so I could help people as a volunteer counsellor. I think this idea of service is a very big part of me.
Okay, so it’s the giving something back and it strikes me that there’s something for you about the calmness of being able to cope with life’s disruptions and things.
Yes. What I try to do is walk my talk and that when people come and work with me they immediately come into my room and start to feel calm, because that’s exactly what used to happen with the kids. They’d come into my classroom and they would calm down, and when we’re calm we think better. We can think much better when we are calm than when we’re stressed and frenetic and have a million to-do lists going on in our heads.
So, since you started your business in 2001, nine years ago, has your vision or your mission, or what you want out of it for yourself and for your clients. Has that changed in any way?
Yes. When I started training I saw all these courses and I thought, ‘Oh, I’ll do that’ and ‘Oh, I’ll do that’ and ‘Oh, I’ll do that’. So I trained in hypnotherapy and in marriage guidance counselling and in stress management and in Reiki and EFT – loads and loads of things! The idea was that when people came to work with me I had different things to offer them. We could work through and work out an action plan of what would work best for them, but as I have developed and as my business has developed I’ve let nearly all of those things just fall away. I’ve taken them all down from the website and I’ve now said I don’t want to do the one-to-one. Now, my focus is on teaching meditation and it seems to me that in the last ten years there has been a change in people’s perception of meditation. That people are much more open to the whole idea, whereas ten years ago it was still some hippy thing, you know, The Beatles and LSD and all that nonsense. Now, when people ask me what I do, I now say I’m a meditation teacher. Even a year ago I would have said I help people with their problems with their stress. It’s like I’ve come full circle, really, back to where I started which was learning to meditate. It’s like I’ve gone off at different tangents – you can help people in this way and this way and this way, and enjoyed doing a lot of it, really enjoyed it, met lots of lovely people. But last year I decided that meditation was going to be my focus.
It’s almost like you’ve taken the long way round to get back on to the path you were meant for.
Yes. But I don’t think, if I’d started out as a meditation teacher, nine/ten years ago, I don’t think I would have made a living.
What personal strengths do you think you bring to your business?
I looked at this in two ways. One was that I’m very good at organising things, I’m a good leader and I can inspire people, I think. So, I bring those qualities, but I also bring experience and expertise. All the studying I’ve done, all the books I’ve read, forms the person that I am. None of it has gone to waste; it all informs what I do. I’ve got lots of knowledge. I find it easy to relate to people and I’m a very good listener, people tell me stuff all the time. I think I’m trustworthy, generous with my time, I’m loyal, I’ve built up a good reputation and people speak very kindly about me. I bring Humour, warmth and I can remain calm in a crisis, I don’t flap.
That’s a list from someone who knows themselves very well, there’s no false modesty going on there, is there?
Well, there’s no point, is there? Once upon a time I would have shied away from saying those things but I think you get to a point where you recognise your strengths and you’re not afraid to talk about them or to own them.
That’s a powerful place to be, isn’t it? So, thinking about 2001 and thinking about now, what do you know now that you wish you’d known then?
I’d wish I’d known that it was going to work out! I think anyone embarking on a new business, you are terrified. If you’re not terrified, there’s something wrong with you, because it’s scary, it really is scary. Giving up the comfort of a monthly salary, paid holidays, a pension, and a union to support you, all those things that you have when you’re in secure employment. So, I wish I’d known that it was going to be okay.
The other thing that I wish I’d known is that it takes time. That you can’t just say, ‘Hello world, here I am!’ and everyone comes running to your door, it just doesn’t work like that, it takes time. You have to network and people have to get to know you, get to know what you’ve got to offer and then you have to build a reputation, so it’s about being patient and not trying to force things, but at the same time being proactive. It’s a fine line.
So you don’t want to be ramming yourself down people’s throats but, at the same time, you don’t want to leave it so long they forget about you.
Yes, it is a fine line, and I know people who have stepped over that line.
What’s your next challenge?
My next challenge is to get my book published, and get the CD sorted out. We’ve recorded most of it, and I’ve got one minute, sixty-eight seconds space on the CD to record my introduction, Ian told me the other day. So, it’s going to be a bit of a short introduction. So that’s happening this week.
So that’s the audio version of the book?
No, it’s a CD of some of the meditations. The audio version of the book is something to think about at a later date. The book’s called Meditation: the Stress Solution and it talks to the ordinary person about how learning to meditate can help them, can bring lots and lots of benefits, and then I go through some different meditation techniques and the CD takes eight or nine of those, not all of them but the CD has got meditations on.
So you can read about it and then practice it with your help in the background
Yes, or if you’re really stressed just start with the CD, that’s the idea. So they’re my next challenges and hopefully the Hothive will be interested, and if not, back to the drawing board! I’ll find someone else.
Well, who knows who might read the interview!
Exactly, yes, very true.
What advice would you give to someone who’s thinking of starting a business but is lacking in confidence, or thinks, maybe, that it’s something they can’t do?
I would say to think very carefully about it and not to rush into it. They need to find out what their USP is, what their unique selling point is. Ask people what they think their strengths are, because when we know what our strengths are, then we can find our niche. We all have a unique gift to offer to the world and it’s about discovering what that is. So, that’ll be the first point, I would think.
To do any training that they needed to do to prepare and to work with someone to support them, because you need support. Go to Business Link, work with a coach, do something. Work with somebody to support you because it can be really lonely.
I would also say to save up at least six month’s money
Because like you said, it’s not an instant thing, is it?
No. I had a year’s money before I embarked on my business. These are the cautionary notes, but I would also say that it’s the most brilliant thing you can ever do for yourself and not to be discouraged by all the people who say, ‘Ooh, you don’t want to give up your job and your pension,’ you know, all the things people say to you.
I do, yes!
Be clear and if it’s what you want, go for it and try it and see. If it doesn’t work you can always go back to doing something else. We don’t regret the things we do, we regret the things that we don’t do, don’t we?
Absolutely, and if it doesn’t work you’ll still have learnt something
Yeah, ‘A life unlived’, wasn’t that Albert Einstein?
That’s right – ‘An unexplored life is not worth living’
It wasn’t Albert Einstein- it was Socrates
Final question. This interview is happening because I find you inspirational, as you’ve said a number of people do. Who inspires you or who has inspired you?
Marianne Williamson was one of the first people to inspire me. I read her book, Return to Love, and I did find that inspirational. Nick Williams, I find him an inspiration. Robert Holden, The Happiness Project, the idea that we have the power to change our thoughts, I find that very inspirational.
Someone like Nelson Mandela, they’ve made that a world day now, haven’t they? Someone like him, I mean, twenty-seven years in prison, and he comes out and he’s still calm and he’s still generous and still wants to do good in the world. He didn’t become disenchanted or disillusioned.
He never let the bitterness take him over
Exactly, he never did and I think that’s a wonderful quality to have, to treat people with kindness, you see that wonderful smile that he has. But, also the fantastic work that he did when he became president, the changes that he made in South Africa. He is a big inspiration, really.
What about people in your own life?
Not off the top of my head. No names spring to mind. And people like Nick Williams and Robert Holden are in my life, because I know them both. I’ve been very fortunate and met a lot of wonderful people and they, in turn, have been very kind to me. We all do A Course in Miracles, it’s a work in psychotherapy based on the premise that there are only two emotions: fear and love, and that we want to move from fear to love. There are a series of three hundred and sixty-five lessons, so you do a lesson a day, and this is my tenth year of doing the lessons. They inform my life, they are my main meditation practice now. A Course in Miracles is the inspiration in my life, really, and the people I’ve met through it I’ve found to be some of the most genuine, kindest, loveliest people I’ve ever met. That’s my daily inspiration
Wow. Fantastic. Thank you very much.