Meditation teacher's practice thrives in Mountain View


Meditation teacher Shaila Catherine once added it all up. It turned out that she's spent more than eight of her 50 years in meditative silence.

"I love meditating," she says, calling a limitless source of bliss -- if you can stop your busy life long enough to do it.

What could have been a passing interest at age 17 has turned into a thriving practice called Insight Meditation South Bay. Teaching what she calls Vippassana Insight meditation, the non-profit has grown to have more than 1,400 students, and sometimes over 50 at each session. Events, classes and even a monthly day-long meditation are held in several churches, often St. Timothy's on Grant Road in Mountain View. She says Insight Meditation South Bay has become so successful that they're looking to expand into a dedicated space soon and will raise funds to enter a long term lease or a buy a building in Mountain View.

A friend's mention of his mother's meditation practice sparked her interest in it when she was 17, and after attending her first class with her own mother she's been doing it ever since. "I really felt drawn to it," she said. "I really felt this was way to explore the mind, a way to live authentically, more fully alive."

During the 1980s, Catherine spurned a regular job and took breaks in college to meditate with teachers she found in India and the jungles of Thailand, including the same teachers who trained renowned author and teacher John Kabat Zinn, known as the father of mindfulness, a meditation practice stripped of its Buddhist overtones and used in hospitals to treat those in serious pain. Catherine began her own practice in hospitals as well and still sees those who want to continue their meditation learned at El Camino Hospital or who want to know more about the Buddhist philosophies that gave rise to meditation as a practice, she said.

"There has been a lot of research verifying the effectiveness of meditation for stress reduction for health, for concentration and clarity of mind, for overcoming anxiety and depression, for a whole rang of mental and physical difficulties," Catherine said. "Basically, people are happier when they meditate. Although everybody who meditates knew that long before there were any scientific studies."

Having people around you to support the practice is important to encourage it in today's busy world, she says.

"I think it is really hard for people to carve out the time and protect the time to meditate," Catherine said. "People can very easily get swept up in the business of life and the responsibilities, which basically are their life pattern. Interestingly, when people retire it doesn't get easier," indicating that being busy becomes habit.

"What people realize when they sit down to meditate is how out of control their minds are, it's a real wake up call," Catherine said. People realize, "I can't even sit down and feel three breaths."

"We always know what's good for us," Catherine says. "It doesn't mean we're encouraged or able to bring that into our lives. We need to keep re-inspiring ourselves, re-interesting ourselves. That's why meditation groups and centers are so important."

Catherine says the goal of mediation isn't just to improve oneself, but also to improve a person's relationship to the world. If a person can learn to see and face the "greed, hate and delusion" in oneself, then that person will be able to better deal with it in the world, she says.

She's written two books about meditation, one of which is about concentration, called " Focused and Fearless, A Meditator's Guide to States of Deep Joy, Calm and Clarity." She says she sees herself as an authority on the subject.

Catherine says mediation has definitely entered the mainstream. There's even a meditation group at Mountain View's Google campus. Local Googler Chade Meng-Tan has written a book, called "Search Inside Yourself" with a forward by John Kabat-Zin.

"As it's entering the mainstream, some of the things people feared about it have been disproved," Catherine said. People have said "it's some kind of cult" or that it will make you lazy, for example.

"When somebody does take care of their presence and quality of mind, they become much more effective at what they are trying to do," she said. "It helps them to maintain perseverance, to finish something they start."

Meditation also allows people "to pause and make more skillful life decisions," Catherine said. "I'm so grateful I learned when I was young. I made decisions when I was young that spared me suffering."

One of her students, Mary-Leigh Burke, wrote in an email, "I'm fascinated by how she has managed to make these choices work -- so many of us envy those very few who have the sheer guts to follow their hearts."

She says she never thought of herself as a teacher, and was never really taught to be one.

"The teachings come out of the depth of one's practice," she said. "That's really what a teacher has to offer. The insights they've seen, the clarity they've seen in their own minds from doing the meditation themselves."

It took a long time to build a group large enough to support her financially, especially since she relies entirely on the generosity of her students who donate to her whatever they can spare.

"I think these teachings are so precious I'm happy to be able to offer them widely. Whether somebody gives a lot or a little, I give the same teachings for everybody. There are not special teachings for the rich," she laughs.

For those who are interested, Catherine recommends an introductory meditation session set for Tuesday, Oct. 2 at 6:30 p.m. at St. Timothy's Episcopal Church. More information is at

We can't do it without you.
Support local journalism.


3 people like this
Posted by A Student of Buddhism
a resident of Stierlin Estates
on Sep 10, 2012 at 5:07 pm

With all due respect, I have never before heard a Buddhist teacher describe herself as "an authority" on any aspect of Buddhism, but rather as a continuing student herself.

Neither have I heard a teacher claim that the insights she shares come out of her own practice or mind. Buddhist teachers clarify and share the insights of the Buddha, the principles of Buddhism.

3 people like this
Posted by Observer
a resident of Old Mountain View
on Sep 10, 2012 at 6:34 pm

Yes, but this is the Voice you are reading. So expect anything.

3 people like this
Posted by Chade-Meng Tan
a resident of another community
on Sep 10, 2012 at 9:04 pm

Shaila Catherine is one of the best and most skillful Buddhist teachers I have ever met. Her specialty is deep concentration, but she is also highly skilled in other aspects of meditative practice. I'm so fortunate to have her right in my neighborhood. I'm feeling lucky. :)

3 people like this
Posted by Bodhipaksa
a resident of another community
on Sep 11, 2012 at 11:39 am

It would certainly be unusual for a meditation teacher to claim they are an "authority." As you say (first poster) we're all still learning. But Shaila's not directly quoted as saying this, so I think we should give her the benefit of the doubt.

But as for your second point, I don't know any meditation teacher who does not say that what they share comes out of their own practice. We first put into practice the teachings, and then share what we've learned. To some extent there's some passing on of received wisdom ("Buddha said...") but authentic teaching is a sharing of what we're discovered through practice, not the mere transmission of received information about practice.

I don't know Shaila, but everything I'd heard or read about her suggest she's the real deal. I hope this softens your doubts a little.

3 people like this
Posted by Waldo
a resident of Waverly Park
on Sep 11, 2012 at 1:31 pm

Waldo is a registered user.

I have meditated every day for 40 years, and have gone to several sessions hosted by Catherine at St. Timothy's. She is definitely a capable meditation teacher, and able to instill an appreciation of various methods of meditation. In the words of Buddha, "When the student is ready, the teacher will appear." She could be the one for you.

3 people like this
Posted by A Student of Buddhism
a resident of Stierlin Estates
on Sep 11, 2012 at 5:34 pm

I apologize to anyone offended by my remarks, particularly Shaila Catherine. This has been a lesson in right speech.

Sorry, but further commenting on this topic has been closed.

Don't be the last to know

Get the latest headlines sent straight to your inbox every day.

First Sunnyvale, then Australia: Mountain View's Le Plonc plots expansion
By Elena Kadvany | 1 comment | 2,467 views

Juggling Renewables
By Sherry Listgarten | 35 comments | 1,967 views

Premarital and Couples: Living as Roommates?
By Chandrama Anderson | 2 comments | 1,420 views

Homestead Faire at Hidden Villa 4/27
By Laura Stec | 0 comments | 743 views


Best of Mountain View ballot is here

It's time to decide what local business is worthy of the title "Best Of Mountain View" — and you get to decide! Cast your ballot online. Voting ends May 27th. Stay tuned for the results in the July 19th issue of the Mountain View Voice.