Joy Davey board chair and John Patterson Abbey Gardens founder talk following speeches at the grand opening of Abbey Retreat Centre for people living with cancer and those who support them. /JENN WATT Staff

Retreat centre in Haliburton bringing mindfulness practice for mental health

By Darren Lum

Published Oct 9 2018

Set against the backdrop of trees and surrounded by the song of birds sits a 2500-square-foot well-cared-for back-split bungalow. After the leaves fall in autumn the property on Ridgeview Road has an expansive view of the northwest side of Haliburton.

The Mindful Way Meditation and Retreat Centre is where East meets West an atmosphere cultivated by married couple Dr. Wanda Bowman Taylor and Max Marian Kalinowski.

This retreat which offers sessions training and retreats is open to people of all faiths. Meditation is part of the sessions but Buddhism isn't a prerequisite. Everyone needs help at some point and you don't have to be Buddhist to suffer Taylor said.

“People are suffering and to find the easiest proper glide path into their own understanding of how to help themselves is the key. I think that's the most helpful to anybody. Give them tools that they understand that they can use rather than export some other way of doing things … it's about translation experientially understanding something” she said.

Kalinowski has been practising Zen Buddhism since the 1970s. Taylor is a retired psychiatrist with more than 20 years specializing in women's mental health. She has integrated mindfulness-based approaches in her work with women who have suffered from depression and anxiety. Her professional experience includes work at Centre for Addiction and Mental Health in Toronto. She said she started the first mental health clinic for women in Canada.

Taylor meditates daily and has attended retreats to keep up her own studies on the practice.

“People who are suffering just want to help themselves and it’s psycho-educational model” she said.

Mindfulness is a tool to be used for mental health as it helps an individual catch themselves before they fall into the “hole” of depression.

“Before they become exhausted. Before they become extremely angry or agitated. Really get it early so they can start employing the tools throughout the eight weeks in mindful-based cognitive therapy” she said. “The first tool of course is settle your mind. Calm the mind. And that's done through mindfulness breathing. Just being able to focus the mind on one object. In this case the breath. It's easy to locate. Everyone has it. It's a moving target. You really have to concentrate. In so doing of course you'll see that the mind has a mind of its own. It's going to wander. If you're starting to get depressed what happens is you start to have these automatic negative thoughts. They're like pop-ups and if you stabilize that mind you'll be able to see them more readily and understand that you don't have to get drawn into those thoughts or get carried away by those thoughts.”

The centre is operated with board members Gail Sauer a naturopath and Janie Riviere who helps with administration and social media.

The centre obtained not-for-profit charitable status in 2009. The Haliburton location is the first centre for the co-founders who believe in mindfulness to help anyone hurting.

“At some point in one's life we have to give back and establish something to give ourselves meaning. We were doing it ourselves so it was only a natural extension to open it up to others in a non-profitable way. That was important” Taylor said. “Mindfulness is such a buzz word now that it could be a commodity. We thought ‘no it's not for sale.’ It's that important to us. To be able to give it to people who want it but cannot afford it.”

Anyone who needs financial assistance can inquire with the centre.

She said there is a screening process which is in place to benefit everyone.

“It’s not for everyone. We have to be careful … [that] people aren’t too depressed. It would be cruel to encourage somebody to concentrate when they can’t sit still. When they are so agitated. In some cases medication might be indicated just to help the person to calm down enough that they can use mindfulness. Also for people who have extreme psychosis that would not be an appropriate fit. When we meditate we regress. We do get in touch with a lot of unconscious processes” she said.

She said this also applies to people who have endured trauma which comes out during meditation.

This is taken into consideration during the screening process. It isn't about exclusion so much as Taylor does not want to harm someone.

“I’m very careful because I appreciate what happens when you're meditating” she said.

Past participants continue to volunteer helping where they can. Even Uxbridge residents will make the trip up to Haliburton to help at the centre.

“It’s a family. It’s a community” she said.

Bringing a centre like this to the Highlands was about bringing help to rural residents who don’t have the same access to mental health care as urban centres she said.

“Woman were isolated and were not getting services at all so I did an outreach program for a few years to bring the expertise out to the rural communities. I see myself as continuing to do that” Taylor said.

She started with an outreach service where she lived in Uxbridge while working at CAMH in Toronto several years ago. More recently she worked out of the Dharma Centre of Canada in Kinmount.

The Highlands’ thriving and vibrant arts community was a selling point for the couple which speaks to Kalinowski’s work as a professional artist.

Taylor is retired but isn't done with providing people with a respite from mental pain.

Now she is where she always wanted to be.

As a young girl Taylor loved her visits with her grandmother who lived on a 350-acre lot in Gooderham.

She said it was her intention to live in the Highlands and to help others benefit from being mindful.

She remembers telling her husband to drive up Mountain Street to Ridgeview Road based on a feeling deep within her. She's always paid attention to these feelings and it has charted her life’s course.

Last May they bought the house intended for the retreat and moved in July of 2017.

The couple also purchased their home on Redstone Lake the same year.

Even before she met her husband he was practising Zen Buddhism. He joined the Zen Buddhist Centre in Warsaw Poland during the late 1970s. Across the Atlantic Taylor was doing her states of consciousness research at Stanford University.

“We were both into the same thing at the same time” she said.

They ended up practising together and now want to share the benefits they have experienced.

The Haliburton location features an office which is used for assessments; a gathering space on the main floor meditation hall on the lower level which was renovated with a view of the woods. All the yoga mats and sitting cushions are provided.

Taylor who has more than 20 years of experience treating women said for now sessions are for women and couples.

Her expertise with working with women was part of the reason.

She hopes to expand her offerings for men in the future.

Taylor graduated from Mills College in Oakland in the San Francisco Bay area in 1981. It was a short trip to the prestigious Stanford University where she did sleep research.

States of consciousness has been an interest of hers for much of her life. The area of exploring the mind started in India.

It has informed a lot of western thought she adds.

Sleep disorders was a medical specialty for her and her master’s degree focused on lucid dreaming. She’s always thought of the question: How does the mind work?

“There was no real big epiphany or personal kind of thing that happened to me that made me want to do it except I've always been asking the questions: Why do we behave the way we behave? What makes humans you know human? The human condition is fascinating to me” she said. “How have we evolved especially in terms of kindness because we don't need to evolve biologically anymore. We're evolving culturally. That's all been very interesting to me.”

Taylor has been reaching out to various groups and has already partnered with the Abbey Retreat Centre and discussed giving a talk there. She hopes it can raise the profile of what she and her husband are doing.

Her vision for the centre is to provide a peaceful place for women.

“I would like to ultimately have it to be a place of rest. A peaceful abiding for women and [those] who are really suffering. A place to connect with themselves in a meaningful way in a healing way” she said.

She hopes it can also provide the kind of comfort to women so they want to return after their initial sessions.

“Keep up their practice because mindfulness is something that you do need to do often to keep the benefits … so when you finish an eight-week segment it’s important to come back. So I’d like to make it a welcoming place that women want to come back for those maintenance sessions.”

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