A practitioner’s journey to secular Buddhism: Cathryn

February 2, 2023

Cathryn Jacob became disillusioned with the dogmatism of an independent, charismatic church when she was young and was an atheist for many years. As part of her process of recovery later in life, Cathryn found that the Secular Dharma provided her with the concepts, skills and practices to ‘live life on life’s terms’, to flourish, and to help others do the same. She is currently very active in several secular Buddhist sanghas and groups.

Cathryn Jacob

SBN Editor: When you were younger, were you religious? Did you strongly identify with a particular spiritual tradition? If so, what was appealing to you about that tradition?

Cathryn Jacob:  I didn’t grow up in a religious home but at the age of 16, I was taken to a Christian evangelical event and became a very committed Christian. Initially, I attended a local Anglican Church and was involved in some teaching during the family services. At university, I attended an independent charismatic church with lots of joyful dancing and ‘speaking in tongues’; my life plan was to become a medical missionary. I remember going on a summer elective to an isolated South India Missionary Hospital which had leprosy wards and a local villages medical outreach scheme.

The church I attended was very dogmatic and I remember going on an evangelical mission to Armagh in Eire to naively ‘convert the Catholics’! We were ‘happy clappers’ and I loved the joy, singing and dancing but mostly the sense of belonging. I felt that there was a ‘hole in my soul’ and my faith in a Judeo-Christian God seemed to fill that.


SBN: At what point did you find that tradition less appealing to you? Why?

CJ: In my mid 20’s, I started to see quite clearly that the actions and behavior of some of the members, but especially the leaders of the church I attended, did not in any way match up to their words and teachings. There were a few separate episodes of inappropriate behavior including sexual misconduct directed towards naive young girls – my disillusionment was rapid and profound. I instantly lost my faith and walked away. The once vibrant church spectacularly imploded following these episodes and disbanded. I remember trying to search for a god inside but an inner emptiness came flooding back and I was left feeling bruised and isolated.


SBN: Did you gravitate to Buddhism at that point?

CJ: No, I’m afraid that I sank into atheism and I bitterly resented any religion. I rapidly switched my belief in a Judeo-Christian God to a belief in the Roman god Bacchus – the god of wine. I sank into a deep love affair with Bacchus that lasted for the next 25 years. I gave up any interest in missionary work and went on to train as a General Practitioner in the UK.

I used alcohol to numb the pain of my existence. I had not learned how to deal with my emotions and reactivity, so I numbed it all.  This strategy seemed to work for many years – or at least I thought it was working!

Looking from the outside, I had the perfect life – a family, a respected profession and a lovely house in the country. However internally I was living with a ferocious inner critic and I was brimming over with shame, resentments and fears. A series of traumatic life events in my early 50’s saw me spiraling further downwards into a mental and emotional ‘samsara’ with no idea of how to get free. By this point, I was both physically and psychologically dependent on alcohol but I had little insight into my condition and the chaos and the pain that I was causing in my own life and in the lives of those around me.

I didn’t ever drink alcohol at work, but on arriving home, I would swiftly down a couple of large gins and secrete more bottles at various ingenious hiding places around the house. I was now drinking alcohol to obtain the state of oblivion and would pass out every evening on the sofa, then get up the next morning for work. This obviously put a great strain on my marriage and each morning I would earnestly vow never to drink again but by that evening, the same samsaric cycle played itself out – over and over again. The compulsion to drink was so strong that sometimes I would be pouring the gin while saying to myself ‘I don’t want this, I don’t want this’ but I was completely unable to stop myself from drinking alcohol and I couldn’t imagine living a life without it.

One evening while driving home from work, I fortunately experienced what is known as a ‘moment of clarity’. I suddenly realized that I was very sick and I needed to get professional help. I made the resolve to find a way to renounce my perceived best friend alcohol and strive forwards freedom. There are a number of excellent Buddhist recovery groups but at that point in my life, I had no knowledge of Buddhism and a massive resentment to anything I would have considered as religious. So medically detoxed and desperate to stay sober, I found myself in the rooms of an international recovery organization and diligently worked through their program of recovery


SBN: So, how and why did you become interested in Buddhism?  Did you join a sangha? Did you read books by Buddhist authors? What was the impact on you?

CJ: The program of recovery I attended is a spiritual program and I was encouraged to find a ‘higher power’ but as an atheist, I struggled with this concept. Someone suggested that I read ‘The Power of Now’ by Eckhart Tolle. Although Eckhart Tolle does not profess to be Buddhist, the book opened my eyes to a brand-new dimension of spirituality and I became a dedicated ‘seeker’. Eventually, I started to explore Buddhism. I watched You Tube videos and read many books by an eclectic mix of Buddhist writers, teachers and organizations. I eventually attended an ‘Introduction to Buddhism’ course at Samyeling Monastery in Scotland and took refuge into the Tibetan Kagyu Tradition at Easter 2019. I realized that my higher power could be the Buddha – my potential to awaken; the Dharma – the teachings; and the Sangha – those walking the Buddhist path to recovery alongside me. Influential authors at that time for me were: The Dalai Lama, Thich Nhat Hanh, Jack Kornfield, Rick Hanson, Tara Brach, Kevin Griffen, Kristen Neff, Brenée Brown, Lisa Feldman Barrett, David Eagleman, Jon Kabat-Zinn and Robert Wright.


SBN: When and how did you learn about a secular approach to the Dharma? Why were you drawn to this approach?

CJ: I had been struggling with some of the traditional Buddhist beliefs and one evening, I googled two words, ‘atheist and Buddhist’ and up popped Stephen Batchelor. I went on to do an online course on ‘the Fourfold task’ and this was a light bulb moment for me. I read ‘Secular Buddhism’ and ‘After Buddhism’ and many other books by Stephen and Martine Batchelor and I also participated in the online SBN ‘Exploring a Secular Dharma’ course with Mike Slott.

In Autumn 2019, I went on a retreat with Martine Batchelor in Zagreb and I attended a number of online Secular Dharma courses during COVID. I also listened to Noah Rasheta’s Secular Buddhism and Timber Hawkeye’s Buddhist Boot Camp podcasts.

I completed the yearlong ‘Secular Dharma: Study, Practice and Community’ course via Bodhi College with Stephen and Martine Batchelor and Bernat Font-Clos in November 2022.

Secular Dharma just makes perfect sense to me. The concepts, skills and practices that I have learned actually work when I apply them in my own life. When I got sober, I needed to find a way to ‘live life on life’s terms’ – Secular Dharma has shown me the skills I need to cultivate. It has also helped me to discern what to hold on to and what to let go of – not only to live life on life’s terms but now to flourish. Now I hope to try to help others to do the same.


SBN: What ideas and practices of a secular approach do you find most impactful in your life?

CJ: As mentioned earlier, Stephen Batchelor’s teachings on the Fourfold Task have been pivotal in my learning to deal with my emotions, my reactivity and central in my recovery. To Embrace life, to Let my reactivity be and to See the stopping of that reactivity, while dwelling in a non-reactive space. I have now learned how to creatively engage with life and how to Actualize a path.

More recently, I am inspired by Stephen Batchelor’s teachings around the eightfold path. I particularly like his ideas around my not holding onto fixed views. I try to cultivate an underlying perspective on life that allows us all to live better lives. I would describe myself as agnostic nowadays. I also love Stephen’s teachings on being a ‘Noble’ person, on living an authentic life while trying to find my own authentic voice.

I have been an active member of the Secular Buddhist Tradition (SBT) for a few years. Venerable Tarpa has been very helpful and supportive and I consider him a good friend. Within SBT there are a range of beliefs from the more traditional end of the spectrum to those that are more drawn to Stephen Batchelor’s work. We are encouraged to respect everyone’s beliefs within the SBT framework. Venerable Tarpa teaches a number of excellent courses and practices that I have found invaluable.  His ‘Practice of Appreciation’, ‘Practice of The Four Gifts’ and ‘The Practice of Shining’ have been transformative practices for me.


SBN: Do you find that secular Buddhism conflicts with other perspectives that you have? In short, has a secular Buddhist approach created any conflicts or tensions in how you think and act in the world?

CJ: Absolutely! Since getting sober, I have had to slowly change most of my previous attitudes, perspectives and actions, and I remain a work in progress!

I consider that I am on a path and there are many paths, I am just carving out the path that feels right and works for me. I respect that others walk their own individual paths. My aim is to awaken a little more every day. I try to start the day with affirmations to act with more goodness and compassion but I don’t always live up to my aspirations, I do the best I can. But I do honestly believe that I am not remotely the same person that I was before finding Secular Dharma, I’m unrecognizable, but it’s baby steps.


SBN: What do your friends and family think about your interest in secular Buddhism?

CJ: I had to distance myself from many of my drinking friends when I got sober. But in the few years that I have been walking this dharma path, I have made many dharma buddies. My husband has been very supportive of me and I think that my family and friends can see the work I have put into my recovery and the love I have for Secular Dharma. For me, this inner transformation and cultivation of an outer altruism are a way that I can take responsibility and make amends for my past, while no longer carrying that past upon my shoulders.


SBN: Do you have a regular meditation practice? How much is your practice influenced by secular Buddhism?

CJ: I trained as a meditation instructor with SBT. I try to meditate at least once a day and do a mixture of calm abiding and insight meditation, often combining the two in a practice called ‘Union Meditation’. SBT has daily on-line meditation sessions which I attend when I am able, occasionally leading these sessions.

Two meditations taught to me by Stephen Batchelor have also been very useful, one on contemplating my mortality and another on embodying the seven factors of awakening – I try to do these regularly.


SBN: Please describe your current involvement in secular Buddhist (and other Buddhist) activities.

CJ: As mentioned, I completed the yearlong ‘Secular Dharma: Study, Practice and Community’ course via Bodhi College with Stephen and Martine Batchelor and Bernat Font-Clos in November 2022. We have an ongoing meditation group that meets weekly on line and the cohort continues to study together.

I am presently transcribing the talks from this course in the hope of a future book with Ramsey Margolis from Tuwhiri, the secular Buddhist imprint based in New Zealand.

I have recently completed a few courses with Bodhi College and Tricycle magazine including a course on Dependent Arising and the Eight Fold Path.

I am an active member of Secular Buddhist Tradition which has daily meditations and weekly teachings. I have also attended courses run by SBT.

For a long time, I was the only dharma practitioner I knew! So, I went on to Facebook to look for others and we set up a small local sangha we call The Middle-way Sangha that meets monthly at my house in the Midlands UK. We are presently planning our first full-day silent retreat together.

I was searching for others interested in recovery through a Secular Buddhist lens but I couldn’t find any specifically Secular Buddhist recovery groups at the time. So I decided to set up a Facebook Group called Secular Buddhist Recovery and we have now over 1100 members. Our aim is to highlight different programs of recovery, share helpful resources and support each other. I wrote an article on this group for the SBN website.

I now attend online Buddhist Recovery Meetings with the 5th Precept Meditation Group which was set up by Vince Cullen. I really enjoy these meetings; we meditate together and talk about a quote or phrase and how it relates to our recovery.

Although now retired as a doctor, I am a Trustee and Telephone Help-line Coordinator for a UK charity called The Sick Doctors Trust, which helps UK doctors and dentists struggling in active addiction.


SBN: How would you like to see secular Buddhism develop in the years ahead?

CJ: In the Bodhi College Secular Dharma course, I learned about what Stephen Batchelor is presently calling the ‘Cartography of Care’. The skills and virtues that we can cultivate in order to Embrace life, Let our reactivity be, See it’s stopping and to Actualize a path. I would like to see this cartography of care continue to evolve and develop and the teachings be available for all. I am also interested in the work presently being done on Mindfulness Based Ethical Living (MBEL).

I would like to see more local and online Secular Dharma sanghas being formed, so that we can all meet together in small or even large groups to study Secular Dharma and to support each other. I would like to see these groups becoming more active in social and environmental endeavors, whereby we could all possibly all find our own voices together.

I am particularly interested in finding a way to bring Secular Dharma teachings into mainstream recovery circles. Many in early recovery, like myself, lack the basic skills to function and flourish without their ‘drug of choice’. Be that alcohol, street or prescription drugs, gambling, shopping, eating, sex and so forth. I am profoundly grateful to Secular Dharma for teaching me how to cultivate these skills and would like to find a way to open out these teachings to all who are presently stuck in the samsara of addiction.

If you are interested in sharing the story of your journey, we’d be happy to hear from you! Please contact Colette at secularbuddhist.network@gmail.com.



3 Replies to “A practitioner’s journey to secular Buddhism: Cathryn”

Charlotte Anstey

Thank you for posting this inspiring article. Cathryn’s description of her spiritual journey into Buddhism is very moving and demonstrates a thoughtful path of intention and clarity. I hope her ongoing explorations brings peace, equanimity and many future developments.


Wonderful, interesting, helpful interview. Thank you.

Thank you for sharing your story and insights. Spring rain outside my window, gray light, green tips of flowers appearing out of the wet earth. Thank you.

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