Happiness: It has to come from within...

Counsellor, retreat director, and writer Martina Lehane Sheehan has a new book out. She talks to Mary Rose McCarthy about her difficult childhood, finding her career path, and why she is donating proceeds from her book to the Chernobyl Children’s Project International
Happiness: It has to come from within...
Martina Lehane Sheehan, author of Surprised by Fire.

PSYCHOTHERAPIST and counsellor, Martina Lehane Sheehan’s fourth book, Surprised By Fire — How To Become What You’re Meant To Be was launched this month.

Martina, from near Carrignavar, is keen to stress that externals cannot make us happy, that happiness has to come from within. Her life’s journey has been about exploring this path and sharing her insights with others as a counsellor, retreat director, and writer.

The youngest of three children, childhood was very difficult, she says, as both her parents were very ill. Her father died when she was 14, but for seven years had been seriously unwell. This meant a certain amount of role reversal, she says, in that the children looked after the parents rather than the othrr way around.

After her father died, her mother had to manage their farm alone and deal with her own health issues.

Thus, Martina says, she left school without a clue as to what she wanted to do with her life and drifted into the first job that came along, which happened to be with Cork County Council. Later she moved to work with the City Council in their libraries. It was during this time that she began the search for meaning and attended one or two retreats. This awakened the quest to discover who she was.

This intense interest eventually led to ten years of study, of psychotherapy and spirituality, first with the Flatstone institute, then UCC and The Milltown Institute, Dublin. She is a trained spiritual director. Somewhere in the midst of this, she also studied as an actor with LAMDA and wrote plays.

Comedy, she says, was her thing, as she believes humour is very important. She no longer treads the boards, or writes plays, but does incorporate humour into her books.

Inevitably, the time came to leave the library and instead of recommending books to people, Martina began writing them. She also began a private practice for psychotherapy and spiritual direction. She gives retreats locally, nationally and internationally.

Martina Lehane Sheehan, author of Surprised by Fire
Martina Lehane Sheehan, author of Surprised by Fire

In the course of her years of study, she met her husband, Pat, who was on the same journey of searching for meaning. They both now run Cork Wellbeing Counselling, and give workshops and retreats. Pat is also a gifted musician and they’ve collaborated together in creating a CD of inspirational music.

Martina says life wasn’t always plain sailing. Apart from a difficult childhood, she didn’t really have a good relationship with her mother. She’s very pleased though that in adulthood, she did get to know her mother and the two did become very close. Her mother was excited about the forthcoming marriage to Pat and looking forward to ‘giving Martina away’. A week before the wedding her mother tripped and suffered multiple injuries. She was unconscious while the actual ceremony took place and sadly died a few weeks later.

This really shook Martina’s faith. It was her dark night of the soul, she says, and she really wanted to give up her work. But while she was angry with God and questioned everything, she didn’t stop going to Mass.

That time, she says, deepened and changed her faith rather than dismantling it. She’s a searcher through and through and never stops learning. Suffering has created space for empathy and gratitude. When she gives retreats or workshops, she tries to speak from a lived experience and not out of theory. Pat has also had his share of suffering and both believe it has instilled compassion and empathy.

Martina says she’s been ‘writing forever’ but never had an intention of publishing books. Rather, she says, the world asked for the books.

During a period of enforced inactivity after an ankle injury, she began writing Seeing Anew. A friend read it and liked it very much. Pat sent it to the publisher Veritas who accepted it immediately and it became a big seller for them in 2011.

Veritas asked her for another book which she titled Whispers In The Stillness and this too was a big seller for the publisher. Her third book with the imprint, Waiting In Mindful Hope, also sold well.

A change occurred when Currach Press approached her to write a book that was a little bit more secular and humanistic. This, her latest book is Surprised by Fire — How To Become The Person You’re Meant To Be.

While it does have more psychology than her previous books, this is not at the expense of the spiritual side. She emphasises that the two converge and are inseparable.

Author Martina Lehane Sheehan with Adi Roche of Chernobyl Children International.
Author Martina Lehane Sheehan with Adi Roche of Chernobyl Children International.

While Martina enjoys writing, the promotional side of book selling would put her off writing another. And yet, she says, the long term effects her books have on people are a source of great joy. Often, in the most unexpected places, she will bump into somebody who’s read her book, who tells her the help they got from it. Recently, she met a woman who’d lost her husband and brother in the one year, who said that a book of Martina’s had got her through such a difficult time.

Martina is no longer full time in Ennismore, where she works as Director of Retreats and Programmes. This allows her time for writing in the mornings. It is the first thing she does every day from 6.30am until 8.30am.

It’s like brain drain, she says, everything is poured onto the page. Pat and herself never have breakfast together. She juggles writing, retreat giving, spiritual direction... but they are all on a common theme.

She ‘paddles her own canoe and can’t take a lot of the dogma and churchy stuff’. Scripture, writing, meditation, gratitude, and optimism are the compass she steers by. She always asks herself: ‘What contribution am I leaving the world’?

Walking and furniture restoration are her ‘down time’ and she longs for times when she can just switch off.

Her attitude is to live in the present moment with gratitude, which she says, is a joy and is miracle producing. She strives to stay out of the worry warts. Then, she says, joy converges in the simplest of ways. It’s about letting go, letting go, letting go.

All proceeds from all her books go to the Chernobyl Children’s Project but, she stresses, she’s not a saint and at times thinks what she could do with the royalty cheque. But, she says, she couldn’t do what Adi Roche does, so this is her way of supporting the work. It is her way of giving back and it’s good to hear from Adi that the money does make a difference.

Our deepest fulfilment, she says, is when our deepest dream meets the world’s deepest need. That’s what she’s always trying to discover and doesn’t see any other way for us to live. That’s why her latest book is about ‘becoming who you’re meant to be’. It is not autobiographical but does pick out bits from her life. People tell her the real life stories from her books, which she writes humorously, are the bits they remember long after reading.

Humour saves us, she says, it keeps us sane. Her books take people on a journey which is deeply challenging and deeply rewarding.

‘Surprised by Fire’ is a guide for people to develop hope, creativity, wellness, and resilience. She tries not to write ‘The ten simple steps’ kind of book. She really respects the human condition with all its neuroses. She doesn’t agree with contemporary cultures wish to airbrush the wounds and bruises out of the world. For this book, she did hours of research around the science of wellbeing and the science of happiness. There are some things we can change but there are many things that can’t be fixed. There is a lot of pop psychology out there, she says, and much of it is not helpful. We must discover and accept the unfixable.

Happiness does not come from externals.

On Black Friday, the book launched in Dublin, in what Martina called a ‘Bright Friday Event’ an antidote to Black Friday madness. Black Friday, she says, is about chasing illusive happiness. Our highest happiness, the very best we can find is, by doing the journey, become who you’re meant to be. It’s about building hope and resilience from the inside. It’s our responses to life that bring a rise in our happiness levels. From the inside out, not the outside in.

Surprised by Fire is available now in Waterstones.

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