Chetna Lawless

Robin Mills went to Lyme Regis to meet Chetna Lawless. This is her story.

“I was born in White Plains, New York, about an hour’s drive north of New York City. My mother’s grandparents came from Italy, but her parents met in NYC. Both my father’s parents came from Dublin, and emigrated separately to the States. My grandmother was one of ten children; four stayed in Ireland, two came to Dorset, and four went to New York. My father is an amazing man, a really loving being. His parents worked really hard; grandfather was a ship welder in the war, grandmother ran a restaurant, and they later had a dry cleaning business before moving on to other larger companies. My Dad wanted to go in to the Air Force but his eyesight wasn’t good enough, which pleased my gran, who wanted him to go to university. He went to Fordham and specialised in education, and then ran a non-profit school for mentally and emotionally handicapped children. My Mom was a school teacher; she also worked in a psychiatric unit in a hospital with children who’d been badly abused, and were separated from their parents.

As my two sisters and I grew up, our parents were constantly encouraging us to reflect upon our feelings—why we were upset, what was really bothering us—so we were all very emotionally fluent, supported to look within and uncover what was underneath. With our parents discussing their work at the dinner table, the framework of emotions and psychology was natural. I was passionate about books, read voraciously and was often the top of my class. I went to private Catholic girls’ school, but I asked to switch to the local high school because there were many more resources and opportunities to be intellectually challenged and stimulated. Being a keen student my parents encouraged me to become a doctor or lawyer, but to my mind lawyers seemed to build arguments and then spend the day fighting, and I definitely wanted no part of that. I was more interested in healing and what made people happy, so I worked as a nurse’s aide in a large hospital during weekends and summers, to see if I wanted to commit and submit myself to the challenges of medical school, with a view to becoming a doctor. I loved being with the patients and learned a lot, but it seemed that 90% of the work was done by the nurses on very low pay; doctors would breeze in, use patient consult meetings to discuss their golf games and weekend plans, then refer to the nurses’ notes to decide on treatment—and at no time touching the patients. So med school didn’t feel right for me. I considered Georgetown for Foreign Service and doing something international, where I could still be of service to bridge and heal the larger community. My quest was: what really makes people happy? How can suffering and pain end? Growing up around a lot of wealthy people, I could see that despite everything they had, they seemed to be quite miserable, and I didn’t want to end up like that.

When I was 13, my grandmother died. She was exceptionally intuitive; she had what they call “the sight”. She could see and sense things, when she wasn’t with us. She’d phone my Dad and say,  “What’s wrong, what’s happening?”, when my sisters or I were upset, such as the time our dog died, which he had forgotten to tell her about. When she died suddenly in the hospital, I began to hear her talk to me. I was grieving but I heard her quite distinctly saying, “Don’t worry about me, I’m fine, I’m not in any pain, and I’m praying for you”, as if she were on the phone speaking to me. Then I started to hear other people in spirit—parents of close school friends who wanted me to relay messages for them, such as “Tell her to stop taking drugs.” I felt they were loving messages and I was never afraid. But it was a bit odd, and I didn’t know what to do about it. I told my Dad; he said not to worry, because your grandmother was like that, and you know, you should probably get trained in that. Meanwhile, my mother encouraged me to get to university and get qualified, because her priority was that I should always be independent.

I decided to go to Cornell University and study Industrial and Labour Relations, because the coursework covered similar material as the degree for Foreign Service and an MBA. I thought I could help people, maybe even go into union organising for nurses. However, despite it being a “labour” school, the majority of the faculty was extremely right wing, and was teaching union-busting. They even removed the course on ethics from the curriculum. In human resource management they spoke as if people were objects, from which they needed to extract utility, and that I found repugnant. But I felt it was important to complete what I had started, so I learned how to disagree with them in their own rhetoric. I wasn’t very popular there as a result, either with my classmates or the faculty, inviting left-of-centre speakers to visit and give alternative opinions. But mainly I was still concerned with finding a prescription for human happiness, what “ism” might work best.

In the summers I earned money by working in the fisheries in Alaska, helping with the salmon harvest in the Kenai Peninsula, where later the Exxon-Valdez oil spill disaster took place. It was so pristine and so beautiful; I felt passionately about nature, and it made me realise that I didn’t want to live in New York, and I didn’t really like big cities in general. Alaska was paradise for me; nature was so vibrant and I felt the spirits of the place connecting with me.

After I graduated, I bought a round-the-world ticket, and came to the UK to visit my grandmother’s sisters in Dorset and Dublin, and then went to the Findhorn Community, before travelling onward. I was pulled to Asia; I wanted to learn meditation to hone my intuitive gifts, which didn’t seem to have a clear form, but I knew I needed to discover them. I went to Indonesia, Singapore, Malaysia, Thailand, and Burma visiting all kinds of temples, and meditating there, looking for my teacher. I went to every Kuan Yin temple I could find. In Japan this deity is known as Kannon, and in India she’s called Avalokiteshvera, a bodhisattva of compassion, and a major teacher for me. Eventually I ended up in Japan, learning meditation, and teaching English because I needed to start repaying my student loans. In Tokyo, I heard about a group in Lyme Regis, so I actually came to Lyme, from Japan, to do a personal development workshop, led by a therapist from London. I became his apprentice, quit my job in Japan, and came back to Lyme to work with him. Eventually we got married and worked together; since then we’ve parted, although we remain good friends and still work together.

Nowadays, the one-to-one work that I do with my clients involves helping them to access their inner wisdom and latent talents. I also work with family constellations, helping people to break repeating patterns of trauma trapped in their family lines. My greatest joy is in giving sessions and training practitioners.

I experience my ability to ‘see’ as part of basic instinctual sensory knowing, available to everyone. It is the part of ourselves that knows when someone behind us is looking at the back of our head when we are walking down the street; we can feel it, and these skills perhaps evolved from the days when predator/prey situations were more common—those who could sense, lived. Rupert Sheldrake, the scientist, calls it the morphogenetic field, and that is the energy field in which I work.

If I hadn’t gone down this particular path I think I’d have liked to work with the land; I love being in the green and with nature because it speaks to me. I keep bees in an orchard in Uplyme, and I love growing and working with herbs. Living in Lyme I feel I’m in tune with the elements; it’s perfect for me. I feel I can be true to my heart here.”