When did you first start practicing mindfulness and why were you motivated to do so? Did you take a class? If so, what sort of a class did you take?
At age 20 I took my first yoga class in which the silence and practice of breath awareness helped me quiet my mind and be present in the moment. In such still mind I was able to be a better listener, more focused and aware of what was going on within and around me. I felt more confident and joyful and was more compassionate and accepting of situations I came across. I felt more energized and noticed I was more able to respond rather than react emotionally to situations.
My motivation for taking this class was the need for silence and to slow down the fast pace of my life as a full-time student, part-time worker and children’s center volunteer living in a big city. This hurried life made me feel drained, tense and ungrounded. I was over-critical and lacked confidence.
Years later I became exposed to the practice of meditation which I did sporadically until it became a daily practice. My two years as a student of the MA in Contemplative Education at Naropa University inspired me greatly to strengthen this practice and eventually make it an essential part of my life. This program made me realize that the practice of stilling the mind and becoming aware of the breath it is essential and can be practiced anywhere, not only on the cushion while I meditate.
How has mindfulness made a difference in your life?
Mindfulness has transformed the way I relate to myself, to others and to life in general. It allows me to be more present and aware so I can pay attention and notice what is going on within and outside myself as I interact with the world without becoming caught up or attached to it. One thing that helps a lot is being aware of my breath and using this as stillness point from which I can be an observer of what is happening. So in a particular situation I can notice my body (is it tense, relaxed, sore?, etc.) and my thoughts and feelings, noticing their speed and strength as well as my urge to react. I can notice all this, allowing it to just be, without any blame, judgment or criticism, being kind to myself as I keep returning to my breath.
Breath is a place to come back to when my mind wanders in thoughts or when I become attached to emotions. Doing this practice I notice that I don’t struggle with situations I don’t like or judge myself as much; I can be more accepting and kind to myself and accept situations.
I act more on what is needed in the moment than out of fear. I am more confident, relaxed, patient, open, and can listen to myself and others with more attention and honesty. This improves the quality of communication with others and I notice the difference in the way others respond to me. Consequently I can experience more appreciation and joy.
Mindfulness practice allows me to see and experience life in all its depth and breadth.
What do you do for your livelihood (e.g., homemaker, teacher, firefighter) and does your practice of mindfulness affects that?
I am a school teacher and currently, and for the last 13 years, teaching at a public high school as Spanish teacher to 9th-12th grades.
Yes, my mindfulness practice has made a great difference in my experience as a teacher. It helps me to slow down and gather presence so I can notice my breathing and my body. Then, there is space for me to be open to listen to myself, my students and the classroom experience. I can notice patterns of behavior, dynamics of interactions among students and between students and me, and how they are affecting me and why. I can notice and listen to the students’ attention and energy levels. This helps me see how they are relating to the subject, to my teaching and to me. In such presence, I am note so reactive toward students’ behaviors or to my own feelings, but rather I can respond with openness, confidence and compassion.
When I enter in conflict with my students I can make space for my fear of being hurt, for the fear and anxiety of losing control of the class, and also for the connection I know I have with my students and my love for teaching. This helps me to accept myself as who I am in the moment with all my limitations, fears and vulnerability, and present myself to the students as I am. This models for them honesty and compassion while opening a space for them to be vulnerable too.
For example, when a student makes a rude remark (“this class sucks!”) when she cannot understand something or is not able to complete a task, I can listen beyond her words and attitude and hear her tone of voice, emotions in her words, body posture, all which may tell me she is frustrated and afraid. Her reaction may annoy me or make me feel insecure and angry, but because I am listening with mindfulness I don’t let my thoughts and emotions affect our interaction and I can respond effectively with intelligence, gentleness and compassion.
In awareness teaching is an honest and open relationship between teacher and students, a space in which we can be who we are because there is kindness and acceptance, we can learn from each other and our situation because there is genuine concern for each other, a joyful space.
Is there anything else you would want people to know about mindfulness and you?
I would like to share that my own steady practice of mindfulness has inspired me to implement certain mindfulness techniques in the classroom, specially a particular mindfulness practice we have been doing daily for the past 6 years that is transforming the way I teach in a very powerful, positive way. At the beginning of class we wait until everyone is quiet and still and then sound a gong (Tibetan singing bowl).
I especially became inspired to implement this practice during my first year as a student of the MA in Contemplative Education program at Naropa University. I was looking for a symbol or image I could use in my teaching to help me and my students to slow down our minds and experience silence and stillness so we could be more present and act with more effectiveness, empathy and compassion. The following phrase from a class talk made me think of the gong as our own minds: “the sound can be produced because the gong is empty inside, the gong represents the wisdom aspect and the mallet represents compassion and skillful means.”
This practice has been, and is, an essential part of my teaching. It helps me gather presence and gives me the courage, honesty and humor I need to teach. It makes the relationship with my students more authentic, honest and genuine. It fosters deep listening which encourages trust and respect. The classroom environment is more relaxed and joyful.
It is very inspiring to see how positively students respond to this practice. They really take this quiet time seriously and respect it. Of course, there are always students that have a hard time being still and for others, silence can be threatening. Since the beginning I have made space for students’ feelings and reactions to this experience (giggles, heads down, eyes rolling…) and over time they have come to appreciate this quiet time and realize how much they need it. I have noticed how this practice gets students ready and open to what is going to happen in class. It creates an atmosphere of calm and stillness.
Perhaps the most important aspect of this practice is that it offers students and me the opportunity to go within, know ourselves better (how we see ourselves and the world and how we learn), and improve the way we relate to ourselves and each other.
To end I will share what some students say about our gong practice:
“At first is sort of weird, it’s a new thing, you don’t know what to expect. It’s sort of hard not to laugh from the awkwardness. But then, after doing it, you get more into it, start to appreciate it more, how it brings the class focused together.”
“You have time to clear your mind of all other stuff that you are doing and can actually take a break from all the chaos.”
“It helps to put you in a better mood. It helps you clear your mind, sort of forget whatever was bogging you.”