by Charisse Minerva
For 5 years I taught College Success Skills at a local community college. It was my personal determination to include Mindfulness in the existing curriculum. There was resistance on many levels, mostly due to the lack of familiarity with Mindfulness work in this geographic region. I was determined, so I pushed on.
The demographics of my classroom were:
- 50% younger than 25, 35% 25-45, 15% 45 – 70
- 80% urban,
- 35% Military
- 10% People who had been previously incarcerated (we have a 2nd Chance program in VA)
- 70% POC (predominantly African American)
Each semester I would ask the students to rate in order of importance 4 diverse qualities, from most important to least important, as they pertained to their degree choice or area of study:
Smart – Wealthy – Creative – Caring
Once they rated these qualities the class would play a game where we would guess the major, based on how the qualities were categorized. For example; Caring-Smart-Wealthy-Creative might be a nurse. Smart-Wealthy-Caring-Creative might be an accountant. Creative-Wealthy-Smart-Caring might be a Videogame designer. Over time I got pretty good at guessing their majors. This game incorporates Mindful Listening, but on the down-low.
I was always amazed at the high percentage of students that considered themselves, non-creative. To them creativity meant not only being artistic but having artistry at the level of professionalism. They seemed to carry no awareness of how we all use creativity on a daily basis.
In my experience it’s not uncommon to hear people voice their lack of confidence when it comes to creativity. It’s an interesting phenomenon that is worth exploring but for the purposes of my discussion I will only make note of the commonality.
When I would implore further discussion, it would take some time before the idea of Creativity appearing in multiple genres became more fluid and accessible. Examples included the unique designs of presentations and projects, finding a cure for an illness, a solution to ecofriendly urban housing, or even how a room is arranged. Once they blew away the walls and boundaries surrounding their definitions of creativity, they became more excited, including things like the color of their car or outfit, what their music playlists looked like, even the way they set up their study spaces, which is an important skill for college success.
I wanted them to begin to see how Creativity is actually an inherent component of our existence. I wanted to get away from the traditional and number one definition listed in most dictionaries. Creativity: the use of the imagination or original ideas, especially in the production of an artistic work. I wanted to explore a broader definition.
Creativity: the act of turning new and imaginative ideas into reality. It is characterized by the ability to perceive the world in new ways, to find hidden patterns, to make connections between seemingly unrelated phenomena, and to generate solutions.*
And with that revised outlook the discussions then began to expand, as they started exploring ways Creativity could be brought into their particular majors and areas of study. Frequently, I was told that looking at their majors through this lens actually made the majors more interesting.
Creativity is exercised continuously in our lives. It is the manifestation of choice, choices that line up and aggregate. These choices describe our individual uniqueness. Further, the choices (creativity), of multiple individuals, collectively impact and influence Culture. Culture: the customs, arts, social institutions, and achievements of a particular nation, people, or other social group. Once again I want to step back and look at the idea of Culture from a broader perspective.
Culture is the characteristics and knowledge of a particular group of people, encompassing language, religion, cuisine, social habits, music and arts. … the characteristic features of everyday existence (such as diversions or a way of life) shared by people in a place or time
I have an interesting experience that reflects this point of recognizing Culture. I was going to the UK each summer supporting an Inward Bound Mindfulness Education (iBme) Teen Retreat program. My post retreat senses were heightened, having just left a weeklong retreat. As I walked down the airplane ramp to catch my return flight I noticed two teenagers walking a few yards ahead. I smiled, as I knew I was headed home, by the way they walked. They were “walking American”. It stuck out so much more than usual. I was experiencing a strong sense of my own cultural tags.
On another occasion I sat with my sister in Kingston, Jamaica’s town center round-a-bout. We both marveled at how differently they walked from our own African American culture. They stood more erect. We had a long heartfelt conversation pondering what caused the difference in our gaits. Physical movements, body posture, walking, give clues to culture and can be further divided into subcategories, i.e., the stride of a Manhattan-ite, versus a Texan, ballerinas vs. football players etc. etc. etc. There is culture being displayed in each of these instances. Yes, other aspects are also present, but culture is being strongly displayed.
Culture is the glue that connects community. Community expresses our co-lived experience through our culture and creativity. It’s dynamic, in a constant state of flux, yet at the same time it’s old and ancient.
Community: a feeling of fellowship with others, as a result of sharing common attitudes, interests.
Community used to be a more static idea based on location and geography but through the work of educators and psychologists the notion of geography as the sole or paramount definer has changed. Seymour Sarason is considered, by many, to be the founder of Community Psychology. In contemporary culture Community Psychology is the branch of psychology at the forefront of community social justice work.** Sarason began to define community as a psychological conceptual space coining the term “sense of community”. He initiated the idea and research into Test Anxiety in the 1950’s. Sarason started his work back in the 1930’s and lived until 2010. Impacting the field throughout his life.
I feel this next component, Contemplation, is crucial as it is our work as Mindfulness Educators. I feel compelled to explain that in my universe, Mindfulness falls under the broad heading of Contemplative Practices. Please take a look at the Contemplative Practices Tree diagram. There is a myriad of activities considered contemplative. ***
I’m a drummer, poet, storyteller, dancer, gardener, meditator, etc. All of these are located on the Contemplative Practice Tree. Considering this perspective, contemplative practices are universal, broadly found in cultures and communities on all continents. Our rigid definitions can make us blind to their existence much like my College Success class that felt only professional artists were creative. Perhaps this analogy will help. New students often comment, “I can’t drum I have no rhythm.” I usually respond with, “You have a heart and it beats. It’s the first drum. Yes, you do have rhythm you just need a guide to help show you how to access it.” I would say that is the same in Mindfulness education.
I find most of the definitions we use for Contemplation and Contemplative Practices to be rigid, reflecting Western Lineage concepts. They ignore the way Mindfulness/Contemplation are practiced in all cultures. It may be unintentional however this definition seems to rest in the notion of thought, i.e., “Mind-Full-ness” as “me”. I perceive it differently, there is more to add to that definition. Contemplative Practices do not dwell predominantly in thought but equitably in awareness and feelings encompassing “me as we”. As we continue to practice, this understanding deepens. The definition I find closer to my experience is “awareness” in place of “thought”. Awareness of self in all its complexities, from the most intimate, to as far out as the concept of self is able to achieve, ever deepening, growing, and expanding.
Contemplative Practice: expressing or involving prolonged investigation. Awareness
Contemplative Practices, often partnered with Creativity, are used inherently by all communities to transmit teachings, morals, hopes and dreams. Visual art, games, music, storytelling, and play are excellent tools for delivery as
1) one generation passes their history to the next
2) younger generations introduce new concepts on ways of being
3) various diverse groups within a community bring about change in patterns, traditions and beliefs. (e.g. Blues, Rock & Roll, Rap, miniskirts, bell-bottoms, “my bad”, Queer, Me Too)
Contemplation enhances and deepens the awareness of the dynamics of culture, creativity, and community. Contemplation can go beyond being aware, expanding to find diverse ways to teach concepts. Taking it a step further, coupling contemplation with creativity provides flow, breaking and loosening traditional roles, ideas, and hierarchies, increasing the opportunity for equanimity. It supports divergence and alteration, aka evolution. The Mindfulness Educator sits, stands, walks, and dances in the eye of this beautiful Creative Contemplative Cultural storm.
I am calling these the 4 C’s.
Creativity – Culture – Contemplation yield Community
When I go in the classroom to teach Mindfulness or other contemplative practices my first notion is to find out who I am, within the community, and why I have been asked to come? What aspect of the community am I being asked to attend to? Even if I am the initiator, the same question remains, “Why am I here?”
I believe win-win situations work best for all involved, therefore my next question follows, “What am I getting out of this? What is my benefit? This may be due to my cultural heritage as an African American, but I have low trust in anyone who comes into my community and expresses they are there, just for me and it’s all from the goodness of their heart. If that is the case, then what is their incentive to stay until the work is done? What stops them from just dropping out? This cycle has been repeated generation after generation in many communities. By sharing my goal(s) and transparency, I invite them to participate in its achievement just as I seek to add value to the community with my work. This is a co-creation. Whatever the response, the community will provide crucial information. Where are they with this?
Having this information, I check into my toolbox. Well… maybe it’s a fashionable briefcase with rolling wheels. It contains the Mindfulness Practice skills I have been trained to teach. It also contains my culture as well as the parts of me that I bring to share, my gifts, vulnerability and curiosity. I seek to set the stage for reciprocity whether boardroom, substance abuse counseling agency, athletic team, dance group, teen retreat, yoga teacher training or multi-generational Dance Drum & Meditation workshop.
Though the tools that we teach across the Mindfulness Education genre are pretty universal the method I use to deliver the tools is dynamic and shape-shifts depending on the community I serve. I must be aware of the
- Community – the individuals/collective in the space,
- Culture – the way they are collectively expressing their identities,
- Creativity – through their choices of expression.
I can remember stories of how slave women would tie their head kerchief’s, in a special way on Sundays, their day off. It was their creativity being expressed in a recognized community cultural form. It was a small but very important expression. Today African American women are known for their hats, headwraps (or geles), loc jewelry, and various hair adornments. What one does with one’s hair and coverings is still a highly honored expression harking back to African ancestry.
A possible Mindfulness lesson in a community with these roots would be to facilitate a session on the Art of Head Adornments. I would have everyone bring or create a head ornament.
Using Mindful Seeing, ponder a person’s headwrap for thirty seconds and write every descriptive term you can think of. The person with the most descriptors, rings the bell for the mediation at the end of class. (note: the person ringing the bell has power over time).
Questions for self-observation/contemplation:
- What was going on somatically while doing this exercise?
- While observing another?
- While being observed?
As the teacher: What information do I learn about this community as they share. Information that can be used as I move forward in preparing other lessons.
As the Mindfulness teacher I am in exchange/interchange with the community I am serving.
- How can I be aware of identity(s) in this community?
- How can I engage all members of this community?
- Where are the cultural intersections that I can plug into? I want to become a member or at least a welcomed guest.
- What part of my culture can I share with them?
- How can I bring out the Mindfulness (contemplative) aspect of our cultural connection(s) and intersections?
- How can I present Mindfulness as being relevant and of value to their community?
- How do I facilitate this community teaching me their Cultural & Contemplative practices
- Including designing our own version of teaching the basic Mindfulness Contemplative practices, thus creating a revised version of this community of which I am now included?
Weaving together Mindfulness practices, games of inquiry, safe space establishment, deep curiosity, respect and appreciation I then embark on a journey with this community, curious to discover where we meet on the other side of this learning experience. This curiosity is even more heightened if I am with a group that I have trouble finding intersections (i.e., it’s a group I would normally not hang out with). This means I must go even deeper in my own Mindfulness practices to gain that sought-after awareness.
For the Mindfulness Educator this journey is the Ecstasy of teaching that Bell Hooks discusses.
…The classroom, with all its limitations remains a location of possibility. In that field of possibility, we have the opportunity to labor for freedom, to demand of ourselves and our comrades, an openness of mind and heart that allows us to face reality even as we collectively imagine ways to move beyond boundaries, to transgress. This is education as the practice of freedom.****
There are jewels waiting to be discovered by those willing to take the road and go through the trials of discovery. I ask myself, “How does this particular community express itself? How can I share Mindfulness with the unique individuals as well as the collective community? My trusted companions are the search for culture and the creativity I use to connect with it. My objective is authentic expression that creates value.
So, my last story to share is from a student in my Mindfulness for Yoga Teachers course. The students’ assignment was to find a way to express creativity. Each person had their own unique expression of the assignment. One person came up with a vision board. Another, a daycare owner, talked about a challenge her center was facing. She ran a Before Care center. Children of different ages were dropped off in the mornings before school. Her oldest were eight, nine, and ten, “tweens”. Her youngest were toddlers. Apparently, these older girls were really going through it. She said their hormones were flowing, creating arguments, power plays, bossiness, tears, the full gamut. She needed a way to have her center much more calm before these children were taken to their respective schools. Starting off each day with such chaos wasn’t good for anyone. She kept sitting in mediation seeking an answer. Then one came to her. She made those “tweens” the greeters. They would greet and help the younger students find their places, take off their coats, get their morning snack and all done with joy and full attention. She was amazed at the change in culture of her Daycare community. I asked her where she found the model she was using. I asked all the students. They looked quite puzzled. Perhaps she remembered it from some book, or using the extracurricular model in schools, or it was just in her mind.
I asked about the model possibly being a universal. Could this set-up be found in many communities where the older children often take care of the younger ones, especially in group settings. Everyone’s face widened, “Of course.” “Perhaps through your Mindfulness you tapped into your own innate remembering.” Sometimes we feel to do this work we have to read it somewhere. But there is an abundance of information right in our own lives or right beside us in the community, an ally, advocate or if we’re fortunate enough, an elder. We just need to find a way to listen, i.e., Contemplation, Meditation, Mindfulness.
The 4C’s just like Mindfulness are inherent qualities that we (and communities) already possess. As Mindfulness Educators we are the guides, the archaeologists, anthropologists, the adventurers exploring ancient paths that have been long forgotten but not erased and are being re-discovered by and in the work we do.
Creativity – Culture – Contemplation yield Community
The differences between people need not act as barriers that wound, harm and drive us apart. Rather, these very differences among cultures and civilizations should be valued as manifestations of the richness of our shared creativity. Daisaku. Ikeda