Guest post by Cathan Kabrelian
On the first day of the 200-hour Mindfulness Teacher Training Certification Program with Midwest Alliance for Mindfulness, we were asked this question: Why are you here? In that moment, I checked in, and what came to me was clear and simple; I am here for learning and growth. I wanted to know more about the secular world of mindfulness meditation, the explosion of scientific research around its touted benefits.
My background in meditation was through Buddhism, not because I am a Buddhist, but because my first brush with meditation was in a Buddhist temple in Japan at the age of 15. I climbed a mountain of stairs and came upon an immense meditation hall full of meditating monks dressed in bright red and yellow robes. I was moved by the beauty of the temple and its natural surroundings, of course, but more urgently, I was enthralled by the silent energy in that room, captivated by the stillness of so many people, spellbound by their tranquil expressions. I didn’t want to leave, couldn’t look away, found myself inching toward the threshold of the open doorway. I wanted to do what they were doing.
Back home in Kansas, however, there were precious few resources to satisfy a curious 15-year-old on the topic of meditation. So my old friend, the library, came to the rescue with several books about Buddhism and meditation. I read and read, and, like another old friend, Alice, found that the path got curiouser and curiouser. The practice of meditation remained an interest of mine for decades, sometimes full throttle ahead with deep dives into stillness and nothingness, and sometimes falling by the wayside. Yet one thing I noticed over the years, in contrast to my upbringing, was that when life got tough, rather than being assuaged by the Western notion of “the tough get going,” I found the Eastern idea of sitting down and doing nothing to be much more helpful.
That noticing, along with meditation’s growing popularity in both the realm of scientific research and mainstream media, piqued my interest to dig deeper. Hence, the seemingly simple answer to the first day’s question. I am here to learn more, to grow in my understanding of what meditation really is and what it can do for people. Our first training weekend was perfect for that: the roots, science, and fundamentals of mindfulness. Yet very little of the first weekend’s information was new to me, having done so much reading prior to the start of the program, and it dawned on me by that Sunday that we had 10 months to go, and we had just covered what I came to learn! I was filled with excitement and curiosity and a growing sense that these teachers and this cohort of lovely humans were going to teach me things I didn’t know I wanted to learn.
By weekend two, I had read, for the second time, Jon Kabat-Zinn’s Full Catastrophe Living. I had read it for an MBSR class the year before, but I wanted to have another go, with perhaps a different intention. I underlined a quote early in the book which suggested what this intention might be. “Now is the only time you have for anything. You have to accept yourself as you are before you can really change. Your choosing to do so becomes an act of self-compassion and intelligence.” So when the teachers asked again, “Why are you here? Why are you REALLY here?” I was ready with a different answer. Perhaps I am here to learn more about myself, to learn to accept myself, to decide what parts of me I can let go, what parts of me will stay. Kabat-Zinn says later in the book, “It is impossible to become like somebody else. Your only hope is to become more fully yourself.” So in my birthday month of February, I found myself revisiting the attitudes of mindfulness, asking myself, “Which one will I focus on today? Which one do I notice in this moment? Am I embodying these attitudes of mindfulness? Can I bring these pillars of mindfulness practice into my lived, human experience?” And if I ever found myself struggling to make time for my practice or my noticings, I would remember Kabat-Zinn’s poignant assertion that “well-being, inner balance, and peacefulness exist outside time.”
On the third weekend, we explored compassion, ethics, and the gentle wisdom of Larry Yang’s Awakening Together. Yang brings us into his fold with an invitation to think about this: “We are consumed by how our life should be, or could be, or would be, or is not… we are often not living the direct experience of life because we are always trying to change it.” This is often apparent when I remember to pause in the midst of a little upset. “Am I wishing things were different right now? Is there aversion here?” I might ask. Yang goes on to say, “Meditation does not so much change our lives as it changes our relationship to our lives.” One of the ways it does this for me is when I offer myself a mindful self-compassion practice, when I need empathy and no one is offering any. The self-awareness and self-care I experience when I offer myself empathy and compassion, connecting to my feelings and needs, using some soothing touch, can absolutely change my perspective on any given situation.
Yang also focuses attention on the need for belonging, offering these heartfelt words: “This sense of home and refuge… came from searching for and finding others who could support me, validate me, mirror my experience. It was not something I could have done myself. I had needed a community that I could call home in order to embody and internalize deeply for myself that I am worthy of belonging in this world, regardless of external conditions.” Tears were making their way down my cheeks at this, for there have been long stretches of my life in which belonging and a sense of community were unmet needs. Yet here I found myself, in the midst of more than a dozen others who were perhaps, “just like me,” searching for that sense of home. Maybe this could be a home for me. Perhaps these faces in front of me, these kind and curious beings, would be my refuge.
Beyond self-compassion, however, beyond belonging, even, was a powerful statement on the integrity of mindfulness. After offering a long list of principles broadening the scope of integrity, Yang ends with, “Integrity is holding to these principles, even when there are an infinite number of distractions, seductions, and judgments that seem to weaken and obliterate those principles. Integrity provides the vision, the aspiration, and the guide to any actions of mindfulness and kindness.” I took a moment to reflect upon his words, closed my eyes and brought to mind a vision of a world in which all humans practiced integrity and kindness. What a beautiful vision that was.
The next weekend was really the first of the teaching workshops. How would we go into the world and share what we know and experience as meditators? Here was new territory for me. I really appreciated hearing more about the qualities of effective meditation instruction: authenticity, invitation and permission, embodiment, flexibility and adaptability, languaging, and timing and pacing. These were skills I wished to cultivate and nurture; these were skills that would most likely impact my students’ experience of my teaching. One of the tools offered to us was BETA: body sensations, emotions, thoughts, and actions. This would prove useful both as a meditator and as a teacher as a quick checklist of what I might notice in any given moment. If I could pause and check on BETA, I might be able to discern whether I was being skillful in any or all of the qualities of effective meditation instruction.
We also talked about the many different types of meditation which were exciting and liberating! Looking at the graphic with so many intriguing words like soundbathing, tai chi, binaural beats, etc. was exhilarating! Wow! After decades of doing only sitting meditation and then eventually yoga, my world just expanded ten fold! I had heard of many of these, but I had not recognized that these were considered types of meditation. There were so many options from which to choose! I chose one which I had always wanted to try and got going! I signed up for an 8-week course in Qigong and loved it! It was a program designed to teach the healing properties of the art, not just a series of movements. I was hooked and continue to practice and learn. I also took an 8-week course in Feldenkrais and found that to be very useful as well. I look forward to continuing my exploration of other meditative practices and am grateful to this program for opening my aperture as to what meditation can be.
During weekend five, we turned our attention to teaching mindful movement. This was perfect timing for me as I was well into my Qigong course. Here we explored the mind-body connection and how self-awareness in this realm elevates not only our ability to move more mindfully but our ability to more readily notice sensations and emotions in the body. I enjoyed rereading one of Kabat-Zinn’s paragraphs about the importance of the breath in meditation, and I chose instead to substitute the whole body. “As long as we are alive, it is always with us. We can’t leave home without it. It is always here to be attended to, no matter what we are doing or feeling or experiencing, no matter where we are.” So for all of us, the body is our home, whether we like it or not. Just as there are things I don’t like about my abode (lack of windows, a leaky basement, etc.), there are things I don’t like about my physical body. Bringing the attitudes of mindfulness to this noticing helps mitigate any aversion or longing I may feel. I imagine this might be especially helpful for participants in mindful movement classes. We adopted a trauma-sensitive lens for teaching mindful movement, offering options and choices, and raising our awareness of the possibility that any word or action might be a trigger for someone in the room.
That transitioned nicely into weekend six: trauma-informed teaching and safety. Here again was new and very useful information. David Treleaven’s book is a masterpiece of enlightenment, embodying the preciousness of a meditation practice as well as the imminent dangers of placing it on a pedestal. I had not read or heard anything to inform me about the possible misuse or damage meditation can have on those with unprocessed trauma, but I did remember reading Bessel van der Kolk’s book The Body Keeps the Score. I was fascinated by the ideas around how the body stores trauma. He says, “Traumatized people… do not feel safe inside – their bodies have become booby-trapped… The enemy who started on the outside is transformed into an inner torment.”
Treleaven says,”As mindfulness practitioners, our best intentions can’t ensure people can successfully navigate the minefield within them.” This analogy of a minefield within left me with a powerful, frightening image. I was beginning to wonder if I could ever provide my class participants with a safe experience! Yet without overstating the benefits of mindfulness, we learned that mindfulness can be an essential resource for survivors of trauma if they are taught how to stay within the window of tolerance, how to distinguish between the observing self and the experiencing self, and how to raise their body awareness as they work toward emotional regulation. This is generally the work of therapists, however, and we as mindfulness teachers can only hope to notice signs of trauma and “apply the brakes,” as Treleaven would say, when necessary. I was fortunate this year to also have taken Embodied Trauma-Informed Contemplative Teaching from Kristy Arbon who, having learned from David Treleaven, offered a long list of practices to embrace our participants in a safe and compassionate way.
The following weekend on languaging and inquiry was a mixed bag of both familiar and unfamiliar ground. My studies with Marshall Rosenberg’s NVC, Oren Jay Sofer’s mindful communication, and Thom Bond’s Compassion Course prepared me well for all the material and dialogue around non-violent communication. The ideas concerning group inquiry, on the other hand, were both fascinating and intimidating! I enjoyed learning about this dialogue that helps people harvest the experience of a meditation; and like in NVC, it’s about the experience, not the story. It was useful, too, to bring the attitudes of mindfulness to our inquiry practice, how each could be embodied midst this dialogue. Inquiry is also a time when we bring all of what we know and understand about trauma-sensitive teaching into play. I find safe, effective, and compassionate inquiry to be one of the most challenging aspects of teaching meditation. This is a skill I will be practicing for years to come!
Like the trauma and safety weekend, weekend eight, on working with diverse populations and community building, offered much insight and new perspectives on topics with which I had little experience. Nevertheless, Shakil Choudhury’s Deep Diversity: Overcoming Us vs Them proved an excellent teacher. I was truly moved by this reading. I often found myself stopping to consider his words, to contemplate our current social dynamics, and to remember a lifetime of interactions. I recognized that during many periods of my life, the people closest to me were people of color. As I read this book, and remembered Yang’s Awakening Together, I shed many a tear over so much collective suffering. I was fascinated by the studies on implicit bias and deeply sad to think that I have unknowingly hurt people with my ignorance. So why was I really, REALLY here? I wonder if I was here to heal. Upon finishing the book, I felt called to write a poetic response to the reading, which is included at the end of this post.
After the highly emotional DEI weekend, I was thrilled to arrive at weekend nine: other mindfulness practices and contemporary applications. This material was truly invigorating! The tree of contemplative practices was beautiful to behold! Again I was moved by the variety of contemplative practices and inspired to integrate these into both my own practice and my teaching. The ideas came at a good time as I prepared to offer some meditation and movement in our 5-day retreat with Kristy Arbon. She, too, had a similar tree of practices, and I found myself tickled to consider how I could try them all! How liberating to free myself from my original practices of sitting and yoga! How fun and freeing to offer participants some playfulness in their meditation practice! How satisfying to receive feedback from participants who welcomed the creativity and appreciated the freshness of a different kind of practice. I remain encouraged to open myself up to creative ideas for bringing mindfulness into people’s lives.
I was also inspired by the review of mindfulness-based programs; and remembering how much I valued my experiences in both MBSR and MSC, I was stimulated by a desire to take ALL of the programs! It is part of my plan for learning and growth as I journey along in a mindful life. The MSC program was particularly helpful in isolating some shame and relationship trauma, and though I still have work to do, I am content to be patient as I navigate those waters. I continue to be amazed at the usefulness of the mindful awareness of body sensations, feelings and needs, and I look forward to sharing this skill with as many people as are interested.
Finally, the last training weekend covered professional development and pulling it all together. “Trusting emergence” was a brilliant way to express what I was feeling and needing in that moment. Though I plan to pursue avenues of sharing needs-based awareness and mindful living, I am not in a hurry. I still have much to learn on so many of the topics we covered. I will continue to study, to practice, to ask for help when I need support, and to offer what I can wherever it is needed and wanted. I love teaching mindfulness to my MAM classes, my private students, and my Compassion Course participants. I have started down the mindfulness teaching path. I am deeply grateful to the MAM teachers and to this cohort for a year of learning, growth, inspiration, and encouragement. Perhaps this is why I was really, really, REALLY here: to be humble, to receive, and to be grateful.
Nothing on the Outside Tells Me About the Inside
I wonder if you like carrots?
Nothing about your height,
Your smooth, cocoa-colored skin,
Or those dark eyes, tells me.
What do you think about the rainbow ones,
The purple, white, and yellow ones?
Do the colors taste different to you?
I wonder if you like cauliflower?
Nothing about your long, slender fingers
Or your short, curly hair tells me.
Isn’t it funny how cauliflower is all the rage?
It dons the cape of rice, spicy wings, and even barbecue burgers!
I look at you and whisper “safe.”
And all of a sudden, I’m full of questions
Because nothing on the outside tells me about the inside!
I want to know all about you!
I want to hear about your thoughts, your opinions, your tastes.
I wonder who you are and who you want to be.
I wonder what makes your life more wonderful.
I wonder what I can learn from you.
I want to listen to you
With a willingness to be changed by what I hear.
Why? Because I care,
Because we belong to the same tribe, though some would disagree,
And despite our differences, our biases,
Our humanness binds us together,
Like two peas in a pod.
By the way, how do you feel about peas?
– Cathan Kabrelian