The Mindful Community Project: Tang Institute Leads Faculty and Staff in Mindfulness Sessions

“May you be healthy. May you be happy. May you be free of suffering,” said Sarah Bakanosky, Project Coordinator of the Tang Institute.

Every week during an hour-long mindfulness session, Bakanosky mentally repeats these wishes, sending them to another living being with whom she has a relationship. 

This practice, referred to as Heartfulness, is one of many that Andrew Housiaux, Currie Family Director of the Tang Institute and Instructor in Philosophy and Religious Studies, leads in weekly faculty and staff mindfulness sessions. There are two hour-long sessions every Wednesday, one at 8:00 a.m. and one at 12:00 p.m.

Last Wednesday was the first mindfulness session of the year.

“I have been practicing in some capacity for a few years — probably at least four or five years. I have family members who are involved in meditation — either they lead mindfulness sessions, or they’re just very interested and involved in that area. So I got into it through family and then when I came to the Tang Institute. Mr. Housiaux, who is now the director of the Tang Institute, was a fellow and created a project with my community,” said Bakanosky.

These mindfulness sessions are only one branch of Housiaux’s Mindful Community Project, which is in its fourth year at Andover. Housiaux said he felt as though a supportive environment would encourage students and adults on campus to learn and practice mindfulness. So far, there have been mindfulness sessions with students, adults, community engagement coordinators, the Be L.O.V.E.D. program, sports teams, and cluster deans.

Housiaux first began practicing meditation in 1999 after listening to the Dalai Lama give a talk in Central Park. Inspired by the Dalai Lama’s calmness and kindness, Housiaux began to try some of the practices that seemed to contribute to his sense of joy and connection.

“I often think about mindfulness as learning to respond instead of react. If I can learn to pause and not get carried away by my thoughts or by strong negative emotions, then I can relate to situations with a sense of presence and curiosity instead of being pushed into fight or flight mode. When I can bring patience and curiosity to my interactions with others (and myself), I’m more likely to respond in a way that reflects my own values and aspirations, as opposed to blindly reacting on autopilot when someone pushes my buttons,” wrote Housiaux in an email to The Phillipian.

Elisa Joel, Director of Enrollment Management, has been practicing mindfulness for five years. Housiaux told her about the practice, and since then, she’s been learning, listening, and participating in mindfulness.

“My favorite thing about practicing is how the practice — however short or long — truly makes a difference on my whole day. In our busy lives at [Andover], mindfulness is my opportunity to take a pause, breathe, and recognize in a more clear way how I seek to respond to all that goes on in a given day. I think taking a breath or sitting for any period of time is not only beneficial but also a gift we give to ourselves and ultimately one we share with others,” said Joel.

Stephen Silversides, Associate Director of College Counseling, says he sees the mindfulness sessions as opportunities to provide attendees with broad exposure to a variety of meditative techniques. According to Silversides, the mindfulness sessions consist primarily of three parts: discussion, practice, and reflection.

“First, attendees are offered an opportunity to discuss what is going on in their lives — the space is ideal for opening up about life’s happenings as the mindfulness community is a very supportive one. Second, we will practice one or two mindfulness techniques. Typically, Mr. Housiaux will guide us through our practice. Third, we reflect — as a group — on the practice, answering questions about how the various techniques made us feel, what we found challenging, or where we may have found fulfillment with the practice.” wrote Silversides in an email to The Phillipian.

Bakanosky says that she always looks forward to mindfulness sessions, as that she thinks they are opportunities to settle, put down an agenda, and focus on self-reflection.

“I think as you probably know better than I, it gets really busy here. Especially for students, the days are really long and there’s a lot packed into those days. A great thing about mindfulness is that it’s a great reminder just to settle your mind and settle your body, and I think that if you don’t have that reminder, it’s hard to do that. ” said Bakanosky.

According to Bakanosky, mindfulness is important because it’s unique to each person — the way one person might practice can be very different from the way someone else interprets it. Bakanosky also says that mindfulness comes with practice. Each person can begin practicing by focusing on specific areas of improvement. For instance, Bakanosky practices the recognition of negative thoughts during mindfulness sessions.

“I think I’m better at being less critical of myself. During a certain sit, I might not be very mindful, per say. I might be thinking about a lot of things and having my mind wander, but as I get more involved with mindfulness, I’m better able to recognize that my mind is wandering and able to bring it back and if I do wonder, not thinking ‘Oh I’m not a good, mindful person, I’m not doing this well’ and seeing that that’s all part of it — being able to recognize that you’re wandering and that you’re not settling and being able to bring those thoughts back,” said Bakanosky.

Silversides says he believes that ultimately, the purpose of guided and non-guided meditation is to provide the mind with an opportunity to reset.

“My hope is that [Andover] will continue supporting mindfulness for both adult and students within our school community. Given the pace of life on campus, I think it is important for us to take time to pause every now and then, to check-in with ourselves and make sure that we are doing okay. My personal belief is that, in order to do good in this world, we need to prioritize both self-compassion and self-care — mindfulness is but one way to do just that. In the words of Eleanor Brownn, ‘You cannot serve from an empty vessel,’” wrote Silversides.

According to Housiaux, faculty and staff have had the chance to learn from and connect with nationally-recognized mindfulness instructors on and off campus, including Sharon Salzberg, Narayan Liebenson, Matthew Hepburn, and Alexis Santos. On three separate occasions, Alison Cohen has come to campus to speak about mindfulness, implicit bias, and mindful communication.

“I’m also thrilled that we will have three mindfulness teachers visit campus to give talks to the public, work with students and faculty, and lead day-long workshops on Saturdays. Matthew Hepburn will return to campus November 1-3. Last spring he did some affinity work with Brotherhood around masculinity and mindfulness, and he intends to do that again when he returns. Alexis Santos will return January 11-12, and Sebene Selassie, a wonderful meditation teacher, will visit campus March 21-23. She will be a speaker for Christina Cho’s [’19] CAMD Scholar presentation and will do affinity work with Sisterhood,” wrote Housiaux.

In addition to faculty and staff, students are also encouraged to attend student mindfulness workshops, which take place on Mondays at 5:45 p.m. in the Cochran Chapel and Thursdays at 8:15 a.m. in the Tang Institute in Pearson D.

“I strongly encourage students that if they haven’t had an opportunity to practice mindfulness, to do that and join the group here. There are also so many apps that you could potentially use — just get your feet wet a little bit and see if it’s something for you because you might get a lot out of it,” said Bakanosky.

Editor’s Note: Christina Cho’19 is a News Editor for The Phillipian.