Dharma teacher, transformative coach, and three-time breast cancer survivor Sebene Selassie strives to be optimistic about everything. She quoted American author Charlotte Joko Beck during her mindfulness workshop on Saturday, March 23, by saying, “Joy is whatever is happening, minus our opinion of it.”
Selassie’s workshop, “True Belonging: Reconnecting to Ourselves and Each Other,” took place in Davis Hall and featured readings, meditation practices, and several different mindfulness exercises. Her visit was the third installment of the Mindfulness and Meditation Speaker Series sponsored by the Office of the Head of School and the Tang Institute.
“Not everything in life is pleasant, that’s for sure. We can even want to change certain things in our life or in the world, but we can still have a measure of peace and freedom, regardless what’s happening,” wrote Selassie in an email to The Phillipian.
Selassie continued, “If I didn’t have a meditation practice, it would be really hard for me to understand that because I’d still be caught up in my habit patterns and reactivity. We all long for joy and freedom, and meditation is one of the most important skills we can learn to help us.”
In one of the main exercises of the workshop, partners were told to sit face-to-face, silent as Selassie read from a script. The pairs then had to stare into each other’s eyes and contemplate their connection.
“The exercise was four minutes long, but felt much longer while Sebene spoke about the uniqueness of the person in front of you. After this exercise I felt a closeness and connection with the individuals in my group that would have never existed otherwise,” said Mona Goldthwaite, Assistant Physics Instructor.
Goldthwaite continued, “At one point, I shared an unexpected bond with one of the group members when we both became teary eyed at the same time. We see pairs of eyes all day long, but we don’t necessarily look into each other’s eyes.”
As a former director of New York Insight, and graduate of the Community Dharma Leaders Program and the Professional Coaching Course training program, Selassie believes that mindfulness can help others find joy in their lives. She now teaches on the “10% Happier” app and leads mindfulness retreats around the world.
“Through watching my own mind and its habit patterns, and learning how to respond to things in a different way—with more curiosity, kindness, and ease—I now have much more joy in my life. But that takes time and practice,” wrote Selassie.
Emma Staffaroni, Program Coordinator of the Community and Multicultural Development (CAMD) and Instructor in English, helped invite Selassie to campus after taking her class at a Buddhism center in Massachusetts. The course focused on the intersection of race and dharma, which is a Buddhist term for “the path” or the teachings of the Buddha.
“Buddhism, as a religious philosophy, [and] also mindfulness as a specific practice, can be a way for people to touch into something deeper and to reflect…to quiet down, and to really listen to their gut, and to listen to something that isn’t just the chatter of our minds,” said Staffaroni.
In addition, Selassie highlighted the notion of being present without letting thoughts get in the way of the moment.
“The instructions are simple: sit and be with your breath. Simple doesn’t means easy. It takes time and effort and patience. But if you can’t be with your breath for a few minutes without anxiety and irritation, how can you be with really difficult things?” wrote Selassie.
CAMD Scholar Christina Cho ’19 invited Selassie to speak at her presentation, “Whose Buddhism Is It, Anyway?: Reimagining Community and Buddhist Practice in a Multicultural World.” According to Cho, Selassie’s workshop emphasized connection and belonging.
“I think what she was trying to convey…is that, a lot of who we are, who we identify ourselves as, is determined by the community that we are in and the relationships that we have with other people. And I thought that was a really powerful…because it was about belonging. And it was sort of saying that we are who we are because of where we belong,” said Cho.
Attendee Karen Kennedy, Assistant Athletic Director, has done mindfulness training and mediation for decades.
“I think mindfulness does change things. You are not caught up in thought as much…you can be more of your authentic self…it felt more comfortable being in a group of strangers, because if you were in a group with your own peers, there would be a whole bunch of things coming into you, and I think that’s what mindfulness gets rid of: all that extra stuff,” said Kennedy.
Attendee and alumnus Nathan Goldthwaite ’18 thought that Selassie’s mindfulness teachings related well to everyday life and experienced a newfound appreciation for daily acts of empathy.
Goldthwaite said, “We judge, we conclude and we stereotype the people around us, often without knowing it. Instead, we might try taking the time to really consider the people in our lives and accepting that their entire personhood is far greater than what we can see. I think that lesson is especially important for communities like Andover that are close-knit and at the same time very diverse.”