Education: Meet Paul, a Meditation Teacher in Austin, TX

Interviewer: Danielle Gu; May 29, 2020

Interviewee: Paul (last name has been removed for privacy)

Meditation centers are important for spreading mindfulness in our communities (Wordpress).

Could you tell us about yourself and your class? Why did you decide to start this class?

So, I am a lawyer and have been a lawyer for 20 years, and I have been a practitioner of mindfulness meditation for 13 years and it's really been beneficial in my life. It helped me understand my life better and make better decisions. I became interested in possibly teaching mindfulness meditation and so I enrolled in a two year mindfulness meditation teacher training program that started in February of 2019, so I'm a year into it. The problem is that, to graduate, at the end of the 2 year program is that you had to have offered an intro class. I just knew I had to do one this year anyway, but I wasn't sure when I was going to do it and then I was to teach in person. So when we went into lock down, I had shelved the idea of teaching for a while but then they changed it, and they let us know that we could teach them online. It felt like something I could do, because it was kind of hard to find things to do that felt like a response to the pandemic. I felt that maybe even though in some ways I didn't feel quite ready, I should push myself and make it available sooner rather than later in case it might be helpful to people.

How did you get into the practice of meditation?

Good question! I was in a hard period of my life. I had little kids. I had a really demanding job, and I just stumbled upon a podcast at a time when I was running a lot and I was looking for new things to listen to while I was running. I stumbled upon a meditation podcast and it totally fell in and it just really clicked with me. One of the things I really like about it is that you can come at it from any belief system that you have. You don't have to sign up for a set of doctrines or dogmas or anything like that. It's really just mental training that has a lot of benefits. So I got interested and started pursuing it. It really, really improved my life, my happiness, and my relationships, so I stuck with it.

How has teaching virtually impacted how the class functions?

Yeah, it's interesting because I've only participated in mindfulness introduction to mindfulness meditation -- that's classroom teaching. I've only been involved in those classes in person, and I've never taught that class before now. So, I had a lot of worry about how it would turn out. And then I just created a flyer on Eventbrite, and I was anticipating teaching five to ten people, but the flyer got some traction and I had some people circulating. It ended up with forty five people signed up for the class, which is a lot. Because then you have the problem where everybody's just a postage stamp size right on your Zoom screen. I'm sure that you've encountered that problem with your online schooling too, since only so many people can feel like a real community when you're all online at the same time. So I had to worry about that, but my friends told me not to worry because not everybody who signs up will show up -- you won't have 45. That was right because I ended up having about 30 show up for the first class.

It's an hour long class and there's a question and answer period with guided meditations and instruction, all three of those things happen in the course of the hour. But the students have brought a really great spirit, like they really showed up and they've been asking good questions, and it feels like a little bit of a community. That's what I was worried that it wouldn't feel like and it would just seem like me delivering instruction. But I felt like this is like it's a real class and it's a real community that's kind of formed for these few weeks and then they all go back to their regular lives. But it felt workable and more so than I thought it might.

"I'm sure that you've encountered that problem with your online schooling too, since only so many people can feel like a real community when you're all online at the same time."

How does the question and answer period work during classes?

We're covering various kinds of really basic topics like how do you practice with mindfulness of breathing, so I'll get some instructions and then I'll do a guided meditation that kind of helps them feel through it and then lead them to practice. Then after that, we'll have a question and answer period asking how it worked for them and what obstacles they encountered. Then, I mute everyone and I just invite them to unmute themselves.

I was worried about that. Well, I think it might be harder to ask a question on a platform for people who don't know each other.

The meditation center is located in Austin, Texas (CitiesSpeak).

So you mentioned that you feel like this class has built a community. What are some of the other benefits of meditation, especially during a time like COVID-19?

Well, no matter when, whatever your circumstances, life is always really complex. The fast paced world kind of gets us lost in our minds, and we're worried about yesterday and tomorrow, self obsession, and all of that. Meditation is one of the tools that can help you create a little bit more space, like during a regular practice. Your life is still your life, but you have a little more space to see your life deeply. I think the big benefit is it gives you an opportunity to choose how you respond rather than just reacting unconsciously to hard things or good things or whatever it is. We've all had the experience where something bad happens in our lives and then we just lash out or react without thinking and then regret later that we weren't able to keep ourselves from doing that.

I'm not saying that once you have a meditation practice that never happens again, but you have a little bit more space to kind of bring wisdom to how you're going to react to challenges. So I think that's an important part. In the context of pandemic, it's very confusing. I think we're all having a lot of trouble kind of keeping up with our emotions. Sometimes we can. Sometimes we get overwhelmed at the time and sometimes it feels like a big deal. Meditation also gives you a little more space to feel what you're feeling and kind of try to sort through the complexities and the confusing nature of the pandemic.

I think it can also be a bit of a refuge. You have all the things that you're doing in your life, and if you have a regular practice, that's one part of the day where you can try to stop all you're doing and try to let go of your worrying. This is not really different from exercise or any other way that you have to take care of yourself. It's another tool at a kind of time where people need more tools for the better. Therefore, by doing that, take better care of the families in their communities.

"Meditation also gives you a little more space to feel what you're feeling and kind of try to sort through the complexities and the confusing nature of the pandemic."

If you are willing to share, how has COVID-19 affected you individually and your family?

It's interesting, the entire human race has been thrown off script this year. Right. There are people who have died, and people who have got really sick, and people who have lost their jobs. Compared to that, me and my family are in a really privileged place. My job hasn't really been disrupted, and I've been busier at my job because I have to plan for COVID. But my son graduated high school this year, and he didn't get to have prom, and we've all been at home. Both my kids are in high school and their high school got disrupted and hardly getting to see their friends. In many ways, we were the lucky people where we're at a house but safe, and we're able to engage in low risk activity and protect ourselves. But there have been losses. My son lost a real graduation, and he didn't get to have his last day at high school, and others have had it worse. But, it's still kind of disruptive and upsetting.

What is the greatest lesson we can learn from this outbreak?

I'm not sure, but I think I'll say a couple of things. One, I think that it really shows you how much of your life you assume has to be the way it is without really questioning it. There are all kinds of activities we in American society just took for granted as being the way things are. For example, you get in your car at eight o'clock, and you put on certain colored clothes and you drive in traffic. I think it's an opportunity for people, families, society, and the government to test some of those assumptions and see if there are better ways of working and living. It's easy when you read the news to be the political division and to see the things that are working well and the things that are creating conflict. But, I think it's actually pretty amazing how many humans sacrificed for the greater good in the last three months. Who would've guessed in January that if there was a pandemic, you would get the government to voluntarily shut down the economy, and that they would mostly comply, and people would try to find a way to take care of each other. I think a lot of reaffirmation of some basic good and humanity that you can see from the pandemic. Maybe that teaches us something going forward. There is some ability to be there for each other that we can count on going forward.