Mindfulness / Wellness and the Dominican Tradition of Contemplation
“Build you an interior cell,” St. Catherine of Sienna (The Dialogue, Gardner transaltion)
At the recent NAPD (National Association of Principals and Deputy Principals) symposium titled “From Murder Machine to Wellness”, I was again struck by the connection of Wellness / Mindfulness and the Dominican Tradition of Contemplation and Monasticism. Which I shared in the open form, when Derek asked me would I write an article for LEADER on this subject, I smiled and said, “sure, why not?” My Principal who was present encouraged me also to do so.
When we returned to school that afternoon, full of energy about the importance of “Living in the Present Moment” and encouraging our staff and students about taking time to “reflect and evaluate on their personal wellness” either by “contemplation or mindfulness” we were greeted by a letter from the DES Inspectorate informing us that we had been chosen for a WSE – MLL after Easter! These type of letters really challenge one to “Dig deep” and to choose, do I take this in the Moment! And use it as an opportunity to be present to what is going on or do I over react and look at it as a negative issue coming from the outside in! We chose to take it as an opportunity to be mindful! To stop and reflect on where we are at and where we are going!
DOMINICAN Contemplation and MINDFULNESS
The Dominican Order is celebrating 800 years since its foundation as an order (Dominic founded a community of women 8 years previous!) During those 800 years there have been many men and women, who have “Contemplated on the Gospel Message ad tried to live it out in their world!”
I have been influenced by this Dominican Tradition for almost 40 years both as a student at St. Rose’s Secondary School, in Belfast and as a Dominican sister.
Though Mindfulness and Wellness was not spoken about while I was a student back in the 80s, there was an underline message that it was important to take time and reflect and to look for the good in the present moment! I attended secondary school in a time of turmoil and destruction in Belfast. I believe The Hunger strike and its consequences had a lasting effect on those of us who were teenagers at the time. I consider that I was very lucky that I attended a school that while not voicing that it did so, it did practice “wellness and mindfulness, rather than a murder machine!
How did they do this? They did it by “Teaching the whole person” and by instilling in us a sense of beauty around. They did it by ensuring our school building was a beautiful environment. (Despite the burning buses and barricades outside!) They did it by taking us to another level in the prayer room, where we could be quiet! Where we could go deep within and live in the present moment so that we could have the resilience to cope with what was going on outside! They taught us that all creation was good, that we were good and that we had the ability to change the world for a better place if we listened to the inner self of wonder and acted as responsible clam citizens!
Thirty years later, I now realise that it was easier to be in that present moment as a teenager! But despite all the “things” that come in on my daily life I still believe that it is important to share the experience of “contemplation”.
As a Dominican Sister and Deputy Principal of St. Dominic’s’ Secondary School Ballyfermot, I am part of a team that is trying to instil a “sense of wonder and inner resilience” in our students. We follow in the tradition of St. Dominic and the Dominican women, lay and religious who have put down the foundation stone of this sense of “Being at one” despite the on-going challenges that we face.
As Meister Eckhart, the great German Dominican theologian, philosopher and mystic taught his students: “A man [woman] must learn to acquire an inward desert, wherever and with whoever he [she] is” [Talks of Instruction, p. 19.] Here, Eckhart anticipates St. Catherine of Siena, a lay Dominican, where she used a more direct metaphor, “Build you an interior cell”.
Building Our Inner Cells in 2016!
At St. Dominic’s we believe that we are following in the footsteps of these great Dominicans, today. We do this by given our students the opportunity in their world of “Business, Noise, Electronic Devises” to build their “inner cell, this is done by providing them with the opportunity of “Mediation” / “Mindfulness experience”, over the intercom as a whole school when each person is asked to stop what they are doing and go on an inner journey! These experiences are led by either students or staff.
Mindfulness and time out is also used with students as part of our Restorative Approach to dealing with behavioural challenges and conflicts among peers, but also when issues arise between staff and students or on the unlikely invent of conflict between “staff and staff”! Our Transition Year Students have the opportunity to participate in a 10 week module called “Social Mindfulness” Our SCP, the NBSS team in partnership with the HSCL teacher offer Friends For Life programme workshops for students and their parents. We encourage teachers to take a few seconds out at the beginning of each class so as to help the students arrive in the room from one subject to another!
At school gatherings eg assembles a few seconds is given to all present to calm down within and arrive no matter what the topic of the gathering is about!
I believe that all of the above is helping us as a school to be true to our Dominican tradition of “building the inner cell”. I believe mindfulness and wellness is the modern way of building the interior cell! In the modern life we live and work! But this concept of “Wellness” that is being planned for the new Junior Cert Programme brings its challenges.
At the open forum during the Symposium following the talk by Tony Bates (Headstrong) I raised the concerns I have about the lack of resources we have for dealing with issues that arise for students when we introduce them to “Mindfulness and going deep within”. As can be gathered from this article I am a strong believer in “Wellness” and “developing the skills and wisdom to dig deep within”. But I am also realistic and I also believe that as we develop the concept From Murder Machine to Mindfulness – Nurturing Emotional Wellbeing in our Schools we must also put in the resources that are needed to support he mental health of our students1 These resources are “People” that is the Guidance Counsellor, the Year Head, The Visiting Traveller Teacher, the SCP / NBSS and HSCL teams that no longer have the budgets to provide the time and energy necessary to support our students! We also need more resources in the area of Professional Mental Health, local CAMHAS services need to have the staff to support and help the young person and their family deal with the issues that confronts them, when they stop and look at themselves!
We, as educators must take the time and the space to reflect on ourselves, to ensure we take the time to “build our inner cell” so that we can be a support to one another and to our students!
Sr Elizabeth Smyth O.P
- I am not saying that one can simply say that Mediation / Contemplation on the Gospel Is the same as mindfulness – as many people who do not believe in Christ, practice mindfulness. What I am saying is that I believe the “Root” of mindfulness and contemplation is about “Taking time” to go deep within. Some do it form a Humanistic point of view and others like myself do it from a faith base!