Interview on Mindfulness in Education

"Mindfulness helped me to accept my disabilities,
the severe and chronic pain, the depression.  
I began to see that I was too burned out
to remain effective as a school leader."

Here is an interview with me, published in The Mindful School Leader, authored/edited by Kirsten Olson and Valerie Brown, Corwin Press, 2014.

Interview with Sophia Isako Wong: Disabled Writer, Musician, Spiritual Seeker

We met Sophia at a mindfulness retreat for people of color at Blue Cliff Monastery.  We were touched by her openness and willingness to speak about her struggle with depression and how mindfulness has made an important contribution to bringing greater happiness in her life.

(The following summary of our interview was written by Valerie Brown)

Recently, I resigned my tenured teaching position at Long Island University’s Brooklyn Campus in New York City.    In addition to my teaching responsibilities, I founded and led a campus wide network for peer mentoring, and was a member of the college’s Teaching and Learning Initiative, which strategizes on ways to improve classroom teaching.  Many of my students were women and people of color, and first in their families to attend college.   As a woman of both Japanese and Chinese heritage, I really related to them, to their struggles and frustrations.

I suffer from severe pain, chronic fatigue and have a physical disability that limits my use of both hands and forearms.  I can no longer type on a computer keyboard, write with a pen on paper, or lift more than a half cup of tea.  Before I started practicing mindfulness, I viewed myself as a person without a physical disability.  I saw my chronic pain and fatigue as something to overcome.  My role was to help other people.   Also, I lived with clinical depression, which I was aware of since my early twenties.

I was raised to be very discreet about all of this, keeping this all hidden away.  In my family background as an East Asian, there is such a strong emphasis on over working, on being the ‘model minority,’ on making things look perfect.   The message from my Japanese and Chinese heritages was: Do what is best for the entire community.  Put yourself last; others first.   I felt a lot of shame about the depression, believing that I could avoid the stigma of depression. I thought I could avoid being labeled with a mental illness if I didn’t think about it and did not talk about it.

Mindfulness helped me to accept my disabilities, the severe and chronic pain, the depression.   I began to see that I was too burned out to remain effective as a school leader.  Mindfulness helped me discern where to put my energy---what to hold on to and what to let go.  I realized that my particular job---working in this particular environment---was not the best place for me.  I came to accept myself and my illness and then to disclose more of myself to others.

I have seen many people in similar circumstances seemingly function perfectly and then one day disappear without explanation from the pressures of their work and their life.  They resign quietly.  Through mindfulness, I became more aware of my feelings, not just physically but mentally and emotionally.  I did not want to just walk away, to disappear, to give up on my life.

Today, my practice informs much of my day from the time I wake up to the time I settle for bed at night.    For example, every morning at home,  I begin the day with a little ritual of sitting mindfully and quietly.  I listen to a guided meditation, the same one I used to use in the classroom to begin class with my students.   It’s interesting.  My husband has no formal mindfulness training or practice.  However, since I have been doing this little ritual, he now starts his day sitting quietly, drinking a cup of tea.  Before, in the morning, he would check his email and read online magazines. I love watching him sipping his tea. When I have time, I prepare and eat a mindful breakfast, mainly in silence.

I have built many opportunities to practice mindfulness and meditation in my life.   For example, I am a member of a local mindfulness meditation community in Queens, New York and attend weekly sitting meditation practice periods.   Also, I go out of town for a three-day silent retreat every two to three months.

All these practices are grounding in my body and mind.  It was through being more aware and having a sense of self-compassion that I was able to be gentle with myself, to be curious about the stiffness and pain in my body, to feel the tension and then to slowly learn to pause and relax.

When my pain levels skyrocketed, I started using Tibetan bowls in my classroom with students.  When I found that the room was too noisy, frenetic and un-focused, and to soothe myself, I stopped what I was doing.  I stopped trying to force things, trying to make the students listen.  Even though they were taking college courses, I found that many of them were under-prepared to do college level reading and writing, partly because of the university’s open enrollment policy. I also noticed some of my students behaving in ways that suggested they might have learning disabilities, ADHD, eating disorders, anxiety, OCD, and other conditions they chose not to disclose.

To soothe myself and calm the atmosphere, I stopped whatever I was doing in the classroom and then started softly playing the Tibetan bowl.  This was an audio and visual cue to the students to settle down, relax and re-set their focus.  I found that this really helped me to settle down and helped them to re-focus and calm down.  In fact, I didn’t use any mindfulness practice in the classroom that I had not used regularly at home.

I taught Intro to Philosophy for first and second year students, also two courses I designed, Health Care Ethics and Justice in the Family. My classes were about two-thirds African American, two-thirds female and many of them were the first generation in their families to attend college. Many of these students worked two to three jobs to make ends meet while going to school.  Many of them were also looking after children, grandchildren, or family members with disabilities.

I asked the students to put the desks in a circle before we listened to a three minute guided meditation to bring calm and focus into the classroom.  I even carried a small wind chime with me around my wrist as I walked through the campus as a way of offering mindfulness to the entire campus.  I found the sound healing and so did many others.

Today, I feel grounded in my body and my mind.  I am speaking out and speaking up for myself.  I trust and care for myself.  I am very grateful to my mindfulness practice for having created deeper healing and openness in my life.

Sophia Isako Wong, Ph.D. (Columbia) is a freelance writer, musician, and spiritual seeker. She taught Western European philosophy for two years at Columbia University and for ten years at the Brooklyn Campus of Long Island University in New York. She maintains a list of mindfulness resources for educators at www.sophiawong.info/mindfulness.