Catharsis: Applying Critical Mindfulness to Oral Histories

“Interactions in the environment lead to reciprocal transformation which strengthens individual and collective agency.”

Many people ask what distinguishes my work and my approach. I think this is a hard question because I am evolving daily. Still, I am beginning to understand that I am most interested in freedom in action, on the application of practice, on expression through experiments and sharing outcomes to further dialogue. I like to call my approach Conscientious Engagement, but words never seem to do it, still we must try to communicate with the tools we have. The aim of my work is to raise consciousness and to create a ‘peak learning experience’ for me and subjects, by activating the personal, social and transpersonal domains of our shared experience. In other words, I want to move further into what Paul Kaufman might call, a critical contemplative pedagogy in which our inner directed practice of transformation is linked to outer transformation by helping others and finding ways to transform society.

Currently, I am applying aspects of my approach to how I conduct oral histories at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. This article is my first documentation of my work and observations. I decided to post this article here on my own blog because it is a free, thoughtful space accessible to those of us who are often marginalized. I believe deeply in demonstrating through our choices and action that each of us has a role in informing and transforming our collective consciousness. I believe that the blogsphere and on-line platforms are instrumental in increasing agency and participatory voice, information sharing and research, that will impact our thinking far into the future on what it means to be free, critically engaged, mindful agents for social justice.

An oral history interview involves a person sharing stories, recollections of past events and reflections prompted by a series of carefully prepared questions which is videotaped and preserved for archival purposes. An oral history obtains information from individuals who offer different perspectives about historical events or situations that often includes what is left out of written sources. In the case of the Oral History Project at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, all of the subjects are members of the Puerto Rican diaspora, and have been nominated for their contributions to society. Due to the complex socio-political relationship between the Unites States and Puerto Rico, described by most Puerto Rican scholars as being one of colonization, coupled with the vast underrepresentation of Puerto Rican voices in history, the systematic collection of Puerto Rican oral histories can aptly be described as an act of self-empowerment and social activism.

One of the strategies that I am applying in my work is Bearing Witness. Bearing Witness is when we share an experience with others to acknowledge that the experience is real and true because we recognize it exists in one form or another as shared human experience. When we position ourselves outside experience, as if we are independent of it, we are creating a barrier between us and truth, which limits our ability to respond with compassion. Bearing witness involves being with, blending into, blurring oneself with and becoming “a part of” another person’s experience (Ríos, 2019). In my theory of Conscientious Engagement, which is a hybrid of mindfulness and social justice pedagogy, I position Bearing Witness, within the domain of Social Awareness and Adaptability, which I posit leads us to Freedom. As in all other strategies presented within this framework, none of them exists in a vacuum. Each domain, each strategy builds upon and includes the others, often in non-linear ways. Some of the skills that are involved in Bearing Witness include deep listening, refined attention acquired through contemplation and meditation, culture and identity study, and intergroup dialogue. Bearing witness, done in this way, leads to critical consciousness—which I define as: understanding of how relationships, norms and structures and ideologies influence how we see ourselves and how we are valued in society. The common denominator for all critical pedagogies is using an approach or process that uses content largely generated from the lived experiences of learners with a desired outcome of social transformation (Kaufman, 2017)

An early observation of applying my approach to oral histories is shared catharsis. A catharsis is a release of emotion, a purging of pent up feelings, a profoundly spiritual cleansing of the spirit. The cathartic experience transcends time because it brings to bear the past, present and future for transformation and/or healing. The cathartic experiences that are occurring in my practice are expressed through: crying, welling up of tears, deep waves of emotion, hearty and/or prolonged laughter; acknowledgement out loud of the profound or surprising nature of the experience, pregnant or lingering pauses, expressions of gratitude, longing for more. I believe this shared catharsis phenomena, can be a critical step in understanding critical consciousness, healing and the steps towards conscious, social action.

The fact that the cathartic experience is shared is important. Something happens in the time-space that is both subjective and intersubjective, relational, interconnected, and non-linear. My presumption, however, is that the nature and depth of the cathartic experience is different and impacts each person to a different degree. I am thinking there is a reciprocal transformation occurring, in the precise moment of “peak learning” that I am now beginning to think/observe are directly related to topics about identity, belonging, purpose, and humanity. The broad racial and economic diversity within the Puerto Rican diaspora is an element that gives me great resolve as I begin to think about research in this area. If we can understand and design for shared cathartic “peak learning” experiences within this one group, by targeting aspects of identity, belonging and purpose, then we may be able to transfer this learning to larger more multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-faith groups.

The expressions of gratitude and longing for more at the conclusion of the experience, I am beginning to think, is the direct link to agency and conscious, social action. The experience demonstrates in the moment our power, that we become agents of change and transformation through our deep engagement to each other and the oral history process, and, by a formal acknowledgement of what has happened, some sort of outward, recognition that reciprocal transformation has occurred leading both parties to ask  what now? What do I do with this moving forward? What is required of me to keep this immense power and joy alive?




2.  Kaufman, Paul (2017) Critical Contemplative Pedagogy, Radical Pedagogy, 14.1

For Working Class, Mindfulness is a Gimmick

When I called my colleague and told him the title of my new book, he told me I had sold out. Sold out? I snapped. I’ve been unemployed for years, while you’re sitting easy in a tenured teacher position. He snickered and told me to calm down.

Yesterday, they towed my ten-year-old car away after it was declared totaled. I was rear ended by a huge GMC over Labor Day weekend. We’d been praying the car would last another year. My part time job and husband’s salary doesn’t cover our bills. Every day debt and ‘fear of falling’ are snowballing. When the insurance man gives me the bad news, I get so angry and shaky I give him a piece of my mind—fulness.

There are mindfulness people selling their books and working the circuit. Social Justice people are doing their thing. The words are academic and their jobs appear safe and secure, to me. I scoff and say they are all part of the establishment, while I crank out another resume.

Teachers and other workers, who are part of the disappearing middle class are right to be careful. They say they will try these practices out. Whatever you want and need from me, I’ll do it. I just want to know if I will get home  in time to be with my kids. Some of this stuff does work, they think. Oh, yes! Yoga and social emotional learning is a beautiful thing.  Equity, absolutely! Teachers are in the business of changing the world, one mind, one student at a time, one yoga class, one day of mindfulness at a time.

I talk to the field inspector who has my puny check. I ask him if he’s heard of mindfulness. He’s not sure, he says, isn’t that something to do with paying attention? Yes, I say and we look at each other inquisitively. We are standing in the middle of the street. I ask him what he knows about yoga, or meditation. He says, yea, I know about that, I’ve been doing those things my whole life. Really? Yea, I do martial arts, it’s the same thing. How’s that? He goes on to explain that martial arts is about the mind-body, discipline and focus. I’m impressed. Do you think martial arts has anything to do with mindfulness? I don’t know, does it? I ignore the question and ask, what about spirituality? I don’t know, he says, I guess it depends on the teacher. He shifts his weight and I know he has to leave.

Sometimes, I think words, like a webpage, put us in a bubble, an illusion, dividing us from each other, keeping us lost in some abstract notion of who we are that rarely has anything to do with reality. Most of us are working class people, thinking about bread and butter issues. We don’t have time and money to keep up with the inner circle where academic words, book contracts, networking and research grants mean anything. Outside, on the street, in the working class world, saying things like mindful practice for social justice just sounds ridiculous. People just want to know if I have a job, what organization I belong to or what school.

Mindfulness Starts at Home. Then Social Justice

“The way to experience newness, is to realize that this moment, this very point in your life, is always the occasion. So the consideration of where you are, and what you are, on the spot, is very important. That is one reason that your family situation, your domestic everyday life is so important. You should regard your home as sacred, as a golden opportunity to experience newness.” 

~Chögyam Trungpa

In the past, I traveled a lot for work. I enjoyed being on the road. I felt free. I had meals prepared for me and the cleaning was taken care of by a staff I could not see. I focused on my work, my thinking, my Self, my needs. I loved my work so I thought this is what it means to be happy. Even when my neck started hurting and my back ached from too much traveling, I accepted it, as part of business.

When my work contract ended, I found myself stuck at home. It was hard to adjust. Even though I was writing and job hunting, my daily routine featured shopping, cleaning, carpooling, cooking, care taking, walking alone. I became the master of our home. I noticed every lint, every dropping. I bought mop heads and knew when my neighbors were coming and going.

Domestic life felt oppressive and ordinary. I don’t remember when it happened, but I remember feeling I had lost my identity.

I felt disconnected from the world. I felt unseen. Less useful suddenly.

People around me seemed to be working on important projects, teaching and traveling, attending conferences, fighting for social justice, saving the planet.

One day, in my research, I came across a Buddhist writer and philosopher Chögyam Trungpa. He wrote about how mindfulness and building an enlightened society start at home. I found this very hard to understand. And even harder to put into practice.

How can shopping, washing the dishes enlighten me, make me feel at peace, make me happy? How can my life at home, with my family, cultivate world peace?

It has been almost two years living a home life. I have learned that mindfulness requires discipline, time and trust. I read and reread, read and reread wisdom writings and traditions and practice meditation and contemplation daily. I join a Sangha occassionally but mostly it’s just me, on an island, listening and grappling with the now, and the very, very ordinary reality.

It has taken me a long time to find calm. And even calm is temporary. I have begun to see how patience and compassion does grow. Awareness of the details matter. I find that in every wrong, I have been there. And the wrongs that I am still unaware, repeat over and over again until I see myself in them, and then I am sad again realizing that all along, I am the misfit, that we are all misfits, and shy of it, and that I am the carrier of every wrong, of every pain and how can I do better?  Understanding and forgiveness is in the Self first, and then knowing that you are the mirror image of every human being, and then multiply that by society.

What is a detail? Each detail is a small view of the bigger picture of the world. Like discovering the simplicity and complexity of a snowflake. One single snowflake in the world of snow. Think about that.

Now, with all this time and space around me, I think about those years on the road. Eating and living in hotels. People cooking and cleaning and taking care me so that I could be an intellectual, thinking and busy.

In some strange way, I have found new meaning for the words, social justice, freedom and fairness. Thinking about how sometimes it is time to say, “Now, it is your turn.” or “Now, it is my turn.”

My turn to make life easier for other people, like my husband and children. Every day they have to go out there to work, commuting on the train. They work, go to school, navigate the real world— which is too often callous and cold and too busy to be sensitive to their needs.

I am beginning to think differently about not having and suffering. About waiting. About what we value in life and society. How we assign worth and status to some jobs, how the traditional woman’s work in the home, is never valued enough. How we need to be compassionate and careful in our treatment of others, who are busy or not busy enough.

How sometimes we have to live it and breathe it before we understand desolation, anxiety, hunger, despair, forgiving.

Isn’t this mindfulness and its relationship to social justice—when we become aware of who we are, outside our role, our helplessness, our vulnerability, and that wheel of fortune turning and turning? Where it stops nobody knows. Isn’t that the beginning of compassion and treating each other with dignity?