Exploring Ways to Grow Mindfulness for Leadership and Mental Health
The COVID-19 pandemic has given rise to a global crisis in mental health. By nearly every serious measure — from domestic violence, sexual assault, and drug and alcohol abuse, to depression, and attempted suicide — the pandemic has brought out dark moments in the human experience. And we are only beginning to see the ripple effects of such moments.
In thinking about the challenges ahead, and how to navigate these challenges with my students, I have reflected often on the lessons from my own teacher, Hartanto Gunawan, a former Buddhist monk I befriended while on sabbatical in Bangkok in 2016:
“Only by researching our thoughts and emotions can we begin to gain an understanding of the truth. And the truth is, Mr. Monti, that there are causes and conditions that lead to a person’s state of mind and their happiness, or lack of happiness. We are ultimately a product of what we think, what we say, what we do, and how we behave based on our thought-patterns, memories, perceptions, and reactions to those memories. By reflecting through meditation on the nature, origins, and consequences of our thoughts, our words, our actions, and our behavior, we can gradually come to an understanding of who we are at the experiential level. And then we can become wise.
Cultivating wisdom, or insight, is the true purpose of meditation. If we can teach this to our students, we can truly begin to make this world a better place.”
I’m a political science professor at the University of Richmond where I teach classes in international relations, human rights and modern slavery, global governance, and the U.S. image. In August 2016, I arrived in Bangkok for a year-long sabbatical. My plan was to develop a research agenda on modern slavery, network with local anti-slavery organizations, and teach U.S. foreign policy at Thammasat University. I also wanted to develop a daily meditation practice, as Bangkok was home to some of the world’s experts.
My first week in Bangkok, I joined an international meditation group that replenished my spirit and helped me develop a daily practice. But it was only near the end of my sabbatical that I met the teacher who would influence me the most: Hartanto Gunawan, a former Buddhist monk who founded and directed a Community Learning Center for at-risk youth on the grounds of Wat Arun Rajawararam, one of Thailand’s most revered shrines.
“Twice a day, Mr. Monti, my students meditate. They wake up at 4 or 4:30 a.m. each morning, and meditate for 60 to 90 minutes. Then, at the end of the day, they meditate again, around 7 p.m., for another 45 minutes. This is how they get their true education. They learn how to discipline their minds and discover their inner wisdom.”
As his students went about their business at the Community Learning Center, they did indeed seem calm and collected. I was in awe, as I was at most meditating 20 minutes in the mornings — not two or three hours a day as his students were doing. My mind was far from calm!
“Everyone,” Hartanto continued, “takes a shower every day, and some people even spend one or two hours in the bathroom, in front of the mirror, grooming and cleaning their body, arranging their hair, seeking to look a certain way, or project a certain image. And most people spend time eating at least three meals per day, sometimes even lavish meals, for hours. But what about the mind, Mr. Monti? If we clean the body, feed the body and exercise and nourish the body, that’s fine, but we must also do the same with the mind. A healthy life consists of having both a healthy body and mind. That is why I require my students to meditate; it is the only way for them to clean, feed, exercise, and nourish their minds.”
Hartanto’s teachings left me richer. I returned to the United States with a daily practice and desire to integrate meditation in the classroom. In Fall 2017, I started with just a minute or two of guided breath awareness with my students at the University of Richmond. I was surprised by how much they appreciated those moments of stillness. Collaborating with UR’s Office of Living and Learning’s Sophomore Scholars in Residence Program, I was also able to host Hartanto on campus. He met with senior administrators, connected with the Zen Buddhist Club, and gave a community talk about the Community Learning Center at Wat Arun.
Hartanto’s visit inspired me to co-lead a Faculty Learning Community on mindfulness at UR, offering programming and meditation instruction to the campus. I continued to include meditation in the classroom and began to offer sessions off campus, to incarcerated persons at the Richmond City Jail, formerly incarcerated persons in the REAL-LIFE recovery program, and survivors of human trafficking through the Coalition to Abolish Slavery and Trafficking. I also began to explore a community partnership with an expert, Dr. Ram Bhagat, with Richmond Public Schools, to think about ways to use mediation as a tool that can disrupt the school-to-prison pipeline. It felt humbling and rewarding to go outside the confines of “the ivory tower” and connect with groups traditionally outside the reach of higher education.
Hartanto and I kept in frequent contact, and in early 2020, he returned to the United States. His intention was to visit the U.S. for just a few weeks, but with the COVID-19 pandemic, and the emerging mental health crisis, he extended his stay for six months. Over this time, Hartanto offered free meditation classes on Zoom for four to six hours a day, every day, helping people from across the country with their mental health struggles, be they mindsets of stress, anxiety, depression, thoughts of suicide, or addictive behaviors.
As our conversations continued, we agreed that teaching guided breath awareness in the classroom was helpful but ultimately not enough — not in the age of Black Lives Matter after the murder of George Floyd and with the COVID-19 pandemic out of control. Breath awareness could help my students “arrive” in the classroom, focus more on their studies, and listen to one another more deeply. But breath awareness wasn’t enough to allow my students the space to reflect on the manner and why George Floyd had his breath extinguished from his body over those eight minutes and 46 seconds.
Breath awareness couldn’t give my students the space to reflect deeply on how and why the response pandemic had been so problematic. We wanted to encourage and inspire my students to focus on meditation not only for breath awareness and relaxation, but also for their understanding of the world and social justice — for greater insight.
The result was an essay assignment, one that later my students appreciated and reflected on how it was unusual compared to other assignments at the University of Richmond. It wasn’t a perfect assignment, but I felt it was a step in the right direction in steering their learning and growth.
The Wise and Mindful Leader assignment consisted of several parts:
1. Pick any leader, past or present, whom you admire, and discuss the reasons that inspire this choice. (This encourages students to reflect on the connection between their values and the values they cherish in others.)
2. Discuss what that leader would say or do to address not only the COVID-19 pandemic, but also the state of race relations during the pandemic, particularly when communities of color have been disproportionately affected. (This invites students to immerse themselves in the moment of Black Lives Matter and the pandemic and think critically about what could be said or done to improve the situation.)
3. Evaluate the consequences of what that leader would say or do to improve the situation. (This encourages students to look more deeply at what happens when a word is said or an action is committed, especially on the national and global stage.)
4. Reflect on what this writing process was like, and how the experience shapes your values of what wise and mindful leadership is about. (This permits students an opportunity for meta-cognition.)
In developing the Wise and Mindful Leader assignment, Hartanto often mentioned that all our actions, big and small, intentional or unintentional, wholesome or unwholesome, good or evil, have “ripple effects,” like the way ripples might carry across a pond. Once an initial cause is set in motion, those ripple effects cannot be undone. We must therefore live with the consequences of our actions.
“The key to wisdom,” Hartanto would share, “is to be aware, to be mindful and to understand how our thoughts, words, and deeds are capable of having such ripple effects, and to understand that this is a part of the law of nature. If we can understand this law more fully, more closely, then we can become better, wiser citizens in the world.”