Bringing Contemplation to Life: Rhonda Magee
We speak with Tish Jennings about her new book, The Trauma-Sensitive Classroom: Building Resilience with Compassionate Teaching.
Bringing Contemplation to Life: Rhonda Magee
Professor Rhonda V. Magee is a full professor at the University of San Francisco, and a pioneering force in the introduction of contemplative and mindful practices in the field of law. A “Triple Hoo,” with a Masters in Sociology from the College and Graduate School of Arts & Sciences and a JD from the University of Virginia School of Law, Rhonda is an internationally-known teacher of mindfulness-based stress reduction interventions for lawyers and law students, and has worked with law enforcement officials and lawmakers in the U.S. and abroad. In addition, she is a pioneer in bringing mindfulness to bear on the work of minimizing social-identity-based bias. She is a trained and highly practiced facilitator, with an emphasis on mindful communication, trained through programs at the University of Massachusetts’s School of Medicine’s Oasis Teacher Training Institute, and the Stanford Graduate School of Business Facilitator Training Program. In April 2015, she was named a fellow of the Mind and Life Institute. Her new book, The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness (Random House TarcherPerigee), will be published in September, 2019.
Q: Talk about how you were first introduced to contemplative practices?
Magee: I was born into a family that had a certain set of contemplative traditions already available. These were not the sort of contemplative traditions that are typically associated with contemplative study, so not mindfulness or Asian-inspired practices, but more Christian-inspired practices. I was born in the South in an African American family and so we were surrounded by practices that I would associate now with centering prayer traditions. I watched my grandmother get up every day and have some time to herself in practice of her own discipline of study and communion with, in her sense, God. So I was immersed in an environment where something like contemplative experience was a regular part of everyday life. To me, it felt essential to helping to strengthen one’s self for the challenges of the world. And these challenges were, of course, historically and culturally situated, so I was looking at an older woman in my grandmother who lived through segregation in the South and had this low status job in the world—cleaning houses. Yet I saw that she had found a way to sustain that sense of her own value and worth, and a broader sense of the meaning of life, through her own contemplative practices. To me, that was sort of a touchstone. I also think I was born into the world with a certain kind of tendency to be interested in an engagement with the mystery of life.
Q: How did you come to adapt these practices to your professional world?
Magee: I graduated from the UVA Law School in 1993 and headed out to California to start my law career. By then, I had spent a lot of time studying and equipping myself for particular roles in the world. I had studied Sociology in the UVA Graduate School for the Arts, and I had become an Officer in the U.S. Army (Reserves). So here I had done all of these different types of trainings germane to this contemporary culture, yet I really felt like there was something more that I needed in order to be able to navigate the world with a sense of grounding and a deepening clarity. In other words, I knew in some way that the standard education, as beautiful and useful as it is, was not really enough to keep me driving in the world. In time I would move on from practicing law to teaching law, which I actually found more fulfilling. At the same time, however, I was experiencing a deepening of my commitment to spiritual practices. So as useful and necessary it is to teach lawyers as I was doing, I felt like it was not a place that I could really thrive and fully engage in my own way of teaching and learning and delving into these issues that were important to me. I was in a questioning place, and found some counseling support that became very important in explaining how I got into this line of work. I had a psychologist who had been spiritually trained herself, and when I shared my struggles with her she said that leaving my job as a professor was something I could do anytime, but before I chose that path, I might explore whether or not I could share insights I had gained by virtue of many practices and provide a resource for others in the field who might be similarly drawn to a contemplative approach. So that is what I began to do.
Q: How did you go about building a network of professionals who shared these interests?
Magee: I started to explore a community within law who might serve as support for exploring where there might be other ways to teach and practice law and to engage in efforts like dealing with conflict more effectively. So I found a group of people in 2004 who were interested in those things. I started writing about those things and found some folks who were meditating lawyers who were part of a Buddhist-led teaching and practice community, which in the Buddhist tradition is called a “sangha.” It was led by Norman Fischer, a former abbot of the San Francisco Zen Center and was running an organization called Everyday Zen. His vision was very much in alignment with ours, and he began to cultivate a small group of about 12 lawyers, law professionals, and judges. By 2007 and 2008 we had done some institution-building work, offered retreats for lawyers and started getting permission from our law schools to teach a course in contemplative lawyering and mindfulness. I was then approached by people involved in the broader contemplative education community who were moving into other areas as well, professors who were moving mindfulness into other areas including physics, social work and economics. That organization was called the Organization for Contemplative Minds in Society.
Q: What are the roadblocks you have experienced in trying to bring mindfulness and contemplation to the legal community?
Magee: Part of it is that there is this cultural misinterpretation of what it is to live and work as a lawyer. Only a very limited slice of what we actually do is what is portrayed in the culture’s imagination of it. So, I think you get a lot of people coming into the profession who have been trying to live up to that cultural representation—they think all we ever do is argue and litigate in court. There are definitely some who consider what we are doing with mindfulness to be countercultural within the profession, and I don’t necessarily disagree, in that to some extent what we do stands against some of the perceived wisdoms of what we are supposed to be doing. But on the other hand, there is great receptivity to bringing mindfulness into the profession, especially around some of the practical realities that we as lawyers deal with. The struggles around dealing with the stress of the legal profession are, for many, their first doorway into contemplative practices. You are talking about a population in which many people are burned out because of that they may see as ethical challenges related to their particular practice. On top of that, their basic well-being may suffer, due to over work and over-emphasis on adversarial means of addressing conflicts. We have high rates of dysfunctionality in our profession that show up in a variety of ways, from a higher divorce rate to higher-than-average levels of alcoholism and drug abuse, and, more recently, spikes in suicide rates tied to despair and depression. Because of this, the profession suffers. And it’s a profession that often does not create enough space for mindfulness and compassion. So there is now a surprising amount of interest in mindfulness in law, and a national movement within law to create more opportunities for it in their work. I would say it is having an impact, but we don’t yet know what will come of this movement. It is a work in progress.
Q: Talk about the work you do in the field of law enforcement.
Magee: The work that I do directly supports law enforcement workers—police and prosecutors—and the various challenges associated with their work. I focus on everything from wellness and stress management to minimizing bias and finding ways to more effectively engage with the communities they are in. I t is about helping people develop a new way of seeing things. There is an important intersection between mindfulness and working with the biases or assumptions we hold about other people, and trying to minimize the issues that come with that kind of bias we all hold, to one degree or another—biases that pop up in our encounters in conscious and unconscious ways. It is important to recognize that police are human beings, just like all of us, and are operating in a world where we have constructed and created ideas and attached meanings to people based on how they look, where they come from, their so-called race, and more. This is true everywhere in our world, and police are no more or less immune to adopting those kinds of biases, and in some ways they may be more prone to them because of the nature of their training, and because of the degree of risk associated with their actual work on the ground.
Q: Talk about the importance you see in employing these practices in the world in which we live today.
Magee: As Americans living in a diverse, democratic society, it is imperative that we find ways to minimize division. We have to orient ourselves around our common interests and the common challenges we face. In a time of polarization, what we need are countervailing and effective practices to open awareness of the fact that yes, our experiences of the world are very different, but we have much in common, and our lives and experiences are interconnected. We live in a world of many cultures in many places and we need to enter into conversations together with awareness that we do so from different positions. In my view, mindfulness can help us explore the differences in our experiences and points of view. It can help us create space for compassionate openness, for seeing the gifts those differences bring, as well as the challenges they embed in us as we try to work with others. It can help us develop the skillfulness we need in working through these. I truly believe that mindfulness and compassion can help us create a better world, and that is what I am here for, and inspired to do.