What is Mindfulness with Jane Hilberry

By Jennifer Kulier

In this series we ask people around campus what mindfulness means to them and how they are surviving and thriving in the new circumstances we find ourselves in. Here, we talk to Professor of Creativity and Innovation and Schlosser Professor in the Arts Jane Hilberry.


What does mindfulness mean to you?
Mindfulness basically means paying attention, knowing where you are and what you are doing.  If I’m lost in my thoughts, miles away from the current moment, I’m probably not being mindful! I spend a lot of time in that faraway place — I’m having an imaginary conversation or reliving a moment from class or thinking about what to make for dinner. And now, with the Coronavirus happening, it’s easy to be swept away on a wave of fear: one night I woke up coughing and within seconds I was imagining myself dying alone in a hospital for lack of a respirator.

Our minds travel all over the place, and that’s not necessarily bad. In fact, that ability to think ahead and imagine hypothetical scenarios is part of our brilliance as human creatures. But getting lost in my head separates me from my actual, immediate, physical experience. It generally feels better to be embodied and connected to what’s actually happening, if I can manage it. But it also doesn’t help to get angry or frustrated when we can’t manage it. Right now, kindness toward ourselves is the most important practice of all.

I’m also a proponent of occasional mindlessness. At times, the best thing you can do for yourself is to wrap up in a blanket, break out the Doritos, and watch Netflix. We just need a break sometimes.


How is mindfulness different from calmness or relaxation?
That’s a complex question, because sometimes being mindful means becoming aware of how uncomfortable you are. It can mean noticing that your back hurts or that you’re really tired or that you’re upset about something. Being mindful means noticing whatever is actually going on with you, whether pleasant or unpleasant, and trying to make room for those sensations or emotions.

So it’s not necessarily calming or relaxing. At the same time, though, I have to say that I usually do feel better if I’m able to get in touch with what is going on. If I’ve got some buried fear or grief and I can actually feel it, I usually feel relieved and calmer. It’s like when you finally have a good cry about something you’ve been carrying — afterwards you can feel very peaceful.


How does mindfulness help at a time like this of uncertainty and worry?
I remember something a CC student, Ananda Gear, told me once after traveling abroad on her own for a long stretch. She said that when she would get scared — maybe she was lost or in a situation that didn’t feel safe — she would ask herself, “Is anything bad actually happening right now?” It’s so easy to get lost in worry and fear, and it can be reassuring to come back to what is actually happening. For example, if I’m getting anxious listening to the news about Covid-19 deaths in New York, I can come back to the fact that I’m actually sitting in my backyard on a beautiful spring morning watching my cat. Seeing that, rather than being swept up in fear, makes it easier to do something constructive.

If you are ill or someone you love is ill, it’s harder, of course, to stay with that reality. If you can be mindful and connected, even for a minute, that’s good. If not, just be kind to yourself about how hard it is.

And mindfulness of course also means having awareness of what’s happening on a large scale too. It means recognizing that the virus disproportionately affects those who can’t work from home and those who have lost jobs. And it affects racial groups unequally. For example, I read that in Michigan, 40% of the people who have died from Coronavirus are African Americans, while the state’s population is only 14% African American.


What are some of your favorite practices that you’re leaning on at this time?
I feel like I need more shoring up than usual, so I’m doing yoga online and watching workshops with the qigong teacher Mingtong Gu, which always restores me. And I’m spending a lot of virtual time with my Heart Centered Meditation group.

Creative practices are another profound way to connect with mindfulness. If I’m making something, I’m not worrying — I’m just immersed in the process. And I always feel ridiculously happy when I have just made something, whether it’s a birthday card or a poem or a blind contour drawing. Staying at home can make the world seem small, but getting connected with creative energy makes me feel expansive.


What suggestions can you offer to someone who might be struggling to be mindful now?
Practice with others. I’m not always great about practicing every day on my own, but if I take a class or join a group, I do it.

There’s a virtual mindfulness event almost every day of the week at CC now, thanks to Spiritual Life, the Wellness Resource Center, and Creativity & Innovation. You can attend Creative Mondays and Qigong Sound Healing on Mondays; Tranquil Tuesdays; Mindful Stress Management on Wednesdays; Morning Meditation and Muffins on Thursday mornings and Mindful Thursdays in the afternoon. These are all great ways to get support for mindfulness and connect with a larger community.


What resources does CC offer that can help students, faculty, or staff right now who want to cultivate mindfulness?
Creativity & Innovation offers two regular events.

I lead “Creative Mondays” from 3 to 5 p.m. on Zoom and everyone is welcome to join.  We hang out together online while drawing, painting, knitting, etc. It’s like an old-fashioned sewing circle or something — we’re working with our hands, just being together and talking at the same time. It’s a nice, nurturing way to be together.  https://zoom.us/j/943553629

Creativity & Innovation’s Mindfulness Resident Barbara Bash offers “Mindful Thursdays” from 2 to 3:30 p.m. on Zoom. Barbara draws on a variety of practices, including a deep check-in in the form of circle work. The sessions are very grounding.  https://zoom.us/j/331552859


Thank you Jane, and may you be well.


Hilberry’s home studio.