“Bad news,” my new boss began as we sat around the conference room table. This had been the site of our small staff’s weekly meetings and check-ins since I joined the team in April. She then informed me that she had spoken to some other people who had attended last week’s training with me and had concluded that I would no longer be working for the organization.
She handed me a single-page letter that began:
We have determined that you are not a good culture fit for [our organization] and are terminating your employment effective immediately.”
I felt stunned but somehow managed to remain surprisingly calm. They offered me two weeks’ worth of severance pay if I agreed to sign a non-disclosure agreement. I remember assuring them that I would be just fine, thank you, and left the room in shocked bewilderment to return my keys and laptop.
The deadline has now passed for my decision to accept the terms of the non-disclosure agreement. I have spent the past few days trying to let the energy of this disruption pass through me, to gather the mental and spiritual clarity to move forward with integrity and without causing further harm. So, I’m taking the next step in this process—evidenced by the fact that you’re reading this—to speak publicly about what happened. It feels important to share my understanding of why I reached such a painful and disappointing place in my relationship to the “Mindfulness in Higher Ed” scene so quickly. I hope that some of you who take the time to read this will be able to offer some support and encouragement during the challenging weeks ahead as I figure out what comes next.
This unexpected turn of events was the culmination of a process that had begun the previous week. I had driven down to New York to attend a “mindfulness in higher education” training on behalf of my new employer. Upon arriving in the space, the first thing I saw was the offering for participants: a water bottle, a notebook, and some other paraphernalia neatly arranged on the tables. I noticed a book in the stack, too—a prominent former Shambhala teacher had written the foreword. Seeing his name startled me; over the past year, I had learned of two very credible allegations of sexual misconduct by this individual from trusted friends (one of which was published by ThinkProgress.) I wasn’t prepared to process this in the context of this new “professional” setting—having spent much of the past year attempting to extricate myself from the Shambhala community and do what I could to stand by the many people who were assaulted by teachers like him, the reminder came as a bit of a shock.
A few minutes later, the first group session began in an adjacent room. The facilitator led us through a “body scan” exercise, which triggered a trauma-induced dissociation experience that felt like a panicked inability to stay in my body. I did my best to take care of myself in that moment, and then we were asked to introduce ourselves to the group based on the three words that best described the experience of what we were bringing into the room. We had been assured that this was a space where bravery, curiosity, and honesty were encouraged—believing this to be true, I introduced myself with the words that most honestly captured my experience in that moment: “triggered as fuck.” Later, I explained to the group that I had recently left the Shambhala community due to the abuse of similar “mindfulness” practices, adding that seeing this teacher’s name on the cover of the book had been an upsetting introduction to the space.
Afterwards, I spoke briefly with the training coordinator; she told me that she had no reason not to believe the women and that although this teacher was no longer teaching in her program, she still considered him a friend. She encouraged me to do what I needed to take care of myself throughout the rest of the training. That afternoon, I had been invited to lead a brief listening meditation session for the group after lunch. During the lunch period, the facilitator informed me that there had been a change in the schedule and my session had been cancelled.
For the next day and a half, I did my best to strike a balance between showing up in the space honestly and taking care of myself after experiencing episodes of dissociation. I was transparent with the coordinator about this and asked her to make sure that the facilitator knew that my struggles weren’t personal—clearly, there were bigger forces at play here. Nonetheless, during lunch on Thursday, the coordinator approached me and suggested that, given my experiences, the training was not a good fit for me to continue as a participant. Although she did not explicitly ask me to leave or suggest that I had done anything wrong, the insinuation was clear that I was to depart immediately.
I called my boss right away to report what happened; I had already told her that things were a little weird earlier on in the training. She knew about my history with Shambhala and was very supportive. She encouraged me to ensure that my registration fee was refunded, which I did. I then left the building to go decompress on a walk through Washington Square Park. A couple of hours later, my boss called me back.
“Where are you?” she asked.
“In a coffee shop in the West Village,” I remember responding quizzically.
“Just don’t go back to the training,” she urged. Apparently, the coordinator had reached out to her inquiring about my whereabouts. Building security at the training had been informed that my presence was perceived as a threat to the safety of the facilitator, and that I was not to be let back in under any circumstances. I remember my boss recounting that she had asked the coordinator if I had done anything to merit such a response, such as raising my voice or making threats. According to her, the coordinator responded that I had not. Again, my boss was supportive and affirming in our conversation; we agreed that she would inform our colleague in the office about what happened over the weekend and that we would meet on Monday to debrief.
On Monday, the bad news caught me completely off guard. I had, after all, just left another job; my wife had also left hers—along with guaranteed maternity leave when our first child arrives this fall—and moved across the country. Although it had been an intense and difficult week in New York, the idea that my family’s livelihood was in peril had never even crossed my mind. In hindsight, though, the signs were clear that this wasn’t a space where I could serve with integrity. It’s still painful to feel into the experience of being treated with such utter disregard, but I’ve been so grateful for the support and good will that I’ve received from my wife, close friends, and colleagues over the past three weeks. Even though this isn’t how I would have liked things to pan out, I’m sure that I’ll learn what really brought me back to Western Massachusetts soon.
Thank you so much for taking the time to read this. If you’re able, I would be very grateful if you were to leave a supportive comment here or reach out by email, phone, or text. And if you have some financial resources at your disposal, please consider donating to the Buddhist Peace Fellowship: I just recently joined the Board of Directors of this amazing organization and these folks have been the “sangha” (community of practice and study) that I’ve needed in this difficult moment.
And lastly, if you’re working with mindfulness practices in any capacity, may you bring great skillfulness and a healthier sense of skepticism into the institutional work than I did. I strongly recommend David Forbes’s Mindfulness and Its Discontents: Education, Self, and Social Transformation (excerpt here), David Treleaven’s Trauma-Sensitive Mindfulness: Practices for Safe and Transformative Healing (learn more here), and Ron Purser’s McMindfulness: How Mindfulness Became the New Capitalist Spirituality (excerpt here) as resources for honing an appropriate BS detector in these spaces. There’s tremendously important work happening, but the systems that support it are causing a great deal of harm. May our efforts to heal bring us all closer to making the world that we need for one another amidst the chaos of these times.