Attending the mindfulness conference was, in many ways, like coming home. A respectful, safe and inclusive atmosphere was established immediately. Each breakout session was an opportunity for sharing, community and growth. We were all there for a collective purpose. In all my time at UNC, I have never felt so connected to and accepted by such a large and diverse group of people. It was really amazing to meet people who had come from different universities and backgrounds to join us — it made me feel like I was surrounded by my people even though I didn’t know them yet. Each person there was both teacher and pupil.

One of the first exercises we did involved standing in front of someone. We were instructed to simply observe the other person. Standing just a few feet from another human being, and being asked to simply notice them, was strangely intimate and a bit awkward. With nothing to do, nothing to fill the space between us with, we stood before each other as vulnerable, raw human connection was asked of us. I was paired with a woman — Jade — and as I looked at her, I could help but wonder how she saw me. I felt self-conscious, but also accepted by her. She wasn’t doing anything, she wasn’t reacting to me in any way, she simply looked. And I looked back. We are rarely, if ever, asked to look at another person for several minutes (long, long minutes) and simply notice everything we can about them. I didn’t interact with Jade much the rest of the conference, but if I were to run into her somewhere, I think I would recognize her as an old friend.

After the mindfulness conference, I started physically connecting with trees. One of the breakout sessions was about ecofeminism, and a UNC professor shared a practice that she does with one of her graduate classes. Her students pick a tree and visit it every day. It might sound a bit crazy, but I picked a few trees that I see regularly. I simply started touching the tree trunk and observing its branches whenever I could. It helps bring my wandering mind back to wherever I am in that moment, with that tree. I might be halfway across the world in my head, but when I touch that tree, I am right there with it. I am beginning to understand that these are the good old days. I want to be here for them.

At the end of the conference, we closed out by singing together. We all joined hands (very Kumbaya) and echoed our guest speaker, Michelle. We all sang and allowed ourselves to slow down and fill with joy and connection. It’s so rare to find moments like that in our everyday lives. I think now, especially, we are learning how important connection is. In a time where we are denied connection on so many levels, we learn to value it in a much deeper way. The Mindfulness Conference made me appreciate many things. Among them: breath, connection, intimacy, the natural world, rituals and my community at UNC. Although people from many places joined us, I now know where to find the people in my own community who get it. Who was also asked to look at another human, and who joined me in both hand and voice as we sang together. Who cried with me and hugged me and saw me, just as I cried with them and hugged them and saw them. Knowing who I can look for is something that really puts me at ease. I could go ask one of those people to simply take a few breaths with me and I think they would. How cool is that? I wouldn’t have that if not for the conference. I also wouldn’t be equipped with the tools that I use on a daily basis to keep me calm and grounded, especially during these uncertain times.

Practicing mindfulness is a journey, an exploration. It is a wonderful thing, to be present. While much of it is up to you, you need not go it alone.

Ase!