Religion professor discusses meditation, careers and tolerance
November 9, 2017
Sarita Stella Tamayo-Moraga has developed a well-deserved affinity from students for her calming presence and joyful laugh. Dr. Tamayo-Moraga teaches a variety of religious studies courses and serves as the faculty director of the McLaughlin-Walsh Residence Hall. She has researched and taught classes on ways of understanding religion, comparative mysticism and meditation.
Gavin Cosgrave: How do you recommend that students get started with meditation?
Sarita Tamayo-Moraga: For students who come with anxiety and stress, I usually invite them to our meditation groups on campus: Wednesdays at 5:15p.m. in [the] St. Joseph’s Hall Multifaith Sanctuary and Tuesdays at noon in the St. Francis chapel at the back of the mission. Meditation is easier if you have community.
Here’s another tip: When your alarm goes off, set your phone timer for three minutes and stay in bed (this is from Thích Nhat Hanh, a Vietnamese Zen master). On the “in” breath, say “calm mind,” and on the “out” breath, say “peaceful body.” And if you drift off and start worrying or making a list, come back and breathe deeply.
GC: Have there been any surprising or unexpected experiences since you have taught at Santa Clara?
STM: I can remember one program about mindfulness and, specifically, mindful eating. About 15 students came to this program, and we did mindful brownie eating and mindful raisin eating. We had a Muslim explanation about how eating could be sacred, a Buddhist interpretation, a Jewish interpretation and a Catholic interpretation.
What I found striking was that one student was almost upset that in the mindful brownie eating versus the raisin eating, he realized that a raisin is sweeter than a brownie. He was partially joking, but he didn’t want to accept that because culturally, brownies are seen as sweet, and raisins are seen as a healthy snack.
Watching him struggle with what he had directly experienced, versus cultural norms, versus what he wanted to think, was an unexpected joy of a program in the hall.
GC: What were your career plans in college?
STM: When I went to college, my big dream was to be a book editor or publisher, or run a bookstore.
I can remember at mass in college, the priest was giving a homily, and he asked us what we would die without. The very first thing that came to mind is that I would die if I had to stop learning. That was not surprising, but simultaneously shocking.
My dreams of being a book editor were linked to that, and linked back to opening people’s minds to difference and understanding each other, despite distinct visions that may not overlap.
GC: What in your career are you most proud of?
STM: I think perhaps one thing I’m proud of is the way I have seen pedagogical tools of emotional management—such as the journals in the class “Ways of Understanding Religion” —help students track emotional reactivity and how that might hinder learning. I’ve been able to watch students begin to realize their worldview, see how it hinders them from seeing what is in front of them, and see them shift to acknowledge that their worldview limits their view. Sometimes students find that their perspective might be a prejudice.
GC: If you could recommend that every student read a book, what would it be?
STM: “Full Catastrophe Living,” by Jon Kabat-Zinn.
GC: What advice would you give to a first-year student?
STM: Get at least six hours of sleep a night, ask for help before you think you need it and turn to your community facilitators.
GC: You practice both Catholicism and Zen Buddhism which is a unique combination. Do the two religions always complement each other, or are there times when they conflict?
STM: For me personally, they don’t come into conflict, but for others they might come into conflict. For me, since Zen does not require one to make the Buddha a deity, I am not required by Zen to have an additional deity. For me, the Buddha was a man that can help some people transform their suffering. Personally, it’s a way for me to free myself from the prison of my own mind.
Others may find conflict in philosophy or theology, but there is precedent for Zen masters being ordained Catholic Priests. At least for now, I think there is more acceptance of following both paths. Any theology, when taken to its minute details, will be in conflict; but that’s not what I focus on. For me, it’s what tools will help me transform my suffering so I can be a better person and not cause others to suffer.
GC: If you could send a message to everyone in the United States, what would you say?
STM: Please give others the benefit of the doubt until you no longer can.
To listen to the full interview, visit voicesofsantaclara.com or search “Voices of Santa Clara” on the iTunes Podcast App