Catharsis: Applying Critical Mindfulness to Oral Histories

“Interactions in the environment lead to reciprocal transformation which strengthens individual and collective agency.”

Many people ask what distinguishes my work and my approach. I think this is a hard question because I am evolving daily. Still, I am beginning to understand that I am most interested in freedom in action, on the application of practice, on expression through experiments and sharing outcomes to further dialogue. I like to call my approach Conscientious Engagement, but words never seem to do it, still we must try to communicate with the tools we have. The aim of my work is to raise consciousness and to create a ‘peak learning experience’ for me and subjects, by activating the personal, social and transpersonal domains of our shared experience. In other words, I want to move further into what Paul Kaufman might call, a critical contemplative pedagogy in which our inner directed practice of transformation is linked to outer transformation by helping others and finding ways to transform society.

Currently, I am applying aspects of my approach to how I conduct oral histories at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies at Hunter College. This article is my first documentation of my work and observations. I decided to post this article here on my own blog because it is a free, thoughtful space accessible to those of us who are often marginalized. I believe deeply in demonstrating through our choices and action that each of us has a role in informing and transforming our collective consciousness. I believe that the blogsphere and on-line platforms are instrumental in increasing agency and participatory voice, information sharing and research, that will impact our thinking far into the future on what it means to be free, critically engaged, mindful agents for social justice.

An oral history interview involves a person sharing stories, recollections of past events and reflections prompted by a series of carefully prepared questions which is videotaped and preserved for archival purposes. An oral history obtains information from individuals who offer different perspectives about historical events or situations that often includes what is left out of written sources. In the case of the Oral History Project at the Center for Puerto Rican Studies, all of the subjects are members of the Puerto Rican diaspora, and have been nominated for their contributions to society. Due to the complex socio-political relationship between the Unites States and Puerto Rico, described by most Puerto Rican scholars as being one of colonization, coupled with the vast underrepresentation of Puerto Rican voices in history, the systematic collection of Puerto Rican oral histories can aptly be described as an act of self-empowerment and social activism.

One of the strategies that I am applying in my work is Bearing Witness. Bearing Witness is when we share an experience with others to acknowledge that the experience is real and true because we recognize it exists in one form or another as shared human experience. When we position ourselves outside experience, as if we are independent of it, we are creating a barrier between us and truth, which limits our ability to respond with compassion. Bearing witness involves being with, blending into, blurring oneself with and becoming “a part of” another person’s experience (Ríos, 2019). In my theory of Conscientious Engagement, which is a hybrid of mindfulness and social justice pedagogy, I position Bearing Witness, within the domain of Social Awareness and Adaptability, which I posit leads us to Freedom. As in all other strategies presented within this framework, none of them exists in a vacuum. Each domain, each strategy builds upon and includes the others, often in non-linear ways. Some of the skills that are involved in Bearing Witness include deep listening, refined attention acquired through contemplation and meditation, culture and identity study, and intergroup dialogue. Bearing witness, done in this way, leads to critical consciousness—which I define as: understanding of how relationships, norms and structures and ideologies influence how we see ourselves and how we are valued in society. The common denominator for all critical pedagogies is using an approach or process that uses content largely generated from the lived experiences of learners with a desired outcome of social transformation (Kaufman, 2017)

An early observation of applying my approach to oral histories is shared catharsis. A catharsis is a release of emotion, a purging of pent up feelings, a profoundly spiritual cleansing of the spirit. The cathartic experience transcends time because it brings to bear the past, present and future for transformation and/or healing. The cathartic experiences that are occurring in my practice are expressed through: crying, welling up of tears, deep waves of emotion, hearty and/or prolonged laughter; acknowledgement out loud of the profound or surprising nature of the experience, pregnant or lingering pauses, expressions of gratitude, longing for more. I believe this shared catharsis phenomena, can be a critical step in understanding critical consciousness, healing and the steps towards conscious, social action.

The fact that the cathartic experience is shared is important. Something happens in the time-space that is both subjective and intersubjective, relational, interconnected, and non-linear. My presumption, however, is that the nature and depth of the cathartic experience is different and impacts each person to a different degree. I am thinking there is a reciprocal transformation occurring, in the precise moment of “peak learning” that I am now beginning to think/observe are directly related to topics about identity, belonging, purpose, and humanity. The broad racial and economic diversity within the Puerto Rican diaspora is an element that gives me great resolve as I begin to think about research in this area. If we can understand and design for shared cathartic “peak learning” experiences within this one group, by targeting aspects of identity, belonging and purpose, then we may be able to transfer this learning to larger more multi-cultural, multi-ethnic, multi-faith groups.

The expressions of gratitude and longing for more at the conclusion of the experience, I am beginning to think, is the direct link to agency and conscious, social action. The experience demonstrates in the moment our power, that we become agents of change and transformation through our deep engagement to each other and the oral history process, and, by a formal acknowledgement of what has happened, some sort of outward, recognition that reciprocal transformation has occurred leading both parties to ask  what now? What do I do with this moving forward? What is required of me to keep this immense power and joy alive?




2.  Kaufman, Paul (2017) Critical Contemplative Pedagogy, Radical Pedagogy, 14.1

One response to “Catharsis: Applying Critical Mindfulness to Oral Histories”

  1. donsalmon Avatar

    I just love so much this joyful (and compassionate, not mindlessly “happy”!) call to engage, to be real, to bring the sensitivity, openness, deep contemplative dimensions of inner quietude (I don’t like the word “meditation” and am increasingly hesitant as to how “mindfulness” has been used) – into interaction, real encounters, with each other and with the world.

    When we feel our hearts open and our being is spreading out into the world, into all around us, how can we remain in such a limited focus on “my” growth and “my” development and “my” well being?

    Your concluding questions are powerful: “What do I do with this moving forward?”

    It almost answers itself, in a way. This moving forward is happening quite well without “me.” But “I” can notice what is it in “me” that appears to obstruct the movement, and then allow the current to carry me forward.

    But this is still a bit individualistic. What if the whole world is moving forward…. we can see in ourselves what blocks our full participation in that rhythm of moving forward, the rhythm of contemplative, loving, joyous energies seeking to embody themselves more and more int the world…


    we can also see that there are laws, buildings, forms of education, healthcare, economic policies, workplace habits/rules/prejudices/greed/etc which also impede this movement.

    Perhaps then we can move beyond the whole idea that “mindfulness” is something predominantly limited to an “internal” process that “I” do and THEN bring into the world of social action.

    Rather – in striking contrast to the traditional contemplative way of the West as well as the East – we make no separation between individual and social action. Cleaning house, preparing a meal, changing workplace culture, talking with a friend, running for office, talking before the UN about climate change – in every moment, there is this rhythm of That moving forward, and in every moment, there is always an opportunity to notice what may be obstructing that movement, do whatever is appropriate in our little sphere to undo that impediment (it may not look to others like much or anything at all), and just continue on, open to surprise and newness at every moment.


%d bloggers like this: