by Victoria Fontana
When I think about my path to becoming a Mindfulness and Compassion teacher, I am reminded of the many paths that converged from diverse points into the moment I realized that this was my calling. Life experiences, mentors, friends and contemplative teachings make up the landscape of my path. Here I share this journey with you.
I was a peacemaker by nature, with a keen desire to alleviate others’ suffering. Part of this was nature, and part was “nurture.” Unfortunately fortunate was the child who grew up in divorce and was desperate to keep those she loved at ease, keep the peace. I developed a massive radar for others’ dis-ease. This very trauma of a three-year relationship with daily dismay became bootcamp training for my often-criticized sensitivity to others’ emotions and well-being. My energies were misguided, and I was unaware that these efforts were my desperate attempt to survive and hold on to love.
The other side of that coin was the gift of this trauma, which, when bathed in mindfulness and self-compassion, had the potential to transform into a genuine outlet to help myself and others free themselves from suffering. It wasn’t until I started practicing mindfulness and compassion, that I was able to alchemize this into a gift. I realized our potential to integrate all that we are experiencing as our reality, while at the same time getting curious about the potential of our misperceptions.
It is not an easy road. Looking into the depths of your trauma and your delusion is at the very least uncomfortable at times. It can feel as abrupt as quitting something cold turkey, or like cleaning out a refrigerator that you left unattended for months. You can stay away as long as you like but the fridge does not clean itself. It’s not easy to open that door and look inside. But once you do, once you release the mold and toxicity, and care for the insides, it returns to a clean natural state. And there is space then to add fresh, nutritious food.
I remember the moment I started seeing the light shine through a crack in my mental fridge door. I was somewhere in my late 20’s. I was sitting on my sofa, in my studio apartment in Madrid, after a year of acute unhappiness. I started to see the repeated pattern… a lifelong looping LP. Why am I so unhappy? Why does my personal and family life involve so much anxiety and drama?
I started searching for some answers. I looked to the experts, who I would eventually call my mentors. I was very lucky to find a great therapist who started pulling the thread of awareness. She helped me see some misconceptions I had about myself, about my agency in certain situations, and this was truly an eye opener. But there was only so much she could do. I heard what she said, but many times had no clue how to put that into practice.
There was something larger than life about these practices that were accessible to all beings. And that was the seed that sprouted a desire in me to help others as a teacher.
I am truly grateful for that process, and I started finding ways to look within. I started practicing Ashtanga Yoga and experimenting with meditation practices. I knew that yoga was making a huge difference in how I felt physically and mentally. I observed my teacher’s calm demeanor, and much in the style of When Harry Met Sally, I often thought, “I’ll have what he’s having!” I admired his way of being and something sparked within me. A new possibility. Another clue that life didn’t have to be the way I was experiencing it.
Upon a life-changing trip to Tibet, I started practicing all kinds of meditation. I was the clueless meditator! I found myself doing practices that I now know ranged from mindfulness of the breath to Tonglen to Mahamudra. Even though I did not really understand the practices I was doing, I did know that I started feeling a lot more vibrant. I started realizing that I could work with my mind and body in ways that I had never accessed before. Something that was rigid, had softened. I was making these changes from the inside out. I was amazed at how much self-healing was available to me. It wasn’t out there. It was in here. Yet, it wasn’t done alone, it was in the company of my teachers, mentors, community, and the teachings. Growing with my peers in study, in teacher groups and in community, like the one we share at Nalanda Institute, drove this home for me.
This was a huge drop of nectar that led me to understand that if we could do this together, so many other people could too. There was something larger than life about these practices that were accessible to all beings. And that was the seed that sprouted a desire in me to help others as a teacher. I became much more methodical in my studies and my practice. I trained with different teachers and programs. Sometimes this became a pressure I put on myself to become some sort of perfect teacher. I hear my mind cracking up as I write that! The cat is out of the bag… I am still training, as this is a lifelong learning journey. My fridge still needs cleaning.
My path at Nalanda Institute had a great impact on my teaching. In the Contemplative Psychotherapy Program, we learned the ins and outs of mindfulness, compassion, and embodied practices, explained through a very integral lens of Western psychology, Buddhist psychology, Neuroscience and Research. I remember the day I spoke with Joe Loizzo, my teacher and mentor, on our course in Barcelona, about teaching these practices. He told me about this flexible and integral course he created that encompassed the content we were learning in the contemplative psychotherapy course — the Compassion-Based Resilience Training (CBRT). The CBRT teacher training was key in understanding the science of each practice more specifically and enabled me to communicate this to a wide secular audience, from teachers to business professionals, and the general public. The course allows me to create flexible modules for bringing these practices to diverse audiences and in a way that is digestible for anyone. Since then, I have taught the CBRT in many ways in both English and Spanish.
Beyond the depth of content, science and research of these courses, much of my development as a teacher comes from the example set by my mentors at Nalanda Institute. Joe’s unwavering confidence and openness has been a bridge for me to seeing my potential and a role model as to how to embody these practices and how to hold others in a loving presence. Fiona Brandon’s presence and warmth have helped me show up as I am and explore who I am as a teacher within my own authenticity. I am also inspired by and grateful to many other teachers I have had at Nalanda Institute, like Pilar Jennings, Elazar Aslan and Dr. Nida, and many more, each in their own way, lighting the path forward and helping me see my way through their example and inspiration.
Now, I see how these practices have helped so many others and the larger impact on humanity that this can have. I am so grateful and humbled every time I sit with a group of people who are allowing me to walk this path with them. I remember the me on that sofa in Madrid, so confused and lost. I remember the me now, who still gets confused and lost. I am grateful to my mentors who have held space for me, for the friends who I have shared with, and for these teachings that have opened a path to joy and resilience for me and for millions.
It was connecting to a larger purpose, being inspired and held by my mentors, and sharing with students and friends along the way, that solidified my certainty that this was my path. I feel compelled to be a voice for these teachings and a container for the learning as long as is needed. I cannot imagine a more worthwhile endeavor than to contribute to the alleviation of suffering and the cultivation of joy.
Editor’s note: Many of you will recognize Victoria’s reference to Thich Nhat Hanh’s famous quote (and book title) “No mud, no lotus.” The essence of this quote and Victoria’s path — perhaps yours as well — can be one of transformation.
For those interested in the upcoming Compassion-Based Resilience Training / Teacher Training, please visit our information page. The course begins on June 21st.
More about Victoria Fontana.