…Remember that not every moment is supposed to be easy. Life is full of moments that are unpleasant: toothaches, pop quizzes, difficult conversations, births, deaths, the list is long! When we resign ourselves to this fact, we can learn to be more skillful with all of life’s road bumps and learn to savor the moments that are pleasant.
Resilience has been described as the ability to withstand adversity and bounce back from difficult life events. Times are not easy now. How do we develop greater resilience to withstand the challenges that keep being thrown at us? In this interview series, we are talking to mental health experts, authors, resilience experts, coaches, and business leaders who can talk about how we can develop greater resilience to improve our lives.
As a part of this series, I had the pleasure of interviewing Andrew Jordan Nance.
Andrew Jordan Nance is the founder of Mindful Arts San Francisco, a program of the San Francisco Education Fund that provides volunteer mindfulness educators to teach in SF public schools. He has been an educator since 1990, and is also an award-winning actor and director. He is the author of four published books; The Barefoot King, The Lion in Me, Mindful Arts in the Classroom, and the bestseller, Puppy Mind.
Thank you so much for joining us! Our readers would love to get to know you a bit better. Can you tell us a bit about your backstory?
In the 1960s and 70s, I grew up as a gay kid in San Francisco, the only son of two deaf parents. My mom was born deaf, and my father lost his hearing at sixteen from meningitis. From a very early age, my sister and I were asked to do very grown-up tasks like speaking on the phone to banks, doctors, and the like. Needing to step up like this for our parents made both of us grow up fast.
It also taught us to be very present for what was happening around us, not only so that we could follow what our parents and their friends were saying, but so that we could ensure our parents’ safety. We also needed to keep ourselves safe from embarrassing misunderstandings from strangers who did not immediately know our parents were deaf. This way of living taught me how to be mindful from a very early age, a life-skill that would serve me well as I got older.
My first professional love was acting. I studied theater throughout high school, and eventually went to New York University Tisch School of the Arts to study at The Lee Strasberg Theater Institute, Playwrights Horizons, and Practical Aesthetics Workshop (which would later become the Atlantic Theater Company). After living in various places, my husband and I settled back in San Francisco in 1994. I went on to have a career as a theater actor and director, with my primary job as the Conservatory Director of a theater school for youth and adults called the New Conservatory Theater Center.
In 2013, after deciding I needed a new work chapter, I stumbled into the world of mindfulness by enrolling in a weeklong symposium with the Greater Good Science Center at UC Berkeley that focused on Social Emotional Learning (SEL). For an entire week I learned about the intricacies of SEL, including Mindfulness, and that is when I had this Light Bulb Moment: Mindfulness training and theater training were quite similar! Both invited participants to be in the present, be aware of our emotional states, and be aware of our surroundings so that we can be at our most skillful.
From that symposium, I dove into all things mindfulness, reading many books and taking many online classes from an amazing organization called Mindful Schools. As I was thinking about how to get mindfulness training to children, I became acquainted with the team at the San Francisco Education Fund, an organization that mobilizes its community to empower San Francisco public-school students and build a more diverse and equitable public-school experience. These conversations launched into a strategic partnership, and the SF Ed Fund helped me connect with two SFUSD kindergarten classrooms who were willing to have me try out my newfound mindfulness skills in their classrooms.
The classes went well, but by April I had run out of curriculum, so I started adding theatre games, stories that I had written and art activities. That’s when Mindful Arts San Francisco (MASF) was born. I knew I couldn’t scale the program as the only teacher of it, and we couldn’t expect all elementary teachers to become experts in Mindfulness in addition to all of the other subjects they teach. We landed on the idea of recruiting and training volunteers to deliver this new curriculum. As of today, we have grown to over 40 volunteers working weekly in San Francisco Unified Schools, supported by a paid program coordinator who is employed by the San Francisco Education Fund. Every week these volunteer mindfulness practitioners use my published mindfulness picture books and curriculum, “Mindful Arts in the Classroom,” to reach approximately 1,500 students.
Can you share with us the most interesting story from your career? Can you tell us what lessons or ‘take aways’ you learned from that?
When I discovered my passion for teaching mindfulness, I was amazed how easeful it was for me to connect with individuals and organizations that were interested in helping mindfulness reach more students. There were days when I would get one or two emails from people who had heard about MASF’s curriculum who were interested in volunteering or giving funds to ensure the viability of the program. In fact, this year alone we have had two foundations reach out to us, unsolicited, to give us donations so that we could increase the capacity of our program coordinator’s ability to do their work. My takeaway is that when we find a career, person, project that lights us up, we have the energy and make the time to create great things.
What do you think makes your company stand out? Can you share a story?
I think what makes Mindful Arts San Francisco so different is how fun the MASF curriculum is! Most of the kids look forward to seeing our volunteers each week, all of whom bring stories, games, or art activities to share. This curriculum is designed to intrigue the participants, so that they are not only learning to practice Focus Time (meditation) but also tips to bring mindfulness into their daily lives. Additionally, what I love about MASF administrative structure is its simplicity. We need only one paid program coordinator and the rest of our staff is volunteer mindfulness instructors. It’s a pretty replicable, scalable model!
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story?
Two people come to mind. Ed Decker, the founder and Executive Director of New Conservatory Theatre Center, gave me the first administrative job I ever had. That job later evolved into the role of NCTC’s Conservatory Director, a position that that I held for almost twenty years. The second person that comes to mind is Tom Laursen, Senior Coordinator of Volunteer Engagement at the San Francisco Education Fund. He took a chance on me, allowing a novice mindfulness instructor to volunteer with two San Francisco schools, then helping me build the program to what it is today.
Ok thank you for all that. Now let’s shift to the main focus of this interview. We would like to explore and flesh out the trait of resilience. How would you define resilience? What do you believe are the characteristics or traits of resilient people?
Resilience is the ability to ride the waves of life with grace, equanimity, and strength. Resilient people have all of those things.
Courage is often likened to resilience. In your opinion how is courage both similar and different to resilience?
Courage is the ability to do hard things even though we may be scared. Resilience is knowing that life can be hard but it will not break us. Courage asks us to test our resilience.
When you think of resilience, which person comes to mind? Can you explain why you chose that person?
This is not one person, but I really have to mention the kids that we work with through Mindful Arts San Francisco. So many of them are living through such adverse childhood experiences and yet they show up most days, trying their best to learn, to be curious, and to connect with their peers and teachers. This is not an easy task, especially when your family is struggling in so many ways within systems that are designed to only benefit a few.
The other one person is my mom. As I mentioned, she was born deaf but was fearless and did not think of her deafness as a handicap. She would often take off her hearing aids (which she only wore sporadically) with a big sigh, saying “Ah, silence!” I think she looked at her hearing loss as a blessing. She had a joyful heart, and most everyone she met fell under her kind spell, playful nature and high-pitched laugh. She had the best focus of anyone I knew, winning any game she put her attention on. She also was an intrepid traveler, often on her own, and would ask for help from anyone to get what and where she needed.
Has there ever been a time that someone told you something was impossible, but you did it anyway? Can you share the story with us?
I remember when I was a senior in high school, the front desk secretary (who was also a part time college counselor), said I would never get into college because my grades were not good enough. She was right in one sense; my grades were not good. However, I wrote a good enough admissions essay and interviewed well, so I did get into a college, the only one I applied for: Bard College in upstate New York. After one semester, I transferred to NYU (on probation), realizing I was too far from Manhattan for this budding actor!
Did you have a time in your life where you had one of your greatest setbacks, but you bounced back from it stronger than ever? Can you share that story with us?
In my mid-forties I started to analyze the things I was striving for: the perfect career, perfect relationships, perfect physique, and perfect experiences. Striving for those things were exhausting and not an effective way to have meaningful and long-lasting well-being. I found a helpful therapist to help me navigate these big revelations and emotions so that I could find a healthier way to show up for my life. Through doing this inner work, as well as implementing a consistent mindfulness practice, I have found the ability to find more equanimity, grace, and resilience than ever before.
How have you cultivated resilience throughout your life? Did you have any experiences growing up that have contributed to building your resiliency? Can you share a story?
I think growing up with deaf parents helped me cultivate resilience. Feelings of embarrassment and shame were a daily experience. I was often put in positions where I would have to explain my parents’ voices or inability to understand what people were saying to them.
Then as a young teen, I started understanding my sexuality more, and eventually came out in the late 70s and early 80s. That was terrifying and certainly liberating! I had to be ready for whatever came my way. Growing up with deaf parents, I had always felt different, but this new teasing, the questions, the shaming, were nerve-racking. Learning how to stand in my truth — when met with ignorance — was very hard but I knew that meeting people’s questions and ignorance with kindness was best for all concerned. I knew I needed allies more than I needed my indignation, so I tried to build connection when I could.
Lastly, I think being in a 32-year marriage helps me cultivate resilience, connection, and kindness! Relationships are not always easy, and I have a terrific husband!
Resilience is like a muscle that can be strengthened. In your opinion, what are 5 steps that someone can take to become more resilient? Please share a story or an example for each.
I think remembering that resilience is something all living beings are capable of is a good starting point. Each of our ancestors were strong enough to get us this far. As you said, we have it in us, we just need to cultivate it.
Mindfulness is a great first step in establishing resilience. It helps us to remember that most of the time we are safe. When we realize that suffering is wishing something were other than it is, there is a bit of relaxation that comes with that realization so that we can think more clearly. How do you begin to practice mindfulness? Start my taking three slow breaths, filling up your lower belly, and then sit with stillness for 2 minutes. Do that twice a day and increase incrementally until you are sitting for 10 or more minutes at a time. Don’t worry about quieting your mind, just notice if it is busy or still. What sensations does a busy mind bring? What sensations does a still mind bring?
Practicing self-kindness when things get hard is another important step in being resilient. When we can gently say to ourselves something like, “Of course you are feeling this way.” That will go a long way in comforting the nervous system so that our brains can think more clearly.
Taking deep breaths is a great way to remember how resilient we can be.
Remember that not every moment is supposed to be easy. Life is full of moments that are unpleasant: toothaches, pop quizzes, difficult conversations, births, deaths, the list is long! When we resign ourselves to this fact, we can learn to be more skillful with all of life’s road bumps and learn to savor the moments that are pleasant.
Look for the good. Humans have a negativity bias, which helps keep us safe from the world’s harms. However, looking for the good, or finding the pleasant in the present is a great way to keep your mood up so that when hard things do show up, we are more ready for them!
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. 🙂
Well, that would be mindfulness, of course! Learning to remember to drop out of Flight, Fight, or Freeze by breathing slowly and deeply throughout the day is a life skill that serves us well. Especially when things get rough, or when a transition happens — like coming home, hitting traffic, or handling a difficult situation — taking those deep breaths are a great way to find more equanimity and clarity of mind.
We are blessed that some very prominent leaders read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this, especially if we tag them 🙂
I’d like to talk to Dan Harris, who is the founder and host of the Ten Percent Happier Podcast. It’s a great show! I really believe we need to have more national and international conversations about how we can bring these mindfulness practices to kids and his platform would be a terrific way to do just that.
How can our readers further follow your work online?
This was very inspiring. Thank you so much for joining us!