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“The museums give us these just incredible opportunities to have some kind of an encounter with different ways of seeing the world, shining a light on some aspect of our history or aspect of our humanity that opens up a new doorway for me to see things differently.”
While mindfulness is often thought of as a solitary practice, law professor and meditation teacher Rhonda Magee believes in its power to support collective healing. It can bridge the divide between subjects like law or physics, which are often thought of as cold and dispassionate, and our personal experiences, stories, and feelings by allowing us to become more in touch with and aware of the human element of academic disciplines. Approaching museum spaces and artworks with a similar mindset, Magee sees opportunities for mindfulness to increase empathy, understanding, and healing.
In this episode, hosted by Getty Museum educator Lilit Sadoyan, Magee shares her own path to mindfulness and how mindfulness can be a critical tool in the classroom, the museum, and everyday encounters and experiences. Magee is professor of law at the University of San Francisco and author of the book The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness.
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Rhonda V. Magee
Lilit Sadoyan: Hello, I am Lilit Sadoyan, a museum educator at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Welcome to Art + Ideas. I am your host for a three-episode series on mindfulness in the museum.
Rhonda Magee: The museums give us these just incredible opportunities to have some kind of an encounter with different ways of seeing the world, shining a light on some aspect of our history or aspect of our humanity that opens up a new doorway for me to see things differently.
Sadoyan: In this episode I speak with mindfulness teacher, author, and Professor of Law, Rhonda V. Magee.
Mindfulness allows us to approach all experiences with a sense of curiosity, awe and wonder. This deepens our personal experience of the world around us. My focus as an art historian and museum educator has been how mindfulness can shape our experiences in a museum.
But how might mindfulness also support collective healing? This question is one that law professor, meditation teacher, and author Rhonda Magee has been thinking about for more than 20 years.
She has studied mindfulness, from its roots in Buddhism to its applications to our contemporary world. She focuses on its integration into teaching and learning, and social engagement, particularly in the legal field.
I recently spoke with Rhonda about how mindfulness can powerfully shape our personal, interpersonal, and collective experiences, and about the intersections of mindfulness and the museum experience.
Rhonda, thank you so much for joining us today on the Getty Art and Ideas podcast. I am so deeply honored and grateful to be sharing this space with you. Welcome.
Magee: Thank you so very much. It’s an honor and a joy to be with you.
Sadoyan: Thank you. Rhonda, you are a professor of law at the University of San Francisco, and a leading mindfulness practitioner, integrating mindfulness into higher education, law, and social justice. Please share your journey with us. How did you first find mindfulness practice? How did it impact your personal life and your professional work?
Magee: When I think of the shortest and most concise answer to that, you know, it brings me back to a moment in time when I was a young lawyer in San Francisco and had recently graduated from law school. I went to University of Virginia, and then I moved out to San Francisco, to take the bar here in California. And I had about a month or so between taking the bar and starting the job. And I really just felt myself unable to relax.
This is probably an experience that many of us have had, where—for me, it was I had been working so hard for so many years. I had trained as a law student; I had, before that, been in graduate school, working on a graduate degree in sociology; I had actually trained as an Army officer—I was in Army ROTC. So I had just, like, been doing a lot of things without taking much of a break at all.
And so when I had took the bar and had these weeks between that big event in starting my first job in law, I just came smack dab into, you know, a sense of awareness that for all the things I’d learned to do, I hadn’t learned how to really be aware of my mind and to be more in control of the quality of how I was relating to things, you know, what my mind was doing in its free time. And so it was in that space that I happened to find a book that described meditation practices in a way that seemed very appealing. It was called The Bhagavad-Gita for Daily Living, actually. So it was presenting a particular kind of meditation. But it seemed just like what I might need to help me kind of calm myself, bring back that wandering mind, and also become more aware of the way that some of my own habits, patterns, and conditionings around my thinking mind were getting in the way of me just experiencing a sense of calm, ease, and wellbeing.
So it opened the door for me into a curiosity around different ways that I might explore meditation as a support. And that ultimately led me to find a community of meditators and to become a part of the community of trained teachers in mindfulness-based stress reduction.
Sadoyan: So I’m thinking about the ways in which you’ve integrated mindfulness into your work. And certainly, as we’re talking about the intersections of mindfulness in museums and art experience, how can mindfulness enhance the work we do in deepening the capacity of museums and museum spaces to be places of discovery, of meaning making, of learning? And perhaps not just learning about the art, but about ourselves and each other.
Magee: Well, I love this question because, yeah, the work that I’ve been doing to bring what might be called contemplative practices into my work as a law professor really has brought me into a broad community of practitioners—people across all sorts of disciplines, from law, where I am, to physics, to English, to art, and all the other disciplines that surround and intersect, perhaps, with that.
And we’re all united in this question of how can we, first of all, kind of recognize our humanity as soft-bellied, carbon-based human beings who are, you know, struggling in a world of lots of challenges right now? How do we engage in our work as teachers, learners, researchers, in a way that, in a certain sense, can help facilitate deeper knowing, and at the same time, maximize our own wellbeing as knowers, as learners, as members of teaching and learning communities together?
And so my own discipline of law, you know, does a lot of wonderful things, but also it can be difficult for us to be in touch with our broken hearts. Because we’re so focused on the cognitive in higher education generally, and certainly in law. How can we know the world external to ourselves, but sometimes not creating enough of a connective sort of bridge between those objective, third-person ways of knowing and our first-person experiences, our own stories, our own narratives.
And so mindfulness and contemplative ways of knowing have, for me, been a place where I could explore bridging those gaps, bringing together the beautiful third-person scientific method or research-based way of knowing the world, in skillful ways, with, you know, our own narratives and our own experiences. Recognizing how our own experiences and stories prefigure certain ways of connecting with that which we’d like to know and experience more richly, but can also be barriers to other things.
And so mindfulness, for me, just to say the definition I’m using here is that these are practices that support us in being present on purpose and in a particular way. And that way is with a kind of openness and curiosity and, let’s say, a friendly willingness to be present really to just what is here, not needing it to be different. Or at least being open long enough so we can learn something or be moved, be touched by our being alive here, by this new invitation to learn something, to explore something.
And so with that kind of definition of mindfulness as a foundation, really, we’re thinking about how can being present in that way help us with what might otherwise get in the way of our being open to learning, what might otherwise get in the way of our having kind of an ah-ha moment; of seeing something new; of figuring out how to solve a problem in a unique way.
I’ve readily seen how it can support oh so many different aspects of this really beautiful opportunity that I see education as presenting. Which is, you know, around coming together, maximizing diverse experiences, and problem solving in a way that can keep us, as human beings, moving forward. And yet we know that each of us can get stuck with— in our own way of thinking, in our own habits, in our own wounds, or maybe some trauma, some experiences that we are bringing into—I was gonna say dragging into—the present, that actually might need to be, you know, better left behind at some point.
Becoming aware of habits, patterns, conditionings, thoughts, emotions, sensations—all of the rich dynamism that is always present in any given moment. And then figuring out how skillfully to navigate the richness of our being alive and present and, you know, the moments that we have, is really, I think, what mindfulness could help us do. And from that place of awareness, yeah, we can deepen our ability to know, to kind of really know what we know, and to know what, again, can get in the way of deeper learning and of sharing what we’re learning, across lines of real and perceived difference.
And that’s a really important part of the project, especially now, because of the ways that, you know, again, as soft-bellied human beings, we are going through difficult times. And it can be very tempting for us to divide and to polarize sort of narratives about who belongs and who doesn’t. And so mindfulness, to me, is a deep invitation toward more healing— You know, I use the word equanimity. Ways of being with reality that can support ongoing growth and thriving, across different dimensions of experience and change and transformation.
Sadoyan: Yes. You touched on so many points that resonate with me. Let’s dig a little bit deeper here, about the last point that you were making. And how can we utilize mindfulness to cultivate that wellbeing—or like you said, maximize healing—especially in a museum space?
Magee: The museums give us just incredible opportunities to have some kind of an encounter with different ways of seeing the world. Shining a light on, you know, some aspect of our history or aspect of our humanity that opens up a new doorway for me to see things differently.
So I believe very deeply in the power of art to help us, well, just deal with, again, some of the painful aspects of our experiences, to help us disrupt our own patterns and habits. And so when I think of how mindfulness can support our engagements in museums, I think of oh so many of the ways that the practices themselves can support us in being present to those new opportunities to see the world that are being presented to us in the museum spaces.
But also, I think, as members of communities who are privileged to help curate these spaces, thinking about what the spaces should look like and whose perspectives should be present as we discern what to collect. And what are the ethics that we might need to bring to bear in conversations about how to present information?
Each of us might, in different ways, find ourselves challenged by a particular piece of art, by a particular suggestion about the ethical questions we should be thinking about, about how to present something, by our own prior experiences that are being invoked or even triggered by something that we are engaging in or a conversation we’re having about a piece.
I think that because mindfulness helps us open up that aperture on our own experiences, becoming more emotionally intelligent or more capable of down regulating when we’re feeling some distress, more able to calm ourselves and, you know, notice choices that we have in reaction, right? So that we can respond, rather than react to something that’s triggering us.
But we’re starting to see more and more how mindfulness is not just about internal awareness, but it’s also about external. So that we can notice, well, let’s say interpersonally, when something that, for us, is perfectly understandable and easeful and, you know, makes perfect sense is, for someone else, triggering, is for someone else, discomforting. And we can meet those moments with greater empathy. We can sort of set aside, for the moment, our own experience and open up to curiosity about how another person’s perceiving something. Open up that aperture.
Again, I use that phrase a lot when I talk about how mindfulness can help us, because I think it’s really important to see mindfulness as a doorway into spaciousness, into holding complexity, and into being enriched by, again, this sense of the possibility that can come from meeting different perspectives, as opposed to being daunted, as we often can be when we’re like, ‘Oh, no, somebody has a different perspective?’
And all of that, I think, can help in, you know, just the different ways that we might be challenged as we encounter art, or as we, you know, work in the field of education, using art as a medium. I think mindfulness can really help us make the most of the opportunities that we have, as teachers and as learners, in these spaces.
Sadoyan: Definitely. At least, you know, from my perspective and experience as a museum educator, it is so vital to hold space for those kinds of diverse perspectives, and honoring, you know, everyone’s contribution to that experience and that interpretation.
I was wondering if you can talk a little bit about an experience that you had in a museum or with a work of art.
Magee: When I hear that question, it is reminding me of a recent experience I had encountering art by a gentleman named Eastman Johnson, who was an artist in the nineteenth century. His his productive time encompassed the time of the American Civil War. And encountering some of his pieces, especially some of them that showed Black life at that time, and different perspectives on Black life, humanizing perspectives—
You know, I’m thinking of a particular piece, in which he represented a Black family who were on horseback, who were captured— This is a reflection of an image that the artist reportedly experienced himself, witnessing a man, woman, and child on the back of a horse, taking advantage of the opportunity presented in the chaos of war to escape, to ride toward freedom and liberty.
And just to think about that as a moment in time that, you know, in some version, happened; because of the state of technology around video or photographs, we didn’t have those images from the past. We find ourselves relying on some of the images that were captured by artists of that day.
And then when you think about how relatively rare it was that— well, that African Americans, for example, were able to capture each other at that time, right, in the United States, in the time of enslavement. And then when they were the objects of art, that gaze, that, you know, sort of gaze of dominance and white supremacy meant that the kinds of depictions were not always particularly humanizing or respectful. And so to come across this particular piece and to really feel that the artist saw the humanity of those escaping enslaved human beings and depicted that—it just really, really uplifted my heart, frankly, to know this is a white male artist.
And then to learn a little bit about how even in his lifetime, he couldn’t show all of these particularly humanizing depictions of African Americans. Which, again, helps us understand the culture of, you know, receptivity and the audiences that shape what kind of art is even available at a given time. And that’s something we always have to be thinking about, in terms of the ethics of what is available for us to enjoy, you know?
So while change has happened and today is very different—we’re in a very, very different time, in terms of what kind of art is being made available—that doesn’t mean that we don’t sometimes ourselves need to benefit from thinking about how it is that the culture’s preferences and demands influence what kinds of art is being produced, what kinds of art, if it’s produced, is being appreciated, saved, right, maintained—’cause we know preservation is a big part of it.
I’m still meditating on those pieces. I have a copy of that particular piece in my home where I often go and sit and meditate. And I just am in awe of the way that art can really transport us into different moments in historical time, but can otherwise just stop us, stop the mind that’s kind of obsessed with whatever thing that we have to do in our own lives, and just open up our ability to see the world through so many different lenses and so many different time zones or eras. And in that way, it can do a lot in the way of helping us heal.
Sadoyan: So transport us and transform us.
Sadoyan: Actually, that’s a great segue to talk about one important strand of your work. You have been teaching about racism in the context of law and culture for many years. You have written about mindfulness in legal education, and on teaching about race using mindfulness, including your 2019 book, The Inner Work of Racial Justice: Healing Ourselves and Transforming Our Communities Through Mindfulness. So what are the benefits of using mindfulness in the work of racial justice?
Magee: You know, one of the, I would say, big teachings of mindfulness, or the underlying teachings of mindfulness, underscore, there are causes of suffering and there are ways for us to experience ourselves as healing.
And so, you know, naturally, for me, the work that I’ve been doing to help people learn more about race and racism, learn about it in history and explore some of the implications for us today, there’s a lotta pain. There’s a lotta pain in looking at the histories in our own communities. I was born in North Carolina myself. Born in a community that was shaped by segregation and our long history of white supremacy.
So when I talk about the history of racism, I’m not talking about it as an abstract. I’m talking about, you know, seeing Nanny Suggs[sp?], my grandmother, who fortunately, actually, was also kinda one of my first teachers of mindfulness. She wouldn’t have called it mindfulness, but I saw her— When I was a little girl, I saw my grandmother get up every day before dawn and engage in these kinds of centering practices that— For her, they were based on Christian prayer. It was a very clear discipline of getting up before you had to get up, and spending time coming back into contact with a sense of meaning and purpose, a sense of dignity about one’s own life, a sense of possibility and agency, even in circumstances where you might not have a sense of the world recognizing a lot of that.
So again, to see that my own grandmother, who was, you know, born into segregation, born in 1906, right, in the post-Reconstruction era. She looked very much like me, in a way. People who looked like me didn’t have a lot of great opportunities. And so she herself didn’t have a lot of opportunities for education, was not able to go to museums and travel around the world, as I have been able to do. Instead, she had to clean houses for other people.
But I saw her, at the same time, have this capacity for making the most of her experiences. As she would say, making a way out of no way. And so I have that as a touchstone into how these practices has help us on all sides of the question of how we learn about race and racism. Especially those of us who’ve experienced the painful consequences of racism. And again, racism is just one form of the kinds of biases that we see in the world, and they— it intersects with, you know, classism and bias again religions and anti-immigrant sentiment that we’re experiencing, antisemitism in the world right now.
You know, this is just a category of what we could call othering. And we see this across our cultures. It looks different in time and place. And when we study or turn toward trying to understand how othering happens and how we can minimize its impact on us, each of us in entering into that differently. Some of us really feeling some wounds, some current, you know, experiences, something that just happened yesterday, right, that we’re still working with. On the other hand, for some of us, you know, these are more abstract ideas. We ourselves haven’t had a lot of experience being othered, perhaps.
And then because I was teaching these classes where we’re looking at race as it shows up in immigration experiences and the experience of new immigrants to the United States— ’Cause my students, as law students, were looking at cases that showed, for example, the exclusion of Asian American immigrants in our culture for a very long time; or how indigenous peoples’ access to property and views of the relationship between the earth, the environment, water, the whole notion of rights in an environmental sense; indigenous versus colonialists—
So looking at those laws and policies, I started to see how, again, stitching together the cognitive, the intellectual, with our own experiences, our own families, how we got here, what we’re carrying, the wounds we feel was just a way of helping us deepen the learning together. And so it was from the experience of teaching students from different backgrounds about these histories that were not easy to learn, that I started to recognize, hey, I’m drawing on my own mindfulness to be able to meet my students as kind of solidly and as unbiasedly as I possibly can.
And so at a certain point, io started to realize it might be of benefit to support them in exploring how they might bring in compassion, bring in— Right? This is one of the ways that mindfulness helps us cultivate that ability to be intentional about helping alleviate suffering—which is a way of thinking about what we mean by compassion. Again, we see the suffering in the world; we don’t wanna just see it and be present to it, we wanna help maybe alleviate it. How to empathize with experiences that are different from ours. And how to do that in ways that would promote healing, as opposed to despair, sadness, a sense of, you know, futility of it all. Because, ‘Ooh, look, it happened historically; oh, here it is again.’
In other words, to find a way that we could learn and flourish at the same time. That, I think, is why I started drawing on mindfulness to support looking at race and racism.
Sadoyan: Yes, so as much as, you know, mindfulness, meditation is this, you know, solitary, inward journey, it also has this great potential for social impact.
Magee: Yeah. And interpersonal learning and growing. You know? I mean, anything we do can be done with the support of mindfulness. So just listening to another person, hearing their story, and noticing when we’re like, ‘Oh, yeah, I resonate with this. Oh, yeah, I don’t resonate so much.’ Or noticing when we’re being distracted, as so many of us our these days, with our devices. And then seeing if we can choose to put aside distraction and literally just be present for another person. And then noticing what happens when we do that, when we make eye contact with one another and when we set aside judgment long enough to really hear.
Sadoyan: So the Getty Museum’s mission entails seeking to inspire curiosity about and enjoyment and understanding of visual art. And one of the ways in which we do that is through interpretation. So how might mindfulness support this public-facing mission?
Magee: Wow. When I think about mindfulness, there’s that personal, there’s the interpersonal, and then there are these systemic, collective, or public-facing ways that we actually even deploy the practices. I think about ways that we might invite more mindfulness in the process by which we cultivate ways of presenting art and ways of inviting others into the process by which we’re interpreting these pieces.
I even think of museums as wonderful spaces for teaching mindfulness. Because often when you think about mindfulness, we do think of this as very solitary experience. And in this conversation, we’ve been talking about some of the ways that it can, of course, also be an interpersonal experience. But really, if you look at the history and tradition of the, let’s say mindfulness-supported disciplines, right, the things that assist us in deepening our awareness and becoming more mindful, there’s always been a place for community.
So this idea of learning in community and growing in community, with large groups of people practicing together, is something that is sort of a hidden secret sauce of how mindfulness actually supports us in thriving. And so I think of the many explorations and experiments that I have learned of that are happening in museum spaces, where people are being brought together. And we’re experiencing, yes, pausing and meditating, or having, you know, meditative experiences together in large groups. I think of this as really a wonderful experience of how this communal public-facing aspect of mindfulness is already showing up in inspiring ways in museum spaces.
Sadoyan: Yes, and in my teaching practice, I’ve found that embodied experiences in museums are deeply powerful. So you know, having that kind of shared experience in a sort of maybe group enhances that.
Sadoyan: So if someone were interested in putting this into practice in a museum space, especially as, you know, people find it difficult, with fleeting thoughts, you know, passing sounds, distractions in the museum, what advice do you have for our listeners who would be interested in applying this mindfulness practice in the museum?
Magee: You know, I think that we always start right where we are— ’Cause again, you know, recognizing we’re all so different and we’re all gonna be seeking an answer to this question from different places. So if we are just museum attendees—we’re just going in, we’re just gonna try to experience the museum—you know, yes, there could be sights, there’re gonna be sounds, there will be someone there who is, you know, doing a loud recitation while you’re just trying to have a quiet moment.
Perhaps remembering this conversation and knowing that it’s 100% available to us to pause, to take a conscious breath, to feel the ground of support beneath us, even when we’re in a crowded space; to access that inner calm, that quiet, that oasis that’s always just beneath a consciously-perceived breath. You know, if nothing else, this part of the conversation is a kind of an amplification of that power of a mindful moment that we can carry into the museum spaces that we’re in, and access any time we need to. So that, no, we’re not gonna be able to have an undivided encounter with Michelangelo’s David, you know, for as long as we might want. Or the Mona Lisa, right, at the Louvre. Right?
But we can at least pause and make the most of the moment that we have before these profound pieces that, yes, all of humanity also wants to see. So that’s one way that I think about it.
But also, again, if we’re museum educators, if we are just starting on a journey of thinking about how to bring mindfulness into our work, noticing the insight that brought you into this conversation, honoring it, and then building a community of support. Because none of us really does anything alone.
I could say that all the things that I’ve been able to do to bring mindfulness into my work have been supported by networks of like-minded people who were not necessarily at my institutions or even in my city. But goodness knows, we have the ability now to connect wherever we are with like-minded people and be inspired by them. So I would really encourage those who are interested to keep building out networks and communities of support, so we don’t feel alone, so we can get all the benefits of mutual inspiration for trying different things and learning from each other.
And so I think if we’re in leadership positions, or if we’re in philanthropic positions, just understanding the value of devoting resources to these innovative ways of teaching and learning and growing together is another way of bringing mindfulness to bear in those spaces that could have untold benefit in the world that we’re trying to build, where we can all thrive together.
Sadoyan: One final question. What inspires you?
Magee: I think we all benefit when we pause and when we can connect with each other about things that matter. The research that I lean into for my work, they identify four pillars of flourishing. And mindfulness and awareness is one of the four pillars.
The second one is connecting and being in relationships with people, where we feel ourselves being alive together. The third pillar is deepening our understanding, our knowledge. And then the fourth pillar is doing things that seem meaningful and purposeful.
And so this conversation has ticked off all the four pillars for me. And so thank you. I feel hopeful in this moment, and every moment in which I feel I’m able to connect with people like you, my dear, and advance the cause of learning and growing and wellbeing in this time.
Sadoyan: Thank you, my dear Rhonda. I am so deeply grateful for our conversation. And thank you again for joining us on our podcast.
Magee: Thank you.
Sadoyan: This episode was produced by Zoe Goldman, with audio production by Gideon Brower and mixing by Myke Dodge Weiskopf.
Our theme music comes from the “The Dharma at Big Sur” composed by John Adams, for the opening of the Walt Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles in 2003 and is licensed with permission from Hendon Music.
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Thanks for listening.
Lilit Sadoyan: Hello, I am Lilit Sadoyan, a museum educator at the J. Paul Getty Museum. Welcome to Art + Ideas. I am your host for a three-episode series on mindfulness in the museum.
Rhonda Magee: The museums give us these just incredible opportunities to have some kind of an encounter w...
“The Dharma at Big Sur – Sri Moonshine and A New Day.” Music written by John Adams and licensed with permission from Hendon Music. (P) 2006 Nonesuch Records, Inc., Produced Under License From Nonesuch Records, Inc. ISRC: USNO10600825 & USNO10600824