Leslie with nun.jpg

Leslie Butterfield

The memory of my first mindful breaths is still fresh in my mind—the day before my 21st birthday, at a 10-day meditation retreat in western Massachusetts, I sat down among a sea of meditation cushions, my head full of doubt. Why had I agreed to this? Who was I kidding? Was this some sort of cult? But, it didn't take long for much of that second-guessing to subside. I was somewhat surprised that within two days of practicing breath awareness, much of my doubt had transformed into calm and confidence.

It has been more than nine years since I discovered the power of mindfulness, and the tools and cultivated awareness have been a constant and indispensable part of my life since then.

When I left my first retreat, I returned to my final year at the College of William and Mary where my budding mindfulness practice helped me maintain an open heart and steadiness as I dealt with finals and the impending unknown that would follow graduation.

Admittedly, attention to my breath, my emotions, and my general thought patterns did not answer all of the uncertainty and fear I felt after college, because while studying history and religion was fulfilling to me in school, it did not equate to immediate employment no matter how many breaths I focused on. Though, what my new practice did do was provide me with an anchor and safe space that prevented me from becoming overwhelmed with what felt like the daunting task of figuring out what was next. As I felt out my next steps, I attended more meditation retreats and weekly meditation groups, and my practice continued to grow.

Meeting the Dalai Lama after his 2011 visit to Washington, DC for the Kalachakra Initiation. Photo courtesy of ICT/Sonam Zoksang.

Meeting the Dalai Lama after his 2011 visit to Washington, DC for the Kalachakra Initiation. Photo courtesy of ICT/Sonam Zoksang.

Seeking work that would support my meditation practice and allow me to live in accordance with my values, I found an internship and eventually a job at the human rights advocacy group, the International Campaign for Tibet (ICT) in Washington, DC. I had originally read about the organization in the Dalai Lama’s autobiography, and I was fortunate enough to be brought into their family in the fall of 2007. In addition to teaching me how to lobby lawmakers to take stronger stances on human rights issues, my Tibetan colleagues also modeled a level of mindful living I had not yet seen in practice. At ICT I met and learned from many Tibetans and Buddhist teachers, including Sharon Salzberg who taught a monthly meditation class in our conference room. My experience at ICT showed me how to integrate the spiritual with the day-to-day.

While working at ICT, I also attended American University and earned a Masters degree in Ethics, Peace and Global Affairs, which linked philosophy and human rights. During the long days of work and full-time classes my mindfulness practice helped me to maintain my focus and a sense of calm. It was during that busy time that I also began hosting a small meditation group in my home, and during the campus-wide “Ethics and Food” conference I led a mindful eating exercise for conference participants.

My Masters degree enriched my work as a human rights advocate, taking me all the way to Geneva to address the United Nations Human Rights Council on behalf of ICT. But studying conflict resolution and the ways in which peace can take root brought me to a point where I felt that what I was working for each day—human rights and religious freedom for Tibetans—needed to start at an individual level, with people first finding peace in their own lives. I struggled to fit this understanding into the often ego-driven world of international politics. Turning inward to follow my breath and notice my thoughts, I became aware of a recurring thought, a strong desire to introduce as many people as possible to mindfulness and compassion—a desire to foster peace at the individual level.

As a first step, I began holding lunchtime office meditation once a week. My colleagues who joined me expressed their appreciation for the internal space it gave them and the renewed focus that came with just 15 minutes of mindful breathing.

Over time, I found that my desire to bring mindfulness to others grew clearer to me, and I wanted most to work with young people. I began a six-week online training with Mindful Schools, which I followed up with an in-person training in the Mindful Schools K-5 mindfulness curriculum.

My brother and sister-in-law saw the potential benefits that mindfulness training held for their daughters, and they asked me to work with their children. The only problem was that I lived in Washington, DC and they lived in San Diego. Despite our geographic distance, we found that I was able to teach their 6 and 10 year old girls during a weekly Skype session, and soon the girls began using mindfulness at bedtime and before tests, recognizing the sense of calm and focus these tools brought them. Seeing them pick up and incorporate these tools into their lives was extremely motivating and helped me to trust that I was on the right path. And discovering how well Skype and FaceTime worked to bring mindfulness to my nieces gave me the idea for ‘Mindfulness Online.’

I am pleased with my students’ reactions to their mindfulness lessons. Many of them will request mindfulness and excitedly tell me how they used it: “My friend and I were nervous about our band concert, so I taught her to breathe mindfully before we got on stage.”

I feel grateful to have had an impact on these children’s lives, and I see the potential to help so many more children. Through the Internet, I hope to bring mindfulness tools to children and families across the country.