May is National Mental Health Awareness month, and we are taking a moment to spotlight one of our outstanding mindfulness volunteers, Marg Tobias, who has been volunteering with the SF Ed Fund for two years. When Marg isn’t working as a lawyer, she’s bringing mindfulness training into Ms. Roger’s kindergarten classroom. Countless research studies (like this and this) have backed the importance of mindfulness and meditation to reduce stress and prevent more serious mental health concerns. Marg is playing a very important role of helping dozens of children cultivate a mindfulness practice that will benefit them throughout their lives.
Read on for our interview with Marg Tobias.
SF Education Fund (SFEF): Can you tell us a bit about your story?
Marg Tobias (MT): When I was little, I always wanted to move to San Francisco, and lucky for me, that dream came true. I’ve lived in Potrero Hill for close to twenty-five years. I love the city and all it has to offer — while also knowing we face a lot of challenges. I grew up in a big family – I am the youngest of ten kids. I learned early on to appreciate differing opinions and that there are a lot of ways to see the world and get things done. That “training” comes in handy in my work as a lawyer.
SFEF: How did your personal journey lead you to mindfulness training?
MT: I remember wanting to learn to meditate in college and then again in law school, but it just didn’t happen. Fast-forward to 2008, and my world fell apart when my partner at the time and I split up. Very soon after that, I attended my first day-long retreat at Spirit Rock (in Fairfax, California) and from then on, I continued attending mindfulness and meditation related retreats and workshops. I remember that one of the first sessions I attended was with Mark Coleman on working with the judging mind. Wow. That was a life-changer. Learning to observe my thoughts and see how critical I was of myself was painful, and ultimately so helpful. Also, I saw that I was not alone – meaning, there were a lot of people attending that session who were also living with a judging mind. Fast-forward again, this time to 2018, which is when I sat a ten-day silent retreat, and then in 2019 I started a two-year mindfulness training program. There have been many ups and downs along the way.
SFEF: Do you have any advice for people who want to begin cultivating a mindfulness practice?
Yes – just start, right now. A wonderful thing about mindfulness is that you can start any time and you can do as little or as much as you’d like or make time for.
There are benefits just from taking small steps or incorporating short practices during the day. It may not seem like it at first, but a little goes a long way. One really great way to start is to set an intention to be mindful at the beginning of each day. You can do this while lying in bed or in the shower – but the key here is to set the intention before your day really gets started…or else you might forget. That said, you can set your intention any time during the day – I just find it works for me if I do it at beginning of my day. And once you set your intention – however big or small – you can circle back to it throughout the day, the week or the month.
Your intention may be to slow down throughout the day. Or it may be to set a “reminder” at noon to do a five-minute (or 2-minute or 20-minute) mindfulness practice. That may be sitting still – and noticing your breath. It may be choosing to go outside and go for a walk – being mindful of walking and literally stopping to smell the flowers, see the trees, the people you pass on the sidewalk. Your intention may be to pause, taking a few breaths before you open and go through a closed door or entering or leaving an elevator. Or it may be to pause and take a moment to scan the face of the person you’re with before you start talking to them. Or if you like to meditate, it could be to mediate.
I often share with the students, that there is no right or wrong way to practice. And the good news is that you can start now and start again tomorrow.
SFEF: How has your mindfulness practice impacted your life?
MT: So many benefits. One that I’m most appreciative of and that continues to grow is having more genuine compassion for myself and others. There is an ease and respect that comes when we see that we are all interconnected, that we share more similarities with others than we may first notice. And of course, that we share differences as well – which are interesting and fun to explore and learn about.
SFEF: Tell us about your experience leading mindfulness lessons in Ms. Rogers Kindergarten class?
MT: Best volunteer gig ever. The students are amazing – so smart, bright and caring. I’m so impressed with watching them learn and really soak in the mindfulness ideas and practices. They are quick learners! I’ve learned to appreciate how much they like to move and wiggle around – and that’s been a good reminder to incorporate mindful movement. Learning to move and feel our bodies is so important generally – and it’s been a big part of my mindfulness practice.
SFEF: Can you share with us the most interesting story from your experience teaching mindfulness? Can you tell us what lessons or takeaways you learned from that?
MT: During one session, a couple of students had a lot to share and wanted to share about things that were not related to the mindfulness topic we were discussing. I felt concerned that they were talking so much that there wouldn’t be time to discuss what I had planned to cover and time for others to share. And I decided to interrupt them. After that session, I felt like I could have been more present and done a better job at listening to what the students wanted to share. So I used that as a teaching moment and the following week, I shared with the students how I noticed that I felt frustrated the prior week and then we discussed and shared what it feels like to feel frustrated and what it feels like to not be heard when you’re talking and how mindfulness can help us in those situations.
SFEF: What feedback have you received from kids, their parents or teachers about the impact mindfulness training has on them?
MT: The best feedback is the students welcoming me back with big smiles and inquisitive minds every week. They seem really happy to have the opportunity to learn about mindfulness – and they always have thoughtful responses to my inquiries. Ms. Rogers is an absolute gem of a teacher and I can tell she uses the mindfulness concepts and ideas with the students during the week. Her doing that really makes an impact.
SFEF: Any advice for readers who may want to get involved in the Mindfulness program at the SF Ed Fund?
MT: The folks (Tom, Siobhan and Andrew) running the program are fantastic – very supportive and they make it really easy to volunteer. I appreciate the check-ins they schedule that allow all of us volunteering to share what is working and where we may be experiencing challenges. I’ve learned some very helpful tips from other volunteers. My advice is that anyone with a mindfulness practice interested in volunteering should definitely reach out and join us.
With just one hour a week, the SF Ed Fund’s incredible mindfulness volunteers help bring mindfulness and social-emotional learning to public school classrooms. Learning to understand emotions and how to manage them with skill is one of the most important lessons any human being can learn. Based on Andrew Nance’s Mindful Arts in the Classroom curriculum, our volunteers teach elementary school students various techniques to help them cultivate the skill of present-moment awareness.