Defining Amherst is an initiative about exploring the purpose of an Amherst education. For more information, visit www.definingamherst.wordpress.com.
For Luisa Santos, observing is essential. As an anthropology major with a passion for mindfulness, she is a participant-observer in her own life. “Mindfulness is, in its purest sense, really just noticing what is happening as it’s happening. What mindfulness is not is filling in the gaps with our ideas, judgments, evaluations, or assumptions of what’s happening,” she said. “By being open and not rushing to analyze what is happening to you, you are being mindful, and, thusly, can genuinely come closer to the reality of what is happening in the moment.”
In this interview, Santos explains how paying mindful attention has helped her understand others and herself, love more deeply and question her Amherst education.
VM: Are there any classes you have taken that have stood out to you or kept you thinking?
LS: With each class, you start thinking differently in general, so I want to speak more generally to that. Whenever I say I’m an anthropology major, there’s so much to it that I personally associate with. I am an anthropologist in my own life at all times, trying to distance myself from my situation enough so that I can get a better picture of what’s going on. You can get a lot of information from just being fully present and seeing what’s going around you. I feel like a participant-observer in my own life.
I’ve been noticing that I started thinking about the way that we think about things, even more than what it is that we think. I am also paying attention to how the professors are teaching, and how students are interacting with each other and with the professors in the class. That’s a huge side of education that’s doesn’t get talked about. The experience of being educated is a very educating experience.
VM: What is the purpose of your Amherst education?
LS: I want to get to know people. It is not just getting to know as many people as possible, but also getting to know the people I know even better. I think that’s an underlying thing that fuels everything I do. Professor Daniel Barbezat is the first, if not the only professor whom I met that really cared to ask the question, “Why are you doing what you’re doing?” It really stuck with me.
VM: What do you mean by “getting to know” people?
LS: Knowing is exchanging understanding more than anything else. You don’t want to assume that you know what the other person is thinking, which is what anthropology taught me. But I want to hear people out more and try to reach a deeper level of understanding with people.
VM: How do you do that?
LS: What one would do is listen. That’s the most foremost thing. Listening is very important, in the sense that you pay attention to other people’s emotional manifestations and physical beings.
VM: How can we listen?
LS: Part of it is how you interact with other people, but a big part of it is knowing how you are and centering yourself. For example, if I’m talking to someone and not listening in that moment, there’s probably a reason. It’s probably not anything about the other person that’s causing that, but something within myself that’s causing that. Ask yourself, “What is keeping me from connecting with the person?”
Once you’re really present in the conversation, the other person will eventually take on the kind of energy that you’re giving out. They will start to be more open themselves once they see how open you are. That’s such a beautiful thing, because we are able to transfer that energy by engaging with someone. Have more energy transferals going on— that’s why I want to get to know people.
VM: Do we all have a larger, common purpose as students at Amherst?
LS: There may be a common purpose, but we can’t necessarily prescribe that, which is why I go to [the idea of] paying attention and asking [ourselves], “What is going on with me?” I realize that some people might not be ready nor want to do that now. I think that should be respected as well. To respect everyone’s process is a questionable thing to say too, because sometimes there are processes that are just wrong.
VM: What advice would you give to students?
LS: I would suggest not to limit what you think your options are. A lot of the limits that we see are imposed by someone, or imposed by ourselves. We should question everything in general. If that’s too overwhelming, start with questioning our expectations.
VM: Is learning about questioning assumptions?
LS: Yes, but that’s not necessarily what a formal education is. In a formalized education system, there are going to be notions that are taken more seriously than others. There are certain opinions that are going to come out while others aren’t. The education system becomes too often, or too easily a system of indoctrination. Sometimes in formal education, you’re not getting people to think, you’re getting people to know how to do a thing and repeat it over and over.
VM: Do you think Amherst encourages us to question?
LS: Amherst is trying to get us to question, while in the method of it all, reinforcing those things. It’s a very contradictory type of thing and it causes dissonance in people, depending on how sensitive you are to that. It really causes this tension to be taught one thing at the verbal, direct level, but when you look deeper down at what’s actually happening, you think, “Wait, that’s not what I’m being taught.”
It always threw me off that I’d have professors professing about the way things are, and how we should question it and do something about it. But even to allow you to say those words to me, there was so much that took for it to happen that was not completely wholesome. This is my personal experience, but it seems that even if a professor says that s/he wants to help students as much as s/he can, it’s really obvious that there are institutional constraints on that.
VM: How did your values change and develop at Amherst?
LS: I was very unthinking right out of high school. My values were to please a certain subset of people, which includes my professors or people who evaluate me in some way. That changed through meeting the people whom I would now call my best friends. They care to see me grow, learn, and improve. It was by opening myself to these relationships to these best friends that I was able to love others and to love myself. I can evaluate myself and know that’s going to be the golden standard, not what some higher authority determines to be the golden standard.