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  • Writer's pictureNicole A. Tetreault, PhD

Re-imagining Beyond the Cell Amidst Chaos

“You may not control all the events that happen to you, but you can decide not to be reduced by them.” ― Maya Angelou

In the middle of March 2020, life changed as each of us faced the COVID-19 global pandemic.  Slowly, emails filled my inbox: stores closing, news reports of people on ventilators, and the death toll swarmed the airwaves as we reached record levels of unemployment.  Each of us under lockdown in our homes facing a future with many unknowns.  A week prior to the Safer at Home measure, I completed a trauma informed yoga training.  While I was preparing to pilot the Beyond the Cell program with my first group of young women at Victor Treatment Center, I received the email declaring that the center had closed due to COVID, and all the girls were moved into homes.  Many of my face-to-face meetings were canceled, and businesses struggled as we moved into our new reality, our new normal. Then, prisons went into lockdown – no entry, no exit, and no access to the population I had created my program to help, as they were and still are highly vulnerable to the COVID outbreak behind bars.  I was forced to regroup.  In that moment, I was faced with my very own human adaptability, since I had imagined to bring forth Beyond the Cell into a very different world. 

A seminal principle of meditation is the release of attachments and expectations of an outcome.  In this awakening, I was required to increase my mental adaptability and flexibility to reimagine the program.  Faced with practicing the core of my teachings, I needed to be calm amidst this storm.  The first teaching in meditation is quieting the mind, to allow the mind to become an observer of the thoughts, feelings, and behaviors without judgement and entanglement.  Meditation is a practice, and I train daily to quiet my mind.  In the presence of a quieted mind, I realized I was in an incubation period, the time known in creativity where the unconscious mind forms connections and a product naturally emerges.

In this incubation period, I redesigned the pilot program to bring Beyond the Cell and COVID Care to an online women’s group.  Much of my growth involved the development of new teaching techniques using an online platform, exploring novel methods of teaching meditation and foundational principles in an online environment.  To run an online program that was seamless, engaging, and connected, I had to teach myself all the practical aspects of broadcasting: background setting, sound, lights, and platform, while also learning the importance of setting an agenda and communicating about regular class meetings.  I ran a six-week pilot program with a group of participants that included leading education and creativity experts, Caltech alumni, medical doctors, meditation teachers, and creative professionals.  With the pilot completed, each participant will be asked to survey the pilot to improve the effectiveness of the teachings and inform the second iteration of the program.  

During this period, I also developed and recorded a video for the Caltech community’s COVID Care.  The assignment prompted the idea to record all the teachings and the Beyond the Cell program. At the same time, I was admitted into a meditation program certification to further my practice and knowledge and enhance my teaching with world-leading mediation teachers, Jack Kornfield and Tara Brach, offered by the Awareness Training Institute and the Greater Good Science Center at the University of California at Berkeley.  In the second week of June, I will participate in a virtual Life Retreat hosted by Greater Good Science, where we will gather three times daily and have two additional opportunities for social meditation.  This experience will enhance my education, teaching and building greater connections for Beyond the Cell with a virtual community.  My incubation period led me to reimagine and re-create Beyond the Cell for our new reality.

The next steps for Beyond the Cell focus on developing the program further based on survey responses from the participants.  I will use my experience of online teaching to record the entire program with the support of a professional production company.  Once finalized, I plan to distribute the program and materials to jails, prisons, and organizations working directly with incarcerated and post-incarcerated women.  In addition, I am currently developing partnerships with organizations to bring an online version of Beyond the Cell to vulnerable populations, including individuals that have been recently released from incarceration.  Beyond the Cell will continue its mission of educating incarcerated and post-incarcerated women to lead them to better paths and futures, in light of the new world normal we are all navigating.  More than ever, the mission of Beyond the Cell is needed to promote education and positive life practices centered on neuroscience, meditation, and expressive writing to help achieve human liberation. 

In May, Beyond the Cell completed its incorporation and is in the process of securing approval for its non-profit status.  We have completed the organization’s bylaws and selected the Board of Directors.  The first board meeting was held in the beginning of May in an effort to bring the program forward, online, and to reach more organizations by building positive partnerships with local and statewide organizations.  Meanwhile, I have been curating a list of books for Beyond the Cell’s library program to donate to jails and prisons to ensure freedom of education for incarcerated women.  Education for incarcerated people is critical for their ability to transform and become fully integrated participants in our society.  As Thich Nhat Hanh says, “When another person makes you suffer, it is because he suffers deeply within himself, and his suffering is spilling over. He does not need punishment; he needs help. That's the message he is sending.”

More recent events, including the brutal death of George Floyd, have ignited me to explore new directions for the Beyond the Cell book, with an examination of the serious challenges facing our society’s treatment of incarcerated people. The book will investigate the neuroscience of trauma in incarcerated people and advocate for societal reform through education, neuroscience, and meditation teachings to rewire the mind for positive neural plasticity.  In preparing the book proposal, I am researching the history of incarceration in hopes to bring to light social consciousness for better reform practices centered on the humanity and dignity of incarcerated people.  And through interviews with leading experts on justice reform and by sharing stories of post-incarcerated and incarcerated people, the Beyond the Cell book will point to better paths of structural reform that could help achieve greater social justice for this traumatized population.

The loss of the life of George Floyd has brought into sharp focus how our society must change as a whole in response to socioeconomic and racial oppression of our African-American brothers and sisters.  This suffering cannot be ignored.  The voices of protest are a call-to-action for our society to be further awakened to the pain and violence our black community has been facing for far too long. With better understanding, we can work together to build a more just and equitable society, leading to a more peaceful world.

Here is the true meaning and value of compassion and nonviolence, when it helps us to see the enemy’s point of view, to hear his questions, to know his assessment of ourselves. For from his view we may indeed see the basic weaknesses of our own condition, and if we are mature, we may learn and grow and profit from the wisdom of the brothers who are called the opposition.” ― Martin Luther King, Jr.

The peace starts with our mission to listen to the voices of the suffering and pain and learn how to be better.  Each of us can reflect on how we can become better listeners of the cause.  Each of us can express ways of being more peaceful.  And each of us may ask, how can we begin to cultivate more peace within ourselves and spread peace in our homes, communities, and throughout the world?

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