Meet Daniela Labra Cardero, General Director of the Mexican nonprofit, AtentaMente

Interviewed by Marlena Trafas

“We find that groups of educators, or children, or co-workers change together. If given time to learn together, they establish a common language and build a new culture. If we want systemic and sustainable change in schools, classrooms, or the workplace, we need to work with all members and stakeholders. We are interdependent beings - part and parcel of social systems. Broader, deeper changes in culture will only come if we develop a shared vision and work towards it together, as individuals under an umbrella of connectedness.”


Editor's note

Daniela Labra Cardero is an entrepreneur, writer, translator, and founding partner and General Director of AtentaMente. Her organization is a mental health and educational non-profit helping children and adults develop social-emotional skills to reduce stress and cultivate a healthy state of being. Daniela received her B.A. in Biology from the Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México and is a graduate of the Tibetan Buddhist Interpretation Training Program at the University of Kathmandu. She has practiced meditation for the last twenty years and uses the latest scientific research on well-being in her work. Daniela also served as a coordinator, professor, and researcher at the Universidad Autónoma de la Ciudad de México for over a decade. 

Since its founding in 2013, AtentaMente has made a remarkable impact within Mexico by (a) offering in-person and online training to over 200,000 teachers through the Mexican Ministry of Education; (b) designing a national social-emotional learning (SEL) program for Mexican public high schoolers; (c) teaching mindfulness courses at public institutions; and (d) adding a self-awareness component to the National Curriculum. AtentaMente aims to become a leading organization in the field of social-emotional skill-building for people in Mexico and Latin America as well as for Spanish speakers around the world. The organization's most recent project - Educar Desede El Bienestar: Compentencias Socioemocionales Para El Aula Y La Vida -  is a Spanish-language textbook that explores the social-emotional skills needed in the classroom and life. Click here to read an excerpt.

In this profile, Daniela explains cross-border perceptions of mindfulness, AtentaMente's expansive curriculum, and the importance of both individual and collective approaches to mindfulness, meditation, and social-emotional learning. 

Could you explain what "social-emotional learning" (SEL) is and how one can improve their SEL?

According to the Collaborative for Social and Emotional Learning (CASEL), "SEL is the process through which children and adults understand and manage emotions, set and achieve positive goals, feel and show empathy for others, establish and maintain positive relationships, and make responsible decisions." These competencies are malleable, meaning we can develop and improve them. How? With training and practice, the same way we cultivate other abilities. Through this process, novices become experts. 

Say your mind is often scattered, or you feel out of control because your emotions vacillate up and down. This common problem can be frustrating and disruptive; there's something you can do about it, though. By becoming aware of the problem, generating the determination necessary to fix it, and applying the required effort, you can develop more focused attention and a stronger capacity to regulate emotion. By practicing these skills over and over again, you can train your mind in a new way of attending to life experiences and relating to emotions. But first, you must understand that change is possible,

The process described above is identical to the way we generate a new habit or develop a new skill. As with most personal development, change comes gradually. But it's encouraging to know that the ways we feel, think, attend, and relate to ourselves and others are habits that we have learned and can change. We are not trapped or limited by what we can or cannot do because our minds and brains can be trained. Well-being itself can be viewed as a skill and the social-emotional competencies that makeup well-being have been identified as part and parcel of all human endeavors —maybe the most important ones. (Social and emotional competency means we have developed healthy habits of mind.)

What would you say are the similarities and differences between the United States and Mexico when it comes to mindfulness, meditation, and mental health? 

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Although our cultures are different in many ways, both face crucial mental health problems. Stress levels in the workplace and schools keep growing. There are increasing levels of depression anxiety, even suicide—not to mention violent behavior—in young people. Though specific conflicts differ, the root causes of mental health problems in both countries are the same. To uproot those root causes, we must acknowledge who we are and our potential. We must also recognize the roles we play in our families, our communities, and society as a whole. That's how we learn to embody and express our best qualities, for our own and others' welfare. Suffering is a human condition, regardless of where we live and its particular manifestations. Our innate capacities for kindness and intelligence are also shared.

Mindfulness has, from what I understand, become a movement in the United States. In the US, the word "mindfulness" has become an umbrella term for accurate and useful techniques, ideas, and interventions, but also for misuses and misunderstandings. Those misuses and misunderstandings feed our quick-fix, wishful-thinking mentality, and twist or exaggerate the value of training one's mind. This is also happening in Mexico. Misuse and misunderstandings of mindfulness are causing a backlash in both countries and could disqualify these valuable practices and life skills. In Mexico, we may be lagging behind the US in some respects, but hopefully, we can learn lessons from our neighbors. 

What are those lessons that Mexico could learn from the United States in spreading mindfulness and meditation?

In Mexico, the first thing we need is clarity around what we are and are not doing. At AtentaMente, we teach mindfulness as one aspect of focused and open attention training within a broad framework of social and emotional learning. We've found that public and private school educators welcome attention training techniques. We've also seen a relationship between how clearly and specifically we use the terms "mindfulness" and "meditation" and how well we can assess what's working and not working in our programs. Researchers around the world see the same correlation. It's our hope and expectation that clarity around terms and their usage will demystify false claims and identify specific benefits of various methods of mind training. 

Mostly, meditation in Mexico is still thought to fall within the realm of religious practice or be equated with a blank, zombie-like, mental state. Science is our main pathway to clarify these misunderstandings. In a secular context, within both educational systems and the general public, it's necessary to define meditation clearly -- as a practice through which one person familiarizes his or herself with their mental states. In our work, we purposefully distinguish between various meditation methods. For example, focused attention—often equated with present-moment mindfulness or awareness—is different from analytical meditation. Similarly, meditation methods aimed mainly at developing concentration are different than those primarily aimed at developing emotional awareness. 

Regardless of which side of the border we live on, when we recognize that we're interconnected and acknowledge what we give and take from the world, we begin to take full responsibility for our lives. Then, we become happier - enjoying and appreciating the opportunity of being alive. Mindfulness is a great ally in this process. We are used to living on autopilot, but mindfulness allows us to direct our lives in ways we find most suitable. Meditation is one of the best existing and proven techniques to help people enhance their ability to be mindful and work with their thoughts, emotions, and motivations. Meditation is a powerful ally of health. Not only does it help us to be present, but it also helps calm our minds and bodies, recognize our thoughts and biases, and cultivate a sense of purpose.

Through large-scale programs, AtenteMente is beginning to discover the impact of meditation on society. We have seen mindfulness help individuals and groups. It would be great to see what mindful neighbor nations could accomplish!

Where did AtentaMente first begin when creating the curriculum for its programs? 

We began developing training programs in 2012, inspired mostly by Susan's work with children and Alan Wallace (read our shout-out profile of Alan Wallace, here) and Paul Ekman's work with teachers. We have structured our courses for adults and children based on what we call the ABCDs of well-being: attention, kindness, (bondad in Spanish), clarity, and direction. They work in tandem, but we usually start with attention training, because if you don't notice what's happening in and around you, it is difficult to work with your emotions. Attention is the first step in identifying our inner worlds and discovering our emotional, thought, behavioral patterns, and their consequences in our lives. Kindness helps us build better relationships with others and ourselves. Clarity allows us to distinguish between what is happening and our projections of what is happening; through clarity, we can keep an open, objective perspective and act accordingly. Direction is the north star that keeps us from getting lost and guides us in making necessary adjustments to accomplish our goals. It's how we know where we are heading and where we want to go. Our curriculum is informed by an understanding that these four capacities (attention, kindness, clarity, and direction) are malleable and serve as building blocks for well-being.

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With these essential building blocks, what must instructors hold in mind?

First and foremost, instructors must hold in mind that well-being is a skill. Where and how do we build this skill? By understanding that our mind, and not the world, is the primary source of both well-being and misery. That's the first step. Our minds are so important, yet we don't know much about them. When we start investigating our minds, we often find that we're out of balance -- distracted, lost in the ups and downs of emotion, unclear of what is happening compared to what we think is happening, and unable to identify our deep aspirations. 

An unbalanced mind is an unhappy mind. Through this understanding, the need for recovering our mind's balance becomes evident. That's what inspires us to cultivate healthy habits of mind and reduce unhealthy ones. In AtenteMente's framework, we recover our mind's balance by training attention, developing kindness and clarity, working with our emotions and relationships, and identifying our motivations and deepest yearnings. The broader context for this type of mental training is to help ourselves and others attain genuine well-being. 

How has working in different sectors (private vs. public, for instance) and with different demographics (adults vs. teens) informed your view of mindfulness, mental health, and their impact on social relations?

Each demographic presents specific challenges and needs, yet still, training one's mind is useful across the board. Based on their developmental stages and circumstances, you'll find differences in what people need most and find most useful. That's why it's crucial to help the person with whom you're working, regardless of age, understand his or her particular circumstances. By understanding and connecting with people's interests, needs, and capacities, what we teach becomes relevant. It has been a long learning curve for us with each sector: What's important to them? What's most relevant to their lives? How can we connect with their priorities to spark openness, curiosity, and generate excitement for embarking on the amazing adventure of knowing and training one's mind? 

To buy-in, most newcomers need to understand that what they learn through meditation can be concretely applied to everyday life. So we take the time to step into our audience's shoes by researching the sector, listening to what they say (again and again), and finding examples that match their current experience. Addressing their interests and worries are important steps toward their being open to investigating their life experiences and relating to those experiences in new ways.

When it comes to being present, having a broad perspective, a strong capacity to be clear and calm, and expressing kindness and care -- well, we could all do better. Yet, most of us are not aware that these are universal capacities that can be trained. Our challenge is to let people know (in a way they can hear us) that it's possible to train their minds. This principle is as true for those integrating mindfulness and meditation into their lives, as it is for decision-makers in education and health care seeking to implement a mindfulness program.

Although mindfulness and mental health are often thought of as personal and about individual reflection and habit, your programs are structured for groups. How does the group dynamic impact an individual's quest for well-being?

We are social beings. Even though introspection is a personal journey, its value resides in its ability to foster both personal and social well-being. Learning is enhanced when we share our experiences with others -- we learn from other people's points of view. Peer support also helps people persevere. When participants interact with others in the group, they get a better sense of where they are in terms of their emotions, habitual interpretations, and ways of responding to challenges. These are just a few examples of why group dynamics are constructive.

A wonderful "side effect" of working with groups is that group work builds empathy and community. In our programs, we emphasize sharing with others, mindful talking and hearing, actively assessing our judgments and biases, and then working with them - right then and there. 

We find that groups of educators, or children, or co-workers change together. If given time to learn together, they establish a common language and build a new culture. If we want systemic and sustainable change in schools, classrooms, or the workplace, we need to work with all members and stakeholders. We are interdependent beings - part and parcel of social systems. Broader, deeper changes in culture will only come if we develop a shared vision and work towards it together, as individuals under an umbrella of connectedness.


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