Mindful Healing Through Storytelling

In the Native American tradition, stories are medicine. "In a mindfulness setting, storytelling helps people connect with their intuition," says Renda Dionne, clinical psychologist and mindfulness curriculum developer.

Renda Dionne, clinical psychologist and mindfulness curriculum developer
Renda Dionne, clinical psychologist and mindfulness curriculum developer. Photographs by Blake Farrington.

“For American Indians stories are medicine…being present with yourself and the audience and speaking from the heart.”

Renda Dionne grew up in southern California as a member of the Turtle Mountain Band of Chippewa Indians. She married a Cahuilla traditional bird singer, and they now have two daughters. Family is a big focus of her life, and so is mindfulness—and bringing the two together. While studying at UCLA she discovered the practice and eventually became certified as a teacher through UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center, where she was strongly influenced by long-time mindfulness teacher Diana Winston.

She went on to be mentored by Bonnie Duran—researcher, author, and professor from the University of Washington—who is dedicated to bringing mindfulness to Indian Country. These influences led to her decision to combine mindfulness practices with her own tradition of Native American spirituality in working with the trauma within Native American families.

After graduate school at the California School of Professional Psychology, Dionne began working with two tribal consortiums. She developed culturally tailored, evidence-based parenting programs for Native American families at Riverside San Bernardino Indian Health, served as a cultural consultant for Riverside University Health Systems, and created a mindfulness program for social workers through the Riverside Department of Social Services. She has also developed a mindfulness-based curriculum for American Indian families and one for parents in the child welfare system who suffer from issues of substance abuse and domestic violence.

Preparing for a Mindful Families group session, Renda gathers with her husband Luke Madrigal, a Cahuilla Bird Singer; their daughter Sophia; American Indian Council members; and past participants of Mindful Families. During their session, sage is used for smudging; the drum, like a bell, signals time during mindfulness practice. The turtle shell reflects a Chippewa traditional story.

Karin Evans: Tell me how you first became aware of mindfulness, and how it fits into the Native American tradition.

Renda Dionne: I remember growing up in the Orange County area being surrounded mostly by concrete, until I found the perfect climbing tree, where I spent a lot of time, sitting and swinging from branch to branch. That required a lot of present-moment awareness and connection to nature. As a child you are in the present moment anyway, but when you are jumping from limb to limb, you really have to pay attention. Nature is very good at offering opportunities to practice mindfulness. I spent a lot of time in that tree!

“For American Indians stories are medicine…being present with yourself and the audience and speaking from the heart.”

Later, the idea of mindfulness really resonated for me when I was in graduate school and first went to hear Thich Nhat Hanh. I was so struck with his way of teaching, and how it was rooted in nature and interrelatedness. He would use aspects of nature in his teaching, and it was so deep and yet so simple: “Breathing in, I am a mountain….” He concentrated on the spirit of the mountain in a meditative way and really connected to nature through the practice. He said that when you are drinking a cup of tea, be aware that you are drinking a cloud, and that the tea has sunshine in it. He talked about interconnectedness. Most tribes understand that we are all connected and even have a word for that concept in their language, which means “All My Relations.” In Chippewa, it’s Indinawaymainganug. Thich Nhat Hanh’s teaching really resonated with me as a Native American. That was when I really started practicing.

Karin Evans: What issues for the Native American community concern you most?

Renda Dionne: Native Americans have a long history of trauma, and even Western science has shown that trauma can be passed down through generations. According to Michael Yellow Bird, a sociologist, researcher, and writer, if we are to undo the effects of colonialism, each of us needs to consciously consider how we’ve been affected—not only by the physical aspects of our history, but also by the psychological, mental, and spiritual aspects.

Long exposure to genocide, the destruction of Native American culture, poverty, trauma, unemployment, and marginalization have led to health problems, substance abuse, and overwhelming stress for Native American families.

Karin Evans: What other ideas have influenced your work?

Renda Dionne: While at UCLA, I went to a lecture by Dan Siegel, who cofounded the Mindful Awareness Research Center there. He talked about how it’s possible for scientists to see specific regions of the brain related to interconnectedness—“self to self,” “self to other,” and “transcendent self.” These regions get activated when someone is practicing mindfulness, and when those regions light up, the “well-being region” of our brain is activated. I sat there listening, and I thought, that’s “All My Relations,” which is central to the Native American worldview, and it’s related to being in balance and understanding our inherent interconnectedness.

That deep interconnectedness is one of the most profound ways that mindfulness fits within the American Indian way of looking at things. In traditional times, Native Americans lived naturally in the present moment. But today our attention is spread over so many things, and there is so much stimulation coming at us all the time, that those parts of our brain don’t get as developed, and we have difficulty finding our balance.

Karin Evans: How do you integrate these modern-day mindfulness practices into your work?

Renda Dionne: I have worked a lot with American Indian parents who are involved with the Child Welfare System, and many of the problems of child neglect are related to parental substance abuse. When parents are in the child welfare system, a lot of times they have been treated pretty roughly. We realized early on that an area that was not being addressed at all was the trauma that parents had experienced, particularly trauma around history and colonization. So the next step was to address some of that, and mindfulness was a key component.

When parents come to our programs, we don’t view them as the problem. Instead we educate them about the origins of the problem, about the trauma that has been passed down through history and still exists today. We developed a program called Finding Center to help people use mindfulness as a kind of centering, to help them remember who they are and engage in what Michael Yellow Bird calls neurodecolonization—changing the conditioned processes of thought. I find that talking about mindfulness in that context is really meaningful for American Indian parents.

My other project is a book and group curriculum called Mindful Families. Most programs are focused on adults, and the kids are kept separate. But in Indian communities the children aren’t kept separate. So we developed a program for parents to use with their children, so that families could practice together, incorporating mindfulness with storytelling.

Karin Evans: How does your work help the children involved?

Renda Dionne: One of the things we teach parents early on is to stop, take a breath, and move from doing to being. We practice paying attention to breath and body, knowing the mind will wander, and just bringing it back when it does. Parents notice that the practice makes them feel calmer, less stressed, less anxious, less angry.

Sage is recognized in Native American traditions as a sacred herb with centering and purifying properties. Renda performs a smudging ceremony with sage as a way of opening the circle: “It helps us to remember who we are.”

Then we encourage them to use the child as a mindfulness bell, giving that child all their focus in the present moment, with no judgment, with beginner’s mind. We guide them to notice things about the child that they appreciate.

That helps them shift from noticing what’s wrong to seeing the things about the child that are wonderful—things that might be missed if you are doing instead of being. That creates a nurturing and positive interaction, which cultivates positive emotions with the child. It’s fun!

Karin Evans: How do you bring the Native American tradition of storytelling into your work?

Renda Dionne: Stories are how we come to understand ourselves and the world around us. For American Indians stories are medicine. In relation to mindfulness, storytelling involves being present with yourself and the audience, and speaking from the heart. We practice both mindful speaking and mindful listening within a story circle, as well as improvisational games. In a mindfulness setting, storytelling helps people connect with their intuition. Speaking truth helps separate our conditioning from our intuitive wisdom. I emphasize the traditional Native American wisdom and traditional ways of knowing, and how that relates to present moment awareness—mindfulness.

“Our deep connection to ourselves, to each other, and to the earth and the universe is where our humanity lies.”

Karin Evans: You also work with social workers in the Native American community. What particular issues do they face, and how can mindfulness help?

Renda Dionne: They suffer from compassion fatigue, stress, and burnout. They have high case loads, and it’s easy to take on the stress and trauma of the people they work with. When I began at Riverside County, no one knew about mindfulness. But I knew that whatever I did in my professional life, I was going to incorporate mindfulness into it. So when we had a staff meeting with Indian Child Welfare and Riverside Department of Social Services Regional Managers, I decided to lead everybody in a mindfulness practice. One person said she just couldn’t do it, that the only way she could get into a mindful space was to take a really long hike. I didn’t feel very effective, but later I got a call, and they said they wanted me to come and do a mindfulness program for the social workers. We did a 10-week program and evaluated the program for results. The program reduced both compassion fatigue and stress. Productivity increased. And supervisors took up a three-minute breathing space during their workday! Since then interest has increased, and I presented the program with them at the California Social Work Education Center Annual Conference.

Karin Evans: Can you tell us about your own practice of mindfulness?

Renda Dionne: At times, I’m practicing daily for 45 minutes. Then I get sloppy. When that happens, I go to a retreat or a training, and that helps me get back to practicing more rigorously. I also really like yoga and use that as a mindfulness practice. When I work with my clients, I do the practices with them, and I practice through remembering to be kind to people every day—something I learned from Bonnie Duran.

Karin Evans: What are you working on right now?

Renda Dionne: I’m working with Riverside University Health Systems and a council of American Indian professionals on a curriculum to promote wellness through remembering who we are using mindfulness and storytelling. And, as I mentioned, I’m also working on the Mindful Families project with my colleague Betsy Davis, a research scientist at the Oregon Research Institute. Having done this group with Native American families, I’m now interested in developing it for all families. If you go back to the beginning, we’re all indigenous people and our deep connection to ourselves, to each other, and to the earth and universe is where our humanity lies. Mindfulness means to remember, and finding our center requires remembering our interconnectedness.

This article appeared in the February 2018 issue of Mindful magazine.