For the last eight years Kristina Cavit has worked with children from marginalised communities, who often face the effects of poverty, including trauma and abuse. After volunteering with Latin American not-for-profit Nuestros Pequeños Hermanos (NPH) following the 2010 Haiti earthquake, helping youth who had been orphaned and abandoned, she returned to Auckland, New Zealand and set up a local NPH office to facilitate fundraising in support of the umbrella group. She also helped to grow Nga Rangatahi Toa, an NZ youth organisation, and recently launched the Kindness Institute, which offers classes and training in mindfulness and yoga. Classes are designed to help goers address a wide range of needs, from conflict resolution and stress reduction to developing empathy and compassion. The practice is primarily modelled on the work of California-based guru Byron Katie, and works on a sliding scale – so that those who can afford to pay subsidise classes for those that can’t. Kristina answered some questions for us.
Can you share a bit about your background and what led you to start the Kindness Institute?
One reason was the work that I have been doing over the last eight years with marginalised communities, mainly working with marginalised youth who suffer the effects of extreme poverty in Latin America, and urban poverty here in Aotearoa, and just seeing the difference between those who have emotional self-regulation tools, resilience, self-awareness, self-compassion, stress management tools, and those who don’t. Those who have never been around anyone who talks about emotions or stress, and who are taught that vulnerability is weakness, getting in touch with how you are feeling is a weakness. Just seeing a huge difference in people with and without those tools and how, no matter what adversity we face, if we have those tools we can more easily overcome challenges than those without. I’ve been using different education models and techniques of practices to help young people who have suffered a lot of adversity – and using mindfulness and yoga, and also the work of Byron Katie really has opened up these kids’ worlds in a way that I could never have imagined.
“If we have those tools we can more easily overcome challenges than those without”
The responses I got from running some programmes at our orphanages at NPH, and also with Nga Rangatahi Toa here in Auckland really exceeded all or any expectations. Rangatahi just soaked it up and took to it like nothing I’d ever seen. In the beginning they were a little bit hesitant and once they got into it it just really changed the whole dynamic of the mahi that we are doing and created a sense of safety, and community, and vulnerability, and love. When you are going through really stressful times it’s so important to feel safe and have tools to not catastrophise and judge our situation, which can make it worse, but in reverse to just go moment by moment and build resilience, and increase compassion for ourselves. The common factor I have seen that’s led me to develop the Kindness Institute is children dealing with stress and trauma, so what I’ve seen in these youth is that poor stress management skills tends to predict poor decision-making skills, coping mechanisms, learning abilities, which can lead to an increase in a huge number of things.
The Mental Health Foundation talks about a lack of those skills leading to an increase in poor mental health or substance abuse, suicide attempts, educational underachievement, unemployment, early parenthood, so therefore it’s kind of a no-brainer and clear impetus that we need to develop strategies that foster wellbeing and stress management amongst our young people. If we want our communities to thrive and our societies and our country to thrive we need to be investing in this kind of work to support our young people and our future leaders. No matter where a child is from I’ve discovered that what often allows them to develop, or grow, or succeed if you use that term, comes down to their resilience, confidence, and ability to manage their emotions, which are all dependent on stress management – something that most people in marginalised communities have zero access to.
Last year I went on a research trip throughout the US looking into stress reduction and mindfulness from some different institutions. I studied with the Jon Kabat-Zinn Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction Programme – he’s the guy that has really brought a mainstream approach to mindfulness – and worked with A More Holistic Life Foundation, who are delivering just insane outcomes and support for youth living in urban poverty in Baltimore, Maryland. They are working right in the hood, they’re from the hood and a lot of the kids that they are working with are suffering PTSD just from living in that area. They are living in the middle of the warzone. These guys have made yoga, and meditation, and mindfulness cool. And they have completely changed the community. The work that they are doing is revolutionary. A lot of my work with the Kindness Institute, the model is based on their work; they have been researched by Johns Hopkins medical school and Penn State and they are supported by Harvard Medical School, just because they are having such outstanding outcomes in changing the community. I’ve done training with them, have their support and the Kindness Institute work combines their work with mindfulness-based stress reduction, and also the work of Byron Katie.
My dream for the Kindness Institute is that every kid in Aotearoa will be a part of this programme and will receive these tools. I remember at one of my training programmes a Harvard professor who was working with those Baltimore boys came and gave a talk and he used the example of when brushing your teeth wasn’t the norm, and they start figuring out the links between lack of dental hygiene and an increase in illness and disease and they decided to make it a national school programme, of teaching kids how to clean their teeth. I would love for yoga, mindfulness, stress reduction, whatever it is that helps you connect to what you are feeling and why and how to move through it, I would love for that to become a programme that we taught in schools or alternative education (AE) wherever you are, wherever we can find you. And that it becomes a part of our culture and that parents start sharing that knowledge with us so it becomes another habit.
What sort of programmes do you run?
The main focus, the kaupapa is “supporting marginalised communities” and particularly rangatahi, or youth. As I mentioned, I want to get the programme into schools, so we can reach everyone. We are working with Onehunga High School, who have taken us onboard for a pilot project and that’s me and three amazing mentors, friends of mine, facilitators, people who are just amazing working with youth, and also share the same vision. We are all volunteering doing this, at the moment. We come together every Wednesday and we work out of Onehunga High. Over the last two years I’ve been planning the project and how we are going to do it and what it is going to look like. I am the Director of Mindfulness at Nga Rangatahi Toa as well, so I’m still working with those rangatahi there, and we will be starting a programme soon, piloting for alternative education, how we can hopefully develop a programme and get some good research and evidence behind it that we can roll out to kids in AE, which is kids that have been kicked out of school. Youth not in any education, employment or training at all.
So, extremely marginalised youth who would benefit hugely from this programme and from what we have seen so far just really love it and I think that comes down to having a good time as well as sharing something that is so beneficial. We keep it fun and don’t keep it too formal when it doesn’t need to be. And again, just creating that safety and vulnerability, and the kids knowing that we are going to be there every week – we are always going to be there for them and we are not going to abandon them. That’s a big thing at NPH, that they know that I’m always going to turn up and also that we are not their teachers, we are not their parents, that they can talk to us about anything. We will support them holistically in anything they need that’s going on in their lives. Just starting to be that person who walks with them through their lives and not just another person who turns their back but actually a trusted adult who believes in them and will support them through whatever it takes is a huge part of our kaupapa.
It’s not just providing mindfulness and yoga, those are the vehicle to what we are doing. I am collaborating with Mindful Aotearoa, which is the mindfulness part of the Mental Health Foundation in New Zealand, and we are coming together to develop this programme for AE. I’m running programmes with Nga Rangatahi Toa staff to help them with their own mindfulness and wellness journey and to self-care so that they can support the rangatahi more fully. I also have a group who want me to help support with this work at Mt Eden Prison, because there are actually youth, there are 18 year-olds at Mt Eden in remand prison, which blows my mind. And a group of refugee youth as well. Getting the kids is not hard, it’s getting the money. We know what we are doing works, we just need to make it work for more kids and I really do dream of a world where every child, no matter where they are from, has the tools to build their inner resources, their lives. Without a doubt, what we are doing is of immense benefit to our young people. Enabling them to live more empowered lives.
We really think what we are doing has huge scalability potential as well, and I think there is a real universal need for mindfulness, wellness, stress reduction. It’s particularly impactful for marginalised youth but is equally applicable to individuals, workplaces who can pay for the service. The Kindness Institute is a social enterprise, so these similar programmes are provided to paying customers and those profits fund people who can’t pay for it and need it most. The other programmes we run are workplace programmes – mindfulness and wellness coaching, and leadership workshops in organisations and workplaces. Individual coaching, one-on-one coaching and also running classes that fundraise to fund a social enterprise model of what we are doing.
I have been running some retreats and wellness weekends which have been really incredible, super massive highlights with people coming to me, working with anything from a minor irritation to the most stressful traumatic events. People are working on all sorts of stuff – a lot of relationship issues, work issues, family problems, body issues, guilt, anger, parenting, confusion, perfectionism, helping people with honest and clear communication, how to say no, literal listening, how to give and take feedback and criticism. All sorts of stuff. I’m also working with a new tech school called Dev Academy, teaching yoga and mindfulness there and an engineering empathy course. Teaching coders, they are trying to get a lot more female coders upskilled and teaching them about empathy.
Have you had any personal experiences that have motivated you to pursue mindfulness?
I started the Kindness Institute because this work has changed my life hugely, and seeing how simple and gentle these techniques are I realised how easy they would be to share and support other people. And just seeing how many around me – friends, family, the kids I work with – how it just really supported and improved their lives as well. Over the years I have done a number of retreats, some programmes and therapies with mixed results. In 2011, after I finished up helping out at NPH in the Dominican Republic after the Haiti earthquake and I was just quite stressed and overwhelmed after working 24/7 in that environment, I went to a yoga ashram and I found out about the work of Byron Katie and it really fascinated me the freedom that I felt from just doing such a simple process. From then on, whenever I had a tough time or a stressful moment, I pull out those papers and use them to support me in coping. For years, and I have only really realised this recently from doing this work, I thought I was pretty sweet; I had my shit under control, managed my emotions. I thought I was a pretty chill kind of person, levelheaded – turns out I wasn’t so.
I think that I was wearing quite a lot of armour and ignored anything painful or stressful, just by acting tough and strong and thinking that I had my shit under control. At some point everything comes up though, and I just feel super lucky that at this age I discovered these tools rather than waiting 20 or 30 years to figure it out. I think I have always struggled, not that I ever would have admitted this, but with wanting to please others – people-pleasing and wanting to be perfect, and in a real effortless way. Especially as a woman, you know doing everything 110 percent, but acting as though it was no big deal. So, even though I always presented a chilled front I worried about what people thought about me, worried that family friends, colleagues, they wouldn’t think I was good enough. Also that whole concept of exhaustion being a status symbol, and looking at our productivity as self-worth. I definitely got into that hole where my work became me, and I truly believed that what I was doing reflected on me and who I was, that there was no separation between those two things. If someone criticised my work they would be criticising me.
As you can imagine that shit takes a toll and I got super sick; back in the DR I picked up really insane parasites, and amoebas, and worms – was super sick. It took me years to recover from that, but instead of just chilling in bed and getting proper medication and treatment I kept working for fear of people thinking that I was slacking off. Then, back in New Zealand, running NPH New Zealand and helping Sarah Longbottom grow Nga Rangatahi Toa – I was her GM there at the same time, so being fully involved in running two organisations I got sick again. I think when you begin to name what’s happening and name your emotions they begin to break away and they begin to dissipate, but not without a lot of hard work. Mindfulness and yoga helped me let go of a lot of these limiting beliefs and this conditioning.
When I really landed in this kind of work I actually started waking up every morning excited. It was really weird, I was really looking forward to learning more about why I was feeling this way, where my stress was coming from, and my most painful moments starting to have less power over me. I started to really see that it wasn’t what happened to me that was causing me stress, it was my thoughts about what happened. Which was good news, because I can change my thoughts and my perceptions. A lot of people think that it’s worse when you look at your stress and your emotions, and what I have discovered is the opposite. The feeling of freedom has just been so beautiful and I felt so much lighter and calmer in my life and just so grateful to have discovered these tools. It’s something that I have learnt I can apply to so many situations, to whatever is stressing me out, and it doesn’t require me to be perfect. Last year, thanks to an amazing mentor and friend I was given the opportunity to go over to California and go to Byron Katie’s school and learn from her amazing team and I now obviously facilitate her work. It’s changed my life, this work along with mindfulness and meditation. I love sharing it and supporting others to develop tools that help them reduce their stress and their anxiety and their pain.
What motivated you to set NPH up in New Zealand? What does this work involve?
When I finished university I really wanted to learn Spanish and so I went to Spain, then I went to South America and I spent this day in the slum in La Paz in Bolivia. I met this 11 year-old girl who was hanging off the arms of men like 20, 30 years old and she was super high, coked out, and I discovered that she’d been kidnapped by these guys or somehow forced into an addiction and prostitution at 11 years old. It was a real wake-up moment for me. My world opened up and I just thought, what are we doing to our human family that our children are being treated this way? I knew then that I wanted to support to whatever extent I could these kids. So I stayed in South America, found out about NPH – a friend had worked at the orphanage in Haiti, there are 9 orphanages in 9 countries, supporting almost 4,000 kids. They are not really orphanages, they are family homes for children who have been orphaned or abandoned, so when they come to NPH they are not adopted out, it’s a safe, loving family environment where they are given all the love and the opportunities possible, and that’s what I really love about it.
“What are we doing to our human family that our children are being treated this way?”
A lot of funding goes toward supporting the child holistically and supporting them through therapy to help overcome their challenges and adversity rather than just handing out some food, a bit of rice and a bit of school here and there. It’s like, No. How can we actually support this individual to become a successful, contributing member of society? To become a leader. Each kid is given the opportunity to get a qualification in whatever it is they want, whether that’s sewing, or carpentry, or shoemaking, or if they want to to go to university we find them a scholarship to do that. But before that, by the time they come out of our high schools, they already have a qualification and can find work and they don’t get kicked out of the home at any age. We actually support them up until they don’t need us. Our Executive Director of the entire organisation was a 4 year-old kid who was abandoned in Mexico and grew up at our NPH home. He’s such an inspiration and an incredible man.
It just got to the point where we had kids turning up that we needed to support that had nowhere to go. Literally, nowhere to go – living on the streets, living in abusive, awful situations. The kids that we took in were classified by the government as kids that wouldn’t survive. We had kids turning up, and we didn’t have the money. I just thought the best thing I could actually do would be to come home and start an office here to send financial support to help these kids that I love so much. And to help this kaupapa that I believe in wholeheartedly. I’m really proud to have grown the organisation and I have hired someone else, who has taken over as the director, and I am on the board. We raise funds to support our orphanages, we mainly support Peru and Bolivia. I also did a trip back to the Dominican Republic last year, and to Mexico. We take volunteers over to orphanages to volunteer short-term and also we have a long-term programme where people with certain specific skills go and volunteer for a year. You don’t have to pay, most volunteer programmes are quite expensive and some are very expensive, but in this one they actually pay you and you just have to get there. If people are interested in volunteering abroad this is the programme I would recommend hugely. Last year I did yoga and mindfulness in Mexico and the Dominican Republic and they have just asked to me come and train all of their staff in how to do this work.
Can you explain the practice of mindfulness?
To me, mindfulness is paying attention to the present moment, to what is happening right now, without worrying what happened in the past, what happened yesterday, this morning, and 10 years ago, and what’s going to happen in the future. It’s paying attention to that moment with kindness, with curiosity, without judgement. I also really love Kristin Neff’s The Definition of Mindfulness. She’s a researcher at the University of Texas in Austin and runs a self-compassion research lab. She talks about mindfulness being about taking a balanced approach to negative emotions so that feelings are neither suppressed nor exaggerated. We can’t ignore our pain and feel compassion for it at the same time, so mindfulness requires that we are not over-identifying with thoughts and feelings so that we are caught up and swept away by negativity. I really love that definition, because it can be so easy to get stuck in the past – in regret, or guilt, or shame, or get stuck in the future of fear, or self-criticism, or perfectionism. I was watching a talk with Jon Kabat-Zinn and Byron Katie, and Katie said something like ‘if you want little bit of fear, get a future, and if you want a little bit of depression then get a past’. Whenever we feel stress, or anxiety, or fear, anger, we are always in the future or in the past. We are hardly every present in this very moment. That stress also comes from looking for an outcome, or trying to get someone or something to meet our expectations. Through mindfulness we learn to almost drop those expectations or those outcomes, and just be here now.
Why do you believe it’s important?
Besides the fact that people who practice mindfulness report that their happiness actually increases, it’s also hugely beneficial for our physical health, and our mental health and it actually develops our brain as well. I think it takes 21 days to build a new habit; 21 days is really not a long time and I strongly encourage my students to practice for 21 days if they can. We’ve got to do something that’s achievable, so if you can handle 10 minutes than do that, but for some of us that might be a bit much. Just start with 5 minutes or even 2 minutes – of full attention on your breath and mindfulness practice, whatever you can give to yourself. You will always have emails or you will be too busy, don’t feel well, you’ve got to look after the kids, you’ve got to go see your family, and that’s when we need mindfulness the most. When we are most stressed is when our self-care tends to go out the window. There is no better place to practice mindfulness than in your family with your partner, because your children, your partner, your family, your friends, your colleagues, they are going to end up pushing every single button and that’s when your wise, beautiful best self goes out the window.
A lot of the time it’s because we are attached to an outcome or an expectation of what those people should be doing or how they should be treating us. It’s in those very moments when we can wake up a little bit more to what is actually going on and understand that those are really good moments to bring in our mindfulness practice and see if we are wanting something to be a certain way or telling ourselves a story about how it is. Just beginning to become aware of doing that, of our minds tricking us, carrying us away, building up a huge story. I think it’s Jon Kabat-Zinn who talks about when we are doing that we are basically constructing a prison where we can’t see a way out and they can’t see a way out, and it’s that prison that we are always fighting over. There is really no better opportunity than in those stressful situations to practice mindfulness.
What are some simple things that people can do to introduce mindfulness into their lives if they aren’t able to come to classes?
You can go to my website – there is a free meditation on there, and I will be putting new ones up there for free for anyone who is keen. There’s a really amazing tool I’d love to share called The Three Kinds of Business that has blown my mind and helps me whenever I am stressed. I guess a good place to start is identifying what is stressing you out the most. Rather than ignoring it, or suppressing it, to actually sit with that and look at that and begin to develop some self-awareness around why that might be. How it affects you, where your mind goes, and how you can look at it from another perspective. As I’ve said, the work of Byron Katie is really helpful, and all her stuff is free online. She has free worksheets and actually a free 24-hour helpline that people can call to do the work with certified facilitators, that is just incredible. There are some really great free apps you can download, lots of people tend to like Headspace, or Calm. But the final thing I would say, if you want to feel less stress: start with your breath. Start learning how to breathe, connecting to your breath because breath is really life, is everything. Learning to breathe properly can really change your life and is a great place to start.
For more about Kristina, and the work of the Kindness Institute, visit www.thekindnessinstitute.com.