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Sarita Tamayo-Moraga: Faith, education and mindful brownie eating

Sarita Stella Tamayo-Moraga has developed a well-deserved affinity from students for her calming presence and joyful laugh. Dr. Tamayo Moraga teaches a variety of religious studies courses and serves as the faculty director for in the McLaughlin-Walsh residence hall.

In this conversation, we cover Dr. Tamayo's personal faith journey, her career plans in college, meditation, religious tolerance, her favorite memories at Santa Clara and much more.

Selected Interview Highlights

Gavin Cosgrave: How do you recommend that students get started with meditation?


Sarita Tamayo-Moraga: For students who come with anxiety and stress, I usually invite them to our meditation groups on campus: Wednesdays at 5:15 in St. Josephs hall multifaith sanctuary, Tuesdays at noon in the St. Francis chapel at the back of the mission. It’s easier if you have community.

Here’s another tip: when your alarm goes off, set your phone timer for three minutes and stay in bed (this is from Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Vietnamese Zen master). On the in breath, say “calm mind,” and on the out breath, say “peaceful body.” And if you drift off and start worrying or making a list, come back and breathe deeply. When the ringer goes off, get up and start your day.


GC: Have there been any surprising or unexpected experiences since you have taught at Santa Clara?


STM: I can remember one program about mindfulness, and specifically mindful eating. About 15 students came to this program, and we did mindful brownie eating, mindful raisin eating

We had a Muslim explanation about how eating could be sacred, we had a Buddhist interpretation, a Jewish interpretation, and a Catholic interpretation.


What I found striking was that one student was almost upset that in the mindful brownie eating versus the raisin eating, he realized that a raisin is sweeter than a brownie. He was partially joking, but he didn’t want to accept that because culturally, brownies are seen as sweet, and raisins are seen as a healthy snack. 


Watching him struggle with what he had directly experienced versus cultural norms versus what he wanted to think was one of these unexpected joys of a program in the hall.


GC: What were your career plans in college?


STM: When I went to college, my big dream was to be a book editor or publisher, or run a bookstore.


I can remember at mass in college, the priest was giving a homily, and he asked us what we would die without. The very first thing that came to mind is that I would die if I had to stop learning. That was not surprising, but simultaneously shocking.


My dreams of being a book editor were linked to that, and linked back to opening people’s minds to difference and understanding each other despite distinct visions that may not overlap.


GC: What in your career are you most proud of?


STM: I think perhaps one thing I’m proud of is the way I have seen pedagogical tools of emotional management such as the journals in the class “Ways of Understanding Religion” have helped students track emotional reactivity and how that might hinder learning. I’ve been able to watch students begin to realize their worldview, see how it hinders them from seeing what is in front of them, and see them shift to acknowledge that their worldview limits their view. Sometimes students find that their perspective might be a prejudice.


GC: If you could recommend that every student read a book, what would it be?


STM: Full Catastrophe Living, by Jon Kabat-Zinn.


GC: What advice would you give to a first-year student?


STM: Get at least 6 hours of sleep a night, ask for help before you think you need it and turn to your community facilitators.


GC: You practice both Catholicism and Zen Buddhism which is a unique combination… Do the two always complement each other, or are there times when the two come into conflict at all?


STM: For me personally, they don’t come into conflict, but for others they might come into conflict. For me, since Zen does not require one to make the Buddha a deity, I am not required by Zen to have an additional deity. For me, the Buddha was a man that can help some people transform their suffering. Personally, it’s a way for me to free myself from the prison of my own mind.  Others may find conflict in philosophy or theology, but there is precedent for Zen masters being ordained Catholic Priests. At least for now, I think there is more acceptance of following both paths. Any theology when taken to its minute details will be in conflict, but that’s not what I focus on. For me, it’s what tools will help me transform my suffering so I can be a better person and not cause others to suffer.


GC: If you could send a message to everyone in the United States, what would you say?


STM: Please give others the benefit of the doubt until you no longer can.


GC: What does an ideal Saturday look like for you?


STM: Sleeping late, eating somewhere yummy, going to a bookstore, and spending time with my husband and cat.

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