The Marin Academy Master of Meditation and Compassion
September 28, 2017
I am enveloped in a comforting and familiar hug in the dim light of the Sweetwater Music Hall. Even though at first I may not have been able to fully distinguish who he was, I could never forget the feeling of embracing Mark Stefanski. The skin around his eyes crinkled and a soft smile fell on his lips. Just one view of his radiant face and it is no wonder the name “Mark Stefanski” instills an overpowering sense of joy into anyone who hears it.
Translated from his own self-reflection and lifelong process of growth and compassion, Stefanski has shared love, kindness, and understanding with many people who have entered his life. The way in which Stefanski treats himself and others all began with his upbringing in an environment where he was able to freely explore and interact with the world around him. Stefanski’s childhood consisted of long days outside in the natural world.
“I had lots of open space. I had a big backyard….Even in the winter, we had a hill I could sled on. In the summer times, there were creeks we could go swimming in, and I could run around catching frogs and snakes so I really got connected to nature,” said Stefanski. This early relationship with the world outside, cultivated on the farmland of the house his dad and grandfather built in the outskirts of Buffalo, New York, would become a focal point for Stefanski through his later adoption of mindfulness and his work as a biology teacher.
After having moved to California and developing his career as a teacher, the concept of mindfulness began to enter his life. “I had done a lot of work on myself, personal growth work, and it was Johanna, my sweetheart wife, who said ‘Let’s check out Spirit Rock’. I didn’t really have much of an idea about mindfulness or the Buddhist dharma or anything like that.” Spirit Rock, a mindfulness and meditation center in Woodacre, California, offers classes and programs with many respected dharma teachers. During one of his first retreats here, led by a teacher by the name of Wes “Scoop” Nisker, Stefanki spent a week receiving Buddhist teachings and meditating in nature.
“That was a wonderful coming together of my interests in Biology, in particular. One of the things that I think is cool about Mindfulness is, for me, it’s a really nice intersection between our basic evolutionary biology, our psychology, and a pathway to living a civil existence…Everything is connected and interdependent.” Those teachings that began eighteen years ago have led Stefanski down a path of self-reflection and awareness which continues to impact how he treats others, how he views the world and himself, and his place in the Marin Academy Community.
At the beginning of his thirty-two years as a biology teacher, Stefanski looked to teach with intention, compassion, a mindful view of how he and his students should observe and interact with the world around them. Stefanski recalls, “I think a lot of what I end up teaching about [is] sort of what I’m trying to learn myself… I want be true to myself and as far as I can tell it’s a lifelong process and I don’t want to come off the rails.” It is evident that freshman biology is not just about the microbiome or evolution but instead is a reflection of the many years of knowledge Stefanski has gained from opening his eyes and his soul to the world around him.
“‘You do what you can, with what you got, and the time that you have, in the place where you are,” Stefanski recited in a slow voice with both eyes shut softly. The way in which he so deeply experiences the emotional impact of the teachings he has learned reflects his diligent work to create a positive model for how he behaves and thinks.
While he has an endless collection of puns and t-shirts that not-so-subtly hint at anything from evolution to animals, he is most renowned for his unique end to each and every class period. Stefanski repeats the same mantra to his students as they are packing up their backpacks and heading out to their next class. “I remember early on hearing of other teachers who would end the class in some, you know, ceremonial way, you know, a ritualistic kind of way which seemed nice to me…it started that way of just trying to have some closure to the class and leaving people with an upbeat, heartfelt message.”
He has memorized every word of this mantra and explained that it is a compilation of many teachings and words of wisdom that have touched him throughout his life. Pulling from bible verses learned as a child that he adapted to fit his Buddhist beliefs, signature phrases from a radio show host, and ideologies he finds meaningful, Stefanski has created closure for his classes. He never fails to begin an A block class with a “morning meditation” to center and focus his students and his closing gives those same students some knowledge that they can take with them as preparation for the day ahead. It is evident that Stefanski’s quest to connect with others and share his wisdom is rooted in a sincere place of wanting to radiate positive energy and to inspire others to think deeply and reflect on how they go about their lives.
This generosity of spirit extends not only to his current Marin Academy community but to family and friends that have entered his life. Standing in the dim light of the Sweetwater Music Hall, Stefanski supported a small, local band. He is a quiet but well-known regular. Halfway through the set the band, Steep Ravine, paused to thank someone in the audience. They mentioned their former biology teacher who had attended almost all their local shows in their hometown of Mill Valley.
That person? Stefanski. People standing by him gently pushed him towards the stage and spotlight, but his soft nature caused him to throw his hands over his face: a show of gratitude and humility. This man is truly someone who touches everyone around him and, in return, is overcome with the love and warmth others feel so blessed giving him.
Stefanski gave me one last glimmer of his soft smile before reciting his closing mantra, “Be good to yourself. Be good to the people around you. Go forth and multiply your knowledge and understanding. Keep your DNA to yourselves at least for the time being. Question authority, question reality, and if you don’t like the news, go out and make some of your own.”