Meditation is the new black

Universities across the country are bringing contemplative studies to the classroom to provide alternative learning methods to de-stress, improve focus and decrease distractions.

Diane Grimes sits cross-legged on a magenta Zafu meditation cushion in the front of the classroom as 21 students shuffle into her Tuesday afternoon CRS 347: Mindful Communication Skills class at Syracuse University. Fifteen women and six men deftly strip off thick parkas, down jackets, and heavy-duty snow boots; and place them in four large mahogany closets that line the sides of the room. Leaving behind everything but a folder and pen, the students assume a cross-legged position on their assigned Zafu cushions.

"People aren’t in the present moment. They’re not experiencing what’s happening. They’re planning. They’re thinking. They’re anywhere but here."
- Dessa Bergen-Cico

Grimes’ eyes crack open, and without saying a word, she picks up the pair of brass Tingsha Bells that lay beside her. They strike three times, releasing a clean note that lingers in the air. For 12 minutes, the students sit undisturbed with closed eyes. The Tingsha Bells are struck three more times. Eyes flutter open, legs untangle, and the worried expressions that appeared on students’ faces as they walked through the classroom’s door have long since faded. CRS 347 can now begin.

According to the American Psychological Association people aged 18-33 reported the highest levels of stress compared to the national average. At least six in 10 college students report feeling so stressed that they couldn’t get their work done on one or more occasion.

College students struggle to achieve balanced healthy lifestyles or positive coping skills especially in a culture full of distractions keeping people from being present — thank you smartphones, iPads, and laptops. Students rely on drug or alcohol use to cope with stress and anxiety, and because of that, almost one in four, or 1.8 million, college students meet the medical criteria for substance abuse or dependence, according to New York University's Live Well NYU program designed to improve student health. Those numbers are almost triple the number the general population. In order to combat stress levels among student, universities across the country are bringing contemplative practices into the classroom.

Schools like Brown University, the University of Virginia, Boston College, as well as Syracuse University offer minors or courses for credit in Mindfulness and Contemplative Practices. According to Rachel Razza, the coordinator of the new Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies minor at Syracuse University, the program both instills students with the skills to thwart daily stressors, as well as the ability to incorporate mindfulness into careers upon graduation. Like any other class for credit, class assignments include, papers, tests and homework.

“Mindfulness is the new black. It’s very fashionable, and everybody wants some, and there’s lots of ways to wear it,” said Samuel Green, a professor at the University of Virginia.

According to Bonnie Shoultz, the Buddhist Chaplain at Syracuse University, meditation was brought to Syracuse University’s campus in 1971 when three graduate students started sitting together after hearing about Buddhist meditation. The group grew, and became what is the Zen Center of Syracuse today.

“It wasn’t as much connected with health and wellness then, as it has become. As more and more research is done on the effects on the body and the brain, the link has grown stronger,” Shoultz said.

Many universities are in the formative phase of bringing these programs to the classroom. Rather than offer fragmented skills, schools and professors want to provide students with an education based on a wholistic experience. The challenge comes in creating a program that fits with pre-existing majors and minors within a school, as well as creating a program that is creative and accessible for students because it takes time and patience to learn how to implement these practices into your life, according to Samuel Green, a professor at the University of Virginia.

“Often times when people are experience stress they want quick results, and I think that’s why many people who are suffering from anxiety turn to substances or medication to find relief and that’s a short-term solution. Mindfulness really offers students a longer-term strategy and in the end it’s probably the most effective,” said Susan Pasco, the associate director of the Syracuse University Counseling Center.

Before the Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies minor was created, Grimes taught a similar class titled Communication and Contemplative Engagement. She had to hold class in a small space below the gym with the thunderous sound of weights crashing overhead. Since the minor has become official, the department has provided an actual classroom space for her students to meet. Grimes also found the department’s funding for supplies like cushions and mats helps the class feel legitimate.

“In the beginning we actually had handmade meditation cushions. Literally with material, some of which my partner found on the street and some we bought, we sewed them. Inside of them are dollar store beach balls and you know that’s what we sat on,” Grimes said.

Apart from students turning to alternate techniques to improve academic performance and de-stress, the push from teachers to bring contemplative practices to the classroom is greater than ever. Rather than just teaching information and content, teachers want to provide students with introspective tools that can be used in other areas of their lives as they move past the classroom and onto their careers, according to Louis Komjathy, a professor and Program Director of Contemplative Studies at the University of San Diego. “A lot of the faculty and educators have a dissatisfaction with both higher education as it’s currently practiced, and also the larger culture of society,” Komjathy said. “There’s this search for a deeper set of values or some kind of meaning and purpose, and ultimately more a wholistic approach.”

While many schools successfully implemented these programs in the classrooms, there is concern over the appropriateness of these practices in the classroom because of their roots in religion. When done right, these programs present ways to notice your own experience and work toward a better quality of life, as in Mindfulness Based Stress Reduction programs, said Green.

Green also finds the trendiness of mindfulness concerning. Mindfulness has become a buzzword that people throw around without understanding what it actually entails.

"It [mindfulness] has undergone the same fate as the word ‘yoga’ 20 years ago. It now means whatever people say it means instead of what it was originally intended to mean," Green said. "I think there’s some real damage there.”

Dessa Bergen-Cico, a professor in the Department of Public Health, Food Studies and Nutrition, has been incorporating meditation into her courses since 2008. Bergen-Cico described overhearing a student on the first day of classes say that her father would kill her if he knew he was paying for her to do nothing.

“People are very busy doing I don’t know what, you know, never getting deep into anything. It’s a reflection of what’s going on socially, and I also think it’s a reflection of technology. It’s a profound opportunity students may not have again to learn how to be still, which will help them for the rest of their life,” Bergen-Cico said.

According to the American Meditation Society, meditation provides numerous physiological and psychological benefits. Meditation has been proven to normalize blood pressure, reduce anxiety and stress-related disorders, and decrease insomnia. It has also been shown to improve self-esteem and enhance concentration, lower incidences of depression and also aid in psychological development. Mindfulness and contemplative studies teach emotional resilience, self-compassion and self-understanding. Rather than address only the issue at hand, contemplative practices address issues at the root of the problem, which in turn leads to lower levels of anxiety and general well-being.

Jake LiBassi, a senior in Grimes’ Mindful Communication Skills, initially found the sitting meditation at the start of class difficult. It took weeks for LiBassi to make adjustments like incorporating writing meditations and meditative music to his practice.

“Whenever I feel stress coming on, I know to just take a minute and close my eyes and focus on my breathing. It really helps me to clear my mind, which I feel like never stops running, and give my mind a chance to take a break, which I rarely ever let it do,” LiBassi said.

As contemplative studies become more commonplace, students will have the opportunity to learn mindfulness practices at earlier ages in pre-schools and elementary schools, Pasco said.

“Students would be coming to college much more prepared to deal with the new experiences and new stress that they have in college. It would cut down on things like substance abuse, mental health issues and physical issues that result from stress such as gastro-intestinal problems, migraine headaches and even resistance to infection,” Pasco said.

 The Top 3 Ways to Stop Stress in its Tracks

Stress, like smoking cigarettes, becomes a nasty habit that can be difficult to break. The negative effects of stress, such as anxiety, depression and weight-gain, are well documented. Pick up almost any self-help book, visit your local yoga studio, or even take a look at any magazine, and there’s a strong chance someone will be talking about how damaging stress is on the mind and body. Under chronic stress, the body is at increased risk for a heart attack or stroke, diabetes and weight gain. Yet despite a multitude of information, there’s a disconnect between why de-stressing is important and how to rid stress from your life.

According to the American Psychological Association’s Stress in America survey, young adults ages 18 to 33 reported the highest levels of stress. In the 2013 survey, stress levels increased from the previous year, and 44 percent of all adults felt they were not doing enough or didn’t know how to manage stress. Stress has become ingrained in our lifestyles, and while no one can avoid stressful situations, knowing what to do when a situation arises makes all the difference. Dessa Bergen-Cico, Rachel Razza, and Bonnie Shoultz share their best tips to start meditating and stop stressing.

Leave the Judgment Behind

Ironically, learning mindfulness and contemplative practices such as meditation or yoga can be stressful. Many people get frustrated and feel lost when something as simple as quieting the mind is more difficult than anticipated. “It’s important to recognize just how you’re feeling. It’s not necessarily about achieving some specific state,” said Razza, the coordinator of the new Mindfulness and Contemplative Studies minor at Syracuse University.

Whether it’s repeating a mantra, counting breaths, or trying a moving meditation practice like yoga, Razza said that investing time into learning is a crucial part of any practice. It’s normal to feel awkward at first, but it’s important to allow time to experiment with what works and what doesn’t.

Look for Patterns

“People aren’t in the present moment. They’re not experiencing what’s happening. They’re planning. They’re thinking. They’re anywhere but here,” said Bergen-Cico, a public health professor at Syracuse University, who specializes in mindfulness-based stress reduction.

Mindfulness-based stress-reduction practices help to cultivate a level of awareness to know yourself, understand patterns in how you respond to things, and to be more centered in the present moment. Rather than time management or stress management, Bergen-Cico said that contemplative practices shift the way people relate to others, workloads and expectations. Recognizing your own stress patterns allows you to approach a new situation with a calmer mindset.

Positive Peer Pressure

It turns out peer pressure can be a good thing. Starting a contemplative practice in a group setting is extremely helpful for those who are just starting out. “There’s an energy that is tangible. There’s an energy that supports you and there’s almost a peer pressure,” said Shoultz, the Buddhist campus minister at Syracuse University.

When surrounded by others who have made that commitment to stay, Shoultz explained that many people are able to sit for much longer than they would if they had been alone.

Find local meditation classes to try while beginning your practice. Many classes are inexpensive or donation based, and sitting beside others can be motivating when just starting your practice.

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