The Collegian
Saturday, June 15, 2024

College Fellows: Nurturing the spirit through mindfulness

Editor's note: College Fellows are professors, some who live on campus, paired with residence halls to help students connect their studies with their lived experiences. The College Fellows column, of which this is the first, will comprise various fellows' thoughts and reflections on campus life. 

I had originally written this piece for finals week last December, but when Gus Lee took his life, I paused. I was in the Office of the Chaplaincy when the news came. Several of my students knew Gus well and suddenly I found myself, along with my students, feeling broken-hearted over a life lost -- a soul taken from us. I wanted to reflect. 

The holidays were a blur, and now that I’m back on campus at UR, my thoughts are drifting to the mind and spirit of the campus. I’m thinking a lot these days on how to best heal the soul and soothe the spirit. How can we be our most authentic selves when the world around us is going at a million miles an hour? 

Reflection, sharing and looking within -- those are things that can be healing. But it’s strange -- ours is a society that does not typically look within. Our world is characterized by multi-tasking, non-stop social media, not always listening to others when they talk to us and racing from one thing to the next. The idea of being mindful or in the moment can seem alien and even antithetical to our way of life. 

As a College Fellow living in Moore Hall, I’m exploring ways to grow the practice of mindfulness at UR. One of the best and yet simplest definitions of mindfulness I’ve encountered is “paying attention with kindness.” It doesn’t have to be anything more elaborate than that. 

Athletes sometimes share that they are “in the zone” in a competition, which is a form of mindfulness. Or, when you’re engaged in conversation with a good friend, absorbing their words and lingering on their implications, that too is a form of mindfulness, or what one Zen Buddhist calls “deep listening" in his book "The Heart of the Buddha's Teaching." Or, when you reflect on a decision you made and take stock of what you felt you did right and wrong -- that too is a form of mindfulness, or perhaps what some call “insight meditation.”

Last semester, the resident assistants in Moore Hall helped put together an event on stress reduction on the Sunday before finals. It was part of a building-wide coordinated program with Moore, Jeter, Robins and Freeman halls. The intention was to nudge residents to take a breather, if but for only a little. Volunteers from Caring Canines stood outside Whitehurst with dogs awaiting the morning crowd. 

Energized with affection from the Labrador retrievers and terriers, students found sanctuary inside Whitehurst where bagels, donuts, holiday music, coffee and hot chocolate awaited. It was a gentle reprieve from the looming storm of finals on a cloudy day. I chatted with some students I hadn’t met before as well as with the RAs and another College Fellow. We absorbed the tranquility. It felt good to be in a temporary stress-free zone. It was a mindful space. 

I’ve been working on different approaches geared toward mindfulness inside and outside the classroom for the past two years, since I returned from a year-long sabbatical in Thailand to look more deeply at the roots of modern slavery in the region. Over that sabbatical year, I wanted to embark not only on an intellectual journey, but also a spiritual quest. I immersed myself in learning more about meditation, studying with a local group led by a British monk living in Bangkok, attending classes at one of the national temples, befriending a local monk who had become a human rights activist and attending a retreat in Bali and another in Northern Thailand. I experimented more on how to breathe and let go. 

Mindfulness is a practice, a way of life. Rather than multitasking, it involves what I suppose you’d call monotasking -- doing just one thing at a time, even if that one thing may seem trivial or even boring on the surface. The idea is that the more we can immerse ourselves in the present moment, little by little, the more we can tune in and listen not only to one another, but also to ourselves. If self-discovery is the heart of a liberal arts education, then mindfulness might be the best instruction. Our campus and national climate can very often give rise to peer pressure, in which we yield to the needs and preferences of others and less to ourselves and what we need. Mindfulness is in a sense a radical idea. It invites participants to listen to what’s going on in their minds, hearts and bodies, starting with the breath.  

I think I enjoyed that event the RAs put together at Whitehurst so much because it was a space where mindfulness was present. No one rushed. We lingered, munching on donuts and noshing on bagels, taking in the snuggles from the dogs from Caring Canines. We knew intuitively that we could be at our best if we took things slow. 

The spring semester is upon us, and with it the challenges of classes and extracurriculars, not to mention the pressures that will come on and off campus. It can be hard to prepare for uncertain times, but if we can settle in a bit more into the moment, I believe we can live a bit more deeply with grace and compassion for ourselves and others.  

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