The Collegian
Wednesday, February 28, 2024

UR professors share power of mindfulness

The Ethics of Choice Conference under the Jepson School of Leadership, a university-wide initiative held Feb. 10-12 over Zoom, showcased the multi-disciplinary work of UR faculty. Panelists Jennifer Cable, Monti Datta and Roger Mancastroppa discussed their involvement with the mindfulness movement on UR’s campus on Feb 11. 

As much as mindfulness helps a person conquer stress and other overwhelming feelings, the panelists all agreed that mindfulness allows people to break out of their shells and connect with the people around them with love and kindness. 

“Mindfulness is an act of love," Datta said. "If we can intentionally pay attention with kindness and compassion, then, as a species, we can learn, teach, grow, and live at our very best." 

But how can we move from inward reflection to the outward community, one participant of the panel asked. To this question, Mancastroppa shared his story of conquering PTSD after serving 11 years in the military.

The moment it all clicked for Mancastroppa was in a grocery store line almost 20 years ago, he said. His therapist had challenged him to spend 10 minutes waiting in line without leaving. As he waited behind a woman checking out, another woman with a child got in line behind him. Immediately, he started to panic, feeling trapped between the two carts. The child behind him began to cry because she wanted a candy bar from the checkout counter, but the mother ignored her, focusing on a magazine.

“Amusement parks were impossible for me,” he said. “In a restaurant, I had to sit facing the door. Being in a grocery store line was unbearable when the cart in front and behind trapped you in. 

“My brain constantly looked for escape routes and calculated the strength of the people around me. Finding my way back from that with mindfulness has been really powerful.” 

Mancastroppa faced the child and felt a connection. Here they were, separately feeling overwhelmed and frustrated, but really, they were feeling these things together, he said. 

Mancastroppa started to play peek-a-boo with the child, whose sour expression vanished and a smile stretched across her face. It was like every woman in a five-mile radius turned towards them, gravitating towards the love and kindness, “because it’s not every day you see a middle-aged man playing peek-a-boo in a grocery store,” Mancastroppa said, laughing. 

The feelings of love, empathy, and attention washed away Mancastroppa’s panic, and he no longer felt isolated with his feelings, he said. 

There is a sense in our society that one must “man up” in order to succeed because if there’s no pain, there’s no gain, Datta said.  

Datta, a political science professor, has been implementing mindfulness practices in his classroom since 2017, he said. He starts each class by inviting students to slow down and focus on their breath for a few minutes. 

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“Practicing mindfulness in the classroom allows students to realize that they aren’t just learning machines paying $75,000 tuition but human beings with hopes and dreams and feelings,” Datta said.

There is so much self-criticism in our society, especially with college students in competitive environments, which makes mindfulness all the more worthwhile, Datta said. 

“There’s a feeling that there’s not enough time,” he said. “But paradoxically, the more you slow down, the more productive you can be.” 

All of the panelists were trained in Koru Mindfulness, which is a meditation program designed for college students to learn how to manage stress and reduce anxiety. 

“Koru is not a path to enlightenment,” Datta said, “but a four-week structured program where students learn the skills to acknowledge their thoughts and breathe mindfully. And it’s just the beginning.”

The hope is to spread Koru Mindfulness across UR’s campus, and even open up classes in the Well-Being Center once COVID-19 rates subside. UR professors are now teaching mindfulness across all disciplines and ages, ranging from first-year seminar classes to graduate-level law classes, Mancastroppa said.

Cable, a music professor, devotes five to eight minutes of her classes to meditation and breathing exercises, she said. 

“I honestly couldn’t do my job before finding mindfulness,” she said. “I had students come into my music studio who couldn’t sing because their bodies were stiff and stressed.” 

Cable became interested in mindfulness when she discovered qigong meditation, a traditional form of Chinese meditation that connects slow movements and breathing to your body and mind. After she implemented qigong in her personal life, she said she realized it could greatly benefit her students too.

Pearce Burlington, a first-year majoring in music who takes applied lessons with Cable, expressed her appreciation for the breathing techniques.

“As a singer, the breathing techniques calm me down, but also help me apply better breathing to my actual singing,” she said. “Mindfulness helps me get in the right headspace to sing and stay focused.” 

While the mindfulness techniques help in her musical performances, Burlington also applies them to her everyday life, she said. Last week, she used mindful breathing before a biology test, she said.

“I was sitting in the classroom with all the other students, and I could feel their stressful energy gravitating towards me,” she said. “Doing mindful breathing helped me to separate from that energy so I could focus on myself.” 

The panelists all argued that true success comes not from pushing down your emotions, but embracing them head-on with mindfulness and human connection. 

Contact contributor Chloe Fandetti at chloe.fandetti@richmond.edu.

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