“I’m so stressed out!” That was my mantra during the first exam period my freshman year of college. After homage to the Stress God I would gulp another cup of coffee, exacerbating my nervous condition. My friends fared worse: Some became severely ill, some had nervous breakdowns, a few dropped out entirely, and others began their decline into alcoholism. When my own stress had become almost unbearable, I reinstalled something I had learned in my youth: breathing meditation, for just fifteen minutes a day. Watching my breath soothed my nervous system, slowed those racing thoughts, alleviated anxiety, and put things into perspective—in short, it was a breather.
Who would think that studying—a discursive, retaining, grasping, mental activity—would have any relation to meditation, a nondiscursive activity that enables us to let go? Actually, the two balance and enhance each other. For example, I get fatigued and annoyed when I’m stuck at the keyboard writing papers, particularly in the wee hours of the morning. At some point, I stop and just observe my thoughts, listen to the sounds in the dormitory, feel the sensation of being in the moment. It’s like stretching out your back and shoulders after being hunched over books for hours. I haven’t seen much in the media about bringing meditation into the academic arena. Perhaps it’s not as obvious as using meditation for medical stress reduction, as in Jon Kabat-Zinn’s program, or for sports, as on the Chicago Bulls basketball team, or for psychotherapeutic uses, as Dr. Mark Epstein details in his writing.
I learned that the mind has a mind of its own in my first meditation lesson, when I was seven. Our family rose at 5:30, when the sun had not yet awakened, to practice in the attic sitting hall. Facing the wall, I noticed the subtleties of my breath and my tummy rising and falling…for about one minute, and then a tumble of thoughts crowded in on those quiet breaths. Would I get the PacMan or the Ms. PacMan lunchbox today? Could I trade my white milk for someone’s chocolate? I was surprised to see that rather than the rational, organized brain I thought I had, here was a massive jumble of racing, clattering thoughts. Over the years, I’ve come to know that this mind has limits, patterns, imbalances, and imperfections revealed against the mirror of the breath. So today, when my mind gets restless and refuses to write that essay due tomorrow, I know just what I’m working with.
Mindfulness also helps me manage my emotional life, which is crucial for a student. I recall a story from a Wellesley professor in which a student asked to be excused from writing a ten-page paper because she had had a fight with her boyfriend and was too upset to work. I laughed, only to find myself in a similar situation several weeks later. But I didn’t call the professor. Before starting the paper, I sat down and mindfully observed my stormy emotions. I watched my anger, indignation, and sadness rise and fall. I watched the discursive mind spin endless stories about why I was right. Eventually, that roller-coaster ride slowed and came to an end. I felt at ease, even energized, and was able to write the paper.
I also think meditation practice can be used in the classroom as well as privately. Last semester I took a counseling class in which the professor had all of us close our eyes and focus on our breath for five minutes. In those precious minutes of class time, we turned our thoughts from the rush of arriving on time or the clattering gossip outside in the hallway to a place inside ourselves as silent as the November snow falling. We all appeared considerably more relaxed and attentive to the lecture that followed. It certainly seems that meditation is a tool GenNext’ers can take in hand, in both Buddhist and secular ways, to make their Western education all the better.
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