April 15, 2009

Don’t Just Do Something, Sit There

Students get unplugged—and focused—in a new mindfulness and meditation program at the Counseling Center

By Taylor McNeil

Term papers, final exams, the economic downturn, growing global tensions, finding a job—there’s plenty for students to worry about these days. Maybe that’s why they’re signing up quickly for the latest offering from the Counseling Center: mindfulness and meditation for stress management.

Students get to know their minds in a way that doesn’t happen when they have an iPod in one ear and a cell phone in the other, according to Erik Marks (left) and Chris Willard, co-leaders of the mindfulness and meditation workshop at the Counseling Center. Photo: Joanie Tobin

The new program began in February and already a second group has started up.

Mindfulness is an up-and-coming area in the mental health field. First used as a way to cope with anxiety, it now is thought to help people deal with depression and trauma and improve cognitive abilities, such as classroom learning, concentration and creativity, says Christopher Willard, a postdoctoral intern at the Counseling Center.

He and Erik Marks, a staff clinician, each had a longstanding personal and professional interest in mindfulness and meditation and thought it would appeal to college students. “They probably want a little bit of relaxation and stress reduction, and a little bit of academic boost,” says Willard. “This has been shown scientifically to work for those things.”

The premise is simple: stop, be still and try to quiet down inside. “We usually start with a short exercise that’s somewhat guided. Then we talk about that exercise, and the previous week’s practice,” says Willard, who leads the groups with Marks. “Then we typically introduce a somewhat longer exercise and discuss that, and end with a five-minute mediation.”

It doesn’t sound like an easy transition for students who are normally plugged into iPods and cell phones and constantly on the go.

“I think that’s what so hard and challenging about it—and so helpful,” says Willard. “Our culture is so doing oriented, and not very being oriented. If we spend all this time rushing around doing this and that—for students, it’s this activity, that relationship, and then class, then studying—there’s no time that’s just quiet, doing nothing, being aware of what one’s thoughts and experiences in the present moment actually are.”

“It’s a funny paradox,” says Marks. “With Facebook and Twitter, a lot of folks are reporting on moment-to-moment experiences, but I don’t know that we’re really there for it. Everybody knows what I’m doing, but am I attending to what’s going on? That’s the scary part—to sit still with myself and see what’s happening inside.”

Breath by Breath

Click the play button to hear Chris Willard lead a mindfulness meditation “body scan.”

With mindfulness training, the goal is to bring awareness into the moment and turn off the chattering mind, which tends to dwell in the past or fret about the future. For students, that might mean not thinking about the relationship they are in—or not in—or about that test last week or the one coming up.

“Living in the present is foreign, it is difficult, and I think it is what is needed in many ways,” says Willard, who has been meditating for a decade and is writing a book on using meditation with young people to improve learning and mental and physical health. “The now usually isn’t that bad.”

Instead of the cascading train of thought that goes from “I’ll do badly on the test, I won’t get into grad school, no one will marry me, I’ll die alone,” Marks says that by seeing that habitual pattern of thinking, you can stop before you’re panicked.

The most common way to concentrate is by focusing on the breath, paying close attention to each exhalation. “The mind wanders about one breath in, and you just notice it—there it goes to tomorrow’s test, then back to the breath,” says Willard. “Then it wanders to, ‘boy, is this boring,’ then back to the breath. We get to know our minds in a way that doesn’t happen when we have our iPod in one ear, phone in the other hand, and we’re working and running from this place to the next.”

By focusing on breathing, he says, we start to notice what our minds are doing, and see the larger patterns. “That’s why it’s called insight mediation—insight into the nature of the mind, and that can be helpful in terms of unhooking ourselves from those patterns that we get into,” he says.

While the origins of the meditation techniques come mostly from Buddhist insight meditation, known as vipassana, the offering at the Counseling Center is strictly secular. “We just talk about it as a cognitive task, rather than as a spiritual practice,” says Marks.

That said, he adds that if someone has a particular religious or spiritual practice, he suggests they try to find ways to incorporate mindfulness into that practice if they don’t already.

The response to the first session has been quite positive, Willard reports. “Before we started the group, I thought we’d have to do lots of activities and keep them entertained, and offer them all these different kinds of practices,” he says. “But the feedback I heard was they would like to sit longer and do more of that.” There were calls for an advanced group as well.

In the first-floor conference room of the Counseling Center on Curtis Street, where the mindfulness groups meet, the chairs are arranged in a circle—it’s a peaceful setting. And there’s no pressure on the participants to accept the techniques. “You try things; you see if they work for you. You don’t have to take our word for it—you don’t have to believe us,” says Marks. “That’s the beauty of this for me. You try it. If it works, it works, and if it doesn’t, you discard it or try it again.”

If you’re a student who is interested in the mindfulness and meditation program, email either Chris Willard or Erik Marks.

Taylor McNeil can be reached at taylor.mcneil@tufts.edu.

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