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Students Meet, Talk Mindfulness with Brown’s Dr. Catherine Kerr

By Angie Walker

On Thursday, March 10, Dr. Catherine Kerr of Brown University presented “Mindfulness: Body, Breath and the Self,” which included a brief history of secular mindfulness in the United States and its growing acceptance in academic culture.

Jon Kabat-Zinn, the founder of secular mindfulness, defines it as “paying attention in the present moment, on purpose and non-judgmentally.” Kerr presented Kabat-Zinn’s definition but said that that it “doesn’t tell me about the experience of mindfulness and what it actually is.” She said that the experience of mindfulness “helps practitioners discover a more spacious and dynamic sense of self.”

During the lecture, Kerr invited attendees to close their eyes and “feel the space” they occupied. She then asked students to lean toward each other and to notice when they felt themselves entering their space. “Right now, our brain knows that we’re all in here together,” Kerr said at the end of the exercise.

Reflecting on the talk, Eli Susman ’18.5 said he has his own mindfulness practice. “For me, mindfulness is all about relationships,” he said. “That includes developing a relationship with the world around me. Most importantly, it involves relationships with other people. Being present for someone else is, I think, the greatest gift that I can give someone. I think we could benefit from slowing down and doing less, but what’s more important is finding a way to use these lessons in mindfulness to bring everyone together.”

Mindfulness practice such as that discussed in the lecture has been gaining ground at the College, particularly as a response to stress-levels and mental health on campus. In December, a group of administrators presented solutions to student stress in a document they termed “the Grid,” identifying mindfulness as one area of focus.

In the fall term, students, faculty and staff started the Mindfulness at Middlebury Initiative to explore how the College can integrate mindfulness into campus life. The group has sponsored classes for faculty in qigong, a branch of martial arts focused on body posture and movement. It hosted a mindfulness workshop during the Class of 2019 orientation and helped co-host Dr. Kerr’s lectures.

In addition to her role as speaker, Kerr is implementing a mindfulness program specifically tailored to the stresses of being a medical student at Brown University’s Warren Alpert Medical School. Medical students have unique stresses such as working with cadavers, long hours, dealing with illness and witnessing death.

Kerr estimates that only about 15 percent of the students will be highly interested in mediation after the mandatory introduction to mindfulness course has ended, but she highlights that students can still benefit from the practice even if they stop meditating.

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