Special Feature: Mindfulness Efforts on Campus

Designed by Erin Kelly

Designed by Erin Kelly

By ELIZABETH ZHOU

Designed by Erin Kelly
It is near impossible to talk about stress on college campuses without also encountering the term “mindfulness.” Among the biggest buzzwords circulating mainstream media and higher education these days, mindfulness refers to a state of mind, a mode of interacting with the world and with our own thoughts. This nonjudgmental awareness of the present moment is typically achieved through contemplative practices that draw from major world religions and spiritual traditions. For many, mindfulness is a vehicle for well-being.

“Mindfulness is being present to the activities of our days by checking in with the purest manifestation of them: the here and the now,” Mark Orten, Dean of Spiritual and Religious Life at the College, explained. “It is not a time out or an absence from them. While mindfulness practices may be experienced as a relief, it is not like going on vacation and then coming back to all the same stuff. Rather, it is clarifying our vision and our power in a way that engages everything else more effectively and more truly.”

“Mindfulness is a way of relating to the world that leads to wellbeing. Mindfulness isn’t always pretty,” Brian Tobin, a Graduate Counseling Intern at Parton Health Center, added. “It makes you more aware of what your life experiences are. That increase of presence, in some ways, slows the process down. It takes the frenetic, rushing, stressed way that academia condones or expects, almost, and slows it down. It gives the individual a little bit more space to really feel what’s going on, to be with the good, the bad, the challenging.”

So, what does mindfulness – this abstract and often misunderstood concept – actually look like in practice? For some, mindfulness may consist of structured activities, such as guided meditation or yoga classes. Others may engage in a few minutes of silence each day, without commitment to a particular technique or religious practice.

Embracing the concept of mindfulness does not necessarily require a drastic makeover of our own lives. We can bring mindful attention to typically “mindless” activities, such as brushing our teeth, drinking coffee or taking a shower. Rather than turning automatically to our phone screens while stuck in line, we can take the opportunity of a few unstructured minutes to notice our surroundings and connect with our own breath.

“It’s a posture toward the world which I suppose everybody has the capacity for, but you have to cultivate it,” Tim Spears, Vice President for Academic Development, explained. “You have to pay attention.”

MINDFULNESS INITIATIVES AT MIDDLEBURY

Middlebury’s institutional engagement with mindfulness began in the spring of 2015, as grant proposals had showed widespread interest in the concept. That summer, Spears appointed 16 colleagues and students across Middlebury’s institutions to form the Mindfulness Steering Committee. Erin Quinn, Director of Athletics, and Michelle McCauley, Professor of Psychology, served as co-chairs of the committee. Additionally, an In-House Advisory Committee, composed of 21 faculty and administrative members with a vested interest in mindfulness, assisted the Steering Committee in framing inquiries and synthesizing information.

“There was some suspicion, I think, about why the administration was now interested in mindfulness,” Spears noted. “There had been a number of stress-related issues that had come up over the course of the year, and now all of sudden, the administration was grasping for answers, and mindfulness was the latest and greatest solution.”

Over the 2015-2016 school year, members of the Mindfulness Steering Committee met regularly to examine Middlebury’s broad approach to mindfulness and to discuss areas of potential growth. Their formal report, submitted in the fall of 2016, identified venues and structures supporting mindfulness within the institution, as well as opportunities to expand on education and resources in the future.

“The need to provide students and colleagues with tools to be less reactive and more contemplative has never been clearer than in the past 18 months,” the report stated, “as we have dealt with concerns of student stress and the need to fully embrace and manifest our commitment as an inclusive institution.”

Spears acknowledges that the announcement of mindfulness initiatives two years ago may have been a cause for confusion or skepticism.

“Here at Middlebury, when you call something an initiative and you say you’re going to focus on it, well, you’ve raised the stakes,” he said. “So people were making jokes like, ‘Now we’re going to go out and crush mindfulness.’ Which, of course, is an attitude that is sort of at odds with mindfulness.”

So, how has institutional support for mindfulness translated into actual changes on campus? First and foremost, the institutional call for mindfulness in 2015 set up funding for 1) the development of contemplative practices within the college’s curriculum, 2) opportunities for students to engage with mindfulness outside the classroom, 3) health and wellness programs for staff and faculty and 4) initiatives at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey.

In terms of a long-standing, perhaps implicit commitment to mindfulness on campus, the Middlebury Steering Committee’s 2016 report highlighted the existence of yoga and meditation classes, spaces designed for restoration and contemplation (such as the Knoll and the “Unplug” and Recharge rooms in the college’s libraries), faculty research and courses centered on mindfulness and over three-dozen academic colleagues who incorporate contemplative pedagogy into classes.

“There was lots of stuff, depending on how willing you were to have a broad definition of mindfulness or contemplative practices,” co-chair Quinn explained. “Maybe there was a bigger need of making sure people knew that they existed.”

The Middlebury Steering Committee offered one overarching recommendation to promote mindfulness on campus: the creation of the Middlebury Center for Well-Being, an entity that would organize and support contemplative initiatives at the college. The report acknowledged the financial challenges of designating an independent, physical space for such a center, and so emphasized the possibility first utilizing on a digital platform, as well as coordinating efforts with similarly oriented programs and departments on campus.

Additionally, members listed 31 small-scale suggestions to further enhance mindfulness at the college. Topics included 1) mindful pedagogy in the classroom, 2) expanded support for personal practices, 3) mindfulness in leadership, 4) outreach on Middlebury’s successful initiatives, 5) reevaluation of physical infrastructure and time usage and 6) related well-being opportunities. Suggestions included: “Consider adding five minutes between classes at the Vermont campus to increase community bonding and reduce a hectic arrival when students need to travel across campus”; “Begin explicit discussions about the amount of time students are expected to devote to their job on a weekly basis (on average),” and “Create areas in dining halls at the College and for the schools that are set aside for silent eating (at least at breakfast).”

The 2016 report was presented to the Senior Leadership Group and submitted to the Envisioning Middlebury process as a framework for the future. A copy of the report is available at go/mindfulness/. Insights gained through the original 2015-2016 committee now inform the work of the Well-being Steering Committee, which launched this past fall. Composed of seven administrative, faculty, and staff members, this group continues to draw on the inquiries and expertise gathered in the first institutional call to mindfulness two years ago. The Well-being Steering Committee’s compilation of knowledge, which covers everything from nutrition to spirituality to the development of meaningful relationships, can be found at go/well-being/. As the concept of mindfulness continues to gain legitimacy within higher education, instructors have increasingly adopted contemplative practices into their classroom pedagogy.

Rebecca Gould, Associate Professor of Environmental Studies and a member of the original In-House Advisory Committee, is one such example. In one class, she set up a contemplative conversation in lieu of a typical discussion.

“Instead of traditional argument and analysis, all of which I value highly, I thought an Emerson reading already would lend itself to a different mode,” she recounted.

She dimmed the lights, asked everybody to close their eyes and introduced a shift away from the usual, high-paced discourse. For the next hour, a contemplative conversation unfolded. Students sat in thoughtful silence for a while, and then somebody spoke. After another stretch of silence, somebody else spoke. And so it went for the rest of the class period.

“It was less a discussion than a kind of seeding of ideas in a slow way,” Gould said. “And then in the last ten minutes or so I wove together what it was I was hearing. It was a way for people to engage with the material in a very different way.”

This type of contemplative conversation, which Gould tries to incorporate into at least one class session per semester, eases the burden of having to respond quickly and articulately to the last comment spoken aloud in the room. The constant flow of conversation that characterizes most classroom discourse makes way instead for large stretches of thoughtful silence. In this sense, less is more: Incessant talking for the sake of talking is eliminated. In the absence of structured discussion, students are given the opportunity to deeply listen to what their peers have to say.

“Because we had our eyes closed, I think people felt safer to experiment with their ideas or say something that they weren’t so sure of,” Gould said. “Sometimes students will tell me, ‘Well, I wanted to say X, but my thought was half-formed, I wasn’t sure I could express it correctly.’ And I always say, ‘Well, it’s fine to have half-formed thoughts.’ So I think doing it in this contemplative way, with eyes closed, just allows people to think about Emerson and not about themselves or how they’re performing.”

Cultivating mindfulness among students extends beyond explicitly contemplative practices in the classroom. Existing barriers to mindfulness within academia must also be addressed. As such, it is important to acknowledge the inverse relationship between heavy workloads and students’ ability to engage mindfully with assigned texts.

“I think everyone recognizes that workload is a barrier, not just for students, but for faculty and staff,” Spears said. “Philosophically it’s not a barrier, because despite the work that we all do, we can still approach the work mindfully.”

Within the time constraints of a fast-paced, twelve-week semester, however, Gould recognizes the importance of balancing the quality of academic inquiry with the quantity of material covered. 

“I have cut down on my reading in almost all of my classes, to be able to sink in more deeply – so it’s not explicitly contemplative, but it’s in the same spirit,” she said. “Rather than someone saying, ‘I’m speed-reading Thoreau so then I can go on and speedread this book about race and the environment.’ Why are we all here if we’re all speed reading?”

Does college compete with mindfulness?

There is a dissonance between students’ attitudes toward mindfulness – a potentially alienating concept – and the benefits that mindfulness might bring to their lives. Yet perhaps it is precisely the intense pressure that accompanies college life – the exhausting norm of “performing” our happiness on social media platforms and in everyday interactions, the burden to constantly be doing something “productive,” and the eerie feeling that our work follows us wherever we go –  that makes mindfulness such a powerful idea.

Maybe learning to live with more intention and less judgment, with a heightened awareness of how we feel and where we are, is what it would take to transition from simply surviving to thriving in college.

As Spears explained, “If you have a better understanding of where you are in the moment, you are better able to navigate what’s in front of you.”

“At a certain point, that frantic energy becomes wasted energy,” Tobin added. “When the mind is too much on auto-pilot, we stop sleeping well, we stop nourishing our bodies the right way, all the classic things that go wrong in college in terms of wellness. And what mindfulness and meditation practices allow us to do is actually to be more effective. So even if you look at your calendar and the whole day is blocked, if mindfulness begins to be integrated into the way you move in the world, you can actually get more done. You canbe more effective, you can be more creative, you can be more connected.”

Tobin offered an example in terms of social interaction – a sphere of college life that can be both an escape from stress and a cause for FOMO (fear of missing out).

“You could spend an hour socializing, but you’re not there,” he said. “With mindfulness integrated into that experience, you could spend ten minutes and have that whole hour worth of true connection.”

For some, the premise of mindfulness – that is, the practice of becoming intimately acquainted with our inner world – clashes with the expectations that college encourages, even demands, of students. In many cases, to engage in mindfulness is to temporarily inhabit a space of solitude, perhaps one more silent or empty than we are used to.

It can be challenging to imagine mindfulness, in all its quietude and self-reflection, as an appealing alternative to the endless social opportunities that the college experience offers. When we all live within walking distance of our closest friends, and when connecting with others is as simple as checking our Snapchat notifications or scrolling through our Facebook feed, the idea of intentional solitude may seem absurd, if not terrifying.

Yet perhaps it would be a mistake to conflate mindfulness with isolation, or solitude with loneliness.

“The collective expectation of a college campus, we can form it as a question: is it getting us what we want?” Tobin stated. “Are we actually becoming happy? Are all of our external doings actually bringing us closer to understanding ourselves and knowing a peaceful and happy experience within? The practices of mindfulness are inherently introverted – we go in and we look and we get quiet and still. But as you go in, you’re actually more free to go out. The more that we take the time to set that foundation of quietness and that internal content, then we get to choose how we externally move, instead of being ruled by our mind. When we’re ruled by our mind and we’re always out, doing, then we need to be validated externally. These practices allow a bit more freedom within. We have to challenge the presumption that the way that we’re externally motivated on campus and in the world is actually getting us the results that we want.”

In contrast to the extraversion that is implicitly promoted in college, mindfulness encourages a tendency toward introversion – a willingness to look inward and to be okay with silence. That is not to say that extraverted people are inherently unmindful, or that introverts would not benefit from mindfulness techniques. Rather, if we are to take the concept of mindfulness seriously, perhaps it is time that we re-evaluate the standards by which we define the ideal college experience or the successful college student. Do we feel present in the spaces we inhabit, or do we show up for the sake of saying that we were there? When was the last time we asked ourselves, ‘how am I feeling right now?’ and listened to the answer? As we rush from one place to another, with screens in front of our faces for most the day, are we mindful, or are our minds full?

Now what?

From the intense academic workload to the constant distractions of living in a tiny bubble of a community to the fear of missing out, the nature of college seems antithetical to the concept of mindfulness at times. For some, formal opportunities to practice mindfulness may seem insufficient or irrelevant within an inherently un-mindful campus structure. After all, who has time to attend a yoga class or a guided meditation when balancing friendships, schoolwork and extracurriculars is difficult enough already? What is the point of focusing on our breath when staying afloat is a challenge in and of itself?

In our fast-paced and hyper-scheduled campus community, the prospect of “structured mindfulness” seems impossible, perhaps laughably ironic. And when we have been trained to constantly consume, perform and produce, simply sitting with our thoughts may feel oppositional to our purpose as students. For this reason, mindfulness can be challenging, even painful, to execute.

Given the lives we have been taught to lead, in what ways can we still practice and benefit from contemplative practices?

“The techniques themselves can be quite simple and brief, while yet having immediate and profound effect,” Orten explained. “Something as simple as ringing a bell after sitting down to study. As with all things, they are what we give to them and make of them.”

Within the constraints of time and energy to which we are all bound, there is value in taking that first, uncertain step.

“This is what I would say that is a break from the ‘just make time’ kind of attitude, which is just: set the intention,” Tobin said. “How can we take five minutes at the beginning of the day and relegate it to the state of presence? Just five minutes. That will increase because it starts to draw its own energy, because we see the benefits, so we do more of it.”

The structure of higher education promotes a “go, go, go” mentality – a constant displacement from the present moment and a perpetual worry for the future – that challenges our collective ability to be mindful. We look back each semester and wonder where the time went. This sense of disorientation is by no means unique to the college experience, but perhaps it is in the particularly fast-paced chaos of these formative years that the benefits of mindfulness can be most acutely felt.

“Let’s agree that mindfulness is good for Middlebury students,” Spears said. “How do you then do we bring students to that moment? It’s difficult. I’ve come to believe that you address the opportunity almost on a one-to-one basis. You have to be willing to stop and pause and consider the invitation. You can’t force it.”

Quinn echoed this sentiment, stating, “Nobody’s interested in making mindfulness mandatory, but rather making it available in orientation or having it pop up in class. The more you get exposed to mindfulness practices, the more they may seem like tangible modalities that are helpful.”

In adopting mindfulness as an everyday ethic, we can change the way we experience our lives without changing a single material detail of our lives. And perhaps along the way, the structures that limit us may begin to shift.

“I would love for us, as a community, to do some serious thinking about whether and how we can change some of the deep structures of how we work,” Gould said. “So, on the one hand, small practices of mindfulness can help us negotiate academic stress. But then a deeper question is, are there ways to actually change the structures themselves, to bring in different ways of learning that don’t feel like they’re a constraint on living a mindful life? Is there a way to actually rethink how we do what we do here?”

Designed by Erin Kelly

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Special Feature: Mindfulness Efforts on Campus