As the campus is abuzz with hurried students rushing to class and dreading the long list of studying that awaits them, a group of MU students and staff members are calm, their thoughts focused and their bodies relaxed.
The students are participating in a noontime meditation, held most days of the week at various locations on campus.
The meditations are part of the Healthy for Life, the T.E. Atkins UM Wellness Program.Lynn Rossy, a health psychologist and director of Mindfulness Practice Center, organizes midday meditations as well as an eight-week, for-credit class on mindfulness. The class is modeled after the Stress Reduction Program founded by Jon Kabat-Zinn in 1979 at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center.
“Meditation is great for someone going to school because it helps focus your attention,” Rossy said. “It improves your ability to concentrate, to problem solve and to see things more creatively.”
Rossy started the Mindfulness Practice Center in 2002 as part of her postdoctoral position at the Student Health Center.
“I was interested in developing an organization that could bring together people on campus who were interested in the practice and benefits of mindfulness,” she said.
Mindfulness is the ability to pay attention to the present moment on purpose and without judgment. According to Rossy, so much of our time is focused on the past, or spent worrying about the future, that we miss out on the here-and-now.
“Mindfulness allows us to live consciously and not be caught up in the habitual patterns of thinking and behaving,” she said.
Mindfulness, which is formally taught through meditation, can help people deal with the stressful situations of their everyday lives.
“When you meditate, parts of your brain that are associated with attention, memory, decision-making and emotions all change for the better,” Rossy said. “This in turn helps you when you go out into your everyday life to be more aware, to be more at peace and to be less reactive to stressful situations.”
Laura Heffernan, a senior at MU, tries to meditate regularly because she said it helps her maintain a balance between school, work, friends and time for herself.
“School can be very stressful,” she said. “There is always something new: a new project, another paper to write. You never get a break. That’s why I like to meditate, it clears my mind.”
Ken McRea, part owner of allyCat Yoga, said that meditation benefits the student in two main ways: it helps develop concentration and reduce stress.
“Meditation increases a person’s capacity to concentrate,” McRea said. “It also reduces stress; therefore, you become more productive in your studies as the less stressed you are, the more receptive to learning you will be.”
“Mediation teaches you to learn in a way that is conducive to any other kind of learning that you do,” she said. “It really teaches you to learn.”
MU introduced mindfulness-based stress reduction classes in 2004, which students a can take as an elective. The class is also open to faculty and staff members.
The class, which meets for two hours a week for eight weeks, teaches formal mindfulness practices consisting of sitting meditations, body scan meditations and yoga.
“There is almost always a waiting list and the classes are always full,” said Terry Wilson, who teaches the class and is a health education specialist at MU.
The class always includes a sitting meditation, which focuses on the breath to develop the skill of mindfulness. Then the class moves on to body scan meditation, which focuses on the body’s moment-to-moment sensations. As the students progress they move on to yoga, which is mediation in motion, she said.
Practice is always followed by group discussions.
Wilson said feedback from the class has been mostly positive.
“The students seem to learn a lot about themselves as the class really allows time for self-reflection,” she said. “Meditation gives the students a greater perspective on life as they learn to take a step back and pay attention to their moment-to-moment activities.”
Wilson said getting a good grade isn’t easy. To pass the course, students are required to practice meditation for 30 to 45 minutes per day and must complete weekly take-home assignments to help develop mindfulness skills.
“Our culture is renowned for multitasking,” Wilson said. “As a result some students find it pretty difficult to incorporate mindfulness practices into their every day lives.”
For Heffernan, who is studying textiles and apparel merchandising, it’s been challenging to put mindfulness into practice.
“I have always been interested in meditation, but because I was always so busy, I never had the time for it,” she said. “I always had to read a book for school, which meant I had to put down the meditation book. It’s really hard just to find the time.”
Rossy said this is normal.
“Being present in our lives takes practice,” she said. “It is just like tennis. You have to get out on the court and train before you can play. Meditation, the training of the mind, helps us to be more present and aware in our everyday lives.”