Take a moment to feel your feet on the ground. Feel the gravity that anchors your body to the Earth. Allow the muscles in your face, neck, and shoulders to relax. Take a few slow, deep breaths, and simply observe your body breathing naturally. Feel your abdomen expand and contract as you breathe in and out.
Deidre Hughes, Certified Mindfulness Instructor and Co-Coordinator of the Mindful Growth Initiative at Fullerton College, joined a group of Whittier College students and Professor of Political Science Jake Carbine on Thursday evening for a soothing evening of mindfulness meditation. Students learned three meditative strategies and all about the benefits of implementing a mindfulness practice into their naturally hectic lives as college students. Hughes was able to discuss some common misconceptions surrounding mindfulness and meditation by providing students with a clear, simple definition of what mindfulness is all about. “Mindfulness is noticing where our attention is and bringing it back to where we want it to be,” said Hughes. She went on to list four important features of mindfulness that she learned during her time studying social-emotional learning at University of California, Berkeley: Mindfulness is “maintaining a moment by moment awareness of our thoughts, feelings, bodily sensations, and our surrounding environment… It involves an element of acceptance since we do not judge the thoughts or feelings as right or wrong… It is focusing on the present rather than rehashing the past or imagining the future… It is a completely secular, non-religious practice.”
Deidre has learned through her training that emotional well-being, aided by mindfulness practice, is linked to academic success. Meditation allows students to harness their attention and focus and, thus, become stronger academically. As we sit in class or read a textbook, it is quite normal to suddenly realize you have not been paying attention when the words emerging from the professor’s mouth no longer make sense or when a half hour has gone by and you are still on the same page in your book. Hughes assured the students that this is completely normal, “Our minds wander. That’s what our minds do, and the more adept we are at noticing our minds wander and are able to pull it back; it can really help us in an educational environment.” On top of increasing grade point averages, students learned that mindfulness can achieve things that are not often associated with meditation, such as social equity and agency. “Mindfulness allows us to see what is, including inequity. It allows us to then use skillful action as a result of what is. It gives us a sense of personal agency,” Hughes explained.
When it comes to fitting a mindfulness practice into our daily lives, it is truly not as intimidating as one may think. Students learned about both formal and informal mindfulness practices that can be applied throughout one’s day, without even having to set aside extra time. While a formal mindfulness practice may include rising each morning, reaching for the yoga mat, and getting into a lotus position, informal practices can be just as helpful in training the mind. Simply walking to class or enjoying a crisp apple can become mindfulness practices when you are completely present, observing all sensations that arise, and not worrying about what a future lecture may consist of, how much homework you have to do in the evening, how you could have better answered a question on an exam, or how a conversation could have gone much smoother. And if these thoughts do occur during your informal practices, just being aware of them and realizing how silly such worries are is mindfulness in and of itself. Moments of mindfulness, in fact, occur much more often than one would think. “We all have already had moments of mindfulness,” says Deidre. “When listening to a song and you are just completely present and there with the song… That is a moment of mindfulness… you are there and feeling it fully.”
Students also learned about self-compassion and loving-kindness meditation techniques in order to better deal with the stressors and suffering that are inherent in human life. Mindfulness allows us to observe that suffering more objectively, see where it comes from, and then offer either ourselves or others the compassion that is necessary. Deidre showed students a number of physical postures that they can utilize in any setting in order to give themselves a little love during stressful situations. “A hormone called oxytocin is released… this elicits feelings of trust and relaxation and reduces our stress response… it is a way to offer kindness to ourselves,” said Hughes. She demonstrated time and again just how scientific mindfulness practice is when it comes to calming our nervous centers. She explained how when “we calm our nervous centers, we think better… during an exam, the amygdala gets a bit fired and you get the stress response and then the prefrontal cortex goes offline and you can’t pull information out of your working memory.” The neuroscience behind mindfulness has become popularized within the last decade and colleges and universities across the country are implementing mindfulness initiatives aimed at increasing students’ resiliency toward stress and decreasing the stress response altogether. Even in moments when stress or suffering is present, there is an “opportunity for beauty even at the same time it has suffering in it… If you start to notice each moment in your life and are really present with it, it can be overwhelmingly beautiful,” said Hughes. The Whittier College Wellness Coalition will be promoting mindfulness and other meditation events on campus throughout the school year. If you missed Deidre and are looking to gain the plethora of benefits accrued from meditation, be sure to look out for more information concerning a guided meditation on Nov. 29.