Finals week is looming, a dark shroud just waiting to break down the common undergrad into a blubbering, sleep-deprived creature incapable of comprehensible speech.
While the stacks of essays, crumpled Red Bull cans and coffee-stained flashcards may have already started accumulating, the stress that also accumulates can be managed without reverting to a comatose sleeping pattern. The solution? Mindfulness meditation.
Many of us know at least vaguely about meditation, and the image of a serene monk clad in orange chanting to the sound of a gong springs to mind. Yet meditation is something that we humble college students can practice, as well.
The first thing to note is the difference in terms: mindfulness meditation is different than religious meditation. As religious studies professor Clark Chilson said, “Mindfulness meditation to relieve stress, is not a religious practice and doesn’t attempt to reach a religious goal or to achieve some higher goal of liberation [or] nirvana, as seen in religious-based meditation.” In contrast, mindfulness meditation is focused on relieving stress and promoting self-awareness.
“Stress” has come to be the catchword describing the end of the semester. “Stress is caused by fear, the fear of not doing well,” Chilson said. “This is imagined fear (that is, no one is being attacked, there is no physical suffering), and fear induces stress. When this happens, people lose perspective on what is happening and focus on what could happen.”
So what exactly is mindfulness meditation and how can it help relieve stress?
According to Deanna Burkett, outreach and consultation coordinator at the University of Pittsburgh Counseling Center, “Mindfulness meditation involves a certain quality of attention. In mindfulness meditation, attention is directed to the present moment in a non-judgmental way.” Burkett explained that this attention to the present moment is meant to “break the momentum created by future-oriented and past-oriented thinking, which usually carries with it a lot of planning, anxiety, and worrying.”
Mindfulness uses the present moment as the object of meditation. Often, the participant is encouraged to count their breaths, feel their physicality in whatever position they are sitting and to non-judgmentally observe thoughts as they may flit into the mind. It is in this practice of simply existing in the moment that “the mind experiences some rest from the worries and anxieties it often experiences as it plans, evaluates, anticipates and analyzes,” Burkett said.
The benefits of mindfulness meditation have been found to improve the physical condition of the participant and to visibly reduce the signs of stress. Physical indicators of stress (such as blood pressure, depression, presence of stress hormones) are reduced significantly in people who practice mindfulness meditation. According to Burkett, “Cultivating a regular mindfulness practice can produce benefits that reach into all realms of experience: individual, relational and academic.”
The other good news is that mindfulness meditation does not have to take a huge chunk of your day. According to Buddhist monk Bhante Soorakkulame Pemaratana, allocating 10 minutes of your day to meditation or mindfulness will bring a change in your life. In response to the common college-student concern for “wasting time,” Pemaratana pointed out that it’s actually an efficient use of time.
“Spending 10 minutes meditating will give you more time, actually,” Pemeratana said in an email. “When we don’t have that peace, awareness and centeredness, we can be very easily distracted to things that consume our time (Facebook, Twitter, etc.). We actually save a lot of time when meditating and are able to manage our time better afterwards.”
In essence, practicing mindfulness can not only physically reduce your stress levels, but also save you time in the long run. Mindfulness is something that can be practiced by anyone at any time. There are many resources in and around Pittsburgh that can help foster meditation and get you started on adding meditation practices to your life. Here at Pitt, the Stress Free Zone offers classes on meditation once a week, as well as mindful yoga every day. There is also a Shambhala Meditation Center on North Highland Avenue in East Liberty, and for those with cars, the Zen Center of Pittsburgh is located just outside the city in Sewickley.
But you don’t have to travel or even walk out of your dorm room to practice mindfulness meditation.
Mindfulness can also be practiced by simply noticing each breath, concentrating on the present moment and non-judgmentally observing your thoughts, fears and concerns as they may enter your consciousness.
As Buddhist monk and activist Thich Nhat Hanh once said, “The present moment is filled with joy and happiness. If you are attentive, you will see it.”