Mindful clubs help students decompress


February 2, 2018

Take a few slow breaths. Place both feet on the floor and feel your body loosen. Draw your attention to how your body feels—the temperature, the comfort level, the depth of your breath. Let your mind focus solely on your breath, and if it strays, gently bring it back. You have just completed a basic mindfulness meditation.

Over the last few years, the mindfulness movement—much like minimalism and the single-tasking movement—has picked up steam. Scientific research shows mindfulness is not a placebo and can significantly improve functioning, especially in an academic setting. The New York Times reported studies linking meditation to improved sleep, proving mindfulness meditation could alter brain scans and meditation can improve children’s academic performance and focus. In a stressful college environment bustling with activity and assignments, students need a way to relax their minds.

Last semester, Protestant Chaplain Reverend Matt Carriker and several students came together to create the Zen Zone, a mindfulness gathering led by Carriker. Held once a week in the Peace Room in Usdan, Zen Zone is a half-hour session made up of different mindfulness and contemplative practices.

“Sometimes it’s different forms of sitting meditation, [or] using different tools to focus the mind, whether it’s the breath, the body, a word or mantra… sometimes it’s more embodied practice like mindful walking or mindful listening,” Carriker explained what a session could include. “[We’re] trying to give people the sense that mindfulness spills over into every aspect of life.”

Miriam Berro Krugman ’20 is a sociology major with minors in Peace, Conflict, and Coexistence Studies (PAX) and Social Justice and Social Policy (SJSP). She is also the student contact for Zen Zone. Although she knew about meditation before coming to campus, she did not practice it until attending Brandeis. “There are many different manifestations of mindfulness,” Krugman said. “I think it starts out as a practice but then it becomes a part of your life.”

Carriker, who has practiced meditation for over 15 years, said that he tries to incorporate mindfulness into his work on campus. In his second year of work at Brandeis, Carriker attended a retreat called “Contemplative Practices In Higher Education,” which questioned how to incorporate mindfulness in academic institutions. “There’s such a focus on intellectual growth and academic pursuits, but that’s only one part of ourselves,” Carriker said.

So, what is mindfulness? “I would say it’s present moment awareness,” Carriker said. Distinct from the usual awareness of people that jumps constantly from past and future thoughts, being present “makes you aware of your connection with everyone and everything.” Carriker said that being mindful is a way to slow down in the moment. “The more you practice, the more it’s kind of this gradual peace and calm that comes.”

Adding mindfulness to Krugman’s college experience has been especially beneficial. “I think I am a very busy person, I get stressed really easily and mindfulness, especially during college, has been something that I’ve been able to turn to…Normalizing meditation and normalizing that it’s okay to be stressed and there are things you can do to help it… I think that’s why [Zen Zone] is important, and why that space is needed,” Krugman said. Because of Brandeis students’ busy schedules, Carriker said that students at Brandeis are hungry for an opportunity to meditate and mindfully be in the moment.

Brandeis’ chapter of Active Minds, a leading non-profit organization that empowers students to speak openly about mental health, aims to decrease stigma around mental illness and promote mental health. Frankie Marchan ’19, the vice president of Active Minds at Brandeis, said that it is especially important to practice mindfulness in conversations about mental health.

“Since I started learning about mindfulness, I think it’s very important in terms of understanding where you are and how you can relate to people and help others,” Marchan said. “That awareness is definitely important, and I don’t know if it’s necessarily prominent in our culture.”

Active Minds uses some of their meetings to de-stress with bubble wrap and coloring. While the club emphasizes that they are not a therapeutic resource, they seek to educate their members and the Brandeis student body about ways students can help themselves or their friends practice self-care around mental illness.

“It’s harder to get help, if not impossible to get help, if you don’t talk about what you need help with,” Marchan said. “Obviously there are different levels of that and you don’t have to tell everyone you need help, but even recognizing that something might be a problem might not happen if it’s not talked about.”

Marchan explained that while there are obvious ways to practice mindfulness, like meditation and journaling, even taking the time to focus on a meal instead of multi-tasking is a way to engage in mindful practices. Carriker explained that he leads many embodied practices during Zen Zone, because sitting meditations for extended periods of time can be difficult for beginning meditators. “You can do mindful anything,” Carriker said, listing actions like driving or brushing teeth. “We try to make [Zen Zone] accessible to all experience levels.” As Krugman said, “If sitting meditation doesn’t work for someone, that doesn’t mean that they can’t practice mindfulness.”

Zen Zone is a small, yet welcoming community that is open to students of all religious and spiritual backgrounds, in the hopes of spreading the benefits of meditation and mindfulness. “It’s kind of a sacred space where we can decrease isolation and bring people into a supportive community,” said Carriker of Zen Zone’s effects.

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