A University that Breathes

Two years ago, if you had invited me to spend an hour meditating on the quad I would have laughed in disbelief. “I’m a doer, not a sitter,” I’d have said. No time for that touchy-feely stuff.

And yet last September, there I sat cross-legged by the fountain, breathing in a spectacular fall day along with a crowd of other faculty, students and staff. And doing nothing but breathing. For an hour.

What happened?

The Project for Mindfulness and Contemplation happened. In July 2013, on an impulse, I signed up for the week-long faculty development workshop on mindfulness led by Bill Brendel and Vanessa Cornett-Murtada. As it turns out, that workshop was just the beginning of a movement that has quickly spread throughout campus. (And for those of who you are interested in becoming involved with PMC, there will be a meditation "sit-in" at noon Tuesday, Sept. 29, on the lower quad.)

But back in July 2013 I knew zero about mindfulness – less than zero, if you factor in my fundamental opposition to sitting still.

That first day I was definitely out of my comfort zone. Bill asked why we were there and everyone gave very productive-sounding answers. (Popping on my director of Writing Across the Curriculum hat, I said something about discovering connections between mindfulness and writing pedagogy.) Then Bill asked, “And why are you really here?” and we gave slightly less production-oriented answers, and he again asked, “But why, really?”

In the end, I just had to admit I was there because I personally wanted a break from the running-around stress of my life.

Before long we were all just sitting there breathing. Bill hooked me with his invitational words: “You don’t have to be anywhere but here; you don’t have to do anything but this.” They were followed by long sessions of just sitting and being in the present moment. At first I occasionally peeked in fascination at my colleagues, people I am used to seeing very much in action now sitting like statues. But soon I settled in and a 45-minute session whisked by, leaving me wanting more.

In short, I discovered that if anyone asks me to just sit still and do nothing but breathe for any length of time, I will gladly do it.

At the end of the workshop we all had to commit to one way we would bring mindfulness to our teaching. My colleagues came up with all sorts of interesting activities, but being such a newbie, I leaned toward the simple: I’d meditate with my students for one minute at the start of class each day.

That was July. As September approached, I started getting nervous. Sure, I found mindful breathing incredibly refreshing, but would my students think I was off my rocker?

Luckily, my paired course partner that semester was Sherry Jordon, associate professor of theology, an old hand at meditation. When I told her about the fix I’d gotten myself into, she said she would do it with our group, too, so that I wouldn’t seem like such an oddball. Between our two classes, our students meditated five days a week that semester.

And so began the practice of starting my classes with meditation. We would usually begin with one minute, but before long the students would ask for more time, and then more again. By the end of the semester we’d be up to two or three minutes. I think some of them would have preferred to spend the whole class time meditating!

This past semester, I asked my students to fill out an anonymous survey on their experiences with in-class meditation. On a scale of 1 (“Terrible: I hope this never happens in any of my future classes”) to 5 (“Terrific: I hope this happens in many/all of my future classes”), 13 out of 17 students gave it a 5, with three 4’s and one 3. The main issue for my stressed-out, sleep-deprived students was fear of dozing off while meditating. Other than that, they included multiple comments about how starting with meditation helps them to focus in class. As one wrote, “AMAZING! If I truly sit here and relax, I find that I am more engaged in conversation and relaxed in class … I find my mind is fixed on the task at hand.”

Here are a few responses to my request for metaphors to describe their experiences:

  • “Slowly letting the air out of a very full balloon.”
  • “Changing an outfit. When I came into the room I was wearing an outfit of stress and distraction. Meditation made me change into a more calm, non-distracted outfit. That was the outfit I wore for the rest of the class which amplified my experience of the class.”
  • “A river. It gives me a chance to let my thoughts flow through me instead of damming them up or trying to divert them somewhere else.”
  • “It is like working out. The more you do it the longer it takes to get winded, the stronger you are, and the more you want to spend expanding on it.”
  • “When the sun fills me up with Vitamin D.”

Like my students, I’ve come to depend on our meditation time to relax and focus at the start of class. It helps me to let go of the past (that sticky meeting I just attended) and the future (that knotty administrative problem I need to solve), and simply breathe in the present moment. I can’t imagine not starting a class with mindful breathing beginning with the words, “You don’t need to be anywhere but here; you don’t need to do anything but this.”

I’ve also learned that at this point in my life, solo mediation does not work for me. Last semester I tried meditating in my office for just one minute after arriving to work each day; the experiment was an utter failure. I’m just too easily distracted when I’m not accountable to others for staying put. Luckily the PMC offers free weekly meditation sessions in the Wellness Center for people who, like me, are social meditators.

As if that weren’t enough, I’ve actively begun to embed opportunities to meditate with others into various corners of my life: a group at my church, the faculty writing retreats and English Department meetings.

My reach only extends so far, but through the Project for Mindfulness and Contemplation I’ve learned that the ranks of meditators at St. Thomas are many and our number continues to grow. So what’s next? What if every class included a minute or two of mindful breathing? What about every meeting: including those with students, faculty, staff, administrators … the Board of Trustees?

What if St. Thomas becomes a university that breathes?