Mindfulness: making a comeback after centuries of silence

Austin Smyth found himself sitting down, cross-legged on his floor in silence instead of at a desk near a computer before he wrote his 20-page paper. The smell of burning white sage incense filled the room as 20 minutes passed. He let his mind escape for a moment, as his body fell under a state of relaxation.

Smyth’s senior thesis deadline is approaching, but instead of worrying, he is meditating.

“Meditation is a great way to get grounded,” said Smyth, a senior screenwriting major. “It gets you through a day that you might not want to.”

Many Chapman students have begun practicing mindfulness as part of a daily lifestyle because of recent research suggesting its ability to improve sleep patterns, lower stress levels and increase focus in everyday life, including in classes. Students attend meditations offered on campus, at churches or at home by taking the time to sit or walk and concentrate on only breathing and the senses.

Harvard University conducted a study last year that suggests meditation’s increased popularity could be linked to recent research connecting it to the amygdala, the nuclei located in the temporal lobe of the brain that is responsible for emotions. The study showed meditation can enhance the humans’ ability to adapt to stress and merge the mind and body for health benefits.

Meditation has not been resisted by Western religions, but instead has been incorporated into many practices today. Gail Stearns, dean of the Wallace All Faiths Chapel, said many ancient forms of worship practiced it in some form before.

“It’s coming from a number of places. It’s a rediscovery of most religions,” Stearns said. “Buddhism, Christianity, Hinduism and Muslims have tradition and it’s about the rediscovery of the simplicity and the truth in those.”

Smyth started meditating the fall semester of his senior year, and now practices three times a week for 20 minutes to help himself focus on homework or to release anger or stress.

Sanjay Kumar, professor of religious studies, said meditation is centered on the brain, body, being and breath. Harnessing the breath by practicing breathing techniques can shift a lifestyle.

“When your breath is rapid, you are disconnected or are left shallow which will manifest in your life,” Kumar said. “When your breath is graceful, effortless, fluid and abundant, those manifest in your life.”

Kumar said the nervous system has a fight or flight response that releases cortisol, a stress hormone, and adrenaline that is part of a human survival instinct.

“The stress response would be triggered if you were being chased by a lion or if someone was running after you,” Kumar said. “This same stress response can be triggered when you’re stuck in traffic, about to say a speech in class or are running late to an interview.”

Kumar said he practices meditation in class where his students perform deep belly breathing to allow the brain to shift from highly stressed to a calm and relaxed state.

“Meditation improves the immune system, the digestive system, sleep patterns and sexual performance,” Kumar said. “Your breath is the safety net that catches you after you fall off the tightrope of life.”

Stearns said neuroscience research has shown that people can cultivate qualities of focus, compassion and balance through meditation by training the brain to be focused and calm.

“People are hungry for feeling more coherent and centered,” Stearns said. “It sounds shocking and almost too simple that we have the tools within our brains and body to find peace.”

Stearns said mindfulness is a form of meditation that allows people to become aware of the present moment by training the brain to be more focused and aware.

“Often we have our brains in this default mode, going over the stories of the past or things coming in the future. Attached to these are accompanying emotions, ones of stress or anxiety,” Stearns said. “We are leaving ourselves in the past or future and missing on things that are happening right now.”

Stearns said two varying styles that leave the mind feeling more centered are sitting and walking meditation, which involve relaxing both the mind and body and focusing on breathing.

“There’s no drama in the present moment,” Stearns said. “We are just seeing, tasting and hearing.”

Introductory Mindfulness courses are offered every Monday until March 18 in the Wallace All Faiths Chapel. Each class is led by Stearns and starts at noon.


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