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Breathing out, tuning in

A movement toward mindfulness promotes focus and builds connections.

February 9, 2018

Mindy Leder
WORKING ON WELLNESS: Weekly meditation classes in the Peter Buck Center for Health and Fitness, led by Director of Counseling Services Bernie Hershberger, are just one of many opportunities for Bowdoin students to practice mindfulness.

In the Peter Buck Center for Health and Fitness, an intimate room on the third floor with purple cushions, dim lighting and statues of Buddha seems out of place. But several nights a week, students and community members come to Room 302 for meditation classes, retreating from the chaos of campus, if only for 55 minutes.

Monday was the second time Nora Jackson ’21 had meditated. She was inspired to try meditation after hearing of the benefits of mindfulness.

“In our ever-busy world we forget to take a moment for ourselves, and that time is worth it and will be repaid to us in a sense when we’re able to focus better, we’re able to understand ourselves better,” said Jackson.

Monday night’s class, taught by Toby Sifton, a local acupuncturist and meditation instructor, focuses on the foundations of meditation. Sifton walks and talks the small group through the practice, first the proper alignment of sitting meditation, next the breath, which would be the object of focus throughout the practice. Sifton also tells participants that it’s fine to notice sensations they feel, of thoughts that come up. It’s OK for the mind to wander, Sifton tells the class. If it does, don’t dwell on it, and return to the breath.

Sifton’s meditation class is only one part of a growing push for mindfulness on campus. Last weekend alone, there were three events focused on meditation: two introductory workshops and a keynote address. Led by new student group Mindfulness Over Matter and Counseling Services, the mindfulness movement aims to give members of the Bowdoin community tools to counter stress, anxiety or other struggles on their own.

Mindfulness Over Matter brings together experienced and novice meditators. The club hopes to offer student-led group meditation classes every day of the week and to form a community within the variety of scattered mindfulness events on campus.

“We’re going to try to have a diverse range of meditation sessions and they won’t only be places to sit down, meditate and leave, but a place where we can talk and meet,” said Megan Retana ’19, one of the leaders of Mindfulness Over Matter.

Retana began practicing meditation after taking a medical leave from Bowdoin in her sophomore year.

“Initially it was to calm my anxiety, and it did that, but among stopping the anxiety attacks that I was having, it really made me feel more grateful, made me feel more compassionate towards others. It gave me a sense of thankfulness for my family and friends and Bowdoin even though it seemed at the time like a place of stress and chaos. I definitely came back with a better mindset,” she said.

Benny Painter ’19, another leader of the club, discovered to meditation in high school, where mindfulness was incorporated into the curriculum. Painter signed up for the elective out of curiosity, but his relationship with meditation has evolved since then.

“I was just really curious about how it helped with my academics and my concentration. But now, it’s much more than just academics and concentration. It’s about practicing values that I want to embody in an intentional way. Sitting down on the cushion is an opportunity to practice compassion or gratitude, like you’d practice an instrument or sport,” he said.

After high school, Painter took a gap year and spent three months studying with monks in Nepal. He has gone on several mindfulness retreats and continues to deepen his practice, which includes sharing it with Bowdoin through Mindfulness Over Matter.

“I was just so lucky to have been exposed to it because it really shaped who I am in a really positive way. And it’s done the same for a lot of people,” he said. “I just want to be a part of the effort to give other people that same exposure, because it might help them.”

Counseling Services is also committed to the mindfulness movement. Bernie Hershberger, director of Counseling Services, first suggested that the College offer wellness classes about 18 years ago and regular meditation classes more than 10 years ago.

“We were out in front of the wave trying to help students figure out strategies and skills for working with stress and anxiety and perfectionism, and in particular we started to incorporate these classes that would allow students to develop skills, practices that they could take with them,” he said.

A licensed psychologist, Hershberger turned to meditation soon after earning his PhD because he felt that he was doing patients a disservice by attempting to reframe the issues they came in with. He felt that strategy invalidated those issues.

“The challenge is that it somehow belies the fact that there is difficulty, there is pain and there is suffering in the world, and I was just starting to feel like, I couldn’t just go past people’s suffering and pain,” said Hershberger

Buddhist principles and meditation gave Hershberger a new perspective on approaching his work and his life.

“It infused so much more energy and excitement in what I wanted to do then, which was to help people psychologically and when possible to incorporate other strategies,” he said. “Teaching people, for example, with anxiety about how to go toward anxiety is so much more empowering than trying to move around it, or dodge or weave it, or medicate it. It’s much more helpful for someone to know that they can go towards something that is really difficult. And that is in essence what meditation practice is.”

By promoting mindfulness through wellness classes and programming through Counseling Services Hershberger hopes to spread the benefits of mindfulness to all edges of campus.

“There is not a human being on our campus who is not facing some sort of challenge or difficulty. That is unifying and means we all can work together to ease suffering within self and to support others,” he said.

All of these efforts, in part, work to dispel common misconceptions about meditation. One of these misconceptions, Painter explains, is that the goal of meditation is to clear one’s mind.

“It’s definitely not just trying to think about anything, because that would be just frustrating,” he said. “[It’s important] to have an open mind, and maintain a healthy skepticism. Only trust your experience and not what anyone else is telling you about how you should be feeling or not. It’s really an exploration of your own mind.”

Retana adds, however, that this exploration doesn’t need to happen in isolation.

“There’s something special about being in a room with a bunch of different people who are practicing. I never used to meditate with people and it is perhaps seen as a solitary practice but there are so many ways—you can meditate alone, you can mediate in a group, there are so many exercises.” said Retana.

Jackson was encouraged by the group setting of the classes.

“If I was going at this alone I don’t think I could do it,” said Jackson. “I wouldn’t know where to start, really.”

The College has provided a strong foundation for the movement, and Hershberger is confident that the lessons of mindfulness and meditation will benefit students beyond their Bowdoin careers.

“If Bowdoin more and more commits, and I think we’re really getting there, but if we were able to develop a community that is mindful and compassionate, I think the quality of our lives would be fundamentally different,” said Hershberger. “My biggest dream is that when students leave Bowdoin, they leave with emotional intelligence, wisdom and compassion.”

For now, though, there’s a small room on the third floor of Buck where students can learn to breathe, to be mindful of their thoughts and feelings, to cultivate that wisdom and compassion. They’re hooked, and they’ll keep coming back.


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