Bringing Mindfulness into Higher Education
by Richard S. Ellis

This article appeared on page 3 of the 2012-2013 Newsletter of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics, University of Massachusetts Amherst, Volume 28.

The benefits of meditation are apparent to everyone who practices this ancient technique. Meditation calms the mind and brings equanimity. It enables us to connect with the wisdom of our bodies and the wisdom of the present moment. It also helps us cope with pain, reduce stress, and alleviate suffering. The insight gained from meditation is called mindfulness. This is the calm and direct awareness of what is happening in the present moment, in your body, in your mind, and in the world around you. By focusing your attention on the present moment, mindfulness cultivates wakefulness and wisdom.

After meditating regularly for a number of years, I decided to introduce meditation and the benefits of mindfulness, in a gentle and nonintrusive way, to the students I teach. Starting five or six years ago and continuing into the present, I have begun each class with a short meditation exercise, which I do without using the language of meditation and which I make clear is completely voluntary. With small variations here are my instructions.

If you would like to participate, then I invite you to close your eyes, sit up straight in the chair, and start breathing slowly. Just relax. Give yourself the gift of doing nothing but breathe. As you become aware of your breath, start to feel present.

I also discuss issues of stress with the students. I know that the combination of meditation and discussion is working. For example, in the 20 course evaluations in an undergraduate course that I taught in the fall of 2012, 10 students commented favorably on the meditation exercise or remarked that I had created a low-stress learning environment. “I thought the meditation sessions were helpful and helped me to focus better during class,” wrote one student. Another remarked, “Overall, even though this class is one of the more difficult ones, it was by far my least stressful.”

During the spring semester of 2013 I wanted to go further, building on an article about stress in academic life that was published in last year.s newsletter. First I spoke with my Department Head, Michael Lavine, and with two Associate Deans in my college, all of whom strongly supported me in this endeavor. Their expressions of support inspired me to organize a group of graduate students in my department with whom I meet once a week to discuss issues of stress and to meditate together, cultivating the mindfulness that can heal that stress. I can see in their faces that our discussions are having a profound impact. These graduate students, having grown up, like me, in a culture of competition and overwork, welcome the wisdom of mindfulness, which teaches that the pressures of academic life are unavoidable but that stress can end. Next year I would like to expand this gathering to include students from other departments.

In their evaluations all the graduate students who participated indicated that they found the weekly meetings extremely helpful. One student elaborated on this when he wrote, “At these meetings, I have been able to practice and explore mindfulness meditation under the tutelage of a knowledgeable and experienced mentor, Professor Ellis. I find the meditation calming, and the short discussions the group engages in prior to meditating are always lively and thoughtful.”

I am excited about the possibility of sharing the benefits of mindfulness with more people at the university. I look forward to helping them experience, as I have, how mindfulness can heal the suffering caused by the pressures of academic life and can transform that suffering into insight and wisdom.

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