Quieting the mind

Initiative cultivates wellness, connection and engaged learning

Madison Meditates
Programs like Madison Meditates allow students, faculty and staff to participate in restorative practices.

SUMMARY: Faculty and staff members throughout campus are supporting the Initiative for Contemplative Study and Practice to benefit students in the era of an "anxiety epidemic."

By Sarah Chase (’17), alumni relations coordinator

The life of the American college student is defined by busyness, overscheduling, self-medicating, over-caffeinating, under-sleeping, overeating and over-stimulation with technology.

Constantly plugged in, students’ minds are often in multiple places at once, but never fully present in any of them. Many students find themselves writing a paper while half binge-watching a Netflix show in the background, texting friends, scrolling through Instagram, retweeting memes, emailing professors, shopping online and chatting with people nearby.

With the increase in technology usage, counselors and health professionals have seen staggering numbers of mental health-related issues. In 2014, anxiety surpassed depression as the No. 1 mental health issue facing students. Today, 26% of college students admit to anxiety affecting their academic performance, while 17% identify with depression. Specialists have labeled the era an “anxiety epidemic.”

In 2015, Marsha Mays-Bernard, associate vice president for wellness, orientation and multicultural engagement, along with 17 other faculty and staff members, created what is now the Initiative for Contemplative Study and Practice.

Marsha Mays-Bernard
Marsha Mays-Bernard and 17 other faculty and staff members created what is now the Initiative for Contemplative Study and Practice.

Bernard had noticed a variety of efforts happening around campus that focused on contemplative practices. Faculty members were integrating it into their classrooms, and some had attended retreats on the topic. Madison Meditates allowed students, faculty and staff to attend daily contemplative lunch-hour offerings. And UREC offered yoga and meditation classes.

“It was clear that there were people on campus with this shared interest,” Mays-Bernard said, “but we didn’t always know each other and we didn’t always know about all of the activities that were going on. Our efforts were decentralized.”

The initiative was formed to help coordinate and organize the university’s endeavors. “We wanted to support each other, create new experiences and programs, and build awareness on campus,” Mays-Bernard said.

In March, JMU hosted the 8th Annual Contemplative Practices in Higher Education Conference to bring awareness to contemplative practices and create a place for resiliency.  

Shari Scofield, coordinator for Mad4U and a contributing member of the ICSP, said the need for contemplative practices “is an ancient need, a human need, and for me, a spiritual imperative … It seems more and more humans are being generally medicated for disorders related to stress. Meditation instead of medication is worth exploring.”

Contemplative practices are a way to meet students where they are in their everyday lives.

Kimberly DuVall, a JMU psychology professor and ICSP member, said when students are confused or put off by the term, she explains it as “stress management skills or coping strategies to help them understand.”

Jared Featherstone, director of the University Writing Center, professor of writing, rhetoric and technical communication, and a member of the ICSP, piloted an Honors course in Fall 2018 titled Creativity, Technology and the Search for Self to teach students how to be mindful of how technology is creating or dismantling their notion of self.

Jared Featherstone
Jared Featherstone (right), led a session during the 8th Annual Contemplative Practices in Higher Education Conference in March.

Spencer Law said the course exceeded his expectations. “Other students shared in deep and meaningful engagement with course material. … We all pushed ourselves to get out of our comfort zones, wrestle with our beliefs and experience personal growth.”

Law also found Featherstone to be attentive and personal. “I’ve never had someone take so much time to work with me one-on-one and help me work through the kinds of complex issues we dealt with in class. He clearly felt for every student and prioritized our learning, growth and well-being over busy work and grades.”

Law said each class began with a few minutes of meditation to help students center themselves—something many ICSP members employ in their areas to help individuals get more out of their experiences by being present.

DuVall reminds her students to be present during daily activities such as taking a shower. If their minds start to drift to their to-do lists, she advises them to focus on the soap and steam. “It’s called ‘practice’ because it takes practice,” she said. “Our minds love to jump around and worry us, so we have to learn to control this organ—our brain—and calm it with certain disciplines.”

During classes, ICSP professors are including mental and physical exercises to help students focus better. After hours, these professors are making extra time to meet with students to help support them during periods of anxiety and altering their course work to suit the needs of students.

Brantmeier and Kipps-Vaughn
Ed Brantmeier (left) and Deborah Kipps-Vaughn during the 8th Annual Contemplative Practices in Higher Education Conference.

But contemplative practices are broader than mindfulness and meditation practices. The Tree of Contemplative Practices is rooted in communion, connection and awareness. These can manifest in quieting the mind, reading holy scriptures, journaling, volunteering, listening to understand, dancing, attending retreats and establishing personal space.

It’s not just mental health that mindfulness remediates. It seeks to reconcile a lifestyle, one that can be hectic and stressful and lack boundaries. Mindfulness seeks to illuminate cracks so that broken pieces can be restored—something the ICSP at JMU is actively pursuing.

The group now consists of over 40 faculty and staff members who are providing resources, programs, events, research opportunities and spaces for this growth to take place.

On campus, programs like Madison Meditates, Open Mic Night, Creative Madison Craft Night, GetDown at SunDown, Tunes at Noon, TeaTime and Mindful Afternoon Retreats are provided for students and faculty alike to come and participate in restorative practices.

“Essentially, we want to raise awareness about mindfulness and other contemplative practices and the benefits that are there for us individually and as a community,” Mays-Bernard said. “We hope to transform our culture through providing tools that help people pay more attention, connect and engage.”

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Published: Wednesday, August 14, 2019

Last Updated: Sunday, May 23, 2021

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