The Art of Meditation: Integrating Ancient Practices into the First-Year Moreau Experience

By Jenna Wade

Meditation image

Image Credit: Photo by Jenna Wade

Stress and anxiety faced by college freshmen has increased nationwide over the past decade. The adjustment to college life only seems to get more daunting as programs become more competitive, students struggle to maintain high GPAs, make new friends, and learn to live away from home. New York Times author Tamar Lewin explains record levels of stress found in college freshman, noting that "while first-year students' assessments of their emotional health were declining, their ratings of their own drive to achieve, and academic ability have been going up" (Lewin). The percentage of students who said their emotional health was above average fell from sixty-four to fifty-two percent in 2010 (The American Freshman). In the spring of 2016, data collected from 95,000 students across 137 universities reported two-thirds of college students felt overwhelming anxiety and over fifty percent reported feeling more than average to tremendous levels of stress (Spring 2016 Reference Group Data Report).

The anxiety and stress felt by college students is clearly an issue, but what do we do about it? How do we help nurture students to thrive in four of the most defining years of their lives? I decided to research the benefits of meditation and its relation to college students because I have experienced them myself. Throughout high school, I practiced yoga almost every day and found myself becoming enthused the more I went. The four corners of my yoga mat provided a place for me to slow down and reflect, to breathe and move to music, and to sit and focus on my breath. It was just one hour each day where I wouldn't focus on external things or stress from school. I would always leave feeling better than when I had originally walked in. I realized I was becoming more mindful and more aware of myself through my practice of yoga and meditation. The transformative mindfulness I experienced in high school made me wonder how this ancient practice of breathing could improve the anxiety experienced by college students. By analyzing sources ranging from scientific studies to student testimony, I seek to understand the effects of meditation on allowing students to become calmer, handle stress better, and have more productive and attentive conversations. I am proposing to the Notre Dame faculty to integrate meditation into the Moreau First-Year Experience to reduce the stress levels of students, allowing them to be more mindful and better able to contribute to thoughtful conversations with their classmates, further strengthening the Notre Dame community.

A central goal of the Moreau First Year Experience, according to the University website, is to "help new students to make a meaningful transition to collegiate life at Notre Dame by integrating their academic, co-curricular and residential experiences…the Moreau First Year Experience gives students the opportunity to begin forming life-long habits of the mind as well as an engagement in faith, service, arts, wellness, and community" (Pathfinders Advertising and Marketing Group). Indeed, many students recognize this effort. One student notes that a benefit to Moreau is that "it gives you a break from academic stresses by casually discussing how your week is going with people from the neighborhood of your dorm" (Puntillo). But, other student's express exasperation and concern over the way the requirement "entails a lot of busy work that takes time away from other classes" (Tulauskas), suggesting that the course ends up adding to stress felt by students. This discrepancy implies that the course has not fully developed the mind envisioned by the founders of the Congregation of the Holy Cross. Ultimately, while well-intentioned, this requirement does not fully accomplish one of its' main goals of cultivating the student mind. Integrating meditation could help Moreau better cultivate the student minds of the first-year population.

Opponents may argue that the University of Notre Dame offers health and wellness programs through the McWell Student Center for Wellbeing. According to the McWell website, the center "works collectively to provide initiatives, services, and resources that support the eight dimensions of well-being" (Marketing Communications). However, it is not enough to just have the resource available on campus. According to the 2014 National Survey of College Counseling centers, 92% of counseling centers are serving increasing numbers of students each year, but counseling centers feel that only a small percentage of the struggling students actually seek treatment from university health centers. There is a key difference between having the resources available and students' motivation to take advantage of them. The McWell Student Center offers mindfulness training to 15 students each semester as a 75-minute session that meets four times. However, there are 2,052 freshmen in the class of 2021 and, for the mindfulness training to be successful in the Notre Dame community, it needs to be available to all students. The benefit of incorporating meditation into the Moreau First-Year Experience is that students won't feel stressed about making time to practice meditation because it will already be built into their weekly schedule.

The combined effects of meditation will engage more mindful students throughout the Notre Dame community. The practice of meditation allows the practitioner to become more aware of their mind and body connection as their practice grows. It might seem frustrating at first, and one might experience feelings of distraction and the inability to concentrate, yet that is part of the practice. Learning how to focus on solely inhales and exhales forces one to combat the conflicting thoughts distracting their mind. Through meditation, one learns to train their mind and is thus able to be less reactive when things unexpectedly come up. Researcher Ellen Langer discusses an overview of mindfulness and its relation to welcoming new information in her book Mindfulness, the result of her ten years of research. Langer explains, "once we become mindfully aware of views other than our own, we start to realize that there are as many different views as there are different observers" (68). Becoming more mindful forces one to realize that there are different views other than just the ones we have and that one has to acknowledge the different perspectives in a situation. Langer emphasizes that "it is easy to see that any single gesture, remark, or act between people can have at least two interpretations…every idea, person or object is potentially simultaneously many things depending on the perspective from which it is viewed…becoming more mindful means that we remain aware that the various possible perspectives will never be exhausted" (69). If people improve their mindfulness, they are able to be more conscious of their actions and recognize how there are more opinions than just their own in a situation and allows one to actively listen and engage in conversations. Different perspectives in situations arise from different backgrounds, and if one is able to understand where people are coming from, they won't be so locked into their ideas. Langer also mentions, "a single-minded label produces an automatic reaction, which reduces our options…to understand that other people may not be so different allows us empathy and enlarges our range of responses…when we apply this open-minded attitude to our behavior, change becomes possible" (Langer 71). Similarly, Tobin Hart, a researcher from State University of West Georgia, discusses how "inviting the contemplative simply includes the natural human capacity for knowing through silence, looking inward, pondering deeply, beholding, witnessing the contents of our consciousness" (Hart 30). Few teachers have integrated the contemplative mind in the classroom, which is an essential capacity for students to find inner awareness and have a more open view of the world they live in. John Kline, in his article "Types of Listening" explains how different types of listening can improve listening behavior in all situations and the skills required to listen effectively. Kline defines relationship listening as "either to help an individual or to improve the relationship between two people" (Kline). He mentions it can be used when listening to friends or acquaintances because it requires you to actually listen and understand where the other person is coming from so you can be supportive in your response, requiring an open view and awareness of where someone is living, as described by Hart. If students are more aware of themselves, they can listen to their peers more effectively and will be better able to participate in meaningful conversations. Langer, Hart, and Kline all suggest that taking a deep breath, thus improving mindfulness, allows one to center themselves and distinguish their experience from others and actively participate in conversations with their peers. The integration of meditation into the Moreau First-Year Experience will allow students to pay more attention in conversations and apply ideas of informative listening, therefore building a stronger community on campus.

Meditation gives students increased ability to deal with stress in their lives by intentionally slowing down their thoughts to better process situations. Mar Schure, John Christopher, and Suzanne Christopher discuss the benefits of incorporating mindfulness into a master's level graduate program. The authors discuss results of a 4-year study of a 15-week mindfulness-based stress reduction course. Although this study was conducted at a master's level, graduate students are close in age to undergraduates and experience similar amounts of stress. Results through student feedback suggest that they felt that through meditation they had developed an increased ability to deal with stressors in their lives and were more comfortable sitting in silence with their clients and thus better able to help them, that they "became more aware of their bodies from the yoga, and that they had experienced increased clarity" (52), "a direct result of slowing down the mind and its constant thought patterns" (53). They also mentioned "having to deal with multiple stressors in their lives and the resulting consequences of stress overload (e.g., anxiety, depression, fears)" (50), similar to how Notre Dame students often feel "overwhelmed with course-work and trying to figure out the right major for what I want to do later in life, but unsure if I have chosen the right path" (Tulauskas, Puntillo). The majority of students reported that, as a result of the course, they "developed an increased ability to deal with strong and threatening emotions" (50). College can seem like days go by so quickly and it is difficult and overwhelming to keep up with work and get involved in things around campus. Meditation can provide an outlet for students to slow down their mind; instead of getting so overwhelmed from stress that students freeze and become unproductive, meditation allows them to stop and think for a moment before deciding what they want to do and how they want to approach their stressful situation.

Meditation has been proven to show physical health benefits from practicing. Physical benefits can include decreased blood pressure and better sleep quality, in addition to increases in the brain derived neurotrophic factor and increases of the cortisol awakening response. Kimberly Roberts and Dr. Danoff-Burg performed a study consisting of 554 students who completed a Five-Factor Mindfulness Questionnaire explaining the relationship between mindfulness and health behaviors. They demonstrated that "individuals who were more mindful reported better sleep quality, engaged in less binge eating, and were more physically active" (171). Researchers Rizzolo, Zipp, Stiskal, and Simpkins explain the results of their study of 22 students in graduate health science programs and the effects of yoga, humor and reading on stress. Participants engaged in 30-minutes of one of the activates and their daily stress inventory was measured before and after each session.The results demonstrated that all three activities decreased systolic blood pressure, diastolic blood pressure, and heart rate, indicating that a relatively short amount of time engaging in one of these interventions could significantly reduce stress felt by a student (79), similar to results from a 3-month yoga and meditation retreat that "showed increases of the plasma levels of a neuromodulator that plays a role in learning…increases in the magnitude of the cortisol awakening response which is part of the hypothalamic pituitary adrenal axis and a decrease in inflammatory response" (Yoga and meditation improve mind-body health and stress resilience). Dr. Chan's research, reported in Health and Medicine Week suggests meditation relates to enhanced alertness and immunological readiness as well as improved stress resilience. These studies demonstrate the multitude of benefits that meditation can provide. By lowering blood pressures and heart rates, and allowing people to be more physically active and obtain more restful sleep, college students will be able to function more productively throughout the day.

Meditation courses have been incorporated at other universities and provide a model for how Notre Dame could implement it into the Moreau Experience. Holly Rogers and Margaret Maytan, Duke University psychiatrists and developers of the Koru program, designed a tailored meditation program titled, "Koru: Introduction to Mindfulness and Meditation for Duke Students." They describe the excellent fit between the drive for identity and develop in emerging adults that is evoked by mindfulness as well as how their approach takes into account the characteristic attitudes, perspectives, needs, and goals of typical university students. It is explained that students will likely not follow through with a class unless there are set deadlines for tasks, and the Koru model has "mandatory attendance, time dedicated to mindfulness, and daily gratitude practices" (11). The class integrated at Duke, another high-achieving university, could have similar benefits at the University of Notre Dame. The researchers performed a secondary study to analyze the effectiveness of their program by comparing students in the program against a control group. Results showed that "Koru, a relatively brief, developmentally targeted mindfulness program, was effective at reducing symptoms of stress, enhancing psychological well-being, and promoting sleep—a key health behavior—for emerging adults who are students in a university setting" (Greeson 231). This program of mindfulness meditation offers promising results that are effective in reducing stress in university students.

Meditation would be fairly simple to add into the Moreau course. It would require a training session for all of the Moreau teachers so they could properly lead meditation at the beginning of each class. Instructors could utilize the first 15 minutes of each class to incorporate meditation, using information they learned from the training session. Since the teachers are already trained to teach Moreau, one additional training session would be a relatively small cost that could have a significant benefit for the first-year students. The Moreau teachers could complete the Duke Koru mindfulness training. Instead of McWell offering the Koru mindfulness training to 15 students each semester, the Moreau teachers could complete this training and then they would be able to share their knowledge of mindfulness to all 2,052 freshmen. There would be no additional cost in adding another class because the Moreau course is already set in place. There might be resistance from students to participate, but since Moreau is required by all first-years, students will be more likely to participate in meditation because they are already attending the class. There would be no formal assignment for the meditation, but students would be asked to reflect at the beginning of the course, halfway through the course, and at the end. The reflection could be an informal discussion within the class to discuss how the meditation has affected students and if they noticed any benefits from practicing. This approach would be low-cost, yet an effective route to getting something started.

Nationwide, stress felt among college students has been increasing. Ancient breathing practices rooted in meditation can be a simple and effective ways to provide an outlet for students dealing with stress. Multiple research studies have proven the effectiveness of meditation, suggesting incorporation of this practice into the Moreau First-Year Experience as a solution to this problem. With the ease of incorporation into the course, benefits of meditation will spread across campus. Students will become more aware of themselves, thus having better conversations throughout our community, allowing for the development of the heart and mind of Notre Dame Students.