Paving a quiet revolution, meditation at Northeastern University
Kavita Singh, 19, was up late on Wednesday evening, trying to study for an upcoming exam. But she was fighting distraction.
She awoke at 8 a.m. the next morning thinking about all the things she had to do. Finish typing her research notes, quickly grab a Turkey sandwich from Rebecca’s Café, sit through two classes back to back, do homework at the library for three hours, dinner at the cafeteria with her roommate, and run with the Northeastern Club Running team at 6 p.m. That was all before doing a few more hours of homework.
“I get super anxious,” she said. “It’s usually about being able to get my work done. I have this feeling that I’m spread too thin. I think about not having the confidence in myself to do what I want to do. And I think all of that accumulates. It has such a detrimental impact.”
So, at lunchtime, Singh added one more stop to her day’s list. She walked up to the second floor of Ell Hall to a room known as the Sacred Space to meditate.
Singh is one of many students beginning to explore meditation as a regular practice to address a growing sense of anxiety among college students. In a study that surveyed 150,000 college freshman, more than one-third reported having felt overwhelmed and ten percent feeling frequently depressed, according to the annual American Freshman Survey. The survey results also showed that anxiety and depression have been on the rise.
“It gives me perspective. When I become really tense, I know it’s a product of all these different little anxieties and that they can easily be removed,” Singh said. “My immediate reaction is to come here, because I know that I can throw my thoughts out the door and relax for a little bit.”
Only about half of freshman rated their “emotional health” as above average, according to a 2014 survey at the University of California – Los Angeles (UCLA). This is the lowest percent reported to The American Freshman Survey in 30 years.
The American College Health Association came up with similar numbers. More than half of all students report experiencing “overwhelming anxiety” and 32 percent have experienced depression where they found it difficult to function.
But when an individual, like Singh, meditates, research has found that she is loosening connections from one part of her nervous system with another, known as neural pathways that have to do with the brain’s reaction to fear. At the same time, she strengthens the part of her brain responsible for reasoning.
This is why Singh joined a dozen other students who sat cross-legged in a circle on the sacred space’s colorful carpet. She was prepared to unplug and have an hour of uninterrupted peace. Her eyes closed and she waited for Harrison Blum, a Buddhist Spiritual Advisor, to begin.
Blum has a calm demeanor, his blonde beard is grown short, and a necklace hangs from his neck. He recently finished his Masters in Divinity at Harvard Divinity School and centered his studies on the Buddhist ministry.
“For as long as there’s been humans around, well-being and being calm are things that people want,” Blum said.
He has been a Buddhist Spiritual Advisor for Northeastern for the past two years.
During the meditation session, Blum guided the group to find quiet and relaxation in their breath and in their mind. He asked the group to focus on a word that evoked welcoming thoughts. Something that brought joy.
“I couldn't silence myself on my own,” Singh said. She has failed at previous attempts to meditate in her dorm room alone. The space is too small, too bright, and too loud. And her phone is close within reach. The free meditation sessions at the Sacred Space have kept her coming back.
Singh thought about peace; not whether or not she should check her phone. It was Singh's fourth session.
“After my very first class I realized that I needed to come back because my body had been reacting to things in a really negative way. I would get nervous to a point that I was always tired and my muscles would become so tense,” Singh said.
Singh's reflection is one which companies, CEOs, and even sports teams have come to value.
The well-researched science of meditation and its numerous benefits continue to grow.
But it has not hit the same level of cultural acceptance or a practiced norm for many who might exercise at the gym or participate in regular yoga classes. It’s not uncommon for people to use exercise to deal with stress, yet meditation is not at that level. But it could be.
Northeastern student, Lars King, is convinced the meditation trend is heading toward a similar path. He is the founder of Daily Meditation, a web-based service offering daily videos and resources through a paid subscription.
“There’s still an assumption that meditation should only be used for stress-relief," he said. King believes that meditation is on the rise to become as commonplace as daily gym workouts. The trend has gone from a body focus with working out; to a body and mind focus with yoga; and now there’s a mind focus which is leading more people to meditation, according to King. He believes that Daily Meditation is catching a growing trend.
"If you work out the body to keep it healthy, you're also going to want to work out for the mind to keep it healthy too,” he said.
An annual National Health Interview Survey indicated that eight percent of adults or approximately 18 million people used meditation in 2012.
It's not far behind yoga, which is practiced by more than 20 million or 9.5% of adults, according to a Yoga Journal 2009 study. This is a rapid growth compared to the previous year's 15 million.
Statistics are not yet widely known for college students and the impact of meditation. However, a 2009 study by American University and Maharishi University of Management in the American Journal of Hypertension, found that through a randomized control study, students who practiced transcendental meditation had half the risk of developing hypertension compared with the control group.
The aim of transcendental meditation (TM) is to use mantras, or repetitive sayings, as a way to settle one's mind and ultimately, move beyond any object of thought into a state of "pure awareness." In contrast, mindfulness meditation aims to bring one's awareness to the present, focusing on sensations like breathing, according to David Orme Johnson, Ph.D and certified TM teacher.
Blum focuses on mindfulness meditation in his sessions. “I think half of the motivation is reducing stress. Another reason is for increasing well-being,” Blum said. While the results are numerous, meditation is not as easily seen or practiced on campus compared with exercising at the gym or through yoga classes. But it is growing.
In his two years at Northeastern, Blum has offered numerous meditation and mindfulness sessions. In the fall 2014 semester, he said he reached 750 people in either free guided meditation sessions like the one Singh attended, or one-time sessions as part of a class or workshop on campus.
The university offers meditation at the Sacred Space where Blum regularly teaches but he also visits programs around campus, such as incoming students from the Bouve College of Health Sciences.
He has taught for students in Computer and Information Sciences, various science classes, and residents in dorms from his position at The Sacred Space. His aim is to approach students in a non-secular way that address individuals as a whole.
"There is something in mindfulness, a kind of gentle-heartedness toward oneself that if cultivated deeply, could lead to transformations," Blum said.
King’s approach with Daily Meditation is to offer an online service as part of an effort to make mindfulness and meditation more accessible.
“Mindfulness is one of the most accessible things,” according to King. “For anything to go mainstream, it has to be secular nowadays. King and Blum both agreed that approaching meditation through a religious lens will only keep a larger audience from considering the practice.
"It’s the inevitable format that it [meditation] has been slotted into,” King said.
"I do hope to see meditation moving toward an approach of using it as basic mental hygiene," Blum said. Similar to the resulting research around the benefits of sleep, he hopes meditation will soon be considered as important as a full night's sleep.
Singh tries to get a full eight hours of sleep each night. It's just part of her effort to take care of her body and mind. She's mostly alone in that effort now; her friends don't meditate. But she can understand why.
“We fear that we might fail, that we might not be able to silence our thoughts. In fear of that failure, we just avoid it in general,” she said.
Singh left her sneakers resting on top of her backpack. It was for running later. She adjusted comfortably on the carpet in the Sacred Space. Singh believes she will continue to meditate - a practice that's already taking root in her own well-being. But also, she added, it's giving her an ability to just get things done.