“How come we all can’t be just a little bit more like monks here?”
Andrew Kriete ’11E has been wondering about this ever since he returned to Amherst after four months practicing meditation in a Tibetan Buddhist monastery in New York. He was speaking on a student panel on April 23 as part of the college’s first Day of Mindfulness—a series of events inviting members of the college community to explore various contemplative practices. In the Babbott Room of the Octagon, nine students discussed how and why they’re trying to be mindful in their academic and social lives.
Led by Professor of Art and the History of Art Joel Upton, students meet for a morning meditation in the Yushien Japanese garden.
When a high school friend introduced him to the Shambhala Buddhist forms of contemplative practice, Ryan Milov ’10 said, it intimidated him at first as “a weird mix between the occult and the hippie.” But he stuck with it, and though a specific meditation practice no longer feels right for him, he said, he has still “found contemplative postures toward all sorts of problems very useful,” and these postures need not be shrouded in mystery and supernatural belief. Mindfulness is difficult to define, but it seems to mean simply being aware of one’s own awareness, calmly stepping back to observe one’s thoughts and feelings as they arise. Milov describes it as “seeing myself thinking.”
Like many students on the panel, Heather Leonard ’10 credits her embrace of mindfulness to “Eros and Insight,” a First-Year Seminar taught collaboratively by Arthur Zajonc, the Andrew W. Mellon Professor of Physics, and Joel Upton, professor of art and the history of art. (Upton spoke about the seminar in the Spring 2004 issue of Amherst magazine.) After taking the course, Leonard wondered, “What if I brought this new attention, this awareness, to everything? To everything I did, all my relationships with people?”
Dylan Bianchi ’09, whose parents converted to Shambhala Buddhism decades ago, said his regular meditation practice lets him approach his classwork with greater concentration and suspension of judgment. “It’s allowed me to more fully embody what might be considered to be the liberal arts kind of ethos,” he said, “of exploring lots of different subjects and exposing yourself to lots of different ideas without being too fully locked into one approach.”
All of the students agreed that mindfulness has intriguing applications to academic life. Milov said that a contemplative posture helps him integrate the very different ways of thinking required for philosophy classes and for poetry classes. Others talked about how a dance class can be a chance to focus on the connections between mind and body, and about how contemplative practice might inform quantitative disciplines and vice versa.
But they also acknowledged that student life throws up all kinds of obstacles to mindfulness. “Amherst is definitely a cool place to jump headfirst into contemplative practice, because you keep hitting things: people, academics,” Kriete said. “There’s always something that can make you worry.”
“I think, at Amherst, there can be a tendency for people to be really hard on themselves and to push themselves and deprive themselves of sleep and food sometimes,” Bianchi observed. “One thing that mindfulness does is it really makes you aware of yourself and what you need as a physical being.”
So the very pressures, habits and complexities that contribute to the difficulty of practicing mindfulness in college are the reasons why students especially need its benefits.
In organizing the Day of Mindfulness, Zajonc and several of the student panelists wanted to introduce these benefits to the whole campus. “I’ve been teaching contemplative-oriented courses for several years with some colleagues here,” the professor told me after sitting in on the panel. Then, he said, he began having conversations about mindfulness with Director of Athletics Suzanne Coffey and Senior Lacrosse Coach Chris Paradis, which prompted a larger and more inclusive conversation about the many ways to apply contemplative practices throughout life at Amherst. “We had 15 or 20 people from various parts of the college—from counseling to athletics, faculty, students, administration—sitting around a table,” Zajonc said. “The idea [became], Well, what might we do in common, rather than each of us working independently? Why don’t each of us do a little something?”
So the Day of Mindfulness featured not just the student panel, but also a meditation in the Yushien garden with Upton; a morning yoga class with Paradis; a guided meditation with Religious Adviser Mark Hart; and a stress-reduction workshop with Debra Edelman from the Counseling Center. Zajonc opened up his class “From Dilemma to Dialogue: Science, Values and Spiritual Traditions,” and Professor of Economics Daniel Barbezat shared a mindfulness exercise from his course “Consumption and the Pursuit of Happiness.” The day’s “capstone” was a lecture, “No Time to Think: Information Technology and Contemplative Scholarship,” by Professor David Levy from the University of Washington.
“It’s a modest beginning,” Zajonc said of the day. He and Upton were looking forward to “The Contemplative Heart of Higher Education,” the annual conference of the Association for Contemplative Mind in Higher Education, to be held at Amherst that weekend, April 24- 26. That event would feature 60 presentations by people incorporating contemplative practices “in everything from English literature to art history to science courses and social science courses,” he said, and he planned to tell them all about Amherst’s inaugural experiment. “My guess is, a couple dozen of them will pick it up, and around the country, you’ll start to see Days of Mindfulness.”