Mindfulness for College Students
By Ben Howard
For their first assignment in "The Art of Meditation," my course in mindfulness practice, I asked the students to read the opening chapter of Thich Nhat Hanh's, The Miracle of Mindfulness. I also urged them, whenever drinking, to use both hands, giving the act of drinking their full attention. When I asked the students, a week later, how their practice was coming along, a slender, restless student named Meredith reported a minor awakening. What she discovered, through mindful drinking, was that she really hated cranberry juice. "And I've been drinking it," she added, "all my life."
Meredith's discovery of vasana, or habit-energies and their power, was one of many positive outcomes of "The Art of Meditation," which I offered last fall as an honors course at Alfred University. Although the college atmosphere, with its noise and drugs and alcohol, may seem inimical to meditation, the course filled quickly, attracting the maximum enrollment-fifteen students. We met in a spacious, high-ceilinged room in our new Performing Arts Center, whose tall windows look out on green fields and wooded hills. The room offered ample space for doing Mindful Movements - a sequence of ten contemplative exercises developed by Thich Nhat Hanh - and for walking meditation. Students wore loose clothing and brought cushions and pillows of various shapes and sizes.
As our primary text, we read the Anapanasati Sutra (Sutra on the Full Awareness of Breathing), which also provided the structure of the course. As readers of The Mindfulness Bell know, the heart of the Anapanasati Sutra is a sequence of sixteen breathing exercises, grouped in tetrads. The tetrads deal respectively with mindfulness of the body, the feelings, the mind, and objects of mind. It might please (or amuse) the Buddha to know that the sixteen exercises of the Anapanasati sutra fit comfortably into the fifteen weeks of an American college semester. During the first half of the semester, we focused on mindfulness of the body and the feelings, giving special attention to the cultivation of compassion; during the second, we practiced mindfulness of thoughts, and we explored the realities of impermanence and interdependence. Broadly speaking, the first half of the course promoted samatha or "stopping"; the second encouraged vipassana, or "looking." In practice, of course, the two aspects of meditation, like the sixteen exercises of the Anapanasati Sutra, partake of each other.
No two sessions of the class were the same, but all followed a common pattern. We would begin with a fifteen minute guided meditation, using one of the exercises from Thich Nhat Hanh's The Blooming of a Lotus. That would be followed by a discussion of the students' recent experiences in the practice -their frustrations, challenges and discoveries. I would then give a talk on whichever aspect of practice we were learning, using the Sutra on the Four Establishments of Mindfulness ( discussed in Thich Nhat Hanh's Transformation and Healing) as a secondary source. We would then practice Mindful Movements, followed by a second sitting, in which the students were instructed to follow the breath and to give attention to one other thing: to parts of the body, or to the recognition of feelings, or to the rise, duration, and dissolution of mental formations. We would then do slow walking meditation - one step for the in-breath, one for the outbreath. Class would end with readings and a period of silent meditation.
Within this established structure there was room to experiment and to follow the natural evolution of the practice. On one cool October evening, we practiced walking meditation outdoors, climbing a long, uphill road and coming down again. A soft rain sprayed our faces. One student went barefoot. On another evening, we spent twenty minutes eating luscious, Clementine tangerines, having listened to the Buddha's discourse on eating tangerines. At our last class, we drank Tazo lemon-ginger tea, using both hands and giving full attention to its fragrance, its spicy taste, its travels through our bodies.
And what impact did this three-month experience have on the students who took part? If I may judge from their reports the effects ranged from salutary to radical, from pleasant to profound. "In attempting to be mindful of my actions," wrote one student, "I was quite surprised to discover that I had never brushed my teeth, shampooed my hair, or tied my shoes. Until this point in my life, I had lived a dream of performing these actions." Another said that meditation had given her a "subtle clarity in almost every aspect of her life." Others reported improvements in their studies, their performance, and their relationships, and they noted how their happiness had influenced people around them. In one striking instance a theater student told of going to New York City to audition for a play:
"It was a cold, windy day and the tension could be felt in the air. Everyone there knew that everyone else was competition for the part they wanted. After a while of getting nervous waiting to go in, I decided to meditate right there on the street with hundreds of people surrounding me. I sat down with the two friends that went with me and we begin to meditate. I instructed them using methods learned in class. Eventually, about fifteen people joined in the meditation with me leading them all. I feel this changed my life. I was able to take something that I learned, something that changed my life, and be able to share it with other people. Not only did I change my attitude in life, but I changed my outlook on life."
To foster such changes was my chief motive in offering 'The Art of Meditation." Although not every institution may be liberal enough to allow such a course to be offered, I would urge anyone who can do so to give it a try. In thirty years of college teaching, I have not had a more rewarding experience.
Ben Howard received the Five Mindfulness Trainings in 1995. An English professor at Alfred University in New York, he teaches mindfulness classes offered to honors students and coordinates a sitting group for students and the community.