There's No Place Like Om

by Mary Liza Hartong | 1/8/15 11:26pm

Notice your posture. This is the first thing the voice on my computer told me when I searched for guided meditations, found a website and purposefully picked the shortest one — a three-minute mediation called “Body and Sound.” As instructed, I noticed that I was in my typical kitchen table position, one leg tucked under me, one curled around the side of the chair, a tad bit hunched and leaning a little to the right. It was the position I had been in since Thanksgiving, avidly searching the Internet for presents I could give to my extended family. It was, for me, the position of the hunt.

Next, I was instructed to focus on the sounds around me. I was specifically told not to make a story in my head about the sounds, so I shelved the line of poetry I had already thought up about the washer sounding like a tiny train making its way across the country at night. Instead, I simply listened.

After a few minutes of thinking about the sound of the washer and the hunched position of my back, I emerged from my state of meditation. Before I had started meditating as the video instructed, I hadn’t thought I was feeling tense, or had any bad feelings in general. Yet, after my completion of the exercise, there was no denying that I felt, for lack of a more descriptive word, better. I had that feeling you get when you’re on the breaking point of having a complete meltdown, and instead you just decide not to freak out. I liked it.

It got me thinking. How much happier would I feel if I nixed three minutes of Facebook time about dropping your pizza slice face down on the kitchen floor, and instead started using that time for some more peaceful contemplation. What if I replaced some of my time spent scrolling through the internet, and instead got to experience that sentiment you ooze when you’re on top of the world, that yeah-that-guy-just-took-your-cab-but-it’s-okay-because-you’ll-walk-home-instead and replaced it with this?

As it turns out, I’m not the only one wondering this, and a number of leaders and practitioners of mediation and relaxation techniques exist around the Upper Valley and here at Dartmouth.

As the head of the Dartmouth Zen Practice Group and director of the Upper Valley Zen Center, Gendo Allyn Field leads students in mediation, conducts seminars on campus and brings speakers to the area to discuss the techniques and benefits of practicing meditation. Field argued that finding time to meditate is essential. No matter how your day is going, he said, people can take stock of their mental health.

“It becomes a point of reference, a place that you can return to again and again to reflect on where you are in your life,” he said.

Dick’s House psychologist Mark Hiatt agreed that incorporating mindfulness into an everyday routine can make ones obligations less burdensome.

He noted that meditation can reduce stress, particularly for students caught up in the everyday rush of life at the College.

“Students have so much going on in their lives, it’s easy to get caught up in worries about the future and in ruminating about the past,” Hiatt said. “Mindfulness is really the process of trying to stay present, to be engaged in the here and now instead of being lost in thoughts and worries.”

John Christopher, a professor of psychiatry at the Geisel Medical School and a psychologist at Hanover Psychiatry, focuses on health psychology and behavioral medicine, using mindfulness-based stress reduction to help people regulate their autonomic nervous systems.

His eight-week group program is based on the methods Jon Kabat-Zinn, a professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School who sought to link buddhist teachings with science. Christopher’s practice incorporates MBSR, yoga and a Chinese mindfulness practice called qigong.

To Christopher, meditation could alleviate concerns raised about the tenor of social life at the College.

“For the kinds of stressors that lead to overconsumption of drugs and alcohol, the lack of sensitivity that leads to sexual assault and the states of fear and the bias and prejudice that can lead to a lack of inclusivity, mindfulness is potentially the most effective method that we know of,” said Christopher.

For Lucia Pohlman ’15, who cofounded the Dartmouth Mindfulness Club in 2011, meditation could help improve Dartmouth’s social life but only if embraced by the student body on its own.

“If the President recommends that we all meditate, that feels a little silly, no?” she said. “If the student body at Dartmouth wanted to be more conscious and awake, that would be awesome.”Sarah Berger teaches the Meditation and Relaxation P.E. class on campus, and noted that it fills up quickly each term.

Berger also emphasized that the skills taught in her class apply to student life.

“I can’t speak for everyone who decides to attend the class, but students have told me things like it helped them feel calmer. They used some of the skills before things like job interviews and felt better going in,” Berger said. “It helped them handle their term better, and they felt more peaceful with their stresses.”

The National Institutes of Health’s National Center for Complementary and Alternative Medicine publishes a fact sheet on meditation, and the science substantiates some of these advocates’ beliefs. One trial suggests that practicing meditation may reduce high blood pressure and help practicers manage symptoms of insomnia, anxiety and pain. However, while a review of 47 trials also suggested that meditation shows some evidence of improving anxiety or depression, the researchers noted that there was “no evidence that meditation could help stress related behaviors, such as substance abuse or sleep.”

Ben Packer ’17 came across meditation during a high school yoga class and began his own practice of mindfulness. Meditation, he said, helps him control his thoughts and see the world with fresh eyes.

Sydney Walter ’18 began to meditate after witnessing the change that meditating had made in her friends’ lives.

“After doing some research, I tried it out and immediately fell in love with the peace it gave me,” Walter said. “My favorite part of meditation is how individualized it can be. Meditation can be about whatever the person needs in that moment or that week.”

Even with a cohort of campus leaders, Dartmouth remains behind schools like Brown University, which has a contemplative studies concentration, and the University of Virginia, which boasts its own Mindfulness Center. Christopher hopes that Dartmouth will focus on creating similar programs on campus.

Some courses listed under Brown’s concentration, like “Meditation and the Brain” or “Good Vibrations: The Music of Everyday Objects,” may raise eyebrows at Dartmouth’s Office of the Registrar, but can contemplation really be a source of academic scrutiny? It’s worth noting, however, the major seems surprisingly rigorous — the science track requires a statistics course, for example, and the humanities track’s “Philosophy of Mind” course could easily fit into the Dartmouth philosophy department’s interest areas.

Senior staff writer Charlie Rafkin contributed reporting.