Vandermause: Moving Dartmouth Mindfully

by Jon Vandermause | 2/16/15 7:21pm

Regardless of whether you think the entirety of the “Moving Dartmouth Forward” plan is a treasure chest or a dung heap — and campus opinion has swung in both directions — there is at least one crown jewel in College President Phil Hanlon’s slew of proposals to improve student life. It’s what the presidential steering committee calls Dartmouth Thrive, a holistic program intended to promote student development and wellness. The committee’s vision for the program is lofty, targeting every dimension of students’ lives — mind, body and spirit — to create a more engaged and reflective student body. Like many of the other proposals in the committee’s report, however, the details have yet to be hashed out.

If Dartmouth Thrive is to become a transformational initiative rather than a failed administrative decree, it should be backed by science and address point-blank the everyday stresses that students face. To accomplish this, the College should use mindfulness-based stress reduction as the centerpiece of the program.

According to professor emeritus at the University of Massachusetts Medical School Jon Kabat-Zinn, who helped pioneer the use of mindfulness meditation in western medicine, mindfulness is “the awareness that emerges through paying attention on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally to the unfolding of experience moment by moment.” It underlies much of Buddhist meditative practice, but commitment to a religious tradition is hardly required. It is, in Kabat-Zinn’s phrasing, an “attentional stance,” one that can frame the diverse actions of everyday living — from eating a raisin to doing the dishes.

Devoting such diligent attention to the present moment is not an easy feat here, where students bounce from commitment to commitment like pinballs in a machine. Quarters crunch a semester’s worth of material into less than 10 weeks, and the D-Plan keeps the campus population in flux term to term. It is difficult to find peace in the present when your mind is trained on worries about the next midterm or the next meeting. There is always something on the to-do list.

It surely does not help that we are trained, as citizens of a world overflowing with easy-access distractions, to avert our gaze from the present. If there is a lull in conversation at dinner, everyone at the table whips out their smartphone in synchrony. If a lecture seems stale, students surf the web. We reel at the slightest whiff of boredom, filling up pauses in the rhythm of everyday life as quickly as we can. In clinging to cheap distractions to escape the present moment, we obscure our ability to appreciate what is right in front of us.

As research has shown, mindfulness offers a healthy way of coping with stress. In one study, parts of the brain associated with positive emotional expression lit up more often in employees who had undergone mindfulness training, and their immune systems improved. In a 2010 review of the literature on the effects of mindfulness-based therapy, mindfulness was shown to improve anxiety and mood symptoms. Other research has shown that mindfulness reduces stress, boosts memory and improves focus.

There are a number of ways that Dartmouth Thrive could tap into these benefits. The program could follow the lead of Kabat-Zinn’s Stress Reduction Clinic at the University of Massachusetts Medical Center, where teachers trained in mindfulness meditation guide groups of students in their practice. While there are already a few programs at Dartmouth that resemble this — the Meditation and Relaxation P.E. course and the Mindfulness Practice Group are two examples — they are scarcely promoted by the College, and only a fraction of the student body participates in them. Dartmouth Thrive could create a mainstream space for guided mindfulness meditation that welcomes all students.

The program could also incorporate other activities that promote mindfulness. According to a 2010 study in the Journal of American College Health, several physical fitness programs, including Pilates, yoga and martial arts, can increase mindfulness among college students.

By promoting mindfulness, Dartmouth Thrive has the potential to positively shift the way students think and behave. If you don’t buy the science behind this claim, test it on your own mind by paying attention on purpose. The results might surprise you.