Meditation and Mindfulness or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying And Love Everything

Many students can probably relate to Gloria Shepard’s feelings after her first few years teaching elementary school, regardless of whether or not they’ve ever worked with third and fourth graders. She taught for years, with stress piling up, until she discovered the benefits of being mindful.

“I felt like I was constantly busy and overwhelmed and just wasn’t enjoying anything,” said Shepard. “It didn’t seem like a good way to live. I tried mindfulness in the hope that it would change those feelings.”

Shepard now teaches the new Mindfulness series which meets on Wednesdays in McCabe. Her goal is to help others get past the noise caused by too many sensations and distractions, live in the moment, and be aware of what is really happening around us.

“Probably the truest way to think of it is that each student will learn what they’re ready for, interested in and need,” she said.

Shepard sees mindfulness as a spiritual practice only “in the sense that it is about living wide awake as a whole being.” She is interested in and influenced by the teachings of Buddhist monks, specifically Thich Nhat Hanh, an influential Vietnamese Buddhist monk who was heavily involved in the peace movement.

The series is part of a wider movement on campus to increase wellness through meditation. Student-led yoga practices and a meditation club are making themselves increasingly visible to students this semester. This past Monday, Gen Kelsang Tenzin, the resident teacher of Amitayus Kadampa Buddhist Center in Philadelphia, led the first of a series of weekly classes on Buddhist meditation in Whittier Hall.

Gen Kelsang Tenzin is of the Kadampa tradition of Buddhism and is the current Resident Teacher of the Amitayus Kadampa Buddhist Center in Philadelphia. He has been a Buddhist monk for fifteen years, and has been a disciple of Venerable Geshe Kelsang Gyatso for eighteen years. Tenzin believes that from teaching others he has learned that we are all the same underneath our external appearances: we all want to stop suffering and be happy, to be free from fear and confident about future happiness.

The audience at Whittier on Monday was varied: there was a young man who worked at King of Prussia with his mother, two men who resembled bikers, and a handful of students.

The session began with guided meditation. Tenzin directed participants to let their bodies melt away. He told the class to breathe in and out, and pay attention to the coldness of the air during the inhale, and the warmness of it during the exhale.

“Happiness is being free from worry and negative self-image,” Tenzin told the class near the end of the session. “It is a calmness of the mind.” He spoke about his personal experiences: his undergraduate days at the University of California at Santa Cruz, where he studied pre-law thinking that becoming a lawyer and making a lot of money would make him happy. In his senior year, he began experimenting with meditation, and was eventually drawn to Buddhist meditation because of its tenet of compassion.

There’s an element of compassion to Sheperd’s story as well. After immersing herself in mindfulness, she started noticing how others respond to stress. She then implemented a daily mindfulness training with her elementary class — a sort of meditation. After some years and research, Shepard felt like she could do more good outside of the classroom, where she could teach others about the benefits of mindfulness.

“Stress arises when we hold a belief deep down that we are not good enough unless we achieve external success,” Tenzin said. “Nothing could be further from the truth. Real success comes when we know how to like ourselves and accept others as they are.” He went on to say that to like ourselves and accept others we must be at peace, and that we forget our nature and focus too much on external and material success, which is fleeting.

When I was younger, I had a tendency to be too clean. I used to shower three times a day on average, I used to wash my hands after touching just about anything, and I was a total pain when we went on road trips. Dirtiness bothered me and made me uncomfortable. I’ve gotten much better, and I should clarify that I did visit a psychiatrist to make sure I didn’t have obsessive-compulsive disorder. It turns out I just took those hygiene PSAs a bit too seriously.

Unfortunately, that stress seeped into other areas of my life. I’m always worried about how I sound, how I should walk, where I should put my damn arms and how I should sit. I never know what to do with my arms, so I usually end up crossing them or putting them in weird positions. I’m not socially awkward but I suffer from certain social anxieties. I always worry that I’ll accidentally offend someone, especially here. I hate talking on the phone, and I’m always worried that I come off as a dick on e-mails.

Participating in Tenzin’s meditation on Monday, I actually felt calm and satisfied, if only temporarily. My body did not melt away, but I did feel separate from it (arguments against dualism aside). My normally tense muscles were calmed, and I became comfortable. He directed us to focus on our eyes, and let them relax.

In the end, I’m still mostly nervous. I’m still anxious most of the time. But, I may end up continuing the class. Tenzin claims that meditating is like learning to play an instrument. At first, meditation is hard because we are not used to clearing our minds and focusing, but over time we become better at calming and directing our thoughts. Also, he promised that if I “decide to dedicate my whole life to bringing all beings inner peace,” he would give me one of those sweet robes.

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