Cultivating heart and mind: Centre Meditation sessions

Posted by Centre News in Academics, Campus, Experts, News, Religious Life 10 Oct 2013

Centre students are continuous whirlwinds of activity and action—when not in class or studying, they are often rushing off to a meeting, special event, practice or rehearsal. Luckily, there is a refuge for stressed-out and over-scheduled students: Centre Meditation sessions.

Each Wednesday night at 8 p.m., Centre Meditation meets on the second floor of the Combs Warehouse for an experience that is often unfamiliar to Centre students: stillness and quiet. The specific meditation practice varies from week to week, but one thing remains the same—participants have time to pause, reflect and relax.

Assistant Professor of Psychology Aaron Godlaski has been one of the driving forces behind the group, working with other interested faculty to, as he explains, “create a space in which students and faculty could get together and explore the act of contemplation.”

For Godlaski, meditation and reflection is an important counterpoint to in-class learning.
“Much of classroom learning focuses on rational ways of knowing: calculation, explanation and analysis,” he explains. “There are alternative ways of knowing one’s experience that can be achieved through reflection and contemplation.”

meditation2Meditation is especially important to Godlaski as a professor because of the unique stressors he knows students experience.

“Some students I’ve spoken to describe the feeling of needing to do as much as possible in the shortest amount of time, making it hard to focus on what they are doing,” he says. “The object that they focus on is the end state—when they finish an assignment, for instance—instead of becoming fully connected to and engaged with the actual experience of what it is they are learning.”

Essentially, the distinction is between a mindless versus a mindful experience. Godlaski explains that students who continually focus on what is coming next have anxiety about the unknowable future and a lack of presence in the moment. This is where meditation can be extremely helpful.

“Meditation is a way to engage with your immediate experience and cultivate awareness,” he says. “Engaging in this kind of activity regularly has been shown through research to improve attention, memory, concentration and a sense of compassion toward others.”

This is especially important in a time when students are pulled in so many directions at once.

“Our culture pushes us to constantly be moving toward something without always knowing what that something is,” Godlaski says. “To be in motion, to over do, is something to be rewarded, but it puts people in a position that’s really out of balance. The stillness of contemplation and reflection is a great way to restore that balance.”

For Centre students in particular, who are encouraged to be fully engaged both on and off campus, this approach can seem at odds with the high standards and expectations of a Centre education.

Godlaski explains, “I love that we have students who are engaged in multiple activities, and who do lots of things, but real engagement is about being, not just doing. Doing is about getting things done so you can get other things done. Being is about presence, acceptance and fully giving one’s self over to the process. I think it is this sense of being that we really want to cultivate in our students.”

The ideas behind meditation can become abstract and nebulous, which is why Godlaski often explains meditation with a train metaphor.

“Think of your thoughts and feelings as a train passing by,” he says. “If you’re not careful, you can latch onto a certain thought and that train car will rip you off the ground and take you wherever the train is headed. Meditation asks you to step back from the tracks a few feet and watch the cars go by.

“The better you become at stepping back, the more you realize that many of your experiences, like those cars, are quite transient,” he continues. “This skill is hugely important in managing stress—it doesn’t make stress go away, but it helps you cope. It’s a way of responding rather than simply reacting to the world.”

Ultimately, Godlaski has hopes for the group to become more than just a weekly evening meeting, becoming more incorporated into classroom experiences at Centre.

“All of Centre’s faculty want students truly engaging with the content of their classes, rather than simply trying to understand what they need to know to pass the test or the class,” Godlaski says. “In pursuit of that, we’re putting together a working group of faculty to try and figure out what a more contemplative classroom looks like—the types of things that professors can ask their students to do so that they reflect on the material more intentionally.”

In addition, the kind of compassion that meditation instills in people is something Godlaski would like to see informing the already vibrant culture of service on Centre’s campus.

“If we at Centre want to be part of the process of creating more responsible and engaged human beings, cultivating the heart through meditation is a great place to start,” he says. “I’d like to see the group foster compassion and then engage it meaningfully in the community.”

All Centre Meditation meetings are open to interested faculty, students, staff and community members. For more information, contact Dr. Godlaski at aaron.godlaski@centre.edu.

By Mariel Smith