By Matt McGregor, Arts & Features Asst. Editor
September 10, 2015
Rick Chess and John Wood responded to an unspoken need when they organized a group meditation and discussion for UNC Asheville faculty and staff six years ago.
When 20 people arrived, they say they knew they had tapped into a veritable hunger for silence, stillness and an openness to possibility.
The learning circle continues to meet regularly, sitting for 10 minutes, followed by discussion. The faculty and staff who attend say they incorporate a variety of meditative practices into the classroom.
“It’s an enterprise about being human, a scholar, awake and cultivating openness,” says Wood, professor of sociology and anthropology. “Sometimes in class I’ll just say, ‘Let’s just stop, breathe and get in touch with our bodies, the soles of our feet,’ and I don’t talk about it as meditation. It’s just to bring us back to the present.”
Chess, professor of honors arts and sciences and director for the center of Jewish studies, suggests meditative practices provide students the opportunity to let go of the internal judgment and reactivity that may prevent one from seeing the world from another perspective.
“We found that these meditative practices help us watch our minds objectively and see when judgment is triggered. We can see it, watch it and let it go long enough to listen on another’s terms,” says Chess. “It’s developing another way to become self-aware of the process of how we come to know things and attaining intellectual humility, such as the recognition that the way I see the world is not the whole world.”
UNCA’s Inquiry ARC Program adopted these meditative practices as part of the reflection aspect of its critical thinking emphasis. Lorena Russell, director of the UNCA Inquiry ARC program and associate professor of literature and language, says mediation in the classroom improves learning and teaching skills.
“It may seem odd to think of meditation with critical thinking,” Russell says. “Why would you want to empty your mind and create a void when critical thinking should be about filling it with ideas? But I’ve found the mind actually functions a lot better if I can just take some time to sit quietly and breathe.”
Russell perceives meditation similar to refreshing a computer. She says the practice alleviates students’ stress of rushing from class to class and keeping up with the workload. Asking them to stop, she says, allows them a few minutes of calm, which recharges their minds.
Ameena Batada, assistant professor in the health and wellness department, speaks not just to the intellectual benefits of meditation, but to the physiological benefits as well.
“When we are constantly stressed from school, work, home or our car is breaking down and we are having trouble getting to places – whatever it is, we aren’t allowing our bodies to rest,” Batada says. “Our bodies are weathering from the stress and then physiologically we have heightened cortisol. This creates midsection adipose, which results in what is killing our society: heart disease.”
Batada says meditation may counteract these physical stress responses, and she integrates many different forms of meditation in the classroom, such as taking her class to the lookout observatory where she asks her students to write what they hear from moment to moment.
“There are different practices such as mindfulness meditation, or loving kindness meditation,” Batada says. “Sometimes I’ll just tell my class we are going to sit for five minutes at the beginning of every class because I want them to develop attention skills.”
Chess emphasizes strengthening of focus as a product of meditation, comparing it to a mental version of lifting weights in the gym.
“Instead of working out your muscles you are working out your brain,” Chess says. “At first you can see how good you are at sustaining attention, then respond to that with meditation. If one can sustain attention for two breaths, then eventually one can build up to ten breaths.”
Distraction pervades our culture, Chess says, and these techniques curb distraction. He says this affects faculty as well as students, referencing the common anxiety of refraining from checking one’s cellphone.
“Students have said this is really profound for them. It totally changes the way they engage in the rest of the class,” Chess reports. “They say it’s the only time they have to stop for a second and clear their mind, or be aware of how distracted they are, enabling them to stop and be present.”
Jesse Goldman, senior, says he encountered new forms of meditation in the academic environment when he took one of Chess’ classes. He carried the mindful mediation practices into other areas of his life, such as his love of slacklining, which became a form of mindful body awareness. This passion led him to start a slacklining workshop and installation company, Slack-Librium.
“During my time at UNCA I have also been fortunate enough to participate in a service learning class with Ameena Batada,” Goldman says. “This project evolved into a grant from the North Carolina Center for Health and Wellness to bring slacklining and mindfulness education into Asheville Middle School gym and health classes.”
Goldman teaches weekly slacklining fitness classes. In 2014, he says he organized the first Mindfulness Fest, which takes place on the Quad every April.
“Mindfulness Fest is our attempt to create a more self-aware, compassionate and empathetic culture by exploring the foundations of how we choose to relate to ourselves and to each other in a fun and celebratory way.”
He encourages anyone who is interested to attend a weekly Mindfulness Club meeting.
“Mindfulness Club provides an environment for students to gather in an open and safe space to practice meditation and contemplative practices,” Goldman says, “and have important conversations about difficult and sensitive topics using mindfulness as a basis for empathetic understanding.”
Reflecting on the meeting Wood and Chess held six years ago, Wood says they were looking for techniques for group meditations and spiritual awakening within an academic setting.
“I think it was about finding a community that would help us get better about talking about it in our classrooms,” Wood recalls. “Getting to know other people is a spiritual exercise. I see it as one of the most sacred things we can do as human beings.”