Mindfulness, a level of constant awareness and open attention to one’s self and surroundings, has become a staple of stress relief in Catlin Gabel’s curriculum. Last spring, students spent the first half of a day in numerous workshops ranging from meditation, to listening to relaxing music from various parts of the world.
This was not meant to be a one-time event however, as Community on Oct. 26 focused on relaxation through deep breathing. While participating in this brief exercise, listeners thought about who and what people are grateful for at Catlin Gabel. With more extra-curricular activities such as Yoga opening up this year, it’s safe to say that our community wishes to continue incorporating mindfulness into the lives of students and faculty.
Achieving a level of mental tranquility has not been exclusive to Catlin Gabel’s community, as the concept of “mindfulness” through meditation or other relaxation practices has grown in popularity in American and European culture since the start of the 21st century. In early 2014, the Huffington Post called 2014 the “Year of Mindful Living,” with major corporations such as Google jumping on board the popularity of mindfulness by introducing the Search Inside Yourself (SIY) emotional intelligence program.
The spark of interest in these practices in America dates back to at least 1979 when Jon Kabat-Zinn founded the Mindfulness Based Stress Relief (MBSR) program at the University of Massachusetts, in order to aid mentally-ill or distressed people.
Applying the West’s idea of mindful thinking into the lives of students has proven to be effective in improving focus, memory and creativity, as researchers at University of California at Santa Barbara experimented by having 48 undergraduate students take a mindfulness and wellbeing class.
These students were asked to integrate mindfulness techniques they learned in the class into their lives after taking the GRE (Graduate Record Examinations) standardized test. The students then retook the test after two weeks to see if these skills made a difference.
The mindfully trained students’ scores increased, with the average GRE verbal score rising from 460 to 520. Various media outlets seem inclined to use mindful thinking and this form of self-reflection as a way to treat various ailments from depression to helping attain success financially, academically or emotionally. It would appear as if this new tool has taken the country by a calm, meditative storm, with the buzz term “The Mindful Revolution” appearing on the front cover of TIME Magazine in January 2014.
The word “mindful” and its use stems from various Buddhist and even Hindu psychological ideals that appear in religious capitals, such as Tibet. The common stereotype of Buddhist Culture in America often portrays Buddhist monks sitting in meditation peacefully to achieve a level of “enlightenment,” which has been adopted by the West and reformed into perpetual awareness of small characteristics such as one’s breathing and thought process, in order to attain a level of internal peace.
Questions of whether many westerners may misrepresent or misinterpret this cultural practice tend to appear when discussing and throwing the term “mindfulness” and “meditation” around as simple tools for people to use. Confusion between mindfulness and the term “Zen” in order to refer to enlightenment has also been prominent in both Europe and America.
Jeffrey Hammerly’s experience with what’s often referred to as Zen Buddhism greatly contrasts from the portrayal shown in media today. Hammerly spent time at a Zen Buddhist temple in Nara, Japan from the end of 1976 to early 1977 after taking interest in the culture during his sophomore year of college.
“It was horrible. My experiences were horrible. The ideal of the enlightened man entering a pond that makes not a ripple is so wonderful. Moving through life without causing conflict or feeling conflict. I thought this would be cool. The truth of the matter is that might not be how the enlightened person is, anything short of reaching that enlightenment is not peaceful. It’s painful, chaotic, and noisy.”
Jeff goes into detail about the exact practices instructors used upon beginning meditation during the day:
“I got hit with big sticks. Historically, people get hit with these sticks and reach enlightenment. I say I got beat with sticks, but it was actually during meditation. Once I was passed out and they were carrying me out of the hall. It’s supposed to do two things: encourage you, and help relax the muscles. The idea of meditation isn’t meant to be relaxing, it’s folding your legs together while sitting there during certain times of the year for 20 out of 24 hours in intense meditation, even while eating and sleeping.”
This vastly harsher form of meditation took up a large amount of the day, and meant to have participants nearly torture their minds and bodies through physically taxing meditation, only to then find enlightenment once they reach that point. Time not spent in meditation was spent doing chores or working.
Jeff goes on to explain how people at the temple saw the term “mindfulness” and the use of enlightenment,
“In normal life in Japan, people don’t talk about mindfulness. Before the current fad of mindfulness, the only place I’d hear it is in the Zen temple that I lived in or English books about Zen. People who wrote about it, some of them were serious scholars, some were anecdotes from Zen Buddhist Kōans [stories or scriptures] from over a thousand years ago or more, saying there’s nothing that exists but this moment. When you thoroughly understand that not consciously, but through your entire living being, that’s enlightenment. Ultimately, mindfulness, in its most extreme, is the same as “satori” or “enlightenment.”’
Understanding this considerably different practice of mindfulness from how it’s perceived in the West, it appears that the Western representation of mindful meditation and practice is not remotely close to the ways it’s used by Buddhist practitioners. This has been refined and made more accessible to the public through what we know today as mindfulness.
This Western Cultural phenomenon can be compared to its popularity in the Catlin Gabel Community, as the media’s focus and hype of mindful thinking correlates with when the introduction of these techniques to benefit students and teachers appeared at Catlin. In a recent CatlinSpeak video, we asked students and teachers who have spent time creating activities and workshops centered around mindfulness to think about whether their work in promoting these techniques can be attributed to the fad of mindfulness in American media.
“The mindfulness and Yoga practices have been for millennia, and permeate different cultures and religions. Because they’ve been around for so long, they’ve been perfected over time. There’s definitely a process of adoption in Western Culture of those practices,” Aline Garcia-Rubio told CatlinSpeak regarding how Catlin and Western culture uses mindfulness.
Ben Kitoko ’16 spoke about how Catlin Gabel’s use and introduction of meditation can be beneficial to any person around the world regardless of their understanding of the culture: “Although mindfulness is also used in a religious context, now that it’s being used as a tool, I don’t think that’s necessarily bad, as meditation is available to every single person in this world. It’s literally stepping outside your own head and clearing your mind.”
Catlin Gabel’s intention is clearly not to misinterpret, but to use concepts derived from Eastern Culture’s use of meditation and mindfulness and refine them into a technique used to relieve stress that can be accessible to every member of the community and outside of the community as well. Teachers and students facilitating these mindfulness events desire to evolve the practice beyond merely a media trend in order to create a healthier environment for everyone.