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Meditation and mindfulness may be a helpful relaxation tool for college students facing a multitude of stressors.

“When I was 20 years old, I could’ve went on medication, but instead I chose meditation,” JMU professor Ed Brantmeier said. “It has made all the difference in my life. All the difference in my life — I’m telling you.”

The simple act of sitting, breathing and listening mindfully has changed College of Education professor Brantmeier and others’ lives for the better across the world. As today’s society becomes increasingly digitized and fast-paced — especially among college students — an outlet to slow down may be more necessary than ever. 

A potential answer? Meditation. 

The fruits of being mindful

Mindfulness is the practice of paying attention and focusing the mind on increasing awareness, relaxation and staying in the present moment. One of the easiest and most universally accessible ways of doing so is by sitting and breathing in still meditation, or by doing walking meditation — an alternative if sitting is uncomfortable — that allows for being mindful while strolling through a forest, park or another quiet place. 

Research shows that meditation, among other mindfulness practices, can reduce depression, hypertension, stress and chronic inflammation, and increase self-compassion and gratitude among college students and emerging adults. JMU music professor David Pope said he noticed another benefit of being mindful — the reduction of performance anxiety. 

A saxophone professor, Pope said neuro-linguistic programming — a mindful approach to communication, personal development and psychotherapythat’s said to change one’s goals in life through experience — taught him how to decrease anxiety. Pope said if a performer tells themself they’ll be nervous on stage, then it’ll cause a perpetual movie to play in the performer’s head about being nervous in the spotlight. Staying in the present is what helps rewrite the movie. 

“Anxiety is actually kind of a choice,” Pope said. “If we practice being anxious and we practice things that take us out of reality, the opposite of being mindful, we get better and better at not being mindful.” 

Seasoned meditators and mindfulness practitioners also carry a presence and aura with them, which Brantmeier, Pope and JMU writing, rhetoric and technical communications professor Jared Featherstone attested to. 

Brantmeier recounted an instance when he was in the presence of a Tibetan Buddhist monk. In 2013, Brantmeier was invited by Bhutan’s Prime Minister to attend a United Nations event about Gross National Happiness. At the event, Brantmeier said, he found himself on the same elevator as Matthieu Ricard, the monk who’s considered to be the happiest person in the world. Ricard spent five years of his life meditating in solidarity in a Himalayan mountain hut.

Brantmeier said he and Ricard were walking and talking from their hotel, and when they got to the security line to enter the United Nations event, a swath of people swarmed Ricard. Brantmeier said Ricard and other veteran meditation practitioners he’s interacted with — like Pir Vilayat Inayat Khan, a sufi meditation practitioner, and the Dalai Lama — have a resonance, availability and sensitivity about them. 

“Ricard had this amazing, contagious smile,” Brantmeier said. “I was sitting next to him, and I was like, ‘Oh gosh, this guy is resonating compassion and loving kindness and loving peace’ … I could tell as soon as I walked into the elevator with this person that he was a highly attuned spiritual person.”

Featherstone said he experienced something similar when he met his first tai chi teacher.

“I was like, ‘What is with this guy?’” Featherstone said. “Something was very different about him than most people I met. There was this … palpable calm and focus.”

Featherstone also said in interactions he’s had, those with high levels of mindfulness rarely stumble over words or have nervous habits like fidgeting, tapping feet or whipping out their phone. The absence of these habits, he said, allows people to gravitate toward you. 

Pope said the mindfulness practitioners he interacts with are great listeners and don’t just wait for their turn to talk — he cited Brantmeier as one of those individuals. He said he thinks meditators are also better at practicing empathy because of how attuned they are with their feelings. 

Featherstone teaches metacognition — observing your own thinking — in his classes and in his training, supervision and evaluation of writing consultants’ roles at JMU’s University Writing Center. Featherstone is a qualified meditation teacher, having earned certification from The Center for Koru Mindfulness. He’s studying the relationship between writing and mindfulness instruction in what he calls a “contemplative writing pedagogy,” where we write as a means to enhance awareness and thinking. 

“As soon as you write something and read back the essay you wrote or the journal entry or creative piece, you are on some level looking at the content of your mind,” Featherstone said, “which is what we’re doing in mediation.”

The “bliss state” shifting consciousness during meditation

Different people can have different goals in mind during meditation. Some may want to find inner peace, enlightenment and profound revelations, while many simply want to improve their overall quality of life. However, if you meditate for a long period of time and over many days with supreme clarity, a state of bliss can be achieved.

A “bliss state” is considered to be the pinnacle of inner tranquility and evokes a feeling of connectivity and “oneness,” said Brantmeier, who also called the state “a trap” and “elusive” because of how different it is from an ordinary state of awareness. Pope also said it’s an elusive feeling and that it’s similar to those dreams when one feels themself falling and jerks awake. However, during a blissful state, that jerking urge is resisted, and instead it’s like you’re skydiving, Pope said.

“I think that when I’ve achieved [a blissful state], I kind of feel like I’m floating outside of my body,” Pope said. “I have this sort of non-physical feeling. It’s hard because you can’t force it, and sometimes you’ll meditate and concentrate and focus, and you’re just not going to get there. But when you do get there, it’s a very profound feeling.”

Featherstone said it can be scary at first when one reaches a bliss state because of the silence of our internalized voice, which many aren’t accustomed to. He said once we get acclimated to the feeling, a sense of openness takes over that makes us care about others and what happens to them. 

“I think awakened or blissful states happen when you truly become OK with who you are,” Featherstone said. “It sounds very simple, but most people aren’t. They really aren’t.”

How practitioners supplement meditation

Featherstone, Brantmeier and Pope all participate in other practices and hobbies that optimize their meditation. From tai chi to cardio, there’s many beneficial activities that can supplement stillness practice. 

“If I only did stillness,” Featherstone said, “I think there’d be a lot of excess energy.” 

Besides his 16-minute daily quiet-centering morning meditation, Brantmeier said he also tries to practice nature immersion every day, when he tends to his garden or goes into the forest of the Shenandoah Valley or West Virginia. He also supplements meditation with martial arts “as a way of peace” — specifically Tai Chi Chuan, Chi Gong and American Freestyle —  but not on a daily basis. 

Pope said he constantly focuses on his breath between playing the saxophone and meditating. But he’s also a painter and calligrapher. Putting his body in the most comfortable position possible while painting, he said, helps him improve his meditation. He’s also an ambidextrous writer; Pope said calligraphy teaches him the importance of “breathing through the strokes” in order to obtain an “organic flow” to his work. 

Featherstone, on the other hand, does trail running, tai chi and normal fitness along with meditation. He said he’s also done neurofeedback, a tech-enhanced form of meditation, and creative work. 

“I write and record music,” Featherstone said. “That’s another one of those complimentary [activities] that kind of feeds the other side of it. There can be the compulsive need to produce, which kind of gets into workaholism which is a symptom of academia. But there’s also the free, creative production that comes from being open and being a human being's emotions.”

Accessories, particulars and warnings of meditation

It’s important, Pope said, to keep meditation at the core of the practice. Meditation apps like Calm and Headspace or YouTube meditation music are trendy enhancers, but they shouldn’t override the stripped-back identity of the practice. One app, however, is highly recommended by both Featherstone and Brantmeier.

That app is Insight Timer. Brantmeier likes the bell feature that can mark the beginning and end of a meditation and said he points his students to it. Featherstone said he uses some of the app’s guided meditations. 

“I find that the last thing you want to do is get into too much of a habitual routine to where [meditation is] not new anymore,” Featherstone said. “The nice thing about listening to a teacher’s guide is they kind of jar you out of your rut or your pattern if they offer a different instruction or a different way to look at it.”

Another hot topic in the mindfulness community? The best posture to use while meditating. Brantmeier, Featherstone and Pope all do so differently. 

Brantmeier said he typically crisscrosses his legs in a single lotus position. He mentioned, however, that the position is harder for him nowadays due to ankle and knee pain. He said good meditation posture consists of rolling the shoulders back, opening up oxygen flow and moving the chin up and down to open communication between the brain and the rest of the body. Getting into a comfortable position with “effortless effort” is the goal, he said. 

Instead of sitting on the floor, Featherstone said he mostly uses a chair but also has a Seiza cushion. He said his favorite position uses a Zen Seiza bench, which is tilted so one can sit on it but not put any weight on the legs. 

Pope likes to use the hero pose when he meditates, he said. In this position, one kneels on a seat cushion or yoga block and is elevated from the ground slightly. He said a certain amount of flexibility is required for lotus position, so he prefers the hero pose. 

Meditating at different times of day can have altering effects to one’s productivity and output. Featherstone said he bookends his days with morning and night mindfulness practices, but a mid-afternoon practice can be paradoxically productive. Unlike Michael Scott’s claim in the second episode of season three in “The Office” that watching a movie at work will speed up productivity, Featherstone said meditation will do so. He said he notices things that he previously didn’t, gains clarity and prevents himself from burning out. 

“An afternoon meditation disrupts the flow of the day, the pattern, especially at work,” Featherstone said. “You get so caught up in doing and producing and problem-solving and busier and busier and busier and you get pretty stressed, and [then] just halting it midday in the middle of all of it, going silent, is tremendously beneficial. It’s like a reset button.”

Meditation opportunities at JMU 

A Koru-certified meditation teacher, Featherstone also completed a separate two-year training program with The Mindfulness Meditation Teacher Certification Program. He said the goal was to make sure people were teaching mindfulness responsibility, and he said he learned to teach practices outside of mindfulness, like loving-kindness and self-compassion. 

“You’re playing with people’s minds here, potentially,” Featherstone said. “You have to know what you’re doing.”

Featherstone said the training took everything into account, including those who’ve experienced trauma and those of unique ethnicities and religions. Classes and meditation sessions are taught by faculty like Featherstone and are offered on campus at JMU. 

Brantmeier teaches a class in the Honors College called Contemplative Leadership for Sustainable Peace where students are allowed to do quiet-centering meditation in the first five minutes of class if they wish. He conducted a study with JMU alumnus Destin Webb (’19) that examined learning in the course

“Students gained value, clairity, knowledge of sustainable peace leaders and direction regarding careers that could encourage healthy ecosystems, social equity and sustainable economies,” Brantmeier said about the study’s findings. 

Through Madison Meditates, Brantmeier also holds a contemplative practice for self-care every Wednesday for staff, faculty and students. This fall, Brantmeier said he will conduct it online. 

Toward the end of each semester, Pope holds meditation classes through JMU Libraries and its Initiative for Contemplative Study and Practices called "De-Stress for Success" that’s open to faculty and students. He said it’s been very successful.

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Once, in an art museum in Rochester, New York, Pope encountered Buddhist monks that were making a giant sand mandala. Other than the monks telling him not to become a Buddhist, Pope said one monk’s words stuck with him.

“They were very clear when they said, ‘Mediation is practicing being alive; it’s practicing being a person,’” Pope said. 

Contact Grant Johnson at breezecopy@gmail.com. For more health & wellness content, stay tuned for the “A Wealth of Health'' column every Monday and follow the culture desk on Twitter and Instagram @Breeze_Culture.