Methods of mindfulness: How students meditate at Stanford

May 21, 2019, 1:00 a.m.

Meditation, by its quiet, solitary nature, does not tend to be a visible facet of a school community. It still exists at Stanford, however, at least from what I can tell. I wanted to hear a sample of the wide variety of student experiences with mindfulness meditation at Stanford, as well as share the advice these students had on starting to meditate. What follows are the results of my conversations with three Stanford students: Emma, Timothy and Jonathan.

Emma Master is a senior studying Symbolic Systems. She started meditating in high school using the Headspace app and guided meditation tracks on YouTube. She is now a regular meditator and visitor to Windhover, a quiet contemplative space open to Stanford affiliates.

Timothy Karoff is a freshman who took the three-unit course “The Stillness of the Dunes” during winter quarter. As part of his homework for the class, he practiced meditation for 20 to 30 minutes every day and then meditated during a four-day camping trip in Death Valley. Even though his class ended last quarter, he still finds time to meditate.

Jonathan Goodman is a third year student in the MD PhD program at Stanford Medical School. He dabbled in meditation as an undergraduate at the University of Pennsylvania but was never serious. Once at Stanford, he attended a “Fundamentals of Meditation” course at Windhover and joined the Stanford Zen Society soon after. He currently serves as Stanford Zen Society president.

The Method of Practice

Emma uses the Calm smartphone app and listens to the 10-15 minute daily meditation each day. When she has time – usually a few times a week – she goes to Windhover to do longer meditations, either guided meditations based on emotions such as loving-kindness or unguided breathing meditation. She determines what kind of meditation she wants to practice based on her mental state.

Timothy only does unguided breathing meditation along with a bit of walking meditation. Timothy’s lecturer for “The Stillness of the Dunes” taught him to practice breathing meditation by counting his breaths, starting over once he reaches 10 or loses track. To do walking meditation, he finds a path he can walk through continuously, such as a circle or up and down a straight pathway, and focuses on the sensations of his feet and the shifting of the weight in his body.

Jonathan started off by doing breathing meditation, but he now practices a Zen technique called “clarifying sense” which consists of meditating on a specific sense, like sound. “You’ll meditate on a sound,” he told me, “and you’ll try to move how you’re hearing the sound from your ears to the center of your body.” Jonathan practices this meditation in the sitting posture twice a day and also practices the technique outside of sitting meditation in his everyday life. Jonathan regularly attends the Zen Society’s weekly sessions, which include a short meditation period and a discussion. This is where he learned the clarifying sense technique from Rebecca Nie, a Korean Zen master who teaches at the Zen Society.

Encountering Obstacles

No good meditation practice is easy. There are difficulties which arise during meditation and obstacles which prevent you from even sitting down in the first place. Learning to deal with these obstacles is crucial to maintaining a steady meditation practice and receiving benefit.

The difficulty of consistently sitting down to meditate was a common theme in my conversations. High stress levels are a very real obstacle to sitting down to meditate. “I sometimes wake up in the morning stressed about the things I need to get done,” Timothy said. “I realized that it can be surprisingly tough to spend 30 minutes in the morning to meditate when you feel like all these things are happening around you and you have all these things you have to do.” In addition to stress, a common justification for not meditating is a perceived lack of time in the day. Emma put it succinctly when she described the two biggest obstacles to meditation as a) not thinking it’s pressingly important to do and b) getting stressed while figuring out how to do it. The next two sections will cover the advice the students gave me on overcoming these barriers.

A Good Mindset

Emma believes that the mindset most Stanford students have is not beneficial for meditation: “It’s a very busy culture focused on productivity. The way people want to spend their time is [guided by] ‘how is this useful to me in a very tangible way?’ People do a lot of things but don’t stop and reflect on the kinds of things they’re doing, why they’re doing them and what kind of person doing those things is making them. It’s not a Stanford value really, but I think it’s a really, really important one.”

Emma suggests new meditators familiarize themselves with benefits of meditation, such as “the ability to respond rather than react.” She believes students should prioritize meditation because it allows busy students to reflect on what values they should have and how they can live by those values, instead of impulsively doing the tasks directly in front of them.

Supportive Structures

All three students agreed that meditators should find structures which make it easier for them to meditate. The students I interviewed suggested the following support structures: scheduling a time once a day to sit in your room or at Windhover (just after waking up is a common time), sitting with a friend or group, using a guided meditation app or taking a meditation class like the ones offered under the Wellness Education department or Windhover’s “Fundamentals of Meditation” sessions. It is especially useful for new meditators to have a teacher, digital or in person, to help them around common pitfalls.

Navigating Faith Conflicts

“Mindfulness meditation” is secularized Buddhist meditation, but I was curious if the perceived religious aspects of Zen or other sects of Buddhism would be another barrier for students. One Stanford student who has no trouble reconciling meditation with another belief system is Jonathan, a practicing Jew and president of the Stanford Zen Society.

“[When I started,] I didn’t see any conflicts because Zen Buddhism doesn’t talk about God or gods. If it did, I wouldn’t be comfortable, but it doesn’t,” he said. “It takes on the role of a philosophy and non-theological practice. Zen Buddhism doesn’t make any theological demands on my own theology. I still practice Judaism just as much as before I started meditating.” Jonathan added that other adherents might be less certain of the possibility of integrating Zen Buddhism with Judaism or other religions, but in his experience, it was completely possible.

Discovered Benefits

Even after his class ended with the conclusion of winter quarter, Timothy has kept meditating in spring quarter. He only began to fully understand how it affected him until he became less diligent in his meditation routine: “I have definitely felt the difference where (when I’m not meditating) I feel like I become a worse listener to the people around me and a little less focused. I feel like I have a lot more clarity and can really enjoy and be attentive to all the different parts and things I experience in the day when I am meditating and so I really appreciate that ability to feel like I’m not missing anything.”

Whereas Timothy meditates to heighten his awareness, Emma first started meditating to manage her stress and anxiety. However, she has found that meditation has helped her gain insight into her inner life: “I realized that there are all these layers to thinking that are really strong and powerful and they’re your subconscious attitudes to things and people around you that you’re just not aware of. When you’re not aware of them, you’re totally just a slave to them. I started recognizing all these ways that I thought about things at this lower level that I had no idea about before. So that has been really cool to work through and not just cool, sometimes horrible (as in extremely difficult).”

Jonathan also emphasized that meditation is both a way to access calm and a new perspective: “On one level, meditation can be calming and relaxing, which is probably its most obvious benefit. On another level, meditation can provide a fundamental change in perspective which makes one more resilient to and more accepting of the uncertainties and fluctuations of daily life.”

While I was surprised to hear such a diversity of meditation practices among students, I realized the students I interviewed all had one thing in common: a habit of constant reflection.

These students were dedicated to reflecting on the state of meditation practice, iterating on it and improving it. What kept them going was the fact that they found it beneficial – whether through relaxation, heightened awareness or insight on their inner life – and they figured out ways — daily habits, visits to Windhover, meditation apps or groups — to keep meditating.

Contact Ravi Smith at ravi22 ‘at’

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