Yoga, meditation and mindfulness are common methods for coping with stress. All are forms of contemplative practices, which involve deep reflective thinking over a long period of time. The University Contemplative Sciences Center — founded in 2011 — is dedicated to exploring contemplative values and ideas, their relationship with religion and their impacts on student mental health. The Center brings an alternative angle to educating University students about mental health issues.
Religious Studies Prof. David Germano is the director and one of the leading organizers of the CSC. Germano said he had several motivations when organizing the CSC — providing classrooms with more diverse contemplative practices in addition to the subject matter, connecting students’ residential life and academic life to improve their self-understanding and providing students with methods and tools to deal with mental health issues.
"We have a lot of problems in terms of anxieties, depression, stress, substance abuse, addiction and so forth, and our student health centers and clinics and so forth are overwhelmed with trying to respond to the crisis of students in urgent need," Germano said. "What can we do — from the day students arrive on Grounds — to help them develop [an] inner resilience and self-awareness and mindfulness, empathy, the capacity to deal with these issue before they become urgent [crises]."
Germano said one unique feature of the CSC is their classroom experiences.
“So we are really just interested in helping professors to create classroom environments that help students connect what’s going on in their personal life to what’s happening in the classroom, and connect that to all the other different aspects [of] the student experience,” Germano said.
Classroom contemplative experiences are an effective way of relieving stress and improving mental health among University students. One of the University classes that aligns with the CSC is “Foundations of Mindfulness Practice.” The course is offered to undergraduates and instructed by Assoc. Prof. of Medicine Sam Green.
"Stress reduction is the first and most accessible benefit of mindfulness practice,” Green said in an email to the Cavalier Daily. “I should emphasize that it is not the education that reduces stress, but actually doing the practice. Students who practice regularly virtually all report feeling less stressed, which by itself improves mental health and well-being.”
Former College student Danqi Cai took part in the spring break Mindfulness Retreat in 2016 organized by the CSC and Inward Bound Mindfulness Education. The retreat is a no-cost immersive meditative experience in the Virginia countryside, providing University students the opportunity to explore mindfulness practice.
"I loved the daily yoga and all the different kinds of meditation that were taught. All the teachers and staff there were great and know their subject well," Cai said.
Leslie Hubbard, Program Director for Student Learning and Initiatives at the CSC, is currently one of the two instructors of “Buddhist Meditation & The Modern World.” Hubbard said contemplative practices give University students a unique angle to look at problems in their lives and a new way to cope with stress.
Hubbard said the class gives context to meditation skills the students are going to learn, but more importantly, it makes these practices secular so more people can take advantage of meditation tools.
Hubbard and Germano said the CSC plans to have a contemplative education class this fall for first-year students. The class is also part of a longitudinal collaborative research project with University of Wisconsin and Penn State University.
Hubbard said the goal for this project is to study long-term impacts of mindfulness and meditation on various aspects of student life such as career choices, mental health and physical health. It is the University’s first longitudinal study.
“Succeeding as a student — as a human being — doesn’t just mean you have [a] 4.0 when you have [a] double major, it also means that are you a nice a person to [your] friends, you have a community of people you find supportive and you are taking care of your health,” Hubbard said.