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CAPS and Contemplative Sciences Center partner for mindfulness meetups this fall

Mindfulness and mental health come together in a group program offering for University students

What exactly does the term “self-care” entail? Although most of our minds might jump straight to a picturesque night in with junk food, a bubble bath and face masks after a long week of school or work, the term is far more expansive. Oftentimes, our idea of self-care neglects the connection that the seemingly simple term has with the largely impactful concept of mindfulness — allowing yourself to fully focus on your feelings and surroundings.

At the start of the 2020 fall semester, the University’s Counseling and Psychological Services and Contemplative Sciences Center partnered to hold weekly Mindfulness Meetups. They ran through the end of classes in December 2020, and have been restarted for the 2021 fall semester with the same goals in mind — to show undergraduate and graduate students the benefits of practicing mindfulness, as well as how to do so in a way that can easily be fit into a daily routine.

Meetups are led by Robin Albertson-Wren, professor of education and human development and contemplative practice instructor on Mondays from 7 p.m. to 8 p.m. and by CAPS Director Nicole Ruzekon Fridays from 10 a.m. to 11 a.m. They’ve occurred twice per week since they began in September. Both sessions have assumed an online format for the entirety of the program. CAPS and CSC used both organizations’ websites, fliers, activity fairs and other CSC or University events — such as the University’s reading day at Morven Farm — to promote the meetups.

Each session begins with a focus on a new mindfulness technique and a quick check in on the past week. This check in entails both a general overview of how attendees are feeling, as well as a survey of whether or not attendees chose to implement the previous week’s mindfulness technique throughout their day-to-day schedules. 

“If we had been doing something called ‘anchor breathing’ the week before, we check in and say, ‘Were you able to use anchor breathing at all this past week?’’” Albertson-Wren explained. “Then I do something new, like mindful movement, mindful eating, loving-kindness meditation, self-compassion work or talking about habits or priorities.”

Following these opening activities, Albertson-Wren then leads the group into what she calls a “mental body scan.” These scans are meant to ground oneself and find peace of mind in doing so, relieving stress and removing any intrusive thoughts from outside of that exact moment. 

“It's something that will help people fall asleep at night or if you're feeling anxious,” Albertson-Wren said. “It's like a way to … settle your heart rate and send a message to your brain that you're actually safe and calm. And so we do that, usually for the last eight to 12 minutes of class.”

The CSC has hosted similar mindfulness programs in the past, including Meditation on the Lawn and Ashtanga Yoga, and this partnership with CAPS comes in lieu of an increased attempt to promote wellness in the University community.

The consistency and availability of these Mindfulness Meetups since Fall 2020 is what Katherine Ludwig, Director of Communications at the CSC, hopes students will be made more aware of. This notion is contemporaneous with a time of widespread student dissatisfaction regarding University-sponsored mental health programs — including CAPS itself. 

Student Council allocated $10,000 in order to combat mental health crises, and the Young Democratic Socialists of America at U.Va. pushed a committed campaign for increased funding. Both actions emphasize a growing concern surrounding the University’s mental health resources.

Coupled with an online format, CAPS and the CSC’s current collaboration allows for broader outreach among students explicitly, and more expansive participation as there is no longer a limit towards who can register. Separately, the CSC offers a variety of programs and resources inclusive of students, faculty, staff and community members alike.

“I'm excited that the contemplative sciences center and CAPS are working together,'' Albertson-Wren said. “I think the more options that people have, or the more places that they hear about stuff, the better it is.”

The meetups have overall been met with positive reception, hosting varying amounts of students from week to week. Albertson-Wren estimates a number of six to eight attendees each week at her sessions— some who are regulars and many alternating first timers. Throughout the course of the program thus far, over 20 students have expressed interest through registering.

Second-year Medicine student Nancy Shen has attended every meetup since the initiative’s inception in September. She has found these sessions to be a highly effective way to take her mind off of her hectic graduate schedule, even if it is only for one hour at a time.

“Even though these meetings still have been virtual,” Shen said, “I think having them be available or knowing that they're available to me and taking the time to think … just talking about how I feel and listening to other people be really open and share their feelings too has been really grounding for me.”

Shen continued to mention how meditation can easily be stigmatized by those who have never researched it or given it a try. This is a dangerous possibility of miscontruement for a practice that is ultimately beneficial for the health of its participants.

“I think sometimes meditating is like a very nebulous or amorphous concept,” Shen said. “But it's mostly just to, I think, be present.”

Shen’s thoughts are furthered by Irsa Zahoor, her fellow Mindfulness Meetup attendee and current research intern at the CSC. Zahoor not only finds these meetups helpful towards managing her own stress, but notes how they give her real world experience in her desired field of study — contemplative practices.

“I am getting the firsthand experience of these practices … it’s really helpful for my work, as well,” Zahoor said. “I read about these practices when I started working on my dissertation, but it's good to have a firsthand experience and be personally involved in these practices.”

Although Zahoor is interested in this field of cognitive study herself, she stresses that all students no matter their study can benefit from learning these mindfulness practices, as well.

“I think it's really important that students from all the fields not just from the social sciences or from the education department, but all of these students need to attend … these kinds of meetups,” Zahoor said. “They can get a sense of peacefulness and calmness and can develop the ability of dealing with all these anxiety and stress issues.”

Educational endeavors — at all levels — can be stressful to simply even think about, especially when assignments start to accumulate. Add on top of that jobs, internships and relationships, and stressors only grow. 

No matter what stress might look like for any individual in the University community, it is important to remember what resources are available throughout the year. Although practicing mindfulness can be new or intimidating, it is ultimately a lifelong practice with numerous health benefits that we can use to ground ourselves and achieve peace of mind when we are overwhelmed.

“As human beings we are all going to experience suffering on some level or another — whether it's like anxiety or trauma,” Albertson-Wren said. “We are all going to experience stress … and it doesn't have to be a bad thing. The thing that's bad is how you manage it.”

CORRECTION: CAPS and CSC began the mindfulness meetups in the fall of 2020, making this fall semester the second consecutive year of meetups.


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