Psychologist, students: Meditation an effective path to stress-relief
Published: Friday, December 3, 2010
Updated: Friday, December 3, 2010 07:12
College students turn to a long list of activities to relax and blow off steam — working out, socializing, playing sports — the list goes on. But Christopher Willard, staff psychologist at Counseling and Mental Health Service (CMHS) and member of the board of directors at Boston's Institute for Meditation and Psychotherapy, recommends they add another, more exotic activity to that list: meditation.
The practice of meditation, according to Willard, can be quite simple, though not always easy.
"Meditation is essentially just paying attention to what is happening in the present moment and deliberately avoiding distraction," he said. "When I say paying attention to what is happening, that can mean what is happening internally in our minds and bodies or to objects and events around us."
Meditation involves paying attention to one's breathing and trying to keep that breath constant even if one's mind starts to wander, Willard said.
"In this way, we build concentration and also start to get to know our minds better as we start to see the patterns of where our attention tends to wander — for some of us, it's the past; for some it's the future or [a] certain situation — and gradually see these patterns that get us stuck and then start to change them," Willard said.
Although the personal benefits of meditation vary from person to person, studies have proven meditation to be healing for both the mind and body, Willard said. In particular, he said, research has shown meditation helpful with trauma, depression and insomnia, along with other physical disorders, including immune system functioning, heart disease, chronic fatigue syndrome and addictions.
Beyond physical ailments, meditating can also improve athletic performance, creativity and concentration, Willard said.
While many students do not suffer from specific conditions they are looking to treat with meditation, anyone can achieve a greater state of calmness by practicing it, according to Willard.
"What people find is that they stop having to believe their thoughts so much; they don't believe the worried thoughts that tell them they will fail the test or the depressed thoughts that tell them they are unlovable or give in to the impulsive thoughts that tell them to snap at their friend, go on an eating binge or cut themselves," Willard said. "People come to realize that these are just thoughts and feelings, not facts that are true or inevitable."
Despite its restorative qualities, Willard said the practice isn't without its drawbacks. Beginners often struggle with making the time to meditate and sometimes find the process harder than expected. Additionally, some use meditation as a way to escape from reality, which may be problematic.
"It is true that for some people, they try to use meditation as an escape from what they really need to be doing — dealing with work, studies or important relationships," Willard said.
Meditation is an accessible practice to pick up, Willard said; anyone interested in starting can try it in his or her dorm room or house and can easily establish a short, regular meditation time of five minutes or so. Integrating the practice into one's daily routine is crucial for its effectiveness, he said.
Graduate student Nicholas Matiasz, leader of the Buddhist Sangha group at Tufts, said that meditation has become an important aspect of his life.
For Matiasz, meditation is a route to finding happiness and pleasure on a consistent basis.
"Meditation helps me in answering the question, ‘Can we find happiness from the very nature of the awareness we bring to the world, rather than always expecting something from the world?'" he said.
Meditation has now become a part of Matiasz's daily routine, even though his schedule does not always easily lend itself to such a habit.
"I think of it as a form of mental hygiene — like I wouldn't skip a shower, I try not to skip meditation," Matiasz said. "[However], it is difficult to be a student and lead a contemplative practice as well."
Sophomore Thomas Eley, a member of the Buddhist Sangha and a new meditation enthusiast, said that the practice has helped him see the world in a more balanced way.
"For me, it is a way of being more aware of my environment and a time to relax," he said. "It makes things clear; it is a time where everything sort of goes away."
Eley, introduced to the practice in high school, found his way to meditation through art.
"Art is similar in that you are only making one thing, and you are in an extreme focus that is similar," he said. "I was meditating without realizing because when you are in your space doing art, it's you and whatever you are creating."
Meditation can often accompany other personal, mental and spiritual journeys, Willard said.
"For some people, meditation can be the start of a spiritual journey as well, though not necessarily," Willard said. "Some people just do a brief meditation before they start studying or writing, or for others they learn some techniques that help them on the playing field or in the performance hall. Others find that it is the start of a creative journey of self-improvement."
At the same time, Matiasz believed many people misperceive the actual meaning of meditation, sometimes conflating it with religious ideas.
Though meditation does exist as a secular practice, Willard said it is also an integral part of many religions, both ancient and modern.