The power of mindfulness among college students

Somto E. Okonkwo ’21 | News Editor

Around this time of year, life at Smith can only be described as busy. An outsider might not be able to place what is going on but would not deny its conspicuous busyness. Fall break reminds students that the semester is soon to be over, and coming with it are midterms, projects, research, applications for jobs, internships, grants, praxis and the like. Students begin to crank up as grades are posted and GPAs shift.  

In the messiness of it all, some fall into an uncalled state of frenzy that may result in a mental disorder, physical exhaustion (or ‘unnecessary fatigue’), emotional breakdowns, depression or social withdrawal. This is what some would call “suffering.”

In fact, according to an American College Health Association survey of more than 63,000 students at 92 schools, in the spring of 2017, nearly 40 percent of college students said they had felt so depressed in the prior year that it was difficult for them to function properly.

61 percent of the students said they felt an overwhelming anxiety in the same time period. It is saddening to hear that students have taken formal leave from school because of their mental health. Many schools are also not able to offer what these students need for mental development after having to fund institutional services.

Smith College is among the many schools in the United States that aware of these facts. Knowing these problems to be prevalent in schools, Smith has introduced what research has found to decrease this “suffering” and improve concentration, attention, self-awareness and the overall emotional well-being, which is the practice of mindfulness.

According to the book, ‘Mindfulness: Finding Peace in a Frantic World,” mindfulness is easiest explained as an observation without criticism — being compassionate with yourself. As Wikipedia would put it, it is a psychological process which one can develop by meditation and through other training.

On Oct. 12, Kiara Jewel Lingo, an ordained nun of 15 years, led “Towards Authentic Inclusion (through Compassion)” in Davis Ballroom. Lingo teaches Buddhist meditation, mindfulness and compassion internationally and is a lay teacher who leads retreats for activists, people of color and artists.

Series of events have happened on campus in the past couple of months, which have left some hurt, scared and lonely. The dialogue was held in hopes of helping people make meaning and move forward together. Lingo began by making participants experience what a circle felt like. Introductions were made and seats were exchanged while everyone silently acknowledged each other’s presence.  

“Listening deeply to others starts with listening to ourselves,” said Lingo as she introduced herself. As the group sat listening to each other, they learned about ways to bring more happiness and peace to others answering the question, “How can I relieve suffering in myself and others?” thus embodying the core practice of mindfulness: listening.

As Roy T. Bennett said, “Sometimes all a person wants is an empathetic ear; all he or she needs is to talk it out. Just offering a listening ear and an understanding heart for his or her suffering can be a big comfort.” This group listened to amongst themselves to see if there was some way they could connect with what was being shared.

Lingo posed five questions according to the Buddhist practice that were discussed in groups, which were:

  • What is the difficulty or suffering you are experiencing?

  • What is the cause of this suffering? How has it come to be?

  • How can this cause of suffering be ended? How can this suffering be healed?

  • What would it look and feel like if this or when this suffering was totally healed?

  • What does authentic inclusion look like?

After sharing in groups, there was less tension and more relief. Some attendees were able to talk about common and uncommon societal issues such as systems that produce inequality, culture and wealth on campus, insecurity, learning to adapt to the environment and meet people, changes in financial aid (and how it negatively affects students) and concerns for Black/African Americans not feeling safe on campus.