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Reducing Student Stress Through Mindfulness Meditation

Reducing Campus and Post-Secondary Stress Through Meditation

Over the last decade, the practices of Mindfulness and Meditation have enjoyed a substantial shift in public perception. Once unfairly lumped-in with New Age philosophy and eastern mysticism, Mindfulness and Meditation have been riding a sea change towards the mainstream, now rigorously supported by ever-growing bodies of scientific study, and vocally supported by vast numbers of practitioners and students who swear by the practices’ capacity to alleviate stress, anxiety, and depression.

That isn’t to say the message is out. As levels of stress, anxiety, and depression continue to rise across North America – and at worrying rates on post-secondary campuses nationwide – there’s much more to be done in order to raise the profile of Mindfulness and Meditation as a self-directed alternative to pharmaceuticals, expensive therapy, or perhaps more worrying – nothing.

In order to help spread the word, The Centre for Innovation in Campus Mental Health is focusing this month’s Spotlight on the Mindfulness Meditation program at the University of Toronto, speaking with Michele Chaban, the outgoing Director of the Mindfulness Meditation program, and the incoming Director, Michael Apollo Chabior.


 

CICMH: Nice to speak with the two of you. First off, how did the program get started?

Michael: Rob MacFadden, professor emeritus, MSW/RSW PhD, and Michele Chaban, MSW/RSW PhD, founded the program in 2005/2006 in the Factor-Inwentash Faculty of Social Work at the University of Toronto. The program began with 3 two-day workshops and now has 47 faculty and over 60 courses, and is delivered in partnership with the School of Continuing Studies at the University of Toronto.

CICMH: Were there other programs like yours, when you began?

Michele: Mindfulness Meditation was the first program of its kind that taught Mindfulness, and Mindfulness Meditation as a poly-scholared view, i.e. evidence-based science side-by-side with contemplative science and contemplative practices.

We are grateful that leading Buddhist contemplatives were extremely open to science and scientific study. The scientists who studied these Buddhists translated their newly gleaned insights into teachings at their own personal practices, where they educated the rest of us in how these contemplative techniques are not only a part of all world religions – but how they can also be seen more practically as a form of brain hygiene (Dr. Dan Siegel, UCLA psychiatry) or brain physio (Dr. Richie Davidson, Keck Institute).

CICMH: Do you see mindfulness meditation as a matter of public good?

Michele: The use of mindfulness meditation can be viewed as a public health initiative – much like brushing our teeth became a public health initiative after WW2. Ask a room full of people, who did not brush their teeth today? Few admit to not brushing their teeth, and it is likely most of us have. In times to come, we hope people will have a similar practice with meditation and mindfulness meditation as a routine mental health practice.  We teach how these practices can be used by contemporary society.

CICMH: In Sam Harris’ 2014 book, Waking Up: A Guide to Spirituality Without Religion, Harris discusses his own long journey with meditation, the mounting neuroscientific evidence that supports it (he is a neuroscientist himself), and its myriad benefits for overall mental health. He also argues for a secular spirituality. What are your thoughts on the intersection of science, spirituality, and religion, and how does this inform the program’s teaching of mindfulness meditation?

Michael: Michele Chaban wished to create a model of a “learned society”, a place where one felt seen, safe, soothed, and secure about sharing ideas and perspectives in a non-conflictual model of dialogue and debate. She wanted a forum to discuss the issues of how a 2,600-year-old tradition of traditional medicine – whose fidelity was maintained through Buddhism –  translated into today’s contemporary neuroscience. The idea of a “learned society” is very much value driven, i.e. we try to honour the phenomenology of all perspectives – neurosciences and contemplatives, secularism and orthodoxy. We view this as poly-scholarship in the field of mindfulness (M) and mindfulness meditation (MM).

Michele: We teach M, MM through the philosophies of Epistemology (how we know), Phenomenology (how we see), Ontology (state of being) and Teleology (purpose). These foundations make the Mindfulness Meditation program secular by nature while still honouring the 2,600-year-old practice of Buddhism. We also honor 25 years of evidence-based science as it has come to us in the field as we practice.

CICMH: Given that you are teaching this course through the University of Toronto, what are your thoughts on the potential benefits of this program for students?

Michele: Academic life is stressful. The 4 Fs of stress are: Fight, Flight, Freeze and Faint. This is where many students live on a daily basis. They are racing and chasing their next task. A steady diet of stress will compromise your health and wellness, erode your resiliency. With Mindfulness Meditation we hope to add two helpful responses in the face of stress and anxiety: Tend and Befriend, Abide and Reside. Our program encourages the centring of oneself in these two stress responses. This approach lays down less reactive pathways to situations so one can respond rather than react to situations, connect with rather than correct others.

CICMH: Do you encounter resistance to the practice of mindfulness and meditation, in spite of the mounting scientific evidence?

Michael: This plays into the three themes that I’ve been cataloguing over the years as to why resistance still emerges towards mindfulness:

  1. Misconceptions around “mindfulness” – inaccurate perceptions can lead to feelings that mindfulness is unattainable. This centres primarily on the misconception that mindfulness is a religious practice, about reflection, a specific state or about clearing one’s thoughts. When in reality mindfulness is secular, a practice, simple but not easy and primarily about seeing clearly the way things are.
  2. Accessibility – as an unregulated field that is quickly growing one of the largest challenges is in determining and locating skillful facilitators. This accessibility can pose an issue, especially when the concept and practice of mindfulness is proposed to large established organizations by inexperienced personnel
  3. Overwhelming lifestyles – living within an age of digital and information overload there is so much pulling at our attention that we forget that we have a choice, as to what we bring our attention to and what we don’t bring attention to. Mindfulness is a disruptive technology to this distracted digital age – cultivating a contemplative lifestyle can be quite an uncomfortable process to move through.

CICMH: Do you think there’s a relationship between the increasing invasiveness of technology and the rise in popularity and practice of M, MM?

Michael: It is not the technology but rather the relationship we have cultivated with that technology. What makes having a healthy relationship to technology more difficult than other addictive substances, is that by function most technologies are addictive (the dopamine release when we read or send an email and text) and other technologies we frequent by design exploit the addictive mechanisms (social media applications like Facebook and Twitter, random reward games, online gambling, etc.). This coupled with the fact that technology has been allowed to fully pervade our lives unregulated is the perfect alchemy for the substance to proliferate. We have a course within our program that explores this in-depth and how to cultivate a healthy relationship with technology through the use of technology and mindfulness (http://learn.utoronto.ca/interactive-course-search#/profile/3278)

CICMH: For someone looking to get into these practices but without the means to join the course, where would be a good place to start?

Michele: I think the question would be: how do we role this out for others? If you choose a few core champions and we train them up, perhaps they can take the practice back to their locations, begin to look at Lunch and Learns, and other opportunities to help roll out the knowledge transfer and exchange that is foundational to Mindfulness Meditation.

CICMH: Can you give us a quick insight into what a student might learn in Level A?

Michael: Level A is the foundations of practice and is 5 courses, 2 days each. It integrates theory, practice, values and beliefs, teaching tales, history, anthropology, social science and the neurosciences. Our signature is that we teach people how to meditate both on and off the cushion by integrating M, MM into our lives 24/7.

The Dalai Lama has suggested to his contemplatives that they get off the cushion and take their compassion into action. This is our model and motto and results in our bringing change into lives and systems. This is why social work is such a great host to this program – we are bringing change in systems.

Overall, the Mindfulness Meditation program has enjoyed a high degree of success. Not only have students been extremely happy with the course (ratings for the course have come in at 4.5-5 out of 5), but the program has also been used as a basis for McMaster’s DRAM program.


 

At CICMH, we’d like to thank Michael and Michele for their time.

For our readers – if you’re interested in taking the course, or in recommending it to students, head on over to http://learn.utoronto.ca/courses-programs/arts-science/courses/environment-science/mindfulness-meditation