by Alexa Owen

Contemplative science is widely recognized as a growing support for a number of populations: patients of chronic pain and illness, caregivers, mental health practitioners, and more. Colleges, universities, and graduate programs alike are also expanding to offer practices like meditation and yoga for students and staff. We can only hope that this growth continues—and not just for the sake of stress reduction, but for the opportunities such practices offer to embody compassionate, resilient, altruistic ways of being in the world.

When I think back to my undergraduate career at Penn State, I mostly remember the highlights: time spent with friends, meaningful papers and projects, and those professors who nudged me to take a good look at how and who I wanted to be in the world. Recently, I found a journal from that time which offered a more honest glimpse into my experience: I was tremendously stressed, overwhelmed, and hungry for more spiritual connection. Life felt full in some ways — but I was also grappling with existential questions that, I recognize now, required tools to better support my exploration and curiosity of where I’d been, who I was, and where to set the course of my life.

Contemplative science is a prime toolkit for such endeavors. It offers frameworks to explore our interior landscape along with  the wider contexts of our relationships with others, our community, and the planet. Furthermore, contemplative science provides us with the skills to embark on that journey in deep, meaningful and empowering ways.

I found proximity to some of these frameworks and skills through outlets in the college and community. I chose two semesters of yoga classes to fulfill physical education credits; I enrolled in an environmental science course as a freshman colloquially known by students as “Awakening 101”; I even sometimes snuck out early from my medical ethics course in senior year to bike across town to a community class on reiki and qigong taught out of someone’s home.

It was a journey that led me down adventurous — albeit quite winding — paths. Upon reflection,  ultimately, what I wish I’d had as part of my college experience was organized, direct support for my inner work that was central to my experience rather than scattered across the periphery.

As I delve more deeply into contemplative work with college students today, I’ve reflected on why, exactly, these kinds of studies and practices are ideal for this population. Some reasons — like stress reduction — are obvious. But others are less so. While the following is by no means a comprehensive list, here are three ways I believe contemplative science supports college students.

1. Mindfulness decreases stress in the moment—and can prevent accumulation of more stress later on. 

Mindfulness practices that guide us to connect with breath, body, and sensation in the present moment allow us to press the pause button on thoughts and train our attention. Cultivating the skill of choosing where our attention goes is pivotal to eventually divesting attention in thoughts that don’t support our thriving (like self-critical thoughts and catastrophizing) and turning it elsewhere—to a more generative focal point of our choice.

College is a dynamic time; it can ask of us to grow within our relationships, build a professional foundation, leave family and friends, learn time management, explore our identity, manage financial strain, and more. Foundational mindfulness practices offer pockets of mental peace amidst the challenges — but they also do more than that. By accessing that inner space of calm, students then have the mental spaciousness to notice beliefs and narratives they might be holding that unconsciously contribute to stress accumulation.The college setting offers abundant resources for personal, community, and academic exploration; mindfulness offers similar resources for students to explore their inner landscapes alongside their external worlds.

2. Compassion increases social connectedness and resilience—and protects against perceived isolation.

At Nalanda Institute, we understand compassion as the capacity to face, share, embrace, and relieve suffering with wisdom and art. Compassion can be trained — and while its benefits are numerous, one that tends to go under-noticed is its power to support us in feeling less alone during challenging moments. Compassion does this through helping us perceive ourselves as a part of the greater human family when we experience suffering — rather than separate from it. It also supports us in feeling safe and connected enough to reach out for support during times of need. Self-compassion helps us bounce back from stressful moments by being nurturers for ourselves as opposed to critics.

College can bring a flurry of opportunities for social connections; compassion practices can train students to foster these connections in meaningful ways and, importantly, foster an inner understanding of our interconnectedness even when we experience suffering. Perceived isolation is a major factor in chronic stress, and this stressor is amplified throughout times of challenge (of which there are many in the life transition of the college years). Compassion says, “you are not alone in this.” This can be enough to down-regulate the stress that comes with perceived isolation to support students in reaching out to peers or other supports when their mental health is suffering. Amidst this, self-compassion can rewire how students have been conditioned to respond to stress: extending self-compassion to oneself after making a mistake, failing a test, going through a breakup, or managing a difficult work load. It also supports an individual’s resilience by cultivating flexibility to bounce back from stress into a safe, caring, and connected space within oneself.

3. Embodiment supports a sense of belonging to oneself—a state of well-being from which to intuit, create, and take positive risks.

The process of embodiment involves coming into the felt interconnectedness of sensation, thoughts, and emotions — plus how the felt sense of mind in our bodies can shape the actions we take in life. Embodiment in general can feel like a homecoming to oneself — like inhabiting one’s body and by extension, life, in a way that hasn’t been accessed before. Embodied contemplative practices include breathwork, visualization, self-massage, and role-model imagery. Embodiment can also be understood as the process of taking in a quality — like self-compassion — and fully manifesting it through thought, speech, and action.

Embodiment brings a greater sense of safety and belonging which creates a space to develop intuition and creativity. That same sense of safety in oneself can facilitate bigger risk-taking in both personal and professional pursuits—joining that new club, exploring that new identity, switching to that major that feels more aligned with one’s interests and values. And embodiment practices can offer an accelerated and deeper transformation into who and how one wants to be in the world.

College should be a space for profound impact in opening the mind and heart to new ways of being in the world; to actually transform and embody those new ways of being takes attention, care, and practice. Contemplative practices are the tools for this job.

Editor’s note:

College and graduate students can learn more about contemplative science through live guided meditations, recorded meditation resources, Compassion-Based Resilience Training, and the Contemplative Psychotherapy Program.

Alexa Owen is a Nalanda Institute Fellow working on helping college students access information on the benefits of contemplative practice. She is a certified Compassion-Based Resilience Teacher and offers her practice in Nalanda Institute’s Lunchtime Meditation program on Mondays at 1pm. She is also a graduate of the 3-year program in Contemplative Psychotherapy, and is active in equity and inclusion building in our community.