Mindfulness and Meditation

Students in universities across the country are increasingly turning to mindfulness and meditation practices as a way to reduce stress, manage difficult emotions, and improve their relationships with others.

What is mindfulness?

According to mindfulness expert Jon Kabat-Zinn, MD, mindfulness is “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and nonjudgmentally.”

What are the benefits of mindfulness?

In clinical studies, mindfulness has been shown to improve cognition and attention, improve sleep, reduce stress and anxiety, increase self-awareness, and improve overall well-being in college students.

Curious about the science behind meditation and the benefits you can receive from practicing meditation? The TED Talk by Sara Lazar, PhD, explains how meditation can reshape our brains.

How can I practice mindfulness?

The beautiful thing about mindfulness is that you can practice it anywhere! You don’t have to be alone, sitting cross-legged in a quiet place to be mindful. Here are some small ways to practice mindfulness throughout your day.

  • Walking across campus: Place your phone in your pocket or backpack, and turn your attention to the world around you. Take in the nature, the weather, the people you pass. What can you smell? Can you feel the warmth of the sun or a cool breeze on your skin? What do you notice about the contact with your feet and the ground as you walk
  • Eating: As you sit down for a meal or a snack, see if you can bring all your attention to the process of eating. Before diving in, see if you can really look at your food as if you’re looking at it for the first time. Notice the smell of the food. As you begin to eat, take the process of bringing food to your mouth, chewing, and swallowing slowly, noticing that your body knows exactly what to do. Perhaps take a moment to notice where your food came from and what it took to bring the food to you.
  • Brushing your teeth: We often let our brain go into autopilot mode when we’re brushing our teeth. Bring a little mindfulness to the process by noticing the bristles on your toothbrush and the color of the toothpaste. What does the toothpaste smell like? How does the consistency of the toothpaste change as you begin brushing? Can you notice the bristles on your teeth and gums? How is your arm moving?
  • Practicing yoga: For those who have a hard time sitting still, yoga can be a great introduction to the noticing the alignment of your breath with movement in your body. Try out one of the free classes at the Sumers Recreation Center or opt to practice alone with a youtube video. There are many different styles of yoga, so feel free to experiment and try different types until you find a practice that works for you.

What are some ways to start meditating?

Meditation is both simpler (and more difficult!) than you might think. While you can do anything mindfully, meditation is the practice of slowing down and focusing the attention inward, usually in one of four postures: seated, lying down, standing, and walking. Here’s a good place to get started when exploring meditation (adapted from: https://www.mindful.org/how-to-meditate/):

  • Find a seat, either in a chair or on the floor. It’ll feel helpful if the place feels quiet and calm to you.
  • Decide how long you want to meditate, maybe starting with 5 minutes. Starting with shorter times in the beginning is easier. Shorter periods more frequently are better than a less frequent practice.
  • Scan through your body. What do you notice in your body in this moment?
  • Bring your attention to your breath. Notice how it moves in and out of your body. Follow this sensation and see if you can stay curious about the breath and its movement.
  • If your mind has wandered (and it will, because we’re human!), notice that it has wandered. Once you’ve noticed that it has wandered, gently guide your attention back to your breath. Try not to beat yourself if your mind wanders; simply thank yourself for noticing that it has wandered and bring your attention back to your breath.
  • Keep on moving between noticing your breath and noticing when your mind has wandered and bringing your awareness back.
  • Once your timer sounds, open your eyes slowly and give yourself a few moments to notice how your body feels, as well as your surroundings. Gradually increase your movement and continue on with your day.

How can I practice more?

  • The Habif Health and Wellness Center offers Mindfulness Boot Camp and Drop-in Meditation times. Click here to learn more about this semester’s offerings.
  • Insight Timer is a free meditation and mindfulness app with thousands of free guided meditations and a simple timer to use if you prefer to be still without guidance.
  • Many students enjoy practicing alone with the guidance of an app. Students often use Headspace, a paid app that students can access limited free content and unlock all content at a student rate of $9.99/year.
  • Check out the WashU course listings for opportunities to learn more about mindfulness in an academic setting! Popular courses include Mindfulness: Science and Practice, Mindfulness in Psychology and Eastern Philosophies, and Positive Psychology.

Have more questions about practicing mindfulness and/or meditation but unsure of where to start? Contact Jordan Worthington, MSW, Assistant Director of Mental Health Outreach and Programming to talk more at jworthington@wustl.edu.