Learning to Surf

Marla Herron, NASPA IV-W Wellness and Health Promotion KC Representative

May 31, 2017

The great equalizer of all of us is the inevitability of encountering rocky, demanding life challenges.  Illness, injury, physical discomfort, mental distress, social upheaval; these events evoke feelings of confusion, rage, and frustration in all of us.  Left unchecked, these events may wreak internal havoc and render us raw and defenseless.  To combat the imminent, I am convinced the ancient art of meditative mindfulness strategies is the key to transforming unmitigated disasters into a genesis for personal growth and deep mental reconstruction instead being our great demise.

The journey for me began with the emergence of a major depressive disorder and the onslaught of extreme anxiety.  I suffered from “monkey-mind” – and yes, that’s official science talk for it!  The chatter up top ran non-stop with self-criticism, regrets about past behavior, harsh judgments towards others, and fear about the future, you name it -- I worried about it!  To muzzle my monkey mind, my physician recommended mindfulness techniques.  At first, I struggled to comprehend how focusing my attention and letting it flow from one body part to another (knee, right toe, elbow, hand, etc.) would help me feel better? I found meditation far too hippie-dippy and mystically magical.  However, desperate for relief, I gave in and enrolled in an 8-week Mindfulness-based Stress Reduction course created by Jon Kabat-Zinn from the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.

After I completed the course, I continued to practice the techniques.  I joined a weekly practice group and began attending silent meditation retreats to deepen my practice.  After extensive, intentional investment on “the now,” the exhaustive mental clanging slowly decreased.

If the mental peace I now often experience were the singular benefit from my practice of mindfulness, it was definitely “worth the price of admission.”  After progressing so much through Kabat-Zinn’s course, I met a gifted meditation teacher, Shinzen Young, who led me deeper into the world of mindfulness.  The benefits kept on coming as I developed the three essential skills:  concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity. As concentration power and sensory clarity increased, I noticed my bodily sensations that accompanied strong emotional reactions.  The intimate knowledge of how I experienced anger and emotion gave me the ability to bridle my emotional reaction when encountering tumultuous situations and enhanced my proficiency in responding tranquilly.

Deeply entrenched in the culture of meditation, I read that mindfulness caused people to experience enhanced compassion and empathy towards others.  Like a toddler learning to walk, I struggled to understand how this was possible.  Convinced this side effect was reserved for the Mother Teresa’s or the people who lived in monasteries and devoted their lives to helping the homeless and hungry, I quietly resigned myself to being satisfied with the benefits of more mental peace.  While the internal workings of how this metaphasis occurs remain a mystery, I too, suddenly noticed myself less judgmental.  Though not initially aware of this gradual and subtle transformation, the revelation became apparent as I watched an episode of the Dr. Phil Show.  Dr. Phil hosted an angry woman who berated her ex-boyfriend for skipping out on their child’s life.  As I took in the ex-boyfriend’s angry, indignant countenance at her impassioned disappointment, I thought, “I wonder what life circumstances brought him to this unhappy and desperate place in his life; I hope Dr. Phil can help him become a better father and happier person.”

I was stunned at my thought process!  Instead of reverting to judgement and anger at this loser, I realized that my responsive feelings and attitudes were changing.  Honestly, I can’t promise I would have felt that much compassion if he were my ex, but there was no doubt my negative, harsh mental habits were dissipating and weakening with the passing of time.

My cannonball into the ocean of mindfulness continues to change my world even now.  While twisting concerns and life stressors still tap on my shoulder and tug at my thoughts, the powerful skills I develop help address the psychological, emotional and physical pain.  Like a surfboard, mindfulness helps me better glide over the tsunami waves of struggles with greater ease and balance. I no longer feel like I’m being tossed around and beaten by great swirling maelstroms of suffering.

Though most of us will never forsake our careers and families to seek sanctuary and isolation at a monastery, we all have the ability to cultivate the concentration, sensory clarity, and equanimity that allows us to reside with inner peace amongst a world that races and churns in turmoil.

Over the last four years, I’ve had the privilege of teaching mindfulness and essentially bringing the “monastery” to my students as a part of wellness programs at two universities.  I currently work at the University of Kansas Medical Center where I conduct weekly mindfulness sessions for students, faculty and staff.  This fall, I’ll be teaching a “Mindfulness in Medicine” program for our medical students.  Research shows that mindfulness techniques reduce student stress, anxiety and depression while increasing empathy, compassion and their sense of wellbeing. 

One of the medical student comments, “It's incredibly easy for me to get lost in the sea of my own thoughts and reactions, but with mindfulness techniques I can routinely attempt to anchor myself in the present.  Without mindfulness, I don't think I could do medical school. The days are long and they consist of patient's with terminal diseases, attendings with unclear expectations, and pitfalls for old habits of perfectionism and judgement. Among all the suffering, my mind wants to dart off in a million directions. But mindfulness allows me to bring myself back to the present, acknowledge suffering, find compassion, and participate more fully in life.”

As student affairs professionals, helping students navigate the rough waters of higher education is our joy and privilege.  As a new member of the Wellness and Health Promotions Knowledge Community, I would like to hear from you.  Please contact me at [email protected] with any ideas, suggestions, or amazing stories from your campus about your successes in wellness and health!  

Article Edited by Aaron Slemp. 

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