Student Reflection: Mindfulness
During the past two years, Julia Beckwith ’17 has been “learning to do nothing”–concentrating on “the breath,” sitting in silence, and becoming aware of the present moment. Introduced to mindfulness by Tang Fellow and Philosophy and Religious Studies Instructor Andy Housiaux, she has participated in weekly sits on campus, embraced “heartfulness,” and encouraged friends and family to give mindfulness techniques a try. Here she reflects upon how mindfulness has brought a greater intentionality and purpose to her life.
by Julia Beckwith ’17
For the past two years, I have been learning how to do nothing. I have been learning how to sit in silence, concentrating on the breath. In other words: I’ve been practicing mindfulness. Mindfulness is broadly defined as a gentle awareness of the present moment. One can cultivate this awareness by purposefully sitting and focusing on the breath. Slowly, as one continues to bring consciousness to the sensations of the current moment, one can bring a greater intentionality and purpose to life.
I was first introduced to mindfulness meditation at the end of my sophomore year: Mr. Housiaux led a short sit as a part of the Buddhism unit of my “Views of Human Nature” philosophy course. Though it was only a few minutes, it made me realize that my day-to-day life at Andover involved very little awareness of the present moment or even awareness of my body. When walking from class to class, for example, I didn’t feel myself walking: I was merely a head, floating on the paths, thinking about my next math test or who to eat dinner with. After getting a taste of mindfulness, I checked out a book from the library with an eight week self-guided mindfulness “plan.” I tried a few different techniques, and continued to appreciate the fleeting moments I felt fully present.
When school started back up, I saw that Mr. Housiaux was leading a weekly mindfulness session on Thursday mornings. Soon this session became a part of my weekly Andover routine, and now, I occasionally lead some of these sits. Though it might appear counterintuitive to sit simply in silence when there are tests to study for, papers to write, and friends to hang out with, mindfulness allows me to do all of these things with more focus, appreciation, and curiosity. By learning how to stay with the breath, I am learning how to understand my mind. One of the key components of mindfulness is gentleness. Forcing the mind to stay still is impossible; instead, mindfulness encourages an attitude of gentle curiosity. This outlook has been integral at Andover, where stress levels are often high. Instead of berating myself for getting a bad grade or staying up too late, I am able to choose to respond to these situations instead of instantly reacting to them. Now that I am more aware of my stress, I am able to handle it in healthy ways, instead of feeling irritated and lashing out at friends or family.
My favorite type of meditation, deemed “heartfulness” involves sending good wishes to others—family, friends, the entire world. At its core, it is a compassion-cultivating exercise: a reminder that everyone shares the deep wish to be free from suffering. I have found that this compassion can make it easier to go into the world of Andover. On especially stressful nights, such as Thursdays, I have expanded my heartfulness practice to include emails to significant people in my life: emails of appreciation. This simple act of gratitude allows me to bring greater compassion to my daily interactions. In this way, mindfulness is not only an individual practice—it has the potential to improve interpersonal relationships, as well.
During the past two years, I have seen the mindfulness community at Andover grow. I’ve persuaded a few of my friends to try out the practice, and more often than not, they end up sticking around. At this fast-paced, stress-inducing institution, the opportunity to simply sit down and “do nothing” is a welcome change of pace for many. Additionally, with Andover’s increased focus on mental health, the stigma against counseling is lessening and it is becoming more acceptable to take care of yourself. In an age where distractions are accessible at the tap of a screen, there is no substitute for purposeful solitude and silence.